The Adventures of Curious Chris

by Christopher A. Weaver

From the Editor: The warning flags begin to fly for many of us when we hear sighted people talk about short-term experiments under sleepshades. The problems are that one can't duplicate for the temporarily blind the impact of knowing that he or she can't shed blindness when it becomes inconvenient. At the same time one can't equip the temporarily blind person with the full range of information and skills that enable blind travelers to move with confidence. The result is that too often these sighted people return to their sighted world convinced more deeply than ever of the difficulties associated with cane travel and profound gratitude that they don't have to face life armed only with a white cane.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and one would do well to remember that some sighted people are genuinely interested in how we do things. They recognize the silliness of many of their colleagues' actions and reactions. They come to us with curiosity and openness, wanting and willing to learn. We should applaud their interest and do what we can to enhance their understanding. They are true colleagues who can do much to assist us in educating the general public about the abilities of blind people.

Chris Weaver is Coordinator of the Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students (MAVIS) Program at New Mexico State University. He participates in several of our NFB listservs. Last August he wrote a post to one of these listservs that impressed me with its honesty and openness. Chris reminds us that folks like him are around us, and we would do well to find them and nurture their curiosity and friendship. This is what Chris said:

Hi All!

My name is Chris Weaver, and I'm a sighted NFB groupie. This message is in response to the thread which started with sighted guides counting stairs and ended with some discussion of the positive and negative impact of the sighted wanting to experience blindness for a while. Yesterday, after having shared this thread with one of my blind colleagues, I proceeded to count out the stairs as we went up them. There are four flights of eleven stairs each. We both got a kick out of the idiocy involved in counting stairs. However, this was the first time I learned exactly how many stairs there were, even though I had traveled over them many times, sometimes using sleepshades.

I have always been curious about the alternative techniques used by blind people in travel and ordinary business. Having grown up in the sighted community, I believed that there was some supernatural force at work whenever blind people got from point A to point B without injuring themselves, a sort of radar, if you will. Reading was, of course, another magical act that only those initiated into the occult art of Braille could accomplish. Mind you, at the time I held these beliefs I did not actually know any blind people.

Then came college. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to hold a serious conversation with a real blind person. Over the course of the next few years it became clear to me that the mystical powers at work in blind people's lives were limited to gaseous notions that I had. Well, there are undoubtedly a few blind kooks and spiritualists about, but I'm sure their magical powers are used only to place the occasional spell on interfering black cats. Nevertheless, I began to understand the concept of alternative techniques. It became clear that all a blind person needed to carry on with everyday life was blindness skills—skills which could be taught and learned by ordinary human beings.

When I started graduate school, I had the privilege of having a very motivated blind person as a math student. She showed me little things about Braille and the Nemeth Code. I took a real interest in the way she did math. Having worked for the Department of Mathematical Sciences for a few years as an undergraduate, I learned that there were computer languages for mathematics which were in some ways like the Nemeth Code. So I got involved in the MAVIS project, which develops conversion software from print math to Nemeth Code. I'll tell you about that project in another posting, though.

In any case, I got to know a lot more blind people as a result of this project. Slowly my curiosity about how blind people travel got the better of me. They say that curiosity killed the cat. I have personally left thousands of dead cats in my wake. I began to ask my blind colleagues how they traveled using their canes. One was so brave as to lend me her extra cane and give me a short orientation and mobility lesson on the way back from the Services for Students with Disabilities office. That just made me even more curious. Could I actually be taught how to get from point A to point B without using sight or magical powers?

I was manning an exhibition booth for our project at the NFB convention in Dallas in 1998. Traffic had slowed for a while, and I needed more Braille paper from the NFB store. As I walked by, my curiosity got the better of me again. Those glistening white, carbon-fiber, NFB-issue rigid canes were calling "Buy Me! Buy Me!" from their neat stacks near the entrance to the exhibit hall. So I went over and got fitted for the longest one they had. I am, as the ultra-politically correct would say, clearancially challenged (too tall for my own safety).

