Standing On One Foot
Large Type Edition
A KERNEL BOOK
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Copyright 1993 by the National Federation of the Blind
All Rights Reserved.
Printed in the United States of America
Table of Contents
Standing On One Foot
Nights Of Walking
You're Going For All Of Us
My Experience As A Juror
No More Hiding
I Am Blind And A Genuine Horse Trader
Where Is The Washroom?
Shanthi's First American Year
To Sea With A Blind Scientist
When we started publishing the Kernel Books in 1991, we
thought the series might run to three or four volumes and a modest
circulation. Now, over three years later, we are issuing the sixth
Kernel Book, and our circulation is approaching two and a half
million. This represents a substantial amount of both work and
resources, but we think the effort has been eminently worthwhile.
I have been asked why we chose the name Kernel Books, and
there are a number of answers. In the first place, I suppose it has
to do with whim. I thought the title was catchy, so I used it. But
there is something more. We wanted to go to the very heart of
blindness, trying to show our readers what it's really like■and,
for that matter, what it isn't like.
If you are blind, what do you think and how do you look at
things (not how do you look at them physically, but your point of
view and perspective)? How about dating and marriage? What about
children, recreation, work, and relations with others? In short,
how do blind people live and feel on a daily basis? What we are
trying to do is to cut through the sentimentality and
misconceptions to the very "kernel" of the subject.
I do a lot of traveling throughout the country, and until
recently, people in airports and on the streets who struck up
conversations recognized me (assuming that they recognized me at
all) because they had heard me on radio or seen me on television
talking about the National Federation of the Blind.
Now, that has largely changed. More often than not, I meet
people who have read one or another of the Kernel Books. They tell
me that they feel personally acquainted with those whose stories
have been told. They also feel comfortable talking about
blindness■asking about the little things, such as how clothes are
selected and matched, or how a blind person does grocery shopping.
This is exactly what we hoped would happen, and I think the
present Kernel Book will be no exception. In its pages you will
meet a blind father and a sighted mother who, with some difficulty,
adopted a baby. You will experience with a blind college student
his attempts to come to terms with himself and his blindness, and
you will go to the courtroom with a blind woman as she is called to
serve on a jury. Of course, you will also get further acquainted
with people you have met in previous volumes.
As to the title of this book (Standing on One Foot), it comes
from one of my own experiences. All of us are products of the
culture in which we live, and that is true of me as well as anybody
else. Therefore, although I have spent most of my life trying to
help people understand the facts about blindness, I found myself
sometime ago falling into the same trap that I have been urging
others to avoid. It caused a good deal of soul-searching■but
enough! You'll find the details in the following pages.
As I have already said, we want you to know about blindness,
but we also want you to know about the National Federation of the
Blind. Established in 1940, the Federation has, in the opinion of
most of us who know about such things, been the single most
important factor in helping blind people live normal lives and do
for themselves. We who are blind still have a long way to go, but
we are getting there■and the Kernel Books are helping. The reason
they are helping is that they are one of the major factors in our
campaign to increase public understanding and awareness. We are
truly changing what it means to be blind, and you who read these
books are helping. May you enjoy this book, and may you find it
WHY LARGE TYPE
The type size used in this book is 14 Point for two important
reasons: One, because typesetting of 14 Point or larger complies
with federal standards for the printing of materials for visually
impaired readers, and we wanted to show you exactly what type size
is necessary for people with limited sight.
The second reason is because many of our friends and
supporters have asked us to print our paperback books in 14 Point
type so they too can easily read them. Many people with limited
sight do not use Braille. We hope that by printing this book in a
larger type than customary, many more people will be able to
benefit from it.
STANDING ON ONE FOOT
by Kenneth Jernigan
We who are blind are part of the larger society. We tend to
see ourselves as others see us. We tend to accept the false views
about our limitations and, thus, do much to make those limitations
I can offer a personal example. Quite sometime back, an
article written by R. H. Gardner appeared in the Baltimore Sun. It
was headlined: "Ice Castles' A Little Hard to Swallow," and this is
what it said:
Several years ago, I was at a party when a friend, for reasons
I cannot recall, bet me I could not stand on one foot 15 seconds
with my eyes closed. I had been quite an athlete in my youth (10
years old), during which period I could stand on practically any
part of my anatomy■head, hands, ears, or toes■for an indefinite
length of time.
I accepted the bet.
To my astonishment, at the count of five I began to waver. At
seven, the waver turned into a stagger; and at ten I was lost. It
was a great shock for a former athlete (even a 10-year-old one),
and I have never forgotten it.
For something happens to your balance when you close your
eyes. And how much worse it must be if you're blind!
Being blind, a scientist-friend once pointed out to me, cannot
be compared to closing your eyes. When you close your eyes, you
still see. You see the undersides of the lids with the light behind
But what you see when you're blind is what you see out of the
back of your head. There's neither light nor sight of any kind.
I was reminded of all this while watching `Ice Castles,' a
film about a blind figure skater.... I'm told there is a blind
figure skater upon whose career the film is loosely based. But it's
hard to believe, in view of my experience trying to stand on one
When I read that article, I pooh-poohed it and laughed it to
scorn. So did one of my sighted associates. Then, just to show how
silly it was, she closed her eyes and stood on one foot. But the
laughter stopped, for she wobbled and fell. Then, she opened her
eyes and tried it again. There was no problem. She kept her balance
"Nonsense!" I said. "Let me show you"■whereupon, I stood on
one foot■and immediately lost my balance. That incident occurred
many years ago, but I still remember it as if it had happened
yesterday. Was I shaken? You bet!
After getting over the shock, I did some serious
soul-searching. We know that the tests which are made by
blindfolding sighted people to determine what the blind can do are
totally invalid. I have been among the most vocal in pointing that
out. I knew (or, at least, I thought I knew) that balance is a
matter of the inner ear, not the eye. Why, then, did my associate
fall when her eyes were closed but keep her balance when they were
open? Perhaps the fact that she was accustomed to seeing things
around her as part of her daily life made the difference, or
perhaps (even though she is well versed in our philosophy) the
matter went deeper. Perhaps (reacting to social conditioning) she
subconsciously expected to fall and was tense. I suggested that she
practice a few times with her eyes closed. And what do you know? It
worked. In four or five times she could stand on one foot as easily
with her eyes closed as open.
But what about me? I have never had any problem with balance.
In fact, I was formerly able to walk across an entire room on my
hands. So I tried standing on one foot again■and I could do it with
perfect ease. If anybody doubts it, I will be glad to demonstrate.
Then why did I fall the first time? I reluctantly conclude that
(despite all of my philosophy and knowledge to the contrary,
despite all of my experience with this very sort of situation
dressed out in other forms) I fell into the trap of social
conditioning. I hope I won't do it again, but I can't be sure.
There is probably not a blind person alive in the world today who
has not, at one time or another, sold himself or herself short and
accepted the public misconceptions about how limited blind people
are, usually without ever knowing it. Prejudice is subtle, and
tradition runs deep.
Which brings me back to Mr. Gardner and his newspaper article.
He was not trying to hurt the blind, but just to make a living.
Nevertheless, based on his single false experience as a simulated
blind person, he made sweeping generalizations about our lacks and
losses. Do you think he would believe we are capable of
equality■that we can travel alone, compete with others for a
regular job, and live full and normal lives? Of course not. And his
opinions count. He is a member of the press, a molder of thought.
