Braille Monitor                                                    July 2008

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Making a Difference

by Barbara Loos

From the Editor: Barbara Loos is a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind and a frequent contributor to the Braille Monitor. In the following little essay she exactly captures the tug-of-war we all feel sometimes when the desire to provide a good role model slams full tilt into the fear of failing. Here is her story:

Barbara Loos shovels manure from a wheelbarrow.When I first heard about Make a Difference Day, I felt conflicted about participating. Doing so would mean skipping the Lincoln Chapter meeting of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska, which meets on the fourth Saturday of the month. I didn’t want to miss the October meeting. I was to have responsibilities there, including reporting on my involvement in AmeriCorps, since NFB-N is my host site. On the other hand, one of my goals as an AmeriCorps member is to increase the involvement of the blind in the community, and here was a chance. But this would be one of those big group ventures, complete with transportation hassles, logistical nightmares, and the possibility of a token role only for me, in which my own incompetence might make all blind people look bad. Wouldn’t my time be better spent fulfilling responsibilities I knew how to handle? But how could I report to the NFBN that I had chosen not to participate in a community event, when part of what I had agreed to do in taking the AmeriCorps assignment was to promote our equality by example?

Thus I argued with myself until I received an email message that helped me to decide. It said, in part: “I wanted to ask you how you felt about coming to this service day even if we figure out transportation. It seems like it may be hard for you to be involved with the activity. I am worried that it won't be very easy for you to be involved with cutting down the plants and navigating around the bumpy ground of the garden. What do you think? Another possibility is that I pick you up just for the lunch so that you can come hear about Community CROPS. Let me know. I want you to be involved as much as you would like.”

There they were again, those familiar, seemingly unlikely companions, Stereotype and Encouragement, each offering me an invitation. Since they had been presented to me as one, I responded to both simultaneously, writing back: “I do want to participate in Saturday's activity. One of my goals for being an AmeriCorps member is to stretch myself. Another goal is to help create opportunities for other blind people. Yet another is to help others want to include blind people in all aspects of life and work. If I shy away from either things I don't know how to do or activities others aren't comfortable with my doing, I defeat my goals and cheapen AmeriCorps in the process.

“Bumpy ground, both physical and mental, is very familiar to me. I haven't had much experience cutting down plants but am willing to give it my best effort. I learned a long time ago that, if we take away all chance of failure, we also remove any possibility for success.

“It would be embarrassing to me to come just for the lunch and presentation. I would feel like a slacker alongside my fellow members. I want to raise expectations for blind people, not lower them.

“There have been times in my life when, sensing others' discomfort with my participation, I have bowed out in order to allow everyone else her/his comfort zone. I'm not doing that this time. I hope we all have a positive experience.”

To my immense relief it was Encouragement who replied: “Barbara, You have impressed me many times already this year with the way you speak up and get involved. Please let me know if I have offended you or ever do in the future when talking about your abilities. I am glad you are part of this team, not only because you are teaching the other members about working with someone who is blind, but because you are a strong member with a positive attitude. I am glad that you will be part of the team on Saturday. Thank you!”

When fellow member Isau and her boyfriend Travis picked me up the day of the garden cleanup, I was grateful for the ride but still a bit apprehensive about the project. Isau’s up-front approach, though, soon dissolved my apprehension. She said she had been asked to help me during the activity but wasn’t sure what that meant. What did I need for her to do? I said that I wanted to really participate, so if, for example, someone said to get tools right here and use them in the plot over there, gesturing to indicate what they meant, it would be helpful to know where “right here” and “over there” were. And if someone pointed out visually which plants to pull, showing me physically by placing my hands on them would be useful--things like that. I did not need a sitter. When she laughed, handed me an extra pair of garden gloves she had brought (I had mentioned that mine had disappeared when I had moved last), and said that she didn’t see any problem with doing that, I took a deep breath of the crisp October air, stepped out of the car, extended my cane in front of me, and walked confidently beside her into the unknown.

Looking back on it, I’m still a bit surprised that I, who came, folded paper towels in hand, to my children’s bedsides asking where they had thrown up so I could clean it up without touching it, willingly, even enthusiastically, volunteered to shovel manure and rake slimy, stinky grass clippings on the morning of Make a Difference Day. And I’m still uplifted by memories of conversation and camaraderie while working with fellow members that afternoon. As we pulled out whatever dared to cling to the soil of our second garden, I felt not only the tangible difference our weeding was making for whoever had cultivated that ground, but also the exhilaration that uprooting and discarding misconceptions about blindness always brings. Thank you, AmeriCorps, for this chance to make a difference, both in our community and for me personally.

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