Marc Maurer, Editor
To Reach for the Stars
by Marc Maurer
by Angela Howard
Story of a Paperboy
by Dan Ryles
The Ties That Bind
by Kevan Worley
Riding in the Streets
by Ramona Walhof
Blind Lady Coming Down!
by Aloma Bouma
by Barbara Walker
Recently I visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center. While there I thought about our nation’s space program. Several decades ago we Americans set out to go where no one had ever gone before.
We didn’t know exactly how we would get to the moon or how we would probe the outer reaches of our solar system. We knew only that with hope and belief, with single-minded determination, and with the willingness to commit our material, intellectual, and spiritual resources we could make it happen.
Since my visit to the Space Flight Center, I have been thinking about what it means To Reach for the Stars. It occurred to me that there is great similarity between what NASA does and what we in the National Federation of the Blind do.
For a star is that which seems always beyond our reach, and yet it beckons us to try. And in the trying we inch forward and change forever the distance yet to travel. As long as the stars are there, we blind men and women of the organized blind movement will seek them out. We know that our blindness cannot stop us and that misunderstanding will not stop us.
Our generation builds on the achievements of the leaders who have gone before us. Through their inspiration we are now the explorers. It is up to us to chart the course and fly the mission.
And so in this 25th volume of our Kernel Book Series we share with you once again our journey, and in that sharing you travel with us, bringing that distant star ever closer. It is an exciting journey, and one that we are glad to share with you.
Darkness and despair have no part in our lives. The age-old notions of fear and terror must be put to rest, and you must help us do it. The star we seek is bright and filled with promise.
That distant star is seen in a blind youth’s story of a paperboy, in a blind mother’s raising of her children, in a blind college student’s Yoga class, and in the activities of a blind woman’s church circle.
Indeed, each of the blind men and women you will meet in the pages of this book has a star to reach, and each is part of our collective journey to freedom and first-class participation in the life of our country. Each is part of the voice of the nation’s blind.
These stories, like our nation’s space program, tell of our hope and belief, our single-minded determination, our willingness to commit our resources. In our search for understanding you have played a vital role. With the publication of this new volume there are now more than five and one-half million copies of the Kernel Books in circulation.
We have shared our hopes and dreams, our triumphs, and our tribulations. You have responded with warmth and caring. In a very real sense you have become part of the crew and are helping us To Reach for the Stars.
by Marc Maurer
I serve as president of the National Federation of the Blind, and I have been doing it since 1986. Sometimes people ask me what the president of the Federation does. I have answered this question many different ways.
I administer a nationwide organization of blind people who come together to support each other, to learn from each other, to inspire each other. I write speeches and articles about blindness. I receive thousands of letters, and I write many, many hundreds in reply each year. I teach classes on leadership and other subjects. I supervise programs dealing with blindness and legal matters, blindness and governmental relations, and blindness and employment. I direct the production of publications in print, Braille, and recorded form. For a little more than a year, I have been managing the construction of the National Federation of the Blind Research and Training Institute, a five-story building being erected at the National Center for the Blind.
Being able to do these things is valuable, but two characteristics are essential to presiding over the Federation. The first is the capacity to dream of what might exist which has not yet been invented. The second is the ability to make decisions.
Whenever there is one good choice, decision-making is easy. If there are several reasonable alternatives, the process may take a while longer, but deciding what to do is still fairly simple. However, most decisions are not like that.
Shakespeare said, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.” He meant that knowing what to do is straightforward, but doing it is difficult. I disagree with Shakespeare. Deciding which direction to take is often the hard part. I think about this so often that it has become part of my dreams.
I was in Germany in the 1930’s working in a plain, unadorned office, furnished only with a wooden desk and chair. The room assigned to me was in the basement of a concrete building with a small barred window high up in one wall. My job was to handle papers for the criminal justice system. The work was not complicated—mostly a matter of routine. I was a minor public official, processing legal documents for an enormous bureaucracy. However, my boss had come to me to tell me that the requirements of my employment had changed.
Although every detail had not been spelled out, the meaning of the message was unmistakable. Some of the accused were Jewish. I was to manipulate the papers so that the Jews would be assigned to the concentration camp. If I did not, my job would be terminated, and I would go to the concentration camp.
I wrestled with the choices before me. My boss had departed long since. I had told him that I understood, but I had not decided what I was planning to do. I tried to tell myself that I really had no choice—that if I did not do as I had been instructed, somebody else would do it in my stead. The outcome would be the same except that I would be alive. This line of argument gave me no peace; I could not convince myself. The stacks of papers on my desk remained unheeded as I sat in my wooden chair.
My mind was in turmoil, and my stomach was in knots. After a considerable
time, I decided that I would have to tell my superiors, “No.” I
felt a great relief although I knew that personal pain would be involved. Then,
I woke up. I was in my own house, in my own bed—I had been dreaming.
My feeling of relief and peace continued. I had struggled with the decision,
and I had determined to do what I thought was right.
This describes for me a process of thought I have had repeatedly—although the details are not nearly as dramatic as those in my dream. I examine the choices that are offered, and I wonder how to resolve disputes that appear to be irreconcilable.
Risk and reward are inseparable. If there is to be progress, there must be
risk. But if the risk is too great, the chance of failure becomes overwhelming.
How much is too much, and how much is too little? This is a fundamental element
of the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind.
For more than a year we in the National Federation of the Blind have been engaged in constructing a research and training institute. We know that much research has been done on the topic of blindness, but we believe that the daily experiences of blind people have often been left out. We believe that a new kind of research and training can produce dramatic results, but there is risk involved.
I recently visited with the director and other senior officials of the Goddard Space Flight Center. We in the National Federation of the Blind had been involved some months earlier in the release of a new print-Braille book containing tactile images obtained through the Hubble telescope. This book was produced with the support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
How do blind people study astronomy? Not many blind people have become astronomers,
but some have. Very few of us have pursued this line of intellectual endeavor
because the tools for such study have not been available—they have not
been invented. However, blind people are as interested in the universe as others.
The newly published book, Touch the Universe, incorporates astronomical images
that have been embossed so that blind people can feel them. The sensitive fingers
of the blind touch the stars.
