Future Reflections Winter 1992, Vol. 11 No. 1
(back) (contents) (next)
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BLIND:
IN OUR HEARTS AND IN OUR MINDS
[PICTURE] Olegario Cantos
[PICTURE] Melissa Lagroue
[PICTURE] Michael Gosse
From the Editor: Peggy Pinder, Second Vice President of the Federation and Chairman of the NFB Scholarship Committee, moderated the panel. Here is the way the discussion went:
Peggy Pinder: It is a humbling experience to have the opportunity to follow three such powerful, effective, and experienced speakers, and since I don't have to worry about that, I am sure that the panel participants are also very humbled. [Laughter] I think it is very fitting that we have had three long-time, effective, and capable leaders in the National Federation of the Blind—Barbara Pierce, Dr. Jernigan, and Jim Gashel--telling you about themselves and how they reflect on the blind child and the blind child's future.
We're lucky to have three students to balance those three leaders--three of our young leaders of the blind to serve on this panel, discussing "Blindness in Our Hearts and in Our Minds." As I have thought about these three panelists, it seems to me that there are three things they have in common: all three of them are blind; all three of them have achieved academic success and distinction (proved not only by their winning National Federation of the Blind scholarships, but also, as you will hear, being genuinely distinguished, capable, scholars in their chosen fields). That's the second thing they have in common--academic distinction and success in objective terms. The third thing is a commitment to change. It would seem that these last two are inconsistent. Why would they want to change if things are working for them now? Why change? Change what? And change to what? I think those are the questions that the panelists are here this morning to talk about.
I will begin by introducing to you one of this year's scholarship winners, Olegario Cantos from California. Ollie will be a senior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he is working on a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. Last year he was appointed to serve as vice president in charge of student services. He has an office as well as having his academic responsibilities. This coming academic year, he will be serving as executive vice president and chair of the Student Senate. That is an elected position. He was elected by his peers to serve, as he put it, "second in command of the students." He has also been serving and will continue to serve on the Legal Aid Foundation for the city of Los Angeles, and growing out of that and his other work, he was nominated for and has now been presented one of the outstanding youth awards that the city of Los Angeles grants.
In addition to these and other achievements that I won't go into, Ollie was also recently selected to serve on a jury. Jury service for blind people isn't common and isn't taken for granted. Most blind people called for such service are excused. Ollie was not excused. He was seated on the jury, and he was selected as the foreman. And in this criminal trial (being a former prosecutor I have to tell you the end of the story) the jury found the defendant guilty. With all of these credentials, as you can see, this is a gentleman who has made a success. Here is Ollie Cantos.
Olegario Cantos: When I was asked by Barbara Cheadle to speak about the National Federation of the Blind's changing what it means to be blind, I gave the topic a great deal of thought. How could I put this into words? Then I remembered a Chinese proverb that was given to me by my mentor Sharon Gold, President of the National Federation of the Blind of California. The proverb goes like this: "Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still." It was then I realized in looking back that coming to a deeper understanding of the reality of blindness was a result of a constant process of growth and change, and it is a process that will never end. I was born two months prematurely, being diagnosed as having retrolental fibroplasia. As a result I had no vision in my left eye and partial vision in my right. Since I did have some residual vision, all emphasis in my life in everything I did was placed on the use of that vision, and my attitudes were shaped accordingly.
I remember as a child what I thought about blindness. At first I did not know what blindness was. Then, as I grew older, I interacted with other children, children who happened to be fully sighted. They were allowed to run around, play tag, and use playground equipment. Though this was sometimes true in my case, there was a subtle difference. More often than with other children, I was either prevented from or discouraged from engaging in any vigorous activities. "Why can't I do things like everyone else?" I asked.
