Braille Monitor                                                                                                           November 2004

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Paying the Bill

by Peggy Elliott

Doug and Peggy Elliott
Doug and Peggy Elliott

From the Editor: The following story first appeared in The Car, the Sled, and the Butch Wax, the twenty-fourth in our Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:

Peggy Elliott lives and works in Grinnell, Iowa. Her sprightly stories have appeared in many previous Kernel Books. Here she looks back on an experience she had at the beginning of adulthood. Her thoughtful reflection is tempered by years of experience as a successful attorney and active leader in the National Federation of the Blind.

I've been blind for most of my life, and I was blind when I earned my law degree and got my first job. I joked back then that I wanted a job, an apartment, and a cat in that order, and I followed the plan.

My very first apartment was the top floor of a large old house with a living room, dining room, and three bedrooms. It was roomy and had lots of windows for ventilation and for the cat to use to observe the world. His favorite window was the one that overlooked the sidewalk on which I returned home each night, and in the summer he would sit in the open window and yell at me as I walked up to the house, demanding that I hurry up and get inside.

Then the first Iowa winter came on. As a blind apartment dweller, I had used a steel file to mark little notches in the thermostat so I could control the heat. Thinking ahead, I told myself. Or I told myself that until the first heating bill arrived.

I panicked. It was huge! I couldn't pay that bill on my meager salary as an assistant county attorney, especially since the next one would be as big. I called the landlord and insisted that he check the thermostat. It was fine. I called the power company and insisted that it double-check its reading and billing. It confirmed the figures as correct. I settled down to pay and close off rooms for the winter and add electric baseboard heating in the bedroom and learn all the little tricks of saving on one's energy bill.

But I always suspected that my encounter with the heat bill had something to do with my being blind. I couldn't see the thermostat; I couldn't read the bills myself; I didn't know things that sighted people did, so the huge bill was self-inflicted because I was blind.

Readers may think this is illogical, but I'm only telling you what I thought at the time. I and many other blind people fall into the trap of attributing to blindness all the ills of our lives, and, rationally examined, the attributions don't hold up. That doesn't make them any less real to the blind person feeling inadequate about something.

My life moved on from the heating bill crisis. I've paid a lot of heat bills in my years living in Iowa. I got married, and my husband and I bought some residential rental property in our community as part of our investment strategy for the future. We now pay heating bills for some renters, and we have bought four new furnaces and fixed a lot more than that.

Last year we rented a nice top floor apartment we own with lots of windows and a living room, dining room, and several bedrooms to a nice young woman who is sighted and who was moving out of her parents' home for the first time to take a job as a teacher.

When the first heating bills came out at the beginning of winter, we got a call from the frantic tenant. She asked us to come and check the thermostat since she had just gotten her first bill showing heating costs, and it was impossible that the cost was that gigantic. I heard later that she had also called the power company to ask them to do a re-reading on her bill because it had to be erroneous. Both the thermostat and the power company's readings were accurate, just as they had been in my case.

I thought back to my own first apartment and to the feelings of inadequacy I had experienced at the onset of my first heating bill. I remembered with a mixture of amusement and sadness how much those feelings were based on my feeling inferior to sighted persons because I am blind. I now know that the heating bill crisis is merely a rite of passage for all first-time renters or owners in cold climes. The sadness was for all my colleagues who are blind and who, like me, sometimes attribute to blindness what are normal human reactions to growing up or learning new skills or being the new person in a group of friends or work colleagues.

We blind people, like everyone else, are challenged to learn new things and succeed in trying circumstances and make friends in new settings. We, and sometimes those around us as well, can perceive difficulties in achieving these goals as stemming from our blindness when a sighted person in exactly the same situation would have exactly the same problem.

Through the National Federation of the Blind and my friendship with capable, competent blind people, I have learned to put my blindness in perspective. I no longer think that everything that goes wrong or is uncomfortable for me is automatically related to my blindness. Some of it is, like the effort to find my first job when I applied to fifty law firms and was turned down by all fifty. My friends in the Federation encouraged me to keep trying, to believe in myself, to keep applying. I did, and I found that first job and that first apartment.

My friends in the National Federation of the Blind have taught me that it is my job to figure things out, to take responsibility, to take charge of my life. I've tried to do that, since it makes sense to me, and I have forged the tools--as have my sighted colleagues--to find jobs, to pay those taxes, and to participate in my community's life. And, by the way, I just paid another heating bill.

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