Doing What's Necessary
by Stephen O. Benson
From the Editor: Sighted people are often curious about the simple modifications that blind people make in order to get on with ordinary life. Mostly they are not ingenious or complex. The simpler the better is a good rule to follow, and blind youngsters are particularly clever at applying the principle to their play.
Steve Benson, President of the NFB of Illinois and Member of the NFB Board of Directors, has struck up a friendship with one of his fellow commuters into downtown Chicago. He has passed along Kernel Books, which have been well received, but the woman recently expressed eagerness to know how Steve has developed the little tricks that he uses every day. Steve began thinking back to childhood and the modifications he and his friends made that enabled him to join in neighborhood games. The following article was the result. Here it is:
The Hawthorn was a fine old gray-stone, twelve-flat building in Chicago's Lincoln Park area across the street from De Paul University. It boasted polished, dark hardwood millwork; oak parquet floors; and formal marble entrances. Sometime in the 1920's it was converted to a fifty-nine-unit rooming house. It was there that my mother and I settled in 1943; I was just a year and a half old.
Two significant things occurred at about that time: doctors at Children's Memorial Hospital determined that I had retinitis pigmentosa, and my mother became manager of the Hawthorn. Since we lived where my mother worked, she was able to guide and mold her young son in ways she could not have otherwise. The Hawthorn and its inhabitants had much to do with who I have become.
When I entered first grade, I was unable to read standard print. So school officials placed me in what were then called "sight-saving classes." I did not and could not fully understand the implications of that placement. I could not identify facial features. I could not follow the flight of a batted or thrown ball. I could not see a bird in a tree. I had no idea what blindness was. At some point the notion of blindness was raised, but I did not regard myself as blind, for I could see. Somewhere along the line it was suggested that I was "half-blind," and that seemed okay.
As I moved from second to third to fourth grade, my visual acuity diminished while the print I was expected to read became smaller. Reading became more and more difficult. I have very distinct memories of sitting at my desk, staring out the window, trying to puzzle out the print figures on the page in front of me. It was like reading gray print on gray paper. My teacher printed my math problems in large figures in India ink, and still I struggled. That was the middle of fourth grade, and it was another year before I was transferred to a school where I could learn to read and write Braille.
The prevailing theory then was that vision should be used until it was absolutely necessary to learn Braille. That theory was based on age-old misconceptions about blindness, and to a disturbing degree that misguided theory persists today. Inevitably those beliefs colored my attitude toward my loss of vision.
For all practical purposes my formal education began when I reached the second half of fifth grade. Until that time I had never read a book from the library; I couldn't. I began learning Braille in September of 1952. By January of 1953 I was able to read a biography of Andrew Jackson. It was not easy. Many of the bad reading habits I had developed as I tried to read print carried over to Braille. In fact, some of those bad reading habits stayed with me well into adulthood.
Although school work was difficult for me, I mastered a variety of other skills at home with enthusiasm. Nick and I met in the backyard of the Hawthorn when we were about three years old. Both of us lived in single-parent households with no siblings, so we bonded like brothers. Though I was legally blind, neither of us had any idea that my limited vision should make a difference. Nick and I learned what my sight would and would not allow me to do. We invented alternative techniques or devices that enabled me to participate in virtually every childhood activity. Nobody instructed us in the design of devices or techniques; we just did what had to be done.
The Hawthorn was loaded with kids. The backyard was thirty feet wide and about a hundred feet long, all cement. It was like a Hollywood stage set, ever changing. One day railroad tracks were drawn with chalk, complete with switches and crossovers. Our wagons and tricycles traversed the cross-country paths until it rained or until we tired of it; then the yard became something else: a baseball diamond, a football gridiron, a site for statue maker or red light green light, and more. I participated in all of these activities. We organized teams and devised alternative ways for me to play ball. I was fully involved.
