Tapping the Charcoal
Kenneth Jernigan
Editor

Large Type Edition

 

A KERNEL BOOK
published by
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Copyright 1995 by the National Federation of the Blind
ISBN 1-885218-03-6
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America

Table of Contents

Editors Introduction

Tapping the Charcoal

Ladders, Mud Pies, and Milk Bottles

Metal, Glue, and Plastic

A Mothers Story

Good Fortune, Hard Work, and the Klondike Derby

Bangles, Baubles, and Beads

Substituting for Success

Three-Letter Words: How or Why Not?

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION

We are approaching double digits, for this is the ninth volume in the Kernel Book series. The first of the Kernel Books, What Color is the Sun, appeared in 1991. Since that time, we have produced two each year, this being the second for 1995.

The Kernel Books are a departure from what is usually written about blindness. They attempt to take the mystery out of it by giving firsthand accounts of how blind people live on a daily basis. Other firsthand stories about blindness have been written, of course, but not in such large numbers and not in this format. What we are trying to do is to take advantage of the cumulative effect of story after story year after year coming in a steady stream.

The details differ, but the theme is the same. In effect, the people who are writing in these pages are saying:

"Blindness is not as strange as you think it is, and it need not be as terrifying. This is how I lead my life, and not just in generalities but in detail. Here is how I work and play, brush my teeth and cook my meals, go to school and meet friends, raise a family and deal with my children, and handle all of the other activities that occur between the time I get up and the time I go to bed. By and large, my life is just about like yours. I am neither especially blessed nor especially cursed. My existence is more routine than dramatic, but it can be filled with meaning and joy■and sometimes, of course, it has pain."

This is the substance of what the authors in this book are saying. They are people I know■former students, colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind, and personal friends. I think you will find their stories interesting, and I believe you will recognize in them a reflection of your own experiences, differing somewhat in detail but following the same overall pattern.

One thing that brings those of us who have written these stories together is our membership in the National Federation of the Blind (The NFB). Established in 1940, the National Federation of the Blind is the oldest and largest organization of blind people in the United States. We have chapters in every state and almost every community of any size.

We come together to discuss common problems and to provide mutual assistance and self-help. We also carry on programs of public education, and we seek assistance and understanding from members of the sighted public like you. The National Federation of the Blind is one of the biggest success stories in twentieth-century America, for we and our sighted friends are truly changing what it means to be blind.

All you need do to prove the truth of this statement is to read this book. And why is it called Tapping the Charcoal? The first story will tell you. We hope you will find it and all of the others interesting and worthwhile. Sometimes you build a bridge or climb a mountain by "tapping the charcoal"■especially if you do it quickly and lightly.

Kenneth Jernigan
Baltimore, Maryland 1995

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 what type size is helpful for people with limited sight.

The second reason is that 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.

TAPPING THE CHARCOAL
by Kenneth Jernigan

When you come right down to it, most people give more attention to food and things related to eating than to almost anything else. At least, that's the way it is with me. My wife Mary Ellen and I live in a big house, and the biggest room in it is the dining room. We like to entertain, and I like to cook on the charcoal grill.

My wife is sighted, and I am blind; but that hasn't changed the fact that our roles in the food department are what once would have been called "traditional." She generally takes responsibility for organizing the kitchen and doing most of the cooking, and I handle the barbecuing and related outside chores. I also have a number of specialty dishes that I like to prepare: a mean kettle of butter beans, a unique homemade salad dressing, and an occasional stew or soup.

As to setting the table, she probably does more of it than I do, but either of us will take care of it as needed. The point is that we do a lot of cooking and have a great many guests and that blindness (except for a few specialized techniques we have devised) makes relatively little difference in how we function.

But you might think otherwise if you heard some of the conversations that occur. Not long ago, for instance, a sighted friend of mine was at our home for dinner; and before we went to the table, I was putting batteries into a talking clock. I use the clock (which will tell me how many seconds have gone by) to time the burgers on the charcoal, and its batteries were dead. As will sometimes happen in such cases, the plate that covers the batteries was acting as if it didn't want to slide back into place. My friend said:

"Here, I'll do that." Saying this, he reached for the clock.

"That's okay," I said. "I'll take care of it."

Up to that point, my friend's behavior was, at the very worst, maybe a little pushy. But his next comment was more than that.

"All right," he said, "I'll let you do it. I know how independent you like to be."

What kind of response should I have made? Certainly I shouldn't have become upset or angry, and I didn't. In fact, I passed off what he said with a smile and a general flow of conversation. But I wonder how he would have felt if the circumstances had been reversed. Suppose I had gone to his home and behaved exactly as he did in mine.

He was a guest in my house, a house I had demonstrated the competence to buy and pay for. We were dealing with my clock and my batteries, a clock and batteries I had bought and paid for. The task was not difficult. The cover went on almost immediately, but even if that hadn't been the case, my friend's conduct was inappropriate.

Even though he knows me quite well and often almost embarrasses me with his praise of my ability when we are talking with mutual acquaintances, he still thought that my blindness meant that I couldn't put a simple cover-plate on a clock. Moreover, I am sure he felt that there was no impropriety in his statement about my "liking to be independent." But if I had been in his home and had reached for his clock as he did for mine, and had then said to him, "All right■you do it; I know how independent you like to be," he would have thought I was losing not only my manners but also my mind.

On another occasion that same friend (and he is a friend) was having dinner at my home, and when I started to pour the coffee, he reached for it, saying: "Here, let me pour that."

Suppose I had been in his home and he had started to pour the coffee, and further suppose that I had reached for it without so much as a by your leave. He would have felt that I was overstepping the bounds of the relationship between guest and host, and he would have thought it doubly inappropriate since I am blind.

