Marc Maurer, Editor
Notre Dame Embraces the Spirit of the Blind
by Marc Maurer
Not Much of a Muchness
by Ed Eames
Music of the Heart
by Ryan Strunk
A Merry-Go-Round Nobody Could Ride
by Marie Cobb
Focusing on the Picture
by Susan Povinelli
An Unplanned Walk in the Blizzard
by Cary Supalo
by Ramona Walhof
Betrayed by Good Intentions
by Barbara Pierce
I Cut the Grass, Too
by Charlie Richardson
Not Much of a Muchness. I expect that you may find this a rather strange title for the 23rd volume in our Kernel Book Series. I must admit that I, too, was a bit puzzled when Ed Eames sent me a story with this as its title.
My first thought was, "What can it possibly mean?" Then I read Ed's story. The English language is spoken with rich and charming variety in different parts of the world, and sometimes such expression can bring a new clarity to an old and familiar concept.
Here is what happened: Ed and his wife Toni (both blind) were visiting in the West Indies. Their local sighted guide Eustace, growing impatient with trying to answer questions from curious onlookers, and having observed the ease with which Ed and Toni were handling matters relative to their blindness, finally took to answering simply, "Blindness is not much of a muchness."
Hearing Eustace's colorful answer to the endless questions, I was struck by the perfectly delightful way in which he had summed up in an instant so much of what we have been trying to convey about blindness in a dozen years of Kernel Books.
Blindness is not much of a muchness. An oversimplification? Of course it is! If there is not understanding, if training is denied, if those who seek opportunity are rejected without being given a chance, blindness signifies heartbreak and despair.
But this is where you, our devoted sighted friends who have come to know us through the pages of the Kernel Books, come in.
You know that many of the problems we face come not from our lack of eyesight but from misunderstandings that exist about blindness. You know that not only must the general sighted public learn new ways of thinking about the capacities of blind people to live productive lives, but we who are blind must also do so.
You know that although we, by sharing the experiences of our daily lives as we live them, can help you come to these new understandings, you must also help us come to them. You know that you do this by accepting us as neighbors, friends, and coworkers who have the same wants and wishes you have, but who often use different skills and techniques to achieve them.
Can a blind mother take her turn providing treats for her daughter's class? What about teaching photography? How about getting to work on time in a blizzard, or directing a choir, or knitting sweaters with intricate color patterns?
As Eustace would tell you, Not Much of a Muchness. Not, that is, if there have been training and opportunity combined with generous measures of love and belief.
Through the Kernel Books you have become part of our lives and our quest to
make them productive and filled with hopes and dreams. We look to you to help
us reach the point where blindness becomes, for those of us who are blind and
those of you who live and work with us, truly Not Much of a Muchness.
Back to Top
by Marc Maurer
In 1970, I enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. I was then, as I am now, totally blind. Prior to 1970, it had not occurred to me that I might matriculate at this university. I had done well enough in high school, but I had believed that the opportunities available to me would be modest.
In 1969, I met the President of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was himself totally blind. He had achieved outstanding success at Vanderbilt University. In addition, he told me about blind people who had done extraordinary academic work at Harvard, at Berkeley, and at the University of Munich. He persuaded me that I too could achieve success if my mind was good enough and if I was willing to work-but all depended on my willingness to work.
I had been planning to attend a small college in Minnesota, but Dr. Jernigan urged me to apply to the University of Notre Dame. The result-astonishing to me at the time-was that I became a student there in the fall of 1970.
During the time that I attended the university, girls were admitted for the first time. Though this was controversial, the men students looked forward to it. I am using the language of my college days here. The women students were called girls-at least by the students who were already at Notre Dame. The male students were called men.
One of the new women students was blind. Soon after she came to the campus, I discovered she was there, and I went to visit her. I learned later that the first impression she received of me was not the best.
She thought that I was pushy, argumentative, brash, and egotistical. I gave her a lot of advice. The number of blind students at the University of Notre Dame was almost zero, and I figured that the two of us should stick together to try to get what we needed. However, she wasn't much interested in either my company or my suggestions.
At the time that I first met this young woman, I was a student with experience-I was a junior. I had been at the university for two years, and I knew my way around the campus. I was also moderately familiar with the customs of the place. With the confidence that I would be able to compete, I felt at ease. How different I was from the student who had just arrived.
When I first walked onto the grounds of the university, I was nervous-perhaps a better word is frightened. I had thought that Notre Dame was a place for wealthy, bright human beings. I was quite certain I was not wealthy, and I wasn't sure about the brightness. Beyond that, I didn't know my way from place to place, and Notre Dame was not an easy environment for a blind person to master. In big cities there are streets and sidewalks with curbs between them. At Notre Dame there were few streets and mostly only paths which occasionally traveled in a more or less straight line. Often they meandered from here to there with relatively little apparent structure.
As soon as I had figured out how to navigate the campus, landmarks for traveling became easily recognizable and abundant. Blind people travel in a way different from the sighted. Sighted people, for example, look across the quadrangle. When they see the Engineering Building, they know that this is their objective. They select an appropriate route to reach the destination. On the other hand, we, the blind, need our landmarks to be close at hand, and it takes a little time to identify them in a new place.
When I was first on campus, I didn't know my way to the dining hall. As soon as I had finally discovered its whereabouts, I didn't know where the food line could be found. I wondered nervously if I would get anything to eat. This, of course, was only the beginning.
Studious pursuits demand extensive reading. I had to locate people who would be willing to read material to me because most of it was not available on tape or in Braille. In class I had to persuade professors to verbalize what they were putting on the board. I began my course of study in the engineering department. In addition, I had courses in advanced mathematics and chemistry along with writing and English requirements. My course work was, it seemed to me, quite demanding.
Later on, when I had become a junior, I was prepared to help my newly found blind colleague with the troublesome and arduous task of finding readers-people with the talent and the willingness to read books. I was also prepared to show her about the campus, to assist her (if she wanted me to) in discussing her specialized needs with professors, and to help her get basic training in the skills and techniques needed by a blind student. However, she seemed to think she didn't need my help.
I met with her from time to time, but mostly each of us did our own thing. As the school year progressed, I concentrated on studies along with the other pleasurable activities of the college experience.
