Braille Monitor                                                                                 April 2006

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Convention, Freedom, and the Fourth of July

by Rebekah Jakeman

Rebekah Jakeman with  Aliya (left) and Calan (right)

From the Editor: Explaining the transformation one has undergone when experiencing the Federation’s message for the first time challenges and frustrates many of us. We recognize the importance of communicating what has happened to us to those we love and who love and respect us. But how does one find the words to express the dawning of hope and the expansion of expectations when until now blindness has destroyed both hope and expectation?

Rebekah Jakeman lives with her law-student husband Dave and their two young children in Provo, Utah. Though she has been legally blind for many years, she mostly depended on her vision until five years ago. Then she suddenly lost her remaining sight and plunged into insecurity and self-doubt. This much Rebekah’s family has known, but she wanted to communicate to them what happened to her when she met the National Federation of the Blind. This is the letter she wrote to her family when she returned home from the 2005 NFB convention. Perhaps it will help others to find the words to tell their own stories to their loved ones. This is what she wrote:

Dear Family,

Happy belated Fourth of July. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. I thought I would take just a few moments to tell you what the Fourth of July has come to mean to me. Freedom is such an abstract word, but to me it can be symbolized in just three words: long white cane. Let me explain.

Two years ago found me extremely frustrated and depressed. I had spent six months slowly figuring out that the blindness training and skills I had received were not going to do me any good. My Braille speed was slow; I was very embarrassed to read aloud in front of people. I rarely used my cane, so I didn’t really know how to use it. After completing my training—now remember this means I had graduated and was supposed to be independent—I had to have my instructor come down from Salt Lake City to show me how to get to the dumpsters from my front door—about fifty yards away. He also had to show me how to get to the Y Mount [married student housing] office so that I could pay our rent. Whenever possible, I would just fold up my cane and hide it. I would gladly take someone’s arm rather than using my cane because somehow that made me feel as if I was less blind.

Looking back, it is easy to see that I was not completely comfortable with myself as a blind person. During this time I applied for several jobs. I wanted to get a job so I could support Dave through school. Every other wife seemed to do it; why couldn’t I? But one job after another fell through. To say the least, it was humiliating. Here I was supposed to be independent and a help to Dave, but I wasn’t. Once, after an interview, the employer came out of her office, and instead of turning to me and saying, “I’ll get back to you,” she turned to Dave and said, “I’ll get back to her, and we’ll see what we have open for her to do.” I felt about two years old. The employer wasn’t sure how to respond to a blind applicant, and I was unsure how to educate her about blind people. But I knew one thing for sure; I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life embarrassed about who I was.

Things turned around one day when I received a phone call from Norm Gardner. He told me that he was the president of the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. He and the chapter were inviting me to attend their national convention in Louisville, Kentucky—all expenses paid. My first thought was: free trip! I had no idea what I would do for a week with a bunch of blind people, but I love traveling, so I was game.

The convention was the week of July 4. Dave and I were welcomed with open arms by the Utah affiliate. I wasn’t confident using my cane, but I felt obligated to use it since I was at a blind convention. Dave noticed that the majority of the crowd were using long white canes. He attempted to show me their technique, so I could use it with my fold-up cane. I assured him that there were different kinds of canes and that it didn’t really matter what kind I used.

One night hit me particularly hard as I attended a play put on by the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). I was fascinated with the script: blind actors—what a novel idea that was to me. The play was about a girl who lost her vision and how her family rallied around her while some of her friends abandoned her. I remember thinking how lucky the LCB students were to act in a play. It brought back memories of my acting days. But those days were gone and with them the hope of ever acting on stage again.

Through the week, though, things began to unravel. I had been told by my professional cane-travel instructor that I probably should not wear flip-flops when using my cane, yet at convention I saw lots of people wearing flip-flops. I had been told all my life that Braille was slow and hard to learn and that it wasn’t necessary to know until I was totally blind, yet all week I saw professional people delivering powerful speeches that they read in Braille. I met blind lawyers, teachers, parents—all confident, competent, and able. Slowly the you’re-not-good-enough labels I had been stamping myself with were slipping away. I could be a good Braille reader. I could be a competent mother.

