Future Reflections Convention 1994, Vol. 13 No. 4
by Peggy Pinder Elliott and Barbara Cheadle
[PICTURE] Peggy Pinder Elliott
[PICTURE] Barbara Cheadle
From the Editor: One of the presentations given at the daylong seminar for parents of blind children at the 1994 NFB National Convention was entitled "Readers and Drivers: The Other Alternative Techniques of Blindness." For this presentation Peggy Elliott and I teamed up for a lively discussion from two viewpoints: the blind person who uses readers and drivers and the sighted person who provides the service. (Peggy is a blind attorney, the Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, and the President of the NFB of Iowa. I am the editor of Future Reflections, President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, and the sighted parent of a sixteen-year-old blind son.) However, everyone quickly discovered these differences were only superficial. Since both speakers operate from the same philosophy about blindness, we arrived quite naturally at complementary conclusions about what parents and blind kids needed most to know about these "other" alternative techniques of blindness.
The following article is an expansion and a refinement of this discussion held between Peggy and me at the parents' seminar. After looking at the transcript, both of us wanted to flesh out some ideas we had time to mention only in passing at the seminar. We also agreed upon a slightly different title. Here, then, is what Peggy Elliott and I have to say about "Of Readers, Drivers, and Responsibility."
PEGGY PINDER ELLIOTT:
I get to talk today specifically about readers and drivers. But these are really only subparts of a much more general topic-alternative techniques. I've heard some of today's session already, and lots of people have used the term "alternative techniques." Let me give you an example which I think will give more body to this concept and will help you better understand my comments today about how readers and drivers function (or should function) for blind persons.
When I talk to school children about blindness-as I often do-I tell them I'm going to talk about alternative techniques such as Braille. Of course, they think this is interesting. I tell them that Braille's the same as print; they are alternatives to each other. Now, when you're talking with second-, third-, or even fourth-graders this concept is a bit of a reach for them, so I use an example. Here's what I say. I ask the children if their moms have a place in the kitchen where they keep cookies. The kids usually giggle and say, "Yeah." "Do they know where that is?" I ask. Yes, they know where mom keeps the cookies. Then I ask them if mom can reach the cookies easily just by standing on the floor. They say, "Oh, yeah, of course. She can reach them just standing on the floor." I say, "Can you reach the cookies standing on the floor?" "No!, uh uh. We're not supposed to get in the cookies." "Do you know a way, when mom's not in the kitchen, that you can get to those cookies?" They always giggle and tell me several various methods (usually involving counters and stools) that they have figured out for getting to those cookies. So I say, "Now, see, your mom's taller than you so she can reach the cookies by standing on the floor. But you can still reach the cookies by using an `alternative technique.' The point is, you get the cookies, right?" Anyway, kids always like this subject, so I have found it to be a good way of explaining about alternative techniques. What I stress to the kids is that it isn't really so important how you do it (get the cookies); the important thing is to get it done.
As parents of blind children you need to be concerned with making sure that your children learn techniques and approaches which they can use throughout their lifetime so they can get it-whatever "it" is-done. Today, I'm going to help you with this job. I'm going to give you some pointers on what to teach your child about using readers and drivers. First I'm going to talk about what we-blind adults-do with readers and drivers.
We all know about the ADA-Americans with Disabilities Act. We all know about the Braille literacy laws we have passed. We know there are lots of sources of reading material in the alternative media (such as Braille and tapes) used by the blind. But, despite all this, I will tell you flat out that it is not possible for all printed or written material to ever be simultaneously available in an alternative medium accessible to the blind. It is just not going to happen. For example, in my own practice (I'm a lawyer) I get a lot of stuff in handwriting. This type of material will never be readily accessible in my lifetime or even the lifetime of your children in any way other than through the use of a reader.
