Future Reflections Winter 1989, Vol. 8 No. 1

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by Zachary Shore

[PICTURE] Zach Shore, student, University of Pennsylvania.

The following letter (which is reprinted from the NFB of Illinois newsletter, The Month's News) and the short story which follows it {Future Memories), were written by University of Pennsylvania student Zachary Shore. The letter was part of Zach's 1987 application for a scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind. He did indeed win the 1987 Frank Walton Horn Memorial Award Scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind. However, that wasn't the end of the story for Zach. Zach decided that he needed to learn more about the alternative techniques of blindness, so he enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind--one of the most progressive, most effective training centers for the adult blind in the country. And that is where the story, "Future Memories," comes in. The letter and story are moving. They are also instructive. How many Zach Shores are in our homes and in our schools today? Is it inevitable that they-like Zach-must interrupt college studies to get training in blind techniques and to develop positive attitudes about blindness? Or is there something we could be doing differently in our educational programs so that when blind youth graduate from high school they really are ready to go to work or continue their education without interruption? Here is Zach's letter:

For a long time I have felt caught in limbo. I am not completely blind, but I am not fully sighted either. Unfortunately for me, I have always been surrounded by people who have tried to convince me that there is no in-between. I know now that this is not true.

My sight has been constantly changing over the past eight years. Calcium bands continued to form over my corneas, they would be scraped off in surgery, and my vision would improve. But it was only an ephemeral improvement, because the calcium would always reform.

Whether my vision was at its best or its worst, my sight was never poor enough to necessitate the use of a cane. Therefore, most people in my high school never knew that I had any vision loss. When I came to Penn, I was indescribably relieved to find that this was going to change. Because I live on campus, everyone sees me at night with my cane. Consequently, I feel much more comfortable talking about my blindness, and I like it when people ask me questions. However, there was still a conflict.

The nature of my condition allows me to see only shadows and glimpses, but in different settings with different lighting, I can recognize people, tell what they are wearing, or perhaps even catch a smile. I have found this often to be maddening, not just because of how it makes me feel, but it also confuses others and hinders their understanding of my sight.

For a long time I struggled within myself, always asking, "Am I blind, or am I not?" Getting involved with the NFB and meeting other students just like myself helped a lot, but it did not settle my conflict. It was only through a long and often painful self-realization that I accepted myself as a blind person. I use a cane at night; I get all my books on tape; I cannot drive; I use a Visualtech [closed-circuit t.v. magnifier]; Affirmative Action provides me with readers. There can be no question--I am not a sighted person. One thing I have noticed is that some people treat me as though I have more sight than I actually do, while others treat me as though I have less. One day, a friend of mine, who always treated me as though I had less sight, said to me, "Oh, Zach, you're not really blind." She had no intention of hurting me, but her remark was a paralyzing blow. Here was one of my few friends who made me feel completely comfortable to be around, and yet her off-the-cuff comment sent me reeling into an angry grief.

It was not more than a few days after this incident that I came to read an essay by Kenneth Jernigan, "A Definition Of Blindness". That essay beautifully put into words exactly what I had been feeling. He really hit home when he said: "I repeat that, in my opinion, blindness can best be defined, not physically or medically, but functionally or sociologically. The alternative techniques which must be learned are the same for those born blind as for those who become blind as adults. They are quite similar (or should be) for those who are totally blind or are nearly so, and those who are 'partially sighted' and yet are blind in the usually accepted legal definition. In other words, I believe that the complex distinctions which are often made between those who have partial sight and those who are totally blind, between those who have been blind since childhood and those who have become blind as adults, are largely meaningless." I took his essay to my friend and asked her to read it. Afterwards, she understood me much better, but far more importantly, it helped me to understand myself as well.

Over the course of my freshman year I have adjusted well, but I still have more to do. After I returned from the NFB's March on Washington, I wrote an article on my experience and the issues discussed, in a small newspaper on campus. One person was talking with me about the issue concerning the airlines. In that conversation he said to me, "Well, you know, Zach, you see pretty well."

Again, I was hurt, But more than hurt, I was mad. I wanted to say, "Oh... and how did you determine this?" Instead, I passed it off as stupidity on his part. I wish now that I had spoken more seriously, not to make him feel bad, but to help him to understand.

The way I feel about my blindness is positive. I am not happy to be blind, but I am dealing with it as best as I am able. I feel that it is not only important for me to help others to understand my condition, but it is my obligation as well. I know that I cannot help others to accept me unless I accept myself.


by Zach Shore

"Grandpa Zach, tell us a bedtime story," little Carlin pleaded as he wrapped his tiny body inside his favorite big, furry blanket so that only a red head stuck out. He and his younger sister, Ellana, lay down in front of the fireplace, sipping Cocoa Blast-- the space-age drink kids dream of. Grandpa Zach eased back into his plush Sensor Max comfort chair, closed his Braille novel, and smiled.