Along about the end of the wintertime, things changed. I received a call from the dean of freshmen students-a man I had come to know at the university and one I liked and admired. He asked me to come visit him because he wanted to discuss the progress of a student.
When I arrived at the Administration Building, he swore me to secrecy and told me that the blind student I had met was having trouble. She was doing well academically, he said, but there were other matters. The Department of Psychology at the university-a department well known for scholarship and learning-had been consulted. The chairman of the department had concluded that my blind colleague might not be suitable for university life. He recommended that serious consideration be given to sending her home.
Did I know the student, the dean wanted to know? What did I recommend? I responded that I did know her very well. I admitted that she had probably not had the benefit of the best training for the blind available in America. However, I said that I knew her spirit and that I thought she would manage to do well given the opportunity. I asked the dean what it was that had caused the Department of Psychology to consider the matter. What were the indications of psychological unsuitability for college life?
He told me that my blind friend frequently became disoriented on campus and sometimes lost her way. Furthermore, he said that she often ran into bushes or other objects and that he was afraid she might hurt herself to such an extent that these accidents would bruise not only her body but also her mind. He indicated that the psychology professors had told him it might be kinder and more generous to send her home so that she wouldn't face the disorientation and the injuries.
My reaction was immediate and fierce. I said to my friend the dean that in an effort to be kind to this student the university was contemplating telling her firmly and without the possibility of appeal that she was a failure. I argued that if she was succeeding academically, she should be given the chance to work out the other details of life.
I said that all people run into things and bump themselves from time to time-the sighted as well as the blind. Sometimes human beings bruise their bodies and occasionally even their own egos. If the university sent her home, this would be a devastating blow to her self-esteem. I said that if she needed help finding her way, I would organize a group of people to teach her what she needed to know. Finally, I said that such a course of action would not be fair.
I left the office of the dean and proceeded without delay to my dormitory where I called my blind student friend. I told her that I had been sworn to secrecy, but that I had information she needed. I urged her not to tell the dean that we had talked. Then, I related the conversation. I said that I would be prepared to help her if she needed it. She asked what she should do, and I suggested that she keep up her courage, that she plan to go forward with her studies as usual, that she keep alert for things that might be said or done that could cause problems, and that she be prepared to ask for assistance if the need arose.
As it happened, the professors in the Department of Psychology were overruled. The spirit of the blind students at the University of Notre Dame continued to flourish. Both of us graduated, and each of us sought advanced degrees in law. My friend the dean of freshmen students believed more in what he observed in the blind than he did in the theories of those who would have prevented us from achieving success.
Sometimes we bumped into things and bruised ourselves. Sometimes the bruises extended beyond the body. But we survived largely through support of each other and with the teachings and the belief of our blind colleagues throughout the United States. Both of us are grateful that the people at Notre Dame wrestled with the problem and decided to believe in their own students.
A lot of this belief has come from the blind who make up the National Federation of the Blind. Some of our members have an education; some do not. Some have been able to find employment; some have not. Nevertheless, the spirit of our blind brothers and sisters gave us the faith for persistence and brought us achievement and success. This too is the meaning of the National Federation of the Blind.
Back to Top
by Ed Eames
Ed and Toni Eames are leaders in our California affiliate and in our special interest division for guide dog users. Both are recognized experts in the whole area of assistance dogs for the disabled. They write and lecture professionally on the subject throughout the world. Here Ed relates some of their experiences on a recent journey to the West Indies. Here is what he has to say:
Straddling crates of squash, cabbages, and tomatoes on the cargo boat making its way from St. Kitts to Nevis in the West Indies, my wife Toni and I enjoyed trying to interact with three vegetable vendors. Despite the roar of the cargo boat's engines and the barely audible strange sounding English, we caught an intriguing phrase spoken by our Lions Club host. Eustace Caines was telling Katie, the curious market vendor, "Blindness is not much of a muchness!" This was in response to her latest barrage of questions, "How do they shop, how do they cook, how do they travel?"
Usually, when someone speaks to our sighted companion rather than to us, we intercede and get directly involved in the conversation. In this case, however, with the noise of the engine interfering with our ability to hear combined with the West Indian patois of the vendors, we were content to play the role of eavesdroppers.
Eustace's description of blindness as "not much of a muchness" paralleled our views. As active members of the National Federation of the Blind, the concept that blindness is a mere nuisance is an underlying tenet of our belief system. It was refreshing to hear it reflected in the local idiom by someone who had never even attended one of our NFB meetings!
Our original plan had been to visit Nevis by ferry, but due to some glitches in communication, we missed the boat! All was not lost when Eustace, a resourceful and persuasive man, arranged passage on this unpretentious cargo vessel carrying construction material in addition to the market vegetables.
Prior to our West Indian adventure, Toni and I investigated sightseeing possibilities. In our past overseas journeys, Lions Club members have hosted our sightseeing tours. We reciprocate by doing a presentation at their weekly meeting. Enthusiastic about boats, shopping for native crafts, and indulging in local cuisines, club member Eustace not only served as our tour guide on this day but also intervened on our behalf in several potentially problematic situations.
Uncertain how the islanders, unaccustomed to working guide dogs, might respond to the presence of our Golden Retrievers, Escort and Echo, we were somewhat apprehensive about the reception we would encounter in restaurants, hotels, and shops. Not to worry!
Folks responded with fascination and curiosity rather than with fear and refusal. When the issue of access with the dogs did come up, Eustace calmed the waters with his quiet reassurance that it wasn't much of a muchness.
Having our fill of shopping on Nevis where prices were high, we proceeded to the ferry dock to return to St. Kitts in style. Attracted by our canine companions, several Canadian tourists chatted with us while waiting for the boat. One of them helped avert a near disaster. As Toni and Escort were about to step onto the ferry from the gangway, a crew member, trying to be helpful, grabbed her arm, throwing her off balance and causing Escort to begin falling between the boat and the pier. Reacting with lightening speed, one of our recent Canadian acquaintances swooped Escort up by the harness and deposited him safely in the boat. Not realizing he could have been crushed, Escort was calm and placid, while Toni remained shaken for the remainder of the voyage back to St. Kitts. Thankfully, the Canadian hero escorted Toni off the boat, avoiding another incident where an oversolicitous islander tried to assist by physically grabbing her.