I picked up a pair of sleepshades along with this cane and ten pounds of Braille paper and wandered over to my booth, grinning that evil grin that I get when I am about to set something on fire. Next to my booth was a fellow who was studying to become an O and M teacher. And, since the exhibit was closing, he gave me my first formal lesson in cane travel. I then donned the sleepshades and attempted to find my way back to my room.

It was an embarrassing second attempt. Everybody was passing me, jeering,"Watch out! Some guy who is learning to use a cane is in your way!" Fortunately I had a sighted colleague following me and pointing out helpful landmarks. I managed to arouse his curiosity as well, and we spent the rest of the week, while we were not at the booth, spotting each other in O and M exploration.

Our friends at the convention thought that we were both a little weird. All right, I admit it with pride. But with their guidance, we managed to learn the hotel well enough to get from the exhibit hall to the bars and to our room and back to the bars. When that convention was over, I felt a little richer for the skill that I had acquired. Now the only problem was getting my cane and another that I had picked up for one of my blind colleagues back to New Mexico without getting them broken on the plane.

The slot between the seat and the fuselage turned out to be a very convenient storage space. We arrived home, canes intact. My curiosity did not end at convention, however. Now I had to learn our campus. I thought this would be a piece of cake because I was quite used to navigating it by sight after nearly seven years' experience. What I discovered is that the visual landmarks I use are totally useless to a cane traveler. But with training I learned the cane landmarks for my usual routes. I was hoping that this experience would make me better at giving directions to blind people, but I still cannot tell my left from my right if I am facing someone who wants directions.

My colleagues and I usually do cane travel exercises at night to avoid offending uneducated sighted people. Once someone even asked, "Is that educational or perverse?" The reactions I have gotten from most other sighted people have been much in the same vein. However, I will confess perverse delight with the few times the sighted have tried to help me. Even though it is fairly obvious that I could remove the sleepshades at any time and see as well as they, the good-hearted insisted on helping me by taking my arm and guiding me places to which I was not intending to go. My blind colleagues regularly complain about such circumstances, and I just had to giggle when it happened to me.

As much as I would like to educate such sighted people, I don't think that it is my domain. In fact, I don't claim to understand all of the facets of being blind. I may know travel techniques, but I don't have to depend on them and on the assistance of sighted people who do not understand what kind of directions I need. I don't have to futz about with badly designed technology every time I want to read a book from the library. I also don't have to wait for a month to get math texts. And here's the really embarrassing part: I can't read Braille by touch. There is much I still need to learn. Therefore it is the responsibility of blind people to educate the sighted on issues of blindness.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not pushing every blind person to be the official spokesperson of the blind community. Nor am I encouraging anyone to set up a How-To-Act-Politely-and-Helpfully-When-You-Meet-a-Blind-Person class. I firmly believe, however, that there are a number of other sighted people who are curious about blindness and alternative techniques. One must be aware, though, that most sighted people are not as comfortable with their curiosity as I am. They will really get to know about alternative techniques only if they know a blind person. They may never want to put on sleepshades, but they will learn much if they can have a human-to-human conversation with a blind person who refuses to be anything but himself or herself. I realize that establishing a relationship comfortable enough to do this is rarely feasible. I would not have learned what I have about blindness without the benefit of such contact, though. And I feel sorry for the sighted people who have only the glimpses of blind people that reinforce stereotypes.

I ground my first cane tip off a few months ago. My technique is still a mite heavy-handed, so I'm sure that it was premature. However, that cane tip represents several miles that I successfully traveled under sleepshades. It also represents the time and effort my blind friends and colleagues have spent giving me what understanding I have of the issues of blindness. Finally, it represents their just being friends enough to indulge my cat-killing curiosity.

Thanks, guys!

Chris Weaver, Program Coordinator

Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students (MAVIS)

New Mexico State University