His tone and words were those you might use in dealing with a small child, but he was in no sense trying to put me down. He is fond of me, and we're the best of friends. Incidentally, if you wonder how I pour coffee, how I know when the cup is full enough, I do it by listening and by long experience in knowing how heavy the cup feels as the liquid goes into it. It's a simple matter, just one more technique that has become automatic with time and use.

My friend's behavior (not just what he said but also the attitude behind it) illustrates to perfection the dilemma we as blind people face. Very often our friends and associates treat us as if we were children, and not very competent children at that. If we object, we appear to be proving the point of our immaturity. And if we do nothing, we permit the misconception to remain unchanged. But the situation is not static.

We are making steady progress. Day by day and step by step we are changing what it means to be blind.

The public misunderstandings with which we deal are often not grim. In fact, they can be downright funny. I think of the time when I went to a cafeteria, where you carried your tray through the line but a waitress then took it to your table. I was with a sighted associate, and both of us had put iced tea on our trays. When we got to the table and the waitress had put our trays down and was turning away, I reached out toward my plate and turned my tea glass over. It made a mess.

The waitress was very gracious about it and said she would bring me another. She did■but just as she turned around and was leaving, my sighted friend reached across my tray (probably to get salt or pepper) and hit my tea glass and turned it over. The waitress heard the splash and turned around.

In a very solicitious voice she said: "I'm sorry. I'll get you another glass."

Do you think I told her that I hadn't spilled that second glass of tea, that it was my sighted friend who had done it? Certainly not. She wouldn't have believed me and would probably have thought that I was just embarrassed.

"No," I told her, "I think I'll just drink this glass of water. I think I wasn't meant to have tea today." Still insisting that she would bring me more tea, the waitress left but I am sure that she was puzzled by our prolonged laughter. Explanations wouldn't have helped. The incident brightened our day.

I remember an evening almost twenty years ago when a sighted professor of journalism and his six-year-old son were my dinner guests. We were cooking on the charcoal, and I was explaining to the professor that you can tell when your hamburgers are done by timing them and by how hot your fire is.

I was showing him how the burgers are put into a wire rack with a handle on it, which makes them easy to turn. When they are done on one side, you simply lift the rack and turn it over.

He wanted to know how I could keep the rack straight on the grill, and I explained that I do it by touch. You can even touch a hot stove without burning yourself if you do it quickly. I illustrated by touching the top of the hot grill, hitting it lightly and then quickly taking my fingers away. The professor seemed thoroughly convinced that the technique would work. After all, he was watching me do it. But when his six-year old son decided to try it, he wasn't so sure.

"That grill's hot!" he said. "Be careful! Don't do that!

You'll burn yourself!"

The boy (such are the ways of children) was ecstatic. "Chicken!" he cried to his dad. "Chicken!" He danced to the other side of the grill and kept tapping the top of it with his fingers. I was laughing and doing the same thing, and by and by, the professor was trying it too. I then said to him, "Now, let's tap the glowing charcoal."

The boy was all for it and skipped out of his father's reach. I hoped he was mature enough not to burn himself, and he was. It wasn't long before he, his dad, and I were playing the game of quickly and lightly tapping the glowing coals.

There is no great virtue, of course, in tapping a hot grill with your fingers, but it does make the point that visual techniques are not the only ones that can be used in the activities of daily living. There are many others that work just as well. And, by the way, I doubt that my friends (the professor and his son) will ever forget the experience. Most alternative techniques are not as dramatic as tapping the charcoal, but they can be just as effective.

The real problem of blindness is not the blindness itself■not the acquisition of skills or techniques or competence. The real problem is the lack of understanding and the misconceptions which exist. It is no accident that the word blind carries with it connotations of inferiority and helplessness.

The concept undoubtedly goes back to primitive times when existence was at an extremely elemental level. Eyesight and the power to see were equated with light, and light (whether daylight or firelight) meant security and safety. Blindness was equated with darkness, and darkness meant danger and evil. The blind person could not hunt effectively or dodge a club.

In our day, society and social values have changed.

In civilized countries there is now (except perhaps in certain American cities) no great premium on dodging a club, and hunting has dwindled to the status of an occasional pastime. The blind are able to compete on terms of equality in the full current of active life. The primitive conditions of jungle and cave are gone, but the primitive attitudes still linger.

Even so, we who are blind have come farther in the last thirty or forty years than ever before in all of recorded history. This is so largely because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind, which has done more than any other single thing to help make life better for blind people. And we are only at the threshold.

For the blind of this country tomorrow is bright with promise. We believe in the future; we believe in ourselves; and we believe in the goodwill of our sighted friends and associates. We will put the batteries in our clocks; we will pour coffee for ourselves and others; and we will tap the charcoal but we will do it quickly and with a light touch.

LADDERS, MUD PIES, AND MILK BOTTLES
by Sharon Gold

The things that happen to us when we are children do much to determine what kind of adults we will become. All too often the blind child is permitted to engage in unacceptable behavior in some situations, while being strictly prohibited from doing the other perfectly normal things most children do.

For parents, finding the right mix can be difficult■particularly when well-meaning friends are critical. Sharon Gold, the President of the National Federation of the Blind of California, is grateful that her parents followed their own common sense in deciding what to permit and what to prohibit. Here is what she has to say about some of her childhood experiences:

My parents were devastated when they learned that their firstborn child was blind. Neither my mother nor my father knew a blind person, but what was even more devastating than the blindness was the way the doctors handled the situation.