"All right," he said. "I will tell you more about my days in Ruston, Louisiana." Ellana clapped her hands and Carlin nodded approvingly, for neither child ever tired of hearing Grandpa's stories. "But I'll tell you first that back then they called it the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Since you've heard about some of the things I did there, which adventures would you most like to hear?" 'Tell about water skiing, Grandpa," Carlin insisted, clutching Cosmos-Kid lineflying action figure and telling it to ski, which it did, as skis magically appeared on its feet.

"Well, now let me think," Grandpa said. Resting his hands on his large paunch and closing his deep green eyes, he assumed the story-telling position and affected a story-telling voice.

"I remember," he began slowly, stroking his thick, graying beard, "how one day, the whole bunch of us, students and staff, piled into a beat-up old van and headed over to a river to water ski. Now most of us had never done it before, and I remember being, well, a tad on the scared side. In fact, I tried to outsmart the staff by tellin' everyone for a whole week how I couldn't wait to go. If they ever suspected you were afraid of something you were done for. And sure enough, the director never believed me for a minute, and she made me go first. Good old Miss Joanne. Never could pull one over on her."

"What did you do?" Ellana squealed. She was an emotional girl, whose hands were her most expressive feature. Often, she would flail them in the air wildly, while speaking. Occasionally, when she grew overly excited, she would turn her head so quickly from side to side as she looked around the room that her long, red ponytail fluttered in the air behind her.

"Well," Grandpa continued, "first I thought about makin' a break for it, but I knew everybody was watchin', so I had to go through with it. They tied a life preserver around me, stuck my feet in the skis, pointed toward the water, and said, 'Go.' So, I waddled into the river, tellin' myself how they wouldn't make me do this if it wasn't perfectly safe, and how nobody ever died while water skiing, and things like that. I was even starting to feel relaxed until the instructor swam over, handed me the rope, put his arm around me and said, 'Who is your next of kin?'

"Anyway, I don't remember all the millions of things he told me to do. All I remember is hearing a very loud motor revving up and hearing him yell,'Are ya'ready?' I yelled, 'Not yet!' And he yelled, 'Okay, Bart, let her rip!'

"That instructor told me many things, but he left out one very important detail. He forgot to mention the fact that I would not be able to breathe since water would be shooting up my nose until I got up. Once I figured that out, I tried to stand up, and the darned rope broke!"

"Were you hurt, Grandpa?" Ellana asked with notable concern.

"Nah, but I was pretty embarrassed. I bobbed around in the water until the instructor skied over to me to help. But instead of gettin' a new rope, he tied the old one back together. So I turned to him and said, 'Ahh, excuse me for sayin' so, but don't you think it might be a good idea to maybe get a new rope?' But he just laughed and said, 'Nah, you'll be fine. It probably won't break again.' It was the word 'probably' that bothered me. On the next try, I was just about up when it broke again. But I was okay and after they gave me a new rope, I did eventually get up on those crazy skis. And you know what, it was a lot of fun, after all that. But I'll tell you one thing, kids, I sure never thought I could do it."

Then Ellana said, "Tell us about the big meal you made."

"Big deal?" Grandpa questioned. "Yeah, I sure thought it was a big deal when that rope broke, believe you me."

"No, Grandpa!" the children laughed. The big meal!"

"Oh, why didn'tcha say so? Now lemme think. Ahh, you mean the meal for 40 people," Grandpa grinned. "Yessir, that was quite a meal. Yeah, no, before I entered the program in Louisiana, the best meal I could make was buttered toast. But it was the best buttered toast you ever ate, that's for sure. Why, folks used to come for miles, just to have a taste of my ..."

"Come on, Grandpa, we've heard all about your toast," Carlin cried. 'Tell about the meal!"

"Alright, alright, just hold your pants on, Son. Every morning for six months, I learned how to make somethin' new, and how to do it safely. Why, before then, I was trying to use the little sight I had to 'see' what I was doin'. I was stickin' my face over burners just to see the flames. Good thing I didn't have a beard back then. But I learned that I could cook anything I wanted, and use my kitchen appliances safely. Since we all lived in our own apartments and had to cook all our own meals, I had lots of practice."

"Anyway, I can still remember makin' those eight loaves of cream cheese bread. Why, that recipe was so complicated, I had to make it 12 times before I got it right."

"Really, Grandpa?" Carlin asked suspiciously.

