Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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Cutting Through Fear

by Carrie Gilmer
President, National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
[email protected]

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2008 D.V.I. Quarterly, volume 54, number 1. DVIQ is a publication of the Division on Visual Impairments, Council for Exceptional Children. For information about the publication, articles, advertisements, etc., contact the DVIQ editor, Sheila Amato, at <[email protected]>.

Carrie Gilmer, President, National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC)Two weeks ago I waited for a turn to cut through a large tree limb with a chainsaw while wearing sleepshades (blindfolds). About a dozen other people took their turns ahead of me. I knew other groups had also done this before and had no problems; still…I had some fear. So, I did what I usually do when I address my fears: I began to analyze if my fears were reasonable.

The person supervising had previous experience in supervising people who were doing this for the first time. That provided some comfort. I was pretty certain his vision was not more than light perception (LP). I had put my life in a blind person’s hands before and come out alright, so it wasn’t really his level of vision I was concerned with. This man was also a good friend of mine. I knew and trusted his judgment, so I found some comfort there too.

One by one, each person before me jubilantly held up his or her souvenir piece of freshly cut log and proudly shared it with the others. Each excitedly talked about what he or she had felt. They were especially finding laughter in comparing the straightness of the cuts. Somehow, though, sharing in their victories wasn’t bringing me the comfort I thought it would.

As my turn grew nearer my anxiety level increased. What was I afraid of exactly? Well, I knew my arms were the weakest part of my body. I also had never used a chainsaw. How heavy would it be? I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to tell without looking when I had cut through the log. I was afraid combining that with my weak arms gave me a greater than average risk. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to react quickly enough to pull the saw up, or the wits to shut the thing off in time. Then the saw would drop, as quickly as lightning, and before I or my supervisor could react I would chop off at least one of my legs. I would be the ONE who would become seriously injured. Because of me and my near-death injury this practice would not occur again.

Okay, I had named my fears. I had created the worst-case scenario in my mind and emotions. Then I questioned the reasonableness of my fears, and I spoke them out loud to my friend who was to supervise me as my turn was up. As I spoke them out loud I realized that what I had feared most was my own lack of ability to observe and react. I quickly reasoned I had underestimated myself before.

Noah’s mom (Misty Davis—NC) cuts through her own fear’s, too, at the 2008 Junior Science Academy. Mark Riccobono, director of the NFB Jernigan Institute (who is himself blind) is the patient instructor who guides her successfully through the experience of using a chainsaw to cut a section of a log while under sleepshades.Then I wondered what would happen if I walked away and gave in to my fears. At the least I would look pretty silly and weak to all the other new parents who had been looking to me as a leader. Especially since they had all done it! So, I could either be the ONE injured or the ONE to walk away. I decided to be more afraid of not doing it than doing it. My friend had not reacted in the least to my outspoken fears and the pouring out of my soul. “Mm-hmm,” was all I could get out of him. How maddeningly usual! He proceeded to show me (by touch) the parts of the saw, how I could stop it, where to keep my hands, and how to tell where to put the blade.

At his calm prodding I turned the saw on, found the log with the blade, and began to cut through it. All my attention was focused to wait for the split second I felt it go through, and to hold the saw up and shut it off. It all happened even quicker than I had anticipated. I was able to tell immediately when the blade had cut through and also had no problem holding up the saw and shutting it off. I had a nice big chunk, from a thicker log than most of the others, and the cut was straight enough to brag about.

Today it sits on my desk as a reminder. For me it is both a reminder to reasonably question the necessity or superiority of vision for a task as well as to trust more in my own abilities. It is also an important reminder to me that fears must be cut through both intellectually and emotionally.

This past school year my family had the wonderful opportunity to host a blind exchange student from Ukraine. Bogdan had a lot of fears when he first came to live with us, and the biggest by far was that he feared “looking blind.” He used Braille--having no choice, unless he wanted to only read a few words painstakingly at a time-- and the option to not use it had never been offered. The cane, however, had been optional. For him, Braille didn’t have to be read in public. The cane was public however, and with it, he looked blind. Without it, he had convinced himself, he looked normal. He stated seriously he would rather die than be seen with it.

Through the years he had built up quite an illusion; he had become masterful at it. Everyone in his life cooperated with it, until me. Seriously, he was the absolute best “follower” I have ever seen. He had it down to a science. But that was the trouble, needing someone to follow, or needing to be somewhere familiar. This had worked for the first seventeen years. I knew it wouldn’t if he wanted to be a free man for the next seventeen years and beyond.

I tried chipping away at his intellectual reasoning. He very emotionally refused to try carrying the cane. I let go of the issue--except for the occasional weekly speech/debate and the monthly teen program I ran where carrying it was required for attendance. He carried the thing like an Olympic torch or as if it were laden with deadly bacteria. Finally, after nine months, something occurred that he should have been able to handle at his age. First he avoided it, and then he tried to rationalize blindness as an excuse. He felt madder about being blind than ever. I used this experience to press at his emotions. For a few tense-filled days we went back and forth and he tried all his last desperate excuses. I refused to accept them. I struggled between pressing too hard and not pressing hard enough. He was to go home in a few weeks. I became more afraid of him going home defeated than pressing him to face his fears. Finally, he also became more afraid of being defeated than facing his fears. He gave the cane a real try, and to his shock and surprise (and everyone else’s) found it really useful after all. He went home and continues to live feeling free of the fear of looking blind, and using his cane.

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder of the National Federation of the Blind, said overcoming blindness “requires effort and patience and initiative and guts.” Raising and educating a blind child to become truly competitive alongside their particular sighted peers requires the same things. So does building a cohesive accurately informed team. It requires us to constantly reexamine what we think our students can do, and to get them and the rest of the world to do the same. Together we have to be more afraid of children not being ready to enter the world independently than afraid of doing everything it really takes to empower them with all the skills and confidence necessary to live a normal life as blind adults out in the real world.

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