by Kenneth Jernigan

Old dogs, we are told, can't learn new tricks. Maybe - but dogs aren't human. What about humans? Can they learn new tricks? Specifically, can a person who becomes blind in adult life learn to function independently? And what about children? A blind child grows up in a world designed for the sighted. If the child is to learn to get along, he or she must find different techniques from those used by sighted associates and friends.

Can it be done? Of course it can. It happens every day. The question is not whether but how. Make it personal. What about you? If you became blind tomorrow, could you manage? How would you handle the hundreds of details of your daily life? When I was a child, I had a little sight not much, but a little. If it wasn't too bright or too dark, I could see step- ups. I couldn't see step-downs, but I could see the lines and shadows of the step-ups. I could see the contrast between a sidewalk and grass, and I could see the difference between the country road that ran by the farm where I lived and the vegetation on either side of it. At night I could see the moon if it was full, but not the stars.

It wasn't much, but it helped. I could go into a room at night, for instance, and immediately tell whether the light was on; and in the daytime I could tell whether there was a window, and where it was. Under the right lighting conditions, I might be able to see an open door, and I might be able to tell where a person or a tree was. It was sometimes deceptive, which caused me bumps and bruises, but I managed.

When I was in my early thirties, I lost all sense of dark and light. It happened so gradually that I wasn't aware of it until I thought back a few weeks and realized what I wasn't seeing. For all intents and purposes I was totally blind from childhood, but shortly after I became thirty, there was no doubt about it. I was and almost forty years later, I still am.

With that background, let me talk about techniques. How do blind people function? How do they manage the nuts and bolts of daily life? More particularly, how do I do it? I can't give you a complete catalogue, of course, but I can give you a sample.

Let's begin with whether a light is on in a room. When I was a boy on the farm in Tennessee, it was a kerosene (or, as we called it, a coal oil) lamp. Today in my home in Baltimore it is an electric light. But the problem is the same. How do I know whether the light is on?

In most situations there is a switch on the wall, and if it is up, the light is on. If it is down, the light is off. But there are three- and four-way switches, allowing a person to turn a light on in one part of the house and turn it off in another.

I have just such an arrangement in the house where I now live. You can turn the hall light on at the front door, at the back of the hall, or on the upstairs landing. The ceiling is too high for me to reach the light bulb to know whether it is giving out heat, so unless I come up with some kind of non- visual technique, I won't be able to tell. Yet, there are times when sighted people visit me and then leave without telling me whether they have turned off the light. If my wife has gone to bed, I either have to have some way to know whether the light is on, or else take a chance on letting it burn all night.

The technique I use is really quite simple, and it is quick and efficient. Several years ago a friend gave me a set of musical teacups for Christmas. If you pick one of them up, it plays You Light Up My Life. When you set it down, it stops. I was curious about this and, after experimenting, found that when light hits the bottom of the cup, it starts the music. I think the cups cost six or seven dollars apiece, and I have a half-dozen of them. I also now have a perfect light detector. I have stored five of the cups in the attic and have left one of them sitting on the kitchen counter. Now, if I want to know whether a light is on anywhere in the house, all I have to do is pick up my teacup and walk through the rooms. It's quick, and it works. There are fancy light detectors that have been invented for the blind (detectors that cost a good deal more than six dollars), but I don't need them. My teacup works just fine. Before leaving the kitchen, let me deal with carrying liquid. If the glass or cup isn't full, there isn't any trouble. It doesn't matter if the container isn't exactly level. But if you want a full glass of water as a measure for cooking rice or something else, it does matter.

In such cases I used to have difficulty in carrying the container level and keeping the water from spilling. But not anymore. The technique I use is amazingly simple, and I think it will work for anybody. I wish I had thought of it sooner. I pick up the glass in one hand with my thumb on one side of it and my index finger across from it on the other side of the glass. I am holding the glass at the top, outside of the rim. My hand is above the glass, and I hold it loose enough for it to find its own level. It works well, and I rarely spill a drop. Try it.

There isn't any magic about these techniques. It is simply a matter of thinking them up and doing a little experimenting. I know a blind woman, for instance, who doesn't pour vanilla or other similar liquids into a quarter teaspoon—or, for that matter, a teaspoon or a tablespoon. She puts the liquid she is using into a small jar, bends the spoon handle until the bowl of the spoon is parallel with the floor, and then dips the liquid. It gives a perfect measure, and it's no trouble at all. Of course, if your measuring spoons are plastic, it won't work. Get spoons that are metal. Then there is the matter of cooking eggs. If you want them scrambled, there isn't any problem, but what if you want them fried? The same woman who taught me about the measuring spoons also taught me about egg frying.

Take a tuna can, or some other can about that size, and cut both ends out of it. Get your frying pan to the temperature you want; place the open-ended can or cans in the pan; and break the egg into the can.

You can touch the top of the can to tell where it is, and when you get ready to turn the egg, slide a spatula under the bottom of the can, and pick the egg up. It will be perfectly formed, and you can turn it without difficulty. I understand that blind persons are not the only ones who sometimes have trouble turning the eggs they are frying. Some sighted persons have the same difficulty. Egg templates are sold commercially, I am told, using essentially the technique I have described—but why bother? The tuna can works just fine, and there isn't any point in wasting money or going to extra trouble.