A reader, by the way, is a sighted person who conveys to you-the blind individual-the visual information that's on a piece of paper. Every blind person needs to be able to use readers as one way of getting information. This is true for students in college, and it's true for blind people in most any job. Therefore, it's important to keep in mind that readers are going to be a part of any blind person's life. I remind college students of this all the time. I was talking just the other day to someone who was complaining about not getting a book in time for the beginning of a class. (It happened to be a college student, but it could have been a high school student.) I told the student that when they get a job the employer will not be responsible for details such as this. The blind person is. They will not be able to walk into the employer's office and say, "You have to provide me with this or that." The blind employee has to be able to walk into that office and say to the employer, "Tell me what I can do for you and by when you need it done." The use of readers makes it possible for blind persons to have the flexibility needed to take on this responsibility. So understanding readers and how to use them is an important technique that you-the parents-need to be planning to help your children learn to use.
Readers, in my view, are (as I once said to the consternation of some of my readers) information acquisition tools. Some readers find this description a bit cold. I do not intend to be cold, but information acquisition is my goal when I use a reader-not friendship, or companionship, or anything else. The fact that the information is acquired through the use of another human being instead of through Braille, a tape recorder, or some other tool or device in no way changes the fact that I am using an alternative to get information others would get with their eyes. I think it's important for all concerned to understand that the sighted reader is first and foremost an information acquisition tool for a blind person.
Most blind adults pay for readers. You simply cannot get readers on a regular basis in college, in an employment situation, or even for your personal affairs if you don't pay them. This makes reading an employer/employee relationship. The reading is then a service, not a favor, to the blind person. The blind person needs to understand this and teach it to the reader. Reading is a service that's being provided. It's something I need. It's something for which I'm willing to pay. It is not a favor.
The most important and fundamental responsibility of the blind person in a reader relationship is to be in charge and to make all the decisions as to what is read. This is easy to say but sometimes hard to implement. Sighted persons who are new to reading often want to tell the blind person what they think needs to be read-not what the blind person really wants to know-but what the sighted person finds of interest. Therefore, when using an information acquisition tool that happens to be human-a reader-the blind person has to be very clear that he or she is the one making the decisions and furthermore needs to convey this politely and firmly to the reader.
I was a prosecutor when I first came out of law school. Most of the material that came across my desk was generated that day. There was no way that I could get at that material without having a sighted reader under my direction to read to me what I needed to know. On the other hand, I would never get anything else done if I did not know when to tell the reader to stop reading. There's a lot of material that people will hand you these days that you don't need. A blind person needs to know how to acquire and analyze material quickly regardless of whether the information is accessed through their own hands (Braille) or through another person (a reader).
The first thing-and this is very important-that a blind child needs to learn is that using readers is okay. It is one of the many appropriate alternative techniques they will be using throughout life. Using Braille is okay. Using tapes is okay. Using readers is okay. A high school principal came to me once in consternation. She said that because she couldn't get a certain book in Braille for a blind student on time, the student was excused from doing a book report. I landed on that principal with both feet! I said "Why did the student get out of doing the book report? Don't you provide readers to the student as an alterative when the book isn't available? Have you ever given the student experience in using a reader?" The principal was surprised. She had never thought about that student's need to learn how to use readers. She didn't think of readers as being an appropriate alternative technique. Well, they are. Obviously, the child first needs to know how to read and write-to be literate. But once that stage is achieved and the child has solid Braille skills, the next stage includes using tapes and using readers.
How can you teach your child to use readers? For one thing, you can build it into the IEP when the child gets older (junior high or middle school). Determine in advance that certain material in certain classes will be read with readers. Research papers utilizing reference material and other books from the library are good projects for reader use. Get the student involved in this procedure. They need to play an active part in all the decisions regarding reader usage. Parents, the student's Braille teacher, or blind adult role models can then conduct some reader training sessions with the student. Use a book the student has used and with which he or she is familiar. Ask the student to decide what it is they want read, then teach them how to give oral instruction to move a reader through the printed material. You may even want to do a role reversal. Have the student be the reader with his or her Braille text, and you do the directing.
The important thing to remember is not to help the student too much. In fact, you may want to make a distinction between your "teacher/reader" role and your "reader only" role. As a "teacher/reader" you will interrupt and make suggestions as your child practices directing you in reading. You may also discuss the layout and contents of the book, illustrations, and so forth. But in your role as a reader, you will only read what you are directed to read and you will not make comments or judgments about what you are asked to read or not read. Nor will you give information from the material which you have not been asked to provide (descriptions of pictures or illustrations; information about appendices, bibliographies, etc.)
