by Mary Ellen Gabias
From the Editor: Mary Ellen Gabias is one of my oldest Federation friends. She and I roomed together at my first Ohio convention, in 1974. She was a college student, and I was the mother of three, but in blindness matters she was far more mature and wiser than I. Today she is a faculty wife and mother of four, living in British Columbia, and she is still teaching and learning about blindness. In the following article she explores the distinctions between unconsciously lowered expectations, individual differences, and poor equipment or advice. We can all think of times when we confused these three strands of existence and thereby made our lives more complicated. This is what she says:
“I’m really embarrassed to admit it,” Joan said, “but I can’t wrap packages. I know other blind people do it, but I guess I’m not that competent. I even went to the bargain store and bought six rolls of paper for two dollars so I could practice. Every time I try to wrap a box, the paper rips.”
“Your problem isn’t incompetence as a blind person,” I laughed. Your problem is that you’re cheap! You have to be really good at wrapping to get away with using that flimsy paper. If you’re unsure of yourself, try practicing with a small box and paper towels. Then, when you’re sure of how it’s done, buy really good paper. It’s easier to handle, and it doesn’t rip.”
I felt sad for Joan. It was so easy for her to misattribute her difficulties to blindness. How many blind people secretly feel inadequate if they have difficulty in doing something when the problem has nothing to do with lack of eyesight? Once again I was grateful that participation in the National Federation of the Blind had kept me out of that trap.
I began reading the Braille Monitor in 1971 partly because of the stories of blind people accomplishing things I’d never even considered trying. I remember how thrilled I was to hear of blind students from Scandinavia teaching blind Americans how to scuba dive. I was so intrigued that I took a scuba class for my physical education requirement in college. What a disaster! I contracted a serious middle ear infection which left me almost too dizzy to walk and forced me to withdraw from the class. The doctor warned me that I risked permanent hearing loss if I kept diving. Oh well, I thought, it’s great that blind people can scuba dive, but that doesn’t mean that every blind person has to do it.
I also remember articles in the Monitor about water skiing. My parents (who almost always encouraged me to try new and challenging things) forbade me to water ski. They believed sight was absolutely necessary. My husband Paul (who is also blind) is an excellent water skier. His family encouraged him, and water skiing became his favorite hobby. He continues to try to teach me, but I haven’t got the hang of it yet. Perhaps, if I’d started as a young person, I’d be a capable water skier now. Perhaps I wouldn’t. Nevertheless, I enjoy the challenge of trying to learn and the simple fun of being on the water with my family. Knowing blind people do water ski liberates and challenges me to rethink limitations I’ve always accepted. This is true even if I can’t personally skim across the water behind a speed boat.
Every person has unique talents. Blindness doesn’t change that, but it does affect how we feel about our particular strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to spend so much time worrying about things we’re not good at doing that we don’t truly enjoy the things we do well. It’s also easy to cop out and fail to work on improving skills by saying, “That’s just not my thing.” When we develop friendships within the Federation, we get help sorting out the difference between copping out and merely accepting our own personal set of traits.
The Federation taught me to expect more of myself, but it also taught me that I had reason for genuine pride. Federation friends helped me gather accurate information about how my performance stacked up against that of others, both blind and sighted. It was liberating to know that my best really was good enough. It was also exciting to realize that my best could keep getting better with the support, encouragement, and practical guidance of people who believed in me.
The accomplishments of other blind people challenged my limiting beliefs. Most of the time that felt great. Occasionally it was embarrassing to realize that I’d failed to learn things most adults take for granted because of what I had assumed blindness imposed on me. Like my friend Joan, I got in the habit of calling Federationists and asking for help. I knew I wouldn’t be judged; I’d be given suggestions I could use to help solve my problems.
I remember calling three Federation friends for tips on frying eggs over easy. I couldn’t stomach them myself, but they were Paul’s favorite breakfast. As a new bride I wanted to pamper him. I got three different sets of instructions and finally developed a method which was a combination of all three.
I started doing my laundry in college; at least I did when I couldn’t go home and wheedle Mom into doing it for me. I came of age during the seventies, a time when polyester and freeing women from domestic chores were the rage. Women cheerfully chucked their irons. In fact, anyone who regularly used one was secretly looked upon with pity as uptight and old fashioned. I inherited my grandmother’s old iron, which I promptly stored in the back of my linen closet after I accidentally set its temperature too high and scorched a pair of slacks with it.
Even in the eighties, when fashions changed and fabrics thankfully improved, I chose clothes that required dry cleaning. It was easy to send my ironing to the cleaners along with my suits. My old iron remained buried in the closet; I pulled it out only in dire emergencies. No one had ever done more than show me how to keep from injuring myself while using it. No matter how hard I worked at it, my efforts to produce wrinkle-free garments failed miserably.
When we married, Paul contributed his own modern, gadget-laden iron to the clutter at the bottom of our closet. Marriage introduced me to new domestic dilemmas, white cotton shirts being among the most frustrating. They went to the cleaners with Paul’s suits. Our cleaning bills soared, as my confidence in my own competence dipped. Other blind people routinely pressed clothes. Why was I so incompetent? Was this like scuba diving or water skiing, something that just didn’t suit my personal set of skills? Or was I somehow letting myself and other blind people down by not working hard enough to get it right? I pushed my doubts to the back of my mind. After all, I had a young baby and more than enough to do. Why add hours of ironing to my already crowded days?
When our second child was born, the midwife ordered me to rest for at least a week. A close friend came over to give me a hand. Not knowing of my practice of sending Paul’s shirts to the cleaners, she laundered them and dragged the ironing board out of hiding. She watched as I dug out the old iron. Then I went back to bed and left her to it. I knew she was very particular and would do as well as or better than the cleaner.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she hung up the finished shirts in our closet, “but I switched irons. The one you gave me wasn’t working properly.” My trusty iron, the one that had been with me since Grandma died and had moved with me to four states and two Canadian provinces, the only one I had ever used in my life, not working?
“That’s too bad,” I told my friend, “I guess nothing lasts forever. Maybe you’d better explain all the gadgets on Paul’s iron and show me how it works, not that I’ll use it much anyway. Still, I should probably know how.”
I laid one of Paul’s shirts on the ironing board and prepared to be embarrassed. She was a good friend; still, I hated to show her how inept I really was. We went painstakingly through all the controls and figured out how to mark the temperature. Then I braced myself for the usual frustration of feeling small wrinkles turn into seemingly permanent creases. But it didn’t happen. The new iron glided smoothly over the cloth, and the wrinkles vanished.
In the sixteen years since that discovery, I’ve ironed countless shirts. My time per shirt has decreased from a painstaking twenty minutes to an efficient five. I kept the old iron for several years as a back up, just in case. I hauled it out when our good iron malfunctioned and I needed to press a shirt before I had time to buy a new iron. It didn’t work any better than it had before I became skilled at pressing shirts. I thought of Joan as I finally consigned that old clunker to the trash heap. She wasn’t the only one who had mistakenly blamed blindness for what was really an equipment problem. Both of us had learned something about ironing things out.