Old Dogs and New Tricks
Kenneth Jernigan, Editor
Large Type Edition
A Kernel Book
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Copyright 1996 by the National Federation of the Blind
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Table of Contents
Old Dogs and New Tricks
The Sliding Board
Tending to My Knitting
With this volume we publish the tenth Kernel Book. The
first nine have been well received. No, they have been more
than that. The comments have been nationwide and enthusiastic.
I think it is not too much to say that these little books are
playing a significant part in changing what it means to be
blind in America in the last decade of the twentieth century.
And what are the Kernel Books about? They deal with
blindness, but not in a medical or professional way. They are
a departure from what is usually written, an attempt to take
the mystery out of blindness by giving firsthand accounts of
how blind people live on a daily basis. Other firsthand
stories about blindness have also been written, of course, but
not in such large numbers and not in this format.
Year after year and book after book we are building a
picture that shows what blind people are really like and how
they feel. The details differ, but the pattern is the same. In
effect, the people who are writing in these pages are saying:
Blindness is not as strange as you may think
it is, and it doesn't have to be as terrifying. I
am blind, and this is how I lead my life■not just
in broad terms but in my daily activities. Here is
how I know whether a light is on when I enter a
room■how I cook my food, raise my children, and
participate in church activities. Mostly my life is
just about like yours. It has more routine than
drama about it, being a mixture of joy and sorrow,
laughter and tears.
I don't spend most of my time thinking about
blindness. It is simply one of the facts of my
life. I remember it when I need to, but that's
about all. I think about who is running for
president, last night's dinner, and today's
discussion with a friend.
This is what the people who appear in this book are
saying. I know them. They are friends of mine, colleagues in
the National Federation of the Blind. Some have been my
students. I have met others in a variety of ways. But by and
large, our common bond is the National Federation of the
In fact, the National Federation of the Blind has been
the vehicle for improving the quality of life for blind people
throughout the country. It has certainly changed my life,
teaching me to think about my blindness in new ways and
helping me understand what I can do and be.
The Federation is a nationwide organization primarily
composed of blind people. It is a self-help and self-support
organization, believing that blind people should take
responsibility for their own lives and that what they need is
training and opportunity, not dependence and lifelong care.
The Federation believes that blind people can and should do
for themselves, that they should work with each other and
cooperate with their sighted neighbors to make the world
better than it now is.
As to the specifics of the present Kernel Book, the
title pretty much says it. It is never too late to learn new
techniques and new ways of thought. This is true for the blind
as well as the sighted, the old as well as the young. We hope
you will enjoy these stories and that whether your goal is to
climb a mountain or knit a sweater, you will succeed■and that
along the way you will learn new tricks.
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.
OLD DOGS AND NEW TRICKS
by Kenneth Jernigan
Old dogs, we are told, can't learn new tricks. Maybe■but
dogs aren't human. What about humans? Can they learn new
tricks? Specifically, can a person who becomes blind in adult
life learn to function independently? And what about children?
A blind child grows up in a world designed for the sighted. If
the child is to learn to get along, he or she must find
different techniques from those used by sighted associates and
Can it be done? Of course it can. It happens every day.
The question is not whether but how. Make it personal. What
about you? If you became blind tomorrow, could you manage? How
would you handle the hundreds of details of your daily life?
When I was a child, I had a little sight■not much, but a
little. If it wasn't too bright or too dark, I could see step-
ups. I couldn't see step-downs, but I could see the lines and
shadows of the step-ups. I could see the contrast between a
sidewalk and grass, and I could see the difference between the
country road that ran by the farm where I lived and the
vegetation on either side of it. At night I could see the moon
if it was full, but not the stars.
It wasn't much, but it helped. I could go into a room at
night, for instance, and immediately tell whether the light
was on; and in the daytime I could tell whether there was a
window, and where it was. Under the right lighting conditions,
I might be able to see an open door, and I might be able to
tell where a person or a tree was. It was sometimes deceptive,
which caused me bumps and bruises, but I managed.
When I was in my early thirties, I lost all sense of dark
and light. It happened so gradually that I wasn't aware of it
until I thought back a few weeks and realized what I wasn't
seeing. For all intents and purposes I was totally blind from
childhood, but shortly after I became thirty, there was no
doubt about it. I was■and almost forty years later, I still
With that background, let me talk about techniques. How
do blind people function? How do they manage the nuts and
bolts of daily life? More particularly, how do I do it? I
can't give you a complete catalogue, of course, but I can give
you a sample.
Let's begin with whether a light is on in a room. When I
was a boy on the farm in Tennessee, it was a kerosene (or, as
we called it, a coal oil) lamp. Today in my home in Baltimore
it is an electric light. But the problem is the same. How do
I know whether the light is on?
In most situations there is a switch on the wall, and if
it is up, the light is on. If it is down, the light is off.
But there are three- and four-way switches, allowing a person
to turn a light on in one part of the house and turn it off in
I have just such an arrangement in the house where I now
live. You can turn the hall light on at the front door, at
the back of the hall, or on the upstairs landing. The ceiling
is too high for me to reach the light bulb to know whether it
is giving out heat, so unless I come up with some kind of non-
visual technique, I won't be able to tell. Yet, there are
times when sighted people visit me and then leave without
telling me whether they have turned off the light. If my wife
has gone to bed, I either have to have some way to know
whether the light is on, or else take a chance on letting it
burn all night.
The technique I use is really quite simple, and it is
quick and efficient. Several years ago a friend gave me a set
of musical teacups for Christmas. If you pick one of them up,
it plays You Light Up My Life. When you set it down, it stops.
I was curious about this and, after experimenting, found that
when light hits the bottom of the cup, it starts the music.
I think the cups cost six or seven dollars apiece, and I
have a half-dozen of them. I also now have a perfect light
detector. I have stored five of the cups in the attic and have
left one of them sitting on the kitchen counter.
Now, if I want to know whether a light is on anywhere in
the house, all I have to do is pick up my teacup and walk
through the rooms. It's quick, and it works. There are fancy
light detectors that have been invented for the blind
(detectors that cost a good deal more than six dollars), but
I don't need them. My teacup works just fine.
