WHERE AM I?

by Peggy Pinder

Peggy Pinder is no stranger to readers of previous Kernel Books. Here she tells of experiences she had as a teenager—experiences which laid the foundation for her career as a successful blind lawyer.

I am a lawyer, living in Iowa with a Yale Law School degree, five years of prosecutorial experience behind me, and a private practice. I am also blind.

In the course of my practice, I have appeared in courts in states other than my own. When this is done, the out-of-town lawyer needs to have a local lawyer to help with local procedures. I was representing a blind woman several years ago in a case in a different state. As we had worked things out between us, I was serving as "lead counsel," and he was "second chair." As the terms imply, the lead counsel sits in the first chair nearest to the judge.

When we walked into the courtroom, I happened to be in front of Allan, the local person when we reached the bar. I walked through the gate first, around the table to the plaintiff's side, and up to the first chair. Allan followed and stood behind the second chair. I could tell he was bemused by something as he made the introductions, but I didn't learn until later just what had happened.

As I came around the table and stopped behind the first chair, the judge nearly fell off the bench, motioning to Allan to enforce usual courtroom procedure. It never occurred to the judge that I might be a lawyer. He knew the plaintiff was a blind woman, and he thought that I was the plaintiff. He thought I did not know where I was or where I was going and that I was inadvertently breaking courtroom etiquette which dictates that the plaintiff sit in the seat farthest from the judge. He hoped to remedy the situation by silent hand and facial motions between himself and my "lawyer" so that court could proceed with everyone in their proper places. Without ever indicating to the judge that he understood the signals, Allan as a good local lawyer quickly and efficiently made introductions, identifying me as lead counsel. He also mentioned that the plaintiff (as is permissible) was not there for argument on the motion. The judge subsided.

I just wish the judge had spoken directly to me and straightened out the misunderstanding with me instead of attempting to do it silently and without my knowledge. I think I would have felt better about it if he had. But, I also would have understood very well how he reached the conclusion that I did not know where I was. I thought the same thing for years.

When I first lost my sight, I was suddenly the only blind person I knew. There were no role models of successful, capable blind persons in my life. I only knew what I thought blind people could do: not much. I thought that college would be impossible for me now, that a job was out of the question, that these considerations were far too abstract to worry about because I now had a much bigger problem on my hands: How would I know where I was if I was blind?

I had always known where I was with visual cuesūstreet signs, the appearance of buildings, store names above the doors, tables and chair in a room. Now, as a blind person, none of this was available to me. How would I know where I was? The best way to handle this problem was never to go anywhere. So, I mostly didn't. My family urged me to get out and do things like everybody else. I did every now and then, just to please them. But, I didn't like it, and I did as little as I could. I didn't have any skills in getting information as a blind person, and I didn't have any way of finding any. I didn't know any other blind people who did get around on their own. I figured it couldn't be done.

And, when my family insisted that a blind person can do things, I would say to myself: "Yeah, sure. That's easy for you to say. But, you don't have to do it and feel stupid and clumsy and not know where you are. You have your sight. That makes all the difference." I knew they meant well, but they couldn't teach me the skills. They didn't know them, and they didn't use them. All this occurred during high school, a hard time anyway for people to live through. My adolescence completely disappeared behind a wall of lack of confidence and certainty of failure. You put up a brave front and say words like independence and employment, but you just don't believe it.

Then, I found other blind people. It was quite by accident, and I am still grateful for that turn of fate. I encountered a blind person walking normally, setting his own course, deciding where he was going, and knowing where he was. We didn't speak. I just observed as he passed by. And, from that observation, I was sure that he knew where he was, not only in the building we were in, but in his life as well. I wanted to be able to do that. I found out where he had learned to move about so confidently. There was a training program, run by blind people with blind people as teachers. But, that wasn't all. They were self-confident, successful, good at getting around. They knew where they were, and they were willing to teach me the skills. I was initially hesitant. Then I jumped in with both feet.

My sister has recently told me a story from that era. I don't remember this at all; it is a very clear childhood memory of hers. She is my baby sister, the one born eight years after me for whom I was the attentive big sister. When I lost my sight, it didn't matter to her. I was still her big sister, the one who had always taken care of her.

My sister and my mom came to visit me, she says, when I had been at the training program only a few weeks. While Mom talked with the teachers, I grandly announced that Martha and I were going for a walk. We come from a town of 8,000, and the program was in a town of 250,000. Lots of noise, lots of traffic, lots of ways to get hurt if you don't know what you are doing or where you are. My sister says that she remembers very clearly that my mom didn't hesitate. If I said I could take Martha for a walk, then Mom believed that I could. Martha, of course, never questioned whether I could. I was the big sister who had always taken care of her. As I say, I remember none of this. Martha says now that the idea of our going for a walk must have been more than a simple matter to Mom. Here was her blind daughter, barely into the training program, planning to take the eight-year-old baby of the family out into the streets of a big city. But, Martha says that Mom didn't hesitate. We left.

I promptly got lost. Martha says that, as we walked (always safely on the sidewalk and crossing with the lights, of course), it slowly dawned on her that I didn't know where we were. But, she says that this didn't bother her since she knew her big sister would figure out what needed to be done. Martha says that I started asking her what she saw and when I got vague answers, would insist on her being precise about the location and angle from us that the objects were. As I got some more information, I figured out where we were and how to return to Mom. Martha says that, looking back, she does not remember any sense of worry or panic. She knew I would take care of her.

As I practiced under the guidance of fellow blind people to learn new ways of gathering information and using it to travel about safely and efficiently, the incidents of my not knowing where I was grew fewer and fewer. This was because my skill and my confidence were both being increased under practice and with the guidance of experienced blind persons. I was learning to know where I was.

The other thing that happened was that, when I did lose track of where I was, I learned how to find my way again. Using information as I was being taught by other blind people, I was learning what my little sister already knewūthat I could find my way even when I had temporarily lost it. In fact, the final test in my training was for the teacher to get me deliberately disoriented and then to drop me off several miles from the training center. Using my own common sense and my developing skills, I had to find my way back. I did. That was the final proof to me that, even when I didn't know where I was, I could find out.

My family believed in me and encouraged me. But, they didn't know the skills and they couldn't be role models and they could always be dismissed by me as "not really understanding." But, other blind people, doing what I thought I couldn't, had taught me by their example, by their explicit instruction, by their generosity, that I could know where I am, both geographically and in the shaping of my own life. The lesson of learning to travel safely and efficiently, while it was vital in itself, spilled over to the rest of my view of myself. I found that self-confidence in myself that I had once so envied in that other self-confident blind person as he walked by.

My blind teachers, my blind friends, my blind colleagues all learned their self-confidence through the National Federation of the Blind, and I have learned also that the Federation is vital to my life. Not only did the Federation through its thousands of members around the country teach me how to believe in myself. The Federation also taught me something more.

It doesn't have to be like it was for me. If blind children can be reached, if their parents can be reached, if persons who lose their sight can be reached at an early point with the same message and the same examples and the same opportunities to learn where they are, then these blind men and women, boys and girls can learn right away what it took me so very long to learn: that, as a blind person, you can know where you are and you can know where you are going and you can make those decisions for yourself. That is my hope for the Federation, that we can reach the blind people and all the sighted citizens as well with our message. My little sister had it right all along. It took me a little longer to get there. The judge hasn't quite figured it out yet. But, if we in the Federation keep spreading the message, he will. Where am I? In the National Federation of the Blind and grateful to be there, grateful for the chance I received from Federation members and grateful for the chance to pass it on to others.