by Glenda Smith
Editor's Note: Glenda Smith, mother of six children, wrote this article over a year ago. Since then her husband (Rixon's father), Frank Smith, has passed away due to cancer. Glenda and her family are still very much involved in the National Federation of the Blind. Glenda tells me that Federationists in her state are helping Rixon get a part time job as well as some volunteer work experience this summer.
Introduction: The blind, like other minority groups, face discrimination in all aspects of life. Unlike most minorities, however, the blind have to contend with the "safety" issue. If a man refuses to rent his second story apartment to a blind woman, it isn't discrimination, it's just a matter of safety; she might fall down the stairs. If an employer won't hire a blind machinist it isn't discrimination, after all he could get hurt trying to run those machines. Again, safety. Since there are thousands of blind people who safely navigate stairs every day of their lives and hundreds of blind people who competently and safely operate all kinds of "dangerous" industrial equipment, it is obvious that the facts simply don't support the "safety" argument.
The question for us as parents of blind children is, How can we know when a certain action really is discrimination and not a matter of safety?
Glenda Smith and Frank Smith of Idaho had to face that very question. Here's how they used logic, good sense, and the understanding they gained from the National Federation of the Blind to answer the question, "Discrimination or safety?"
Recently my son had an experience with discrimination because he is blind that I would like to relate to you. My son Rixon is 15 years old. He has almost finished his required work for an Eagle Scout Award. One of the merit badges he decided he wanted to accomplish is called Water Skiing.
Last year after Scout Camp one of the men in our community took the scouts to the lake to ski with his boat. Rixon heard about the outing and was very envious and began talking about wanting to learn to water ski. He knows he'll like it. He enjoys the water sports of swimming and diving almost daily at the community pool.
He approached one scout leader who was taking a group of boys out to pass the merit badge last summer and was told he could not go. He told Rixon it was "too unsafe" for him to try. Rixon felt a bit frustrated but was told that these boys already knew how to ski and there would be no teaching as such done there.
Rixon's father is also blind and has been the chief of the Orientation Center at Boise, Idaho. Rixon had a long heart-to-heart talk with his father. His dad asked him what he thought makes people act like they think Rixon can't do things like water skiing. They decided that irrational fear is the underlying cause. Fear that crowds out one's ability to use common sense.
Dad explained that the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, to which we belong, has been and is that the average blind perosn can do the average activity as well as the average sighted person if properly trained and if given the opportunity.
Since we don't own a boat, talking a friend into taking Rixon out on the water to learn to ski seemed the most reasonable approach to his learning to water ski. He decided to try to find someone who would help him. He had determined that somehow he could accomplish the goal.
After asking around in our church we found a couple of people with boats that are used regularly for water skiing. A couple of them turned us down kindly. Then an Eagle Advisor was assigned to Ric and he explained his desire to her. She said her family had a boat and she would be happy to take him up on the lake.
A few days later I was riding with the Eagle Advisor lady and I could tell she was a bit uncomfortable. She started the conversation with, "I don't know why things have to be so complicated, but my husband says that since Rixon is blind there is greater risk and if we take him up we will have to have you and your husband sign a liability waiver so we wouldn't be responsible for any accidents." She went on to say that last year a fellow had somehow caught a finger in a tow-line and it had been pulled off. She also had checked with a scout committee advisor who said he thought it would be O.K., but he thought there would be some safer activities for Rixon.
I sat in the car knowing something was wrong with her logic but unable to pull it together to really defend Rixon's position. I felt guilty and angry when I called Rixon and his father together to tell them about the encounter.
Dad was able to explain to us that irrational fear again was at the root of the problem. Fear of the unknown--what if he lost a finger? What if another boat should come? What if he should loose his balance in the wake? She had asked me each of these questions.
Orientation students at the Commission for the Blind go water skiing every summer as part of the regular activities of the training center. Dozens of other blind people ski on the lakes and reservoirs of Idaho, as well as in other states.
Irrational fear crowds out common sense. Does this gentleman require everyone who goes water skiing in his boat to have a liability waiver? If so then it would be fine for our son too, we concluded, but only if others do also. To answer the other questions raised there are common sense answers also. If another boat comes it is to stay well away from our boat as there is to be a red flag up to alert other boats to stay away any time there is a skiier in the water--sighted or blind. There have been accidents caused by this situation in the past so laws have been enacted to make water skiing more safe for everyone--blind or sighted! About loosing one's balance, who doesn't when learning to water ski? One must be wearing a floatation device according to Idaho law when water skiing. By obeying the law, the law for everyone, sighted or blind, one is protected.
About the possibility of loosing a finger, I have to smile. When Rixon was small we took him to a very "safe" place we thought--the zoo. A snapping turtle took quite a chunk out of Rixon's finger as he was feeling its shell.
You can "What if" yourself into nonsense. There will always be scrapes and bruises and an occasional line of stitches or a broken bone in learning sports, but I will gladly risk them to have Rixon grow and learn to enjoy life around him.
The water is too cold this season to make water skiing enjoyable, but next year we'll be sure to do it. We've learned a lot about ourselves and understanding others irrational fears.