The reply was, "Well you can't see too well, and there are just some things that you can't do." This was in reference to vigorous activity. Gradually I acquired a misconception of myself, that I was inferior to the sighted, that having sight meant having ability, and that my lack of sight necessarily meant that I was not quite as capable as those with full visual capacity. By the same token, I also felt lucky. After all, I did have some vision, unlike totally blind people, who were unfortunate enough to be, I believed at that time, in need of constant care and special attention. Based upon this misconception about blindness, I often remarked, "Oh God, don't accuse me of being blind; I am not helpless." This was my philosophy about blindness--the philosophy of avoidance, and it affected every area of my life. It affected what I believed about certain issues, including Braille.
When I was in first grade, I was taught how to read and write print just as were children who were sighted. At first it was slow. We were all slow because reading and writing were still new to us, but soon a gap developed. This gap between their reading and writing speed and mine began to increase. In time fellow students became faster and faster in both reading and writing while I generally remained at the same level. In fourth grade something else happened. The print in the text books became smaller. In addition, the reading assignments were longer and more complex, requiring more time. Moreover, they were made more often than in the earlier grades.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. What was I to do? This material was really hard, and I had to find a way to deal with it. I thought that the most important factor was that I could read print, and I must do this at all costs so help me God, and that is what I did, for a while. I increased my use of adaptive devices such as magnifying glasses and closed circuit televisions, and, to some degree, it did work. However, there was a drawback. I could read at a maximum speed--and I tried very hard--of twenty words per minute for fifteen minutes at most. Yet I was very, very happy with this performance. After all, I managed to avoid having to learn Braille, which I believed was only for totally blind people and was a last resort if a person could not read one letter of print. This conviction was strengthened by my belief that Braille was bulky and slow. I thought, especially later in the light of various developments in equipment and technology, that Braille was obsolete.
My beliefs with regard to the use of Braille also affected my belief in the use of the long white cane, or of any cane for that matter. I vowed, "I don't need to carry a cane. I will never, never carry a cane; not until the day I die will I carry a cane." Why? Because I thought people would think I was helpless, because, after all, blind people are helpless. Since I was not helpless, I felt I was not blind. Since I was not blind, I did not need to carry a cane, and I refused. This was my stance, but I gave little consideration to the fact that I got into more accidents than did the average sighted person, and this was not due to clumsiness. Literally, I fell down steps, tripped over curbs, and otherwise bumped into obstacles in my way that I could easily have avoided by simply walking around them. To justify this state of affairs, I said, "Well, I don't get into accidents that often, not that often." But I did not ask myself why I should get into any accidents at all.
Then I found the National Federation of the Blind, and I attended my first national convention last year. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time, for the very first time, I gained a full sense of who and what I was, and I know who and what I am. I am a person who happens to be blind, equal in every way. I am equal in capability and competence. We are neither tragically deprived nor wondrously gifted. Rather we are equal to the sighted except in not having the physical ability to see. I now know, because of the National Federation of the Blind, that the obstacles that we as blind people face do not come from blindness itself but rather from prevailing public attitudes. The reality is that, given the proper training in basic skills and the opportunity to succeed, we will be able to compete with the sighted on terms of full equality. If only my parents had known back then what they know now, if only they had had within them the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, things would have been so different in my life. They would have fought for me to learn Braille. They would have made sure that I was well versed in cane travel. Most important, they would have known that it is respectable to be blind.
After last year, when I returned from the convention, I knew that I had a challenge ahead of me, that of telling my parents about the new philosophy I had found. So when I walked in the door carrying a long white cane for the very first time, they said it was the most pitiful state in which they had ever seen me. "You have never carried a cane in your life; why do you need one now? After all, you haven't been getting into that many accidents, and even if you were to get into some, at least you weren't carrying a cane." I asked them what was wrong with carrying a cane. They said, "If you carry a cane, don't you understand, people will think you are blind."
I said, "So people think that I am blind."
They said, "But don't you see that if people think you are blind, they'll think that you are helpless." Thus raged the battle. It got to the point of a heated argument. One of them said, "If you carry that thing when you are with me in public, I will not acknowledge that I know you." Later we had a discussion about Braille. I told my parents that I was going to learn it. They responded that Braille was just for totally blind people. "I don't want anyone to know that you are blind."
