BOY WAS I BAMBOOZLED

by Bruce A. Gardner

Today Bruce Gardner is a successful practicing attorney. He is also President of the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona. From early childhood Bruce and two older brothers had very limited eyesight. Even so, they did not think of themselves as blind and often went to great lengths to pretend they could see. In his story, "Boy Was I Bamboozled," Bruce tells us what it was like for an eight-year-old boy to learn that he was going blind. Here is what he has to say:

I remember when I first learned that I was going blind. I was about eight years old when my friend said, "Look at the jackrabbit under the mesquite tree." I said, "What mesquite tree?" Not only could I not see the rabbit, I could not see the tree.

My mother called us all in and sat us in a row on the couch to play a game. She held up flash cards, and one at a time we tried to see how far away she could stand and have us still read the cards. I could not read the flash cards without holding them up to my face.

When she took me to the eye doctor to be examined he said, "Well, it's another one." I was the third in our family of nine children to be diagnosed as having macular degeneration. I had no central vision and could therefore see no details, but only light and dark, general shapes and movement.

I grew up being embarrassed and ashamed of my blindness. We avoided the word blind because of its negative connotations. Visually impaired was much better. After all, lots of people wore glasses and had imperfect vision, and that was okay. But if you crossed that invisible line into the realm of blindness, then all the myths were heaped upon you. Therefore, growing up I was not blind—I just couldn't see. Boy, was I bamboozled!

My parents had already spent years and large sums of the family's scarce resources taking my two older brothers to countless specialists searching for a cure. By the time I was diagnosed, hope for a cure was wearing thin. Therefore, I was not taken to as many eye specialists as were my older brothers.

But, I do vividly remember as a little boy going to one eye specialist and hearing the doctor tell my parents that there was nothing he could do for my eyes. The doctor said that because my blindness was undoubtedly hereditary, they should make sure that I never got married or had children.

I remember my mother sobbing and her feeling that somehow it was her fault that I was blind. The clear message from the doctor was that it would have been better if I had not been born. And of course, I absorbed that message. Boy, was I bamboozled!

As a boy I watched the show "Mr. Magoo." I outwardly laughed at the bumbling blind man, but inside I hurt. Blind people were fumbling, bumbling Mr. Magoos or helpless dependents, who sold pencils on the street corner. Half of me refused to admit that I was blind, because blindness meant helplessness.

The other half of me would reply, "Oh, you think you are not blind! Well then, look across the room and identify who just walked in. And pick up that book and read it if you're not blind. Don't kid yourself. You're blind. You are nothing more than a fumbling, bumbling Mr. Magoo."

Of course I did not want anyone to know of my blindness, so I would do crazy things to appear "normal." It was like playing "blind man's bluff." I would pretend to be reading a magazine in the barber shop or a doctor's office and turn the pages after the appropriate passage of time, or loiter in lobbies outside what I hoped were the rest rooms (sometimes in increasing discomfort) in order to identify a man, and then observe which door he went through so I could follow him into the correct rest room.

It was unthinkable for me to ask for directions for fear the rest room was close by when I asked, because then they would know that I could not see. I would rather be thought of as unfriendly or stuck-up and rude than let people know I did not see or recognize them. Boy, was I bamboozled!

I was in third grade when I learned I was going blind. From third grade until seventh grade I did not do any reading. My mother read to me at home, and my teachers did not call on me to read at school. I did not see how words were spelled but only heard how they were pronounced. Since words are often not spelled the way they are pronounced, my spelling is—shall we say— creative.

In seventh grade I got a magnifying glass that was strong enough for me to read a little. The focal point was about the length of my nose, so when I read I could only see about a word at a time. That is, if it was a short word. If it was a longer word, I could not see both ends at the same time.

I would get my nose black when I read because I had to be so close to the paper. Of course, reading in this manner was extremely slow and tiring. Needless to say, I should have been taught Braille, but I was not given that opportunity.

After all, I still had a little vision and could "read" print. Never mind the fact that with Braille I could have read ten times faster and for extended periods of time. To read Braille would have meant admitting that I was blind, and that was unthinkable. Boy, was I bamboozled!

In high school I signed up for advanced placement English. I was in all respects qualified for the advanced course. However, the teacher told me that I could not take the class because I was blind. She said that there was simply too much reading and that I would not be able to keep up.

She told me that I should take the bare minimum of English classes. She knew nothing about talking books or Braille. She was well-intentioned, but uninformed. She was also convincing. So, I followed her advice and took the minimum of English classes in both high school and college. In fact, I even took a philosophy class in college because it gave English credit without being an "English" class. Boy, was I bamboozled!

It was not until I was in law school that I realized how unwise I had been. More English courses would have helped me a great deal—both in law school and in the practice of law.

Thankfully, when I was 21 the National Federation of the Blind found me and helped me learn the truth about blindness. I now know that with opportunity and training, blindness need not be a tragedy. I now know that it is respectable to be blind.

I will forever be grateful to the National Federation of the Blind for sharing with me the truth about my blindness and helping to heal the hurt and remove the shame of a little blind boy who had been bamboozled.