A few months after the introduction of this book, I, along with other leaders of the Federation, visited the Goddard Space Flight Center because we wanted to encourage a partnership between Goddard and the National Federation of the Blind. I discussed a proposal that the Federation create a science camp for blind students at our research and training institute. At this camp blind students would meet scientists and teachers. With the proper techniques, blind students might learn many scientific processes.
The professors who have considered the matter believe that we can teach blind high school students to build things like computer chips. I wanted to enlist the assistance of the scientists and engineers at Goddard in the development of the science camp. I wanted them to help us teach blind students to reach high for levels of achievement that had previously been beyond their expectations. Some of these blind people might become astronomers. Working with the scientists at Goddard, we could encourage the blind to reach for the stars.
The officials at Goddard were intrigued by the idea. They invited us to tour the space flight center to learn about the scientific work being conducted there. They had constructed a tactile model of the Hubble telescope, which they encouraged me to touch. They said that astronauts must employ special tools to do their work in space because there is no gravity. Unless anchored to something, an astronaut trying to turn a bolt in space with an ordinary wrench will turn the astronaut instead.
To address this problem NASA has designed special tools to be used in space.
One of these looks like an oversized electric drill or impact wrench. On earth
the device weighs over ten pounds, and it also has a fairly hefty battery pack.
In space the tool doesn’t weigh anything. Officials at the Goddard Space
Flight Center let us handle the tool and showed us the attachments for manipulating
items like screws, bolts, and electrical connectors.
Equipment, scientific experiments, and living creatures are all part of the load that can be carried in a vehicle traveling into space. When the space shuttle is launched, the people, the creatures, and the equipment onboard are subjected to the force of the thrusters in the launch vehicle and the noise that they make.
Goddard officials have designed a laboratory in which they simulate the noise
of a rocket lifting off. To do this they have built enormous speakers, or horns,
to reproduce the sound. The largest of these is ten feet across, and two smaller
ones (only six feet in diameter) produce higher pitched frequencies. The laboratory
is in a room with enormous, thick, heavy doors. We were offered ear protectors
as we stood outside the laboratory. When our guide switched on the noise production
system, the sound coming through the doors, which remained closed, vibrated
through us. I could only imagine how much more intense the vibration would
have been if we had been inside.
Temperatures in space can be extremely hot in the sunlight or extremely cold in shadow, and of course, there is no air. The scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center simulate these conditions for materials they intend to send on the space shuttle. We listened to the creaking of the pumps that create a near vacuum which is used to determine how materials will respond in airless conditions. We looked at space vehicles, at materials used for insulation, at pieces of space suits, and at electrical equipment and other structures employed to power and operate the Hubble telescope.
Then, we met with scientists who are studying the sun. Solar weather, they
said, affects us on earth. Some years ago most of the cell phones and pagers
employed in the United States ceased to function because of a solar radiation
storm. If scientists can predict such storms, steps can be taken to protect
the delicate equipment which will otherwise be destroyed. Satellite communication
depends upon preventing extraordinary solar radiation from reaching certain
electrical structures in the satellites. If there is adequate warning, the
circuits can be turned off.
More than a quarter of a century ago much of the northeast portion of the United States lost electric power. At the time television and radio stations went off the air, subways stopped, people in elevators could not get out, and everything else electrical stopped working.
Some people speculated that this enormous blackout was the work of saboteurs.
The scientists told us that the sun had done it. The cause had been an intense
radiation storm. The scientists assured us that steps had been taken in more
recent years to build a more robust electric distribution system in the United
States and Canada. They believed that there would not again be a blackout caused
by sun storms. However, they pointed out that the blackout of decades ago could
have been averted if solar weather had then been understood.
The Hubble telescope and the astronauts who travel in space are subjected to the radiation coming from the sun. To help protect the people and the products in the space program, and to learn more about the makeup of the sun and the structure of the universe, scientists study solar actions.
Following our tour, we talked with the scientists and engineers about developing programs to encourage the blind to study science. Working together, we can enhance, develop, and focus the imagination and spirit of adventure that exist within the brains and hearts of blind people. Sometimes blind people have been told that the study of science is too complicated for the blind, but we know this is not true. Will there ever be a blind astronaut? There will if we have the wit, the courage, and the sense to make it practical for a blind person to be one.
At one time blind people were not engineers or scientists. Today a number of blind people are engaged in these professions. We must balance the risk against the opportunity that may be created. Working with our friends whose support has helped us believe in ourselves, we will expand our future. Some of us will build computer chips; some of us will study astronomy; and some of us will devise the tools used in space.
by Angela Howard
A number of years ago Angela Howard was a winner of one of our scholarships. Today she is a graduate student in public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and active in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to change what it means to be blind. Her delightful story, Carol’s Compliment, shows that day-by-day we are making progress. Here is what she has to say:
As a blind person I have often been showered with compliments that, I have to admit, are not always deserved. My teachers, co?workers, and even family and friends do not always know much about the little tricks and techniques that blind people use to complete the tasks of everyday life; consequently I have too often been deemed amazing and wonderful for completing the simplest task. I do not take offense or respond negatively to these gestures, for I know that people mean well. However, I do have to take these exaggerated compliments with a grain of salt.
I was given a compliment a few years ago that I felt extremely proud to accept. I had taken Yoga classes throughout college, and it became my favorite form of exercise. In fact I took the same Yoga class with the same teacher for three years in college. I was comfortable with her teaching style, and she never seemed uneasy about having a blind person in her class.
So, when I spent a semester completing an internship in another city, I decided I would join a Yoga class to help keep me in practice. I learned that a Yoga studio was actually connected to my apartment building, and I immediately went down to the office to sign up for a thirteen?week course.
However, my first class proved to be quite a shock. I was not met with the same warmth that I had experienced in my college class. My new teacher Carol made it painfully clear that she would have preferred that I not be in her class. “I’m just really not sure how I can best teach you.” I assured her that I had taken Yoga throughout college and that having me in the class would really not be a problem for her.
I gave her some tips for instructing me. For example, I told her that it would
help if she used me as the example when she demonstrated a complicated pose
to the class. This way I could learn the pose along with everyone else. I also
encouraged her to give verbal descriptions as she taught so that I could get
some of the information others were getting visually.
