Braille Monitor                                                         June 2007

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Walking the Federation Walk

by John Bailey

John Bailey edits the Vigilant, the publication of the NFB of Virginia. He is also president of the Fairfax Area Chapter in Virginia. The following article actually appeared in the March issue of the chapter’s newsletter. John counts as one of our newer leaders, but he has certainly absorbed the message that we must all test our limits and make opportunities to grow into the NFB’s energizing philosophy. Here is his article:

 John Bailey stepping off a bed of hot coalsAs part of my job as Fairfax Area Chapter president, I need to keep in touch with everyone who attends a meeting or has at sometime shown interest in coming to one. The truth is that most people don’t just decide one day to come to an NFB meeting. Potential members tend to think about coming to meetings awhile before they actually arrive. My job as president is to make sure that we keep in touch with those who are thinking about joining and to answer their questions.

I actually enjoy this task because I get to talk one-on-one with people and find out about them, their lives, and most important, what attracts them to membership in our organization. This essay was inspired by several of those conversations.

In conversations I have had over the last few months, members and potential members have admitted that they did not feel comfortable attending meetings with current members because they seemed so very capable. The new members have told me that they felt that they could never hope to reach that level of competence and confidence, and this feeling made them hesitate to participate.

Hearing these comments from newcomers surprised me until I really thought about it. I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for nearly ten years. When I think back, I too can remember meeting people who seemed to have it all together. They could go anywhere they wanted. They could read and write at amazing speeds, and they seemed completely confident. I can remember meeting them in my early days and thinking to myself, “How can I ever be as good as they are at being blind?”

I was very fortunate that several NFB members took it upon themselves to befriend me and explain how all these seeming miracles of adaptive techniques work. Those whom I considered the super blind told me about the months and years of effort they logged to reach their current skill levels. The most surprising thing they told me was that they were still sharpening their skills and that they knew they still had much room for improvement. It seems that the secret to becoming one of the super-blind elite is to know the adaptive skills of blindness and to use them. The confidence comes with practicing these skills.

As I said earlier, conversations with potential members who felt a bit put off by the confidence of the chapter’s current members started me thinking. Could I find a way dramatically to illustrate the fact that what may seem impossible may become possible with the use of special techniques? Could it be done in a few hours? Could I do it without hurting myself?

After a bit of thought I came up with an idea. I remember watching a Public Television program several years ago in which a scientist was explaining the physics of fire-walking and that it could be safe when done the right way. I had my project; find a fire-walking class and learn how to take a stroll across burning logs.

I love the Internet. It can help find things in just a few minutes that might have taken hours or days previously. I Googled (it is a verb now) for the term fire-walk and got several hits. Most of these referred to fire-walking seminars for corporations. It appears that fire-walking classes can be an important part of team-building exercises. It is now possible to find the answer to the question: “Do you really trust the coworker with whom you don’t get along to douse you with water if you catch fire?”

It was a combination of the Internet, phone messages, and good luck that found me a fire-walking class in South Carolina on February 17, 2007. The class would take three hours and cost $100. Not only would it cover fire-walking, but it would include breaking a board with your palm, breaking an arrow with your throat, and walking across a short path of broken glass. Then the class would conclude with a ten-foot walk across a 1,200-degree trail of burning logs. The date was right. The fee was right. The agenda was right. I decided to fly down and attend.

Let me digress for a moment. When I first joined the Federation, I did not like to travel in any way whatsoever. I made excuses for not going places because taking public transportation or even planning to use public transportation caused me a great deal of anxiety. The only reason I traveled to my first NFB meeting nearly ten years ago was that it was literally across the street from my home. If the meeting had been anywhere else, I would probably not have gone. I would have found an excuse.

Now skip to today. I live in Northern Virginia. I needed to get to Charlotte, North Carolina. After making all my travel arrangements on the Web (did I mention how great the Internet is?), I left my house early Saturday morning on a journey during which I would be in four states, stay in a hotel overnight, fly in three planes, take five cabs, and be home Sunday afternoon in time to start getting ready for work Monday morning.

The trip to Charlotte took several hours and almost didn’t happen because at the airport gate the agent announced a mechanical change to the airplane. In this case a mechanical change must have meant that the pilot had forgotten to bring all the seats with him on the flight and that several passengers with tickets wouldn’t be flying that morning. Because I had bought my ticket on the Internet, I was one of the fortunate ones whose seat was not left at the hangar. So I was able to begin my journey to North Carolina.

The rest of the trip went as expected. I landed, checked into my hotel, and hooked up with a cabdriver whom I would use for all my transportation needs while I was in the area.

The class was being led by Dr. Karen Frank and her co-instructor husband, Mr. Alan Broadman, at their weekend home just over the North Carolina border in Clover, South Carolina. Since the Charlotte airport is close to the South Carolina border, it was just a thirty-minute cab ride to the instructor’s home in the woods. Eighteen people had signed up for the seminar. Karen and Alan took turns leading the group in the exercises.

Before the class began, Alan handed me a puzzle composed of two horseshoes welded together at the pointed ends by two very short lengths of chain. A solid ring circled both lengths of chain. Alan asked me if it was possible to remove the ring from the puzzle. I told him that I could not think of a way. After a few seconds of manipulation Alan had the ring separated from the puzzle. He must have shown me the secret of removing the ring about a dozen times, but I was never able to master the technique. However, I knew that this was the right class for me because my goal for this exercise was to show that the seemingly impossible was possible when using the right techniques.