They were kind men who didn't wish to upset my parents by telling them their baby couldn't see. You may be thinking that perhaps the doctors did not know that I was blind; and, of course, you may be right. However, my eyes were cloudy because I had congenital cataracts.

My mother noticed the cloudiness immediately and inquired about it. The doctors said that they would put drops in my eyes and the cloudiness would go away. In those days mother and child stayed in the hospital for several days, and each day the doctors put drops in my eyes and tried to avoid discussing my eye condition with my mother.

As I have already said, these doctors were kind and loving men. They meant only good for my parents, and they certainly meant no harm to this newborn baby. But however shocking and cruel it may have seemed to the doctors, it would have been more loving and kind to have openly discussed the actual condition of my eyes and my blindness with my parents.

This event took place fifty years ago, and I wish it were different today. Sometimes it is. However, there is still real reluctance to discuss blindness when it strikes a family. The tendency is still to by-pass the subject or to minimize the situation.

My mother concluded that it would do little good to cry over the fact that I was blind. She decided the sooner she and Daddy began to deal with the situation, the better it would be for all of us. Therefore, my parents made a conscious decision to raise me as they would have any other child. Children need to be encouraged, have their behavior molded, and be disciplined. I was no different.

One evening, when I was very young, my parents had dinner guests. It was their custom with me (and later with my sister) to include me at the dinner table rather than feeding me beforehand and excluding me from eating with the family and the guests. Mother always set a beautiful table, and this evening was no exception. I had my place setting, complete with a glass of milk. However, I wanted something in the middle of the table. Instead of asking for what I wanted, I took the child's shortcut.

Standing up on my chair, I leaned over the table to reach what I wished to have. In the process I knocked over my milk, spilling it all over the table and the floor. My mother picked me up with one hand (as only a mother can do) and swat-ted me on the behind with the other while firmly sitting me back down on the chair.

As she began cleaning up the mess, she noticed that the guests were very quiet. It became evident that they were upset when they voiced their intent to leave because my mother had punished me for spilling my milk. They reasoned that, because I could not see the milk, I should not have been pun-ished for spilling it.

Mother explained that I had not spilled the milk because I had not seen it but because I had been doing something I should not have done■standing on a chair and leaning over the table to get what I should have asked to have passed. Mother told her guests that, if I had been sitting properly at the table and had knocked over the milk because I did not see it, nothing would have been said. The milk would simply have been cleaned up.

Good parents demonstrate their love by teaching their children selfdiscipline and by expecting and praising good behavior. Withstanding the criticism of well-meaning friends and relatives can be very hard for parents, especially parents of blind children. Yet like sighted children blind youngsters need standards for self-discipline and good conduct, and bad behavior should not be excused away by blindness.

All children have dreams. Some are realistic and some are pure fantasy. Almost every child has dreamed of being a fireman or nurse or doctor. Scurrying about the floor, racing to an imaginary fire, gathering up the hooks and ladders, and putting out a raging fire are all part of a child's play, and that play translates into growth and development.

Similarly, children play nurse or doctor and cure the worst ailments with the magic contained in the doctor or nurse's kit. This type of play is expected of sighted children, but as soon as the blind child starts down the hallway with a toy fire truck, some adult is likely to squash the fantasy by the not very subtle reminder that, since he or she is blind, putting out fires would be an impossibility.

My mother thought that choosing a toy was an important part of every child's education and development. When I was still too small to reach the counter, mother would put each toy in my hand for me to see so that I could choose the one for us to buy. When I grew large enough to reach the counter, I independently walked up and down the aisles in the dime store and carefully inspected each toy so that I could make my choice.

Many times children find their own toys. One day, when I was about eighteen months old, I found a ladder that a painter had left leaning against the side of the duplex in which we lived. Being a curious child, I climbed straight up it. When my mother discovered where I was, she was fearful that, if she called, she would startle me. Ultimately she decided to take off her shoes and socks so that she could quietly climb the ladder and carry me down to safety without frightening me.

Another day I found an open gate and rode my tricycle out of the yard and into the big world. I was found blocks from home, having a wonderful time exploring on my own.

Mud is always a fine and inexpensive toy. How many mud pies do we all recall making as children and eating, too, for that matter? When I was a child, all milk bottles were glass, and the empty bottles lined the back steps waiting for the milkman. I added to the fun of making mud pies by taking the bottles from the step and carrying them to my outdoor kitchen. I thought it great fun to fill one bottle with water and pour it from one bottle to the next.

However, when a neighbor happened to observe this activity while visiting my mother one day, she admonished mother for allowing me to play with the glass milk bottles. Mother's response to her criticism was that, if I were to drop one of the bottles and cut myself, I would heal. In the meantime I was learning valuable lessons, including how to pour water from one bottle to another without spilling it.

In the early 1940's children were more likely to go out and find their own toys. When we didn't have anything to do, we climbed trees or walked along walls. There were no televisions or electronic games. Today toy manufacturers look for ways to build what they call educational toys that will take the place of the coordination we developed from wall walking, tree climbing, and the countless other things we found to do when we were children.

Visual toys are also an important part of a blind child's growing up. We live in a world in which most people see, and it is important for blind children to learn that fact at an early age. One time someone sent me a machine that showed pictures which were in a roll inside the machine. There was a crank on the top which, when turned, changed the picture.

Since I could not see the pictures, an adult described them to me. I made up a story about each one and set about presenting picture shows to the smaller neighborhood children. This was excellent stimulation to my imagination, which needed little encouragement, and it also taught me much about pic-tures. However, it also taught the neighborhood children that blindness made no difference to the quality of the picture show and the stories that went with it.