For the first few weeks it was apparent that Carol was still uncomfortable having me in the class. When we tried exercises in which we had to stand on one foot, she would insist that she stand next to me to make sure I didn’t fall. She clearly made a great distinction between the other students and me. But over the thirteen weeks of the class I noticed a gradual change in Carol’s attitude and behavior towards me.
She commented with surprise one day that my balance was no worse than anyone
else’s in the class, and she no longer hovered over me as I completed
poses that require balance. Slowly I felt that I was becoming just another
member of the class. Toward the end of the course she paid so little attention
to me that I sometimes had trouble flagging her down for assistance.
I still had one problem with which I usually needed assistance. Alignment is very important in Yoga, and the other members of the class were taught to line themselves up using the squares outlined on the floor. However, there was no way for me to use this method. When doing poses, I would align myself as best I could, and Carol would nudge me in one direction or another if I were a little out of line.
One day, when I arrived at class, Carol met me with great excitement. “I have figured out a way for you to align yourself on the mat. I have put a strip of electrical tape along the middle of your mat that you can feel with your feet.” I thought this was a great idea, and I wished that I had been the one to suggest it at the start. Then she said, “Eventually I want you to be able to align yourself using only your own sense of space.” This seemed to be a rather high expectation, and I knew then that her attitude towards me had completely changed.
Carol stopped me as I was leaving on the last day of class. She said, “I
have to admit that I was really reluctant to have you in my class. I just didn’t
know what you would be able to do. I’m really sorry I felt that way because
I think you could even be a Yoga teacher one day, if you wanted to.” I
responded that, because she had never known a blind person before, her feelings
were understandable. Then she gave me one of the greatest compliments I have
ever been given. She told me that she had researched blindness-related organizations
on the Internet and asked me if I were a member of one. I told her that I am
a member of the National Federation of the Blind. She said, “Yes, that
was the one that stood out to me, and I thought it would be the one you would
be a part of.”
My friends in the National Federation of the Blind continue to encourage me when I face misunderstanding about blindness. They hold higher expectations of me than anyone else in my life, and I try to live up to these expectations as best I can. I felt honored that someone could see the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind in me, and I hope that I will always live my life true to Carol’s compliment.
by Dan Ryles
Dan Ryles grew up in the National Federation of the Blind. He started attending meetings of the National Federation of the Blind at a young age, and his mother was active in our organization for parents of blind children. When he got to the point of wanting a bit of extra cash, he decided not to let his blindness stop him from being a paperboy. Here is his story:
I have been blind since birth, but this affected my childhood very little. My family was very supportive. I was encouraged to be curious about things, to explore the environment, and to get out and have fun with other kids. I was not held back by any undue concerns for safety. Sledding, building a tree house, climbing trees, engaging in pillow fights, wrestling, playing on the monkey bars, and riding a bicycle, (usually a tandem, or two-seated bike), were all a part of growing up.
As the years passed, I started to consider how I might get more discretionary cash. Like most other children, I wanted money to buy candy bars and cassette tapes, go to movies, and other such things. When I was twelve, my brother Tom and I decided to split a paper route. This posed certain questions. How would I know which houses to deliver to and which ones to pass by? When collecting money at the end of the month, how would I keep track of which houses I had collected from and which ones I hadn’t? How could I keep track of the checks and different denominations of money that the customers paid me? For that matter, how could I guard against anyone short-changing me?
But all of these questions were secondary to the fact that I wanted some money. In order to earn that money, I would just have to find a way around any problems that I might encounter. Going without the money was not an option. So, with that in mind, I contacted James Gashel, a member of the National Federation of the Blind. He is blind himself and had a paper route as a boy.
One of the many benefits of being a member of the National Federation of the Blind is that you have ready access to a nationwide network of blind people from all walks of life. If someone tells you a blind person can’t do something, the odds are very high that somewhere, at some time, a blind person has done it or is doing it.
The odds are also high that such a blind person is a member of the Federation. In fact, the individual may have learned how to do the activity in question from another blind person in the Federation. That’s the nature of our organization: we share experiences, problems, and solutions.
So, after consulting Mr. Gashel, I simply found ways to do what was required of a paperboy. I memorized which houses were on the route and which houses weren’t. This didn’t take long.
As a side note, I might add that we lived in Anchorage, Alaska, at the time, where winter lasted the majority of the year. Snow covered the ground, and that snow was often piled very high as a result of being cleared off of the roads and pushed to either side. Since it had always been like this, why should it bother me any more on the paper route than it did while walking home from the bus stop? I had good cane skills. The driveways were usually shoveled or plowed of snow to permit access by cars. Because of this, it was easy to tell where the driveways were.
With my mother’s help, I Brailled the receipt cards for each subscriber. Once this was accomplished, keeping track of which customers had paid and which ones hadn’t was no problem at all. When a customer paid me, I tore off a receipt slip from their card. When they gave me cash, I asked which denomination was which, and I kept them in separate pockets of my wallet, putting the checks in a Ziploc bag.
Although I could not immediately verify that a particular customer was giving me the cash they claimed to be giving me, I would know I had been short-changed when I tried to use the money later. Was there a certain degree of trust involved? Yes.
To my knowledge, I was never short-changed. Most people are honest. Of course, all it takes is one who is not. There are devices that have a voice chip in them and will tell you what bill you’re holding. If I were to get a job as a cashier, I would probably want to get such a device. Meanwhile, it makes sense to take what precautions can be taken. But as I said, most people are generally honest.
We kept the paper route for nine months. In no way did Tom assist me with my half of the route; we were both just as eager to deliver our respective halves and get out of the cold. This would have taken longer had he helped me with my half as well as delivering his half.
In May of 1987, we left Alaska for Seattle. A year and a half later, Tom and I got another paper route. He delivered the papers Monday through Thursday, and I delivered them Friday through Sunday. Eight months after that, Tom decided he didn’t want to be a paperboy anymore, so I took over his half of the route.
This meant I was making twice as much money, which provided twice as much incentive to keep the route. I also wanted to keep each customer as satisfied as possible; more satisfied customers meant more tips at the end of the month. Tom complained that he never got tips, claiming people gave them to me because I’m blind. For all I know, he may have been right, but I wasn’t about to turn down extra money for that reason. I worked just as hard as he did.
