by Samantha Flax
From the Editor: Samantha Flax is the fourteen-year-old daughter of longtime Federationist Christine Grassman, a past winner of an NFB scholarship. She is a remarkably articulate and self-confident high school student with great attitudes about blindness and a Federationist’s determination to identify problems and then do her best to solve them. Here is a what-I-did-last-summer essay that you will not soon forget:
Not many programs for blind children and teens exist in New York state, and most of them are inadequate. For years my parents had heard wonderful things about the Columbia Program, staffed by New York Commission for the Blind counselors and young visually impaired friends and employees. It is commonly known as the best program in the state. Sadly, it probably is.
When I began the program this past summer, I didn’t know what to expect. I was pretty sure it would improve my city travel skills. I have often been told that I have good independent travel skills. I had been the youngest student receiving services from the Nassau County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). I learned to walk home alone from school at the age of eleven. I was used to Long Island streets and public transportation. I had spent time in the boroughs before but not enough to say I was an experienced city traveler. Though I think I know the layout of the city better after completing this summer program, I believe that on the whole my independent mobility skills suffered because of the way I was treated at Columbia.
At first the question was, “Do you need a guide?” This didn’t bother me too much because everyone was asked it and I suppose that, since it was the first night, it sort of made sense. No, what bothered me was that, when the students who didn’t use canes said no, the counselors accepted that, no, they didn’t need to grab an elbow. However, being a cane user meant that the counselors asked six times or more and did not take no for an answer. After the third day it was, “Hi, Sam, I’ll be your guide.”
“Didn’t you hear me say I didn’t need a guide?” went through my head, but I didn’t say anything. I knew it was useless.
I began to have thoughts that I knew were disgusting and ridiculous. I couldn’t believe I was thinking such stupid stuff. “What if they’re right?” “What if my skills aren’t good enough?” “What if the partially sighted people will always travel better than I?” “I miss Colorado! I miss my sleepshades!” (At the Colorado Center for the Blind all students had to wear sleepshades even if they had only light perception. Everyone had to use a cane, learn Braille, and learn to use all cooking equipment with no vision. If you were caught using a sighted guide, even if one totally blind student was guiding another one, you were chastised. It was great.) These thoughts haunted me. Why was I allowing myself to lose the confidence I had had for years, that my totally blind, independent mom had instilled in me? Who were these people to take my confidence away? So I did what I always do. I told someone in an attempt to change the status quo.
One of our classes was called social work. We talked about stuff—anything. I can not disclose most of the subjects because I respect the confidentiality of the other attendees. I will tell you, however, that I explained my feelings about the fact that the cane users had to be guided everywhere. My mom had urged me to do this earlier, but I was too nervous. The teacher’s understanding of my point made the situation a little better. After that discussion, sometimes I was allowed to walk with directions from someone walking right next to me. I accepted this compromise because I have learned that you can’t change opinions overnight.
However, the contest of wills wasn’t over yet. Two battles took place during the last week—clashes happened more often, but these two instances bothered me the most. Every morning the counselors asked the people with sight to help the people without sight. Then they did it again in the afternoon.
On the final Tuesday, when we were getting ready to leave the Lighthouse for Coney Island, there weren’t enough guides for all the cane users. My partially sighted friend was asked to help guide another boy to the subway station. Believing he was a competent traveler, the boy said, “Am I really that helpless?”
The response he got was, “No, you are definitely not helpless. You can do it yourself; it’s just in case.” Anger built inside me. Just in case what? Just in case you lowered our confidence? Well, I’m not letting you lower mine! I will not be scared anymore. Previously I had begun to feel scared to walk alone in case I made a mistake, for fear they would use the error as an excuse for forcing guides on me. I knew that everyone makes mistakes, but, if you have the right attitude, you learn from your mistakes—not so you will seek help the next time, but so you will refine your skills or pay more attention. To add insult to injury, when representatives from the Mass Transit Authority came to speak with us, they said, “If you have no sight, you should travel to a new station with sighted assistance before going on your own.” So every time a totally blind person has an interview, a date, a meeting, or some other activity that requires traveling to a new subway station, she or he should cancel the plans if a sighted person is not available? The MTA people have been talking to Columbia Program students for years, yet no one on the staff has told them that this statement and attitude are wrong? These are the people who are supposed to be preparing us for jobs, college, and the responsibilities of adulthood!
Two days later, on the last night, the same thing happened to me. My emotions were running high. I was happy that I was going home the next day, and I was sad to be leaving the wonderful friends I had made. We were just about to go to dinner. Again they did not have enough guides to go around; I was asked to go with the friend who had been asked to guide the other boy two nights before. A few of my friends and I protested, saying I was fine walking independently. The head counselor persisted, so I just went with it. I got very upset and took it out on my friend, for which I apologized later. It was by no means his fault. He had to do what he was told.
I told a counselor about my feelings—that I hated using guides all the time, that I felt that my confidence was being lowered, and, most important, that the totally blind teens were treated differently from the partially sighted ones. Sure, they were nice to all of us; they didn’t talk down to us; but some of the counselors and volunteers treated the partially sighted teens with more respect, gave them more independence, and expected them to help them guide totally blind teens. The counselor responded, “Don’t let anyone lower your self-confidence.” Why weren’t all the counselors like that one? I decided then and there that I would do something about it.
Despite what I have said above, the program was not all bad. Many people (mostly the partially sighted ones) loved it. I made wonderful friends, and we went on fun activities. I have great memories of good food and terrific nights around the city. Of great times staying up too late with the girls in my suite. An amazing new friend, Angela, commented that these were “memories I will always hold dear.” Another friend, Whitney, says, “The program is extremely enjoyable, but how much you enjoy the program depends on two things: the other kids in the program (because you're surrounded by them twenty-four hours a day, five days a week) and how willing you are to try new stuff (the counselors usually have awesome stuff planned, and, if you decide not to go to those events, you're just wasting your time and money).” So the Columbia Program definitely has merit and is enjoyable. The people are fun and sweet. But it can be really hard if you’re a cane user.
On the Sunday before the last week, my parents asked me if I thought it would be a worthwhile program for my brother to attend once he is in high school. My response was as follows: “He’ll have fun, he’ll make great friends, but it will not teach him many blindness skills. It will not help his confidence as a totally blind person. If he had vision, it would do all those things. If I were you, I would send him to the Colorado Center summer program first.” My mother and stepfather, who is legally blind, were disappointed in my assessment of the program about which they had heard so many wonderful things.
My intentions for writing this were not to attack anyone. The Columbia Program is a good program, and Marie Bramlett runs it very well, but, because it is the best program in the state, it needs to be improved. People’s expectations of totally blind students must be raised. I learned a lot from this program: I learned how to act professionally at an interview and how to write a résumé, and I learned that people have to speak up and improve services and attitudes for totally blind children and teens. I hope that, when it is time for my brother Braden to attend the program, the shortcomings I endured no longer spoil the experience for those who are totally blind.