Returning by taxi to the hotel, we got a real flavor of local life. The streets were teeming with people, and the odor of barbecue prepared by local streetside vendors wafted through the air. Loud music poured out of every shop and bar.
Since most of our traveling combines work and play, it was time to put on the work hat. After delivering two Bayer Corporation sponsored lectures at Ross University veterinary school, we were delighted to be invited to attend a special awards ceremony for students completing their academic work on the island. Usually we don't have the opportunity to socialize with students after our presentations, so this was a big treat.
Mike Zareski, a veterinary student, discovering my passion for being buffeted by big waves, offered to take me to an Atlantic Ocean beach the next day. As an avid body surfer, I was thrilled to spend a few hours indulging my watery passion. Introduced to the boogie board by Mike, I had to call upon all of my balancing and orientation skills to stay afloat.
Feeling the motion of approaching waves and listening for the sounds on the shore, I was able successfully to ride the waves on to the beach! This feat was not accomplished without a number of incidents in which either the board and I parted company or I ended up under it! Most amazing to me was that I was in the Atlantic in the middle of March with nary a shiver.
After three short days on St. Kitts, it was off to the island of Grenada. Our accommodations at the Frigate Bay Resort on St. Kitts were deluxe, but the True Blue Bay Resort on Grenada even surpassed our fantasies! Since our extensive travels take us to a variety of hotels, we derive great pleasure from exploring the special features in each establishment.
We exclaimed with excitement as we discovered a fully equipped kitchen, cozy living room, and comfortable bedroom. Vases of fresh flowers adorned counter tops. Stepping out on the huge patio, we knew we had arrived in paradise! Soothed by the sound of lapping waves below, we settled at the small outdoor table with cold drinks, then took turns swinging in the hammock.
Our Lions Club hostesses in Grenada were Florence Williams and Alexandrina Hood. As we drove to the nearby rain forest for a hiking tour, we discussed the island's main export crop, nutmeg. Wanting us to experience what the fruit-bearing trees were like, Florence pulled the car to the side of the road to provide a tactile glance of the trees.
As we posed for photos with our hands reaching for the nutmeg, the home owner approached to talk about his trees and demonstrate how the nut is extracted from the larger shell. Responding to our interest, he then brought us a cocoa fruit and showed us how to open and suck on the pods inside. Curiously, this gourd-shaped fruit and its pods had no resemblance to the chocolate we love to eat!
Returning to the car, I joked with Florence I felt like I should be the driver. Since St. Kitts and Grenada are former British colonies, traffic moves on the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right. As I sat down in what in the United States would be the driver's seat, my foot kept reaching for the brake and gas!
Emerging from the car at the tourist center in the rain forest, we heard a loud clamoring sound. Apparently, one of the many monkey inhabitants, startled by the sight of our dogs, took cover high in a towering tree. Escort and Echo, trained to ignore distractions, didn't seem to notice him. As we climbed the steep steps leading to a lookout point, Florence explained the crunching sound we heard under our feet came from millions of broken nutmeg shells traditionally used to pave walking paths.
After a brief presentation at the Lions Club meeting that evening, it was off to speak with the students at St. George's veterinary school. Here again, we were able to get to know some of the students who took us out to dinner following our lecture.
On our way back to the hotel, our student hosts discovered a house alongside the road that had a sign proclaiming "Home Cooking." During the course of our eating frenzy, we were offered more than twenty different dishes such as green papaya in cheese, stir fried rabbit, curried goat, stewed conch, mutton, beef stew, fried plantains, lobster salad, breadfruit salad, and several other local delights.
The next morning, we were packed and ready for our trip home when we received a call from American Airlines informing us our flight to Miami was canceled, and there was no other way to get us off the island that day. Other airlines all make stops at islands with quarantine regulations, so we could not pass through with our guide dogs.
Initially, we were upset with the change in plans since we had a number of appointments back home in Fresno, California, the next day. After getting over our initial upset, the extra day gave us the chance to unwind and spend more time in the hammock. Lunching with the hotel owners, we got the story of their lives.
Taking the opportunity to spend one last evening with our new friends, we all enjoyed dinner at our hotel. As we luxuriated in the fragrance of the tropical flowers surrounding the restaurant veranda, we reveled in the music of a traditional Caribbean band. Strolling back to our hotel room after dinner listening to the incessant peeping sounds of the tiny tree frogs we realized, if one had to get stuck someplace, an extra day in paradise at American Airlines' expense was not bad!
Back to Top
by Ryan Strunk
Ryan Strunk is a young leader in our Nebraska affiliate. In Music of the Heart, he relates an incident that changed his life forever. Ryan's poignant story shows the critical role belief, understanding, and love play in our lives. Here is what he has to say:
The events that shape our lives in the most profound ways are those that clutch at our heart and hold it close. Our most monumental decisions are often made because of the influence of such things. So it was with the conference of the Nebraska Music Educators Association, the event that aided me in my choice of college major and taught me a thing or two about my abilities.
Throughout the course of my life, I have passionately pursued the art of music, from performing on the high school stage to singing daily in the shower. Since music has always been my biggest love, I decided long ago that it would be the focus of my career, but during the course of my schooling, I was unable to decide between vocal performance and vocal education.
Performance, I knew, was a very unstable field. Many talented performers have
found themselves at thirty-six years of age, unsure of when their next meal
would come due to lack of opportunity. Education, I feared, would lead me astray.
How, I wondered, would a blind individual ever be able to direct the students
The answer to that question came to me in November of 2000 when I attended the all-state conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. The choir of 450 students was comprised of select singers from across the state and to date was the most famous choir I had performed in. I believe that each person who attended grew in some form during the three-day conference: made new friends, developed a new understanding of music, or, as I did, developed a new perspective on life.
It was on the third day of the conference-the morning before the big performance-that the choir was reviewing the score, asking questions, and clarifying matters that were unclear to them. We were reviewing a piece entitled "O Magnum Mysterium" by Lauridsen, and I had a question about a particular section of the music. Raising my hand, I asked, "Dr. Ehly, the retard there, how long should we hold it, and when should we make the cutoff?"