It can be extremely difficult to do, but if the student does not ask you to read something, keep your mouth shut. Do not read anything except what you have been directed to read. Conversely, if the student asks you to read material you think is unnecessary, don't make any comments or judgments; just read. The student must learn to be in charge and to accept the consequences of decisions, including mistakes. Besides, you will find even in the early stages that your child will often be right and you will be wrong. Even if you are very familiar with the subject matter, they know more about the class, the teacher, and the teacher's expectations than do you. Remember, in this situation you are a reader-not a tutor, not a parent, not a teacher, not a mentor, not a friend-but a reader only. Be sure that others who read for your child understand this. You may, as the parent, have to be aggressive in insisting that those who read for your child follow these rules.
This is especially true since it is more common for blind children and youth to have volunteer readers as opposed to paid readers. Also, readers are more likely, at this stage, to be selected by someone-parents, teachers, etc.-other than the student. These circumstances combined with the youth and inexperience of the student tend to blur the issue of who is in control, who is making the decisions. The primary motivation of those who are paid for a service is clear-money. The connection between keeping their job and following the rules laid down by the student is also clear. The motivation for a volunteer is somewhat different. They want to help a blind person; maybe they are even friends with the student. Such volunteers tend to think of themselves more as partners than employees receiving instructions. This situation requires more delicacy and tact if the blind student is to remain in control but still keep a reader happy and motivated to continue reading.
If, however, a reader is a paid employee of the school, such as a teacher's aide, the student may still have a problem. Because the child is young and is a student, both reader and student may assume that the reader is automatically in charge by virtue of age and status as a school employee. If a reader under these circumstances refuses to follow the directions of the student, the parent or the Braille teacher, or both, must insist that the reader be replaced with someone who will cooperate.
Usually members of one's own family are a student's first readers. This can work well as long as the principle is established and followed that the student is in charge of the reading. However, if siblings are required to read, then there needs to be a trade-off. Siblings need to feel that they get something out of this arrangement, too. Maybe they will be paid (if so, then the blind student needs an equal opportunity for work for which they may be paid), or maybe an exchange of services can be made between the blind student and sighted sibling. For example, one student allowed his older sibling to read his taped books from the Library for the Blind in exchange for reading services.
Whatever the circumstances, the objective is always the same: for the blind students to get the printed information they want-not what someone else thinks they should have.
With regard to drivers the framework of analysis is essentially the same. I can repeat exactly what I said with this slight change: the objective is not to get information, of course, but to get somewhere. Because blind children will not become drivers when they grow up, they have a need to integrate into their life pattern a plan for other people to drive them. They will not have the option of picking up the keys and jumping into the car whenever they need to go somewhere. This will be irritating and a nuisance, but let me tell you something; it's okay. There are appropriate alternatives and they do work. It helps, though, if you understand the options, if you train your kids to know how to handle the alternatives, and if you let them know that these alternatives are okay.
Again, you must remember that if you are using paid drivers these drivers are not doing you a favor. The drivers are supposed to do what you tell them to do, and be where you say you want them when you want them. You have to learn to plan ahead when you're dealing with drivers. If you have to get to the airport you do not want to call someone at the last minute and hope they will do you a favor and get you there on time. You've got to be sure that your drivers will show up when you need them. Therefore, you must approach using a driver as a service which you plan and direct and for which you are willing to pay.
The two major issues involved in planning the use of drivers is scheduling and routing. Since scheduling is something you work on with all kids, the scheduling of driver service need not be approached any differently; the same principles apply. But what about routing? A blind student has planned ahead and arranged for driver service to an event. The driver arrives, the student gets into the car, then what? Who sets the itinerary? Who decides the route to and from the destination? Well, when I'm in the car and have hired the driver, I set the itinerary and I decide the route. How do I know the route? If I have never been to the place before, I get directions in advance just as anyone else would do. This surprises many people because the tendency is for the sighted person to just take over and do this. They don't expect the blind person to be aware of their surroundings and capable of giving directions. And, sadly, many blind people can't because they never learned to do so or ever realized that it is possible to do so.