Before leaving the kitchen, let me deal with carrying
liquid. If the glass or cup isn't full, there isn't any
trouble. It doesn't matter if the container isn't exactly
level. But if you want a full glass of water as a measure for
cooking rice or something else, it does matter.
In such cases I used to have difficulty in carrying the
container level and keeping the water from spilling. But not
anymore. The technique I use is amazingly simple, and I think
it will work for anybody. I wish I had thought of it sooner.
I pick up the glass in one hand with my thumb on one side of
it and my index finger across from it on the other side of the
glass. I am holding the glass at the top, outside of the rim.
My hand is above the glass, and I hold it loose enough for it
to find its own level. It works well, and I rarely spill a
drop. Try it.
There isn't any magic about these techniques. It is
simply a matter of thinking them up and doing a little
experimenting. I know a blind woman, for instance, who doesn't
pour vanilla or other similar liquids into a quarter
teaspoon■or, for that matter, a teaspoon or a tablespoon. She
puts the liquid she is using into a small jar, bends the spoon
handle until the bowl of the spoon is parallel with the floor,
and then dips the liquid. It gives a perfect measure, and it's
no trouble at all. Of course, if your measuring spoons are
plastic, it won't work. Get spoons that are metal.
Then there is the matter of cooking eggs. If you want
them scrambled, there isn't any problem, but what if you want
them fried? The same woman who taught me about the measuring
spoons also taught me about egg frying.
Take a tuna can, or some other can about that size, and
cut both ends out of it. Get your frying pan to the
temperature you want; place the open-ended can or cans in the
pan; and break the egg into the can.
You can touch the top of the can to tell where it is, and
when you get ready to turn the egg, slide a spatula under the
bottom of the can, and pick the egg up. It will be perfectly
formed, and you can turn it without difficulty.
I understand that blind persons are not the only ones who
sometimes have trouble turning the eggs they are frying. Some
sighted persons have the same difficulty. Egg templates are
sold commercially, I am told, using essentially the technique
I have described■but why bother? The tuna can works just fine,
and there isn't any point in wasting money or going to extra
Some commercial gadgets are really an advantage in
cooking. Earlier, I mentioned rice. Commercial rice-cookers
solve a lot of problems■at least, the one at my house does.
My wife is sighted, and I am blind, but we both use and
like the rice-cooker. You put twice as much water as rice into
it, and you turn it on. You don't do anything else. When the
rice is done, the cooker knows and it turns itself off■no
sticking, no stirring, no wondering about how long to cook or
when to take it up.
That rice-cooker also knows other things, and it has a
mind of its own. Once I was cooking oatmeal, and the cooker
turned itself off before I thought the oatmeal was ready. I
turned it back on, but it dug in its heels. It turned itself
right off again. The cooker was right. The oatmeal was done.
As I think about it, I suppose the cooker has a
thermostat, which begins to show a rise in temperature when a
given quantity of the liquid has boiled away. At that stage it
probably turns itself off, but I really don't know. After all,
I am not interested in the mechanics of rice-cookers. I just
want to get a good bowl of rice or oatmeal or whatever else it
is I want for breakfast or dinner.
Sometimes the techniques I devise almost get me into
trouble. Last summer is a good example. I plan meetings and
seminars and make hotel arrangements for the National
Federation of the Blind. The meeting I have in mind was to be
held in Chicago.
A lot of hotels have stopped using regular metal keys and
have gone to a plastic card with a magnetic strip on it. I can
see their point. The cards cost almost nothing while metal
keys are expensive, and if somebody carries a hotel key away
or loses it, the hotel has to go to the expense of changing
the lock and replacing the key.
The combination on the magnetic lock, however, can be
changed from the hotel's front desk by a computer that is
connected to all of the rooms. It is inexpensive and
efficient. But the card must be inserted into the door lock in
exactly the right way, the proper end and the proper side
being placed just so.
The card is shiny plastic, so how does a blind person
know which side of it to place up and which end to insert? One
way to do it, of course, would be by trial and error. After
all, there are only four ways it can go■but sometimes even if
you have the card right, it doesn't work on the first try. So
the whole thing can be a nuisance if you can't tell which side
of the card is which.
But in most cases you can. Ordinarily the magnetic strip
is slightly slicker than the rest of the card, and quite easy
to feel. Usually it goes on the bottom and toward the right.
Even if you couldn't tell by this method, any enterprising
blind person would make a little nick in the card or do
something else just as simple.
When I was planning for last summer's meeting, I met with
the hotel staff to talk to them about the dos and don'ts.
Mostly I wanted to put them at ease and help them realize that
they didn't need to go to extra expense or trouble just
because they were dealing with blind people.
In this context I told them about the hotel keys and
showed them that the magnetic strip was easy to identify by
touch. I said that they didn't need to spend any time or money
making extra marks on the cards for those attending the
meeting. They said they understood, and we passed on to other
When the date of the meeting arrived and I checked into
the hotel, the man behind the desk handed me a magnetic key
and told me with great satisfaction that he had specially
marked it with tape so that I could tell which side of it was
which. What was I to do? If I told him that I didn't need the
marking and showed him how easy it was to feel the magnetic
strip, he would likely be embarrassed and maybe even angry. If
I didn't tell him, the hotel would spend time and money on
marking the keys and doing similar things, and then probably
feel that our meeting was less valuable than others because of
the extra trouble and expense.
I handled it as gently as I could, talking again to all
of the hotel staff the next day and mentioning the matter in
general terms. In one form or another this is a problem that
blind people face again and again. It has no easy solution.
Most people have great good will toward us. They think
that if they were blind, they wouldn't be able to do anything
at all, so they try to figure out ways to help us. The
situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes the help
is needed, but very often it isn't. I don't know of any way to
deal sensibly with the matter except to try to get people to
approach us straight on and without a lot of emotion. If
somebody wonders whether we need help, ask us. If we say no,
accept it. If we say yes, accept that too.
As a further complication, what happens if a blind person
is rude or touchy when help is offered? Most of us aren't, but
unfortunately (just as with the sighted) a few of us are.