"Which retard?" the director responded.
At that moment, I was cursed with a brain freeze, and the exact measure and page escaped me. "Well, sir," I said, "I honestly can't remember."
"I tell you what," Dr. Ehly told me, "We'll sing through the
piece, and when we get to that section, you stop me, and we'll talk about it."
I agreed, and we began the piece. However, Dr. Ehly had decided that he wanted the choir to work on expression and diction, and thus had the students simply mouth the words to the song while he stood and directed. As the song was a cappella, I was unable to tell when the section came and passed, and I found, as Dr. Ehly declaimed, "Take out 'Thanks Be to God,'" that my question had not been answered.
Raising my hand once more, I asked, "Uh Dr. Ehly, what about that retard?"
"Ryan," he returned, not unkindly, "Why didn't you remind me?"
"Well, sir," I said, "it was kind of hard to see your direction."
He smiled as a giggle bubbled from the surrounding choir members and said to me, "Ryan, come up here. You are going to direct us."
The feeling that gripped my middle at that moment was one of dread and nervousness. How could I, having never seen a choir directed before, possibly conduct a choir of this size? I was going to be made a fool of, and that prospect heightened my fear. Nevertheless, I took my cane to hand and climbed over the edge of the stage to stand beside Dr. Ehly.
Dr. Ehly stepped to the piano, played the individual pitches, and said, "Whenever you're ready, Ryan."
Dumbfounded, I raised my right hand to shoulder level, then simply let it fall limply to my side. The choir, taking this gesture as the down beat, began to sing. Three words into the first phrase, however, the lack of proper direction quickly became evident, and the choir fell into musical disorder. My face a mask of apprehension and anger, I turned to Dr. Ehly and hissed out of range of the microphone, "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"You've never directed before," he inquired.
"No," I returned.
"Well," he began, stepping close to me, "this is how you direct."
By taking Dr. Ehly's wrist, I learned the basic motions of conducting in 4/4 time-a downward stroke of the wrist to indicate count one, a leftward sweep to indicate two, a sweep to the right to indicate three, and a diagonal stroke to the apex of the imaginary triangle to complete the measure. This learned, I once more raised my hand as Dr. Ehly played the parts' individual pitches.
The choir began flawlessly, flowing rhythmically through its pitches and filling me with a sense of awe until we came to the retard in question. Instead of performing the correct gestures, I simply slowed the course of my hand, and the choir, unsure of what to do, fell once more to disorder.
Dr. Ehly stepped up beside me once more and asked, "Ryan, when you want
to hold something, what do you do?" With a somewhat confused expression,
I held my hand before me, palm up. "Exactly," he told me, "and
when you want to throw it away, what do you do?" With a small smile, I
turned my hand over. "Exactly," Dr. Ehly encouraged. "When you
want a choir to hold a pitch, you simply hold it. When you want to cut them
off, just do this." He turned my hand so that my palm faced the stage.
Raising my hand once more, I began to conduct, gliding my hand through the motions of counting and holding and dropping the pitch at the proper times. Unfortunately, I was conducting according to the bass line, and thus was unaware that another of the parts needed to know when to change pitches. The section was almost flawless, but not quite.
For the final time, Dr. Ehly strode to my side and announced, "Almost. You need to cue the sopranos."
Feeling more confident now, I asked, "And how do I do that?"
"Like this," he told me, taking my right wrist, directing my hand toward the soprano section, raising it above my shoulder, and demonstrating that when I lowered it, the sopranos would assume their new pitch. For the last time, my right hand rose, and I began to conduct.
My arm flowed smoothly through each of the gestures. I cued the sopranos at just the right time, and with as much fun as I was having, the sustained note could have gone on forever. I released the choir at the proper time, however, and as my palm turned to face the floor, the auditorium fell into absolute silence.
As wave after wave of awe and wonderment rushed over me, Dr. Ehly stood beside me, and turning to me, said, "You know, Ryan, when Winston Churchill was on his death bed, they asked him, 'If you could go back in your life and do one thing differently, what would it be?'
"'I would be a conductor,' he told them, 'because when a conductor conducts, everyone pays attention.'"
"Ryan," he addressed me, "just because you can't see the music on the page and just because you can't see the choir out there in front of you doesn't mean that you can't be one of the world's greatest conductors, because the music lives in your heart." With a fatherly hug, he escorted me to the edge of the stage, where I was greeted by the fervent applause of 450 singers, whose hearts and souls, I believe, were touched as deeply as mine.
That day, I learned how to do more than conduct a choir-I learned that for so long, I had been underestimating myself. Without even realizing it, I was excluding myself from a career certain to be rewarding and inspiring. It took one man that day to show me just how capable I was, and with a sweep of the wrist, change my life forever.
Back to Top
by Marie Cobb
Marie Cobb is the mother of three now grown children. She lives in Maryland and teaches cooking and other daily living skills to blind adults. She has operated a food service business and has a widespread and well-earned reputation for the catering of elegant dinners and receptions. In other words, both she and those who know her now take for granted her culinary competence. But such was not always the case as we see in this incident which took place when her eldest daughter was in kindergarten. Here is what she has to say:
As a fairly competent chef who greatly enjoys the art of preparing and serving delectable meals, I have sometimes been astonished that many people find it amazing that someone who just happens to be blind can actually do more than rudimentary cooking-in fact, that blind people can do any cooking at all.
As a young parent I assumed that I would do all the usual "mom" things like making cookies and cupcakes for kindergarten classes and hosting birthday parties and sleep-overs galore. It never occurred to me that I should do anything less for my children.
You will imagine my shock when one day early in my eldest daughter Susan's first week in kindergarten I was told that since I was blind another mother had volunteered to take my turn in the rotation for making Friday treats for the class. I was also very hurt because I was already considered a better-than-average cook among my family and friends. I told the teacher that I was determined to take my turn when it came and that I would have a special surprise for my daughter's classmates.
I went home and racked my brain over what I might do for a special surprise for twenty five-year-olds. I knew that I had to do something no other parent had done and that most could not do.
A few days later while I was out shopping for a birthday present for a friend's son, I came across a set of very small circus animals in a plastic drawstring pouch that gave me an idea of how to accomplish my goal.
