Braille Monitor June 2006
Upside Down and Backwards
by James Christopher Wycoff
From the Editor: Chris Wycoff is a member of the Utah Valley Chapter of the NFB of Utah. He has truly learned what we mean when we say that we are changing what it means to be blind. Here is his story of his journey into blindness:
"Is there a chance I will be blind?" I hesitantly asked the eye doctor, not really wanting to know the answer. He calmly reached over to his small work area, picked up a business-size card, and placed it in my hand. I quickly gave it to my wife because I wanted to know what the card said since it was no longer possible for me to read it. She quietly read the words, "I am legally blind." I had known my vision was getting worse, but this felt like the pronouncement of a death sentence. I will never forget those words I heard that day for the first time: "I am legally blind."
For several months afterward the shock of that simple declaration dominated my every thought. I felt that my life was over. What would I do now? My mind focused repeatedly on all the things I believed I could not do. I couldn't work anymore. I couldn't play golf. I couldn't read. I couldn't drive to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. I couldn't see my children's faces. I couldn't enjoy the canyon or a beautiful sunset. As far as I could determine, my life was over.
Several months passed before I began to deal with my blindness. Fortunately the human spirit is an amazing and wonderful thing. I had never really thought about what I was really capable of achieving or what was really important for me to learn in this life. After months of feeling sorry for myself, I slowly began to sip the new drink that I had been served. It was a simple thing: drink or you will not survive.
As with most people, several factors helped me find the path back: a loving and strong spouse who has provided both compassion and tough love, gifted blind educators who have taught blind skills, technological advances that allow me to adapt skills I used before blindness, and a personal willingness to accept the challenge and perform the required work to learn blindness skills. Finally, the blindness consumer movement through the National Federation of the Blind has helped me realize that I can live successfully and determine my own future.
The most difficult aspect to understand and internalize about blindness is also the most rewarding. It can be stated many ways, but for me the difference between sighted people and blind people is that blind people do things differently. That's it. Any other conception one holds about blindness has been, is being, or will be proven erroneous. I now play golf. I'm attending college again because of a decision to change professions. I can go to the store and purchase a loaf of bread or anything else I need. True, I do not see my children's faces clearly, but I hear their voices, participate in their lives, and feel their spirit and their love. Those things are much more important to me than the ability to see them.
Blindness has taught me to realize the blessings that are mine. Once you personally experience the goodness of life, you can begin to change your attitudes. I have changed many of the have to's in my life to get to's. I don't have to learn Braille; I get to learn Braille. I don't have to walk to the store or the gym; I get to walk there.
I was just beginning to change my attitudes about blindness when I attended my first National Federation of the Blind convention in Louisville last year. It was an experience I shall never forget. When I first arrived at the hotel, I found my way around with my limited vision. I remember helping a few totally blind people find the elevators and hallways. The funny thing was that there were too many people to help. I had never been around so many blind people. I realized I was reacting to blindness like most sighted people. I was trying to help them, but there were too many. Then I realized a simple but profound thing. They didn't need my help. They do this every day.
I remember several years ago watching a Ken Burns documentary on baseball. A Baltimore sports reporter was talking about his first day of covering major league baseball. He had grown up in Baltimore and badly wanted to be a sports reporter. He loved the Baltimore Orioles. He spoke with glee of their great stars: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, and others. He admired Earl Weaver, the manager of the Orioles. Finally he was hired by the Baltimore Sun newspaper and remembered his first day of covering the team on opening day of the season. The teams were on the field warming up for the game. He was in the dugout excitedly interviewing Earl Weaver. Weaver was answering a question when the "Star-Spangle Banner" began playing. The players on the field came to attention and removed their hats, but Weaver continued to answer the question. This was bugging the reporter, who finally broke into Weaver's remarks and blurted, "Shouldn't we be standing at attention or doing something?"
Weaver stared back at the young reporter and calmly said, "Relax, kid: we do this every day."
By the end of the Louisville convention I could go into the restroom and see blind people searching for sinks, paper towels, etc., without feeling any urge to help them. They were fine. They do this every day. I no longer needed them to do things on my timetable or in the same way I had done as a sighted person.
Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the NFB, spoke at the convention about perspective. Sighted people need to learn that blind people are like everyone else. They just do things differently, and that's okay. We as blind people need to help educate sighted people, but we also need to be willing to change our own perspective about blindness. We shouldn't be satisfied that only 10 percent of blind people read and use Braille. We need actively to seek to pass equitable laws so that blind people can compete and live successfully in the modern world.
I had to laugh the other day when I was trying to make the bed. I was wrestling with the comforter when my wife said, "You've got it upside down and backwards." When I first lost my sight, I thought my world had turned upside down and backwards. But I was wrong. Blind people sometimes get physical things upside down and backwards. Pondering more about that phrase, I now think sighted people often think about blindness in an upside-down and backwards way. Their perceptions are often completely wrong and backwards.
Like the comforter on my bed, we can turn things around and get them straight. As Federationists we need to help the world turn these misconceptions right-side-up and move them forward instead of backwards.