A Life-Changing Experience
by Diana Knox
From the Editor: The following speech was delivered at the 1998 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Maine. It is a moving illustration of the importance of our scholarship program. This is what Diana Knox said:
I was awarded an NFB scholarship at the 1997 convention in New Orleans, and I've been asked to speak to you about my convention experience. My story doesn't begin at convention; it begins when I was a child. My mother had been to see an ophthalmologist and was very upset when she returned home. The ophthalmologist had told her that she would be blind within five years. My parents said that the doctor was a quack. There was talk of second opinions and possibly a malpractice suit. Since I was a child and not fully aware of the implications of such a diagnosis, it was hard for me to understand my parents' reaction. After all, my grandfather was blind; why couldn't my mother be? This was my first exposure to blindness, and fear was the response that stuck with me.
After my mother had been blind for some time, she began to receive services from the Division of Blind Services. I began to observe my mother and her blind colleagues. Those observations, blended with my other stereotypes, formed my opinions of blindness. I knew that one day I would be blind too, and those opinions were the only standard that I had on which to base my expectations for my own life. It was pretty scary.
Last Spring a gentleman from NFB's scholarship committee called to inform me that I was a scholarship winner. I remember thinking that it was no big deal. I was only competing with blind people; what could be the challenge in that? Nonetheless, I was grateful for the money and agreed to attend the NFB convention. Attending that convention was a life-changing experience. I was afforded the opportunity to observe blind people from all different walks of life. I was exposed to the concepts of high expectations and opportunity. I was challenged to rethink my conceptions (and misconceptions) of blindness and to examine the expectations that I held for myself as a blind person.
Leading others to examine their beliefs is a daunting task. A doctor was on the scholarship committee who challenged me with questions like how would a blind doctor diagnose a rash on a patient. Those were tough questions to which I didn't have any earth-shattering answers, but the questions provoked me to think. They opened the door for me to view blindness from a different perspective. Before my convention experience my attitude was that blindness would cause a loss in my life. I had lost my ability to drive and some ability to read, and I was sure that blindness would rob me of the pleasure of my favorite hobbies. I now realize that is not so. What I lacked was the ability to look at things from a different perspective: not being able to drive doesn't mean that you sit home; it means that you take the initiative to find alternate transportation. Reading used to mean looking at words on a page. I had missed the point. What is important is not looking at words on a page but getting the information into your head. Realizing this has brought about a change in attitude. I now have the ability to view myself as a blind person who has a lot to offer to this world.
Certainly a blind person who has a lot to offer the world has high expectations for herself, but what does society expect from a blind person? I thought that I knew the answer: not much. My mother and the friends that she made through Division of Blind Services called themselves "The Blind Club." Not much was expected from these people, and consequently they were not taught skills that would make them self-sufficient.
I was sure that I knew what to expect for myself when it came time for me to be initiated into the club. I thought my productive life would be over. I knew that I would earn my degree, but I never expected that I would have the opportunity to use it or to prove my abilities. I believed that I would lose my independence. I did not realize that blind people could be self-reliant, and it was terrifying to think of living that way. I expected the NFB convention to be an expanded version of the blind club. Instead I found people who have skills, issues, and achievable expectations for themselves. What a change I have made in the expectations that I have for my life! I can have that career. No longer do I believe that my life has to end.
Something that I had not given much consideration to before my convention experience was the role that opportunity plays in bringing our expectations to fruition. Opportunities for blind people: before my convention experience I did not think that there was much to talk about. What I saw at convention changed my mind. At convention I saw people working to bring about opportunity in many ways. People were learning skills and acquiring technology that would permit them to remain independent and effective. I sat through a resolutions committee meeting while they debated legislation and other issues. I sat in a Merchants Division meeting while they discussed the ramifications of the Randolph-Sheppard Act on their businesses. These people were not crying for special treatment. They were working to secure a level playing field for the blind.
We live in an age that offers rehabilitation services and legislation such as the ADA, but even with these policies in place, opportunity is not handed to us. Opportunity is something that we create. Our abilities must be proven. Blind people are not bumbling Mr. Magoos; we are intelligent, competent people who, when given a level playing field, can successfully compete. Attitude, expectation, and opportunity: one key opens all three doors. That key is education.
When I went to the NFB convention, I was searching for answers about my blindness. I hadn't gotten answers from my rehab counselor, and I really didn't expect much from NFB. I was wrong. I learned more about myself as a blind person in one week than I had in all the previous time I had spent dealing with blindness. I learned the importance of educating blind people because we develop the tools to lead happy and fulfilling lives. I also learned that education is imperative if we are going to compete in society. There are so many misconceptions about blindness that it is our responsibility to dispel those old myths. Education is the key to changing society's attitudes and opinions. It is through education that society will change their expectations for blind people. Opportunity will be created when society learns the truth about blind people.
One member of the scholarship committee advised me that, if I would keep an open mind, I would leave convention with much more than scholarship money. She was right. The seeds have been planted. Now I understand about alternate skills and technology. I now have achievable expectations for myself, and I understand that it is our responsibility to educate and work for opportunity. That convention had a major impact on my life, and I think that, if I were to sum it up, I would say that I now know that I am blind, but I am no longer in the dark. The NFB convention was a life-changing event for me, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have attended.