As you can see, my childhood was not much different from that of other curious children. Mother and Daddy never believed in "can't." Mother was fond of saying that "I can't" never did anything, but "I'll try" can do many things.

METAL, GLUE, AND PLASTIC
by Susan Povinelli

Susan Povinelli is one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. She is also an aerospace materials engineer working for the U.S. Navy. Recently a group of Federationists, many of them engineers and all fans of the television program "Star Trek," organized themselves into a fan club.

The group chose as its name Geordi's Engineers, in admiration of the blind engineer in "Star Trek: the Next Generation." Susan serves as chief engineer of the club and works, among other things, to encourage blind people interested in careers in science and engineering to pursue their ambitions. Here is Susan's account of her own career as an engineer:

I imagine the reason most people enjoy "Star Trek" and "Star Trek: the Next Generation" is the series' theme of exploring strange new frontiers. Since I am a blind aerospace materials engineer, you might say that I am a pioneer in my own right.

Twenty years ago no blind person, and very few women, ventured into the field of materials engineering. This is the field which studies the physical properties of various materials■such as metals, adhesives (glue), and plastics■and uses them in engineering applications. Like the first pioneers who migrated to the New World, I also do not consider myself to be achieving anything amazing or out of the ordinary. It was just a dream that I wanted to fulfill for my own satisfaction.

At the age of seventeen I learned that I had retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative hereditary condition that affects the retinas. The doctors told my parents, but not me, that in ten years I would become blind. In their wisdom or their inability to accept my fate, my parents allowed me to continue to dream of a career in engineering. I enrolled in college and did all the usual things engineering students do, but my tunnel vision and night blindness continued to worsen.

It wasn't until I was about to graduate from college that I realized how difficult it was going to be to obtain a job in materials engineering as a blind person. Private industry did not want to take the risk of hiring a blind engineer. I weathered a period of self-doubt and gloom.

I wish I had known then about the National Federation of the Blind. In my moments of optimism, however, I kept dreaming of a career in engineering. Finally I was offered a position as a materials engineer with the Department of the Navy.

I do my job by using ideas I've come up with and by borrowing ideas from other blind engineers I've met through the National Federation of the Blind. Four years ago the Navy purchased a speech program to enable me to continue using my computer. Instead of reading the screen with my eyes, I can read it by listening to a synthetic voice. Such technology was unavailable when I entered college in 1978■except on "Star Trek" or in science fiction movies.

In my job I spend many hours preparing written correspondence, and this technology has improved the quality and quantity of my productive work. But with all its ad-vantages it has not taken the place of my many years of learning how to read and write.

This leads me to another obstacle that I had to circumvent. As the years went by, my eyesight continued to deteriorate. I was afraid of losing the ability to read and write. Without a method to make notes to myself, read recipes, write to friends, and read stories to my children, I knew I would have a very meager existence.

Engineers are practical people. There is an obvious alternative to being illiterate when you cannot see print. I began to learn Braille when I was in college. I had several classes, and the rest was just practice.

Today I find Braille very useful for taking notes during meetings, giving a technical brief, and living a very full life. Somehow I find time for my professional career, my fam-ily of an attorney-husband and two children, my responsibility as the secretary of the Potomac Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, and my work as chief of Geordi's Engineers.

My job has provided me with many wonderful opportunities to be resourceful and to reach for new horizons. I have had the opportunity to visit the flight line and get my hands on real hardware. I have traveled through many manufacturing and repair facilities. I imagine I receive strange looks from workers on the floor while the engineer shows me through the plant and explains the operations.

Like the U.S.S. Enterprise in "Star Trek," which boldly explored strange new galaxies to discover new worlds, blind persons of this and the next generation can explore job opportunities in the physical sciences and discover careers in engineering and mechanics.

A MOTHER'S STORY
by Loretta White

Coming to terms with the fact that your child is blind and is going to stay that way is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges a parent can face. There are at first the terrifying questions: Does she live in a world of darkness? Can she go to school? Can she be happy? What will happen to her when I die? These are the questions Loretta White, now a leader in the National Federation of the Blind's parents organization, had to deal with when she learned her daughter Niki was blind. Here is what she says:

My name is Loretta White, and I live in Maryland with my husband and four children. Their ages are sixteen, six, almost five, and almost three. I am also a licensed day care provider, so most of my time is spent with and around children.

My daughter Niki will be five in November. Niki has been totally blind since birth. It's most likely due to retinopathy of prematurity, but since she was adopted from India, we don't know for sure. Niki came home from India when she was five months old.

We took her to a pediatrician for a check-up a couple of days after we got her. He told us that her eyes didn't look quite right, so he wanted us to have her checked by an eye doctor. The doctor he sent us to didn't do children, so all he did was take a quick look and tell us that, yes, she has cataracts; he then referred us to a pediatric ophthalmologist.

I took Niki to the appointment by myself while my husband watched the other children. I was expecting to have her seen and then scheduled for cataract surgery. I spent the entire day there.

The doctor had a wonderful reputation, but I quickly found out in the waiting room that he had the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. I was pretty nervous to begin with. Once the technicians had examined her eyes, done their tests with the drops, and completed the sonograms and what not, the doctor came in and quickly looked at her eyes.

Then, with the same demeanor one might use to comment on the weather, he told me that my daughter's blindness was total and permanent. I'm sure he must have read the look on my face and realized that I had not known.

Then he added, "Well, it's not that bad. It's like a Hershey bar. If you've never eaten chocolate before, you wouldn't miss it because you can't miss what you never had." Then, after a couple of minutes of very uncomfortable silence, he gave me the name of a doctor who might try some heroic surgery, wished me luck, and left the room. I never saw that doctor again.

