by Chris Kuell
From the Editor: Chris Kuell has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1998, a year after he lost his vision to complications of diabetes. He is second vice president of our Connecticut affiliate, president of our Danbury chapter, and editor of the affiliate's semiannual newsletter, The Federationist. Chris sits on the oversight body for the Connecticut rehabilitation agency for the blind. In his free time he plays the guitar and is an aspiring novelist.
In the following piece Chris examines the balance between independence and reliance on others that all blind people occasionally consider. His view of that balance reflects his personal choices and his perception of his aptitudes. Others may draw the line differently. Nevertheless, he describes the age-old dilemma that we all think about. Here is what he says:
The other day I put some cardboard into the recycling bin we keep on the back porch. To manage this two-handed task, I leaned my cane on the wall then heard it fall with a thwack on the wood floor. As I bent to retrieve it, a sharp pain pierced my right ring finger. During the scooping process I had jammed a sliver of wood under my fingernail. As I struggled to get a grip on the splinter, pain pulsed under my nail, and I thought of North Vietnamese soldiers torturing American GIs.
I could feel the end of the splinter but couldn’t get enough of a grip to pull it out. “Grace,” I called to my daughter, who was engrossed in watching YouTube videos on the family computer, “could you please help me?”
I preach and try to practice the principle of blind people’s being independent. I know we can be independent, assuming our only difficulty is blindness. It’s not a tragedy or as debilitating as most people believe. We don’t need people to fetch, cook, clean, transport, and guide us. Just look around at the thousands of blind people who live alone and go to work, school, and grocery shopping—whatever needs to be done. After all, It’s important to consider the image we project to the people we occasionally ask to help us and to those who see us receiving that help. Asking for help with things we could easily do ourselves strongly conveys that we cannot do them independently. The logical conclusion by the sighted public is that blindness is severely limiting. The result is that we get pity instead of jobs.
The best way to change society’s misconceptions about blindness is to demonstrate by example. Paint your house yourself. Take the trash out and bring the empty cans back in. Walk to the bus stop and go to a store or out to dinner.
But the truth is that all of us do need help sometimes. If we take a bus to that new Italian restaurant and no Braille menus are available (and if, like me, you don’t own a knfbReader), we need someone to read us the menu. We need someone to tell us what’s at the salad bar and to help us find the restroom. Not every city has taxis, and buses aren’t always running or going where we need to go, so we rely on friends, family, and hired drivers to take us. We need help shopping, particularly when the computer is on the fritz. When a little narration can bring a movie, show, or sporting event to life, some sighted description is valuable.
Somewhere at the center of all this murkiness is the line that divides laziness from reasonable ease. For instance, I can certainly walk by myself through tables at a restaurant, but it’s faster and less disruptive if someone guides me. Being guided saves me from whacking innocent patrons with my cane or hip. Sure, I can Braille an index card and tie a rubber band around it and a can so that I know kidney beans are in it. But it’s so much faster to ask one of my kids to find me a can of beans in the cabinet. Eyes are extremely helpful for locating the television remote or my missing stapler and identifying the denominations of currency. Thank God I have someone to help me find and download songs on iTunes.
So I’m a bit of a hypocrite. On the one hand I can’t stand hearing blind people say that they can’t do this or that when I know they can. The cliché, "Where there’s a will, there’s a way," applies. But in me the impulse for independence usually struggles against practicality. Sure, I can mow the lawn myself, but it’s easier, faster, and probably better done if a sighted person mows it.
As children we are completely dependent on the people rearing us. In our late teens and twenties we become independent, learning to break away from the family and make it on our own. I think it’s important for blind people to achieve independence and to gain confidence. Once one has realized a measure of independence and confidence, it is possible to move toward interdependence. A good example is dealing with mail. I can spend an hour opening and scanning the fifty pages of mail I get every day, or I can have a sighted reader help me go through a week’s mail in twenty minutes.
It seems to me that it comes down to this: we should try to avoid laziness and raise our consciousness. We should shoulder as much as we can carry and ask for help when we can’t pull out the splinter. The ongoing challenge is determining which is which.