Marc Maurer, Editor
The Airplane, the Cobra, and the Lighthouse
by Marc Maurer
Riding on One Wheel
by John G. Paré, Jr.
Swabbing the Deck
by Mary Ann Lareau
Flashing Rake and Blaring Radio
by Jerry Whittle
Daddies and Bicycles
by J. Michael Jones
Here's the Proof
by James Gashel
Out of the Mouths of Babes
by Angela Wolf
by Robert Gardner
If You Don't Mind Me Asking, What Do You Want with a Telescope?
by Karl Smith
Just a few months ago we in the National Federation of the Blind celebrated the first anniversary of the opening of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute--the magnificent research and training facility which you, the readers of this Kernel Book Series, have helped us to create and build. Indeed, as I write the introduction to this twenty-eighth book in the Kernel Book Series, I take great pleasure in the knowledge that we have much to celebrate, and I am keenly aware of the part you have played in making this so.
It has now been fourteen years since we published the first Kernel Book, and six million of them have been circulated. As we add this new volume, Celebrate, to the Kernel Book collection, I want to tell you that the progress we have made together in those years--in understanding, partnership, and increased opportunity--has been a joy and a wonder to me personally and to the tens of thousands of blind men, women, and children who make up the National Federation of the Blind. We give you our thanks and our gratitude for your continuing care and concern.
As I have said repeatedly in the pages of the Kernel Books, understanding blindness is more a matter of understanding what it is not rather than what it is.
It is not lack of capacity to live a life filled with adventure. I tell you more about that in my story about The Airplane, the Cobra, and the Lighthouse.
As John Paré will tell you, it is not lack of capacity to ride a unicycle. Nor is it the inability to tour Greece and visit the Parthenon, direct a children's playground, serve as foreman of a jury, rake the leaves in your yard, teach your daughter to ride a bicycle, have a passion for astronomy, or cut your five-year-old niece's pancakes.
So, if blindness is not these things, what is it? To state the obvious, it is lack of physical eyesight. But more important than that, is what all of us--blind and sighted alike--think about not being able to see. For it is only what we believe about blindness that can make it the tragedy that it sometimes becomes.
But the theme of this book is not tragedy, but celebration. The blind men and women you will meet in these pages are not filled with doom and gloom. They are filled with hope and belief.
We Celebrate the progress we are making toward the day when blindness does not limit our opportunities. We Celebrate the power of partnership with ever-growing numbers of Kernel Book readers and others in the general public who are joining with us in our work. We Celebrate the goodness of life and invite you to join with us to make it even better.
by Marc Maurer
For some people blindness has a kind of a gee whiz character. These people are astonished that the blind can accomplish the simplest and most ordinary tasks, such as tying a necktie, dialing a telephone, or shoveling snow. Inasmuch as a few blind people do not know how to do these things, we conduct classes to teach them and to boost their confidence so that they can do not only these everyday chores but much else that is exciting and adventurous.
At the convention of the National Federation of the Blind recently held in Atlanta, Georgia, a blind man told us that he had piloted an ultralight aircraft across the English Channel from England to France. He said that he was planning to fly it from Europe to Australia, a flight of some twelve thousand miles. Because an ultralight has a distance capacity of about three hundred miles, he would be required to take off and land at least forty times during the trip.
How does he do it? How does he assure safety for himself and for others? How can he manage to do without vision those things that have always been regarded as tasks that demand sight? He uses a computer with speech output to connect to the instruments in the cockpit. With this computer he learns about distances, speeds, and altitude. In addition he gets information about other air traffic in his immediate vicinity, and he avoids the airspace used for military or commercial traffic. He also carries radios so that observers can give him the information he needs to make the decisions required for flying. When his airplane takes to the sky, he has a copilot with him, but he made it clear that he does the flying himself.
Although I have been working with blind people on many activities for most of my adult life, I have not been aware that blind people could fly airplanes safely and competently until I met this man. I myself have been at the controls of a plane in flight. I felt quite able to gain or reduce altitude, to turn the plane, and to increase or decrease the speed. However, I did not believe that I could safely manipulate the controls so that we could land without incident. I was intrigued to learn that another blind man has done it. It seems to me that the blind pilot’s accomplishment is remarkable.
A friend of mine owns a forty-four-foot catamaran that he keeps in Florida. He asked me if I would like to sail with him to the Bahamas, and I decided to go. The boat is sloop-rigged with a single sixty-five-foot mast. It also carries a small diesel engine for powering the electrical equipment and for sailing in calm seas. We left Florida in bright sunny weather and headed into the Atlantic for the Bahamas. The Gulf Stream passes through the waters we were planning to traverse, and I was advised that sometimes in crossing this stream there is a little rough water. The wind was sufficient for us to move steadily on our course, and the sea was reasonably smooth during the day.
As night approached, however, the wind rose and the water became more turbulent. The boat is equipped with an automatic steering system which can be set to keep it on a given course. Consequently, in an empty, peaceful sea with no obstructions at hand it is not essential to maintain a lookout. About 2:00 a.m. the others on board had retired to their berths, and I was left alone on deck. I climbed to the bow and sat contemplating the sea as the waves buffeted the craft. After a time I contemplated what would occur if I were to tumble overboard. Nobody would know about it until many hours had passed. By that time I would be no more. In the midst of the wind and the waves, it seemed peaceful to me on the bow of the boat even though the wind was whistling and the waves were shaking our vessel, but I decided it might be more prudent to return to the cabin and wait to do my adventurous explorations until my fellow shipmates were with me.
By the next day we were within hailing distance of Green Turtle Cay and preparing for a relaxing period on its shore. One of the people we met there was the owner of a dive shop. He had befriended a grouper, a four-hundred-pound fish that lived in the waters nearby. While this man was diving in those waters, he would often stroke the grouper and feed him. On one occasion the grouper misunderstood what was offered for his breakfast and tried to eat part of the man’s hand as well as the food that was in it. The dive shop owner said that his friend the grouper had simply made a mistake; Mr. Grouper was not trying to be mean. I reflected from these remarks that there are many ways to understand the environment in which we live, and I am looking forward to returning to Green Turtle Cay so that I can dive and meet Mr. Grouper.