Somehow I collected myself and my baby and made the hour-and-a half drive back to my home. It took me a long time to forgive his brutal honesty, but I will never forget it. On that afternoon I would really have appreciated some compassion. Also I did not appreciate the belittling of my child's condition. Things could always be worse, but so what? Right now they feel awful.

We went through anger at the doctors and also at the adoption agency who had placed her. From what we were later told, anyone who examined her should have seen the detached retina and scar tissue mass. And yet we had paperwork that said she had an eye examination and that her eyes were in good condition. Knowing probably wouldn't have changed our minds about her, but we certainly could have been prepared and avoided the shock.

We also tried the heroic surgery. We took her to a doctor in Tennessee who had had some success at reattaching retinas. We put ourselves in debt mustering up the finances to make three trips to Tennessee (two for surgeries and one for a check-up).

We did all this knowing initially that her chances of regaining any usable sight were less than ten percent. But at that time we were so frightened of blindness we were willing to try almost anything.

Before Niki came into my life, I had virtually no experience with blindness. The only blind person I had ever known was Tammy, who lived across the street from my family for a short while when I was six.

I can still see this eight-year-old girl in my mind. All she ever did was sit and rock, sometimes poking at her eyes. Her speech consisted mostly of repetitions of what she had just heard. She never played with the other kids or even went to school. She just sat and rocked. As you can imagine, that memory haunted me for a while after we found out Niki was blind.

If the only experience you've had with blindness is seeing a man begging on a city street, you're hardly going to feel excited about your child's future. And if the parent doesn't have a positive image of blindness, how can the child hope to develop a positive self-image?

As we began to deal with blindness, we were full of questions. We wondered what children with little or no sight are really like. Do they live in a world of darkness? Do they grow and develop like other children? Where do they go to school? Do blind people ever get married? How do they earn a living? Can they be happy? Can they live inde-pendently? What will happen to my child when I die?

When we finally decided Niki was going to stay blind, we began to look for help. I made a form letter requesting information and sent it everywhere. Then one day I got a phone call from the National Federation of the Blind. This was a turning point for me and for my daughter Niki.

Through the Federation I have met successful blind individuals from all walks of life and from all over the country. By observing and interacting with these people, I have been able to revise my perceptions of blindness. Reading about it in a book will teach you in your head, but by living it, you learn it in your heart.

Children learn what they live. I want my child to know in her heart that she can be successful and independent because she has grown up watching successful and independent blind adults around her.

GOOD FORTUNE, HARD WORK, AND THE KLONDIKE DERBY
by Marc Maurer

A professor told me, when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame, that a clich‚ is a wise saying which has been repeated so often that the good has been washed out of it. Nevertheless, there are times when clich‚s should be used. This professor, for instance, was particularly fond of "dumb as an ox."

When I was growing up, I was told that time is money and that knowledge is power. But these thoughts were repeated so often that they ceased to have any meaning for me. Nobody that I could remember had ever offered to pay me for my time■or my knowledge either, for that matter. Maybe, I thought, knowledge and power are equivalent, but the knowledge I possessed didn't make me feel powerful. For time to be equal to money, or for knowledge to be equal to power, the person possessing the time and the knowledge must be able to trade them for money and influence. I didn't believe that I could expect to do that.

Although I was well enough liked in school, my teachers and my fellow students did not think that I was likely to be successful in business or the professions, and I wondered if they weren't right.

Then, I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was serving as President of the National Federation of the Blind. My hopes and dreams mattered to him. If I wanted to build a future far beyond my wildest imaginings, he wanted to help me. This was true even when his opinion about what I should do was different from mine.

I kept thinking that I should get a job. Dr. Jernigan wanted me to study. He urged me to spend my time getting some high-quality book learning. But I argued against it. I thought that the book learning could wait and that what I needed was practical experience.

I asked Dr. Jernigan to help me get a job, and despite his feeling that I should use my time to improve my mind, he helped me find employment as a small engine mechanic.

Mechanics are expected to bring their own tools, but I had no money to buy them. Dr. Jernigan found the means to get me a box of wrenches, a flywheel puller, and a device called a feeler gauge, which is used to check the distances between the points in the ignition systems of engines, to test the gap of spark plugs, and to measure the tolerances in the spacing of valve lifters. With my shiny new tool box in hand, I started working at a machine shop, repairing small engines.

The machine shop repaired lawn mowers, garden tractors, rototillers, and other gasoline-driven machines in the summer, and snow-blowers and snowmobiles in the winter. My boss was a man who believed in giving a guy a chance, but he was not prepared to pay a laborer who didn't produce. One of his regular mechanics had been paralyzed from the waist down, and I was then, as I am now, totally blind.

Each mechanic was provided with a workbench and an air hose and access to the parts room. When the customers brought work for us to do, we were offered the opportunity to do it. If we succeeded in repairing a machine, we got paid. If the machine remained broken, we remained unpaid.

This system gave us the maximum incentive to do our jobs both speedily and well. However, we were not permitted to perform the work in a half-baked fashion. There was a set routine. A machine which was brought to the shop for repair must first be cleaned. After it had been scrubbed with solvent, the machine must be drained of oil and other fluids. Then the it was to be inspected for broken parts. If the customer had specified the problem, this was to be the major focus of attention.

We knew that the customer sometimes missed the real source of the difficulty. The inspection was to proceed with this in mind. Unless the customer specified otherwise, the machine was to be put into top-notch working condition. After all of the repairs had been made and the fluids replaced, the machine was to be cleaned once again in readiness for the customer.

