Future Reflections Special Issue, Vol. 14 No. 2
By Peggy Pinder Elliott
Reprinted from The Freedom Bell an NFB Kernel Book
Many things can happen when a teen-ager suddenly loses her sight. What does happen depends on a variety of unpredictable factors--family influence, teachers, chance. Perhaps for each person there is a crucial incident which changes everything that comes after. Peggy Pinder Elliott believes this to be true for her. As you read her story keep in mind that the teenager you're reading about went on to finish high school; earned a bachelor's degree with double majors in history and philosophy at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa (where she reported for and then was chief editor of the college newspaper); earned a law degree from Yale; served five years as a state criminal prosecutor; and established a private law practice in which she now works. Here in her own words is what happened. I lost my sight as a teenager.
Because of my eye condition my eventual total blindness was predictable. Even so, nobody had ever told me or my parents that this could happen. I was devastated.
I had been to the store earlier in the day. While waiting at the check-out counter I had picked up a magazine as one does to pass the time. I read little bits of it, and it looked interesting--so I bought it.
Later that day at home I picked up the magazine. And, that was how I found out I was blind. I couldn't read it at all. I remember wondering if I should tell my mother who was in the kitchen because I could guess what trouble would start. I remember thinking about it and deciding to tell her because, sooner or later, people would notice that I was not reading anything. That would include schoolwork which would be troublesome, too. So, I sighed and told my mother. I was sure right about the trouble. I was totally unprepared for such a change. I didn't know it was coming. I had no techniques like Braille or a white cane with which to continue my life. I didn't want such techniques anyway because that would mean that I would always be blind and, as I thought then, unable to do anything with my life.
Adding this horrifying and unexpected change to the other changes of adolescence was just too much for me. I withdrew into myself. Nobody understood how bad it really was. There was no one to whom I could talk, nobody who understood. They all said things would work out, but they could all see. What did they know?
During this time, I happened to hear some blind people on the radio one night. They were in town for a convention, they said. They explained to the radio audience that blindness was not the horrible tragedy that everyone thinks it is. They were blind themselves, and they all held jobs, had families, went where they wanted. They said blindness was not a tragedy--that it all centered around how you handled it, just like hundreds of other differences among people that we all deal with every day--like being too short to reach a cupboard or too light to carry heavy loads. That's why we have stepstools and carts.
According to them blindness was no different. You just had to figure out ways to do things others do with sight. The ways exist.
Blindness could be reduced to the level of a nuisance. I turned off the radio. It made me mad to hear people talking such nonsense. I knew how bad it was to be blind. I could tell them a thing or two. And, how dare they say that I could lead a full life as a blind person?
I hated people who tried to sugar-coat things and act like nothing was wrong when obviously everything was. They were blind. Why didn't they just shut up and accept their limitations gracefully as I was doing?
My way of accepting my limitations was to become a bookworm. Books are put into Braille or recorded onto tapes and distributed to blind people through a nationwide library system. I read everything. I had always been a reader. My whole family is. That was one of the most devastating things about blindness. I couldn't just pick up what others were reading and read it.
Even so, there were things I could read, and I read all the time. I turned down invitations and declined to do things because I had some reading to do. It is not good for a teenager to spend the years just before adulthood in her room reading during the time when everyone else is learning to take more and more responsibility and to interact personally with the world around her.
But that's what I did. I didn't know what else to do. I found contact with other people uncomfortable. They were uncomfortable because they "didn't know how to act around a blind person," as they put it. Why couldn't I just be a person anymore? I was now some strange being who upset people. That upset me. It upset me all the more because I agreed with them. I didn't know how to act around me either. So I read books and lived in the lives of other people.
My system worked through most of high school. But it wouldn't work after that. My parents weren't willing to let me continue to hide out from the world. They knew that there were blind people who worked, who took responsibility, who made lives for themselves. They were determined to have that chance for me. They began searching.
I well remember the exact moment and the exact location when I discovered that my parents were right. I was standing in a hallway, waiting my turn to speak to the occupant of the office beside which I was standing, doing nothing in particular.
I heard someone down the hall and around the corner come out of an office. I heard him lock his door with a key and check to be sure the door was locked. I then heard him walk briskly down the hall, turn the corner into the hall where I stood, walk by me, and go out of the door at the other end of the hall. I knew he was blind because I heard his white cane. I was stunned!
Simple tasks? Yes. But I couldn't get over that here was a blind person making his own schedule, caring for his and his employer's property responsibly, determining where he would go, deciding how to get there, and then doing it. I couldn't do any of those things for myself. Not really.
Or, could I? He had. If he had, then maybe I could, too. He was blind. That hadn't stopped him. Maybe, just maybe. I remember straightening up from my relaxed posture against the wall and saying the words very clearly in my mind: "I want that." You couldn't tell me in mere words about blind people doing things.
You couldn't talk at me over the radio. You couldn't give me stories to read about the blind. It didn't work. I didn't believe it. But it turned out that all you really had to do was to put one blind person in front of me, managing tasks I thought were impossible with ease and style, and I could get the point. I could do it, too.
I found that blind person who had walked by me in the hall and found out how he had found the self-confidence I thought was impossible for me. He is still a friend of mine and a colleague in the organization to which he introduced me, the National Federation of the Blind. Incidentally, I learned later that he was one of the very people I had heard on the radio program that had made me so angry years before.
Through the National Federation of the Blind I met blind people from all walks of life--young and old, wealthy and poor, well-educated and with little schooling, technically skilled and unskilled. I met a whole cross section of American society with the one common thread that they are blind.
Meeting all these people reinforced the original intuition I had had when I observed my friend walk down the hall. Regardless of their backgrounds, all these blind people were managing their own lives. If they could do it so could I.
Going to meetings and national conventions of the National Federation of the Blind showed me in a different way the same thing that the guy walking down the hall had first demonstrated: that blind people have only one thing in common, blindness. But they must consciously take that blindness and examine it, understand what it is, understand how it functions in the world around them. Until blindness is understood, you can just end up in your room, reading, avoiding the whole thing. Once blindness is understood, then the whole rest of your life opens up.
I became a member of the National Federation of the Blind after learning these things. Two things drew me into the organization. One was that I need the continuing support and encouragement of other blind people who keep reminding me that the only limitations on me are the ones I impose upon myself. The second and equally important reason was that I was so very lucky. I had parents who believed in my future and set about helping me to find it. We found self-confident, capable blind people in the National Federation of the Blind, organized and ready to help others.
The National Federation of the Blind was there for me when I needed it. That's why I'll continue to work in it: for my own growth and protection and to insure that the same will be there for every other blind person.