I continued doing the route for nearly four years after Tom quit. Over those four years, I met a few interesting people on the route. In addition, I saved up enough money to buy a very nice stereo and an extremely high-quality musical keyboard. Both of these things I still enjoy to this day.
As I mentioned earlier, I was not raised to be held back by any undue concerns about safety, and I am very glad for this. I was not taught to be afraid, at least no more than other children. When a child is born blind, he is not afraid of things because of his blindness; this fear is taught to him by others, much to that child’s detriment. There is no real evidence to support the idea that blind people (children and adults alike) are injured at any greater rate than sighted people. The idea that blindness causes greater injury to oneself or others is a widely held assumption, but it is simply not true. I challenge anyone reading this to find any actuarial or statistical evidence to the contrary. But, as Dr. Jernigan (the former president of the National Federation of the Blind) so often said, we accept the attitudes of others and do much to make those attitudes a reality. But I was taught to believe in the problem-solving abilities, which we all have.
I’m not sure my mother knew how to overcome certain things related to the paper route, but she knew that I would figure it out. After all, I did want that money at the end of the month, and money can be a powerful incentive.
Today, more paper routes are being done by adults in cars, and I think this is sad. Having a paper route gives an adolescent some experience with what it’s like to run a business. It teaches you not to spend more money than you have, how to work with people who are not always easy to work with, and the necessity of going to work regardless of how you feel or what the weather happens to be like that day. These lessons are just as important for the blind as for the sighted. Having a paper route also lets one experience the satisfaction that comes from honest toil and the knowing that the money has been earned, not charitably given. This is something that is more often denied to the blind than to the sighted.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We of the National Federation of the Blind are changing what it means to be blind. Some of the changes are dramatic: a new center being established or an important bill finally being signed into law. But more of the changes are far less dramatic: a blind woman getting an unrestricted childcare license or a blind person teaching class in a public school, — or a blind teenager having a paper route.
by Kevan Worley
Kevan Worley lives in Aurora, Colorado. He is president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. In his story, The Ties That Bind, Kevan shares with us a vivid picture of the loving family environment in which he grew up. We come to see, however, that something more than the richness of his family’s love was needed. He found that something in the National Federation of the Blind. Here is Kevan’s story:
It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood. Sitting in my office comparing long distance rates, I found myself daydreaming about a family trip we took when I was five or six. We were always on some sort of adventure, vacation, outing, or transfer.
My father, Sgt. Jim Worley, was transferred every year or two, and no matter
where we were, he made sure we saw the sights: Arizona to France, Kansas to
Germany. This particular trip was to South Bend, Indiana, to visit my father’s
parents—loving people, who adopted him from an orphanage when he was
five. They were members of the same Protestant denomination as my mother’s
family, and both sets of parents raised their children with a strong sense
of family and church. If there were relatives within three hundred miles, there
was no way we would miss seeing them.
My mom and dad met at a church camp when they were in their late teens. They married not long after high school graduation. My dad then joined the army and was sent to Bad Kreuznach, Germany, where I was born in 1956. My mother endured sixteen hours of labor in a hospital far from any family except her husband. When I finally entered the world after a difficult delivery, I was totally blind. But that is the start of another, longer story. This story is about a daydream and how memories have a way of tying your life together and making you whole.
We were traveling from Ft. Hachuca, Arizona, to Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, when
Dad decided to detour to South Bend to see his parents. The detour itself meant
little to me. What was important were the new suits my brother and I were wearing
and the chance for others to see us in them. My parents had bought them for
us to wear to church, but these were no ordinary church suits. These were western
outfits, complete with bolo ties.
The bolo string ties were the neatest things my little hands had ever seen. I was fascinated by the metal-feeling tips and the way the round turquoise bolo moved up and down like a pulley. Better yet was the way my relatives would ooh and aah over my appearance. I was stylin’. But perhaps the coolest part of all was that I could put the tie on myself. The knots on my father’s ties remained a mystery to me despite my best efforts, but the bolo tie was mine to put on or remove as I wished.
It’s funny the things you remember—the way memories seem tied to one another, connecting people and events in ways you never quite expect. Years after I had outgrown the western suit, while attending fourth grade at the residential Illinois School for the Blind, my grandfather on my mother’s side passed away. He was a wonderful man, and I was very sad.
The social worker called me to his office to give me the news. He kindly explained that Mrs. Bishop, my favorite housemother, had packed my suit and would take me to the bus station. I would catch a bus to Lincoln, where my relatives would meet me and take me to the funeral the next day. My ears perked a little at the mention of my relatives, as I knew I would get to stay at my Aunt Betty’s house. I was very sad, but fourth graders have their priorities, and my Aunt Betty made the best French toast of anyone in the world.
The next morning, after ten slices of French toast, I had to put on my suit and prepare for the funeral. Well, somehow Mrs. Bishop had found and packed a regular long men’s tie, not a clip-on tie. I was confused. I wanted to look nice for the funeral to make my mom and grandma proud of me, but I didn’t know how to tie a tie. I was all mixed up and embarrassed, fumbling with this long tie and thinking of my grandpa and how I would miss him.
When I was four, he and my grandma drove me from their home in Ottawa, Illinois,
to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. They were hoping the great doctors at that
world famous clinic could restore my sight. I don’t think I cared very
much about being able to see. What I remember is the trip in my grandpa’s
Nash, wrestling with him at the motel every night before bedtime, and his buying
me a cup of coffee. My grandma said, “Don’t you give my Kevie-Dale
coffee! It will stunt his growth!”
My grandpa was a union man, a shop steward at Libby Owens Ford. He got up very early to go to work at the factory. When I was visiting them, he would leave me something to find in his lunch pail when he came home from work. Then we would watch Highway Patrol or Wagon Train together.
When I was very little, about three, he took me by the hand to run around the backyard. While we were running, I stepped on a bee. I’ve heard family stories that he felt terrible about it. I always figured it was all right to feel a little bad about your grandson stepping on a bee. After all, it was a painful experience. But I learned that he was upset because I was a little blind boy, and he thought he should have been more cautious with me.
It hurt knowing that, because I wouldn’t have wanted him to be any more cautious. Roughhousing with grandpa was when I forgot about caution and lost myself in the fun of being alive. Those were the times I was free to be fearless and unrestrained and full of laughter. Caution was something I experienced from most of the adults in my life, but with Grandpa I could just be a playful little boy.
