Even I

by Kenneth Jernigan

Words play a more important part in our daily lives than we sometimes think. They allow us to communicate with each other with wonderful precision, and they are one of the principal features that distinguish humans from animals. It is not that words make us human but that they enhance our humanity.

For the blind, certain words have a special meaning. As an example, when I was a boy growing up on the farm in Tennessee, I learned early on of the significance of the words "Even I" used by my family and sighted neighbors.

As a case in point, consider the game of checkers. In those days (when none of us in that part of the country had either telephones or radios and when books and magazines were not part of the daily routine), the men and boys often entertained themselves by playing checkers. I wanted to play, too, but one or another of my family would invariably explain to me that I had to understand my limitations as a blind person. Eventually they would get around to saying something like this, "Even I find it difficult to play checkers."

The implication was that because they could see and I couldn't, I was obviously at a disadvantage, not only in checkers but in everything else. This, of course, was just plain foolishness. All I needed was some way to feel the squares on the checkerboard, a problem I solved by stretching a string across the squares and tacking it down at both ends. The job took only a few minutes, and my checker playing was not impaired by my blindness. However, in the face of all of the negatives, it took me a while to put the system into place. The "Even I" was a definite drawback.

And this attitude of believing that sight is always the deciding factor is not just a matter of fifty years ago or some isolated corner of rural America. In the 1950's when I was a teacher at the California Training Center for the Blind, we had a student who had always been an outdoorsman. He was now in his forties, had just become blind, and had come to us for training.

One day a number of us went to a wooded area for an overnight camping trip, and while we were there, the new student (feeling energetic in the fresh air) decided to climb a tree. He went up the tree with ease. A passing tourist stopped and marveled.

"That is amazing," he said. "Even I would have trouble climbing that tree, and I can see."

As best I could determine, the tourist was probably in his late sixties, and he was extremely overweight. I doubt that he could have climbed the tree if his life had depended on it, but he thought only in terms of sight and blindness. Of course, in the circumstances, blindness had nothing to do with the matter. The "Even I" was totally irrelevant.

Later, when I was director of programs for the blind in the state of Iowa, I was traveling to one of our district offices and stopped at a service station to get a Coca-Cola. While I was drinking it, a man who had just come in said:

"I can understand some of your problems, for I am handicapped, too. My handicap is not as bad as yours, but even I have trouble getting along."

After I left the service station and was continuing my trip, I thought about what he had said. So far as I could tell, he had at least three handicaps that would limit him in the competition of daily life. He had a speech impediment, which I think was what he was talking about when he said he had a handicap; he had a very limited education; and his intelligence did not appear to be very high.

I think his speech impediment was the least of his handicaps, but I am sure that he didn't see it that way. I suspect that I was much more employable than he and much better able to participate in the rough and tumble of the competitive world. But to him, because he could see and I could not, the edge was all in his favor. As he said, "Even I have trouble getting along."

In the early 1980's I appeared one night on the "Larry King" program. In those days it was entirely radio, and the studio was about nineteen floors up from street level in a downtown Washington, D.C., building. It was a lively program, and when we finished at midnight, my driver and I went out into the hall to take the elevator to ground level.

The problem was that the elevator wouldn't come. This seemed mightily upsetting both to Larry King and his assistant. I pointed out to them that there was a fire stair immediately next to the elevator and that there would be no problem in simply walking down to the street. It is no exaggeration to say that Larry King's assistant was shocked. Apparently it had never occurred to him that a blind person might take the stairs.

"Even I would not like to walk down those nineteen flights," he said, "and I am sighted."

What sight had to do with it was more than I could understand, but after a few minutes of trying to soothe him down and of waiting for an elevator that persistently refused to come, we took the stairs over his protest and walked without incident to the street.

This sort of thing happens every day, but it is not limited to the sighted. Let me go back to my teaching experience at the training center in California. In those days (1953 to 1958) I had not learned to sign my name. My students told me that I was creating a bad image of blindness because of this shortcoming and that I should get with it and learn to make a readable signature.

I argued that I rarely needed to sign my name, that I didn't need to learn how in order to improve my self-esteem, and that I could and would take an hour or two and learn to sign my name if the time came when I thought it would be useful to do so.

In fact, when I became director of Iowa's programs for the blind in 1958, I did just that. One evening as we were driving across the country from California to Iowa, my sighted wife worked with me for an hour, and I learned to sign my name. It is not the most elegant signature in the world, but it is legible and serves my purposes. Incidentally, as director of the Iowa programs for the blind, I did not sign my name as often as I thought I would, delegating routine paperwork and signatures to a deputy. However, the fact remains that I learned to sign my name in an evening and that I now do it without thought whenever I need to.

Yet, that does not end the matter. As I have thought about it through the years, my students were right, and I was wrong. I, who was teaching them that blindness need not mean inferiority, was not proving up. As later events would show, it would have been a simple matter to learn to sign my name.

So why didn't I do it? Reluctantly I conclude that it probably had to do with "Even I." From childhood I had been told in hundreds of ways everyday that sight meant superiority. In the circumstances it would have been surprising if I had not absorbed and been affected by some of the mistaken notions.

Therefore, when I am tempted to be impatient or annoyed with sighted people who say "Even I," let me remember my own experience in learning to sign my name. What we need is not bad temper or blame but understanding and education.

This brings me to the National Federation of the Blind, the organization which has done more than any other single thing to make life better for blind people during the past century. The National Federation of the Blind has local chapters in every state and almost every community of any size. These state and local chapters come together to make up the national body.

Although we have sighted members, most of us in the Federation are blind. We give our time and devotion because we have seen what the National Federation of the Blind does in helping blind people lead normal, regular lives. Through its work with parents of blind children, with seniors, with blind college students, and with blind persons seeking employment, the National Federation of the Blind touches every aspect of the daily lives of the blind of the nation.

We in the Federation believe that we should stand on our own feet and do for ourselves before asking others for assistance, but we also know that our road to independence cannot successfully be traveled without help from our sighted friends and associates. And we have faith that this help will be forthcoming if it is reasonably requested and wisely used.

In fact, the future looks bright for those of us who are blind. We go into the new century with hope and confidence, and an ever-growing number of the sighted are moving with us as part of our cause. "Even I" is still one of our greatest problems—but that, too, is diminishing and fading into the past.