Just after lunch on the Friday I was to provide the treat, I walked into Susan's classroom with a large brown box in my arms. I set it down on the table and opened the top. As I removed the tape from the sides of the box and let them fall, all the children started yelling, "Look! It's a merry-go-round cake."
I had made two twelve-inch layers of milk-chocolate cake and frosted them with pale yellow butter cream icing. Then I had made a top for the carousel with paper doilies folded and tied with bright colored ribbons and held up over the cake with long red and white striped drinking straws. All of the little circus animals I had bought were arranged around the top of the cake-one for each child. The sides of the cake were decorated with green and blue round bubble gum and strips of red licorice.
To say the least, the cake was a big success, and I never again had to insist on being allowed to help with anything relating to food or for that matter decorating.
Before we left that school, I served as a teacher's aid, a library assistant, and chairman of the Halloween carnival for two years. I also made several more carousel cakes for showers and parties through the years.
Ironically, the only compliment I still remember from the ones I received that first important Friday treat day, and the one that will always be my favorite comment, came from my own daughter as we walked home that beautiful late fall afternoon. With her little blonde dog ears bouncing as she skipped along beside her little sister's stroller, she said, "Mom, I think that is the very best merry-go-round I ever saw-even if nobody could ride it."
Back to top
by Susan Povinelli
Susan Povinelli lives in Falls Church, Virginia, and is a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. She puts her Federation philosophy to work every day and is not afraid to tackle unlikely tasks. In Focusing on the Picture she tells the engaging story of her experiences as a photography teacher. Here is what she has to say:
As blind individuals we don't pay much attention to the role photographs have in our lives. Most of us who can't see the pictures can't really appreciate them. Our images of loved ones and special places are formed by our other senses. A smell of angel food cake baking may bring up a vision of our grandmother baking in her kitchen. A seagull crying takes us back to pleasant walks along the beach, and the cool wet sensation of cold fluffy snowflakes lightly falling on your face reminds you of the thrill of sledding down a long steep hill during a snowstorm. Because the sighted world treasures memories through visual images, it is extremely important for us to share and document our experiences through photographs.
So when my children's 4-H Club needed a leader for its photography project, I volunteered. I can still remember telling my sister that I was going to teach photography this year. She started laughing. The image of a blind person evaluating and describing the merits of a beautiful photograph seemed comical to her. She said, "You'll be so helpful in selecting a good picture."
I knew she was giving me a hard time, but I also knew she had a point. How could a blind person determine if a photograph had good composition or what would be an interesting subject to photograph? Would the parents of these children have enough confidence to send their kids to my class or would the old stereotype of blindness keep them away? These were the challenges I had to overcome to make the class a success.
But I am creative and have integrated two great philosophies, which have governed my life. The first is the National Federation of the Blind's (NFB) positive philosophy about blindness. This philosophy states that blind individuals can lead successful and productive lives by obtaining a positive attitude about blindness and learning proper alternative techniques.
The second is the 4-H philosophy to "Make the Best Better." This
philosophy encourages youth to improve their lives through learning life skills
(such as leadership, public speaking, and home economics) by hands-on experiences.
I diligently proceeded. I reminded myself that my main function was to be an
advisor to the children. They were responsible to accomplish 80 percent of the
All I had to do was prepare the lesson plans, collect all the materials needed (tripods, paper goods, and items to be photographed), and present the exercise. The children would do the rest. So I designed my class with this in mind.
I use a computer system sometimes called a "reading machine." Using a scanner I can convert print pages into electronic text and store the text in my computer. Once the text is in the computer, I can use special programs that convert what a sighted person sees on the screen to spoken words. Using this system, I can create either print or Braille documents. Using these tools, developing the project was fairly simple and straightforward. The extension office had already developed the curriculum. I scanned and read several lesson booklets. Then I selected the material I wanted to use and prepared print handouts for the children and Braille copies for me to use for giving instructions during the class.
When the room needed to be set up to determine flash range, I handed the children the masking tape and my talking tape measure, and they marked the distance on the floor. I could have easily done it myself, but the children needed to learn to measure and get the feel of distance. I then showed a few children how to set up tripods. Then, from there on, they were responsible for setting up their own tripods. We were ready for the exercise.
As in most project meetings there are plenty of parents willing to help. So when kids had trouble loading film in their cameras another parent would help.
When it came time to describe good composition to the children, I stood up in front of the group and explained the four principles of good composition: interesting details; place the subject off-center in the photograph; have only a few subjects in the photo and reduce background clutter; and finally, choose interesting subjects.
Before we started photographing, I had the children brainstorm on interesting subjects they might like to photograph. I handed all the children three Post-it notes and asked them to write one subject on each Post-it note. Then, the child would get up and place it on a large piece of paper mounted on the wall. I asked for a volunteer to read the list. Each child would take turns reading the assignment or the handouts. Thus, while drawing each child into the process, I was able to obtain the needed information to conduct the class.
One of the major objectives of this course was for the children to learn how to evaluate photographs for good composition. The children evaluated each others' photographs, and then they would identify one aspect that needed to be improved. As a group we would provide suggestions on how to take a better picture. If they wanted my opinion regarding their photograph they would describe the photo and its problem. Then I could recommend some technique to try.
Then the owner of the photo would try taking the picture again using some of
the suggestions and determine if the picture was improved, thus gaining technical
knowledge by comparing the two pictures and determining which technique provided
the desired effect.
I have to admit an onlooker might have thought I had lost total control of the class and things were in utter chaos. Here is the scene: Children spread around the parking lot shooting pictures everywhere. One group is taking pictures of the building while others are photographing trees. It is noisy as each group is photographing its subject. At another time when they are learning to take group photos, kids are yelling suggestions at the photographer on how people should be posed in a group photo. Meanwhile, I am standing talking to another parent. A child comes up and asks for clarification on the exercise. I check my Braille notes and tell her. It is purposeful, organized chaos and great fun.
I can say it has been a lovely learning experience for us all. I have gained a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of taking great pictures. The children and their parents have learned that blind people are capable of accomplishing a task that is considered too visual for a blind person to do. These kids can now look through their viewfinders at blind people and focus their attention on our successful and ordinary lives and not the negative aspects of blindness.
