by Mary Willows
I sometimes ask people (both blind and sighted) to list the problems they think blind people face. One that I think is most critical rarely shows up near the top of the list, but Mary Willows, a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of California, zeroes in on it as she talks about meeting the challenge. Here is what she has to say about how she came to believe in herself:
As a child growing up in Chicago, I suppose I did all the things city kids do: Girl Scouts, baton majorette, cheerleader, something of a cellist, violinist, and otherwise an average student academically. I am the second oldest of six and the oldest of the girls. Fortunately for me, my mother always needed help with housework. So I learned early to be pretty independent. This really paid off for me in high school.
It was during my freshman year that I unexpectedly and suddenly became blind in a car accident. I had thought of one day becoming a teacher, but after the accident, that just didn't seem possible. I wasn't sure what the future held in store for me. I knew that I had to find something to do with the rest of my life. But what?
As time went on I decided that being a psychologist seemed reasonable and appropriate for me. I liked working with people and usually developed a good rapport with people I met. Besides, that way I could open my own business and not have to face the rejection of trying to convince an employer to hire me. I just did not believe anyone would want to hire a blind person.
I managed to get a couple of little jobs while I was in college. I stuffed Christmas stockings one year in what I now know was actually a sheltered workshop. I also got a job as a clerk/typist in a company that went bankrupt. So much for that idea. However, I had heard about that job from a blind girl who told me that she knew blind people who were doing all kinds of jobs. "Anything you can think of, there's a blind person probably already doing that job," she told me.
She asked me what I wanted to be. Never mind the blindness. I said that I had thought about teaching. She said she knew several blind teachers, and she would introduce them to me. She offered to let me share a room with her at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in downtown Chicago during July of 1972.
So I went to see for myself. I met teachers, all right. And lawyers, and secretaries and students. Yes, blind students who were pulling straight A's. I met someone who showed me how to use a slate and stylus. He said it was like a pen and paper. It looked like a little metal piece of framework with a hinge on the left. He showed me how to slip a piece of paper inside, close it, and write anything I wanted to in Braille using the notches that were already cut for me in the framework. He used it in all of his classes to take notes.
They used long white canes. They talked about their jobs and their families and their goals for themselves. I was beginning to recognize the challenge, and I started to believe that maybe these things were possible for me too.
I did get my bachelor's degree in psychology, but by that time I was ready for yet another challengemy master's degree. I still never told anyone that what I really wanted to do was to teach children in a regular classroom, because I didn't believe I could do it. About that time I met Jim Willows, a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of California. We were married and now have two boys.
Children ceased being little creatures from outer space to me. Far from it. I have cared for as many as seven at a time in my home. I learned to believe in myself by putting one foot in front of the other. That little flicker had become a burning flame. I was ready to accept the challenge of returning to school for my elementary teaching credential.
I identified three areas of concern for myself: how to get around independently in an unfamiliar environment; how to write things down quickly for later use; and how on earth was I going to control thirty-three youngsters. I believe in taking one step at a time and solving problems as they occur.
My first action as soon as I knew the name of the school was to investigate the grounds. I recalled that I knew a blind child who attended that school so I asked her to be my mobility instructor for the day. She was pleased and proud to give me the grand tour. Many schools in California are made up of small buildings called pods. Since I did not know the classroom I would be in, we located all the rooms. We even found the janitor's office. She showed me where assemblies were held, where the library was located, and how to find the swings on the playground. Since I did not know which grade level I would be working with, it was impossible to obtain any of the texts in advance.
When the time came for me to begin teaching lessons, I prepared myself with Braille notes. I used a slate and stylus for any last-minute instructions from the teacher. I scheduled ample readers in the evenings so I could preview material for the next day.
If there were papers to collect after a lesson, I put them into a file folder with my Braille notes so that I knew what those papers were. That evening I directed a reader in correcting the papers.
Long white cane in hand, slate and stylus in my backpack, I set out finally to become an elementary school teacher. On my first day of student teaching, my heart was pounding. There I was standing in front of a class of thirty-three very intimidating fourth graders.
My master teacher suggested that I take the children one at a time to the back of the room and let them interview me. They could ask me anything they wanted to know. So I did, and they did. They wanted to know about my slate and stylus. So I decided to seize the opportunity and slipped two 3 by 5 cards inside and wrote each child's name while we were talking.
By the end of forty minutes I not only had all their names written in Braille, but I also had time to connect names with voices. Within my first week, I became responsible for the weekly spelling tests.
I also supervised reading and math groups. Each week the teacher read the spelling words to me so I could put them in Braille. This was another time that I was glad I knew how to use a slate and stylus. This is a skill every blind teacher should have.
My third area of concern was discipline. The first time I was left alone with the students, they were all over the place. I could have died because my supervisor was sitting right there. Of course, the other student teachers at the university were having the same problems. The students were having a field day with their new teacher.
Once I demonstrated to them that I could write the names of the guilty on the board, they decided that I was the boss; and they settled down. I do not let my own children get away with anything, so why should these?