And how do you think he would react if one of us brought all of
this to his attention?
Probably with defensiveness and resentment. Perhaps he would
even help stimulate unfavorable publicity about us, not realizing
or admitting why he was doing it■or, for that matter, that he was
doing it. Of course, he might not behave that way at all. He might
learn from the experience and be a better person for it.
A few years ago I went to a cafeteria with a sighted friend.
We took our trays and moved down the line. When we turned from the
cash register and started for the table, an accident occurred. A
glass of water fell from the tray and splashed on the floor. "There
will be those," I said, "who will see this and think the reason I
spilled that glass of water is because I am blind."
"You are right," my sighted friend replied; "for you didn't
spill it. I did. It fell from my tray, not yours."
All of this was bad enough, but there was more, and worse. I
didn't leave it there: "How did you do that?" I asked.
This time my friend (who is as well versed in our notions
about blindness as I am) responded with more than a touch of acid:
"I did it the same way anybody else would," she said. "I tipped my
tray. Do you think it is normal for the blind to be clumsy and the
sighted to be graceful? Do you think sighted people don't have
accidents? Why did you automatically assume that you were the one
who spilled the water?
It was a fair question, and it caused a lot of reflection. I
reluctantly concluded that (despite all of my philosophy and
knowledge to the contrary, despite all of my experience with this
very sort of situation dressed out in other forms) I fell into the
trap of social conditioning. I hope I won't do it again, but I
can't be sure. The force of cultural conditioning is powerful, and
changes in public attitudes about blindness are hard to set in
If I, who have spent most of my life dealing with the problems
of blindness, make such mistakes, how can I blame sighted people
when they misjudge or fail to understand? Even though there are
still a lot of wrong notions about blindness and what blind people
can't do, we are learning and truly making progress. Whether
sighted or blind, we should take pride in our accomplishments, but
we should mix that pride with a little humility. We should have
faith in ourselves and keep both feet firmly on the ground, but we
should also know that sometimes we will be found standing on one
NIGHTS OF WALKING
by Marc Maurer
As readers of the Kernel Books know, Marc Maurer is President
of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also the father of
two active, lovable children. His recollections of the birth of his
son emphasize again the innate normality of the blind■the concern
with the everyday activities of employment, marriage, home life,
and children■the lack of the feeling that blindness is the center
of every activity and the cause of doom.
Since I am a lawyer, I do a lot of traveling. I was away in
Idaho working on a case when our first child, David, was born. My
wife Patricia and I live in Maryland, more than 2,000 miles from
Idaho. I had a hearing on Monday morning, and I needed to interview
witnesses and prepare argument for the case. My wife had been
pregnant for several months, but the baby wasn't supposed to arrive
for quite a while. When I left on Friday morning, everything was
fine. When I spoke with Patricia on Friday night, she was feeling
better than she had for weeks. I went to bed more than 2,000 miles
from home ready to buckle down to do the work for the court
appearance scheduled for Monday.
Early Saturday morning I commenced interviews with witnesses.
The trial would focus on the constitutional rights of private
citizens to free speech and freedom of assembly. I was preparing
testimony for the court and marshalling arguments for the
summation. The court appearance would be brief■not more than half
a day. A number of the facts to be presented were quite unusual,
and the time before the judge would be severely limited.
Preparation and planning were absolutely vital.
A number of the witnesses and I were in the living room of the
home of one of the parties when I was summoned to the phone. The
voice of one of my best friends (Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was then
serving as president of the National Federation of the Blind) came
on the line. He said, "Don't worry. You are a papa. Everybody's
Immediately, the focus of my attention shifted. The court
hearing had to be completed, and the planning and preparation were
no less important, but I felt a tremendous urge to head back to
Baltimore. All through Saturday and Sunday as I worked on the case,
I thought about my new baby boy and his mom. The hearing occurred
on schedule Monday morning, and as soon as it was over, I boarded
a plane headed east.
It is a long way from Boise to Baltimore. The plane touched
down about 11:30 that night, and a friend picked me up and drove me
to the hospital. My wife was tired but glad to see me. She told me
that there were those at the hospital who had been wondering
whether I really existed. Baby Maurer had not yet been named. We
decided to call him David Patrick.
Because our new boy was premature (he weighed less than four
pounds), he had been assigned to live in a little plastic box
called an isolette, which had wires and dials. The isolette had its
own heating and air conditioning system, which was set to keep the
boy warmer than ordinary room temperature. Some time around 12:30
a.m. I went in to visit him. I was instructed by the hospital staff
to wear a gown and to make sure my hands were clean. David Patrick
was little and scrawny. He wore a teeny little cap to keep him
warm, along with his blankets and diaper. I sat there with him in
a rocking chair for some time, but he didn't have very much to say.
I asked him where he wanted to go to college, but I guess he hadn't
made up his mind. Because he was so small (his leg bones from his
knees to his ankles felt sort of like match sticks to me). The
hospital had tiny little preemie diapers for him. They looked like
toys you might get for the baby doll that you give as a Christmas
present. David Patrick got himself all wet, and the nurse asked me
if I wanted to change him. The door to the isolette opened out to
make a little shelf. The idea was that David Patrick's blankets
should be spread on the shelf and he should be placed upon them to
be changed. I put him on the shelf and took off his diaper. Then I
crouched down to get at the cabinet underneath to get him a new
one. The nurse said to me, "Watch it! He might roll off!" The
nurse's voice was not loud, but it carried considerable force.
Accidents can happen, and a fall of three feet for a baby of that
size could cause severe damage. Those few words from the nurse were
stern and to the point. My job was to keep track of that boy. So I
reached up over the shelf and took hold of the little guy.
With the diaper changed, the blankets back in place, and the
hat back on (it had fallen off during the changing process), we sat
peacefully a while longer. I told David Patrick about the cases I
was involved in. We discussed politics, crops, the economic
situation in the country, and the weather. At about 2 o'clock I
told him I'd have to go because there was another busy day ahead.
But I told him I'd be back, and he seemed to know that I would.
At the time David Patrick was born, I was building a law
practice. Each day I would go to the office, deal with clients,
draft motions and petitions, make court appearances, accomplish
necessary travel either within the state of Maryland or throughout
the country, deal with other lawyers, and conduct my everyday
business. Each night (when I wasn't on the road) I would visit the
hospital to see how David Patrick was doing he stayed for a month
after he was born. Patricia and I were working full time each
day she as an administrator of programs for the blind, and I as a
lawyer. David Patrick stayed with the baby sitter during the day.
When we brought him home in the evening, he was often hungry and
sometimes sleepy. During the night he slept just like a baby--that
is, he woke up and cried every two hours. Sometimes he wanted to
eat; sometimes he needed clean clothes; often he needed both food
and clothes. Many nights he just wanted company. Occasionally, he
would let me rock him in the rocking chair where I could doze.
However, there were times that he wanted to be walked. I never
could find a way to sleep while walking the baby up and down, up
and down. I did learn to sleep almost everywhere else. My
colleagues came to know that if we were riding in an elevator in a
20 story building, I would sometimes take a brief nap on the way
The doctors were afraid that David might be subject to Sudden
Infant Death Syndrome. This is a condition which causes the heart
and lungs to stop functioning long enough that the baby dies.
