by Olegario Cantos

One of the best things about the scholarship program of the National Federation of the Blind is that in recent years we have been able to bring the young people who win scholarships to our National Convention.

Often it's the first time they have ever met successful blind adults, and the week-long experience can reverse a lifetime of fear. Olegario Cantos won a scholarship and attended the National Convention, and, as is so often the case, it changed his life. Here is how he tells it:

I was born two months prematurely. As a result I had no vision in my left eye and partial vision in my right. Since I did have a tiny bit of vision, all emphasis in my life in everything I did was placed on the use of that vision, and my attitudes were shaped accordingly.

I remember as a child what I thought about blindness. At first I did not know what blindness was. Then, as I grew older, I played with other children, children who happened to be fully sighted. They were allowed to run around, play tag, and use playground equipment. Though this was sometimes true in my case, there was a subtle difference. More often than with other children, I was either prevented from or discouraged from engaging in any vigorous activities.

"Why can't I do things like everyone else?" I asked. The reply was, "Well you can't see too well, and there are just some things that you can't do." This was in reference to vigorous activity. Gradually I acquired a belief that I was inferior to the sighted, that having sight meant having ability, and that my lack of sight had to mean that I was not quite as capable as those with full visual capacity.

By the same token, I also felt lucky. After all, I did have some vision, unlike totally blind people. Based upon this misconception about blindness, I often remarked, "Don't accuse me of being blind; I am not helpless." This was what I believed about blindness, and it affected every area of my life. It affected what I believed about certain issues, including Braille.

When I was in first grade, I was taught how to read and write print just as were children who were sighted. At first it was slow. We were all slow because reading and writing were still new to us, but soon a gap developed. This gap between their reading and writing speed and mine began to increase.

In time fellow students became faster and faster in both reading and writing while I generally remained at the same level. In fourth grade something else happened. The print in the text books became smaller. In addition, the reading assignments were longer and more complex, requiring more time. Moreover, they were made more often than in the earlier grades.

Now I was faced with a problem. What was I to do? This material was really hard, and I had to find a way to deal with it. I thought that the most important factor was that I could read print, and I must do this at all costs so help me God, and that is what I did, for a while. I increased my use of special tools such as magnifying glasses and closed circuit televisions, and, to some degree, it did work.

However, no matter how hard I tried, I could only read very slowly—about twenty words a minute, and I could only read for about fifteen minutes at a time. Yet I was very, very happy with this performance. After all, I managed to avoid having to learn Braille, which I believed was only for totally blind people and was a last resort if a person could not read one letter of print. This conviction was strengthened by my belief that Braille was bulky and slow.

My beliefs with regard to the use of Braille also affected my belief in the use of the long white cane, or of any cane for that matter. I vowed, "I don't need to carry a cane. I will never, never carry a cane; not until the day I die will I carry a cane." Why? Because I thought people would think I was helpless, because, after all, blind people are helpless. Since I was not helpless, I felt I was not blind. Since I was not blind, I did not need to carry a cane, and I refused.

I gave little consideration to the fact that I got into more accidents than did the average sighted person, and this was not due to clumsiness. Literally, I fell down steps, tripped over curbs, and otherwise bumped into obstacles in my way that I could easily have avoided by simply walking around them. To justify this state of affairs, I said, "Well, I don't get into accidents that often, not that often." But I did not ask myself why I should get into any accidents at all.

Then I found the National Federation of the Blind, and I attended my first national convention last year. For the first time, for the very first time, I gained a full sense of who and what I was, and I know who and what I am. I am a person who happens to be blind, equal in every way. I am equal in capability and competence. We are neither tragically deprived nor wondrously gifted. I now know, because of the National Federation of the Blind, that the obstacles that we as blind people face can be overcome.

After last year, when I returned from the NFB convention, I knew that I had a challenge ahead of me, that of telling my parents that I wasn't ashamed of being blind any longer. So when I walked in the door carrying a long white cane for the very first time, they said it was the most pitiful state in which they had ever seen me.

"You have never carried a cane in your life; why do you need one now? After all, you haven't been getting into that many accidents, and even if you were to get into some, at least you weren't carrying a cane." I asked them what was wrong with carrying a cane. They said, "If you carry a cane, don't you understand, people will think you are blind."

I said, "So people think that I am blind." They said, "But don't you see that if people think you are blind, they'll think that you are helpless." Thus raged the battle. It got to the point of a heated argument.

One of them said, "If you carry that thing when you are with me in public, I will not acknowledge that I know you." Later we had a discussion about Braille. I told my parents that I was going to learn it. They responded that Braille was just for totally blind people. "I don't want anyone to know that you are blind." I said, "Look, all my life I have been a poor reader because I had to read print, and look where it has gotten me. I have done well enough, but I could have done better." "Well," they said, "We are not going to budge." I said that I would not budge either. They thought they wouldn't, but they did. They budged, and in time they grew to understand.

But I can't help thinking, if only my parents had known when I was a child, what they know now, if only they had had within them the beliefs of the National Federation of the Blind, things would have been so different in my life. They would have fought for me to learn Braille. They would have made sure that I was trained in cane travel. Most important, they would have known that it is respectable to be blind.