Clean 'em; fix 'em; lubricate 'em; gas and oil 'em; test 'em; and clean 'em again. If it passed inspection, it was time to tell the customer that the machine was ready.

One morning my boss came to me with a portable gasoline-driven air compressor. He said that the other work which I was doing must be put aside. The customer was managing a construction crew, and he needed the compressor immediately. The construction foreman could not get the engine to run.

I began by preparing to clean the compressor and its engine, and I was about to check the oil when the boss interrupted. There was a whole construction crew waiting on this machine. The oil would be fine. Just get the engine running. So I skipped the usual routine.

There are three things that must come together in a gasoline engine for it to run. There must be a fuel-air mixture in the cylinder. There must be compression of the fuel-air mixture which will make it sufficiently unstable to burn, and there must be a spark to ignite the fuel.

The method I used to check the ignition systems of small engines was to remove the sparkplug from the cylinder head. With the sparkplug connected to the ignition wire, I turned the engine over. If the system was in working condition, a spark would jump across the electrodes of the sparkplug.

When I pulled the sparkplug of the compressor engine, I discovered that there was no spark. The problem had been identified. The ignition system needed repair. But this engine was unlike any that I had ever encountered. I did not know how its ignition system worked.

I found a little box on the side that I thought might have something to do with the electrical system. When I took the cover off, there were the ignition points. I had never worked on any like them. However, there was a loose wire inside the box, which seemed to be shorting the points. I broke it off and put the cover back onto the box. With the sparkplug back in place, I pulled the starting rope. The engine kicked right over and settled into the noisy rhythm that small engines make. The job had taken me about five minutes.

My boss was pleased and wanted to know what had been wrong with the engine. The construction foreman was pleased and glad to be able to go back to work. And I was pleased. I was quite well paid for five minutes effort. I had saved the construction crew a lot of waiting time. I had known about the theory of internal combustion engines, and■with a little bit of luck■I had been able to apply that theory to solve a problem. Because they needed to save time, and because I had some knowledge and a little luck, I received the money.

I never told my boss how easy it was to fix that machine. He thought I was a real smart mechanic, and I just let him keep on thinking it.

I served as a mechanic for only a short time. Then I took Dr. Jernigan's advice and went to college. He had told me that if I intended to be able to participate fully in the society in which we live, I would need a good education.

Although he was gentle about the telling, he suggested to me that the reason I had not felt very powerful with the knowledge that I possessed was that I did not have enough of it to do me much good. Seven years later, I had completed undergraduate school and obtained a law degree.

By the time I began making applications for my first law job, I had been a part of the National Federation of the Blind for eight years. With the help of my friends in the Federation, I became the principal attorney for the Senior Legal Assistance Project in Ohio. It was an interesting job involving many kinds of lawsuits in the civil courts.

One lady had employed a firm to put a roof on her house. Although the roofer said the work had been completed, it apparently remained unfinished. My job was to file a contract action seeking appropriate damages and demanding that the work be finished or the money returned. During the preparation of the case, I spent time on the client's roof with the expert witness we were planning to call at trial. Collecting and arranging evidence, preparing witnesses, writing jury instructions, researching the law, and making appearances in the courts were all part of the daily practice.

At least one fundamental principle is the same for the practice of law and the business of being a mechanic. Results matter. We who are blind must be prepared to solve problems both for ourselves and for others. If we have the chance to get the proper learning, then we can meet this challenge.

This is the message I got from the National Federation of the Blind, and it is still the message we are promoting today. If we are good at what we do, we can expect opportunities to come, and these opportunities give us the chance for a full and productive life.

My wife Patricia and I were married in 1973. She (who is also blind) had just graduated from college with an education degree and a teaching credential. Despite her education, Patricia was not always able to find employment as a teacher. Much of the time during the period that I attended law school, she supported the two of us by working as a typist for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

Today, Patricia volunteers her time to help the National Federation of the Blind serve the thousands of blind people who come to us for advice and support. She and I also devote our time to raising our two children, David and Dianna. Blind people do not always have the chance to have families, and we feel especially blessed.

When our son David was nine years old, he wanted to join the Cub Scouts. There was a Cub Scout pack being formed at our church. When we spoke to the cubmaster who was forming the pack, he asked me if I would be able to serve as treasurer and assistant leader. I responded that I would be pleased to try but that I had never been a Scout. He told me not to worry about it. So, I joined the Scouts as an adult rather than a boy.

Just before Christmas the first year that I was serving as assistant leader and treasurer for the Cub Scouts, the cubmaster indicated that we should plan to take part in the Klondike Derby. The Klondike Derby, I was told, is an event that takes place in the out-of-doors during the winter. For a day, Scouts hike on trails and demonstrate their skill in outdoor crafts■especially those needed in the cold. Fire building, knot tying, first aid with an emphasis on emergencies that happen in cold weather, shelter building, tracking, and many more activities are a part of the Klondike Derby.

The cubmaster said that we would need a sled. I thought that we could use the plastic one that Patricia and I had purchased for our children. Then, the cubmaster told me that the sled must be made of wood. I thought that if I hunted around garage sales or thrift stores, I might be able to put my hands on a flexible flyer. They are made of wood.

But the cubmaster went on to tell us that not only must the sled itself be made of wood, but the runners of the sled must also be made of the same material. This is a real tough one, I thought. Maybe I could find an old pair of skis that nobody wanted, but I never found any. So we bought boards, and David and I began building a sled.

