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Reflections and Photographs
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Dunnam, author of The Slate Book (see review in last issue, Volume 20, Number 3), was a Braille teacher for several years at BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis. Currently, she is the Braille transcriber and Document Conversion Specialist (which is to say, she coordinates the production of print materials into alternate formats) for the University of Minnesota. She is active in the NFB, and serves as Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota..Every Christmas, when my two younger sisters and I were growing up, our fam-ily drove to a small town forty miles away from our home to exchange gifts with several sets of relatives who lived there. The Christmas I was twelve years old, one of my grandmothers gave each of my sisters a small mirror with her name embossed on the handle. I do not remember the gift I got; all I remember is that it was definitely not a mirror with my name on it, and I wasn’t happy about that. By the age of twelve, I knew that it was inappropriate to express displeasure about a gift, so I kept my disappointment well hidden for the rest of the visit..
My interest in having that mirror had a lot to do with my upbringing. When I was a child, my parents maintained the same expectations for me that they did for my sighted sisters. There was no tiptoeing around visual words or concepts: I learned what color things were, I watched TV, and I turned on lights when it was dark. My parents never tried to hide or deny my blindness or the fact that there were things I could not do in the same way as other people did, but they always started with the assumption that I would participate in all aspects of both working and playing. For instance, I got coloring books the same as my sisters; the crayons were labeled with the names of their colors in Braille, and often someone used a tracing wheel from a sewing kit to make the outlines of the pictures tactile. (Sometimes, no one had time to trace the pictures before I wanted to use the coloring book, but I used it anyway, delighted not to be restricted to coloring between the lines).
So on the way home in the car that Christmas day, I stewed. Why did my grandmother think that just because I couldn’t look into the mirror I shouldn’t have one? I had a mirror in my bedroom, and I stood before it everyday to brush my hair and get ready for the day. It felt strange to me not to do so, and I wasn’t concerned about seeing the reflection. Besides, my friends frequently borrowed each other’s mirrors to check their appearance during the day; how impressed they would surely have been if I had my very own personalized mirror to lend them!
Finally, with the miles between our car and Grandmother’s house increasing, and with Becky and Angie ooh‑ing and aah‑ing over those stupid mirrors, the ungrateful brat in me won out. “It’s not fair!” I blurted. “Why didn’t I get a mirror, too?” my parents pointed out – quite reasonably – that my grandmother may not have been able to find a mirror that said “Jennifer.” That possibility hadn’t occurred to me, and after a little more thought, I came to accept it as the most likely explanation. But I still couldn’t help wondering.
I have been blind since birth, and it took some time for my understanding of certain visual concepts to evolve. Even with the excellent foundation my parents laid for me, my grasp of my relationship to certain visually oriented objects has not always been very accurate. I can still remember the time one of my sisters, hardly more than a year old, poured a bowl of mashed potatoes over her own head.
Photographs have always been taken copiously and valued highly in my family, and this occasion was no exception. As the photo of the mess was passed around at a family gathering, I joined everyone else in clamoring for a look. When the picture was finally handed to me with instructions to touch only the edges, I held it a few minutes, but I couldn’t tell what all the fuss was about. I didn’t quite understand that everyone else could see the picture and I couldn’t; I thought the picture was just one of those things I was still too young to understand.
As I grew up, however, I learned that most other people could get information from pictures more readily than I could. At the same time, I began to understand that photographs were of greater value than just for seeing.
The summer I was eight years old, I went to the zoo with some friends. My favorite part was the elephant ride, and when I learned that photos were available, I asked our chaperon to let me buy one of myself on the elephant. The chaperone was doubtful, wondering why a blind child would want a picture. After I explained that I wanted to take it home and let my family see me riding the elephant, she agreed. At home, everyone exclaimed over the picture: my parents were proud, my sisters were envious, and I wanted a camera of my own!
In school, class pictures were a very big deal among the students. Each year almost everyone at the public school purchased packets of individual school pictures of themselves to exchange with their friends. I gave out plenty of photos and got quite a collection of pictures of my school friends, often with messages written on the backs. Junior high and high school yearbooks were filled with pictures and also were vehicles for messages. There were times at school when I felt left out or couldn’t participate in something because of issues relating to blindness, but I could always fit right in during the great picture exchange.
In college, I spent several summers abroad, and I always took along a camera so I could bring home images to share with friends and family. I tried at first to keep a list in Braille of the order of the pictures as I took them so I could explain them to people when I showed them later. But then I found a better solution: I got a very high‑quality Polaroid camera. Soon after the pictures came out of the camera, I used a slate and stylus to make Braille dymo tape labels and stick them on the bottoms of the pictures..
Jennifer's kitten, Simon.
Now, at gatherings of friends or on special occasions, it is instinctive for me to bring a camera and make sure that pictures get taken. Usually others take the photos, but when the need arises and the subject is not too complex, I take them myself. (It took some practice to learn to aim correctly and hold the camera straight; I’m no professional photographer, but I can usually do a decent job of getting the subject centered enough in the frame so no heads are cut off.)
I am grateful to my family for making sure early on that I participated in all the normal activities of our daily life – even the sharing of photographs, which some might have considered unnecessary (not to mention inaccessible) for a blind person. Their positive, practical attitude fostered in me the expectation that I would be treated as an equal in society, and therefore went a long way toward giving me the tools I needed to bring that expectation closer to reality.
The matter of the personalized mirror, as it turns out, was not entirely closed on that long‑ago Christmas day. When my grandmother died about four years later, I helped with the sorting of some of her belongings. I was surprised when I found, deep in one of her boxes, a small mirror, identical to the ones my sisters had received that Christmas four years ago – but with my name on it. Since I am the only Jennifer in my family, it seems fair to assume that the mirror was bought for me, and then for some reason reconsidered. Did my grandmother stop short as she wrapped our gifts and redden as she realized what she thought might be a cruel faux pas? Did someone who went shopping with her realize the “mistake” and tell her it made no sense to give a mirror to a blind child? Or did she just misplace the mirror and not find it until after Christmas? I will never know.
I do know for certain that, regardless of what made her choose a different gift for me, she acted entirely out of a wish to be kind and supportive. I am sure she never dreamed that, in buying a gift for her blind granddaughter, sticking to traditional thinking about blindness actually meant going against the grain.
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