Parents can play very active roles in preparing blind youth to learn driving routes and to learn how to give directions to drivers. One method I would recommend very strongly is emulating a driver. Try, for example, a trip to the supermarket. Get in the car with your youngster, get behind the wheel, than say "Okay, where do we go?" Now, your kid might try to be smart and say "To the supermarket," but don't buy it. Demand specific instructions for every turn. When you back out of the driveway, do you turn right or left? (Which raises another interesting travel problem for your child: what does right or left mean when you're going in reverse as opposed to going forward in a vehicle?). How many blocks do you travel before you turn? Which direction do you turn? Is there a light or a stop sign at the turn? Are there any landmarks-buildings, signs, etc.-to which the driver should be alert? It may take you a couple of hours the first time you try this, but there's no better way for your kid to learn. So you might as well not plan to buy milk that first time. You may not even get there the first time you try this, but that's okay. The best thing you can do for your child is give him or her your time so they will have opportunities such as this to learn by doing. They need time and encouragement to do things on their own, to make mistakes and learn from them. And they need to know, from you, that this is an okay way to learn. In the driving situation, just as in the reader situation, sighted people will unconsciously just take over. Your child needs to have the training and confidence to resist this and know how to take charge of the situation.
After you've done this, go back and talk to your child about concepts he or she may have missed. Do they know what a block is? Do they know how streets intersect, and about parallel and perpendicular traffic? Do they know the cardinal directions-east, west, north, and south? Are they familiar with traffic patterns: one way streets, multiple lanes, right turns on red, left-turn-only lanes, 4-way stop signs, speed limits, and so forth? This doesn't have to be hard to learn, nor does it have to be learned only in mobility class. Have your kid sit up front with you when you drive and talk with them about these traffic patterns as you encounter them. Talk out loud about what you see when you drive.
How about maps? Does your child know how to use maps? Kids need to have maps and learn how to use maps. They don't always have to be great maps. You can use table utensils and napkins to make simple maps which show how streets intersect to make blocks.
After your kid has some success in directing you as a driver, branch out to other family members, relatives, friends, and volunteers. Give your kids the chance to learn how to direct a lot of different people as drivers. When they become adults and are finally out on their own, they'll be able to get where they want to go because you gave them many opportunities to learn and practice these skills when they were young.
My experiences in driving and reading have been as a volunteer within the National Federation of the Blind. Reading and driving have been a part of what I have contributed to the organization. In fact, I have never been a paid driver or reader for anyone. I first joined the NFB as a member of the local chapter in Omaha, Nebraska.I was sighted, my husband was sighted, and we owned a twelve passenger van. At the time it made sense that driving could be one of our contributions to the chapter. (Please note that I said "could" not "should" be driving. Just because people are sighted and drive does not mean that this is automatically the contribution they should make as members of the NFB. Although I still drive occasionally for local chapter functions, it is no longer one of my primary contributions to the affiliate.)
One of my earliest experiences in driving under the direction of a blind colleague was with a fellow named Jerry Eckery. I recall that the first time I drove Jerry someplace, I did not know where we were going, and he gave directions. He was excellent. He did everything Peggy was trying to tell you that you should teach your child to do when in charge of a driver. He was in control. He knew where he was going and was able to give instructions and describe landmarks that a sighted driver could follow. We would make a turn and he would say "You should be passing an Exxon station to your left." Sure enough, there it was. Now, this was a route he had never walked. He had no reason to know about that Exxon station except that he knew it would be helpful to the people-sighted drivers-he would be directing. I truly appreciated and learned a lot from Jerry. As a driver, volunteer or paid, it certainly made my job a lot easier to be able to sit back and follow directions. That's what I did when I was Jerry's driver.
