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 world—both 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 firm—how to develop clients, how to hire environmental consultants—a 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 narrow—three 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 substance—confidence 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.