Whether sighted or blind, not everybody is an angel■or, for
that matter even a responsible, everyday citizen.
My answer is that we who are blind should be treated the
way you would treat anybody else. How would you deal with a
sighted person who behaved rudely toward you? Deal with the
blind person the same way. Hopefully, most of us (blind or
sighted) will treat each other with consideration and respect.
The techniques to permit a blind person to function on a
daily basis are worth knowing. No, they are more than that.
They are key to real independence and comfortable daily
living. But they are not the most important thing that a blind
person must learn. This brings me to the reason I have devoted
so much of my life to the work of the National Federation of
the Blind. In my opinion the National Federation of the Blind
has done more than any other single thing to make life better
for blind people in this country in the twentieth century.
I first became acquainted with the National Federation of
the Blind in the late 1940's when both it and I were a great
deal younger than we now are. It and its brilliant president,
Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, helped me learn a whole new way of
thought about what I was and what I could be. Dr. tenBroek
taught by example. His blindness did not keep him from earning
graduate degrees and being a respected college professor and
Constitutional scholar. The same was true of others I met.
The National Federation of the Blind meant then (as it
means today) that it is respectable to be blind, that
blindness will not keep you from doing what you want to do or
prevent you from being what you want to be if you have
reasonable training and opportunity and if you do not think of
yourself as a victim.
A core principle of the organization is that we as blind
people do not want or need custody or paternalistic care, that
we can and should do for ourselves, that we should not ask
others for assistance until we have done all we can to solve
our own problems, and that we (not the government) should have
prime responsibility for our own welfare and support.
Does this mean that we do not want or need help from
others? No■quite the contrary. If we are to go the rest of the
way to full participation and first-class status in society,
it is true that we must do for ourselves, but it is equally
true that we must have help and understanding from our sighted
friends and the larger public. Without it we will fail.
Meanwhile, we will do what we can to help ourselves. And
despite the old proverb, we think that (whether we are old or
young) we can continue to learn.
THE SLIDING BOARD
by Marc Maurer
As readers of previous Kernel Books know, Marc Maurer is
President of the National Federation of the Blind. He spends
much of his time helping other blind people come to believe
that blindness need not prevent them from working or playing
or achieving success. But how did he come to believe this
himself? Partly through his mother's good sense. Here is how
he tells it:
Childhood is often regarded as a time of cheerfulness and
joy■and certainly I believe it should be like that. However,
I also believe that children have the same depth of emotional
feeling that adults possess. Not only love and joy but black
despair and bitterness can be the experiences of childhood■and
towering anger. It happened to me when I was six.
I was born blind, but I had a bit of remaining vision. I
did not know that I was blind until I was five years old.
Nobody ever told me. When I was standing on the front porch,
I could see that there was a tree in our yard out by the
street. When I stood next to my father's car, I could tell
that it was red with a white top.
On my fifth birthday I was given a beach ball. It had a
red section, a yellow section, a blue section, a green
section, and a white section. I stood in our front yard and
looked at the beach ball in the bright rays of the midday sun.
That colorful ball is the most striking example that I now
recall of color. I was convinced that my vision was no
different from anybody else's.
However, I sometimes wondered why I couldn't tell what
people were talking about when they said something such as
"See that antique car over there?" I couldn't tell where the
antique car was■but I tried. I sometimes wondered why I was
missing so much.
One day my brother said to a friend of his that he wanted
to go look at the truck that was parked at the corner of our
block. I was astonished. I went inside to tell my mother. "Did
you know," I said, "that Max can see way down to the corner?"
She didn't seem to think such talent was the least bit
When I was six my parents took me to the doctor for an
eye operation. They were trying to improve my sight. The
operation failed. When I came home from the hospital I was
totally blind. I was devastated by the change.
For a week I didn't do a thing except sleep, eat, and sit
in the corner of the couch during all the rest of the day. I
took no action. I ate when I was told, and I went to bed when
I was told. The joy was gone. The day-to-day excitement about
what to do and where to go and how to live was no more. I sat
Our family lived in a house in the state of Iowa. It had
a fine big living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a pantry
on the first floor along with a big front porch where we could
play outside even if it rained. It had three bedrooms and a
bathroom upstairs. The front yard was a good enough place to
be, but the back yard was the best. My parents had saved their
money to buy a swing set for us. They thought that I wouldn't
be able to get to the park, and they wanted our back yard to
There was also a great big picnic table close to the
swing set. My father had painted a checkerboard in the middle
of the top of the table. The squares on the checkerboard were
almost four inches across, and my father had painted them
black and yellow. The checkers were bigger than my hand, and
they were painted red and blue.
My father thought that I would be able to play checkers
on the table because the board and the checkers were big
enough for me to see. However, I couldn't distinguish the
detail well enough to play the game, but he had worked so hard
that I didn't want to tell him. I pretended that I could play,
but I was never really any good at the game on that
The swing set had a slide, two swings, and a glider. I
particularly liked the slide-especially when it had been
rubbed down with waxed paper. You could wax the slide by hand,
but the easy way was to sit on the paper and slide down. When
the slide was waxed, it was fast. We thought it was like
lightning.There was also an old garage on the back end of our lot.
It housed gardening tools, the lawn mower, the wheelbarrow,
and a whole lot of miscellaneous junk. It was a great place to
play. The garage belonged to my Dad. Sometimes he let us play
in it if we were very careful and didn't get it too messy.
But after my operation I didn't go outside■not even onto
the front porch. I didn't care about the picnic table or the
swing set or the garage. I wanted to stay inside, and I wanted
to be left alone. I sat in the corner of the couch being
gloomy, doing nothing.
After a week my mother had had enough. She told me that
I was going to go outside to play. I said I wasn't. But she
said I was, and she was bigger than I was. She said, "You are
going outside to the swing set, and you are going to slide
down the slide." I refused. My mother took me by the arm and
pulled me to my feet.
Although I resisted, she marched me out the back door and
across the back yard to the swing set. When we got to the
ladder that led to the slide, she said "Climb!" And I climbed.