I said, "Look, all my life I have sacrificed efficiency because I had to read print, and look where it has gotten me. I have done well enough, but I could have done better."
"Well," they said, "We are not going to budge." I said that I would not budge either. They thought they wouldn't, but they did. They budged, and in time they grew to understand and to see, especially my mother. When she returned from the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of California in November, she said, "Look Ollie, you better make sure to learn all that Braille, and learn it fast. I am watching you. Make sure to carry your cane at all times." I am proud to say, ladies and gentlemen--and believe me that last year I would not have dreamed this would happen--but I am proud to say that they are here at this meeting today. Mom and Dad, where are you? Stand up. [Applause]
This is illustrative of the way that each of us has the power to touch the lives of everyone else. We must persevere. What often happens--many of you may have had this experience--is that school districts may resist or completely refuse to give Braille instruction to your children. They may refuse to teach your child how to use the long white cane or any cane. Remain persistent, because when they see that you mean business, when they see that we as an organization mean business, they will at least listen. When they listen, they will begin to learn. When they learn, they will begin to transform their newly acquired knowledge into actions in their own lives. Once that happens, a ripple effect occurs. One person affects a few, who affect a few more, who affect a few more, who affect countless others. Can one person change the world? Yes indeed.
One year ago, I attended the convention of the National Federation of the Blind not knowing one character of Braille. I can say with pride today that I am increasingly making Braille an integral part of my life. In fact, the speech that I have given to you today was the result of Braille notes right here. [Applause] And July 2, 1991, will mark the very first anniversary of my use of the long white cane, and I know who I am, and I will never go back. [Applause]
It has been said that the National Federation of the Blind changes what it means to be blind, but what should it mean to be blind? It means that your blind children have the right to learn how to read Braille alongside sighted children who are learning to read print. [Applause] It means that your child has the right to carry and to learn to use the long white cane so that he or she can travel independently in society. It means that some day, when your children grow up to be the leaders of tomorrow, they will apply for jobs and be considered on the basis of their abilities and not be victims of discrimination. It means, ladies and gentlemen, that finally, some day, we will all walk down the streets knowing that we have been accepted by society as the first-class citizens we are. This is our motivation. This is our drive. This is why we have the Parents Division. This is why we have the National Federation of the Blind. May we remember always to grow and never to stop, and may the future be brighter for your children and for your children's children. Thank you.
Peggy Pinder: You can see that this gentleman will be a long-time leader of the National Federation of the Blind.
We go now to our next panelist, who won her National Federation of the Blind scholarship in 1988. Melissa Lagroue will be a senior next fall at Birmingham Southern College, where she is earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education. During her college years Melissa has faced what many blind people have, one way or another--discrimination based on blindness. This last academic year Melissa, who is in process of doing the course work and student teaching to become a credentialed teacher in Alabama, was told by the Education Department that her application for teaching credentials was going to be reviewed. The professor who told her this believed that, as a blind person, she could not be a teacher and should be removed completely from the Department of Education. Melissa didn't agree. She responded, and through not only her strong efforts and advocacy, not only through her contacts with the National Federation of the Blind and the resources and encouragement she drew on here, but also from other professors on the Education Department faculty who were convinced that Melissa could and would be a teacher, Melissa, was victorious. She will remain in the Department of Education and will earn her degree and her teaching credential.
In addition to Melissa's work, she also does other things such as volunteering to teach non-English speakers English. She volunteers a great deal of time to the National Federation of the Blind itself. She serves as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama Student Division and has worked hard to organize student divisions in other states. She has also worked on the very, very difficult question of standardized testing for blind people, which is a difficult issue. Through her work and that of others in recent years, some day blind people will be able to take standardized tests with valid scores, exactly as do sighted students.
Finally, I'd like to mention something else about Melissa, which some of you may not know. Not long ago Melissa came to New Orleans for another purpose. She heard and accepted a marriage proposal from John Williamson. So New Orleans has meaning for Melissa beyond the NFB convention, and I want you to join me in congratulating as well as welcoming Melissa Lagroue.