Another member of our chapter which we (my husband and I) frequently drove to meetings was an elderly woman who had grown up as a blind child in a very protected and sheltered environment. She didn't have much money, and she didn't get out much. She didn't have Jerry's extensive knowledge about the city, but she did, however, know her own street and could give others information about her area. There was something else that she did which I truly came to appreciate. She knew that I was a member of the NFB chapter and that I considered driving my contribution. Nevertheless, she did not take my driving for granted. She always thanked me for the ride. From time to time she offered me money (which I always refused) or a trinket or toy for my children (which I would accept). She did not have Jerry's knowledge, independence, and resources, but she had dignity, she was courteous, and she did not expect others to do for her what she could do-however small that was-for herself. And that attitude was evident in how she treated me as a driver.
Having said that, let me shift gears, so to speak, and talk to you about some of my pet peeves as a driver. When I'm done, Peggy will get a shot at the same topic. I think that one of my top pet peeves is driving for someone who consistently is unable to give me directions or tell me about landmarks; who, in short, is never able to tell me anything more than the address of our destination. I am not annoyed at the individual, for I know that this is merely a matter of ignorance and lack of skills. These people, as blind children or as newly blinded adults, never had the opportunity to learn how to take responsibility for giving directions to others and furthermore never knew that this was possible. Rather, I am annoyed and angry at the real culprits: parents who overprotected their children, rehabilitation systems which custodialize instead of promoting independence, and the general cultural environment which continues to promote an image of the blind as helpless and dependent. You can avoid this problem with your children by teaching them these skills, and especially conveying to them that it is their responsibility to know how to get to where they want to go and how to direct those who are driving them.
How do you do that? Here is one idea. We used to play an orientation game when we were traveling in our vehicle with our three children (one of whom is blind). My husband would say "If I were to get in the car, pull out of the driveway, turn left, go two blocks, cross the street at the light, proceed to the next light and make a left, then stop about halfway down the block, where am I?" The children would guess the answer, then one of them would have a turn to describe a route-putting in all turns, landmarks, etc. as appropriate-and the rest of us in the car would guess the answer. This was a great game not just for our blind son, but for everyone in the family. You can think of other mobility or orientation games to play, too.
Also when I'm in a vehicle, either as a driver or as a passenger, I naturally tend to talk a lot about landmarks. I will call everyone's attention to a new billboard, a new 4-way-stop sign, the architectural style of buildings we pass, and so forth. This natural tendency on my part was helpful especially to our blind son. He began to learn about the things in the surrounding environment that sighted drivers use as important landmarks in getting about.
The ability to personally operate a car is, unquestionably, a great convenience in our society. However, people pay a great deal for this convenience. It is expensive to own and operate a vehicle-even a clunker or an economy high-gas mileage model. My other pet peeve is with people who assume that not only is driving your own car more convenient than alternative modes of transportation, but that it is also much cheaper. This just isn't so. Years ago my husband (who was single at the time) compared his yearly transportation expenses-personal and job-related-with a blind colleague of his. Both of them worked for a state agency in supervisory positions doing pretty much the same type of job. They were both bachelors, lived in the same city, and were in the same social circle, so their personal social activities were equivalent. Out of curiosity they sat down (they spent hours doing this) with all their tax information and compared personal transportation expenses and business transportation expenses. My husband owned and operated a travel-all van; his friend used all the available alternative transportation modes available to him; public transportation, taxis, walking, and privately paid drivers for both business and personal use (he was reimbursed for on-the-job travel expenses at the same rate my husband and other sighted employees were reimbursed for their travel expenses). The difference in expenses was no more than $2.00. (Don't ask me which way it came down, Peggy. I don't remember.)
As parents, you are in a position to teach your child about the real costs of owning and operating a vehicle. We teach our sighted children these things. Many sighted sixteen-year-olds are required to work or save money to help pay for the cost of their automobile insurance, the gas they use in the family car, or the cost of their own vehicle. How many parents think to teach this information to their blind teen-agers? Does your blind teen-ager know how much automobile insurance would cost to cover them if they were a driver? How about the up-front purchase cost of a car. Does your blind teen know that most people go into debt and spend years making monthly payments on the cost of a vehicle? What about maintenance and repair costs? Has your blind teen-ager gone with you to the auto shop to buy tires, or to pay a $200 repair bill and pick up a car which has been in the shop for a week?