I slid down the slide and turned around prepared to head back
inside. But my mother wasn't having any. She said, "Now do it
again." I thought it wasn't fair. She had said I was to slide
down the slide, and I had done my part. Now she wanted me to
do it twice.
My brooding despair changed to boiling anger. Once again
I climbed the ladder and slid down the slide. But I thought to
myself, "I'll show you. I won't go back in the house. I'll
stay out here, and maybe I'll run away."
My mother left me and headed for the back door. I stayed
in the back yard, and after a time I forgot both my despair
and my anger. I began to play with the things in the yard
until I got hungry. Then I thought that my mother was maybe
not so bad after all. She made the best grilled cheese
sandwiches, and she was also good at cookies. I found my way
to the kitchen, and I was not disappointed.
All of this came to mind when I attended a recent
convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I was
speaking to a large gathering of parents of blind children.
What are the problems that these parents face? And what are
their blind kids thinking and feeling? Whether we are adults
or children, we need to know that blindness will not prevent
us from working or playing or achieving success.
I don't know how other children react to becoming blind,
but I remember vividly how I felt. I'm glad that my mother
made me get up and move. I am fortunate that my despondency
lasted only a week. We in the National Federation of the Blind
are committed to helping others recognize that blindness
properly understood cannot prevent us from playing checkers,
swinging on a swing, playing in a yard, or having a good life.
TENDING TO MY KNITTING
by Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce is president of the National Federation of
the Blind of Ohio. She is a faculty wife, a mother of grown
children, and a leader in her community. She has confidence in
her own abilities. But it wasn't always that way. By tending
to her knitting, her confidence grew■a stitch at a time. Here
is how she tells it:
I have always suspected that someday scientists will
identify the gene that controls the ability to sew and the
enjoyment of doing so. I know that I don't carry the trait,
and I come by my dislike naturally. My mother didn't enjoy
sewing and left all the mending she could for my grandmother
to do when she came to visit, so she never taught me to sew.
Grandma was a wonderful seamstress, but she was not up to
teaching a blind child to hem doll clothes or operate a sewing
In fact, when I was a child, no one thought seriously of
teaching me to sew. But since Mother taught me everything else
about running a household, I am sure that her unwillingness to
tackle this one had less to do with the widely held assumption
that a blind child could not sew than with the fact that she
was fundamentally uninterested in the activity.
As an adult I have met many blind women who enjoy sewing.
One friend had been a fine seamstress all of her life and saw
no reason to abandon her hobby when she lost her sight. She
continued to sew for years after she became blind.
Another friend, who has been blind all of her life, made
her maternity wardrobe and continues to sew whenever her busy
schedule allows her the time to do it. I have always admired
anyone who could turn a heap of cloth into something beautiful
and useful, but I have never experienced the slightest twinge
of envy or impulse to learn the art.
I managed to duck sewing almost completely when I hit the
clothing and textiles unit in junior high school home
economics. The teacher closely supervised my laborious
construction of an oven mitt, but after that she suggested
that for the rest of my home ec credit that quarter I have my
mother teach me to knit.
Mom did so, and I struggled to create something that I
optimistically called a scarf. It was actually a sort of
pennant■wide at one end and narrow at the other, with
interesting holes from dropped stitches scattered
unpredictably from one edge to the other.
No one would have worn that scarf even if I had had the
nerve to present it as a gift, but at least it fulfilled my
textiles obligation, and when the term ended, I thankfully
abandoned my knitting needles.
I might happily have remained in that needle-less state
for the rest of my life if it had not been for my college
roommate Judy, who was an inveterate knitter and who decided
that I should take up the sport again. She pointed out that
she knitted in movie theaters and while she read, so she saw
no reason why I couldn't derive as much pleasure from
knitting as she did. Besides, she wanted to see if she could
explain the various stitches in words alone rather than
demonstrating as she had always done in teaching people to
She suggested that I make matching sweaters for my
boyfriend and me and that the first sweater be his Christmas
present. Judy maintained that an ambitious and attractive
goal, and a friend to cope with the inevitable knitting
crises, were the two keys to becoming a successful knitter.
She was right.
I had never known anything like the satisfaction of
completing that first sweater and presenting it at Christmas.
By the time I had finished both sweaters, I could knit evenly
and rapidly. I then began to master the more complex stitches.
Mittens, a stole for homecoming, layette sets, and finally
garments that had patterns of several colors followed.
Judy still rescued me from time to time, but the summer
after my junior year I decided to tackle an afghan as a
wedding gift for a girlhood friend. Judy was hundreds of miles
away, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that the
pattern was fairly simple.
I used my commuting time on the streetcar to and from my
summer job for my project. The hour of knitting in the morning
was fairly easy because my home was far enough from the city
to insure that I would have a seat for the entire trip. But in
the evening I climbed aboard with standing-room only. There
were people who would have been happy to offer their seats to
a blind person, but I was twenty and perfectly capable of
standing, so I always refused these offers politely, wrapped
one arm around a pole, and pulled out my knitting.
Gradually the trolley would empty, and I would take a
seat, where there was less chance of dropping a stitch. As it
happened, I finished that afghan during an afternoon trolley
ride. But when I started to tuck the empty needles into my
knitting bag and roll up the end of the afghan, a chorus of
voices demanded to have the entire thing unrolled so that they
could see it all for the first and last time.
I hadn't realized from the occasional questions I had
answered about my ability to knit and the actual project
through the weeks that my progress was being monitored by
quite a little klatch of commuters.
I married straight out of college, and in the early years
of juggling home, job, and then babies, I put away my
knitting. But when my children were quite small, I began
teaching childbirth education classes several nights a week.
For part of that time I was the head instructor in the
organization for which I worked, with responsibility for
training new instructors and seeing that they were well
trained and got a good start in teaching.
Sometime during this period I came across a clever idea
for a teaching aid, which involved using a doll and a knitted
bag with a ribbed top and a draw-string opening to demonstrate
the effect of uterine contractions. The pattern for knitting
the bag was simple, and I whipped one up for myself in a few
hours. Of course, all the instructors wanted similar aids, but
apparently I was the only one who could knit. Several of the
instructors made arrangements to have them made, but the rest
couldn't seem to find anyone to make a bag for them. As a
result I found myself with the job of manufacturing these
teaching aids fairly regularly.