When the class began, our first task was to break a board with our palms. Each student was given a board that measures several inches on a side and an inch thick. Alan explained to us how we should strike the boards with our palms. The fast rotation of our upper bodies driving the palms forward would achieve the necessary force to break the boards.

All but one of the students was able to break the board on the first try. Those who had done this exercise before were able to break two or three boards held together. The one person who did not break the board at that time tried again after the class, and she was eventually successful, once she began to believe she could do it.

The next class activity was to break an arrow using only the weight of our bodies on an arrow whose point was pressed against our throats. Again, if done properly, this exercise was safe. After a bit of preliminary discussion about how the process worked, each student took a turn.

Students were to place the tip of the arrow against their throats, a finger’s width or two above the V cleft in the sternum. The other end of the arrow was to be placed against the wall parallel to the floor. Each student was to lean against the arrow just hard enough to hold it in place between neck and wall.

When the students were ready, they were to tighten the muscles in their necks and very slowly move forward against the arrow. As soon as the shaft of the arrow began to bend, the student was to continue slowly applying more pressure until the arrow broke with a snap. Alan said that the hardest part was getting the arrow to bend. Once that was accomplished, the rest would be easy.

One by one, as each student’s turn came, we stood facing the wall while Alan stood nearby making sure that the techniques were followed. When my turn came, I was nervous. For some reason I thought fire-walking was much safer than using my throat to break arrows. Following the directions, I tightened the muscles of my neck and slowly applied my body weight against the arrow. To my relief the arrow shaft bowed and then quickly broke. I felt that I had truly challenged myself and succeeded.

The next challenge for the class was to walk across broken glass laid out in a two-by-three-foot area on the floor. Karen explained the rules for safely walking across the glass. We were to walk very slowly, making sure each foot felt comfortable on the path before beginning to take the next step. When we had finished walking on the glass, we were to make sure to give our feet a quick brush to insure that no shards were still clinging to our feet. If we decided not to complete the walk before we reached the end, we were to step to the side. Under no circumstances were we to step backwards!

Karen told us that the glass trail consisted of fifty pounds of broken liquor bottles donated by a friend who was a guidance counselor at a local high school. Our instructors had cleaned and prepared the broken bottles for this exercise.

Karen laid out a cloth and spread a layer of glass on it, which she then leveled with a two-by-four wooden board. She demonstrated how to walk across broken glass by taking the first pass across it herself. As she walked slowly across the glass, she explained her technique. We could hear the crunch of glass breaking under her feet as she took each step. When she finished, she brushed off the few shards of broken bottles which were still clinging to her feet. She was apparently unharmed.

A line of students formed in front of the glass-covered cloth. Each followed the instructor’s instructions and cruised through the task without any ill effects. By now I was really getting into the spirit of the thing. I was pumped and making jokes as the glass crunched beneath my feet. It did not hurt at all. It felt quite comfortable in fact. At one point I stopped walking so that a good picture could be taken of me crossing the glass. I had no problems just standing there. I finished the walk and brushed off my feet. I had overcome my third challenge.

It was time for the final challenge. Fire-walking is a bit of a misnomer. Actually, one is not walking on fire but on a 1,200-degree layer of ash over a base of burning wood. The bed we were going to walk was about three feet wide and ten feet long. If you measure the temperature of the ash, it is a full 1,200 degrees. However, ash is not as dense as wood and therefore does not contain as much heat energy. It is like touching aluminum foil that has been baking in the oven. If you are careful, touching the foil will not burn you.

It is crucial that the fire-walk path be prepared properly. In fact, there are classes for learning just how to prepare fire-walks so that no one gets hurt. The fire-walk I did was properly prepared, and the students were given instructions on how to cross it safely. We were to start several feet before the path, walking at a normal speed. We were to continue walking until we reached the end, where Alan would wash down our feet with water from a hose to make sure no hot embers had stuck to our skin.

The instructors and I had had some discussion about my blindness and how I could fully participate in the activities. Alan wanted to help me find a nonvisual method for knowing when I had finished crossing. I suggested that I start walking and stop only when I heard people clapping. That seemed a simple solution, and we both liked it.

The students lined up to take turns walking across the burning wood on the path. As each person began his or her walk, everyone would chant, “You can do it.” When they had finished walking and were on the other side having their feet washed, we changed to chanting, “You did it.”

When my turn came, I just began to walk. I started off fine, feeling no heat or pain on my feet. However, as I came to the end of the ten-foot path, I began to veer towards the right a bit. Unfortunately, this area had less ash, and my feet began to feel the heat of the burning wood below. Alan doused my feet with cold water until the discomfort had gone away. After several applications of aloe cream to the bottoms of my feet, they felt fine. I had done it!

I had set a goal for myself, and I achieved it. I demonstrated to myself that many things that seem impossible are actually very possible given the right attitude and techniques. I wish to thank Dr. Karen Frank and her husband Alan Broadman for their enthusiastic support and their desire to teach me the fact that believing in oneself is the greatest force in achieving personal goals.

Several times before my trip and during my adventure, I had second thoughts. At times I asked myself, “What are you doing? Is this really necessary?” When I began to doubt myself, I would think of several of the really capable blind people I had met in the Federation over the years. Rather than using those people to highlight my inadequacies, I used them and their stories as examples demonstrating what is possible to achieve when you really want something and are willing to work towards it.

Come join the Fairfax Area Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind because we are the movement for improvement--the movement for change.

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