Future Reflections May/June 1983, Vol. 2 No. 3

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LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL: AN ORIENTATION CENTER FOR THE BLIND

by John W. Smith

It was mid-March of 1978 and I was going through three of the most agonizing days of my life. It was the second semester of my freshman year at Grace College of the Bible in Omaha and I was beginning to think about the coming summer. Should I take summer school? If I did, how would I manage living alone in an apartment? What about going back home to get a part-time job at the local radio station -- something I wanted very much to do. But I didn't know how I'd even get around in town by myself. I had no idea how the streets ran. Not to mention I was unable to see well enough to cope with several tasks of a radio announcer. What would I do?

Of course, there was the option of going to the orientation center for the blind in Lincoln, Nebraska. My counselor had presented the idea to me at least two years before that. We had even visited the center once --and I hated the very idea of it! After all, I wasn't really blind--not totally anyway, and I spent ten years at the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped. Surely I could tough it out... or could I? I was up against a wall.

After much discussion with friends, inner turmoil and lots of prayer, there seemed to be no other alternative. I had known about, and was using, readers and texts on tape and had even sought a little home teaching for cane travel. But it just wasn't going to be enough. The years of hard nosed bluffing as a partially-sighted guy had come to an end. So, from May through December of 1978, I went through the orientation center in Lincoln. It was one of the most difficult and wearing seven months I had ever spent; yet it was also the most rewarding.

Most everyone at the center apartments had a roommate. But for my first six weeks, I had none. Since no one was there to constantly be a supportive friend, I fended for myself--the thing I feared most two months before. But I was away from home, and being among people who didn't know me (most were there to teach or learn the same things I was going through) allowed me to grow without the old fears and restrictions. Learning to travel and cook were essentials, since they were things I would use from then on. Learning Brille made me wish I had learned it in grade school at the school for the blind. So many of my attitudes were changing. I could begin to do things I had only dreamed of before, and blindness didn't have to be a barrier. What freedom!

Wearing sleepshades while learning was something I had previously despised with a passion. But once I was willing to pay whatever price it took to be an independent blind person, wearing shades was really a benefit. Nothing was as thrilling as traveling in downtown Lincoln alone -- something I had never done anywhere even without shades. Certainly I could do it now. Using power saws, routers and other tools to build a beautiful set of bookshelves in shop was truly an accomplishment for the guy who used to think alternative techniques were a sign of inferiority.

While in the center, I met students and staff who were members of the National Federation of the Blind --an organization with a philosophy I hated, until I discovered it was the same philosophy I thought I had already believed in. I mean, in the past, I had wished blindness were only a nuisance. Now I knew it didn't have to be more than that. I learned from, and did things with, people who have become my dearest friends.

When I began to see the effects of the public's misunderstandings about blindness in the lives of other blind people, it was hard not to be bitter. But I learned compassion from my fellow blind and have since sought to help improve the quality of life for us all. The avenue for such accomplishment is through the N.F.B. My wish is that other blind people have the same opportunity to grow as I have.

When I returned to college after my center training, friends were amazed at my new confidence and how much less I was dependent on them for help. In college, my roommate learned I was as much fun as anyone else. Often he helped answer questions others wouldn't ask. He did well, I might add.

In college, and at my job as a radio announcer today, I make use of both Braille and print. I'm still inclined to use my sight more than is best sometimes. That's only natural I suppose. But when sight is actually a hinderance, it's much easier now to think of more effective alternative techniques that don't require sight. Even today, where I live in Crete, Nebraska, I have had people ask why I need the long white cane, since I don't "look blind." Imagine that! That cane is one thing I thought would mark me most as a helpless, incompetent and abnormal person. But that was before I understood what blindness is about.

The fact is, I don't fear blindness or having to do some things a little differently than I would if I had sight. The key is to determine what method will be to my advantage. I did not hesitate to use readers in college. I live in an apartment now where I'm the only one who is going to do my cooking and cleaning. I don't have to wait to get married for my future wife to pamper me. At work, I'm responsible for announcing, recording commercials, and other things that require more of me than I could do by my limited sight alone.

Independence doesn't mean living out a one-man show, or being a leach disguised as a self-made individual. I've learned to accept help and friendship as never before --all because orientation center training and the National Federation of the Blind helped me be free from the old confining fears and myths about blindness. Blindness limits us only as much as we permit it to.

At the time John W. Smith submitted this article, he was single and working as a radio announcer in Crete, Nebraska. He is now married to a young woman he met while a student at Grace Bible. College and has made a major career change. He and wife Carol now live in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is employed as a rehabilitation teacher with Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM).

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