Melissa Lagroue: Why have you come? Why are you here? What can the Federation do for you, and most important, what can the Federation do for your kids? A lot! When I came to the National Federation of the Blind convention in 1988, which was my first convention and my first exposure to the National Federation of the Blind, I had some really nifty ideas about blindness. I thought all blind people should know Braille. I thought that some blind people should use canes. And I thought that a few blind people could succeed and be competent. I was wrong. Of course, blind people should use Braille; that we know is true. But let's talk a little about the cane.
I started out in first or second grade--I lost my sight when I was six--using Braille. That was fine. I understood that. I even thought it was equal to print, and all was well and right with that. Then my mother said, "You really ought to use a cane. You go around holding people's hands, and that is not going to do very well for you in junior high and high school." I said, "No, there's no way."
What my mother didn't do was to shove a cane into my hand and tell me to "use it or you will not get where you want to go." What she did was to hold my hand and lead me around. What I did was hold on to people all the way through high school. It was a great way to meet guys, I thought. [Laughter] I can tell you that I didn't meet John that way.
Let me say some other things about blind people's succeeding. I applied for a National Federation of the Blind scholarship, and I thought, "There's no way I won't get one. Blind people aren't competent; they're not making the grades that I am. They are not out there doing the extracurriculars that I am doing. There's no way that I won't get one." Well I did get one, actually, and I came to the convention thinking, "Hah, this is going to be a cinch; this is not going to be a problem." As some of you know, the Student Division conducts a poker-a-thon, where you can go and play cards. That was going on the first night when I came to the convention for the first time. I went over and found that place, using my munchkin cane that came up to here, and I found the place. I thought, "This is where I am supposed to be, and now I can meet all of these dorky blind people." That's honestly what I thought. I walked in and met people who are today some of my best friends. It was amazing to me because, you see, the only blind people I had ever known were those guys that didn't have the training they needed, that didn't have the skills they needed, that didn't have highly qualified, competent role models from the very beginning to show them that they could be more than society thought they could be. Those were the guys that I knew. Those were the guys that I refused to associate with.
When I first came to a National Federation of the Blind convention, I thought, "They're making me come because they want to look at me. I don't want to be around these blind people, so I'll come, and I'll get the money, and I'll leave, and I'll never think of the National Federation of the Blind again." That was three years ago; this is my fourth convention.
That's what I thought, and that's what I believed. But I've learned something different now. You see, I was academically successful; I did a lot of extracurriculars; I was a debater, a drama person wandering around the stage. I thought that was neat, but where I was not successful was in my own personal attitudes towards blindness. I didn't think that it was respectable to be blind. I thought it was embarrassing to be blind. I thought that it was horrible to get up in front of a whole group of people, holding a white cane, for instance. I thought that the white cane was this huge signpost that said, "You are blind," and as Ollie would say, "You are helpless." He is right; that's where a lot of us are coming from.
His experience was different from mine; he didn't get the skills. I got the skills. I got the opportunity to get more skills than I did because my parents knew that blind people could do stuff; they just didn't quite know what. Before I went to my first convention, I told my parents that I had to go because these ridiculous people wanted me to, and why didn't they just give me the money? They said, "To that organization? They are so militant; they are so obnoxious! We hear that they have a guy who stands out on the runway in front of airplanes." [Laughter] Well, times have changed since then, and my parents' ideas are a little more positive about the National Federation of the Blind, as are the ideas of some other parents we know.
But what you can get is something that I never got. What you can give to your children is something my parents couldn't give to me. It is going to take some strength on your part. You're going to have to make your child sit down and learn Braille. There's no question about it. You're going to have to sit down and hand your child a cane and talk to him about the merits of cane travel, why it is necessary. Then, when he throws the cane down and refuses to use it, you're going to have to leave him. I don't quite mean literally standing in the middle of a shopping mall, but if it takes walking away from your child to make him pick up that cane and get where he needs to go, then you'll have to do it. If you don't, your child will be hanging on to people all the way through high school.