At about the time Nick and I were ten, we met Tom, who lived in the building next door. Nick, Tom, and I joined other kids in the neighborhood in softball, touch football, basketball, and track events. In each of these sports the alternatives we developed worked for me and for the rest of the kids. In softball (using the sixteen-inch ball that is common to the Chicago area), I was usually the pitcher. The catcher would position himself behind home plate, clap his hands, and receive my deliveries. When the pitches were too far out of the strike zone, he would tell me the location so that I could make a correction. My objective was to hit the corners so that the batter would be less likely to drive the ball up the middle since I could not field a line drive in the conventional manner. I also tried to keep the ball low so the batter would hit the ball into the ground.
Batting presented a different set of challenges. I could not hit a pitched ball with any consistency, so I balanced the ball on the finger tips of my left hand and swung the bat with my right. I became surprisingly skilled at hitting the ball, and I had the advantage of being able to place my hits pretty accurately. But I must admit that I did strike myself out on occasion, to almost everybody's delight. It was always challenging, and we had great fun.
The alternatives we devised for softball were typical of what we did for all sports. The modifications were really minimal. I played; I prevailed; I experienced ignominious defeat; but I competed and am richer for having done so.
Nick and Tom were extraordinary guys. They were imaginative, patient, and willing to learn along with me. I guess the only thing they eventually balked at was allowing me to work on their cars. They were adamant that they didn't want me to hurt my hands. I was never able to persuade them to change their minds. I suppose that by then we had begun to accumulate the caution of adulthood.
Arts and crafts were a way of life for my mother. She got me involved in puppetry when I was about six. By the time I was nine years old, I was performing before audiences of up to 300. Later I performed as a part-time professional puppeteer for seventeen years and was a charter member of the Chicagoland Puppetry Guild. Mother organized talent shows in which the kids in the building and the surrounding neighborhood participated. We kids were involved in every aspect of the productions, from printing and selling tickets to painting sets to setting up a hundred or so chairs for the audience. I remember thinking about the shows that this was not fun, but in retrospect those performances had tremendous value for all of us, especially for a blind kid. We learned something about team work and collective effort.
When I was about seven years old, my mother began to require me to do certain chores around the Hawthorn. I installed rolls of toilet paper, carried messages to the tenants, and counted linen and towels. As I grew older and taller, I changed light bulbs, took telephone messages which I typed, shoveled snow, and cleaned the yard and basement. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I collected rent, recorded payment, and issued receipts. When I was sixteen, the building's owner paid me the staggering sum of $50 a month for my toil. It was my first paying job.
At nine years of age several of my friends and I joined a local Cub Scout pack. I was expected to participate in all of the pack projects, including weaving a reed basket and making plaster casts of animal heads. My lion's head turned out to be an astonishing shade of purple.
At eleven I joined Boy Scout Troop 300. All the boys and scoutmaster were blind. That was my first contact with a blind adult. We were expected to fulfill all of the requirements for promotion; there were no exceptions. We made a crystal set radio and a one-tube radio, and they had to work. We erected tents and cooked on fires we had to build. We learned to swim, and we competed in aquatic events at Boy Scout camp. Scouting, puppetry, and the backyard talent shows helped me build confidence.
My mother taught me how to use the public transit system in Chicago. She understood the necessity for a blind person to master its use, so I learned which busses and trains went where. During the summer of 1956 I began learning to travel independently with a forty-six-inch white cane. My travel teacher was blind. As a high school freshman I was required to get to and from school on public transportation. Mastery of independent travel skills and good judgment were essential. These skills have enabled me to travel confidently to thirty-four states for business and pleasure.
As I reflect on my childhood, it is difficult for me to imagine that I missed much. Had it not been for my extraordinarily talented mother, who had the sense to let me grow and learn, and had it not been for Nick and Tom, who were not for the most part afraid of blindness, growing up would surely have been different. Nick, Tom, and I are still friends. Our lives bear the scars of experience, but we often recall the many events of childhood that inspire a smile, a chuckle, or a back-slapping laugh.