Back to top
by Cary Supalo
Cary Supalo is a graduate student studying chemical engineering at Penn State University. He has a keen sense of responsibility and is not willing to use his blindness as an excuse to avoid doing a difficult task. With a measure of pride he relates the following story:
It was a cold evening in mid January, and I had just finished a long day in class and had just finished eating dinner. I was preparing to go to work. I was a computer lab consultant and had a work shift starting at 7:00 p.m. The time had just passed 6:30 p.m. My usual daily plan was to catch a 6:40 p.m. bus that would have gotten me to my computer lab at 6:57 p.m. I was rarely ever late for work because I had always been taught that punctuality was a good trait for an employee to have.
I had just discovered that it had started snowing quite hard while I was eating
dinner. Conditions had become blizzardlike. I called the bus company to see
if the busses were running on schedule. I found out from the dispatcher that
the busses were way behind schedule and had not even started their evening routes
It was now 6:35 p.m., and I realized that my usual bus commute was not going to work on this evening. I immediately called my employer and informed him that I was going to walk to work in an attempt to get there on time. I had never been a fan of walking in snowy conditions. I realized that I was going to put my cane travel training skills that I obtained from the National Federation of the Blind's training center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to the test.
I put my boots and the rest of my winter gear on and proceeded out the door.
I got outside and found that at least five inches or so of fresh snow had fallen
on the sidewalk immediately outside of my dormitory. I proceeded to walk down
the snow-covered ramp to the main sidewalk.
My commute was about a one-mile walk. I had never walked a distance of that length in the snow before. The snow was falling down at a regular rate and quickly covered my hat and the outside of my coat. I soon discovered that my cane easily moved through the freshly fallen snow and was able to touch the sidewalk, which was still warm, fairly clearly.
I proceeded to walk at a brisk pace towards campus. I crossed a number of different streets and eventually got onto campus where I no longer had the sounds of traffic to keep my sense of direction.
I started walking between campus buildings along what used to be clear sidewalks earlier that afternoon. I navigated through the snow surprisingly easily. I saw my confidence building up with each step that I took. I eventually reached my building and ran up the steps that were covered in snow. I wiped the snow off of my coat and boots and ran to my computer lab.
I arrived in the lab and called in to my supervisor again to clock-in and discovered that the time was right on 7:00 p.m. I had arrived at work despite my not being sure that I could make it on time.
The supervisor on duty was surprised that I was on time because of the forty or so other workers who were scheduled to work the 7:00 p.m. shift over two-thirds of them did not show up due to bad weather. It was at that moment I realized that the confidence I had developed through the National Federation of the Blind really does work in all types of environments.
With confidence in one's skills comes success.
Back to top
by Ramona Walhof
Ramona Walhof lives in Boise, Idaho. Her stories have appeared in many previous Kernel Books. I specifically asked her to write one on this subject because I thought our readers would find it particularly interesting. Here is what she has written:
When I was a child at the School for the Blind, one of the house parents, Miss Bartel, frequently had knitting in her lap. She was a kind and gentle woman who agreed to try to teach my friend and me to knit. My mother provided some yarn and knitting needles. Miss Bartel made dishcloths-about one a day.
My friend was the more successful at knitting. We learned the basic garter stitch. We learned to increase and decrease. We started to learn to cast on and off. We did not learn to purl, which is almost essential for knitting.
I never succeeded at making a dishcloth like those made by Miss Bartel. I tried making potholders, and some were passable. My problem was that I couldn't maintain the same number of stitches in all the rows throughout a project. It was only much later that I figured out what my problem had been. But I never did a lot of knitting as a child. My friend continued to make scarves and other things.
When I was in college, many of the students knit. One friend had a pattern for a sweater that did not require any purling, so I copied the pattern in Braille and made the sweater. I wore that sweater for several years. It was respectable if not a work of art.
For the next twenty-five years, I made a scarf here and a potholder there when (for some reason) I had to do a lot of sitting at meetings or even while reading talking books. However, I found sewing more productive. I could make a greater variety of things, and I had more skill. But I had done enough knitting to know that I could.
I still had not learned to purl. Purling (people said) was the opposite of knitting. Just make the stitch backwards. When I made the stitch backwards, people said it wasn't purling. It never was important enough to worry about.
After my son graduated from high school and went away to college, I needed to open an office in Ohio. I would be away from home for most of two months, and I knew I would occasionally have some time on my hands. I could not carry with me enough Braille books to read, so I bought some yarn and knitting needles. My daughter and son each wanted a scarf made in their college colors, so those were the colors I bought.
Those scarves went together quickly. Over the years I had acquired a circular needle, which I used for my son's scarf. He wanted it double thick, so I made it in a tube, and he was delighted. He put his head through the middle to entertain his friend; then his leg. But he also wore the scarf correctly when he wasn't being a ham. Because that project went so well, I started a sweater on the circular needle.
I did the ribbing with my incorrect purl stitch and then plain knitting continuously around the circular needle until I reached the point where the sweater needed to be divided for the armholes. All I could do at this point was the wrong purl stitch.
When the project was completed, I had maintained the correct number of stitches, and it looked presentable. In fact, my daughter was quite glad to receive it, and I determined to learn more about knitting.
By this time I knew a lot of blind people in the National Federation of the Blind who knit. The Federation is full of resources of all kinds. I phoned my sister, who is blind and had done a lot of knitting before her children came, and I managed, with her help by phone, to learn to purl. It was slow and awkward, but it was right. My daughter was enthusiastic about getting handmade sweaters, and my son was interested.
Airplane trips and meetings were good places to do some handwork, so I did. If my hands were busy, I was less likely to get sleepy. I did not want the patterns to be complicated because I needed to concentrate on the meetings.
The first sweaters I made were absolutely plain. I found a pattern on the back of a yarn label and started with that. Then I put stripes of contrasting colors in the sweaters. While visiting Bernadette Dressel, another friend of mine in the Federation, I learned she had a Braille book that described some basic knitting patterns, so I made some sweaters based on the information in that book. Both my son and daughter were happy with the results, and I made a sweater for myself.
