To Take the Plunge

by Doug Elliott

When Doug Elliott came home from Vietnam he was blind. And suddenly he had new things to worry about—simple things, like having lunch at work. Here is what he has to say:

It was a hot, sunny day. I stood on the logs that had been wedged into a tower in a summer-dry bend of a river by the spring flooding, now long past. I looked down into the blue, mountain-cold water. The log I stood on was about eight feet above the water. I wanted to take that plunge to cool off. But I knew the water was cold, and it looked like a very long way down. Maybe I should turn back. But then I would have to climb all the way back down the log jam.

I looked down one more time, looked back up, held my breath, and jumped. I plunged down into the cold water and felt exhilarated. Refreshed from the plunge, I returned to the high log and plunged several more times, enjoying each jump more than the previous one.

I was twelve years old when I took that plunge and still remember it well. I could have turned back and not jumped. If I had, I would not remember the incident at all. Or I might have a nagging memory of a time when I did nothing to meet a challenge, chickened out, failed to learn something about myself and the world around me, failed to earn the reward which is the sense of accomplishment when a challenge is successfully met.

I have backed away from other challenges through the years, and the experience in hindsight always leaves me feeling empty and wondering why I didn't make the attempt. Part of the reason I failed to meet some of these challenges is that I became a blind person as a young adult and found some new fears.

Past events haunt us all. One experience that still haunts me occurred when my church choir was invited to provide a local spiritual sound as background to a popular performer and singer at Harrah's Club in Reno, Nevada, where I then lived. This performer had some popular songs out when I was a young man, such as something about a "Moon River." The choir could make some money for the church and have some fun by performing for a night- club audience.

We rehearsed at the church until we were ready and then went to rehearse with the singer and his club band. The choir members came up onto the stage from a narrow, twisting stairway at the rear, and I entered in my place in order, using my white cane. We sang our parts, then relaxed in place while the band and singer talked about the next set. At some point the singer drifted over to the pastor of our church and struck up a private conversation with him, asking if I was blind. This was kind of obvious since I was standing there with my white cane.

The pastor confirmed that one of the choir members was blind. The singer said that he would prefer that I not be included in the performance. The pastor said I would perform. The singer called the floor manager to get some backing for excluding me from the performance. The floor manager gave the old tired excuse that it would be a safety issue to have me, a blind person, climbing up and down those stairs, which were tricky and difficult even for a person with normal sight.

At this point the pastor included the rest of us in the discussion. Everyone agreed. They would not perform if I was excluded. The singer and floor manager said they would talk about it and let us know whether they wanted to use a choir with a blind person in it.

I went home feeling terrible. I had looked forward to the performances, and I knew that the other choir members (including my daughter) had, too. I finally called the pastor and told him to let the singer know that I would drop out so that the other members could perform. He asked me if I was sure. Yes, I said. Big mistake.

Later I found out that the singer said that he would have allowed me to perform. By then I had chosen not to do so. I didn't then know how to handle a situation where my blindness was raised out of the blue as a barrier to something I wanted to do. I didn't think the singer should be "allowing" me the special privilege of singing when he had requested an entire choir of which I was an anchor in the baritone section. It hurt. But I didn't take the plunge then. I walked away, trying to assure opportunity for others while not facing up to the challenge myself.

A few years later I joined the National Federation of the Blind and started to learn about blindness from a new perspective. I came to understand that I should have taken the plunge and sang. I also came to understand that I should have insisted on being more directly involved in the discussion with the singer. After all, who would know more about my capabilities than I? I just didn't have the courage to take the plunge and stand up for myself. In fact, in that case, my pastor and fellow choir members believed more strongly in my capabilities than I did. I also lost the chance to teach the singer that blind people could do the job safely and efficiently. In retrospect, that may be the most important lesson I learned from this experience.

At the same time I was involved in that church choir, I was employed as a licensed clinical social worker in a large city hospital. My job required me to see patients and families all around the hospital. I walked throughout the hospital by myself, serving the patients to whom I was assigned, using my white cane, doing my job.

But when lunch time came, things were different. I would not go to the cafeteria by myself. I would either sort of hang around, looking for co-workers with whom I could go or simply go hungry. I would sometimes go by the cafeteria and stick my head in. But I just couldn't bring myself to take the plunge. I knew I could get to the cafeteria itself, but I had fears about what I thought were unanswerable questions—fears about how to deal with finding the line of waiting people, moving with the line, finding the food I wanted without holding up the whole line, and finding free tables. Later I learned simple techniques for accomplishing these easy tasks.

Some years after I had joined the Federation, I worked for a different hospital as a licensed clinical social worker. I did the same kind of work I had done at the other hospital, working this time as the social worker for the neurology and rehabilitation units. I am proud of the fact that, in the five years I worked there, not one Medicare claim was ever turned down for a patient I served, and not one patient ever suffered a medical reverse while pursuing the discharge plan I created and implemented.

For me personally, there was a big difference. I met with patients and families throughout the hospital as before, but when lunch time came, I went to the cafeteria myself if I felt like it. I remember that, my first day on the job, my supervisor asked if she could get me anything from the cafeteria. Thinking she was going anyway to get her own lunch, I accepted.

When she came back, she had my lunch, but when I asked her what she was having, she told me that she never went to the cafeteria for lunch. She had just picked up my lunch for me to be helpful. I knew this would not work. My new supervisor meant no harm, but she would always see me as someone who needed lots of help to find his way around and to find things like food if I did not quickly and politely set a different tone.

The next day when lunch time came, I went to find the cafeteria myself. I heard the noise from the lunchroom and entered. No demons grabbed me or got in my way. I found the line, ordered food, paid, then found a table, sat down, and ate my lunch. This wasn't the first time I had taken this kind of plunge, but it was an important one since this action would demonstrate to my supervisor and other employees that I could go to lunch or not as I chose.

It's the same choice everyone has, but sometimes we who are blind don't believe we have those choices. It took me some time to learn to take the plunge toward independence, but when I did, I found it as refreshing as the plunge into the cold refreshing water.

When I first heard the message of the National Federation of the Blind, I wasn't sure I wanted to believe it. I wasn't sure I could believe it. Could blind people really do things by themselves without constant help? Of course we could! But we have to learn to take that first plunge. It's often scary, but it has to be done—we have to learn. And for me and thousands of others, the place to do the learning has been the National Federation of the Blind.