My Aunt Betty eventually found me a clip-on tie. After she handed it to me, she mumbled, “That school! Why would they send a blind kid home with a regular tie?” I remember thinking that a clip-on tie was good enough for a nine year old, and I wanted to mumble back, “Why don’t you let me cut my own French toast? They do at school.”
It’s funny how one recollection leads to another as I sit here daydreaming. In high school I once got my father to show me how to tie a tie. Now my dad, the gung-ho first sergeant that he was, truly believed that I should be able to do anything and that blindness should not stop me. This time, however, his impatience or mine kept the lesson from going very far. I took the tie he tied, pulled the knot down, and kept it tied all the time. Eventually the knot was grungy looking and crooked, but it served my purpose.
Teenage sons and their fathers have peculiar relationships, so I never asked him to show me again. I realize now he would gladly have taken the time. I guess I always thought there was a huge gulf between my dad and me—the two-tour Vietnam soldier and his war moratorium son. It’s a funny thing though; Dad flew out to see me wrestle many times.
Once during my freshman year of high school, he was in transit to a new duty
station and popped in to visit me at the School for the Blind. We went to see
Alice’s Restaurant, the Arlo Guthrie anti-draft film. He said he liked
it and even laughed in a couple of places, but I doubt he really liked it very
much. In fact, I’m not sure that I would think much of it now, thirty
years later. Maybe I should have spent that time with him learning to tie a
No, that would not have been cool. As a young man, I sometimes found myself all tied up inside, masking my deficiencies by acting cool. I had difficulty untangling my high expectations from the lower ones set by family, friends, and teachers. I don’t know how much of that confusion was part of growing up blind and how much was normal teenage angst.
Many years later, after I found the National Federation of the Blind and attended one of our great training centers to untangle those insecurities, I had a conversation with Dr. Marc Maurer in his office at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. He mentioned that he wore a necktie to school every day when he attended Notre Dame University.
By the time of this conversation, I had found some success as a businessman and community activist, but, even so, I remember thinking, “You wore a tie in the early seventies, every day at college? What a nerd!” But then I caught myself and thought, “No, what strength of character. What sense of self not to be distracted by a false need to impress, to cover up, to fit in.”
Maybe that’s why Dr. Maurer is now the President of the largest, most dynamic organization of blind people in the world. Perhaps that is why he became a successful lawyer and why he is well known as a teacher, advocate, and role model. While some of that strength of character must have come from inside himself and from his family, I suspect he would give much of the credit to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, his mentor and teacher. I imagine Dr. Jernigan helped Marc Maurer untangle his doubts about what a blind man could become with brains, drive, pride, and humility. Maybe Dr. Jernigan taught a young Marc Maurer how to tie a tie. I don’t know. I’ve never asked.
I know who finally taught me: Ray McGeorge, a founding member of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. I met him at the Colorado Center for the Blind, an adjustment-to-blindness training center for adults, founded on Federation philosophy. It was blind people training blind people—the kind of role modeling that has made our NFB training centers so successful at changing lives. Ray’s wife Diane, founder of the Colorado Center, reached out and persuaded me to give the center a try.
Up until that point, I’d bounced around quite a bit—from radio
job to rock and roll band, from short attempts at college to long stretches
of unemployment and occasional part-time telemarketing. It wasn’t until
I was thirty-two years old that the NFB’s Colorado Center gave me the
opportunity to confront my failures, my self-doubt, and my lack of understanding
about myself as a person who happened to be blind.
At the center, I learned alternative techniques of living as a blind person. But even more than that, I was made whole by those who, through their example, showed me it was respectable to be blind.
They taught me I could have a full, competitive, and happy life if I chose to go after it. Whether I was rock climbing or making a quiche, job shadowing or teaching blind high school students to light a campfire, even cooking a turkey dinner for thirty all by myself, they were there to support me. They built me up when I doubted my ability and got me going again when I faltered. And Ray McGeorge made me tie a tie.
A group of students and I were heading out to the bus stop, talking about
the things we wished we had learned as blind children. I casually mentioned
wishing I had learned to tie a tie. Ray McGeorge overheard and said, “I
can teach you to do that right now.”
As I hurried away from the center, I told him I would appreciate the lesson. Perhaps we could get together sometime before I graduated. Ray replied slowly, drawing out his words as he always does, “I don’t see why we can’t get started right now.”
It was past 4:30 in the afternoon, and I was ready to get back to the apartment. Ray was saying, “I’ll see if we can’t find a tie around here, and we’ll just fix you right up.” He’s retired now, but then he had been a machinist for about thirty-five years. I was sure he must be tired from a hard day at work and certainly, he would not be able to find a tie. But as I stepped up to the bus stop on Broadway, I heard Ray’s distinct low voice behind me. “Come on, Kevan, this shouldn’t take long. Let’s get to it.”
With busses going by every ten minutes, Ray stood behind me, patiently showing me how to make the knot. He had me do it until I not only got it right, but could do it again and again. “We need to do it so you will never forget this time,” he said. And then he added, “Maybe someday you will show some other young man how to tie a tie.”
It’s funny how the people, events, and lessons of a life come together to create the person you become. I am now the project manager for M & K Food Service in Aurora, Colorado. I wear a tie every day. In fact, over the past six or seven years in the food business, I have collected over a hundred food-related ties. I enjoy collecting them, tying them so the knot is just right. It’s a matter of pride and self-respect in a simple, very basic way.
It’s good to look back and discover that the bonds you’ve made with others are what tie your life together—bonds like those with my parents and grandparents, and the teachers and house parents at the School for the Blind, who did have love and expectations. And I’ll never forget Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and Dr. Marc Maurer, who each took a personal interest in me, counseling me and helping me set standards.
Of course, there’s Diane McGeorge, the dynamic blind lady of my parents’ generation who set out to teach us to know and accept ourselves. And then there’s Ray McGeorge, who said, “We are going to teach you to tie this tie, no matter how long it takes, and even if you would rather get on the bus.”
I find myself thinking of Ray almost every morning as I tie my tie and head out the door for work. Ray reminds me of my grandpa, a man of quiet strength, wit, and patience. Ray was a factory man, too.