Because we in the National Federation of the Blind believe that blindness is more a social problem than a physical one, we work with blind people throughout the United States and sometimes in other parts of the world to create a spirit of independence and to bring greater understanding of the blind. A meeting of the blind that occurred in South Africa considered the problems blind people face in the developing and in the industrialized parts of the world. Much poverty exists in the developing countries, and few programs have been created to help the blind. However, the principal problem of blindness is the misunderstanding that exists about it. This misunderstanding occurs everywhere and brings a sense of unity and community to the blind from throughout the world.
While we were in South Africa, we visited certain attractions of that country. In Cape Town, the principal city in the southern part of South Africa, one of the primary features is Table Mountain. From the lowlands around Table Mountain it appears as if the top of the peak was cut off so that the land at the summit is flat. However, even though it appears flat from a distance, the terrain is somewhat rocky and uneven.
Looking down from Table Mountain toward the bay, much of Cape Town can be observed, and the wind is fierce. Looking in the other direction one sees the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. A common occurrence at the summit is the warning from local authorities that the mountain must be cleared because the wind is too great for safe habitation.
Later during our visit to South Africa, we traveled south from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, the point of land at the southwest tip of Africa. Ships round the Cape of Good Hope coming from the Atlantic Ocean heading toward the Indian Ocean. At one time it was thought that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet at the Cape of Good Hope, but the geographers picked another locale for the two waters to come together a little east of the Cape. Nonetheless, there is a restaurant near the tip of the Cape called the Two Oceans Restaurant.
At the very tip of this point of land is a lighthouse whose beams have been placed there to warn mariners away from the rocks and currents that would threaten destruction to their vessels. The land rises steeply to the place where the lighthouse has been built, and it is a demanding walk to climb so high. On the sunny afternoon when we reached the lighthouse, there was a brisk wind at the point. We stood on the observation deck and contemplated the sea, the distance from the Cape to New York, and the distance from the Cape to Antarctica. We imagined the thousands of ships that had passed through the waters immediately at hand and the hopes and dreams of the mariners who sailed them.
We asked the lighthouse keeper if we could view the inside of the structure. Although this is not ordinarily permitted, he invited me in and took me up to his observation platform twenty-five feet above the observation deck. The wind on this narrow iron platform seemed much stronger to me than it had been on the observation deck below, and I wondered if a person could be blown off into space. The lighthouse keeper commented that the air rushing past was a gentle breeze; I wondered what he might have meant by a gale.
On the way back down the path from the lighthouse to the level land of the Cape, I passed by a sign that my sighted companion read to me. It said that we should beware of the cobras, and it showed a picture of one. I had been poking my cane and my hands into the bushes along the path and had been examining the flowers that were there. I had been listening to the birds and sometimes I had heard descriptions of lizards and other small creatures. On our way to the Cape of Good Hope we had stopped in a local community for a bite of lunch. We read about the problems with the baboons. Apparently baboons invade people’s houses and break into cars. The lady who warned us against them said that if we saw baboons we should not feed them because they would gather together and attack us, taking everything from our pockets and removing our shoes and possibly other clothing as well. However, in our travels we did not see any baboons. Consequently, we were not troubled by these marauders. As I passed the sign with the picture of the cobra, I wondered if I should have been more careful. I had not realized that cobras were part of the animal life roaming free in South Africa.
Until fairly recently South Africa has been a country torn by strife and controversy. Nelson Mandela, probably the best-known voice seeking freedom in Africa of the past twenty-five years, had been imprisoned for decades. More than half of the time of his imprisonment occurred on Robben Island, a small piece of land located in the bay off of Cape Town. As part of our visit to this growing power in Africa, we traveled to Robben Island and toured the prison where Nelson Mandela spent so many years. Conditions for the prisoners were outlined for us, and the harshness of their treatment in the latter part of the twentieth century was a stark reminder that understanding among human beings comes slowly.
Nelson Mandela’s courage never failed him, and after his release from prison, he became President of South Africa for a time. His spirit inspired millions to believe in a future full of promise, and his spirit survived despite everything that he was forced to endure. The bars on his cell were about an inch and a quarter thick. We visited the spot where he had planted tomatoes and nurtured them during his captivity. We were told that he hid secret dispatches in the tomato patch that were later smuggled out to give hope to South Africans.
The National Federation of the Blind seeks to give hope to the blind of the United States and sometimes to the blind of other countries as well. We teach the skills that blind people need, but we teach something far more important than these techniques. We teach that with proper education and the proper mindset, blindness need not mean despair, that there is opportunity and the means for a full and productive life. We teach that the blind can achieve at the same level as others. We teach that adventure can be ours and that the only thing preventing us from achievement is the will and the imagination to make our dreams come true.
You have been helping us to spread the word about our work and our dreams.
By doing this you have made it possible for many thousands of the blind to gain
independence and self-sufficiency. With your help we in the National Federation
of the Blind will ensure that for the blind as for the sighted there is a tomorrow
filled with promise. Part of that promise is education; part of it is a thorough
understanding of what blindness is; and part of it is the knowledge that we
too can share adventure.
by John G. Paré, Jr.
John Paré is a relatively new member of the National Federation of the Blind. Like many who become blind in the midst of active adulthood, he wondered what kind of life he could lead as a blind person. As his confidence grew he decided to try something he had not done since his college days--a challenge he met and conquered. Here is how he tells his story:
When I was young I was always fascinated by circus performers who could ride a unicycle. Frequently, these unicycles were six feet tall, and sometimes the performers would ride and juggle or do something equally amazing. I asked my parents to get me a unicycle, but my mom was concerned that I would fall and get hurt. I finally prevailed, and my parents gave me a unicycle for my fifteenth birthday. I learned to ride, and during my college days I got really good. One day I was riding to class in the rain with an umbrella and got my picture on the front page of the college newspaper. After college I stopped riding the unicycle, and frankly I have no idea what happened to it.
All of this unicycle riding occurred while I was sighted; I am now blind. Sometimes I reminisce about my college days and my unicycle riding. I began to wonder if I could still ride a unicycle. I mentioned it to a few friends, but they said riding a unicycle would be too dangerous. I agreed I would need a guide, but they still insisted that riding a unicycle was a bad idea.