My daughter learned to dictate patterns from books and from yarn labels. Then she began to want fancier sweaters. She found a pattern with a three-colored yoke.
Whenever I tried something new, it seemed, I was in a place where it was not convenient to find help. When I got ready for the three-colored yoke, I was in Calgary, Alberta, with a little time between the last meeting and a flight home the next day. To my surprise, the colors worked out well. If I could keep them separate and keep the tension of the yarn even, there wasn't much more to it than that. I gave that sweater to a friend, who was quite pleased, and several other people were asking if I might make them sweaters.
Throughout all this, I was learning about yarn. I generally use an acrylic yarn, because it is washable and not as warm as wool. When using more than one color, it helps if the yarns feel somewhat different, but they must not require different care. It takes longer to do fine work with lightweight yarn, and I am too impatient for much of that.
Barbara Pierce, who wrote an article about knitting, "Tending to My Knitting," for an earlier Kernel Book, Old Dogs and New Tricks, does much more detailed work than I do. Toni Eames from California makes sweaters with set-in pockets and lent me another Braille pattern book. I have made two or three afghans, but they get too big and heavy for convenient carrying on airplanes.
I have been making sweaters now for about ten years, and I am starting the 121st one. I have a list of the sweaters, colors, and to whom they went in my Braille Lite (small notebook computer with speech and Braille output). Tami Dodd-Jones, one of the members of the NFB, suggested that I should take orders for sweaters from members of the organization and encourage them to contribute. Many have done just that.
I still make sweaters for relatives and others for gifts. Those waiting to be made are also listed in the Braille Lite, so I don't forget the order in which they have been requested or the desired color and measurements. Through the years I have learned much from other Federation members. Kathy Boucher spins her own yarn and sells some sweaters she makes to commercial outlets.
For me, sweater-making has become a hobby. If I ever retire, I would like to
have a knitting machine. Designing the sweaters is the most fun. I love to find
new yarn stores and plan the right yarn and colors for each sweater. I know
my daughter's opinions about color, but I can use another person's assistance
for shopping if he/she is willing to be thorough. My sighted helper needs to
be willing to check dye lot numbers on every skein. Ordering from catalogs is
a little risky, but I have found some very nice yarn at good prices in catalogs.
I haven't totally retired from sewing. I made two bridesmaids' dresses for my daughter's wedding last year. I enjoy what I do, and it fills a spot in my life for the time being.
I was surprised when told that an account by a blind person who knits might be interesting, although I have certainly urged many who become blind as seniors to continue their handwork, whether knitting or something else. A blind person holds the yarn a little differently from sighted people so that our fingers are a little closer to the ends of the needles.
When I was visiting a sighted friend one day, she got out her camera and took my picture, saying, "I can use this with my students." She teaches an education course to music majors in college. Later, she told me what she does with the picture.
She passes it around the first day of the unit on teaching disabled children and asks the students to describe the picture. They tell her it is a woman knitting. Of course, that is exactly what it is. When she tells them the woman is blind, they are astonished, and it sets a good tone for her to help the students develop appropriate expectations for the disabled children they will be teaching. It may be significant that the sweater shown in that picture happens to be one of the most elaborate two?color patterns I ever made.
A few years ago when I was contacting blind people to tell them about the Federation, I met a lady who was ninety-four and liked to knit slippers. She could not read Braille but had this slipper pattern memorized. She said her family members all had as many slippers as they could use. I had no trouble helping her find others who loved her slippers. You never know when a skill or a pastime will serve you well. I am glad that Miss Bartel had the patience and the willingness to help a few of us to learn to knit. It took nearly fifty years, but I have now advanced beyond dishcloths.
Back to top
by Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce lives in Oberlin, Ohio. She is editor of the largest circulation monthly magazine in the blindness field-the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Monitor. This fact is particularly relevant to her story, which details the harmful actions of a well-meaning but misguided high school English teacher. Fortunately the actions of another teacher, along with Barbara's own developing confidence, did much to undo the damage. Here is what she has to say:
For most of my working life I have manipulated words-I have both read and written them, and through the years I have learned to make them do what I want them to. But it was not always so. Oh I made A's in English in high school, but I hated to write, and reading was something of a strain since I could not see the print, much less read it.
Sometimes I could find recordings of the novels we were assigned, and sometimes the literature texts had been recorded by Recording for the Blind, the not-for-profit organization that even today records books for students, scholars, and professionals.
But even though I disliked writing, I had always loved English, and I wanted to qualify to take Advanced Placement English my senior year. To do so, we had to take a test during the spring of my junior year. I was told that arrangements would be made for me to take the test aurally, so I reported to the testing room, expecting to be pulled out to take the test with a reader, probably one of the teachers. I was told to report to the cafeteria, where the teacher whom I most trusted and who, up to that point, had showed the most confidence in my ability was waiting for me.
I was completely unprepared for what happened next. He began lecturing me in the nicest possible way about my unfitness for taking on the challenge of AP English. Of course that was not how he put it. He pointed out that I had nothing more to prove to demonstrate my academic ability; I was an A student, and the AP course would tax my resources-it would certainly demand more than my parents could be expected to read for me.
That line of argument put me at a severe disadvantage. I had not been taught Braille, and no one had yet proposed the concept that a blind student should have accessible versions of all textbooks. In each course I was handed the print book and expected to figure out how to get my work done. Having two of the best parents ever created, I did not find this an impossibility, but I recognized that there were limits to what I could ask my folks to do to help me.
On the other hand, how would I know whether I could do demanding work unless I tried doing it? I could feel myself sliding into despair. I was about to apply to colleges. If I could not manage to do demanding high school work, how could I expect to do college-level work? I began to cry, but the teacher only redoubled his preaching. I could get into college on the basis of regular college-prep course work. Why destroy my senior year by taking on more work than I could possibly do? Didn't I want to have some time for fun, maybe dating during my final year in high school? Doing the AP work would be harder for me than for any of the other students, and where would I be at graduation time if I could not finish the course and came up a credit short?
At sixteen I had never heard of the National Federation of the Blind. I did not recognize that I was facing what President Bush has called "the soft bigotry of lowered expectations." So I capitulated. I told my beloved teacher that I would not insist on taking the test; I would settle for the standard college-prep course.
