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PHOTO/CAPTION: Doug Elliott

Big Enough to Ride the Bike

by Doug Elliott

From the Editor: The thirteenth book in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks designed to educate the public about blindness is titled Wall-to-Wall Thanksgiving. The following piece is the final story in the book. Here it is, beginning with Dr. Jernigan's headnote:

Doug Elliott lives in Iowa—having moved there from Nevada, where he was President of the National Federation of the Blind of Nevada. In the following story he revisits a familiar Kernel Book theme: What, beyond the traditional blindness skills, is required truly to overcome the limitations imposed by blindness? Here is how Doug answers that question:

One of my earliest memories is of my fourth birthday, when my parents gave me a new, shiny red bicycle. The bike was medium-sized, but it was still too big for a four-year-old. My father tried to adapt it by making training wheels for the back wheel and blocks for the pedals so that I could reach them. The training wheels caused me to lean either to the right or left of center, and the pedal blocks would spin instead of remaining steady when I pushed them.

I soon lost interest in trying to learn how to ride my new bike. My father removed all the adaptive equipment and told me I could learn how to ride when I was big enough. When I would see other kids riding their bikes, the image of the shiny red bike would haunt me, and soon I was pushing it alongside a rock wall by our house so that I could get on the wall and mount the bike, then push off from the wall. I was determined to be big enough to ride the bike.

At first I would coast just a little and then fall off in the grass. I continued this process, and each time I was going further and further before a crash would occur. Nobody in the neighborhood—parents or other kids—thought this trial-and-error way of learning was unusual or bad or stupid. Bike riding is a skill that everyone has to learn by making mistakes and falling off. And sometimes you have to grow into it. You have to be big enough to ride the bike. It was frightening to me at first, but I didn't get hurt, and I did learn to ride before I was five.

When I was twenty-one I went to Vietnam, where I lost my sight due to a mine explosion. I thought I would never walk downtown by myself again, be able to get a well-paying job, or be able to go out and have fun as I used to do—in short, that I would never be big enough to ride the bike.

I received what is called rehabilitation—training courses in using a white cane and reading Braille and instruction in typing, cooking, and the use of power tools—skills we need as blind people to live independently. I technically learned these skills in the same way I was technically riding my bike when I coasted a few feet on the grass. But, when I completed my training, I knew that something was missing. I was still just coasting, not really using the skills.

I now know that I was not limited by the fact that I could not see; I was limited by my lack of belief in my own capabilities, my belief that I wasn't big enough to ride the bike. And, of course, I thought other blind people were just as limited as I was. I wouldn't have admitted this; I just knew it inside myself.

When I returned home with my new skills, I found that, unlike the experience of learning to ride a bike, the people around me did not believe that the skill of using a white cane should be practiced and perfected. They did not think it would ever be safe for me to walk around freely with a white cane. Neither did I. I was just coasting, not big enough to ride the bike.

My old boss at Sears would not hire me to do the same appliance-repair job I had held before going to Vietnam. He said I couldn't do the job because I couldn't drive to homes where repairs were needed. But he wouldn't hire me to repair appliances in the shop either.

He knew I could do the work, but he didn't think I could get around the shop safely. He hired me back, but the only job he offered was sitting in a chair all day selling soap and maintenance agreements over the phone. I did this for a little while, but I felt my skills and talents were not being challenged, that I was not really riding the bike.

So I quit.

I knew I was missing something—skills, training, challenges, something. I applied for admission to college and was accepted under probation because they didn't think I could ride the bike. I did the work successfully, earning my bachelor's degree and then master's degree in social work and have worked for the past two decades as a licensed clinical social worker. But, for about half that time, I knew something was missing.

Twenty years after I lost my sight, a member of the National Federation of the Blind invited me to a Federation meeting. I agreed to go but said I was probably not interested because, after all, what could a bunch of blind people offer me? But I went. Afterward, I said to myself, "This is what I have been missing." These people believe in themselves. They are big enough to ride the bike. The Federation message to blind people is that, yes, you will make mistakes and need to practice when learning blindness skills just like everyone practices riding a bike, but that is no reason to stop trying to learn.

When I finally got the Federation message, I started using my cane on a regular basis, started to practice my Braille skills, and started to see myself as a capable human being again.

I now know that, before I met the Federation, I was really going through life thinking that sight was the only way to do things. The Federation provided the missing piece—the strong belief that there are other ways than with sight to do things safely and efficiently. If you have sight, that's the easiest way. If you don't, there are other ways.

This simple but vital perspective straightened out lots of puzzles for me and gave me the confidence that merely learning a skill could not. After joining the Federation, I started practicing cane use and Braille reading with a new view—these work for other people, and I can make them work for me.

I recently got married and moved to a small town in Iowa where my wife has lived for some time. My wife has been in the NFB for a long time and has set the norm in this town that the blind aren't helpless and can learn with some assistance.

One cold and snowy winter night shortly after I arrived here, I got lost—completely turned around. Cars passed back and forth, but no one stopped to ask if I was okay or to offer assistance as they would have done where I lived before. And I had no idea how to get home. So I walked out into the street and waved down a car to ask where Broad Street was.

The driver turned out to be the owner of the jewelry store in town where my wife had purchased my wedding ring. He didn't get out of his car or offer a ride home as I expected. Instead he told me to go one block behind me and turn left—that was Broad Street. I thanked him and left.

The next day my wife stopped at the jewelry store. The owner told her that I had waved him down the night before when I was lost. He said to her that I would have to work on finding my way around here and that he knew he shouldn't give me a ride but rather should give me information, because I would learn faster that way.

With support for each other and the understanding of our sighted friends like the jewelry store owner, we can go beyond coasting, beyond mere skills—to walking outside and going where we want. It's really as easy as that.

I learned it when I was four pushing off of the wall to get my bicycle started. I learned it again on the battlefields of Vietnam. And I learned it once more when I got home and began dealing with blindness. Maybe all of us have to learn it over and over throughout our lives. The problems may seem to be too hard to solve, but if we work at it with determination and if we believe in ourselves and in the innate goodness of the people around us, we will be big enough to ride the bike.