Braille Monitor                                                                  November 1985

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Listen to Your Elders

by Mary Main

(A high point of the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind was the presentation by Mary Main, one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut. Mary is the author of the book Evita: The Woman With the Whip, which is a biography of Eva Peron and which was the source for much of the material for the Broadway musical, "Evita." Who says an individual cannot be resilient and vivacious after eighty?)

When I was a young girl, blindness was something that was to be spoken about like sex, and I grew up knowing absolutely nothing about either. I didn't begin to go blind until I was in my forties, and until then I had been living in Argentina and had had no contact with the blind. Almost the only blind individual I remember from my childhood was an old man who used to stand at the corner of Calle Florida. That 's the fashionable Fifth Avenue of Buenos Aires. He was a distinguished looking, dignified old gentleman--very tall and thin, dressed neatly in a gray suit. His hair was gray, and his face was gray. He held a bunch of pencils in one hand and a tin mug in the other. My mother always paused to take a pencil and drop a few coins into his mug. He thanked her politely, but he never smiled. I averted my eyes from sheer embarrassment. Blindness frightened me. It seemed to me to mean shame, humiliation, poverty, loneliness, misery.

Well, I can tell you, my ideas about blindness have changed considerably since then. But I think that first impression was what made accepting my own blindness so difficult. And there must be many of my generation who have the same impression, because sixty or seventy years ago the blind were far less visible and very much less vocal. In fact, almost the only blind you ever saw were begging on the streets. After I came to live in New York (about the time of Pearl Harbor) I began to have a series of small accidents--oh, like bumping into people in the streets, knocking my wine glass--things like that. So when these continued, I went to see an ophthalmologist, who told me I had Rhetinitis Pigmentosa. But that only my peripheral sight was affected. Rhetinitis Pigmentosa meant nothing to me, but I asked him if it would get worse. And, of course, he told me cheerfully that I would always be able to see well enough to read. That satisfied me. He had mentioned the word blindness, but I don't think the thought of it occurred to me. I had other things on my mind.

I had just published my first novel, and I was contemplating a divorce.

However, failing sight is not something you can ignore for very long, and when it got worse, I thought I'd better prepare for the worst. So I began practicing washing up the dishes and walking down the street with my eyes closed. That was my idea of learning to be blind. And I can tell you the result was disastrous.

My publishers invited me to write a biography of Eva Peron (she was the wife of the Argentine dictator Juan Domingo Peron), and of course at her death she became the heroine of the musical "Evita."

When I returned to Buenos Aires to do the research, I found it was rather a ticklish business. Evita was a very powerful woman, and a very ruthless one. And she did not permit people to inquire into her past--which had been rather a shady one. If the police had discovered what I was doing, I might very well had landed in jail.

That was scary enough, but there was something else that bothered me. My Argentine friends were very helpful and hospitable, but in hot weather they keep their houses shuttered. I had tunnel vision by then, and coming in out of the bright sunlight into a darkened room crowded with people and furniture, I couldn't see. It was a terrifying ordeal. I think I was more afraid of making a fool of myself than I was of the Argentine police.

In fact, I have wondered since if that fear of making a fool of myself was not the greater part of my fear of becoming blind. I would have had no problem if I had told them that I couldn't see. I would have been helped. But I couldn't admit to anyone that there was anything wrong with my sight--even when my friends complained that I cut them dead in the street. Taxi drivers thought I was drunk when I tried to climb into a cab. The people I bumped into in the street yelled at me and told me to look where I was going. I could not admit to anyone that I was going blind. To me, blindness was the humiliation of the sad old man begging at the corner of the street.

I've noticed that some of us who go blind late in life (or later in life) are inclined to blame all our problems on our fading sight; and we rush around looking for some miracle cure, as if better eyesight would relieve our arthritis or restore our youth and beauty. I mention this because recently I had two old friends (one of them older than myself) who have been urged to have eye surgery by their doctors--so that just a little sight may be restored. One, at least, after three operations, has no better eyesight, and his health has been ruined. Of course, you should look for whatever cure there is but not to the detriment of your health. Good health is much more important than good eyesight. We can live very comfortably without the one, but without the other, we're very likely to die.

Like everybody else, I ran around from one ophthalmologist to another looking for a miracle. The doctors were of no help to me. One of them told me that it was dangerous for me to be out on the street alone. But not one suggested that I should use a white cane. Then, one day when I was crossing a street in New York, a cab came around the corner and I walked right into it.

Mind you, the cab didn't run into me. I ran into it. The cabbie couldn't understand what had happened--and still I couldn't explain that there was anything wrong with my sight. However, that convinced me that I should start using a white cane. If only for the sake of the cab drivers in New York. I think one of the most difficult things I ever had to do was to walk down the street for the first time with that white cane. However, it created less of a sensation than I expected, and very soon it gave me a wonderful sense of liberation. I was sailing down the street like royalty, swinging my cane from side to side and using it quite incorrectly. Now, instead of yelling at me the people I collided with apologized and offered to help. All of a sudden everybody was so friendly. It seemed as if the whole world had become my friend. However, that euphoria did not last. I soon realized there was a great deal of pity mixed in that friendliness. Now, pity is a wonderful morale builder for those who offer it. But it's terribly demoralizing for those who are on the receiving end. It's very apt to reduce your independence, and it builds up your resentment.

I didn't become acquainted with the Federation for a long time. I found that one thing similar with blindness and old age was that it can be very boring if you don't do anything about it. I joined the National Federation of the Blind out of sheer boredom! I found that there were a lot of people much more independent than I, and I didn't know what it was all about either.

I would like to say what I have learned as a Federationist. I've learned, for one thing, that we don't have to stand at the street corner with a bunch of pencils in one hand and a tin mug in the other. I think the most important thing that I've learned is that whatever affects other blind people affects me--that when another blind person is denigrated, I too am put down. When another blind person is successful, I too can triumph. Because whether we like it or not, we are like the Colonel's Lady in Judy O'Grady - sisters and brothers under the skin.