Consequently, David Patrick was required to wear a heart and
respiratory monitor. The heart monitor had two major parts. There
was a belt that wrapped around the baby's chest. On the belt were
three small electrodes. Wires attached to these electrodes plugged
into a box that had switches and displays on it. If David's pulse
stopped or his breathing was interrupted, the monitor would beep.
Patricia and I took a course to tell us what to do in case of an
emergency. The first step was to take David Patrick and give him a
good shake. The heart monitor would also sound if one of the
electric leads to the monitoring belt came loose.
During the first month that our son was home, the device
sounded several times, but these were all false alarms. It wasn't
always a false alarm, however. One night the monitor woke us from
a deep sleep. I jumped up and found that David Patrick was not
breathing. I wondered if I could remember all the steps we had
learned in the course to revive an infant. The first step was to
shake the baby. I was ever so grateful that step number one worked.
David Patrick received a thorough shaking. He complained about it,
but he had to breathe to do it.
David Patrick was the first child, and Dianna Marie came three
years later. Today they are both in school and doing fine. You
would never know that both of them were premature. The children and
I still talk about crops and politics and the weather, but there
are other topics of conversation--homework, Boy and Girl Scout
activities, trumpet lessons, making fudge, and visits to Grandma.
Even though both Patricia and I are blind, our children are not.
Sometimes the subject of blindness is part of the conversation.
When I was six, I was enrolled at a boarding school for the
blind, which was many miles from our home. My parents took me there
and left me to stay in the dormitory. I was homesick, but my father
had told me that he would be back to bring me home the next
weekend. When Friday came, he was there. During the next four years
my father came every other Friday to pick me up and take me home.
I knew I could count on him. I looked forward to his coming, and I
planned for the long trip home. He might not be able to be with me
as much as he would have liked, but he'd be there on Fridays.
Both of my parents were like that. Once my mother told me that
no doctor could work on me unless we had talked about it and she
had given her permission. At the school for the blind I got
tonsillitis and was sent to the hospital. Officials at the school
told me that an operation would be necessary. I knew that my mother
had promised me that no one could work on me unless we'd talked
about it and she had given her consent. I was told by the hospital
officials on a Tuesday night that the operation would occur the
next morning. Early on Wednesday my mother came to my bedside. She
and my father had driven much of the night in order to come to the
hospital. They told me that the operation was really necessary and
that I would be all right. I felt much relieved■especially because
my mother had done what she had told me she would.
The quality of being reliable is fundamental. I have tried to
emulate my father and mother in this respect. When I have promised
my children that a thing will happen, I have tried to make it come
true. And when they have needed my support, I have tried to give
There is an oft-repeated saying, which is that nothing comes
free. The folksy expression is, "There ain't no such thing as a
free lunch." Each individual must pay for what he or she gets.
However, children demand much from their parents and others.
They need to be nurtured, fed, clothed, walked through the wee
hours of the night, bathed, entertained, directed, and taught. They
take inordinate amounts of time, energy, concentration, and money.
And, they have nothing tangible with which to pay. However, there
is one commodity which they possess in abundance■love. Despite all
the troubles and trials, the children give at least as good as they
get. They provide something which can be had in no other way. They
add an irreplaceable element to the warmth and the caring of the
I take family life for granted today, but it wasn't always
that way. Before I came to be a part of the National Federation of
the Blind, I wondered very often whether there would be a future
for me. Today, I know that there is, and I work within the
organization to help other blind people come to the same
realization. We in the National Federation of the Blind are in many
ways a family of our own. We have warmth and caring for each other,
and we work to bring opportunities to blind people who have been
afraid they might not have a future. One of the characteristics
which is most notable about our organization is that if a blind
person is willing to work and needs our help, we do what we can to
give it. The National Federation of the Blind is always willing to
be supportive to blind people who are working hard to gain
independence and a positive future.
YOU'RE GOING FOR ALL OF US
by Homer Page
Homer Page is totally blind. He is a university professor and
an elected official in his community. He attributes much of his
success in life to his mother, who also happens to be blind. Here
he tells his mother's story.
D'Arline Creech was born on September 12, 1915. She came into
this world in a small farm house near Troy, Missouri. She attended
school in a one room schoolhouse, no more than three hundred feet
from the place she was born. In many ways her life was uneventful,
but in many other ways she represents some of the strongest
dimensions of the human experience. It is her story that I want to
tell. It is a special story to me because D'Arline Creech Page is
Blindness is a condition that has existed in my family for
many generations. There are at least six generations of us who have
learned to live positive, productive lives as blind persons. I am
the first in this line who has received an education and made my
way in the broader world. Much of this is due to the changing times
and to the effect that the National Federation of the Blind has had
on the attitudes of our society. Yet one does not make a successful
life without being grounded in a strong personal identity drawn
from past generations.
I am 50 years old. I have been blind from birth. I have earned
a Ph.D., and I have lettered in wrestling at a major university. I
have taught in universities and I currently serve as a County
Commissioner in Boulder County, Colorado. My life has been enriched
by friends and family from across this nation and the world. I now
have a grandson who at this writing is six months of age. As I look
back on my life and my blindness, I become more and more aware of
the way in which my mother taught me to have pride and worth as a
My mother was born on the same farm in Missouri where I was
born. She always had very low vision, but as she grew older, her
vision decreased. She dropped out of school after the tenth grade
and lived a very limited life for the next ten years. Her mother
was also blind. They lived together after her father's death on the
During this time, my grandmother and my mother provided a home
for a number of foster children. This was during the depression of
the 1930's and money was very scarce. They scraped by and managed
to pay the taxes on the farm and not to lose it. Many of their
neighbors were not so successful.
My father and mother had grown up together and attended the
same one room country school. They were married in 1940. My father
had grown up as an orphan. He had made his way as a rodeo cowboy
and a musician. When my mother and father were married he moved in
to the family farm and took on the responsibilities of managing it.
My mother and father raised three children and improved their
economic position through hard work and the careful use of the
scarce resources that they had available to them. They were married
over thirty-five years before they took a vacation. My mother
canned fruits and vegetables each year. They grew their own meat
and dairy products. We were always well fed, clean, and well loved.
We never knew that we were economically deprived. We always thought
that we were just fine and I think we were.
However our family had one very difficult winter. In 1947, the
crops failed. My father had just returned from the army and our
resources were practically non-existent. He and she went to town to
find jobs. My father was hired to work on the railroad, and my
mother found employment in a local garment factory. This was hard
work for her. She had to cut and sew women's lingerie. She had to
follow a pattern. It was stressful work. It was hard for her to
keep up with the production quotas. She got paid by the piece.
However, she worked all winter and with the income that they each
earned, they bought cattle and seeds for the next year's crops. It
was the only time that she had to work outside the home. She never
complained and was glad to make her contribution. However, she was
also very glad to be able to quit.My mother was never a leader at the neighborhood church or in
the local school. She was always quiet in meetings. She was not a
leader in the family. She never tried to prove herself to anyone.
Yet, I learned more about living productively from her than anyone
else. What was it then that this simple woman offered to me that I
found so valuable?
My mother looked for ways to be productive around the farm.
She didn't have to look very far. She was patient. She defined the
jobs that needed to be done and that she could do. She did those
jobs well, and with consistent discipline for many years. She
washed our clothes on a wash board. She cooked and cleaned and
canned. When my father got a job as the local town marshal, she
washed and ironed his uniforms with great pride. He looked very
professional in his well pressed uniform, and she took great pride
My mother cared for her children. She defended them as well as
disciplined them. She made sure that they went to school and did
their homework. She also made sure that they did their chores.