I had heard that if you steam wood, you can bend it. So we took a very large pot and filled it with water. Over the top of this pot, we balanced pieces of maple that were three quarters of an inch thick and four inches wide. Because these boards were eight feet long, only a small portion of them could be immediately above the kettle. However, the curve of a sled runner is a fairly short one. We decided that if we could get a forty-five degree bend in a part of the board that is a little over a foot long, this would suit our purposes admirably.

We boiled the water under the wood for over eight hours.

We had built a homemade bending frame to shape the runners. When the boards had been thoroughly boiled, we inserted the steamed end into the frame and pulled on the other end to create a curve. The plan worked.

Most of the construction of the sled occurred in the living room of our house because that is where we had the space to do the building. Despite some domestic disruption, the sled was completed on time for the Klondike. But this is not all. Our Klondike Derby sled won first prize!

We in the National Federation of the Blind want very much to help make our country the best that it can be. We want to learn, and we want to pass our knowledge on to others who need it. Our dreams for the future are big ones■both for ourselves and for our friends and neighbors. And we are willing to work hard to make our plans come true.

The clich‚s about blindness have often portrayed us as helpless, or worse. We believe that we have something to contribute, and we are putting our energy into making that something worthwhile. When we become lawyers, homemakers, scout leaders, mechanics, or teachers, the old clich‚s about the incapacity of the blind lose their force. They become as meaningless as inscriptions on sand.

This is the meaning of the National Federation of the Blind, which has made such a dramatic difference in my life and in the lives of many thousands of others. If we are to live by a clich‚, perhaps it should be "The Lord helps those who help themselves" or perhaps "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

BANGLES, BAUBLES, AND BEADS
by Tamara Kerrill

Creating custom-made jewelry is not a common occupation. It requires a particular artistic talent. It does not, however, as we of the National Federation of the Blind and as the following story (reprinted from the Miami Herald) show, require eyesight.

In 1985, Janet Caron walked cautiously toward the Trevi Fountain through the streets of Rome. Her failing sight made the trip difficult, but she was determined to toss three coins into the cascading water.

According to Roman tradition, if a visitor tosses coins into the famed fountain, she is assured of returning.

"I stumbled to get there. I was heartbroken," she said. "I was in tears as I threw those coins over my shoulder and people were looking at me. I was losing my sight, and I truly thought that I would never get back to my beloved Rome."

She also never thought she would lead a productive life again. She was wrong.

Today, Caron, who lives in Pompano Beach, makes exquisite jewelry from scratch.

"When I first lost my sight, I couldn't believe it was happening to me," Caron said.

She said doctors are at a loss to determine the cause of her blindness. "But once something like this happens, you really realize how capable blind people are," Caron said.

Caron began creating jewelry two years ago to satisfy an artistic craving.

Her tiny apartment is filled with colorful bags of beads from Italy, Africa, China, and other distant places. Caron also makes her own beads from raw clay, which she glazes and fires in a kiln at a Pompano Beach ceramics shop.

The colorful chokers and matinee lengths are combinations of ivory, hand-blown glass, painted porcelain, jade, and other special materials. She finds the beads at various thrift shops. Caron tests the authenticity of the beads' material by rubbing them together and running her fingers over them.

She takes her cache of colorful creations to some local art fairs, like the annual Christmas show at Coral Ridge Mall.

Caron's biggest triumph as a blind woman, however, took place two years ago when she hesitantly boarded a plane bound for Rome■the city she had visited regularly before she became blind.

"I fell in love with Rome," she said. "I love the European way of life. I thought I would never get back there again. In 1990, I went back, and I did very well. I got off the plane, and I just broke into Italian. I stayed for a month."

Caron has been back to Rome three times and plans to keep on going every spring. Her necklaces have even gone on sale at the American embassy.

"My life is very full now," she said. "Blind people may have lost their sight, but they haven't lost their intellect."

SUBSTITUTING FOR SUCCESS
by David Ticchi

David Ticchi, who is totally blind, has had a varied career. He has taught seventh-grade English, has produced films, has worked for major corporations, and has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for many years. In this story he describes his most recent employment venture.

Here is what he has to say:

One day recently, as I was contemplating the next step in my career, the phone rang. A good friend, who is now a high school principal, was calling to ask if I would consider working in a new program called the Instructional Support Services (ISS). I would be a substitute teacher. Laughingly I reminded him that he was supposed to be a friend. Substituting is hard work! He assured me that the assignment would be a permanent faculty position, stationed at one high school for the entire school year and creating continuity in classroom instruction in the event of another faculty member's absence. It was not to be a babysitting chore.

After much hemming and hawing I decided this might be a good way to return to teaching at the high school level, and I accepted the offer. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for me.

Once I signed the contract, I visited the school to acquaint myself with the surroundings. The school of about 2,000 students includes four levels and a technical/vocational institute. This is one of the newly designed schools with no straight hallways.

Since public transportation was not an option for the twenty-five minute ride to school, I car-pooled with three other teachers from the area where I live.

On a usual day, I reported to the office at 8:00 A.M. and was given a daily assignment at that time. I taught everything from ancient Greek history to zoology. Classes began at 8:15 A.M., and I went to the first-period class, where attendance was taken and where I could find the lesson plans, if the regular teacher had written them.

In this school teachers are not stationed in one classroom permanently but might go to several different rooms during the day. Therefore, as a substitute I might well teach a different subject each period in a different place, with or without a lesson plan available.

I can tell you from experience that students do not treat a blind teacher and a sighted instructor any differently. Their antics have not changed much over the years. Misbehaving, cheating, and tardiness are all still alive and well in America. I walked into the classroom that first day, introduced myself, explained how blind teachers achieve the same results as sighted teachers, and announced that I was an ISS substitute teacher. When asked what ISS meant, I told them it means, "I SAID SO!"