In some ways, I feel I am preaching to the choir because you guys are here, but this is why you need to bring more people with you. Their kids are going to be hanging on to people, let me tell you. Do you want to know one of the most uncomfortable situations you can be in? It is going out on a date with someone and not being able to get to the bathroom by yourself. Can you imagine walking up to your date and saying, "Excuse me, could you take me to the bathroom? And while I am in there bumbling around, trying to find where to go, could you please stand outside the door and wait for me?" It is not a pleasant experience. I speak as one who knows. I've done it. You do all sorts of stupid things to try to hide your blindness.
You can also teach your kids philosophically. You can teach them that it is respectable to be blind. How can you do that? By providing them with the role models that we have in the Federation. We have some incredible people running around here--some awfully successful people and some awfully fun people. That's what it comes down to. I always thought that blind people were boring. They didn't succeed and weren't fun, and I found out that I was wrong. You need to sit down with your kids and talk to them about blindness. There are going to be some pretty painful and uncomfortable times.
This is something else that my parents didn't do because they didn't know they needed to. I was seventeen years old, and I was sitting down with my father, who was teaching me how to sign my name. That hurt. As you know, when you are in first or second grade, you learned how to sign your name. Everybody else does. When you are sighted, you do it that way. I didn't. I was seventeen years old, scribbling out M, E loops over, L is a little taller, I--that's a straight line; and I couldn't do it, I couldn't make it legible. That was one of the hard times, and my mother couldn't do it. She just did not have the heart to do it. She sat down and said, "I can't do this; it hurts me that you are blind right now." That may sound strange, yet it might hit home.
Remember, get done early what you can do. Teach Braille early. Make sure your child learns how to sign his or her name early. Get the cane in your child's hands. Make sure that the skills your child needs will be taught. Make sure that the philosophical attitudes are there. I remember going to EPCOT in high school when I didn't use a cane. I held on to my mother, and we got to go to the front of the line. I would die before I would do that now, but I didn't know any better at the time. I did not think about tomorrow, but you have to. I suppose there are things now that I do that many people don't understand. There are privileges I don't accept now, and people don't know why I don't. You have got to teach your kids not to take what they don't need. You have got to teach yourself not to allow them to take what they don't need. You must provide them with the role models. You can tell them why they shouldn't take what they don't need. Explaining takes a lot of patience. It took a lot of tears on the part of my parents anyway. But you can do it; I know you can, and with the Federation's help you will.
Peggy Pinder: Our final panelist is Michael Gosse from Connecticut. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of electrical engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Michael was a 1985 scholarship winner. He will receive his Ph.D. in the spring of 1992. His area of expertise, and the subject of his thesis, is data transmission through the use of microwaves, and he tells me that his concentration is in the area of stability, which he says is not an obvious thing to want. I am not sure I agree with him. [Laughter] He has also published on the topic "Monolithic up-converters"--just in case any of you were wondering about the topic of his published works thus far. Michael has also experienced, as has Melissa, that blatant kind of discrimination that a blind person can face, you never know when. In the course of his work towards his Ph.D., Michael has served as a teaching assistant, as many Ph.D. candidates do. We will shortly get a sample of his classroom manner. But in the course of his studies, he sought at one point to become an instructor of nuclear physics not only to civilians but also to Navy classes. Now the United States Navy categorizes its instructors in nuclear physics as combat-ready personnel. And since they are, they cannot be blind people. Michael could not be the teacher since they'd have to commission him as an officer and treat him as a combat-ready person. Now the logic of that argument has always escaped me. I think it escaped Michael, and I think that some day one of the things we need to accomplish is acceptance of the notion that our blind men and women want to serve our country in its armed services just as other people do. While combat may not be an option for blind people, there are a great many things in the armed services that blind people can do. Michael also writes poetry. He is a triathlon competitor, and the longest one he has completed is thirty-two miles of consecutive swimming, running, and biking, which makes me tired even to think about. Here, for our final panel presentation, is not only the person I have already described to you but somebody who, since 1985, has shown a great deal of dedication and increasing commitment to the National Federation of the Blind and who was recently elected by the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut to serve as its president: Michael Gosse.