I wondered if my lack of eyesight would affect my balance. Riding a unicycle does require excellent balance. Maybe I should just hold back and forget the whole idea. I did this for quite some time.
When I joined the National Federation of the Blind I learned that many blind persons are both active and successful. For example, I learned that many blind persons like to snow ski; they simply do this with a guide. Well, maybe I could ride my unicycle with the help of a sighted guide.
One Saturday morning I told my wife we needed to go to a bicycle store right away. She asked why, and I said I wanted to purchase a unicycle. She thought this was a great idea.
As we traveled to the store I wondered about my sense of balance. Since becoming blind I did not have trouble walking. I did not have trouble with stairs. I did not have trouble running on a treadmill. Hopefully, I would not have trouble on the unicycle.
We purchased the unicycle, and I took it right out into the parking lot. I had to see right away if I could still ride it. I got everything lined up and jumped on. I rode about twenty feet with no problem. I was thrilled that I could still ride a unicycle.
Riding a unicycle has very little to do with eyesight. As long as one has a relatively smooth path and a guide to help with directions, any blind person can learn to ride a unicycle.
The National Federation of the Blind helped put me in contact with active and confident blind persons. These contacts encouraged me to stop holding back and to live my life to the fullest. When people first become blind, before they have learned the necessary blindness skills, they frequently reduce their activity to a level expected by themselves, their friends, and society. This unfortunately is what I initially did.
So don't be surprised the next time you see a guy with a white cane riding
a unicycle. It might be me or one of the other tens of thousands of capable
by Mary Ann Lareau
Mary Ann Lareau is an officer in the National Federation of the Blind of Massachusetts and is president of the Suburban West Chapter--one of our newest local chapters in Massachusetts. She is the mother of two daughters and is active in her community. On a daily basis she works to change what it means to be blind. In "Swabbing the Deck," she relates a simple incident that opened the heart and mind of a stern Navy captain. Here is what she has to say:
In the summer of 1980 I was the mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 13. I was appointed the first director of a new neighborhood playground.
Being the president of the playground board, I wanted this new park to be a success. We didn't have the funds to pay a highly trained director, so we decided to run the playground ourselves.
Since I was a Campfire Girls' leader of three troops, I was urged to take charge of the task. We were supported by the city with a lunch program site, a few paid teen-aged staff members, a twice-a-week swimming program, some arts and craft supplies, and three trips with busses to transport the kids away from the city. The youngsters all seemed to have great fun each day.
The arts and crafts program was my primary function on a daily basis. Many of the items we produced were made from materials that you could find around the house such as milk cartons, egg cartons, coffee cans, popsicle sticks, etc. Numerous things were assembled: sit-upons, trinket boxes, drums, birdcages, and much more.
The final trip of the summer was scheduled for Battleship Cove at Fall River, Massachusetts, where there are two historic ships--the U.S.S. Massachusetts and P.T. 109. The latter vessel was made famous during World War II by the courageous feats of John F. Kennedy.
The kids were excited for the final trip of the season. Three busses were loaded with lunches, kids, parents, and staff. The usual singing and jokes amused all during the hour ride to the Cove. Upon arrival the rules for good conduct were again given just to remind the kids of what they could and could not do.
We all decided to tour the P.T. 109 and were to assemble in the mess hall at 11:30 for lunch. All parents and staff members had assigned numbers of kids for which they were responsible. I supervised four youngsters, because it was my responsibility to ensure that all went along smoothly.
My oldest daughter and I were having fun lifting my guide dog, Koko, a forty-two-pound silver shepherd, up and down the ladders of the P.T. boat. My daughter would climb the ladder; I would pass the dog up to her and then climb up after. Koko was a lot of help because some of the passages had low entrances, and sometimes there were huge, unexpected steps.
As lunchtime approached we all made our way to the mess hall. The box lunches were passed out, and all the kids were starting to eat when the captain made his first appearance. He inspected the scene and immediately came over to me.
"I need to have a word with you," he declared in a firm tone. "I must ask you to leave this ship." I was very surprised and asked, "Why?" He replied, "Because of safety considerations we do not allow blind persons aboard."
I struggled very hard to contain my initial anger but eventually informed the captain that I was the person in charge of the three busloads of children that were thoroughly enjoying their field trip to see the historic vessel so closely associated with the memories of the late President Kennedy. I made it clear that if I were being ejected from the ship, the entire group would have to join me.
Just at that moment there was a great deal of noise behind us. Spinning around rapidly, I shouted out, "Peter and John--stop it at once!" As a milk carton came whizzing by my head, I shouted to those responsible for the disturbance that they would be responsible for the cleanup of the mess hall. We were not leaving until the area was as clean as it had been upon our arrival. I asked the captain if his men could provide the boys with the necessary equipment to cleanup the hall.
The captain kindly offered to have the mess cleaned up, but I insisted it was the responsibility of our youths to do so. He seemed rather impressed with this response and began conversing in a much more pleasant tone: "How did you know which youngsters were causing the problem?" I explained, "I know the kids by their rather distinctive voices, and I can generally assume which ones are causing the trouble."
After the lunchroom was all cleaned up, and all the mess was taken care of,
we all finished touring the ship and spent money in the gift shop. Just as we
were about to depart the captain came over to say, "Blindness does not
seem to be as much of a handicap as I believed it to be." "No,"
I replied, "but sometimes it is a nuisance."
by Jerry Whittle
Jerry Whittle is a teacher at the National Federation of the Blind's Louisiana Center for the Blind. He is known throughout our organization as an accomplished play writer, and his students (the Louisiana Center Players) frequently enact one of his compositions at our National Convention. Here Jerry turns from fiction to fact as he writes about the challenge of being a good neighbor. Here is what he has to say:
Raking leaves has always been a part of my fall and winter exercise program. When I had some residual vision, I used different techniques from those I use now as a totally blind person; nevertheless, the exertion and satisfaction for having completed the task remains about the same.
