by Marc Schmidt
From Dan Frye: Marc Schmidt is the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona and president of the affiliate's West Valley Chapter. An electrical engineer, Marc was a particularly useful mentor at the 2007 NFB Youth Slam, and he participated in one of the four follow-up Youth Slam leadership seminars that the Affiliate Action Department sponsored last spring. He is an engineering section leader with the Arizona Public Works Company. Marc relates in the following story a personal experience he had during his Youth Slam follow-up seminar with a broader perspective on growth and challenge as a blind person. Here is what he says:
Have you ever tried to break boards with your bare hands? I’ve heard several times that it is possible, but I always thought the people who could do it must be really tough or able to focus all of their energy into a point. However they did it, I never envisioned my doing it until recently. My perspective changed at a youth leadership academy for the blind last May, where I was a counselor.
Several adults demonstrated a technique for breaking boards, and it wasn’t long until I heard that some kids were busting through three or four boards at a time. The National Federation of the Blind believes in the value of encouraging people to move out of their comfort zones. Doing so is often an important part of becoming more independent and successful.
As I sat there, unwilling to risk hurting my hands, I thought about what message I might be sending to the youth for whom I was supposed to be a role model. Not wanting to show fear of trying something new and wanting to demonstrate a can-do attitude, I stepped forward to try breaking some boards. I reviewed the technique in person, stepped back, and took a good swing at the two boards held in front of me. To my amazement both broke completely through without hurting my hand at all. The youth around me thought it was great, but I fell into introspection for a while. I wondered how many other things in my life I had never tried because I feared that things others wanted me to try were impossible for a blind person to do.
Shortly before that weekend with the blind youth, my wife Kim had really pushed me out of my comfort zone, inciting me to do something of which I had always been afraid. It was the last day of our two-week vacation in Peru. We had visited several museums, toured fascinating ruins (like Machu Picchu), and even spent half a week in the jungle. Now we were ready to unwind a little before returning home. We thought that spending some time relaxing on the beach would accomplish that, but the water was chilly, the surf was strong, and the plentiful jellyfish were large--a foot or so in diameter.
As we bummed around a nearby outdoor mall, Kim marveled at a number of people paragliding--sailing on the coastal updrafts--suspended from large parachutes. Though it sounded like fun, it was definitely something I had always said I would never do since it seemed foolish to put my life in the hands of something as uncertain as the wind.
Nevertheless, as we were packing up our room on the last day of our trip, Kim announced, “I know what you’re doing today.” I figured that it would be something that I would really like. But, when I learned that she was planning for me to paraglide, I thought she must have lost her mind. She tried to arrest my concerns by explaining that I would be accompanied by an experienced instructor, but I didn’t gain much comfort from knowing that I wouldn’t be dying alone.
Then my risk-management logic kicked into gear in an unusual way. I figured that, if the instructor was assuming this risk day in and day out and had managed to survive it for several years, I could probably risk paragliding for fifteen minutes. So off we went to the coastal cliff.
When we got there and paid for my paragliding session, nobody seemed too concerned about my blindness since I’d be flying in tandem with a sighted instructor. I felt excited but not particularly nervous. However, when they hooked the harness around me and then ordered me to run towards the cliff, I was glad I couldn’t see the 150-foot drop-off in front of me. When my feet all of a sudden lost touch with the ground, I did feel uneasy for the first ten seconds of being airborne. But, as we started gaining altitude and I felt the cool ocean breeze rush by my face, my fear gave way to bliss. Though it did feel rather odd to hear the foaming ocean so far beneath me, I was enjoying the freedom of a bird too much to care.
As the instructor was taking us through gentle swoops and loops, he remarked, “If I could only give you my eyes right now.”
I replied, “Why? There’s so much for me to enjoy with all my other senses.” So he closed his eyes and liked it so much that he kept them shut for a while. Of course he opened his eyes again to bring us in for a safe landing. As we parted, I thanked him for a wonderful time, and he thanked me for opening his understanding to what it’s like to be blind.As each of us stepped out of our comfort zones that day, our lives were enriched. Once again my understanding of what blind people can and cannot do was altered. My self-confidence was boosted by trying something that most people believe impossible for a blind person to manage.
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