The very next day, I was put to the test. I had to take many different reading groups over to the cafeteria to practice the plays they had been learning. I had never been in a play, so this was going to be interesting. I knew I could direct these plays, and I did. I sat each group down at the end of the stage and showed them my slate with paper in it. I said I wanted to hear only the actors. If I heard anything else, the guilty person's name would be written down and later copied on the blackboard. There were only two who tested me.
Student teachers typically start off with the responsibility of escorting the class from the playground into the classroom after the morning bell and after recess. This meant locating my students among the nine hundred others. This was no problem, for when they saw me, they all called my name, which made it easy to locate the line. The line of students did not move until I gave the word. I did not give the word until there was silence. Their own teacher was impressed.
Each morning I chose a monitor to assist with the absentee list and the lunch count. I told the monitor what to write on the absentee slip. I had the students look left, and then right, and tell me who was missing. For the lunch count I had them raise hands; the monitor wrote that count.
I hope that sharing some of my techniques might encourage others who think teaching is impossible because of blindness. In the National Federation of the Blind, we say that given a good education and proper training, a blind person can compete with sighted peers and do just as well or just as poorly. The real difference is in whether or not we believe in ourselves. Belief in ourselves is the true key to success no matter what the challenge, no matter what the task.
DADDY READ ME
by Bonnie Peterson
If you could change just one thing about your childhood, what would it be? An interesting question and one which you would normally expect to bring a wide variety of answers. But if you ask this question of a group of blind people, you tend to get one overwhelming response: "I wish I had been taught to read Braille." In "Daddy Read Me" Bonnie Peterson expresses the pain and anguish of a mother who cannot read to her three-year-old. Here is what she says:
I teach communications and public speaking in the university system of Wisconsin. I am also blind. Taking notes is, of course, something that is extremely valuable to me. I take notes on a myriad of topics, and I take them in Braille. I use Braille to write notes to myself about grades and other important information concerning my students.
I also use Braille in my home lifewriting down appointments and grocery lists and keeping track of my two daughters' schedules. (They have basketball practice, volleyball and soccer games, and gymnastic classesand I have to see that everyone gets to the right place at the right time.) But it wasn't always that way. I didn't always take notes in Braille.
When I went to school, my parents were told that I didn't need Braille; after all, I could see. We didn't know about the National Federation of the Blind then. I went all the way through school and college, struggling to try to read with my tiny amount of remaining vision.
Then, the National Federation of the Blind came into my life, and I saw wonderful, positive blind people doing things that I couldn't do in a million yearslike reading and writing Braille comfortably and easily. These were people who weren't struggling with eyestrain, which had become such an ordinary fact of my everyday life that I didn't even bother complaining about it.
You would have thought that would be enough to make me change, but it wasn't. It took the reaction of my three-year-old daughter to do that.
I was reading her a book about Dumbo the elephant. Of course, reading the book meant wrapping it around my face, straining to see the print, and stumbling as I tried to read what I could not see. I still remember the way she looked at me and said, "Daddy read me." Even though she did not mean to be cruel, what I heard in her words was, "You are stupid!"
That was enough for me. With the help of the Federation, I learned Braille in two months, and my life has been changed forever because of it. Not just because of Braille, but because of the self-confidence I have gained. I owe a great part of who and what I am today to the National Federation of the Blind.
THE BALANCE BEAM
by Noel J. Nightengale
Noel Nightengale lives in Washington State, where she is a leader in the National Federation of the Blind. A recent law school graduate, she has passed the bar and has secured her first job as an attorney with a large and prestigious law firm. In "The Balance Beam," Noel deals with doubts about her ability to compete in the corporate worldboth her own doubts and those of her colleagues.
Here is what she has to say:
I am a lawyer with the large West Coast law firm of Heller, Ehrman, White, and McAuliffe. I work in the Seattle office in the Environmental Practice Group. I got the job the ordinary way that new attorneys get jobs with law firms, which is that I worked with Heller, Ehrman during the summer, and they liked my work and offered me a permanent position.
After the bar examination last summer I attended an NFB training center, where I learned Braille and better cane travel and engaged in other activities that helped build my confidence as a blind person.
My job is probably not very interesting to those who observe it from the outside. I research specific legal issues and then write memoranda to more senior attorneys about those issues. I then discuss my research with them and do follow-up research as needed. As a new attorney I don't get much contact with the clients; I'm pretty much stuck off in my office doing research and writing. But I also attend a lot of meetings, primarily at lunch, where we sit around and talk about issues that affect the law firmhow to develop clients, how to hire environmental consultantsa broad spectrum of issues. I also attend a lot of social events that the firm holds or that are sponsored by other organizations that the law firm would like to establish or develop business relations with.
The job accommodations I use aren't unique. I use Braille, a white cane, a reader, and adaptive computer equipment. I find that the most challenging aspect of my job as an attorney has nothing to do with the job accommodations I make. Instead, it's dealing with my colleagues and persuading them to see me as just another new attorney, rather than focusing on my blindness.