Not long ago I taught two young boys how to tie a tie before their first job interviews, sharing some of Ray’s knowledge and confidence, passing along to others a little of the love, self-esteem, and zest for life the Federation has so generously given to me.
The NFB, through all of its people, teaches lessons big and small about what blindness is, what it is not, and what it can be. Whether changing society’s misconceptions, or inspiring a young man through the act of teaching him to tie a tie on a street corner as the next bus rolls by, that’s how a family of blind and sighted people work together to share the ties that bind.
Postscript: At the 1999 NFB National Convention in Atlanta there was a fund-raising auction. At that auction I had the good fortune to be high bidder on the bow tie Dr. Maurer wore to the convention banquet in 1986, the year he was elected President. I was proud to purchase this memento, not only making a contribution to our national organization, but claiming a symbol of my own coming of age. The trouble is, I never learned to tie a bow tie. Ray!
by Ramona Walhof
Ramona Walhof lives in Idaho. She is a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind, having served both as a state president and a national officer. Her stories have appeared in many previous Kernel Books. Here she writes about raising her children as a young, widowed, single mother.
I was a widowed single mother with a son in kindergarten and a daughter in second grade. I was proud of my kids, but I didn’t get to do as many things with them in school as I would have liked because I had to work. I was working for a rehabilitation agency for the blind, and the job was pretty demanding. Sometimes I brought blind students home with me for dinner and the evening. Sometimes I had activities at work that meant I could not come home at the regular time. Other times there were trips out of town. On the other hand, sometimes I could take my children with me for activities with the adult students.
It was important for these students (many of whom were newly blind and needed to understand that they could return to a full and normal life) to associate with blind people who were involved in their communities and doing the things families do. I know that some of the students thoroughly enjoyed talking and playing with my children. So my life was busy, and I was satisfied with it.
One day I received a call from my employer. He asked me to go to a city about 100 miles away to testify in a custody hearing for Tony, another blind parent. I had met this man, but I didn’t know him well. He was divorced with four children. He and his former wife had a co-custody arrangement; each had the children every other weekend and part of the school week.
The ex-wife was asking for full custody, saying that Tony’s blindness made him less able to care for the children than she was. I wondered how I could help, since I knew these people only a little. My employer explained that the court needed to hear how a single blind parent could cope. I didn’t think my methods as a blind mother were that different from what sighted people do, but I certainly could try.
I traveled to the location where the hearing was to be held the night before. There was a breakfast meeting scheduled with Tony, his attorney, and two other probable witnesses. We were told that there would be three attorneys: one for Tony, one for his ex-wife, and one for the children. We would not be permitted into the courtroom until we were called to testify. I was not expecting this. I was hoping to hear some of the questions to people before me. Each of us was questioned by Tony’s attorney, but he told us he could not predict everything the other attorneys would ask. He just advised us to answer the questions as correctly as we could. I hoped I could help because I certainly did not want any court to decide that blindness by itself was cause for a parent not to have custody of his/her children.
As it turned out, I didn’t have long to wait. I was the first to be called. I was asked the standard questions about who I was and my family situation. I was asked if I experienced any special problems because of blindness. I answered that I did not drive but used other means of transportation. I said I did not expect my children to do most of my reading. It was up to me to help them learn to read.
I explained that the year before I had purchased some used first grade reading books to help my daughter gain confidence in reading. She would spell the words she did not know, so I could help her with them. But first grade readers repeat the same word many times, and that helped her realize that she really was learning to read.
By the time of this court hearing, Laura had become quite a good second grade reader. Her teacher had never thought she was having problems, but Laura did. I don’t now remember all the things we discussed in that hearing, but they were not complicated.
Then the attorney for the children began to ask me questions. He asked how I handled discipline. I explained that I tried to be consistent. If I told my children that I would do something—something they liked or something they would not like—I did my best to follow through. He pursued this. I told him I knew that I had to be realistic. Once, I told my son I would not let him play outside if he did not clean up his room by the time I came home from work. He said, “You’ll forget.” I thought about that for a minute wondering how often I did forget such things. Then I answered: “I could forget, but then I might not. Do you want to take the chance?” He did not take the chance and went immediately and did his assigned chores. It had nothing to do with blindness I thought.
Then I was asked how I supervised my children outside. I explained that much depended on the relationship you have with your children. I said that of course I could not watch them every minute, but nobody does that. My daughter wanted to ride her bike all over the neighborhood, and I refused to let her ride in the streets, thinking that she did not yet understand traffic patterns well enough and just wasn’t ready.
She informed me that her friend Sarah rode her bike in the streets. That didn’t change my mind. Laura asked “Why can Sarah ride her bike in the street, but I can’t?” All I could answer was “Because Sarah’s parents make Sarah’s rules, and your Mom makes your rules.” Then the attorney asked: Could I trust my daughter to follow the rules she was given?
I explained to the court that there were many ways I might find out if she did not. Her brother might let it slip. A friend might mention it. Laura herself might say something that would tip me off. Other parents in the neighborhood might say something. Laura tended not to want to take chances like that. While I didn’t believe it was impossible that she would test, I thought it unlikely, and I was quite sure that (sooner or later) I would be told.
My children had learned to take what I said seriously. I told them about the time my son climbed on a ladder to the top of the garage and pulled off some of the shingles. I don’t believe he intended to damage the roof of the garage, but when it began to leak, I first wondered whether water was running in under the door. The kids told me it was probably rain coming through the hole in the roof. They weren’t being secretive about it. We all got to fix the shingles on the garage roof.
I told the court that when my children were very small, they found it a privilege to choose which can of vegetables or fruit we would have for dinner. If my children had not wanted to do that, I would have labeled canned goods in Braille. Since they regarded choosing as a privilege, I didn’t take the time to label. I gave some other examples, but I think what I said about riding the bike was the turning point. The attorney for the mother had no questions for me. No other witnesses were called. I was concerned about that, but Tony’s attorney thought Tony had won what he wanted, continued co-custody of his children. He turned out to be right.
I thought about that testimony and raising children. I hadn’t taken the time to read lots of books about child rearing. I hadn’t had a lot of time, and there were not as many available in Braille and on tape as there are now. I hadn’t had the time to socialize with other mothers as much as I might have, because my husband died when my son was four months old, and I had been working ever since. I just did what seemed reasonable. There are things I would do differently now, but I tried to keep my cool and talk with my children about what they were thinking as much as I could.