I was allowed to arrange my schedule with a study hall during the AP class period so that I could sit in on class discussions several times a week, but it was not the same. I recognized that those students were getting better exposure to college-level work than I was, and I felt betrayed and diminished by the realization. For some reason this discouragement did not prevent me from setting my sights high with my college applications.
I was admitted to Oberlin College by early decision, and I awaited the fall semester with more than a little trepidation. After all, I had not even been able to test myself doing one college-level course. How would I manage when I was faced with five at the same time and without my parents' assistance to do the reading?
That first semester of my first year of college was a bit rocky, the experience most college students have. I knew that I would have to hire lots of student readers, and I did so. I did not enjoy freshman composition, a requirement for all incoming students. I discovered that I disliked writing even more, and my confidence in doing English in general had been badly shaken by my high school experience. So English was a continuing struggle. One of the most challenging courses in a constructive way and the one that in profound ways changed my life was introductory biology.
This was a very large lecture course taught by the entire biology department. We were then divided into laboratory sections for one three-hour session a week. As far as I know by the luck of the draw, I was assigned to a Friday-afternoon lab section that was taught by a young botanist who walked with a decided limp. I did not know at the time that she had used a wheelchair until she was in college. Then surgery restored her ability to walk and, therefore, to do field work.
She had enough firsthand experience of disability to have very healthy attitudes about my potential ability to do biology. She and I became friends. We went on hikes in which she introduced me to plants, the identification of birds by their songs, and the shapes of leaves. She was as determined as I that I would do all the lab work.
I was assigned a lab partner, and the two of us and the pair across the lab table got on with our work. My job became to know what we were supposed to be seeing under the microscope; theirs was to report what they actually saw. Among us we cobbled together our observations. The other three were somewhat sobered when I began getting A's to their B's, but that made me an increasingly valuable part of the team.
In the meantime the professor had decided that it would not do for me to miss out on the dissection of the crawfish and the fetal pig, though she recognized that I would have some difficulties in doing exactly what the other students were expected to do.
She acquired a lobster, which she assured me was assembled in the same way as the crawfish, but on a larger scale. She insisted that I wear surgical gloves for dissection since she was afraid that the formaldehyde would damage my sense of touch and make reading Braille more difficult. She worked with me one-on-one to do the fetal-pig dissections, and gradually I mastered the lessons she taught me.
When it came time for tests, she insisted on being my tester. She wanted to make certain that the descriptions of the various lab-station test questions contained no leading information that might give me hints about the correct answer. She would begin a description by saying, "Under the microscope I see several blobs with clusters of smaller blobs inside them." I would try to ask questions that would not solicit information that I did not deserve but that would strengthen or destroy my hypotheses about what was being asked. The only way to prepare for such testing is to know the material cold.
When my high scores on the lab tests raised some skepticism within the biology faculty, another professor quietly slipped into the lab to observe the testing procedure. It was pronounced free of bias, and the A's I received both semesters were declared appropriate. Moreover, the faculty told me that they would be pleased to have me consider majoring in biology.
I actually left Oberlin that spring with the intention of doing exactly that. My confidence in my abilities to do English had been badly shaken by my high school mentor, and even though I had done good work in my literature course second semester, my mediocre composition grade had confirmed all the questions my high school teachers had raised in my heart.
My determination to major in biology continued until the fall of my sophomore year. It led me to sign up for chemistry, which was required of biology majors. I had already fulfilled the college requirement of eight hours of science, but even when I decided that I really did not want to teach high school biology, so why on earth was I majoring in it, I decided to keep the chemistry class, in which I earned A's both semesters. If I had been a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I might well have known biology majors who were doing things other than teaching high school biology.
Left to my own inexperience, I did not have much confidence in my ability to pursue graduate work toward a career other than teaching, but I could imagine myself successfully doing a major in the field. That was solely thanks to one professor who believed that nobody had the right to tell me that I could not succeed in her field. In fact, her notion was that a teacher's job was to figure out ways to support the hopes and dreams of her students, and that is what she did.
I do not know how much damage my well-meaning high school teachers might have done to me if it had not been for my biology professor. It was to be many years before I would meet and be influenced by blind people in the National Federation of the Blind who would teach me the same lesson. But she was there when I needed her, and my response to her gift of confidence in me has been to pass it along whenever I could.
Blindness does not necessarily mean the end of any dream. Gradually I discovered that even an English major at one of the most demanding colleges in the country was not beyond me, despite what my high school teachers had thought. Maybe they just did not want to bother helping me figure out how to do what I would have needed to do to complete that AP English course. I will never know, but they almost stifled a young woman with promise. I rejoice that today the NFB is present to protect students from such well-meaning mistakes.
Back to top
by Charlie Richardson
Charlie Richardson lives in Albany, New York, and is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of New York. In his story, I Cut the Grass, Too, he tells of his neighbors' reactions to the blind man next door. Here is what he has to say:
When we first purchased the house we now live in, I didn't think much of most of the things I do around the yard. Most of my neighbors in my previous house had lived around me for eight years or more. So, the things a blind person does seemed not to be a novelty.
One of the first things we wanted to do when we moved in our new house was to move the wooden picnic table away from the house and more out into the yard. When I grabbed one end of it and one of my teen-aged sons had grabbed the other end, we quickly realized why the table was where it was. There was no really good way to tell the age of the table, but it had pretty well rotted.
After calling city hall to find out how to get rid of the table, I found that I had to cut it into pieces no larger than a certain size and tie up the pieces in bundles. So, I got out a ripping saw and some twine and got started with the task facing me.
After I was more than half done cutting up the table, one of my sons told me that a few of the neighbors were looking at me. I told them that it was OK-they just weren't used to living around a blind person and seeing the normal things we do.
A few weeks later while I was cutting the grass with a power mower, it was the same scene. Even though the neighbors looked, not one of them asked how, though I knew it was in the forefront of their minds.
After about nine months living here, I was out back planting a couple of Gala
Apple trees. Not one neighbor stood and looked. My guess is that the novelty
has worn off and that these normal everyday events don't seem to be so strange
and questionable to them anymore.
Back to top
Copyright © 2002 by the
National Federation of the Blind
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Posted: December 2002