by Debbie Stein
Reprinted from the Spring 2000 edition of The Braille Examiner the newsletter of the NFB of Illinois, under the title “Meet a Fellow Federationist: Carmen Dennis.”
When you’re a partial, you’re caught somewhere in the middle,” say Carmen Dennis. “You can spend your whole life deciding whether you’re sighted or blind.” Carmen has faced this dilemma over and over throughout her life. Some said she didn’t have enough vision to study or to work; others have ridiculed her for using a cane because she “sees too well.” Claiming her identity as a blind person has been a major theme in her life.
Carmen Sepeda grew up on the east side of Joliet, Illinois, sixth in a family of eight children. Her parents were Mexican, and she learned Spanish as her first language. From early childhood she had low vision due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as Rieger’s syndrome. When Carmen’s mother tried to enroll her in the local kindergarten, the school refused to accept her. The teacher claimed she didn’t see well enough to read or write. No one told Carmen’s parents about Braille or special education for blind children. So Carmen stayed home while her brothers and sisters went off to school. She listened as they did their homework and learned as much as she could.
One day when she was eight Carmen made up her mind to write just like everyone else. She took a crayon and copied the printing from a colorful box, practicing one word over and over on the bathroom wall. The word, it turned out, was KOTEX! Carmen was in trouble, but for the first time her mother realized that she might be able to learn reading and writing after all.
Shortly after this incident Carmen’s parents divorced. Her mother could not support all of the children on her own. Carmen and her younger siblings were sent to the Guardian Angel Home, an orphanage in Joliet. The upheaval was traumatic, but in the long run the orphanage proved a Godsend. The staff recognized Carmen’s abilities and let her attend the small school on the orphanage grounds. Using a magnifier she could read the large print in the first and second grade primers. But as she advanced in school the print grew smaller. At last the teachers felt she could go no farther without special help and sent her to the Illinois School for the Blind (now the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired) in Jacksonville.
Carmen entered the school for the blind in September, 1956, at the age of ten. She was placed in a “sight-saving class,” because the staff said she had too much vision to need Braille. However, she struggled to read her large-print books and begged to be taught Braille as an alternative. At last her teacher agreed to let her try Braille for three months. If she failed to master it in that time, they said, she would have to go back to using print. Carmen took up the challenge. She found Braille much less tiring, and was able to use it for most of her subjects. However, the school still insisted that she use print in her math classes. As time passed Carmen became fluent in both print and Braille.
At school Carmen discovered a great divide between students with low vision and those who were totally blind. Most of her friends were “partials.” Partials had special privileges and responsibilities and looked down on the “totals.” A few of the totally blind students were independent and adventurous, and Carmen enjoyed getting to know them. But these were the exceptions. Most of the totals lacked basic social skills. They needed help to cut up their meat and butter their bread in the dining room. Partials were allowed to go shopping in town on Saturdays, but they were assigned to take some of the totals along. No one used a cane, so the partials had to lead the totals by the arm. Blindness meant helplessness and dependence, and Carmen didn’t want anyone to think of her that way. She didn’t want to be labeled as blind.
While she was at the state school, Carmen began cutting hair and giving permanents to the other girls. She decided she would like to become a beautician and even took a cosmetology class at the nearby school for the deaf. Only one other student from the school for the blind had ever taken this course. Though she was never able to pursue this career goal, she still cuts and sets hair for family and friends.
After graduation Carmen talked to a counselor from the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS) about her future. The counselor told her to go to Chicago for further training at the Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute (IVHI), now ICRE-Wood. Carmen had no idea how to use a cane and had never been to the big city before. A counselor from IVHI promised to meet her at the bus station. But when Carmen arrived, no one was there to meet her. She waited and waited, growing more anxious by the minute. Finally she left the station and found a Walgreen’s with a pay-phone. At last she spoke to the missing counselor. He said he had been at the station, but he failed to recognize her because she didn’t look blind. She was standing straight and alert, and he expected blind people to have their heads down.
Carmen spent eight months at IVHI, where she learned Dictaphone typing and a bit of cane travel. She obtained a folding cane, which she unfolded whenever she had to cross a busy street. As soon as she reached the far curb she would fold her cane again and hide it in the sleeve of her coat. From IVHI Carmen went to the Chicago Lighthouse for a course on medical transcription. She did well in the class, and the Lighthouse placed her in a job at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute. After a trial period, however, she was terminated for problems with spelling. Her supervisor told her to go back to the Lighthouse for more training. “When I went to the Lighthouse again, the counselor got really angry,” Carmen recalls. “I asked for more training, but she said I didn’t ask nicely. It seemed like she wanted me to get down on my knees and beg.” Carmen left the Lighthouse and never went back. She determined to find work on her own.
But job-hunting proved harder than Carmen expected. She survived on Social Security and shared a furnished room with a girlfriend. During this turbulent time she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Penny. Penny’s father, who was blind, ran a cafeteria through the vending program sponsored by DORS. During their six years together Carmen handled his bookkeeping and learned the business.
In the summer of 1973 a blind friend, Pat Wolthoff, invited Carmen to the National Federation of the Blind convention in New York City. Hotel rooms were only $8.50 a night, so she could afford to go. At convention, Carmen was astounded to see so many blind people moving about independently. One day she stood by the glass doors of the hotel and watched people streaming in and out, all of them using long white canes. Many of these cane-users were partials. Carmen realized she wanted to move with that degree of ease and confidence herself. She started using a cane that day and has never hidden it again.
For Carmen that convention was a transforming experience. She met dozens of blind people who led interesting lives and were fun to be with. For the first time in her life she felt it was respectable to be blind.
The following year Carmen completed official training for the DORS vending program. Because of her travel skills she was able to work as a substitute manager at stands, snackbars, and cafeterias all over the city. She was told that she was the best substitute in the program. She was assigned her own cafeteria, at Belltone Electronics, in 1975. She is now assistant manager of a candy stand at the Richard Daley Center in Chicago.
In 1980 Carmen married Charlie Dennis whom she met through the vending program. Their daughter Kristy was born in 1981.
Carmen Dennis is a stalwart member of the Chicago chapter of the NFBI. She is one of those dedicated members who keeps things running smoothly by working behind the scenes. At state conventions she labels rooms in Braille, and for twenty years she Brailled the menus in the convention hotel restaurants. Since 1977 she has stored the affiliate’s supply of Braille literature in her home. She handles the literature table at chapter meetings and at state conventions. It means she does lots of organizing and a lot of heavy hauling.
“I feel I’ve had to make a choice,” Carmen says. “I’ve had to choose whether to be accepted as a blind person or to get people to accept me as a sighted person. I made that choice when I started to use my cane. The first time one of my sighted friends saw me she said, ‘What have you got that thing for? You don’t need that!’ And I told her, ‘Yes, I do need it, and I’m going to use it, because I’m blind!’”