Often blind and sighted persons alike will say, "Well, what
can I do, what can I do that is worthwhile and meaningful?" All too
often, we fail to recognize the obvious. There are many valuable
things which each of us can do if we choose to do them.
Is my mother a model for this generation of blind persons and
especially for blind women? In some ways she is not. She never had
an opportunity to learn Braille or to travel independently. She
never went to school and developed an occupation outside the home.
She was not a leader, nor was she outspoken on the issues of the
time. In many ways she was dependent on others. First on her mother
and then on my father. Yet in spite of all of these things that she
was not, I believe that there is much that is instructive about her
Throughout the generations blind persons have not had the
opportunity for an education or for full participation in our
society. It was easy enough to sit down and allow others to care
for them. Many did, but many like my mother patiently waited for
the chance to serve. They found that chance in different ways. Some
were street musicians■they created the blues. Others worked in
sheltered workshops. Still others like my mother raised families.
They were proud persons. They had belief in themselves because they
knew that they were contributing. They had a kind of mental
toughness that allowed them to endure through all of the
self-denying experiences which was their lot in life. Even though
they were dependent, and even though others may have felt sorry for
them, they patiently waited and when their time came to give, they
took advantage of it.
To these enumerable blind persons who (in spite of everything)
found ways to be productive, those of us who have found our way in
a broader world owe great debts of gratitude. They never quit
trying. They were patient and they waited. When their time came
they produced. Those of my generation and the generations to come
have doors opened for us that those before us did not. Yet we too
have our barriers to overcome■frustrations, and those stubborn,
pervasive societal attitudes that would keep us dependent. From
those who have gone before us we can learn endurance and patience.
We can also learn the joy that one can derive from giving, from
being of worth to others, and from being productive.
My mother was a very happy person. She drew joy from her
family and from her sense of personal worth. She knew we needed her
and that gave her great pleasure. She knew she counted. She never
became cynical or depressed because she was not something other
than herself. She knew she belonged. This joy and wholeness is
still anther gift that the generations who have come before us can
sometimes offer to us. They suffered. Their dreams were diminished
because of the lack of opportunity, but they endured. My generation
and those yet to come will have more opportunity. I hope they have
as much joy and as much of a sense of self worth.
Often I am asked to discuss what it is like to be blind.
There's always a need to try to change the attitudes of sighted and
blind persons alike, so I talk about how easy it is to live as a
blind person. I talk of the rather simple adaptations that allow me
to do all of the things that my job and life demand. I talk of all
of my blind friends who are involved in exciting, challenging
careers. All of these things are true, and they will be true even
in greater degrees for the generations to come because we truly are
changing what it means to be blind. Yet I will always remember what
happened when I left home to go to college. My mother gave me money
that she had saved and said to me, "Do well. You're going for all
MY EXPERIENCE AS A JUROR
by Gwen Nelson
Gwen Nelson is a leader in the National Federation of the
Blind of Virginia, and she takes her Federationism seriously.
Therefore, when she received a summons to appear for jury duty, it
caused her to do some soul searching. As blind people we want our
rights, but we try to remember that with them comes responsibility.
Here is how Gwen describes it.
One afternoon I was looking through what seemed to be a
routine batch of mail when I found a rather official-looking
envelope. The envelope contained a summons for me to appear for
jury duty. I knew one blind person who had received this same type
of summons, and that individual wrote "blind" across the envelope
and returned it to the court. The individual was not contacted
For a brief moment I considered making the same response as my
blind acquaintance. After all, I reasoned, jury duty certainly
would be an inconvenience. My term was to last for a month, and I
was to call a number at the court each day to hear if I was to
appear. My next thought was that even if I were to appear, I would
not be permitted to serve because someone might object to my
serving because I am blind.
Then, as a Federationist, I was really ashamed, because many
blind people before me who believe as I do that blind people should
be first-class citizens, had stood by their convictions so that now
I had the opportunity to accept the responsibility and privilege of
taking my turn on jury duty.
Yes, I did have to wait around the courthouse for hours. It
was inconvenient, but I did serve on a jury. I had the assistance
I needed to read printed materials submitted as evidence at the
trial. And, as I look back, I am truly glad that I chose to fulfill
my duty as a citizen. Jury duty was educational and rewarding. Now,
when people ask me, I will have one more reason to say that I am
proud to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
NO MORE HIDING
by Olegario Cantos
One of the best things about the scholarship program of the
National Federation of the Blind is that in recent years we have
been able to bring the young people who win scholarships to our
Often it's the first time they have ever met successful blind
adults, and the week-long experience can reverse a lifetime of
fear. Olegario Cantos won a scholarship and attended the National
Convention, and, as is so often the case, it changed his life.
Here is how he tells it:
I was born two months prematurely. As a result I had no
vision in my left eye and partial vision in my right. Since I did
have a tiny bit of vision, all emphasis in my life in everything I
did was placed on the use of that vision, and my attitudes were
I remember as a child what I thought about blindness. At first
I did not know what blindness was. Then, as I grew older, I played
with other children, children who happened to be fully sighted.
They were allowed to run around, play tag, and use playground
equipment. Though this was sometimes true in my case, there was a
subtle difference. More often than with other children, I was
either prevented from or discouraged from engaging in any vigorous
"Why can't I do things like everyone else?" I asked.
The reply was, "Well you can't see too well, and there are
just some things that you can't do." This was in reference to
vigorous activity. Gradually I acquired a belief that I was
inferior to the sighted, that having sight meant having ability,
and that my lack of sight had to mean that I was not quite as
capable as those with full visual capacity.
By the same token, I also felt lucky. After all, I did have
some vision, unlike totally blind people. Based upon this
misconception about blindness, I often remarked, "Don't accuse me
of being blind; I am not helpless." This was what I believed about
blindness, and it affected every area of my life. It affected what
I believed about certain issues, including Braille.
When I was in first grade, I was taught how to read and write
print just as were children who were sighted. At first it was slow.
We were all slow because reading and writing were still new to us,
but soon a gap developed. This gap between their reading and
writing speed and mine began to increase.
In time fellow students became faster and faster in both
reading and writing while I generally remained at the same level.
In fourth grade something else happened. The print in the text
books became smaller. In addition, the reading assignments were
longer and more complex, requiring more time. Moreover, they were
made more often than in the earlier grades.
Now I was faced with a problem. What was I to do? This
material was really hard, and I had to find a way to deal with it.
I thought that the most important factor was that I could read
print, and I must do this at all costs so help me God, and that is
what I did, for a while. I increased my use of special tools such
as magnifying glasses and closed circuit televisions, and, to some
degree, it did work.
However, no matter how hard I tried, I could only read very
slowly■about twenty words a minute, and I could only read for about
fifteen minutes at a time. Yet I was very, very happy with this
performance. After all, I managed to avoid having to learn Braille,
which I believed was only for totally blind people and was a last
resort if a person could not read one letter of print. This
conviction was strengthened by my belief that Braille was bulky and
My beliefs with regard to the use of Braille also affected my
belief in the use of the long white cane, or of any cane for that
matter. I vowed, "I don't need to carry a cane. I will never, never
carry a cane; not until the day I die will I carry a cane." Why?