One day I was invited to a neighborhood coffee, and I
decided to take my latest knitting project with me. The new
teacher needed it quite soon, and I hated to waste a single
minute when I knew my hands would otherwise be idle. With
three young children at home, I had very little time for
At the coffee I was knitting quietly and talking with a
neighbor when a rather overbearing and formidable woman
approached me. She had always treated me, a young faculty wife
and a blind woman, with annoying condescension■an amusing
child playing grown-up rather sweetly.
"And what's that you're making?" she boomed. "A dear,
little purse for yourself?" The yarn was an uninteresting tan,
and there was no pattern to the bag at all. It would have been
an indescribably ugly purse, but it was just like her, I told
myself, to presume the worst about my fashion sense and
ability to knit.
Something snapped inside me, and I rebelled against all
the admonitions to treat this rather powerful faculty wife in
our small college town with deep and unvarying respect and
meekness. I smiled up at her and said sweetly, but very
clearly in the pause that followed her shouted question, "No,
a uterus." For once in her career of intimidation, she was
Shortly thereafter our family moved to London for a year.
Even though we didn't have a lot of money with which to enjoy
the city, we had a wonderful sabbatical year. The children all
needed sweaters as part of their school uniforms, and I
decided to make them really warm, hand-knitted ones that they
could use all winter long when their classrooms would be quite
This was a bold decision on my part. In all my past
knitting projects I had had someone near me who was a better
knitter than I and who could help when I got myself into
trouble■and one always gets into trouble a time or two when
knitting. Here I was, knowing no one in London and preparing
to tackle my first fisherman knit sweaters. I could hardly
believe my own courage.
I recognized clearly that until several years before I
would never have tried it. The daring decision had been
brought about directly by my discovery of the National
Federation of the Blind. As a result of that experience I had
recently met and become friends with hundreds of blind people
who were confident in themselves and confident in me.
They were teaching me that I had always underestimated my
own abilities. As I stretched myself to try things I had
assumed blind people couldn't do, I learned that there is very
little in life that a determined person cannot find a way to
do if he or she really wants to get it done. And I really
wanted to make those sweaters.
There in London I learned stitch by stitch a lesson that
the Federation constantly teaches me and every other blind or
sighted person who comes in contact with its positive
philosophy: when you get right up to a problem and take a
good, hard look at it, there is almost aways something
practical you can do to solve it.
With a small house to take care of and no job outside our
home, I had lots of time to knit. And at least once a week I
fed the children, got them into their pajamas for the night,
dressed for the theater, and raced to the tube so that I could
meet my husband in town in time for the opening curtain of a
theater production. By the time I sank into my train seat and
pulled out my knitting, I was glad for forty-five minutes in
which to knit quietly and collect my wits, making the
transition from frazzled mother to intelligent theater
companion. I was not the only knitter on the train during that
year, but I was probably the only one in the theater.
Today I am still knitting. These days I do most of my
work in airports and during meetings. I find that knitting
helps me concentrate on what's happening in the group and
keeps me from becoming frustrated when time is being wasted.
After all, I remind myself, I always have a few inches of
knitting to show for even the most unproductive meeting.
By now I have been knitting for so many years that
Brailling the patterns I use and the charts associated with
the more complicated ones seem second nature. I have devised
ways of marking the skeins or bobbins of the different colors
I am using. And I can locate and correct errors I have made as
easily by touch as most other knitters can by looking at the
My roommate was right all those years ago. Knitting is
wonderfully relaxing and satisfying. I am grateful to my
mother for first teaching me to knit and purl. I am even more
grateful to Judy for sticking with me until I learned the fine
points of this lovely craft. But most of all I am grateful to
the National Federation of the Blind for giving me the
confidence to discover my own competence, not only in
knitting, but in every other aspect of my life.
by Peggy Elliott
Peggy Pinder Elliott, the Second Vice President of the
National Federation of the Blind, is familiar to previous
Kernel Book readers as an attorney and thoughtful observer of
attitudes toward blindness■both her own and others'. Here she
relates a recent encounter which occurred amid the high drama
and emotional tensions of the hospital operating room:
There are lots of old sayings that we all think are a
little simplistic and, yet, they often have a very large
kernel of truth. One of them is that life is an emotional
roller coaster. I sometimes think that, in addition to the
roller coaster for everyone, there is a special one for the
You never know when you will meet someone who thinks you
as a blind person cannot do the most ordinary of things. And,
then, you meet up with ten people in a row who are pleased to
accept you as a friend, a client, a colleague, a boss.
This acceptance can be more precious to us than it would
be to a sighted person. Here's an example of what I mean.
My sister Jeanne was having her first child, which turned
out to be twins. When the time came, her husband was unable to
be present for the c-section operation which became
unexpectedly necessary. My sister asked me to be the one to
accompany her into the operating room.
This was a request I was thrilled to be able to fulfill.
Being a small part of the circumstances that bring new life
into the world is always awesome, and one's own sister's first
children under circumstances that could have become dangerous
for all three was even more awesome.
I went to the hospital with mingled feelings of elation
and worry. I wasn't thinking at all about my blindness. But
the hospital orderly was. They wheeled Jeanne out for the
preparation procedures, and the orderly marched in with the
hospital greens I was to put on. She didn't hand them to me.
Instead, she stood there holding them and asked if I wanted
her to put them on me.
I politely declined, took the clothes from her, and
walked into a nearby rest room to change. It was clear that
the orderly thought I had no business being there at all.
I came out in a few minutes, ready for my job of support
to my sister, and the orderly had vanished. I waited, thinking
the orderly had gone to do a quick job and would be back. Time
oozed on and still no orderly. Finally, I heard an
authoritative voice way down the hall demanding: "Where is
she? They're ready." I strode down the hall toward the
authoritative voice. When I arrived, my sister was already
prepped, and the operation had been in progress for at least
I was glad I hadn't waited any longer for the orderly to
come back-I might have missed a pivotal point in my sister's
life because of that orderly's notions about blindness.