This information helps your teens in many ways. It gives them a better perspective and understanding of their own transportation costs now and when they become independent adults. They will feel differently about the monthly cost of bus fare, taxi fare, and private driver's fees if they know what it costs the average sighted guy to drive a car. This knowledge will also help them as adults to successfully and fairly negotiate fees for private drivers. Many blind teens will grow up and eventually own cars which will be operated by sighted spouses, other family members (such as sighted teen-agers), or even hired drivers. But, for some reason-perhaps our stereotyped notions about blindness-we parents seldom think about the necessity of teaching our blind children about the costs and problems of owning and operating a vehicle.
This knowledge will also help your children grow up to be effective and courteous users of volunteer drivers. Even when your children become financially independent adults, there will always be occasions when the most convenient, or only available, transportation is with a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, or other persons willing to volunteer a ride. Should the driver be offered money for gas? How much out of their way is it reasonable to ask of the driver? Should you arrange to do a favor in exchange for the ride, or just remember to do something special for them sometime? Or, under the circumstances, is there a need to do anything at all other than say "Thanks?" Every situation is different, so there is no one right answer to these questions. However, the more knowledge the blind individual has about the transportation time and costs to the sighted driver, the better able they will be to make decisions which keep everyone-rider and driver-happy and feeling good about the situation. As a volunteer driver I have been in all the situations described. When my children were small I sometimes exchanged favors with a blind friend of mine who also had small children. She would baby-sit for my children, and I would drive or read for her. It was a legitimate exchange of favors, and we considered it an equal relationship. On other occasions, when driving to a Federation meeting, for example, it might or might not be appropriate for riders to share the expense. If the meeting was hours away clear across the state, sharing the costs made sense. If it was a local meeting for which I incurred no significant extra expense either in time or mileage, it never seemed right to accept more than a "Thank you" from riders.
To sum up, you can give your children a head start in avoiding these pet peeves if you give them a good education now in how to be responsible for, and skilled in, meeting their own transportation needs.
When I started thinking about pet peeves I only came up with two, but they're pretty all-encompassing. One involves the sighted, and one involves the blind. Interestingly enough they are obverse sides of the same coin. My pet peeve involving blind people is-and possibly I feel more strongly about this because I am so aware that it doesn't need to be this way-blind people who don't take responsibility. Responsibility for what? Well, for anything! It starts when you're a kid. For example, in my family we had a whole passel of kids; there were six of us. And at the dinner table, if you didn't push your chair in when you got up from the table then three or four of your brothers and sisters were likely to wind up with bruised shins and they would come and pound on you because they tripped over the chair you forgot to push in. It wasn't just a matter of courtesy-it was a matter of survival-to push in your chair in my family.
Now, I ask you, how many blind kids do you suppose get up from the table and push in their chairs? How many don't push in their chairs? How many parents will consistently say, "Son, come back here and push in your chair," and how many do you suppose never say a word, but just push it in themselves? How many blind kids get up from the table and leave while everybody else in the family carries their dirty plates or dishes into the kitchen? How many of you require your sighted kids to help clear the table, but never ask your blind kid to do his or her part?
Blind adults who do not take responsibility were once blind children who were not asked to carry the same weight as others. Furthermore, usually no one even described to the child what it was that others were doing. The blind child may not know that other people push in the chair. Eventually, at a certain age the kid is going to deduce that either all chairs are on automatic rollers, or that someone is pushing them in. But why not make it a point of instruction and responsibility for the blind kid at the same age you would do it for the sighted kid? It is simply a matter of courtesy for all of us to push in our chairs. Why not make it a point of instruction that all family members-including the blind child-will help with this or that task-making beds, vacuuming, collecting laundry, folding laundry, etc.?
Blind children who do not get this instruction are the ones who grow up and become those blind adults who do not know how to tell others where they live, who do not know how to give instructions to a driver, who do not take the responsibility to schedule transportation ahead of time, and who do not have the courtesy to offer payment to a driver when appropriate. I guess to me responsibility and courtesy go hand in hand. I am afraid that all too many blind children-and some blind adults, too-have not been taught or have forgotten the lessons of responsibility and courtesy.