My colleagues' attitudes and reactions toward me are typified by a retreat I went to with them. It was in a town a little way from where I live. My law firm had hired an organization which provides business with challenging activities for executives to engage in that are designed to facilitate personal and team growth. We weren't told what these activities would be, and, as the time for the retreat drew nearer, all of the attorneys' anxiety levels about it grew stronger and stronger.
About a week before the retreat one of my colleagues, a friend in the firm who was on the retreat committee, came to me and asked if I was planning on participating in the retreat. I told her that I was, and she asked if I had any concerns. I said that I didn't know what was going to happen and that I was planning to give everything the old college try. Then I addressed her real question, which was, because I am blind, could I do it? She assured me that that hadn't been her question, but that unnamed people had come to her with concerns about my ability to participate. I said again that I planned to participate in all the events.
But as the retreat drew nearer and nearer, I started hearing rumors about what these events were, and one of them was that there was going to be a very high balance beam that we were going to walk on. I did become a little nervous at hearing that.
The morning of the retreat came and at the breakfast, which all the attorneys attended, the leader came up to me and got down on his knees so that his face was very close to mine as I sat in my chair, and he spoke to me in the kind of voice that one speaks to a child with. He asked me if I was really going to participate. I think he was hoping I was going to say no. But I assured him that I was, and he walked away disappointed.
We walked down to the area where we were going to do warm-up exercises, and all went fine until a little way into the exercises. Then they told us to stand on one foot with the other foot touching our behinds. I started wobbling the minute I did it. I had to keep touching the ground with my raised foot. That shook my confidence. I thought, "If I can't stand on one foot, how am I going to walk on a balance beam?" Then I remembered Dr. Jernigan's talking about a sighted person's asking him about a blind person's ability to balance. He tried standing on one foot and found that he couldn't do it very well. But when he practiced a little, he could do it fine, and that steadied me. I told myself that I wasn't balancing well because I was nervous.
We then split up into teams of three and went to the event area. As the sight was described to me, there was indeed a balance beam about seventy feet in the air, stretched between two trees, with a rough ladder against one tree, leading up to the beam. The leader told us that we would be wearing harnesses with ropes attached to them and that the event would be perfectly safe if we chose to participate. One brave attorney decided to go first. She climbed up and walked out to the middle, where we were supposed to trust those ropes and jump off. She did just fine, and several more attorneys went, and soon there were only a few of us left who hadn't done it. And some of them were so scared they were talking about not doing it. I decided that, before these people psyched me out, I had better get going and do it. So I started up the ladder, which was easy. I just found each rung with one hand and then pulled myself up another step. But, when I got to the beam, which took forever, I got myself onto it and put my back to the tree with my hands behind me, hugging the tree. That's when I noticed that the beam was round and narrowthree and a half inches across. I was very scared! So I shouted down to the leader, "Now what?"
He shouted back, "Walk to the middle and jump off."
I said, "How?" Eventually I made myself take that first tentative step, but it was so scary that I quickly jumped back and hugged the tree. I could not figure out how I was going to do this. I stood there for a while slowly realizing that I either had to go or come back down. I was afraid that I would take one step, fall off, and bang into the tree.
But eventually I decided that the best thing was just to get it over with. So I started walking, and eventually I got to the middle. But when they started shouting that I was in the middle, I didn't believe them. I thought they were just saying that to make me feel good. So I kept going. Then I noticed that their shouts were sounding very insistent. It was definitely time to jump. I stopped and gathered myself for a minute, and then I jumped, and the rope stopped me the way it was supposed to. When I eventually got to the ground, my colleagues rushed up to me and hugged me and cheered. They told me how great I had done, better than anybody else. But I hadn't done better than anybody else. I probably did worse than anybody else, except for the ones who didn't attempt it.
The next two events went fine. I performed at about the same level as my colleagues, or maybe a little worse, I don't know. But by the end of the day I was getting an incredible amount of praise and adulation. People from other groups were walking up to me and telling me that they had heard that I was the star of the show. I began to feel very uneasy and uncomfortable. Why were these people so impressed by my mediocre achievements? I concluded it was because they had started out with such low expectations of what I was going to do that day. And that very much disturbed me. If they had such profound doubts about my ability to walk on a balance beam, how could they possibly believe that I was able to be as competent at the law as they were?
This brings me to the one other job accommodation I make on the job that I think every blind person must make. It makes all the other accommodations work. I work to maintain a high level of confidence in myself. The only way my colleagues can learn to have confidence in me is for me to have confidence in myself. But this confidence must be grounded in substanceconfidence in my strong blindness skills and in my lawyering skills.
I have heard Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, say that when he faces something challenging, he remembers his brothers and sisters in the Federation and their love and support for him.
That's exactly what I did on that balance beam. After I took that first failed step, I stood up there on that beam and thought about how my friends in the Federation would be cheering for me and supporting me. That's what gave me the courage to go for it and prove that I could do it. That's the only way I know of to maintain a steady level of self-confidence in a world filled with doubts about the ability of blind people.