I grew up in Clemson, South Carolina--a relatively small college town near the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern portion of the state. I raked our yard and made extra money working on some neighbors' yards as well. Since I was losing my sight from retinitis pigmentosa, I had problems locating a pile of leaves. RP takes your vision gradually, and it usually robs the field vision; hence, one might be looking straight ahead and not be able to see a pile of leaves at one's feet or to one side. I easily overcame this nuisance by placing a white towel or T-shirt on the pile. I could pick up bright colors, especially white against a darker background. This made it possible for me to use my feet to feel the leaves and to rake in patterns to the pile with the white object on it. I usually raked a specific region and fanned out after taking the cardinal points in the raking sector. It worked without a hitch.
As a young man, I had fairly good vision, but the years have seen my eyesight slowly diminish. A long period of my life passed before I raked leaves again. I went to college in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in Columbia, South Carolina, and I lived in an apartment after obtaining my master's and working on a Ph.D. in English. Then, I began teaching Braille in Louisiana, and my wife and I purchased a house with over an acre of land in Ruston--the pine and pin oak capital of America. Leaves abounded and always seemed to blanket my yard. I forgot to mention that I had grown older and not as vigorous as I once was, but the people who lived around me maintain their yards beautifully, and this challenged me to overcome my reluctance to rake again.
Our home is nestled between two houses that belong to two men who are retired, and they seem to be obsessed with keeping their yards immaculate. It seems as if they are at their picture windows, and when a leaf falls, they rush out to catch it before it hits the ground. I work late hours--often doing outside activities with the staff and our students as part of their training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Even though I work late hours, I make sure that I don't let my yard get too far out of hand because I can sense their expectant eyes watching me for some kind of action. Like most Americans, I bought my rake at Wal-Mart and try to hold up my end of the leaf brigade.
Our house is dappled with a variety of trees--long-needle southern pines--some as old as seventy-five years and huge in circumference. We also have white oaks and pin oaks and dogwoods and camellias--all of them resplendent with ample branches full of leaves.
Once I started raking leaves, I quickly recognized that I would need to find some way to keep my bearings. I often became disoriented in the back forty and had to use my rake for a white cane and problem-solve where my home was in relation to where I ended up. I brought out a loud radio and turned it on, making sure that I picked a channel that would not be too obnoxious to my conservative neighbors. The radio helped tremendously. Then, it was a matter of finding my piles as I began to rake. I used my feet to find an abundance of leaves, and I noticed that the leaves would often settle in a straight line. I would rake to the base of a large tree and work the north, south, east, and west sides of the pile, bringing these to the pile at the base of a prominent tree. Sometimes I would use a landmark in my yard, such as brick-lined flowerbeds or the sidewalk. It was different from using the white towel, but my new methods work just as well.
I also noticed that my fastidious neighbors would walk by often when I was raking and seemed much more animated and friendly, making comments such as, "Boy, the grass is sure green up under all those leaves once you rake the yard. That is amazing how green the grass can be even after nestling so long up under there." I would smile and let them know in no uncertain terms that I would never tolerate those leaves getting ahead of my self-determination to keep a well-raked yard. They walked on pleased with my ambition and assurances.
The truth is: I almost worked myself to death in that fecund yard of mine, but over the years I have held my own. I love the smell of the leaves, especially the camellia leaves--a natural perfume that could never be captured in a bottle. I especially enjoy a cold beverage and a big cigar on my porch after completing portions of the monster. There is something else I have noticed: at fifty-six years of age, the yard seems a little bigger and the hills seem a little steeper. One of my retired neighbors died recently, and his home was bought by a younger and far less meticulous person. But my other neighbor still walks the road and gives me a hearty greeting when he sees the rake flashing and the radio blaring. I have often thought about hiring my yard raked, but I think the pain and sore muscles will never outweigh his respect and gratitude for my determination to be a good neighbor.
by J. Michael Jones
Michael Jones is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama. He has come to have belief in himself and in his capacity to do all the things a small child expects her daddy to do--even when he's not sure exactly how he will accomplish the particular task at hand. He simply knows, as does his daughter, Laura, that Daddy will manage. Here is what he has to say:
My greatest joy in life is watching my daughter Laura grow and learn. I know that being blind will not diminish this enjoyment, because of the many skills I have learned from my association with the National Federation of the Blind. Mostly, I have learned to be confident in handling situations. I am even confident in handling those situations in which I have had no experience. The Federation teaches that with confidence, a blind person can succeed at almost any task. Each time that Laura tries a new skill for herself is generally a new task for me to adapt my blindness skills. Most of these changes are quite subtle and hardly noticeable except for one.
For Laura's third birthday I bought her an old style tricycle, which began a new form of mobility for her. I spent countless hours following her around on that tricycle. It was easy to manage her on that because the tricycle was loud enough for me to hear from a distance. I could sit on my front porch and listen to her everywhere she went, and she was slow enough for me to run and catch her if she was going out-of-control or somewhere I didn't want her to go.
On her fourth birthday she graduated to a regular bicycle with training wheels. Much like the tricycle, the bicycle with training wheels was loud and not so fast. This expanded her range from that of the tricycle, but that was still not a problem for me to manage. I set clearly defined boundaries for her to stay within, and she usually obeyed. Setting these boundaries allowed me to monitor her much more easily. She had a great time, and so did I. When she wanted to branch out with her path, we would go to the park, and I would follow her around the running track. I got great exercise, and she had lots of fun.
The fifth birthday came along, and it was time for her to ride without training wheels. She was very hesitant to allow me to take the wheels off of her bicycle. As fate would have it, one day her training wheels broke, and her only choice was to ride without them or not at all. Laura looked upon this as a very threatening situation, and her first response was to say, "Daddy, you are going to teach me."
I was always a good bike rider during my childhood. I can remember the day I learned to ride without training wheels, constantly falling until I got the balance right and took off. When I was Laura's age I had very poor eyesight, but it never slowed me from riding my bike. Later when I completely lost my sight at age twelve, I continued to ride my bicycle, using a mental image of my surroundings along with using my hearing and the bicycle wheels to tell me if I was straying off the path. I rode with much enjoyment.