"Well, maybe only three. But no less. I should know. I had to Braille down the menu, ('course they didn't have dicta-Braillers in those days), walk to the grocery store, and get it all. I remember makin' two kinds of salads, bread, a punch, and two pans of a secret noodle recipe I got from your great-grandma, Ada. It had fine cooked noodles, combined with a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, and more I can't recall, spilled into a pan, covered with graham cracker crumbs and baked. Ummmm, ummm! The whole feast took a day and a half to prepare, but it really went over big, if I do say so myself. And I did it all under sleep-shades, ya know. We did everything that way. Those of us who had any sight wore 'em from eight to five. That way we really knew in our guts that we didn't need sight to do any of the things we did."

"Was that the place you learned Braille, Grandpa?" Carlin asked.

"Yes, I learned how to read and write Braille, how to type, sew, cook, clean, shop, travel, and some other very important things that you don't get in classes."

"What was the most fun thing you did there, Grandpa?" Ellana asked in her most excited, trigb-prtcbcd squeak. "Ellana, that's easy. It was around the end of my stay at the Center. See, every student, around the time they're ready to graduate from the Center, had to go on an all-day travel route by themselves, to a new town. For my route, I did somethin' which I had once thought was darn near impossible. I flew to a faraway city and back, under sleep-shades of course. I changed planes in a very large airport at a very busy time of day. It turned out to be a lot easier than I had thought it would be. The fun came when I got back to the Center and celebrated. I'll never forget how good I felt about myself after I did that."

"But Grandpa Zach," Carlin said, "I don't see what's so big a deal about that. I always see lots of blind people doing that every time we go to the airport."

"Well, Carlin," Grandpa leaned forward in twined his fingers together. "You see, it wasn't always that way. In my day, you rarely saw blind people travelling independently in airports or anywhere else. Most blind people didn't have the skills or the confidence to do that sort of thing. And there were only a handful of centers like the one in Louisiana. Now, since there's one in all 52 states, blind people are getting what they need to really make it in the world. And the Swedish Center, which was modelled after ours, has influenced centers all over Europe."

"Grandpa, are you sure things were really that different back then?" Carlin questioned.

"Oh, yes. And there's still discrimination and new problems for the blind." Grandpa abandoned his story-telling voice and adopted a more serious tone. "It takes a long, long time to change ancient ideas. But for the most part, the blind are far better off today than they were when I was your age, and places like the new Louisiana Training Center have had a lot to do with that. I was extremely lucky that I had such good training back then. Most people I knew never had the chance."

They were silent as they listened to the fire, hissing softer and softer. At last, Ellana spoke. "Did you ever go water skiing again, Grandpa?"

"No, Ellana, I never did."

Her usual smile vanished. "But, if you never did it again," she said, "then why was it so important that they made you do it?"

Grandpa sank back once more into his chair. "Kids," he said, "it wasn't until years later that I understood why we did so many of the things we did at the Center: the water skiing, the horseback riding, the camping, the hiking, the barbecues, and all the things that everybody might have been afraid to do. I always figured, at the time, that there wasn't much point in doing all that stuff when I could have been studying Braille or working on my cane travel skills. So why do you think we did it?"

Neither child answered.

"Well, I can tell you this, kids. Many times in my life I've had to do things that frightened me; things that I just wasn't sure I could do. But I've never let my blindness hold me back from doing the things I wanted to do. I learned at the Center to believe in myself as a blind person and that whatever I wanted to do with my life was entirly up to me. Seem' my blind teachers leading normal lives, raising children, working, being active in their communities, and having fun, helped me a lot. But it wasn't enough to know that other blind people could be happy and successful. I had to know that I could be, too.

"When I went to a state fair once while I was at the Center, I felt great about being able to walk around, buy lunch, and pet the animals. But I passed right by all of the games. I assumed that I couldn't do them. But when I ran into another student who told me they had just won a teddy bear in a ball-throwing game, I was shocked. At first, I didn't believe it. Then I decided to try a few, myself. I figured out ways to play in the games without having to see and I won at two of them. That was the moment when I finally stopped assuming what I couldn't do and truly was set free.

"You see, it was somethin' as insignificant as a game at a fair that made the biggest change in my attitude toward my blindness and toward myself. No one can tell where or when that moment will come for someone else, but by constantly doing new and different things, by accepting and welcoming life's challenges, you're sure to have your own special moments, moments that will change the way you'll live the rest of your lives. And kids, if you will do that, accept and welcome life's challenges, then your future memories will be as enjoyable for you as mine are for me, right now."

For more information about the Louisiana Center for the Blind write or call:

Joanne Femandes, Director
Louisiana Center for the Blind
101 South Trenton Street
Ruston, Louisiana 71270

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