Because I thought people would think I was helpless, because, after
all, blind people are helpless. Since I was not helpless, I felt I
was not blind. Since I was not blind, I did not need to carry a
cane, and I refused.
I gave little consideration to the fact that I got into more
accidents than did the average sighted person, and this was not due
to clumsiness. Literally, I fell down steps, tripped over curbs,
and otherwise bumped into obstacles in my way that I could easily
have avoided by simply walking around them.
To justify this state of affairs, I said, "Well, I don't get
into accidents that often, not that often." But I did not ask
myself why I should get into any accidents at all.
Then I found the National Federation of the Blind, and I
attended my first national convention last year. For the first
time, for the very first time, I gained a full sense of who and
what I was, and I know who and what I am. I am a person who happens
to be blind, equal in every way. I am equal in capability and
competence. We are neither tragically deprived nor wondrously
gifted. I now know, because of the National Federation of the
Blind, that the obstacles that we as blind people face can be
After last year, when I returned from the NFB convention, I
knew that I had a challenge ahead of me, that of telling my parents
that I wasn't ashamed of being blind any longer. So when I walked
in the door carrying a long white cane for the very first time,
they said it was the most pitiful state in which they had ever seen
"You have never carried a cane in your life; why do you need
one now? After all, you haven't been getting into that many
accidents, and even if you were to get into some, at least you
weren't carrying a cane." I asked them what was wrong with carrying
a cane. They said, "If you carry a cane, don't you understand,
people will think you are blind."
I said, "So people think that I am blind." They said, "But
don't you see that if people think you are blind, they'll think
that you are helpless." Thus raged the battle. It got to the point
of a heated argument.
One of them said, "If you carry that thing when you are with
me in public, I will not acknowledge that I know you." Later we had
a discussion about Braille. I told my parents that I was going to
learn it. They responded that Braille was just for totally blind
people. "I don't want anyone to know that you are blind."
I said, "Look, all my life I have been a poor reader because
I had to read print, and look where it has gotten me. I have done
well enough, but I could have done better."
"Well," they said, "We are not going to budge." I said that I
would not budge either. They thought they wouldn't, but they did.
They budged, and in time they grew to understand.
But I can't help thinking, if only my parents had known when
I was a child, what they know now, if only they had had within them
the beliefs of the National Federation of the Blind, things would
have been so different in my life. They would have fought for me to
learn Braille. They would have made sure that I was trained in cane
travel. Most important, they would have known that it is
respectable to be blind.
I AM BLIND AND A GENUINE HORSE TRADER
by Dan Crawford
Dan Crawford is the only genuine horse trader I know■blind or
sighted. Since most of you probably don't know any horse traders
either, I thought you might like to hear his story. Here is how he
I was born in Garden Prairie, Illinois, in a farming community
and raised on a dairy farm that my parents operated. I lost my left
eye at the age of five and only had ten percent vision in my right
eye. I attended the Illinois Braille and Sight Saving School in
Jacksonville through my sophomore year. And I guess everybody at
Jacksonville could have predicted my future. I used to slip away to
the local stable and eventually got caught and got in trouble. So
from then on my future was definitely predictable.
At the end of my sophomore year I transferred to Belvedere
High School. And it was during my junior and senior year of high
school that I really started working horses.
I was very fortunate in that my father was an excellent
horseman and able to teach me a lot. I also associated with
qualified horse people, as well as excellent veterinarians and
I never will forget the first horse that I trained for money.
I was offered $35 a month to ride this horse, and back in those
days $35 was a lot of money, so I jumped at the chance. Believe me,
I needed every dollar.
From then on, horses started coming in for training on a
regular basis. And between training horses, helping to milk cows,
and going to school I kept quite busy. After graduation I still
continued to train horses. By then I'd upped my rate to $50 a
Then the horses still continued to come in for training. I
attended college for a while and worked horses on the side.
Eventually I upped my rate to $100 a month. And people still
continued to send me horses.
About this time I incorporated a new aspect of the horse
business. I started buying untrained horses and training them for
resale. I found that I could make far more money than I could
training them for their owners. And so I continued this practice.
Then, I took a factory job working for the Green Giant
Canneries, but I still worked horses on the side.
And it was about this time that some of my friends and I
decided that we'd like to rodeo a little bit. We started roping and
tying a little bit with Mom and Dad's dairy cows. Needless to say
this did not make my mother too happy.
And about the same time one of my friends got hold of a real
outstanding bareback bronco. One of the times I had my pride hurt
the most was when this bronk bucked me off, kicked me in the head,
and knocked me out for eight hours. Unfortunately, all of this was
completely documented on color film.
Well, enough about my rodeo days. I still continued to train
horses. About this time I realized that there was more money to be
made in strictly buying and selling horses because there was far
less chance of getting my bones broken. So I continued buying and
But this didn't put enough bread on the table, so I took a
better factory job at Belvedere Products, where I worked as an
upholsterer. Fortunately the two jobs seemed to work quite well
together--that is, for a few years. Eventually the horse business
got big enough that I had to give up the factory job.
At this time I might add that while I was working at Belvedere
Products, I lost the remaining sight in my right eye. I was
twenty-seven years old, and I wondered if I'd still be able to
continue the horse business. Somehow I just knew I could.
In some respects it was easier continuing the business after
I lost my sight than before. During the last couple of years of
seeing, I found my sight was actually more of a hindrance.
The strange thing was that all this time that I was buying,
selling, and trading horses, I never thought of it as a career or
anything to base a future on--just something to while away time and
keep myself busy. I was probably thirty years old before it dawned
on me: Well, I'm probably born to be a horse trader and probably
will be the rest of my life.
And so I still continue buying and selling horses. But I also
started buying and selling saddles and horse trailers. I found
that the three seemed to work quite well together.
And so I practiced this for a few years and traveled around
the country having a good time. But in 1975 a big change came into
my life. I met my wife to be, Sue, and we were married.
At this time we specialize in the Arabian horse. I will have
to admit that I am just a little bit prejudiced toward the
Arabian--lthough, in fairness, we have owned some outstanding
quarter horses, appaloosas, thoroughbreds, Tennessee Walkers, and
a few Morgans, as well as a few other breeds. But our business is
basically geared around the Arabian.
The next major change in our lives occurred in 1981. We moved
away from Illinois and into Tennessee on a twenty-acre farm near
Estill Springs. Estill is located exactly half way between
Nashville and Chattanooga on Interstate 24. Our farm has four
stock-filled ponds. We have in our ponds catfish, bass, and
crappies, as well as a year round spring fed creek.
So I thought perhaps when we moved to Tennessee that I might
retire from the horse business--strictly relax and fish and have a
But as things will happen, they don't always work out that
way. When I moved from Illinois, I sold every horse that we owned.
But a good deal came along with some horses, and before I knew it,
we were back in the horse business bigger than ever. We had to
build a new barn to expand our facilities. And if all goes well, we
hope to build a new house this year. It's about time. Sue deserves
I often have people tell me they think it's just amazing the
way I handle and get along with horses. And they wonder if I think
other blind people could do the same thing. And my answer is
If I were a young blind person and wanted to get into the
horse business, there are ways in which I feel this could be
accomplished. I would start buying and selling saddles and bridles
and other related accessories. It would take approximately six
months to a year to learn most of the horse equipment. But
hopefully this would be a way the beginner could start to meet
competent and qualified horse people and also a way for the
beginner to start his or her education in becoming a genuine horse
To become a horse trader it's a long drawn out process. It's
just like going to college. It's going to take from three to five
years to understand completely and learn the horses' anatomy and
conformation, as well as various good and bad points about the
horse, as well as studying up on pedigree.