Michael Gosse: Before I start, I just want to point out that our first speaker, Ollie, is a 1991 scholarship winner and that our second speaker, Melissa, was an '88 winner and I was an '85 winner. I love patterns; three years separate each of us. I love that sort of thing. [Laughter] I could go into patterns, but I won't. Next Monday I am going to be teaching my first course ever, as a professor, and I'll walk into the classroom, and lay down the rules of the course as every professor does, and I will also make the students aware of the fact that I am blind. After giving my little speech--raising your hand won't do you much good in my class--I'll pick up a piece of chalk and start writing my equations all over the blackboard. That will confuse a lot of people, not the stuff I will be writing, although that will confuse them some, but just the fact that I am writing on the blackboard when I just finished telling them I was blind. Whether I had joined the National Federation of the Blind or not, I would probably have told the class that I was blind, because when I was little my parents made it clear to me that there was nothing wrong with it. And I didn't know any other blind people or any of the stereotypes. I was kind of a sheltered child. If I didn't have to read it, I didn't read it. There was never any information about blindness coming to me other than my parents' telling me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, so I didn't know that the stereotypical blind person stood on the street corner and sold pencils. I had none of that in me, so I wasn't afraid to admit to anybody that I was blind.
My parents did a very good job teaching me that achievement was something that you did for yourself and that you had to get around other people to do it sometimes but it was up to you. And that was the early lesson of childhood when I was still under their guidance. But later on when I started to want to do things that interested me, I would occasionally run into "Well you can't do that."
"Because you are blind."
"But that doesn't make sense; that's not what you taught me when I was little." Blindness at that stage of my life, say around nine to twelve, started becoming an excuse, not for me, but for them. If I didn't succeed in something, the question was raised, "Does this have something to do with your vision?" And that used to annoy me a lot. I used to cry when they did that.
I remember French class and getting a progress report, which meant you weren't doing well. That didn't surprise me at all because I knew I wasn't doing well, but it surprised my parents. So they sat me down, and we had this long discussion. "Do you think it's because of your vision?" That made me very upset, and I said to them something along the lines of "Why can't I just fail like everybody else can?" It was just French; it wasn't anything to do with my lack of intelligence, or whatnot. I just didn't like French, and I didn't want to do well in French, didn't care about French. But it was obvious to me that, if I had really wanted to, I could have done well in French because, after all, I was doing well in history and things like that, and French wasn't all that different, so it couldn't be my vision. I wasn't going to let them get away with that.
They did that throughout my high school career, and at that point I started looking for an identity. I didn't have one. Before I was fine; I was legally blind. I could explain that to people and what it meant to me, but as my parents started compartmentalizing me--"Well are you not able to do this because you are blind?"—I started thinking that maybe I shouldn't be blind. Maybe I should be sighted. And I can probably go through my life as a sighted person and use the excuse occasionally that I can't do that because I can't see too well, but not let people know that I am blind. I could probably do that. But that's not the identity I want.
Like Melissa, in my college years I got an application for an NFB scholarship. One of the scholarships was specifically for scientists, lawyers, engineers, and so forth; and I figured, "How many engineers can there be in the country who are blind, come on? I'll apply and win this scholarship." But unlike Melissa, I didn't win the first time I applied, but I went to a convention and found out quickly why I hadn't won. [Laughter] There are people like Melissa and Ollie running around doing very well, and I was doing well but hadn't really come to terms with my identity.
Also, occasionally you run into a little discrimination. And even though you can step around it as an individual maybe, that doesn't sit well with me. I can't just think of myself. If I thought only of myself, what kind of teacher would I be? I would go in and teach my class for an hour and say well if you didn't catch it then you wouldn't catch it any time. Or I could give myself a little more room and help other people at the same time as I am helping myself. When I was seven or eight, we started doing phonics. I don't know if people in the audience know what phonics is or not or if it has gone out of style. I thought it was out of style then. It was, learn how to say the words properly and then you can learn how to spell them properly. Well, I didn't want to do phonics, so I told my parents that I couldn't read the phonics workbook. They said, "Okay, you don't have to do phonics."