These lessons must be taught by you, the parents of blind children. It may sometimes take a little longer to teach your blind child. The first time you tell your kid to push in a chair, you may need to walk around behind him and put his hands on the chair and show him how to push. So what? Even if you have to do this a number of times, eventually he or she will learn to push the chair in by himself. He will have learned a lesson in courtesy and taken on a little bit more responsibility. This, in the end, lets him hold his head higher because he is then a part of what's going on around him, not a helpless bystander. And each such experience makes the next task easier to learn.
The obverse of this pet peeve is, of course, the sighted person who assumes that he or she knows what is good for a blind person and that it is their job to take care of everything for the blind individual. You'd be surprised how many things are simply done for us, to us, and around us that we may not ever know about unless we are alert and know to anticipate this problem. Even then, we may only learn about what was done after it is too late to do anything about it. Let me give you two examples of this pet peeve.
I was standing on a street corner one day. The light was red for travel in my direction. A woman came up behind me, grabbed my arm-practically cutting off the circulation,-and said that she would take me across the street. Well, I pointed out to her that the light was red and that I was waiting for traffic to stop and the light to change so that I could cross safely. She dropped my arm in anger and said "Well, you think you know so much" and walked away. I was quite capable of judging whether it was safe to cross that street or not, and I wasn't going just because she said it was okay. She was welcome to go if she wanted to, but I wasn't. She was in effect trying to take responsibility for me, and then became irritable when I pointed out the basic facts about red and green lights and furthermore insisted on taking responsibility for myself. That really torched her. The attitude which prompts this kind of behavior among sighted people toward the blind not only diminishes the dignity of blind persons but it diminishes the sighted as well.
Here's another very recent example. This happened when my husband (who is quite tall and also blind), my secretaries, and I were in line to board the airplane to come to this convention. My sighted colleagues and I had walked through the airplane door when, as my husband was about to walk through, the airflight attendant cried out, "Watch his head!" Well, we all spun around and looked-for whatever good that did! She had good intentions, she was trying to give him information, but she didn't know how to do it. She thought someone else had to be responsible for him; someone else had to "watch his head"-he couldn't do it himself. My husband's been tall a long time and he's gotten on a few planes in his life. He knows when and how to protect his rather tall head.
These incidents are a continuing irritation to blind persons. It is abrasive to our dignity to have sighted people around us assume that they are responsible for us and then proceed to do things and take actions which we could-and should-be doing for ourselves. But as blind adults this is simply something we have to deal with. How do we do it? Well, at the personal day-to-day level we hopefully bring to these situations the right balance of courtesy, tact, and firmness. We do not wish to be rude, but neither must we let ourselves be pushovers and let others take responsibility for us. On a broader level, this is the very reason for the existence of the National Federation of the Blind: public education. The same person who thinks they have to help me across the street is the same person who will deny me a job. But I know that what we do in the National Federation of the Blind has changed public attitudes and will continue to change them. I know I am treated with greater respect on the street and in the workplace than our founders, such as Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, were treated fifty years ago. Furthermore, I intend to do my part so that your children will be able to say the same thing about my generation.
And what role do you, the parents, play? Again, on the day-to-day personal level you need to teach your children to take responsibility for themselves. You need to instill in them the confidence and skill to be tactful, yet firm, with those-kindly as they may be-who will try to take it away from them. You are their first sighted model. Yes, in the NFB we talk a lot about blind models, and your child does need us. But they need good sighted models, too. And you are their first, and can be their best, sighted model. What do you model for your child? Do you insist, in small ways and large, that they take responsibility for themselves? Do you graciously back down when your lesson takes, and they tell you firmly "Leave me alone. I will do this myself."? And at the broader level, are you doing your part as a member of the National Federation of the Blind to educate the sighted public about the capabilities of the blind?
As I said, my pet peeves are pretty all-encompassing. But if you want your blind child to grow up to be independent in all areas of life as an adult-including the effective use of readers and drivers-then, I think, you must honestly address the issues we have raised here today.