So that is why I think I would start handling horse-related
accessories. This would bring in a source of income while learning
There is no reason why other blind people can't become genuine
horse traders. The horse business is a multi-billion dollar
business. And ninety to ninety-five per cent of the people who get
into the business fail. Now I know that may seem hard to believe.
Let me assure you that it is true. Therefore, there is money to be
made for the remaining five percent. So I say if you are at all
interested in becoming a horse trader, go for it.
WHERE IS THE WASHROOM?
by Deborah Kent Stein
Deborah Kent Stein is a recognized professional author. She is
also blind and a member of the National Federation of the Blind of
Illinois. From time to time she writes profiles of fellow
Federation members■always lively without being melodramatic and
sensitive without being sentimental. Here is one such profile.
To this day, Bill Reif has vivid memories of the National
Federation of the Blind student seminar he attended during his
senior year in high school. "What they kept saying was that we had
to take responsibility for ourselves," he explains. "People there
were telling me I shouldn't just accept what the so-called experts
said I should be doing■I should push to learn whatever skills I
needed and figure out the techniques that would work best for me."
During the summer after he graduated from high school, Bill
put the advice he heard at the NFB seminar into action. He knew he
would have to hand in assignments in print when he started college
in the fall. So he taught himself typing, a skill which the experts
had somehow considered unnecessary for a blind student.
Even in high school, Bill knew that he wanted to become a
lawyer. He attended the College of Du Page for two years and then
transferred to Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, where he had
the chance to live away from home for the first time. After
receiving his B.A., he entered law school at the University of
Illinois in Champaign.
Law school was more challenging than anything he had tackled
before. In college lectures he had relied heavily on his memory,
but now he realized that he needed an effective way of taking notes
in class. So he taught himself to write Braille using the slate and
After graduation from law school, Bill decided to look for a
job in Champaign, where he had made many friends. For a while he
did legal research, but he found full-time jobs were hard to come
by. After two years he moved to Springfield, taking a job with the
Illinois Department of Insurance, a state agency which regulates
the insurance industry. The position lasted only ten months; then
he was sending out resumes again.
Over the next two years Bill flooded the job market with
applications and went on dozens of interviews. But employers were
highly skeptical of hiring a blind lawyer. "Who brought you here?"
they would ask him during interviews. "Is your mother waiting for
you out there?" They questioned how he could handle travel on the
job and what he would do about the heavy reading load. While Bill
tried to focus attention on his professional skills and interests,
the employers all too often couldn't find their way past
blindness-related concerns. "You know, this building is awfully big
and complicated, and the washrooms are up on the second floor...."
When a job finally came his way, it was through a fluke he
could never have foreseen. A friend was taking a journalism class
and wrote an article about Bill, which was published in the
Springfield paper. The article was straightforward and
unsentimental. It described how Bill had taught himself to cook,
how he enjoyed roller skating, and how he was searching diligently
for a job. A few days after the article appeared, the telephone
rang. The caller was Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan.
"I was utterly amazed," Bill recalls. "He not only invited me
to come in for an interview, he offered me a choice of working in
practically any division I wanted within his office. I couldn't
believe it was really happening!"
In April, 1983, Bill went to work in the Department of
Consumer Protection within the Attorney General's office. "I
selected that particular area because it's very deeply concerned
with justice," he explains. "It's really a matter of seeing that
people get their rights."
Federation philosophy has proved an asset as Bill resolves
blindness-related problems on the job. Each time he has had a
change of supervisor, he has had to prove his abilities over again.
Some, for example, have reassigned cases which they feared would
require more research than they thought he could handle. Others
have been reluctant to give him direct courtroom experience. He has
learned to be assertive, to explain his techniques for getting the
job done, and to insist on gaining experience which will enhance
his professional development. "If you're not careful," he warns,
"the job will get structured according to what others think you can
Bill got married in 1985. He met his wife, Roberta, through
the Lutheran church, where he is an active member. Their son Bruce
is two years old.Even when he planned to marry and raise a family, Bill
encountered some people who told him he would never be able to
manage such responsibilities. Again his personal philosophy,
supported by his involvement in the National Federation of the
Blind, strengthened his belief in himself. "You can't let anybody
else tell you what you can do and can't do," he advises. "Be honest
with yourself about your abilities and limitations but never be
afraid to take chances."
SHANTHI'S FIRST AMERICAN YEAR
by Barbara Freeman
Mike Freeman, a blind computer analyst, and his wife Barbara
(who is sighted) are long-time leaders in the Washington state
affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. When Mike and
Barbara began the adoption process about four years ago, they were
a little nervous. Not only did they have to deal with the usual
bewildering mass of paperwork, interviews, and unexpected pitfalls
associated with the adoption■especially overseas adoption■process,
but they had to deal with questions and doubts about Mike's ability
to care for a child. Why? For no other reason than the fact that
Mike is blind. Fortunately, it is no longer rare or unusual for
blind individuals successfully to adopt children. The National
Federation of the Blind has been providing help and encouragement
to prospective blind adoptive parents for over twenty years.
As a consequence, blind persons generally have fewer
difficulties today in overcoming negative attitudes and ignorance
about blindness among adoption social workers. So it was with Mike
and Barbara, and eventually Shanthi joined her family in America.
But a whole new set of challenges awaited Mike and Barbara.
Shanthi, too, is blind, and for nearly a year she had been in a
less than ideal environment. Here is Barbara's story of "Shanthi's
First American Year."
My husband, Mike, and I met our new daughter, Shanthi Anne, at
the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on November 13, 1990.
Shanthi, then aged eleven and a half months, flew to us from India.
Our social worker had recommended this baby to us because she was
outstandingly responsive and alert when she observed her on a trip
to India the previous April. Shanthi is anophthalmic, this means
she was born without eyes.
When Shanthi arrived at our home in November, she had changed
little since she had been placed in the foundling home the previous
April. She could not bear weight; she could sit up, but not get to
a sitting position by herself; and she could roll, but not crawl or
creep. She examined people's faces, hands, and clothing, but never
reached out to find anything beyond the person holding her. Most
disturbing of all, Shanthi did not know what a bottle was and could
not use a cup or eat from a spoon.
Another set of parents had visited her foundling home and had
observed the babies being fed. Because of a nipple-borne infection,
the doctor had forbidden bottles. As a result, at every feeding one
caretaker would hold the babies down and pry open their mouths
while another caretaker would pour thick water-buffalo milk in from
above. The babies would scream and gag the whole time. The social
worker who brought Shanthi from India had been feeding her with a
little medicine syringe. She would squirt formula into Shanthi's
mouth while Shanthi sucked her thumb. Shanthi expected to be fed
lying down, and never took her thumb out of her mouth. She got more
formula on her than in her.
We drove home with our baby without any idea about how we were
going to feed her. Upon the advice of our pediatrician, we decided
to train Shanthi to a cup instead of back to a bottle. Our doctor
also advised us to start feeding her a wide variety of foods
immediately. Shanthi was underweight and had mild anemia. There was
no time to introduce solid foods gradually. Shanthi's front teeth
were coming in when she arrived so it was doubly important that she
learn to bite and chew right away. A child who does not learn to
use her teeth when they are coming in often has eating problems. A
delay in learning how to eat plus the early trauma of forced
feeding might very well have caused a life-long problem.