Blindness didn't stop me from riding a bicycle as a child, but now came the time for me to teach my daughter to ride. How on earth was I going to accomplish this task? Riding a bicycle without training wheels meant greater speed and distance. I knew that I no longer could depend on following her. It also meant that the bike would not make as much noise. But first things first: she had to be taught to ride without training wheels, and she had just assigned me the task. I knew that Laura would not accept my getting one of my sighted friends to help--nor could I. This was one of those missions that could only be done by Daddy.
The National Federation of the Blind had already equipped me for the task. I had received the best long-white-cane training from blind people in the NFB, and I had heard and read a thousand times from the Federation that with a positive attitude and confidence in myself I could accomplish anything.
Armed with this reminder, I set out to conduct the first lesson in bike riding. She put her bike helmet on and climbed aboard the bike with my holding it steady. I started with a lecture. I began by telling her that she would fall, and it might hurt some, but not to worry because she would probably fall many times, and it would not hurt so much.
With that inspiring lecture, she began climbing off of the bike. I quickly realized that I should shut up and get on with the task at hand. I started by moving with my cane in one hand and the handlebars of the bike in the other. We walked and ran along like that for a few minutes. This was working, in so much as I was finding my way just fine with my cane and holding up the bike, but she was not learning much at all. So I did what any father would do. I put one hand on the back of the seat and the other on a handle bar and told her to peddle. I took about two steps and gave the bike a good shove. As predicted, she went about ten feet and fell. The next time she went about twenty feet and so on until she was riding freely.
It is now two years later, and Laura loves bike riding. In fact, she is quite good at it. Soon she will be big enough to drive a two-seater bike, and she and I will have great enjoyment together. To Laura, blindness has always just been one of my characteristics, just like hair loss. When all was said and done, my blindness had no impact upon my ability to teach bike riding.
What mattered was Laura's unwavering trust and faith in her Daddy's abilities to take care of any situation. No matter what she and I were doing--traveling through an airport, going to strange places, teaching swimming, or just walking down a street--I have always done my best to live up to the Federation's philosophy of blindness as being nothing more than a physical nuisance. And I use the skills of blindness I've learned to help live a completely normal life.
by James Gashel
James Gashel lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. He has been a leader in the National Federation of the Blind for more than three decades and in that time has seen marked progress in the way blind people are perceived by members of the general public, and his story is one that relates that advancement. Here is what he has to say:
I have been blind all my life, and I grew up in Iowa where Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was my teacher on matters dealing with blindness and life in general. He taught us that it is respectable to be blind. This is the most important lesson I ever learned.
Knowing that blindness is respectable leads to self-confidence. I still see blind people holding back on trying things they could do if they only had the confidence to try. More than loss of eyesight, this is the real problem of blindness. Dr. Jernigan taught us this too.
During the time I was in college in Iowa and starting to think about such things, I knew blind people who were told they couldn't take certain classes or be hired for certain jobs, for example as teachers. I knew this was wrong, and this is why I joined the National Federation of the Blind.
I learned that a form of discrimination occurs when blind people are denied jobs or other opportunities based on misconceptions. Not all denials are discrimination, such as refusing to issue a blind person a driver's license. Denials based on incorrect facts or false reasoning are discrimination, but are almost never mean-spirited as we sometimes think of with racial or ethnic prejudice. Still, even if kindness is the reason, blind people do face discrimination in the form of exclusion from opportunities.
In the National Federation of the Blind we share stories with one another about the successes we have and the barriers we still face. This is how I first learned that blind people were being excluded from jury service. I knew that blind people were working as lawyers, so I couldn't figure out why we couldn't serve on juries.
Who would think that the legal system would discriminate against blind people? None of this seemed right, and it wasn't right. I wondered what would happen if I was called to serve. On whom can you count for justice when the law enforcer has already made up his mind against you?
Many years went by, and I was never called for jury duty. Then it happened. I now live in Baltimore, Maryland, where the circuit court has a "one trial or one day" rule. This results in being called for jury duty as often as once a year and certainly within two years, but many more people are called than actually serve on a jury.
The first time I was called the day was uneventful, but the second time was different. My summons number was 14, so if a judge needed a jury, I was certain to be in the group called for screening. In fact, this is exactly what happened as soon as we had received the general "pep-talk" about the importance of jury service.
The announcement made by a court official instructed anyone with a number between 1 and 100 to report to one of the courtrooms in the building across the street. Using a long white cane, which I do, no one could miss that I am blind, but nobody mentioned it either. So, off to the courtroom I went where the judge told us the procedures and started asking questions to select the jury.
This was a civil dispute. The plaintiff was an older gentleman and the defendant was a young man in his early 20's. These two had been involved in a traffic accident, and the issue was over who caused it and who would pay.
According to the instructions we were supposed to stand up if we had to answer "no" to any of the questions. I kept my seat since I had no reason to give a "no" answer. Then the judge started calling numbers, and what do you know, number 14 was the very first one called.
When I rose, white cane in hand, the judge told me to take the first chair in the jury box. Actually, I had no idea where the jury box was, let alone the first chair, but I walked confidently toward the bench to an area where I assumed the jury would have to be seated to view the attorneys, the witnesses, and the judge.
With two rows of chairs there, it turned out that I was right. I proceeded to the first chair at the end closest to the judge in the front row, figuring that this was the one intended for me. This view was confirmed too when the judge called the next juror's number as I confidently took my seat.
Finally we were all seated, and the trial commenced. At noon we took a break, and a court employee escorted all of the jurors to a room where we were told to reassemble after lunch, after which we were dismissed for lunch on our own. I'm not sure when we were told that the juror in the first chair is the foreman, but I remember feeling a great sense of responsibility as I left the courthouse for lunch. Here I was, the foreman of a jury at the Circuit Court in Baltimore.
Some time after 1:00 p.m., when everyone was back, the trial resumed. We listened to testimony for the next two and a half hours, nothing like the O. J. Simpson trial that lasted several months. Anyway, the judge started to read instructions to us at about 3:30 p. m., and we filed back to the jury room to deliberate. It was close to 4:00 p. m.
The judge's instructions included three or four questions that we were specifically directed to answer. I wrote these questions down on a Braille device I use, and read my Braille notes to direct the jury. The crux of the case was who caused the accident? Did the older gentlemen fail to see the car driven by the younger man before he pulled out, or was the younger driver speeding out-of-control as the older gentleman alleged?