The teacher said, "Okay, you don't have to do phonics." When I was in high school, I had a fifth-grade spelling level, and it is all because parents and teachers listened to a seven- or eight-year-old kid lie to them, frankly lie to them; and they didn't think "We'll have to find another way." That's what you as parents always have to keep in mind; you have to find another way. There is always another way; there's always a solution. That's what engineers like to think anyway. There is always something we can rig up, something to make things work. Good old Star Trek's Scotty would never give up, right? [Laughter]
I remember my first convention; it was actually a state convention in Connecticut. I walked into that room knowing that I was a finalist for a state scholarship, and I met other blind people for the first time. I realized that you could get blinder than I was, which should have occurred to me before then. They were doing all sorts of things. Throughout the morning, hearing them speak, I could see that this was my identity. In each one of these people--that is how I thought of them then, these people—there was a part of me. There was something I could identify with in each one of them. I didn't need to look for the part of me to identify with the sighted community because there were plenty of people like me. But I could identify with each of these blind people, with some experience. When I heard them speak and I heard them say that blind people can do this and blind people can do that, I knew they were right, right then, and so I decided to join. But I didn't decide to get involved; they decided that for me. [Laughter] But it was finally walking into a room and having people understand me that was significant. I think that the worst thing a blind child can do is grow up isolated from other blind children or other blind people. I made do when I was a child and made up my own rules and regulations about blindness. I was so naive; I really was. I was eighteen years old, I think, when I had my first itinerant teacher who was blind, and he was a special blind person. He must have been really rich because he had a driver. [Laughter] I was eighteen years old, and I didn't figure out that the state was paying for his driver. I thought it was really cool, though, and I wanted one. [Laughter]
In my freshman year of college, I took a lot of flack from the chemistry teacher, who didn't want me in her lab. I was a hazard. I had gone through two years of high school chemistry (one extra year, including independent research), so I knew I could go into her lab and could perform any experiment she wanted me to. She allowed me in after I talked her into it, and it is a two-semester course. Halfway through the second semester, after I had been doing my lab work for a semester and a half, she comes in and stands next to me at my lab bench and says, "Can I help you do that?"
I said, "sure." What we were doing was taking stranded pieces of copper and wrapping them around a piece of zinc and sticking it into a tube. So I let her do that for me--wadding up the copper and shoving it in the tube. Then while she was standing there, I made sure that I carefully measured out all the necessary acids to pour into this tube on top of this wadded piece of copper and perform the rest of the experiment.
She said, "Wow, you can actually do this, can't you?"
I said, "No, I've been faking it for a semester and a half." It turned out, and this shocked me a great deal, that she had a fourteen-year-old son, who was legally blind. Just imagine, if she didn't think I could wad up a piece of copper and put it into a tube, what does she think her son can do? That's why you have to get involved and do something. Thanks.
Peggy Pinder: Listening to our three panelists, I have heard something, and I hope you have heard it too. I've heard all of them say in their own ways that they are responsible for their own competence, that they are responsible for the skills by which they do things and the attitudes that form those skills. They are responsible for their competence, and they are proud of the competence that they have. I've heard them say that, but I have also heard them say something else, and I want to join with them. In each of their own ways they've said to you, join with us. Become a part of us. That's partly where the competence comes from. That is where the pride comes from, and that is where the change comes. Change what? Change the notions of incompetence, change the fact that we can't do some things unless we get a different skill and a different attitude about it. Change the old notion of blindness as helplessness, which each one of these people held, and so did I. Change that. Change it to the pride and competence, and change it through the National Federation of the Blind. So I join with them in inviting you to join with us to change what it means to be blind.
(back) (contents) (next)