Thus began an extremely intense three weeks. My goals were
twofold: first, to teach her how to eat a mixed diet and second, to
give her control over her food intake as soon as possible. I bought
training cups with lids that allowed the formula to flow when the
cup was tipped. I wanted Shanthi to know that tipping the cup
caused the milk to flow. Some training cups are so spill-proof that
the milk must be sucked out.
I insisted from the first that Shanthi sit up to eat or drink.
I sat her in my lap with my left arm behind her back so she could
not lie down. By the third feeding, she was sitting in the
highchair. When I gave her a drink, she learned she could control
intake by pushing my hand away. I also got her to eat a little
strained food but I had to chase her mouth as she moved her head
back and forth. She also kept her thumb in her mouth most of the
time and I had to catch her when it came out. I learned to keep the
spoon in one place and let her come to it. Within ten days Shanthi
could eat graham crackers and even a fig newton cookie. Upon the
advice of an eating therapist, I stopped using baby-food the same
day she learned how to eat the graham crackers.
I taught her how to pick up the cup by placing her hands on it
and showing her what to do. After she learned how to pick it up, it
took several more days to learn how to tip up the cup to get the
formula. I placed crackers or large sticks of food in her hand and
moved her hand from the tray to her mouth. Soon she could feed
herself finger-food. As Shanthi practiced feeding herself, she
slowly learned how to get smaller bits of food into her mouth. As
soon as Shanthi discovered that she could feed herself, she refused
to take anything from a spoon. She began to use a spoon again only
when I showed her how to use it herself.
Shanthi attended the NFB National Convention in New Orleans in
the summer where she became much more aware of how adults drink out
of open cups because she sat in our laps a lot while we talked with
friends. She heard the tinkling ice in water, juice, and tea and
started reaching for them. I would help her taste them. When we got
home, I taught her how to drink from an open cup. I moved her hands
from behind. Because she was having trouble moving the full cup to
her mouth, I fed her a few times in just her diaper without a bib
so she could feel right away what movement made the milk spill. She
learned in four days.
We also began helping Shanthi with her motor skills shortly
after she arrived. Shanthi began walking with us holding on with
two hands in January, 1991, and could walk holding on with one hand
by May. In early Fall, I taught her how to climb stairs while I
held her hands.
As Shanthi's second birthday approached, she was rapidly
developing new language, charm, and musical ability. Shanthi has
quite a wide vocabulary now. She will ask her daddy to play the
piano and says, "See book" when she comes across anything with
Braille on it. She celebrated entering the "Terrible Twos" by
singing the entire Star-Spangled Banner substituting "no" for each
Shanthi has great dignity. Her daddy and I hope to be able to
teach her the skills she needs to put her proud independence into
practice without crushing her spirit in the process.
I have learned that if I am to teach Shanthi a new skill, we
must both be ready. I will not always know just how I, as the
mother, get ready to move with Shanthi to the next phase of
development. I believe my membership in the National Federation of
the Blind will continue to give me the faith to believe that if I
teach, she will learn.
TO SEA WITH A BLIND SCIENTIST
by Geerat J. Vermeij
Scientific research is not a career most people believe to be
suitable for the blind, but such beliefs are changing. Dr. Geerat
Vermeij is a nationally recognized marine biologist. He conducts
research and teaches students at the doctoral level. Dr. Vermeij
tells us that science is competitive, tedious, and hard■and, that
he loves it. Here is what he has to say:
How, a skeptic might ask, could a blind person ever hope to be
a scientist? After all, science is difficult if not impenetrable
even for many sighted people; and, in any case, there is almost
nothing in the way of books about science available to the blind.
How would one carry out experiments? How would one gain access
to the huge scientific literature? Perhaps a blind person could be
a physicist, at least a theoretical physicist, but surely not a
biologist. Why would the blind willingly choose biology, that most
visual of all the sciences?
The answer is very simple. Science, and for me biology in
particular, is absolutely fascinating. Someone is actually paying
me to study shells■some of the most beautiful works of architecture
in all of nature■in the expectation that broad principles with
implications for our own species will emerge.
What is more, I get to travel to exotic places, to read the
scientific literature in all its fantastic diversity, to see my own
papers and books published, and to teach others about science, that
most powerful of all ways of knowing. What more could one ask of a
Like many of my colleagues, I came to science early in life.
Even as a small boy growing up in the Netherlands, I picked up
shells, pine cones, pretty stones, and the like. My parents, both
of whom are avid natural historians, took pains to acquaint me with
all kinds of creatures that lived in the grassy polders and in the
innumerable ditches that crisscrossed the Low Land.
The fact that I was totally blind made no difference at all.
At the age of ten, shortly after moving to the United States, I
became seriously interested in shells. Almost immediately I started
my own collection, which soon grew to include all manner of other
objects of natural history. My parents and brother were
enthusiastic; they read aloud, transcribed, or dictated every book
on natural history they could find.
The reactions of my teachers in the local public elementary
school ranged from polite acceptance to genuine enthusiasm when I
told them of my intentions to become a conchologist, a
malacologist, or a biologist. If they thought about the
incompatibility between blindness and biology, they kept it to
themselves, or perhaps they expected my obsession to be a passing
fancy soon to be replaced by more realistic plans.
The interest in biology did not flag. As counselors more
openly expressed their fears that I would be unable to find
employment if I persisted in my plans to study biology, I entered
Princeton University to concentrate on biology and geology. There
I received strong support from nearly all my professors; they were
giants in their fields, and their enthusiasm sustained my youthful
I applied to do doctoral work at Yale. When I arrived for my
interview in the biology department, the director of graduate
studies was more than a little apprehensive. During my talk with
him, he took me down to the university's shell collection in the
basement of the Peabody Museum. Casually he picked up two shells
and asked me if I knew them. He fully expected me to draw a blank,
in which case he planned to tell me as gently as possible that
biology was not for me after all.
Fortunately, however, the shells were familiar to me. All of
the misgivings of the director instantly evaporated. Thanks to his
enthusiastic endorsement, I was able to enter Yale with a full
graduate fellowship that left me free to travel and to carry out an
ambitious research project culminating in the Ph.D. dissertation.
After Yale, I joined the Department of Zoology at the
University of Maryland at College Park in 1971, first as an
instructor. Moving up through the academic ranks, I was appointed
professor in 1980. Along the way, I married Edith Zipser, a fellow
biologist whom I had met at Yale, and we had a daughter Hermine,
who is now six. Very recently I accepted a new appointment to
become Professor of Geology at the University of California, Davis.
What do I actually do in my job that seemed so improbable to
the skeptics? Again the answer is simple. I do what my sighted
colleagues do: research, teaching, and service.
My research centers on how animals and plants have evolved to
cope with their biological enemies■predators, competitors, and
parasites■over the course of the last six hundred million years of
earth history. When I was still a graduate student, working at the
University of Guam Marine Laboratory, I noticed that many of the
shells I was finding on the island's reef-flats were broken despite
their considerable thickness and strength.