All of the sympathies were with the plaintiff (the older gentleman) who had been seriously injured in the accident, but my responsibility was to lead the jury to evaluate the proof. With four years of intercollegiate debating and subsequent work as a high school forensics coach, I was probably the best-qualified person in the room to explain the burden of proof to the others. Emotions were running high as we argued the merits of each side, but no one mentioned that I am blind and cannot drive a car. If they had, I would have argued that this would leave me free from preconceptions that drivers might have in evaluating the facts of this case. Knowing about evaluation of evidence and burden of proof were more important in that setting than knowing about driving, so no one challenged me on that point.
Anyway, when all was said and done, the jury reached a unanimous vote that the plaintiff had not established the defendant's fault. I directed another juror to complete the printed form for the judge, and we returned to announce the verdict. The day was almost over. It was now my responsibility to speak for the jury to confirm the decision, which I did. At that point we received the judge's thanks, and the trial was over.
As I left the courthouse it struck me, blindness had not come up all day. I had gone to the bar of justice and been treated as a first-class citizen. There was no need to argue or persuade anyone that as a blind person I could still judge the facts of a traffic accident. No one seemed to doubt my ability. The message of the National Federation of the Blind is really getting through. Here's the proof: there was no discrimination at the courthouse.
by Angela Wolf
Angela Wolf is an accomplished young woman who has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since childhood--one of a new generation of young blind adults who have grown up surrounded by the positive philosophy of the Federation. The wisdom, insight, and understanding Angela gained at an early age shine through in the touching family incident she relates here. This is how she tells her story:
Children's innocence allows them to perceive the world in a very matter-of-fact way. They take almost everything at face value and, as a result, are typically uninhibited about what they say or do. It is in this naiveté that we can find a great many kernels of wisdom--wisdom that is often beyond that of adults. Wisdom of injustice, wisdom of compassion, wisdom of independence; these complex truths can often be expressed in the simplest words from a child.
My niece Haley, a precocious five-year-old, is extremely fond of my husband and me, and aside from the usual questions of curiosity, our blindness has never been a discussion point. She is eager to play games with us, color with us, and in general, she likes us to be the ones to entertain her. Not to mention, like most five-year-olds, she is never afraid to try out her newly found independence.
Recently, my husband and I went out to eat with his family (who have not always demonstrated the utmost confidence in our abilities, even though my husband and I have both been through blindness training and live normal, productive lives). As usual, Haley insisted on sitting next to us. Wedged between my husband and me in the booth, she politely gave her order to the waiter.
When the food arrived, the meal began to take a very uncomfortable turn. She had ordered pancakes, and like any headstrong five-year-old, she wanted to put the butter on and cut the pancakes herself. However, her parents became slightly irritated when it was taking her longer than they thought necessary. They insisted that she give the plate to her grandmother, who was sitting on the other side of me at the crowded table. They did not say the words, but the implication was clear: they thought it would take me or my husband, because we were blind, just as painstakingly long to achieve successfully what our niece was attempting, even though we were the most logical choices for assisting her, given the seating arrangement and the lack of space at the table.
Needless to say, Haley's five-year-old spirit was squelched by her parents' lack of confidence in her abilities. I must say that I felt similarly defeated, but Haley was neither ready nor willing to give up her full control of the situation. If she was going to be forced to ask for help, she was going to do it her way. So, rather than turning her plate over to my mother-in-law, Haley looked up at me and asked, "Angela, will YOU help me?" In those five powerful words, Haley demonstrated that she had more confidence in my capabilities than anyone at the table, excluding my husband.
In that one simple moment, Haley and I shared a common bond of assumed inferiority.
I cannot count the times I have been treated, because of my blindness, as if
I were five years old, headstrong and silly for trying to assert my own independence.
In her innocence, without having it laid out for her, Haley understood that
it made sense to ask me for help. What she did not understand was that, in doing
so, she helped to restore the dignity of both of us.
by Robert Gardner
Robert Gardner is a member of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. He and his wife Nancy are avid students of Greek history and culture and had visited Greece before Robert had joined the Federation. Later, they returned to Greece, when Robert had begun to think in different ways about being a blind tourist. Here is how he tells his story:
"Good morning," I said.
"Kalimera," replied the young woman brightly. "Good morning."
My wife, Nancy, and I stood there atop the Acropolis, sweating in the heat and humidity of the September day. We had come to a barrier fence in front of the Parthenon, and the woman had come out of a small building reserved for guards.
At least I thought we were in front of the Parthenon. I am totally blind, and I had to take the word of my wife who is sighted. This was our second visit to Greece, the first trip being five years before. On that first trip, we had stood in this same spot, and I had been in a similar situation.
"There's the Parthenon," Nancy had said five years earlier.
When I found we couldn't enter the Parthenon--that no one was allowed inside--I remember thinking I might as well be in my backyard. I was thrilled to be at the Acropolis there in Athens, a place I thought I would never get to visit, but I had no sense of really being at the Parthenon. "Visiting the Parthenon," as set up, was entirely a visual experience.
Nancy and I made a pledge on that trip. We had become intrigued with Greece and Greek culture, and we promised ourselves we would return in several years. Those several years turned into five, and in the interim I discovered the National Federation of the Blind. After that, when I thought about our future trip to Greece, I began to think in different ways. On that next visit to the Parthenon, I wanted things to be different.
About six months before our second trip, I began seriously working on the problem. I drafted a letter requesting what I thought was reasonable and relatively little. I explained I was blind, and all I wanted was to be allowed to stand on the bottom step of the Parthenon. I knew I could then touch that famous Pentelic marble, that I would stand on those steps that Athenians had climbed 2,500 years ago. I would stand on steps climbed by Romans, Crusaders, by those in the Renaissance, and all those down through the ages. I could stand on a step that perhaps Pericles himself had stood upon.
The real problem was where to send the letter. Who could authorize my request? Should I contact the Greek embassy in the U.S., or the U.S. embassy in Greece? Should I contact the several Greek organizations associated with tourism? Maybe I should track down some Greek agency associated with antiquities.