The operation went smoothly, and both baby girls were
fine from the minute they reached the world. My sister did not
do quite so well.
One danger sign was blood pressure, and the
anesthesiologist was supposed to be keeping it artificially
low to protect her. He did his job. In fact, he did it so well
that she began to feel nauseated. He was watching the
operating doctor, a master at these operations who was about
Suddenly, my sister started to mumble that she felt sick.
She had asked me to keep her awake, though she was allowed to
sleep if she chose. I was seated at her head and, to keep her
alert, I pulled her hair at irregular intervals at which she
could not anticipate. I was also stroking and patting her head
and shoulders, but this was the first time in my life I got to
pull my sister's hair without being scolded.
She wanted to hear (though they screened her sight)
everything that went on and to see the babies right away. She
was sleepy and mumbly, and her indications of feeling sick
weren't offered with much conviction. But, I knew my sister.
That's part of why I was there - to be on her side, no matter
I turned to the anesthesiologist and told him that my
sister would not mention her nausea unless she was feeling
very, very nauseated. What was wrong? He looked down at his
dials and discovered that he had let her blood pressure slip
so very low that she would feel sick. He immediately began
pushing buttons and talking directly to my sister until he
stabilized her blood pressure in a more comfortable zone for
I am not saying that I saved my sister. The
anesthesiologist was a pro. He wouldn't have let my sister
slip away. But, these men and women worked as a team - operating
doctor teaching a student doctor, two anesthesiologists in the
same relationship, a doc and a nurse for each baby, and two
nurses for my sister. I was made part of the team when I came
in, included as a person who had a vital interest and a role
to play that no one else could play just then. No mention of
blindness. Just everybody doing their part of this exciting,
delicate job.When the baby girls were gone to the nursery and Jeanne
was ready for post-op, one of the doctors asked me to step
back so they could unhook her.
They gently and professionally put my sister back onto
her rolling bed and wheeled her out the door to post-op. No
one looked at me. I just followed behind the bed, listening to
the doctors and my sister talking and using my cane to be sure
I didn't hit anything as I walked.
In post-op, they put her in one corner and then decided
to roll her to the opposite corner where the best equipment
was available for monitoring. I caught the change of direction
with my ears, waited until they had settled my sister into her
monitors, and then moved up beside her.
The post-op nurse brought me a chair and, later, a warmed
blanket because it was freezing in there. She, like the
operating team, treated me as another member of the team.
It was one of those roller coaster days for me: a
wonderful event in our family mixed with anxiety for my
sister, whose reaction to the anesthetic took quite a while to
wear off; two new nieces fine and healthy; one bad experience
with an orderly who didn't want me around at all; and eight or
ten professionals who welcomed me as a team member.
I came away remembering that each of us who is blind has
a role to play, things to contribute, our own worlds to
conquer, and roller coasters of life to ride. And, the
wonderful thing is that there are now more straight-aways than
there ever have been, more people who do welcome us into the
mainstream of life.
More and more people are spiritually joining the National
Federation of the Blind in our effort to make blindness just
another characteristic■a difference among people that doesn't
by James H. Omvig
Jim and Sharon Omvig live in Tucson, Arizona. They are
leaders in the National Federation of the Blind, in their
community, and in their church. Attitudes toward blindness are
changing in this country, and one of the reasons for this is
the steady, day-to-day effort of people like the Omvigs. Here
Jim relates an incident that took place in his church and how
he and Sharon handled it:
"My goodness, things are so bad over there at the church
now that they even have the blind serving communion!" So said
an elderly, homebound member to one of her close friends and
confidants on a particular Monday morning.
The church in question was the one I attended for several
years in Baltimore, Maryland. The poor blind man who had
supposedly been so abused by this congregation was me. Here is
how it all happened.
At the time of this incident I had been blind for many
years and had been an active member of this church for a short
time. Years earlier, I had had the great good fortune of
encountering the National Federation of the Blind, and I had
experienced enormously valuable training and insight.
I had been taught (and had come emotionally to believe)
that as a blind person I was simply a normal human being who
happened to be blind and that the opportunities for me to work
and participate fully in the world were limitless.
I had also learned that erroneous attitudes about
blindness rather than the physical condition of being blind
are the most persistent problems with which each blind person
must deal on a daily basis.
Finally, I had come to understand fully that as a
successful blind person I had an obligation to do what I could
to help change those existing, negative public attitudes.
I was living to the hilt what I had been taught by the
Federation. I had become an attorney and was the director of
a major program of the Social Security Administration at its
Baltimore headquarters. Additionally, I was married to a
wonderful wife, had a fine young son, served as vice president
of my Lions Club, was an active member of my church's
governing board, and was also active in the local chapter of
the National Federation of the Blind. My life was in every way
normal, if busy.
A few weeks before the communion incident occurred, I had
been asked by the minister (we'll call him Bob) if I would be
willing to have my name placed in nomination to become one of
the deacons of the church. I agreed and, as church elections
generally go, I was elected without a hitch. It had not
occurred to me that one of the duties of a deacon (at least,
at this church) is to serve communion at the Sunday service.
Some time after the election we had a day of planning and
training. Early on, the minister Bob came to my sighted wife
(not to me) and said, "I'm making out the communion-serving
schedule of deacons for the year. Jim won't want to serve
communion, will he?"
My wife Sharon is also well grounded in proper attitudes
about blindness and in the knowledge that we have a lot of
work to do to make things better. She knew as well as I that
Bob's real question was, "Since Jim is blind, he wouldn't be
able to serve communion, would he?"
Even so, she just smiled and said, "I think you had
better ask Jim about that."" Then she came to me in another
meeting and told me about Bob's question.
What was I to do? One thing was clear: It would not be
helpful or even desirable for either of us to become upset or
angry. Far from useful, such a reaction would have served only
to teach the minister (and anyone else who happened to learn
of it) that the blind are not only helpless and incompetent
but also rude and ill-tempered on top of it.