It soon became clear that shell-breaking predators, especially
crabs and fishes, were responsible for this damage. I began to
suspect that many of the elegant features of tropical shells■their
knobby and spiny surfaces, their tight coiling, and the narrow
shell opening often partially occluded by knob-like
thickenings■were interpretable as adaptations which enabled the
snails that built the shells to withstand the onslaughts of their
Most interestingly, the shells I had collected in the West
Indies and the Atlantic coasts of South America and Africa seemed
to be less well endowed with this kind of armor than were the
shells from comparable sites in the tropical Western Pacific. Armed
with these observations and hypotheses, I applied for funding from
the National Science Foundation to continue my work upon my arrival
When the program director called me to say that I would be
funded, he also informed me that the Foundation would not sponsor
my proposed field work in the Indian Ocean because he could not
conceive of a blind person's doing field work. I reminded him that
I had already worked in field situations throughout the tropics,
and that the proposed research critically depended on the work in
the Indian Ocean. After a few minutes of conversation he relented
and awarded me the full amount.
How do I do my research? It is a combination of field,
laboratory, museum, and library work that has taken me all over the
world to coral reefs, mangrove swamps, mud-flats, rock-bound open
coasts, deserts, rain forests, research vessels, marine biological
stations, secret military installations, great libraries, and
I make large collections of specimens in the field, work with
living animals in laboratory aquaria, measure shells in museums and
in my own very large research collection, and read voraciously.
Wherever I go I am in the company of a sighted assistant or
Often this is my wife, but there are many others as well.
There is nothing unusual about this; every scientist I know has
assistants. I keep detailed field and laboratory notebooks in
Braille, usually written with slate and stylus.
Once a week I go to the U.S. National Museum of Natural
History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in order
to work with the outstanding collection of mollusks and to peruse
carefully all the scientific periodicals that came into the library
the previous week. While my reader reads to me, I transcribe
extensive notes on the Perkins Brailler. Sometimes I will make just
a few notations of the main point of a scientific paper, but at
other times I transcribe all the data contained in a paper. My
Braille scientific library now comprises more than eight thousand
publications compiled in more than one hundred forty thick Braille
Like many of my colleagues, I spend a great deal of time
writing. First, I prepare drafts on the Perkins Brailler, using the
seemingly inexhaustible supply of memos and announcements that
flood my mailbox daily. Once I am satisfied with the text, I type
the manuscript on an ink typewriter. An assistant proofreads and
corrects the manuscript, which is then submitted to an appropriate
scientific periodical or book publisher for a thorough evaluation.
In all my work I find Braille to be vastly more efficient than
any other form of communication. I also prefer live readers to tape
recorders. How can you ask a machine to spell words, to ferret out
a detail in a graph or table, and most importantly to skip whole
sections or to scan the text for a particular point?
Teaching has always been inextricably intertwined with
research for me. I can point to several papers that would not have
been written were it not for the fact that I was forced to think
about problems in connection with a lecture on a topic quite far
removed from my immediate research interests.
Over the years I have taught a great variety of courses■animal
diversity, evolutionary biology, ecology, marine ecology,
malacology, the mathematics and physics of organic form, and a
seminar on extinction■ranging from the introductory to the advanced
In the large introductory courses, teaching assistants take
charge of the laboratory sections and help in grading papers.
Again, there is nothing unusual in this. Professors in science
departments at most universities depend heavily on teaching
assistants. Like other research-oriented professors, I train
graduate students. Thus far, seven students have received their
Ph.D. degrees under my direction.
The service part of the job is highly varied as well. There
are the inevitable committee meetings and the many tasks that help
make the department or the university run smoothly. I head search
committees to find new faculty members, I conduct reviews of
faculty performance, and I write as few memos as I can. An
important service to the profession is the review of dozens of
manuscripts and grant proposals. If one writes them, one ought to
be willing to review them as well.
Of course, science isn't all fun and games. Science is
competitive; it is hard work, full of tedious calculations,
revising manuscripts for the nth time, of coping with the
disappointment of having a cherished paper or grant proposal
summarily rejected, and of quibbling about grades with a
frustratingly inept student. Nobody in science is exempt from
pressures and feelings such as these, but in the end the work is
immensely rewarding and intellectually fulfilling.
In short, there is nothing about my job that makes it
unsuitable for a blind person. Of course, there are inherent risks
in the field work; I have been stung by rays, bitten by crabs, and
detained by police who mistook my partner and me for operatives
trying to overthrow the government of their African country, and I
have slipped on rocks, scraped my hand on sharp oysters and
pinnacles of coral, and suffered from stomach cramps.
There isn't a field scientist alive or dead who hasn't had
similar experiences. Life without risk is life without challenge;
one cannot hope to understand nature without experiencing it
firsthand. The blind, no more than the sighted, must act sensibly
and with appropriate caution. Along with independence comes the
responsibility of assuming risks.
What would I say to a blind person who is contemplating a
career in science? Very simple. I would tell that person exactly
what I would tell a sighted one: Love your subject, be prepared to
work hard, don't be discouraged by doubters and by the occasional
failure, be willing to take risks, get as much basic science and
mathematics as you can take, and perhaps above all display a
reasoned self-confidence without carrying a chip on your shoulder.
You will need stamina, good grades, the support of influential
scientists, and a willingness and ability to discover new facts and
new ideas. It is not enough to do well in courses; one must make
new observations, design and carry out tests of hypotheses that
have been carefully thought out, and interpret and present the
results in such a way that the work is both believable and
interesting to others. Science is not for everyone, but I can think
of no field that is more satisfying.
What would I say to the educational establishment? I would
tell them that the prevailing attitudes about science and the blind
must be reformed. For too long the scientifically inclined blind
have been steered only toward the social sciences and other "safe"
disciplines, and away from fields in which laboratory and outdoor
studies are important.
I believe that the chief factor holding the blind back from
science is ignorance, not only by virtue of woefully inadequate
reading materials in the schools and libraries, but also because of
the pervasive fear and discouragement by the establishment to let
the blind observe nature firsthand. I once met a blind woman who
professed an interest in biology, yet she had never been encouraged
to touch the spiny leaves of the holly.
Observation is the first, and in many ways the most important,
step in a scientific inquiry. Without the freedom and encouragement
to observe, a blind person (or anyone else, for that matter) is
subtly but decisively turned away from science.
The key to this freedom is equality, and the key to equality
is opportunity and respect. The National Federation of the Blind
has long championed the philosophy that the blind are fully as
capable as the sighted given sufficient opportunity and training.
Education with this philosophy as its cornerstone is built on the
assumption that no discipline is closed to the blind. By a logical
extension, this basic respect will open more doors to the world of
science as we continue to work for full participation in society.
If you or a friend would like to remember the National Federation
of the Blind in your will, you can do so by employing the following
"I give, devise, and bequeath unto National Federation of the
Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Suite 300, Baltimore, Maryland 21230,
a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, the sum of $ --- (or
"--- percent of my net estate" or "The following stocks and
bonds: ---") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind
National Federation of the Blind
You can help us spread the word...
...about our Braille Readers Are Leaders contest for blind
schoolchildren, a project which encourages blind children to
achieve literacy through Braille.
...about our scholarships for deserving blind college
...about Job Opportunities for the Blind, a program that
matches capable blind people with employers who need their skills.
...about where to turn for accurate information about
blindness and the abilities of the blind.
Most importantly, you can help us by sharing what you've
learned about blindness in these pages with your family and
friends. If you know anyone who needs assistance with the problems
of blindness, please write:
Marc Maurer, President
1800 Johnson Street, Suite 300
Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998
Your contribution is tax-deductible.