I remember my first contacts. I found a private group on the Internet saying their mission was to promote travel by the handicapped. Maybe they would know where to send my letter. A phone call to them resulted in listening to an answering machine. I left my name and number -- and I never heard a word from them. E-mails sent to our closest Greek consulate and a Greek tourist organization here in the U.S. again resulted in no response.
Then I hit pay dirt. I sent my letter requesting to touch--just touch--the Parthenon to the U.S. embassy in Athens. I soon found myself corresponding easily, thanks to the miracle of global E-mail, with Ms. Ioanna Houndoumadi, a consular assistant at the embassy. For reference, I learned Ioanna would be the equivalent of Joann or Joanna. Wow! Ioanna said she would work on my request.
So, Nancy and I stood there on that September morning in 2002. For the second time, we stood next to the little guard house in front of the Parthenon. "My name is Despina Tsolaki," the young female guard said. In good but uncertain English, she asked, "May I help you?"
I showed her a copy of the E-mail message from Ioanna of the U.S. embassy, telling me the Archeological Office of the Acropolis had granted my request regarding the Parthenon. I sensed Despina smiling, and I also sensed she may not be able to read English since our language uses a totally different alphabet than her native Greek. When I explained the contents of the message, Despina laughed. "Please come," she said. "Follow me." And . . . I stepped over the wire barrier and walked up the west steps of the Parthenon. Into the Parthenon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Into the Parthenon where no tourists are allowed to go.
Although my original request said I wasn't asking for any special guides, Nancy and I found ourselves following an enthusiastic Despina around the interior of the Parthenon. And I soon found there was a crew working on restoration inside the temple. There I was, following Despina, walking through what seemed like a chaos of workmen, wooden ramps, and marble pieces of all shapes and sizes.
And there I was with my recently acquired white cane. A beautiful, telescoping, long white cane bought earlier in the year during a training seminar at the NFB national center in Baltimore. Five years before on the first visit to the Acropolis, before I had joined the NFB, I had no white cane.
I asked Despina, "How long has it been since tourists were allowed to walk in here?" I was wondering when someone had last walked through the Parthenon with a long white cane.
"No tourists have been in here for about thirty years," she answered.
Gee, I thought. Maybe no one with a long white cane had ever walked in there before.
I found the size of the Parthenon astounding. Over two-hundred feet long, the temple is about two-thirds the size of a football field. The famous columns, eight on the ends and seventeen on the sides, are thirty-four feet tall. As high as a three-story building.
The massiveness of those columns was surprising. I stretched my arms around one in a bear hug. At six feet in diameter, I couldn't even get my arms halfway around. And I was surprised at the roughness of the marble. Centuries of exposure had changed the original smooth surface to more like the unfinished concrete surface of a highway.
Pericles, the leader of the city-state of Athens, started construction on the Parthenon in 447 B.C. He was determined to make a statement about the wealth and power of Athens by building a temple like none seen before in Greece. While temples at that time were fabricated usually of wood, commonly using columns of limestone coated with white plaster, Pericles declared his Parthenon would be made totally of marble. Even the roof tiles were to be of marble. Taking fifteen years to complete, the marble was quarried at the nearby Mt. Pentelis, while builders and artisans from all over Athens were employed to carve the columns, the myriad sculptures, and the countless structural pieces that made up the final temple. I've read, in today's dollars, the Parthenon cost a billion dollars to build.
I was introduced to Nikos Toganidis, the foreman of the crew working on restoration. He was a big man with big hands. "Do you have any questions?" he asked in soft English.
Feeling even hotter than before, I struggled to think of something intelligent to say. "Uh, how long do you think the restoration will take?"
"Only God knows," replied Mr. Toganidis. He went on to talk of his worries about earthquakes, a relatively common occurrence in that part of the world, and what such an event would do to the Parthenon.
We continued to wander around, and I was given permission to touch the marble pieces on which the restorers worked. We talked with Despina, finding out she was a single parent with a nine-year-old son. She talked of her life, how she lived with her mother, how her job as an Acropolis guard was a good one, but how she really wanted to become a singer. How different our lives were, I thought, yet how similar. How we all worry about our jobs and our children, how we struggle to improve our future. How in the end, we all have to laugh and make the best of this world we live in. Despina apologized many times for her English, saying her Italian was better. I could only marvel at anyone who could speak anything more than one language.
Nancy and I later worked our way down the steps of the Acropolis, an exercise in caution. The stairs meander, are worn and uneven, and look like they might be the original steps from four centuries B.C. "Despina was nice," Nancy said as we walked, broiling in the humid heat, down the narrow streets toward our nearby hotel.
"Yeah," I said. I thought of the pictures taken by Nancy of Despina and myself in the Parthenon. The young guide and myself had posed together, our arms around each other's shoulders.
Nancy and I continued toward our hotel, threading our way through the crowds, passing the many little cafes with their delicious aromas of grilling lamb, souvalaki, or maybe moussaka. The tables were usually outside, out in the open air. A great way to eat or relax, Nancy and I had discovered. I could picture those at the tables, chattering away as they sipped at their miniature cups of thick, sweet Greek coffee while still managing to survey the pedestrians parading by.
"You got her address?" asked Nancy, referring to Despina.
"Yeah. She wrote it on a card, and it's here in my shirt pocket."
"We should send her a thank-you card."
"Maybe we could send her and her son a Christmas card," I said. We made our turn into Rovertou Galli, the street for our hotel.
"That really turned out good there on the Acropolis," Nancy said.
"Yeah," I said.
"All because you wrote that letter. Because you had a dream."
"I'm no Martin Luther King," I quipped. "All I can say is I thought outside the box, then acted on it."
"You made it happen."
"A lot of nice people helped," I said.
"Just imagine," Nancy said. "We were actually inside the Parthenon, one of the seven wonders."
"You know," I said, "I'm not sure now that the Parthenon was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world."
"Well, anyway, we were there."
"And it was a wonder we were there at all."
"So it was a wonder after all?" teased Nancy.
"Yeah," I said, holding my white cane. "It was another wonder."
by Karl Smith
Karl Smith has been an active member of the National Federation of the Blind for more than two decades. His life-long fascination with things celestial led him to purchase an advanced computerized telescope. With sparkle and excitement he tells us why. Here is what he has to say:
"If you don't mind me asking, what do you want with a telescope?" asked a somewhat perplexed salesman at a camera store where, last summer, I purchased an ETX-90 telescope. It seemed a reasonable question. After all, why does a totally blind man want a fairly expensive computerized astro-nomical telescope?