Frankly, I had not given a thought to the fact that
deacons serve communion or the way in which I as a blind
person might accomplish the task. I determined then and there,
though, that it would be important for me to do it and that I
would find a way! The National Federation of the Blind had
taught me that. I decided to do it both because it was my duty
as an elected deacon and because this would be a marvelous
opportunity through quiet example for me to teach hundreds of
people at a single stroke about blindness.
We decided that I would just wait until Bob came to speak
with me. But, of course, he did not come. Some time in the
early afternoon Bob went to Sharon again and said, "Jim won't
want to serve communion, will he?"
Again she said, "You need to talk to Jim about that." And
again she told me, and I waited a little longer.
Finally, toward the end of the day, Bob came to Sharon
yet a third time. This time he sounded a little impatient. He
said, "You know, I have to finish this communion schedule
today. Jim won't want to be on it, will he?"
This time Sharon said, "Come along, Bob; let's go find
Jim; and you can ask him. I can't speak for him."
When they found me, Bob asked if I would be willing to
serve, and I casually said, "Of course I will."
He sounded more than a little concerned and, with some
awkwardness, he finally got around to asking, "But how will
you do it?" At this church the deacons who are serving gather
at the back of the sanctuary and then walk two-by-two up to
the front of the church and up the steps to the altar. They
take the trays from the minister or elders and then go back
down and serve the individual members of the congregation row
by row. When all have been served, the deacons return to the
altar to leave the trays and then walk again in pairs back to
I told him that I had not yet had the opportunity to
think about it but that there was a way. And there was, and I
On the first day I served, the church was a-buzz. Later
Bob said to me with real warmth and an obvious feeling of
pride, "You were more of an inspiration here today than I was.
I actually saw people with tears in their eyes."
So it was that by Monday the story had spread throughout
the congregation, even to the shut-ins. It is true that the
activity seemed noteworthy in the beginning■even remarkable to
some. But the end of the story was the most gratifying for
Sharon and me. For in a very short time whatever I did
(whether it was serving communion or serving as head of the
finance committee or serving as a trustee) was accepted as the
ordinary and unremarkable activity of a church leader. My
blindness simply was no longer an issue, and through the years
Bob has become one of my best friends and a true believer in
the cause of the blind.
As I look back now, I'm glad that the question of serving
communion came up. Bob learned from it, the members of the
congregation learned from it, and my wife and I learned, too.
We came to have an even deeper understanding of the normality
of the blind and the importance of the work of the National
Federation of the Blind.
by Nadine Jacobson as told to Bill Holton
The following article first appeared in the "Profiles in
Courage" section of Family Circle Magazine. Nadine and Steve
Jacobson are leaders in the National Federation of the Blind
of Minnesota. They are not the first nor, regrettably, will
they be the last couple to have difficulty adopting a child
simply because they happen to be blind. Here is Nadine's
My husband Steve and I were so excited. There was a
newborn boy in Arkansas, and after years of hoping and trying,
it looked as if we were finally going to become parents. The
private adoption seemed so certain, we started buying baby
clothes and furniture for the nursery. But then, abruptly, the
lawyer who was handling the adoption stopped taking our calls.
"I'm sorry," he said when I finally got through to him,
"but we changed our minds and decided to give the baby to
another family." He explained that it wasn't because there was
a problem with our home study or that Steve and I couldn't
support a child financially. The lawyer made it perfectly
clear there was only one reason we weren't getting that baby
boy■because Steve and I are both blind.
Steve and I have known each other since I was six and he
was eight. We were both students at the Minnesota State
Academy for the Blind, where we pretty much grew up together.
We started dating when he was fourteen and I was twelve. We
played in the school band together and sang in the choir. I
was a cheerleader; Steve wrestled on the school team.
When Steve graduated and went on to college, I left the
Academy and spent my last two years in public high school back
home in Richmond, Minnesota, where I became involved in speech
tournaments, had parts in several school plays, and graduated
near the top of my class.
We were married in the spring of 1973 and set up
housekeeping in Minneapolis while I finished college and Steve
started turning his math degree into a career in computers.
Like many couples our age, we always planned on having a
family but decided to wait, wanting to become a bit more
Steve went to work for 3M, where today he's a lead
programmer analyst. I got my master's degree in social work,
and over the years I have licensed foster homes, done advocacy
work for the elderly, taught Braille, and done career
counseling at a private rehabilitation agency for the blind.
About ten years ago Steve and I decided it was time to
begin our family. Unfortunately, nature didn't agree.
Fertility drugs, making love on a schedule, many trips to the
doctors didn't help. Eventually, I underwent surgery to try to
increase my chances of conception. When even this failed,
Steve and I were forced to face the truth: I was probably
never going to get pregnant.
We'd talked about adoption many times. It was always
something we hoped to do after we had a baby of our own, but
now that it looked like a biological baby wasn't going to
happen. . . .
Walking into that first agency interview in June of 1989,
Steve and I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. Although
social workers are educated to understand how the disabled
function and adapt, all too frequently they harbor the same
misconceptions and negative stereotypes as does much of the
general population. We knew we were going to have to do a lot
of educating, teaching them everything we knew about how blind
"Please, ask us anything you want to know," I encouraged
the agency officials. They seemed open to what we had to say
and asked a lot of detailed questions. For example, how would
we know if our child were sick or playing with something that
might be dangerous?
I explained to them that, like most parents who don't
spend every minute of every day in the same room with their
child, you do a lot of careful listening. If the child becomes
too noisy or too quiet, then you know it's time to check. You
become especially careful not to leave things lying about that
a small child could hurt himself with or put in his mouth.
Also as a blind parent you tend to spend more time with
your child, sitting on the edge of the tub or standing right
there beside the swing set. And as for illness, they do make
talking thermometers, but what mother can't tell when her
child is sick just by the sound of her breathing or a gentle
kiss on an overheated forehead?
During the following weeks we filled out any number of
forms, provided written life histories and philosophies of
parenting and such, and prepared ourselves for that all-
important home visit. Everything seemed to be right on track,
and Steve and I started to feel cautiously optimistic.