From then on the students and I got along just fine. Together we made it through the class with each student making a contribution to its smooth operation, accomplishing tasks and assignments, and gaining a feeling of responsibility. The students felt a very important part of that class.

This entire teaching experience was wonderful because, as the year went on, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with most of the students in the school. At first I was a stranger, but that feeling was soon gone. The more classes I taught (including auto mechanics, biology, sewing, and all kinds of history, mathematics, and technical/vocational courses), the more students I became acquainted with. But more important, the more I taught, the more the students got to know me.

One sewing class was particularly memorable. Not knowing much about sewing or sewing machines, I reversed the roles of student and teacher. As it happened, I had two loose buttons on my shirt, and I asked a couple of the students if they would use me as an example and teach me how to sew these but-tons back on securely.

I stripped off my coat, tie, and shirt, and we fixed those buttons together. We all learned from this experience, and they had the opportunity to see me as just a regular per-son.

In this one school year of substitute teaching I discovered that I really do want to go back into the education profession. I have applied for a permanent teaching assign-ment for the next school year, but if none is available, I will substitute again in the same program.

THREE-LETTER WORDS: "HOW" OR "WHY NOT?"
by Peggy Pinder Elliott

Peggy Pinder Elliott, a long-time member of the National Federation of the Blind, is familiar to readers of previous Kernel Books. In this story she reflects on the importance of using the right three-letter words in dealing with blindness. Here she shares with us her journey from "How" to "Why Not?"

One of the hardest things for me to understand about blindness was the little three-letter word how.

When I first lost my sight, I was a teen-ager. My brothers and sisters and I were all planning to attend college and find good jobs after graduation. Without ever expressing this to anyone, I thought that my sudden blindness meant that this was no longer possible for me. It wasn't anything specific. It was just that I didn't know how a blind person would go to college, how a blind person would find a job, how a blind person could perform work that anyone would want to pay for. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was that little three-letter word that was causing all the trouble.

Several years after I lost my sight, I met people from the National Federation of the Blind. Instantly, the three-letter word changed. How was no longer important, but two other three-letter words were. They were why and not. And I needed them both. The question was not "how" but "why not".

The change happened because I had finally met other blind people. Some sighted people, particularly my family, had insisted that blindness did not make any difference, that I could still study, still excel, still attend college, still get around and do the things that other people do. I mostly stayed in my room and told people that I loved to read. But inside myself I hotly resented this cheery and cruel advice. These sighted people were not blind. How could they understand how hard it was?

Meeting other blind people made all the difference. I could no longer say, "Blind people can't do this or that." I now knew blind people who were doing the things I wanted to do.

This change in me came from the National Federation of the Blind and the insistence of its members that blind people could figure out how to do things. It took a while for me to come to understand this, and my Federation friends patiently kept working with me, encouraging me, insisting that I stop feeling sorry for myself. The Federation ideas took root, and I began to do all those things I thought I couldn't, ending up with a law degree from Yale.

Then I started to deal with the three-letter word how, in the job market. My first job interview was memorable. When I arrived for the interview, I found that there were eight people in the room to do the interviewing. Apparently, the potential employer had decided that everyone in authority in the office needed to be in the room to get a look at the blind person. That was a bad sign.

The interview began with the office chief asking the administrator to describe the position to me. It was an assistant prosecutor's job, a commonly understood entry-level position in which one handles all the less grave offenses from filing a charge to disposition of a case.

The administrator said, "When you come to the office in the morning, you will read police reports, and, when you read the reports, based on the reading of the reports, after thoroughly reading them, you will upon reading . . ." He got stuck. He just stayed in the same sentence, never finishing it, continually uttering the word "read."

After a bit of this, I interrupted him, saying that I thought I understood that reviewing police reports was part of the job as well as other tasks he hadn't mentioned. If he wanted to describe the other tasks, I would be interested. If he preferred to discuss how I would do the reading, I would be glad to discuss that as well. He never spoke again during the forty-minute interview.

It was obvious that he didn't know how I would do the reading. I explained that blind lawyers hire readers and train them in confidentiality just like lawyers have always hired secretaries and trained them in confidentiality. I explained that I was accustomed to working that way and to meeting time deadlines. None of it mattered. The whole of-fice, present by way of its supervisors, had decided that a blind person couldn't do the job they do, and that was that.

My next interview was the exact opposite. I knew it was going to be. A friend of mine in the National Federation of the Blind who worked in the same city in which I was in-terviewing called me. The friend said that he knew the potential employer; the potential employer had called him and asked how a blind person could do the job, and that my friend had explained to him that he should just ask. My friend also gave some examples to the potential employer of how he does his job.

When I arrived for the interview, the potential employer came in alone. He sort of sauntered in, obviously comfortable, and said casually that he would like to know how I was going to do the reading. That made all the difference in the world.

Both interviews were for the same type of job and started on the same topic, but one began with an assumption that I couldn't do the job while the other began with an open mind, opened by a successfully employed blind person. I was offered this job and took it.

For me, the National Federation of the Blind provided that first vital understanding that there are answers to the question "how?"

For most jobs, the answers are as simple and inexpensive as they were in my case. For many jobs, there is already a blind person doing the work whose ideas and practical know-how can be drawn upon for the employer or the blind person who wants to work in the same area.

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 students.

...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
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street, Suite 300
Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998

Other Ways You Can Help the National Federation of the Blind

Write to us for tax saving information on bequests and planned giving programs.
or
Include the following language in your will:

"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") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."

Your contributions are tax-deductible