Future Reflections Summer 1990, Vol. 9 No. 2

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by Lauren L. Eckery

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the December, 1989 Braille Monitor was orginallypublished in the Fall, 1989 issue o/News From Blind Nebraskans, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska.

The burning hot sun of midsummer is shining brightly today as I sit out here on the patio beginning to write. What color the sun is is not particularly relevant to me at this moment. I know that for some blind people the color of the sun or, for that matter, what anything looks like visually, seems irrelevant. I do not take this view, however. I am highly interested in my world, including what things look like. There are those who might insist that this could not be so.

Back in 1972, when I was nearing graduation from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, a sighted male friend and I were discussing my future. This was a friend I very much liked and trusted. However, he knew nothing about the National Federation of the Blind and its positive philosophy of blindness.

I had been approached by the Federation in 1971, had been reading the Braille Monitor, but had only begun to assimilate our philosophy on blindness. Therefore, neither of us understood what he was really saying when he remarked: "When you get an apartment of your own, if you have cockroaches, they won't bother you because you won't see them, so you won't even know they are there. Besides, if you don't know what they look like, then you won't know how awful they are." I thought this statement odd and rather gross, and I laughed. I was not aware at that moment that he had indeed epitomized the heartbreaking experience of many of us.

As Pearl S. Buck has written: "There were many ways of breaking a heart. Stories were full of hearts being broken by love, but what really broke a heart was taking away its dream -- whatever that dream might be."

My dream, of course, was to be a normal, first class citizen in our society. My dream, at that particular time, might have included him in that apartment of the future. He had obviously highly respected me as a student, equal to himself, but he really did not respect me as a blind person.

It was only recently, as I began formulating this article, that I remembered his words of seventeen years ago, realizing at once, with my Federation training, what he had really said. I noticed quite a number of attitudinal "cockroaches" in his remarks.

Attitudes like those exemplified in this person's remarks often bring about our being denied opportunities for normal experiences in the world. As far as visual cues are concerned, many such cues about our world are kept from us. As an example: what color something is or where something is located. On the other hand, often we are given far too many details about visual aspects of our world -- an example being the clock method on the dinner plate.

Behind all of this thinking are ingrained beliefs similar to those espoused, by implication, by my university friend of 1972. Evidently he assumed that a blind person keeping an apartment by him or herself would necessarily have cockroaches, since blind people couldn't possibly keep the place clean. (I may not be the best housekeeper, but blindness is not the reason.) If we can see, we automatically notice everything in the world there is to see and we know more about our world because we see it. If we cannot see, we know nothing about the visual qualities of the things in our world -- indeed, we know very nearly nothing at all -- forget about the use of other senses, and, of course, forget about our ability to reason.

Countless times in our lives we have heard such expressions as: "Out of sight, out of mind," "Seeing is believing," "What you don't know (or see) won't hurt you." These are all suggestions of lack, loss, and inferior capacity for reasoning.

How misinformed was this fine young man, even though he had known me for several years. How misinformed was I to the extent that I was unable to set him straight about blindness, resulting in discouraging him from remaining in a prominent place in my life.

On the other hand, as I began to grow in the Federation, I learned from those who were willing to teach me, and I have also learned from experience (sometimes the hard way) some of the realities of blindness --mainly attitude problems and their impact on our lives and the means for resolving such problems. I have also learned (sometimes the hard way) that standing up strongly against such attitudinal barriers, as a unified collective body, will change these negative attitudes once and for all. Shared individual positive experiences can also help toward exterminating such cockroaches from our lives. Toward this end I relate the following experiences:

When I entered into my course of study at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, I lived at home. Later I moved to the dorm, thank goodness! Everyday on the way to school we passed a certain building. One day I asked my mother what that particular building looked like. I was startled by her honest answer: "Laurie, we drive past that building every single day. I don't know what it looks like. I haven't really looked at it." Later, of course, she surveyed the building closely, describing it in such detail that if another blind person had asked me what this building looked like, I could have given as accurate a description of the building as my mother had given me.

