Mary Ellen Gabias
Role Models in Reverse?
by Mary Ellen Gabias
From the Editor: The following article is reprinted from the Canadian Monitor, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality. Before her marriage to Dr. Paul Gabias, Mary Ellen Reihing Gabias was a leader in several state affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind. She grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and was my roommate at my very first NFB of Ohio convention.
She is obviously and understandably proud of her father's adjustment to blindness, but part of the explanation is undoubtedly the grounding he has had through the years working with and observing Mary Ellen. Nonetheless, with the increasing incidence of blindness among today's senior citizens, we must all do what we can to help those losing sight in their later years come to healthy terms with their new disabilities and their continuing abilities. Ken Reihing is an example and an inspiration for all seniors. This is what his daughter says about him:
I'm proud of my dad. I've wanted him to write his story for a long time, but he's never thought what he does is anything to brag about. I think it is. When I was born blind, Mom and Dad were quite naturally upset. They wondered what kind of life I could have. Fortunately for me, Dad worked with a blinded veteran. The man was very capable; he did the dispatching for the military base in our city. He later went on to get a university degree. After facing much discrimination in his search for employment, he finally found work as a rehabilitation counselor.
From his example Dad knew that blind people could be productive. Dad and Mom were determined that I would be. Our extended family wasn't so sure. For the first several months of my life my maternal grandparents cried whenever they saw me. Grandpa used to ask, "What is she going to do--stand on a street corner and sell pencils?" After six months of this Dad had had enough! He told my grandparents in no uncertain terms that they would not see our family again until they stopped their negativity. (By the time he died, Grandpa was asking me where I planned to go to college. I am convinced that my Dad's firmness was the beginning of Grandpa's change in attitude.)
Dad didn't have many answers about how to raise a blind child, but he had a few general principles to guide him. He knew he wouldn't always be there to take care of me, so he expected me to learn to take care of myself. Above all he hated pity. He would challenge anyone who felt sorry for me. Strangers often glared at him when he stood by while I struggled to learn something new on the playground. He often had to intervene to keep them, in their pitying zeal to help, from depriving me of the opportunity to gain new skills. Dad was quick to give praise when he felt it was deserved. I always knew he was proud of my genuine accomplishments. But he had no patience with people who praised me to the skies for poor work.
In high school I entered a contest which required me to make a sales presentation in front of a panel of judges. They graded my presentation and wrote comments to help improve my technique. Dad earned his living selling auto parts, so he took a keen interest in my progress. All but one of the judges gave me the mediocre scores I deserved. Their comments were both critical and helpful. One judge gave me a nearly perfect score and commented on how kind I was. Dad said, "That judge graded you out of pity, but he would never hire you to sell anything."
The local agency for the blind oozed pity and low expectations. Dad, along with other parents of blind children, took the chairman of the agency's board to task when his company newsletter contained a tear-jerking article about the agency and blind children. "Blind people need understanding, not pity," Dad said to anyone who would listen and to quite a few people who wouldn't.
Dad managed a warehouse and sales outlet for a company which rebuilt auto water pumps. A large part of his job involved selling and delivering pumps to garages and auto parts stores. At least half of his time was spent behind the wheel of the company truck. When Dad was about fifty-five, he learned during a routine eye exam that he had glaucoma. A few years after that a botched lens implant during cataract surgery left him legally blind in one eye. He was grateful that he could still drive and noted the development of a second cataract with deep anxiety.
After the second surgery things looked pretty good. His corrected vision was 20/40. But his field of vision was narrowing, and he found it difficult to adjust to changes in lighting. One evening at dusk he was driving home when he nearly collided with a boy on a bicycle. He walked into the house, hung his keys on their hook, and never drove again. Mom helped with the driving on the job when she could. But it was clear that there were no alternative techniques which could replace Dad's presence when it came to making sales.
He was still trying to find an efficient way to get his work done when the factory that rebuilt the pumps Dad sold went out of business. Dad was in his early sixties and out of a job. It didn't take long for my dad to turn a predicament into an opportunity. He had a friend who was one of the chief investors in a new business warehouse complex and wanted to be sure the place was well managed. Dad's reputation for hard work and honesty made him a logical candidate for the job. Though he had never been a building manager before, he didn't let his age stop him. He oversaw the final construction details, rented the units in the complex, and made sure the necessary maintenance was done. His boss didn't think Dad's continually diminishing eyesight was anything to worry about. He told Dad, "I hired you for who you are and what you know, not for what you can see."