When the social worker who did the home visit asked how
we would feel about adopting a blind child, we told her that
we wouldn't have a problem with it but that, if we'd had our
own baby, he or she wouldn't have been blind, so we didn't
think eyesight should be a consideration. "Yes, well," she
replied matter-of-factly, "I can't imagine we would even
consider placing a sighted child with you."
Steve and I were disappointed by her attitude, but we
understood it. In any placement the agency needs to keep the
best interest of the child as its first priority, and
apparently this woman simply did not believe the best interest
of a sighted child could ever be served by placing him with
Understanding her position, of course, didn't make it any
less misguided. There are thousands of blind parents raising
sighted children and doing a fine job of it. After all, it's
not what you can or can't see that makes you a good parent;
it's what you teach your child about love and life and living
in the world.
(We later learned of another reason the agency wanted to
limit our adoption to blind children. They were afraid that
eighteen years from now a sighted child might sue them for
forcing him to grow up with blind parents.)
We tried to educate them, but it became clear that their
minds were set: they would help us find a child, but it was
going to be a blind child.
Were we equally set against adopting a blind child? Of
course not. Steve and I don't think any less of ourselves or
each other because we happen to be blind. How could it make a
difference in the way we would feel about a child? But we did
want to adopt a child, and fewer than 1 in 200 children in the
world are born blind. And many of those babies also have
severe physical problems that make them unlikely candidates
We had chosen this agency because they specialize in
finding children in Korea and South America, where there are
far more babies waiting to be adopted than adoptive parents.
We figured the larger the pool of potential children, the
sooner we'd find a baby who was just right for us. But then
the agency tells us that for us the only right baby is a rare,
So rare that, after a year and more of searching, the
agency hadn't been able to come up with a single potentially
adoptable child for us.
Eventually Steve and I began to look elsewhere. We ran up
huge phone bills calling other agencies in other states as
well as attorneys who specialize in private adoptions. There
were agencies that would agree to help us, but then we'd never
hear from them again. Even though attorneys were more
straightforward, they couldn't help us either.
By the summer of 1992 Steve and I were despairing. And
then we were introduced to a social worker from Washington
State named Barbara Freeman. Barbara and her husband Mike had
experienced many of the same roadblocks to adopting a child as
had Steve and I.
It had taken them five years to find a child,
particularly discouraging since Barbara wasn't blind; only her
husband was. Barbara told us of an agency in Oregon called
Holt International Children's Services, which specialized in
placing children with special needs. We contacted them at
Again we were asked if we'd mind adopting a blind child.
Again we explained that, blind or sighted, it didn't matter to
us■what we wanted was a baby, a precious new life to love and
cherish and raise as our own.
It was a few months later, in September of 1992, when we
got a call back. "We think we've found a baby for you. A five-
month-old little girl from Korea named Kang Soo Jee."
Steve and I tried not to get too excited. We didn't want
to get our hopes up, only to have them dashed again. Sure
enough, a few weeks later we got a call. "We don't think this
child is going to work out for you after all," the woman
"What's the problem?" I asked, my stomach tightening into
She explained that Kang Soo Jee wasn't totally blind, and
they were worried that a partially sighted child might be too
much for Steve and me.
Back to square one. I explained to her that I had been
partially sighted as a child, so I knew what it was like. I
understood the sort of things Kang Soo Jee needed to know in
order to make the best use of her limited vision and how
techniques used by the blind could help her avoid the dangers
The agency representative promised to take what I'd told
her under advisement. Six weeks later we received their
decision: Steve and I had been approved for adoption. Though
the waiting wasn't over■there were papers to be filed, a
passport and visa to be secured, and about a million last-
minute things that could go wrong■it began to look as if Steve
and I were finally going to get the baby we'd been praying
Our daughter arrived in this country at 1:45 p.m. on
March 25, 1993, five days after my fortieth birthday, and
eight days before her very first.
"Oh, Elizabeth!" I wept, accepting my baby girl from her
escort and using the new name we planned to give her. Steve
was right there by my side, a proud new papa.
She was so tiny, so beautiful, and after all these years
of wanting and waiting, I could hardly believe she was really
When she first came to us, she was mostly crawling, and
she could only speak a few words of Korean. Just today she was
chasing the cat around the house with one of the arm
protectors from the sofa, calling, "Kitty, night-night! Kitty,
night-night!" Later, while I was fixing dinner, she sat on the
kitchen floor with most of the pots and pans out, banging the
lids and saying, "`abeth cook too!"
Elizabeth loves watching Barney on TV. She sings along,
and when it's time for the "I Love You" song, she always runs
over and gives me a great big hug. After Barney, we often go
to the little park up the street.
Sometimes I take her in the stroller with the handle that
reverses so I can pull it with my right hand while I cane with
my left, or else I fasten a loose string tether around our
wrists and let her use her own, smaller cane. She does pretty
well with it, too.
I stick pretty close to Elizabeth in the playground and
usually dress her in a pair of shoes with tiny bells on the
off chance she decides to go exploring.
After dinner the three of us go for a walk, and Elizabeth
gets to ride in her daddy's backpack. Elizabeth loves her
daddy. She loves listening to him read to her from one of her
picture books with the text transcribed into Braille, or
helping him put together one of the many puzzles I've Braille-
marked on the back so I know which picture we're working on.
I've similarly marked the colors of many of her toys, because
no one is ever going to say my little girl doesn't know green
from orange because both her parents are blind.
I hope, though, that we'll be able to teach Elizabeth
more than just the colors of the rainbow or how to read
Braille or use her white cane to negotiate her way across a
busy intersection. If Steve and I are truly to succeed as
parents, we're also going to have to impart to Elizabeth
everything we know about growing up to become a decent and
responsible human being. We'll have to show her how to enjoy
each day of her life to the fullest and, most important, give
her the support and confidence to recognize that there isn't
anything in this whole wide world she can't accomplish if only
she sets her mind to it.
But then, aren't these the very same beliefs, values, and
ideals that parents everywhere hope to instill in their
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
...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.
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" or "The
following stocks and bonds: ___") to be used for its worthy
purposes on behalf of blind persons."
Your contributions are tax-deductible