This is, indeed, a lesson which many people (blind or sighted) fail to learn about sight. Sighted people do not necessarily know more about our world than blind people do. They do not have a constant edge on us simply because they can see and we cannot. Neither are blind people necessarily ignorant about their world simply because they are blind. The blind people I know who are less knowledgeable about their world tend to be those who are bitter about their blindness, refusing to concern themselves with visual factors. This lack of concern may also be noticed in blind people who have not had, or taken, the opportunity to learn alternative techniques of daily living. Or it may be simply that some folks just don't care about those things. Blindness itself does not shut us off from or out of our world.

Another example of this lesson came to me recently. Only several weeks ago my eight-year old daughter, Lynden, asked: "Mommy, what color is the sun?" She blinks and often sneezes upon looking directly at the sun. Was it possible that she never looked long enough to notice the color of the sun? Was she testing me to see if I knew the color of the sun? What answer did she expect to get from me, the standard "yellow"?

I am totally blind since birth due to congenital glaucoma. I have no vision in the left eye. Before glaucoma took my right eye, I could see light, dark, and blobs of color. I cried the evening before the surgery, panicked a few times immediately thereafter, and that was it. I was not bitter about never seeing another sunset, because I knew that in my mind's eye I could conjure one up easily enough if I wanted to do so. Perhaps this is similar to the manner in which Beethoven was able to write some of his best music when he could no longer hear--he had a good mind, and he used it.

I told Lynden that in the middle of the day the sun is said to be yellow, although it always looked white to me. I explained that toward sunset the color could change from a brighter yellow, becoming more and more orange, sometimes setting in a brilliant red-orange ball with other colors around it (clouds, I surmised). When this occurs, the bright fiery ball on the horizon looks as though it is resting on the ground, quite far away. Eventually it disappears. Sometimes the clouds hide this color. Often the sun does just the opposite at sunrise. Sunrises and sunsets can vary. Artists have painted them; writers have described them in words. Some people often do not notice them at all, but they are there.

"I've never seen the sun change color like that. Why does it change color? Why does it look like the sun is on the ground?" she asked, curiously. Her questions were getting beyond me. I didn't know enough about the physical properties of light, color, refraction, and distance, plus the rotation of the earth, etc., to explain it all to her. Anxiously I said: "Ask your science teacher when school starts again."

With a sigh of relief, I presumed the subject closed, only to hear: "Mommy, could you see rays coming out of the sun?" I told her I couldn't.

"Me neither," she replied. "Then why do people make pictures of the sun with rays coming out all around it?" she continued.

I thought: "Ask your art teacher when school starts again." However, being somewhat more artistic than scientific, I explained that maybe it was an artistic way to show that light and heat were coming from all directions from the yellow circle which represented the sun in the pictures. That was the end of the discussion for the time being.

I believe that, due to stereotypical thinking, Lynden was surprised by the answer she got from a totally blind person. I was equally astonished that a sighted child would bother to ask a totally blind person to describe something visual, taking the answer seriously. I believe we both learned something extremely valuable from this experience.

The knowledge gained and the joy received from this experience were made evident this past weekend as we were riding the bus home from Kansas City to Omaha. Lynden had been sleeping, and I was listening to my Talkman. Suddenly she shouted, with obvious delight, "Mommy, the sun is orange and it is on the ground just like you said." (It looked like it was on the ground.) "It is red-orange, and it's pretty. I've never seen that before."

I was aware that if I had believed all of the stereotypes about blindness, that I would never have done such a normal thing as to get married and have a child -- one I was now sharing a sunset with -- because I might have believed that a blind person couldn't take care of a child independently. I was thankful for this Federation-influenced blessing. I was also aware at that moment that this sunset might have gone unnoticed by both of us had we not had our previous discussion. Certainly it would not have been a life-or death disaster to have missed the sunset, but there was a particular joy in our sharing, "What color is the sun?"

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