Dad was glad to be employed, but he was getting bored. Unlike the auto parts business, where it was often difficult to find a free moment to wolf down lunch, the life of a business complex manager could be downright leisurely. If there were no units available to be rented and if the maintenance work was all done, Dad had time on his hands. He did a lot of reading using recorded books. He struck up friendships with complex tenants. But his honesty and his work ethic kept gnawing at him. He was expected to put in full time at a job which could easily be done in a few hours a week. The boss was more than happy with his work, but Dad resigned. He told me, "I want to work if I'm going to have a job. If I'm going to be sitting around, I might as well do that at home, where I'm comfortable." Dad was sixty-two and legally blind. He applied for early Social Security retirement. This meant he would get reduced benefits for the rest of his life.
By this time I was an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. I had learned enough about the Social Security law through my work in the Federation to know that Dad had made an error. I talked him into going back to Social Security with his medical records and reapplying for disability insurance benefits based on blindness. The national office of the Federation helped with information and advice. Dad's reapplication resulted in the payment of back benefits and in a monthly increase which will last for the rest of his life.
It also resulted in a referral to vocational rehabilitation. When the counselor came to visit, Dad was not in the house. He was in a shed in our back yard doing woodworking. Before too long he had convinced the counselor to help him establish a home business making novelty and gift items out of wood. Dad would design the items, cut out the pieces, assemble them, and sand and stain the finished product. Occasionally, if the item called for artistic detail work, Mom would pick up her paint brush and help. (Even when he could see, Dad painted the walls and Mom painted the pictures.) The business didn't make much money, but it gave Dad an outlet for his creativity, and it kept his confidence up. He needed all the confidence he could get. Every month he lost more and more vision. He could no longer see a regular deck of playing cards. Bright sunshine blinded him completely. Small tasks, like plugging in an electrical cord, were impossible to do efficiently using vision.
One day Dad decided his vision was not good enough for travelling safely when the sun was very bright. He asked me to show him how to use a white cane. After a five-minute introduction to cane travel, he was on his own. Though his technique in those early days could best be called "poke and hope," it made getting around safer and more comfortable. Later he attended a veteran's rehabilitation center where his technique was refined. But the positive spirit which made him willing to get out and travel was there from the beginning. He never sat around helplessly waiting for formal lessons.
Dad's responsibilities increased when my mother's health began to fail. He took over the cooking and much of the housework and discovered that he had a talent for cooking--especially cooking for large groups. He was frequently asked to cook for dinners at his war veterans' post. Often this meant preparing meals for two hundred people. Mom's illness became critical in 1992. The doctors diagnosed congestive heart failure, lung disease, and cancer. After three months in a convalescent care centre, she came home, and Dad cared for her until she died. The family helped a lot; hospice did wonderful work; but the main responsibility was Dad's. At sixty-eight he was the single, widowed occupant of a four-bedroom home located more than a mile from the nearest grocery store.
For more than a year Dad depended on family and friends to drive him to church, to the store, and to most other events. Then he sold the family home and moved into an apartment within walking distance of a store, a veterans' post and a good bus line. He explained the reason for his move to me: "I hate being dependent on other people all the time!" Sometimes Dad gets frustrated with his blindness, but self-pity has never been his style. Besides, he's been preaching about the abilities of blind people for so long that he has no choice but to act independently. If he starts to say, "I can't do that because I'm blind," one of my brothers tells him, "You never let Sis get away with that." Sometimes, when he's faced with a particularly difficult challenge, Dad calls me and says, "It's all your fault! You got me into this."
Dad was fortunate to have a second love in his life. He began seeing a woman who had been a close friend of the family for years. They were inseparable until last fall when she became ill and died. Once again Dad had to adjust to being on his own. This summer Dad achieved a lifelong dream. He travelled the Alaska Highway from Fairbanks to White Horse. It's true that he had to change his technique. Instead of driving the highway himself, he took a bus tour. Because of Barbara's death, he travelled alone to Alaska and met the tour in Fairbanks. When he needed help, he asked for it. When others needed help, he gave it. He returned with great memories and stories to tell.
Dad is seventy-five now, and his health is far from perfect. I phoned last week to see how he was doing. The social calendar he recited left me dizzy. I told Dad I wanted to write about him because so many people think becoming blind as a senior means being doomed to a bleak life. I thought his story might encourage someone else. He told me to go ahead, and he'd correct me if I got it wrong. "You forgot to say that I'm not doing woodworking any more now that your brother's moved and I don't have a convenient place to keep my tools. Other than that, you've got the details right. You've always been the one who likes to write. Maybe I'll write a little bit of the family history when I get back from the rehabilitation center. Oh, by the way, did I tell you I'm going there to learn the computer?"