I often thought I missed much of the information about what happened at school because I came home every afternoon at least two hours after school was dismissed. By that time the news from school was old for little children. I went to some school programs, but not all of them. I did the best I could. Perhaps I did not have the time to enjoy my children as I might have. But we had some very good times. That is one of the reasons I am so glad now to have grandchildren. My big job with them is to enjoy them, and I do.
When Laura was eleven or twelve, she was permitted to ride her bike on streets that were not too busy. She was as tall as I was. We bought a tandem bike and used it for recreation and to run errands. By riding behind my daughter, I became very aware of exactly how good her judgment was about traffic and street patterns.
I arranged a special order to have brakes both in front and back of the tandem. I also had the dealer put the gears on the back handlebar instead of in front. The time came when that was not an asset, but at first I thought it would be better for me to have good control. I was quite a bit heavier than my daughter was, so I taught her to put her feet on the pedals while I pushed off to start the bike. This is not the recommended way, but it seemed wise for us. Usually, the heavier person rides the front of a tandem bike.
I wondered if Laura was too young, but we both enjoyed it, and we skinned our knees only once—not too bad a record for as much as we rode that bike. I was so cautious that my son preferred to ride on his single bike while Laura and I rode the tandem. I didn’t argue about it.
One summer we joined a swimming pool so that both children could swim as often as they liked while I was at work. They rode their bikes to get there and home again. Only one of the streets between the house where they stayed and the pool was heavily traveled, and they were instructed to ride on the sidewalk along it. By this time Chris and Laura were in the fourth and sixth grades. They stayed with a neighbor during the day while I was at work, but they were old enough to have a little independence.
My judgment was that they were responsible enough to ride in the streets and that the desire to swim was enough that they would not jeopardize it. The neighbor they stayed with had several children of her own, and they were most happy to report on anything that occurred in the neighborhood. One always has to consider accuracy of such reports, but they can be useful if considered together with other information. All this came about little by little and felt right. Much depends on the individual children, but more depends on the relationship between them and adults, especially their parents.
Did I make mistakes? Of course I did. Still, I am proud of my children. Both are college graduates, have wonderful spouses, own their own homes, are working in responsible employment, and are paying their own bills. I now have more flexible time than they do, even though I lead a busy life.
When to permit children to ride their bikes in the streets is a judgment call for every family. That is probably something I wouldn’t change if I had it to do all over again. I think I understand better now why my testimony in that custody case seemed to have made the difference. My message was that blindness isn’t nearly as important in child rearing as communication, relationships, and honesty. I must have succeeded in getting that across to the court, and I haven’t changed my mind.
My experience in the National Federation of the Blind has made it possible for me and my children to regard blindness as a characteristic, not to be forgotten or disregarded, but not to be a roadblock or a distraction from other things either. Blindness is only one of my characteristics, and I hope not the only interesting one. Once the tandem was equipped the way we needed it, we never thought about it. We just thought about where we were going and why.
by Aloma Bouma
Aloma Bouma grew up in Nebraska and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she has been a leader in the National Federation of the Blind for many years. Her blindness has never prevented her from pursuing her love of travel. Here she tells of her experiences while visiting the British Parliament:
One of the minor regrets in my life is that I did not choose to study and work in the fields of anthropology and archeology. Too long after college and too late to develop a successful career in either of these fields, I discovered my love for them. This failure has deprived me of travel in the areas of the world most closely associated with human development—travel I would have thoroughly enjoyed and still hope to do some day. This does not mean, however, that I have not traveled. I love traveling and make special efforts to fit visits to other countries into my life whenever I can.
During one visit to London I found myself with some free time for sightseeing. Everyone who visits London looks forward to hitting the usual tourist sites: the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, a ride on the top of a double-decker bus, a trip to Windsor Castle or Hampton Court, a ferry ride down the Thames, or a stroll along Oxford Street for some power shopping. Having done all those things on previous trips, I decided to check out Trafalgar Square and visit the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
As a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I have spent some time visiting my Senators and Representatives and the U.S. Capitol. Additionally, I have observed Congress in action both on C-SPAN broadcasts and from the congressional observation seating for visitors, and I have seen bits and pieces of American broadcasts from England’s Parliament. None of this, however, prepared me for what I found at the Houses of Parliament.
As I entered the large and impressive building with Big Ben sounding from its tower above, I was immediately struck by a sense of history, power, and solemnity. The area was hushed, with very few employees or visitors around. I approached a visitor information desk and asked about visiting hours and opportunities to observe the Houses in session.
I learned that I was welcome to observe the House of Lords from balcony seating. Someone would be happy to show me the way immediately. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Very soon someone accompanied me through the corridors toward the entrance to the Lords’ visitor’s area. The atmosphere remained quiet, and, even though my sense of anticipation was building, I continued to be awed by the dignity that surrounded me.
After passing through the maze of ropes and enduring security screenings intensive by any standards, I was shown where to enter the balcony. Just before I slipped quietly in, I was ever so properly and politely reminded to remain silent and to demonstrate respect for the work that was being conducted. I spent about an hour watching with fascination and respect, even though I cannot now tell you what the discussion was about.
The Members behaved exactly as I had expected them to: very dignified, quiet and soft-spoken, respectful to one another, and moving through their business with courteous precision. I felt my overwhelming good fortune as I recognized not only that I, an American visitor, could share this moment but also that as a blind person I had had the ability and confidence to travel alone to London, seek out historic sites, and participate in the things countless other tourists do every day.
After a time I decided to inquire about visiting the House of Commons. At this point things first began to change. As I walked back through security upon leaving the House of Lords, I asked if someone could direct me to the House of Commons visitor seating. I was told that someone would be happy to show me, and off we went. However, my experience at the Commons was quite different from the routine at the Lords visitor entrance.
As we approached, I noticed no visitors, ropes, security screening, or large entrance area. I was conducted through a relatively small door leading to a winding staircase. When I inquired where we were going, I was told this was the entrance to the Commons viewing area.
Something was clearly wrong, but with no previous experience of the area, I wasn’t sure precisely what. I asked again if this was the usual way for visitors to reach the observation area for the House, and I was once again assured that this was the proper path. But we were ascending a narrow stairway obviously not meant for the public. I asked to be shown the public entrance, explaining that I had not wanted special treatment or opportunities different from those provided to other members of the general public.