Some commercial gadgets are really an advantage in cooking. Earlier, I mentioned rice. Commercial rice-cookers solve a lot of problems—at least, the one at my house does. My wife is sighted, and I am blind, but we both use and like the rice-cooker. You put twice as much water as rice into it, and you turn it on. You don't do anything else. When the rice is done, the cooker knows and it turns itself off—no sticking, no stirring, no wondering about how long to cook or when to take it up.

That rice-cooker also knows other things, and it has a mind of its own. Once I was cooking oatmeal, and the cooker turned itself off before I thought the oatmeal was ready. I turned it back on, but it dug in its heels. It turned itself right off again. The cooker was right. The oatmeal was done.

As I think about it, I suppose the cooker has a thermostat, which begins to show a rise in temperature when a given quantity of the liquid has boiled away. At that stage it probably turns itself off, but I really don't know. After all, I am not interested in the mechanics of rice-cookers. I just want to get a good bowl of rice or oatmeal or whatever else it is I want for breakfast or dinner. Sometimes the techniques I devise almost get me into trouble. Last summer is a good example. I plan meetings and seminars and make hotel arrangements for the National Federation of the Blind. The meeting I have in mind was to be held in Chicago.

A lot of hotels have stopped using regular metal keys and have gone to a plastic card with a magnetic strip on it. I can see their point. The cards cost almost nothing while metal keys are expensive, and if somebody carries a hotel key away or loses it, the hotel has to go to the expense of changing the lock and replacing the key.

The combination on the magnetic lock, however, can be changed from the hotel's front desk by a computer that is connected to all of the rooms. It is inexpensive and efficient. But the card must be inserted into the door lock in exactly the right way, the proper end and the proper side being placed just so.

The card is shiny plastic, so how does a blind person know which side of it to place up and which end to insert? One way to do it, of course, would be by trial and error. After all, there are only four ways it can go but sometimes even if you have the card right, it doesn't work on the first try. So the whole thing can be a nuisance if you can't tell which side of the card is which.

But in most cases you can. Ordinarily the magnetic strip is slightly slicker than the rest of the card, and quite easy to feel. Usually it goes on the bottom and toward the right. Even if you couldn't tell by this method, any enterprising blind person would make a little nick in the card or do something else just as simple.

When I was planning for last summer's meeting, I met with the hotel staff to talk to them about the do's and don'ts. Mostly I wanted to put them at ease and help them realize that they didn't need to go to extra expense or trouble just because they were dealing with blind people. In this context I told them about the hotel keys and showed them that the magnetic strip was easy to identify by touch. I said that they didn't need to spend any time or money making extra marks on the cards for those attending the meeting. They said they understood, and we passed on to other things.

When the date of the meeting arrived and I checked into the hotel, the man behind the desk handed me a magnetic key and told me with great satisfaction that he had specially marked it with tape so that I could tell which side of it was which. What was I to do? If I told him that I didn't need the marking and showed him how easy it was to feel the magnetic strip, he would likely be embarrassed and maybe even angry. If I didn't tell him, the hotel would spend time and money on marking the keys and doing similar things, and then probably feel that our meeting was less valuable than others because of the extra trouble and expense.

I handled it as gently as I could, talking again to all of the hotel staff the next day and mentioning the matter in general terms. In one form or another this is a problem that blind people face again and again. It has no easy solution. Most people have great good will toward us. They think that if they were blind, they wouldn't be able to do anything at all, so they try to figure out ways to help us. The situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes the help is needed, but very often it isn't. I don't know of any way to deal sensibly with the matter except to try to get people to approach us straight on and without a lot of emotion. If somebody wonders whether we need help, ask us. If we say no, accept it. If we say yes, accept that too.

As a further complication, what happens if a blind person is rude or touchy when help is offered? Most of us aren't, but unfortunately (just as with the sighted) a few of us are. Whether sighted or blind, not everybody is an angel—or, for that matter even a responsible, everyday citizen.

My answer is that we who are blind should be treated the way you would treat anybody else. How would you deal with a sighted person who behaved rudely toward you? Deal with the blind person the same way. Hopefully, most of us (blind or sighted) will treat each other with consideration and respect. The techniques to permit a blind person to function on a daily basis are worth knowing. No, they are more than that. They are key to real independence and comfortable daily living. But they are not the most important thing that a blind person must learn. This brings me to the reason I have devoted so much of my life to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. In my opinion the National Federation of the Blind has done more than any other single thing to make life better for blind people in this country in the twentieth century.

I first became acquainted with the National Federation of the Blind in the late 1940's when both it and I were a great deal younger than we now are. It and its brilliant president, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, helped me learn a whole new way of thought about what I was and what I could be. Dr. tenBroek taught by example. His blindness did not keep him from earning graduate degrees and being a respected college professor and Constitutional scholar. The same was true of others I met. The National Federation of the Blind meant then (as it means today) that it is respectable to be blind, that blindness will not keep you from doing what you want to do or prevent you from being what you want to be if you have reasonable training and opportunity and if you do not think of yourself as a victim.

A core principle of the organization is that we as blind people do not want or need custody or paternalistic care, that we can and should do for ourselves, that we should not ask others for assistance until we have done all we can to solve our own problems, and that we (not the government) should have prime responsibility for our own welfare and support. Does this mean that we do not want or need help from others? No—quite the contrary. If we are to go the rest of the way to full participation and first-class status in society, it is true that we must do for ourselves, but it is equally true that we must have help and understanding from our sighted friends and the larger public. Without it we will fail. Meanwhile, we will do what we can to help ourselves. And despite the old proverb, we think that (whether we are old or young) we can continue to learn.