The answer to this question isn't as mysterious as it may seem. After all, people--sighted and blind--commonly buy things, even expensive things, they cannot personally use. How many parents, for example, buy a piano even though they don't play because they want their children to learn? I have purchased or leased several cars even though I have never been able to drive. I have a driver and other family members who do drive my cars. But why a telescope?
I have loved science ever since I can remember, especially astronomy and other subjects dealing with space and space travel. Growing up during the 1960's I, along with many others, watched spellbound as the American-Soviet space race unfolded. I spent many late nights and early mornings huddled next to our small black and white television watching what, by today's standards, would be considered extremely primitive coverage of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights. In July of 1969 in the screened-in breezeway of my grandparents' home in rural east Texas, I watched a grainy picture (that flickered into meaningless snow each time a log truck rumbled past on the highway in front of the house) as the first two humans walked on the surface of the moon.
It was about this time my mother gave me a small telescope for my birthday. I still had a little vision then, and the telescope opened the fascinating world of the night sky to me. Now, over even more late nights and early mornings, I set up my telescope and watched the moon through its phases and noted the changing shadows and shapes of the mountains and craters on its gray-brown surface. I got up at 4:00 a.m. to see Venus, still only a milky white sphere under the relatively low power of my telescope. I looked at the stars flickering blue, white, yellow, and red in the shimmering heat of summer evenings over Las Vegas where we lived, and pondered at the ever-mysterious ruddy red surface of Mars.
My telescope went on family trips, to the neighbors' houses, and to the school for the blind I attended in Utah, bringing many hours of pleasure to me and others wherever we were. Finally, the old telescope wore out and had to be retired. This, however, did not diminish my love of and continuing interest in the universe around me.
In 1978 I visited the NASA Space Flight Center in Houston, a long wished for childhood dream. And later that same year, while attending my first National Federation of the Blind convention in Baltimore, I had my first glimpse of the Smithsonian Aeronautics and Space Museum.
By the early '80's I had a family including two sighted children. Nineteen eighty-six was a special year in astronomical circles and was a year I had thought about and waited for since my boyhood. It was the year Halley's comet was scheduled to make its once in seventy-six-year return to the vicinity of the earth. I went out on a summer evening with my son Ben, age five at the time, to see if we could find it. I was very disappointed to find that the 1986 visit was one in which the comet was only barely visible even with binoculars. I joked that I would just have to live another seventy-six years until its next visit in 2062 when I would be one hundred and seven.
In the spring of the following year my family and some friends went camping in Idaho. It was here on a sparkling clear night that I had my first view, undimmed by city lights, of the Milky Way and finally understood the "spilled milk" descriptions I had always heard about its appearance.
This, as it turned out, would be the last time I would ever see this sight. In 1989 I lost the remainder of my residual vision, ending forever my ability to peer into the night sky. With the onset of total blindness I found other ways to satisfy my scientific curiosity. I read books on the subject, went with my children to museums (including more visits to the Smithsonian), and did whatever else I could to keep up with the unfolding wonders of scientific advancement.
When I learned that in the summer of 2003 the planet Mars would make its closest approach to Earth in recorded history, something that will not occur again for another 65,000 years, I decided that this was an event I didn't want my family to miss. So, I began looking for a good reliable telescope, settling on the ETX-90.
On August 31 my family, including my wife, three children (one age twenty and twins who are four), and my in-laws loaded into our van and drove out to Antelope Island (actually a peninsula in the Great Salt Lake) for a star party. Upon arriving we found hundreds of men, women, and children of all ages gathered around telescopes of all sizes and complexity, looking and wondering at the beauty above us. On that crystal clear summer night, away from any city lights, the sky was brilliantly alive.
And what could I glean from all of this? I obviously can no longer look through a telescope, so why make the investment in money and time to attend an event so clearly dependent on sight? Most of my family members have full or partial sight, so they could enjoy looking at Mars and other celestial sites visible that night. I enjoyed their excitement over and descriptions of what they saw. I lifted my two four-year-old girls up so they could see through the telescope, eliciting the wonder only young children seeing and learning things for the first time can show. We also shared the view with others as groups moved from telescope to telescope checking out the different views.
Toward the end of the evening I met Dave, a veteran stargazer and the owner of several telescopes including an ETX-90. One of the main features of this telescope is a computerized tracking system that includes the precise locations of over 30,000 celestial objects. When set-up properly one need only select an item from this database, press a button, and the telescope will automatically turn to point at the proper position in the sky. Then, driven by small electric motors, it will continue to keep the item in view as the earth rotates.
Try as we might we could not get this feature to work properly. Dave took the time to go over the process with my brother-in-law and me. It turned out that the software in the telescope's computer had been updated since the instruction manual was written, and the steps listed there were no longer valid. For nearly half an hour Dave talked and instructed, placing my hands on various parts of the telescope and its base to show me how and where they needed to be set.
Not once did he stop to wonder why he was showing a blind man how to aim a telescope. With the obvious love of his subject as his only guide I believe he understood. When we were finished he took out a small piece of paper and wrote down his name and phone number. "I'm out here every two weeks or so. If you have any questions or want to come out with me, just give me a call."
As my family climbed into our van just after midnight for the one-hour ride
home, I felt that I might just take him up on his offer.
OTHER KERNEL BOOKS
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
To Reach for the Stars
Lessons of the Earth
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...about our Braille Readers Are Leaders contest for blind schoolchildren,
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...about our scholarships for deserving blind college students.
...about NFB-NEWSLINE®, a free service that allows blind persons to read the newspaper over the telephone.
...about where to turn for accurate information about blindness and the abilities of the blind.
Most importantly, you can help us by sharing what you've learned about blindness in these pages with your family and friends. If you know anyone who needs assistance with the problems of blindness, please write:
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street, Suite 300
Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998
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A KERNEL BOOK published by NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Copyright © 2005 by the
National Federation of the Blind
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Posted: September 2005