But what about the travel? My rehab counselor had told me that, with all the travel training I had had, I should be a good traveler. So if I wasn’t, I never would be. He actually said it more kindly than that, but the message tore me up inside. How am I supposed to be a mother if I can’t even cross the street. Weeks earlier he and I had stood at the corner of 9th East, where the old Kent’s Market used to be. I stood traumatized. I waited light cycle after light cycle, realizing that determining when to step off the curb and into the road could be a life or death decision. Finally my instructor had to tell me when to cross, and he crossed right behind me. From that experience it was easy for me to conclude that I really couldn’t travel with a cane. He was right; I would never be able to travel. The only choice I had was to use a sighted guide. That’s fine if someone is already going to the same destination, but what if no one is?

Back to convention week two years ago. On the last night a bunch of us went to the river bank behind the hotel to watch the fireworks display over the Ohio River. There I asked Ron Gardner, Norm’s brother, about the long white canes I saw people using. Was it possible for a blind person with two hearing aids to travel? I told him of my dreams to live abroad. Was it possible for a blind person to travel abroad? He assured me that it was and pointed out his two hearing aids. He had traveled to Africa, Australia, South America, etc. I was amazed. I started to cry. Maybe I wouldn’t have to be stuck at home for the rest of my life. He referred me to Nick Schmittroth, who came up to us right then. He was a long white cane travel instructor who had just been hired in Utah, and right then and there Nick handed me my first long white cane; he actually gave me his, with the comment that he had an extra back in his hotel room. It was light, easy to use, and quite long. He explained that, when the cane is longer, it allows one to walk faster. The cane tip is a couple of paces ahead of you and gives you enough time to react to steps, bumps, or curbs. So as fireworks burst in the sky behind me, I was given a quick lesson in confidence and cane use.

Now, just two years later, I have returned to Louisville, Kentucky, for my third national NFB convention. Because of all the craziness around here, I went to convention without Dave and the kids. I flew with three other blind friends. You can only imagine some of the reactions we got. The first day was a little unsettling since major reconstruction had been done on the hotel, and I had to relearn where everything was. But it didn’t take long to figure out where things were by using my cane and getting good directions. By the second day I was going out around the hotel getting to where I needed to go. In the NFB we define independence as going where you want to go, when you want to go, with the least inconvenience to you or others. This ideal is not always possible for either blind or sighted people. Sometimes a blind person has to use a sighted guide and at other times a cane. The point is, though, that the blind person gets to choose. If one doesn’t have the skills, he or she is forced to use sighted guides all the time, and often that is inconvenient for others. Example: before I had cane training I would take Dave’s arm to travel everywhere. But if I had to use the restroom, Dave obviously couldn’t come in with me. So we would have to wait until a woman walked past on her way to the rest room and ask her to assist me. Obviously this was not a very efficient method. Now I am pleased to announce that with my cane skills I can go into a restroom when I want or need to without waiting for others.

At this convention I felt completely independent. I would leave my room cane in hand and head to the meeting-room floors. I would ask where a particular room was and be off. I even went outside, traveling around downtown Louisville alone or with friends. It was the first time as a blind person that I was able to go where I wanted, when I wanted—I finally felt free. Then, on July the Fourth, I stood on the stage and acted in the LCB play. Ironically, I played the part of a cane-travel instructor who did not believe long white canes were necessary or effective. One of my lines was, “I spent four to five weeks teaching my students sighted-guide techniques.” At the end of the play my character had a change of heart and used a long white cane because, “I should be able to do what I expect my students to do.” The entire audience burst into applause when they discovered my character had decided to use a long white cane. In that moment I felt that some of the applause was for me too. I had finally learned the glorious blessings of traveling with a cane. My Heavenly Father had blessed me to come further than I ever thought possible.

After the play I stood on the bank of the Ohio River with some friends to watch the fireworks. Among these was Ron Gardner, who had told me just two years earlier that it was possible for a blind person to travel. For me this was the biggest celebration of freedom because I no longer needed to trust someone else’s assessment that I could or couldn’t travel with a cane. I knew from my own experience that I can travel. To me that is what freedom is: finding happiness and success in believing in yourself. God has given me the gift of a long white cane and the NFB. The Fourth of July will always be a very special holiday for me. It was the day I was given my life back and the day I was given my mental freedom to believe the impossible.

Love you all,
Rebekah

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