I found myself facing a real dilemma. The philosophy I had learned from the National Federation of the Blind has taught me to believe both in myself as a blind person and in the importance of participating in society the way my sighted friends do. However, here I was, in a foreign country, unfamiliar with many of the customs, and especially unfamiliar with parliamentary staff attitudes about blindness. How could I make my point without offending them and appearing to become a rude, impolite, ungrateful American tourist?
Not sure I was making the right choice, I decided not to make a scene by arguing. I chose to comply with the requirements but to make a point of discussing the matter with someone before I left the building. Perhaps I could provide a little public education and make it easier for future blind visitors. I was shown into the balcony through a door leading to an aisle behind the back row of seats. Along that back wall, under a speaker, a man placed a wooden chair.
Leaving the House of Commons, however, turned out to be just as frustrating as arriving had been. I bid the gentleman good day and stepped toward the winding stairs. Before I could descend, though, the ushers stopped me. Wouldn’t I please take the elevator down so that I wouldn’t hurt myself? Apparently in their view going up the stairs is not as dangerous for the blind as going down.
No, I said, I would be fine on the stairs. I simply said no thank you, and took off alone down the long staircase. When I reached the halfway point, I heard one of the men bellowing from the top of the stairs. “Blind lady coming down!” he yelled to his colleagues at the bottom. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
For a long time I reflected on my experiences in Parliament—the contrast between my House of Lords visit, which went so smoothly, and the one to the Commons, which went so differently.
Mostly, when I think about it now, I am grateful for the National Federation of the Blind and for what I have learned of the strong self-confidence and ability that ground us. We have each other to turn to when we do not know all of the answers or find ourselves facing situations in which no answer seems the perfect choice. I wouldn’t trade my experience in Parliament for anything. It strengthened my need to hold to personal convictions under unfavorable circumstances, and it taught me that sometimes diplomacy and cultural differences must be balanced against individual philosophy and principles.
by Barbara Walker
Barbara Walker lives in Nebraska. She is well known in the National Federation of the Blind for her quiet integrity and her thoughtful leadership. She is active in the United Methodist Church, and I am sure that her friends there find and admire in her those same qualities. With both love and joy she shares the progress she has made in helping others to understand that it is respectable to be blind. Here is what she writes:
The circumstances, which brought Trinity United Methodist Church Circle III together in the kitchen that night, weren’t altogether pleasant. A former member who had moved away and recently returned to Lincoln had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. We had decided at our previous meeting to do a cooking night at the church to make about 15 recipes, geared to provide most of what Laura and her two children would need for the next month.
A day or two before the event, I felt myself waffling. Other avenues, such as making something on my own, began to look both easier and more practical. After all, wasn’t the main object to get food to Laura and her children? No one would be likely to question my change of plans. Maybe they’d even be relieved. I already knew some were uncomfortable with me and uncertain about a blind person’s ability to help in the kitchen. And, frankly, that kind of noisy, multi-task environment isn’t really my thing.
Then I thought about Laura. I didn’t want just to provide food for her. I wanted to emulate her spirit. She is a champion of people’s interdependence. When we were both in choir, she suggested that I contact the church to see if I could get bulletins on computer disk so I could run a Braille copy to use during Sunday worship.
When I commented that I felt bad prodding people to work out bugs in the system, thinking that I was imposing on them, she said that I was actually being instructive, not imposing. She added that I had as much right to participate in things with relevant, usable information as others did.
I began by getting bulletins on disk. Now I receive not only those, but also the church newsletter and other communications via email. I have the options of reading them from my computer with speech output from a screen reader, printing them in hard copy with a Braille printer, or putting them into a note taker with a refreshable Braille display. It occurred to me that Laura would see my impending cop-out for what it was and would probably find it disappointing.
Shortly after I arrived at the church kitchen, the woman in charge asked how I was. Determined not to be dismissed and trying not to betray my edginess, I said I was feeling useless and would like an assignment. Activity bustled around me. I heard the sounds of the chopper, the utensil drawer, the dishwasher, the microwave, food packages, and recipe papers. The aromas of main dishes mingled deliciously with those of desserts as upwards of ten women threw themselves into the tasks at hand. “Think ‘instructive,’” I told myself, not imposing.
“Can you chop onions?” It was Deanna. Feeling at once both aware that no one else would be asked such a question and grateful that an opportunity was being offered, I responded enthusiastically in the affirmative.
The chopper was bigger than any I had ever seen and required that I slice and place the onions under it before firmly rapping on the top to press the blades through. Several recipes required onions, and I was asked to make sure they were finely chopped, since the family preferred them that way.
Someone asked if I needed to have them pre-sliced. To my surprise, a simple “No, thank you,” from me resulted in her replacing the knife on the cutting board. No hovering. No motherly admonitions about sharp objects. Wow! Were my years of persistence paying off?
That job completed, Deanna invited me to scoop out baked potato halves for twice-baked potatoes and to fill them after other ingredients had been added. Then some dishes needed to be dried. As I dried them, I remembered a time some five years ago when I had gone to the kitchen after an event and asked if anything needed to be done. The response was “nothing.” But, when someone else came in and offered to dry dishes, she was welcomed by the comment that with her help everyone would get out of there more quickly.
That exchange had both humiliated me and fueled my resolve to continue to participate and educate. Now it seemed fitting that years of effort were coming to fruition during an event for Laura. I hoped that this labor of love would nourish her body as it had fed my spirit. Handing the dampened dishtowel over with a smile to be laundered, I could hear her husky chuckle of approval.
What Color Is the Sun?
The Freedom Bell
As the Twig is Bent
Standing on One Foot
When the Blizzard Blows
Toothpaste and Railroad Tracks
Tapping the Charcoal
Old Dogs and New Tricks
Beginnings and Blueprints
Like Cats and Dogs
Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses
To Touch the Untouchable Dream
Remember to Feed the Kittens
Reflecting the Flame
I Can Feel Blue on Monday
Reaching for the Top in the Land Down Under
Not Much of a Muchness
The Car, the Sled, and the Butch Wax
Back to top
Copyright © 2003 by the
National Federation of the Blind
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Posted: December 2003