by Larry Sebranek
From the Editor: The following informal autobiography was offered at a local chapter meeting in Idaho. Members were so impressed that Larry was asked to repeat his life's story at the Seniors Division meeting during the NFB convention last year in Orlando. It was subsequently published in the winter/spring issue of the Senior Division newsletter, where we came across it and thought Monitor readers would enjoy it. Here it is:
I was born in a very small town in Wisconsin. There were over one thousand people in the area. Like many rural areas decades ago, many families were poor, including mine. Dad did many kinds of odd jobs, but fulltime work was not available.
In small towns vision problems were not noticed when children were very young. Mine was not noticed until I was in the second grade. One day my parents realized that my two-year-old sister could find the ball faster than I could; they realized something was wrong. They took me to an eye doctor, and I was given glasses. We all assumed the problem had been solved. Things move slowly, so it wasn't until I was in high school that I realized I could not see very well.
When I finally realized that I could not follow a ball, the other kids (or some of them) were very unkind. They said things like I could not even see the ball when it was under my feet. I had tunnel vision; kids would stick out their feet so I would trip, and then they would laugh.
When it came time to talk about a career, I did not have much of a problem because I could see well enough to drive Dad's tractor up and down the rows and do a good job. But, since the kids had been so mean, I had lost my self-esteem, so I decided to go out and hide on a farm some place. When I graduated from high school, Dad decided to buy a farm to provide work for him and me. It was 1961, a very bad time to start farming, but we decided to go ahead with the plan. Other farmers were going broke, but we survived.
I really did not know the extent of my vision loss until I received a notice from the draft board. I gave the notice to my eye doctor so he could write a letter explaining my blindness. When I read the letter he had written, I was shocked. It said in part that I had tunnel vision and night blindness and that by age forty I would most likely be completely blind. That ended my prospects in the military.
For the next twenty-two years I did farm, but by age thirty I had lost my reading vision. At this point my father was doing the tractor work, and I was doing the muscle work. In 1984 we sold the farm, and I got a call from the vocational rehabilitation counselor. The guy came out and talked to me because I had applied for Social Security Disability. When he arrived at my door, we had to lead him to a chair. I was not encouraged. If this was the best a blind rehab counselor could do, I had no hope for myself. His lack of mobility was not encouraging. I thought my future looked exceedingly bleak. He said that I needed to be evaluated. I told him that I was a farmer, and that was all I knew how to do.
He said that he would send out a home teacher who could help me get set up with Talking Books and teach me how to use a cane. June 6, 1984, a young rehab counselor showed up at my door. Most of you knew her as Cathleen Sullivan. She sat me down and said she noticed that I was living with my parents. She then asked what I thought I was going to do when they were too old to care for me. I told her that I had a sister who had a bedroom in her basement and that she would be glad to take me in. Cathleen asked if my sister knew about my plan. I said I had not discussed it with my sister, but…. Cathleen then said that she was going to go to a convention of blind people and asked if I would like to go. I assured her that I wanted nothing to do with blind people. About the third lesson she said that I ought to learn Braille. I told her that I had torn-up hands from farming and that, as far as I was concerned, Braille was out of the picture for my future. She did not give up even though I told her that I had recently chewed up my fingers with a table saw. I finally realized that I could feel Braille, and I learned grade two Braille in six weeks. I was motivated because I needed to know how to read and write.
As I worked with Cathy, she kept telling me about all the places she went, and that caught my attention. I finally got my courage up and took my first plane ride to attend the 1987 NFB convention in Arizona. I soon met a scholarship winner named John Fritz, who was also a farmer. Of course we really hit it off. He also showed me a computer. I had been told many times that I needed to attend a rehab center where I would learn how to use a computer, but I resisted.
Back in 1985 Cathy said she was going to take a bus to an NFB of Wisconsin board meeting and that the bus was going to go right through my town. So I did get on that bus. When I got to the meeting, I was very impressed at how serious these blind people were and how much they were accomplishing. I also met a lady named Sue, whom I married years later.
My first state convention was that year, and a guy named Fred Schroeder was the national rep. There was a discussion I simply did not understand. NFBW members were complaining about the quality of rehab services. I could not understand what the problem was because these kindly folks in rehab were just trying to help blind people. As you can see, at times I had real problems with the Federation and its expectations.
What really changed my mind was my first Washington Seminar. I could not believe that an old farm boy like me could be sitting in my Senator's office and that he was taking what I said seriously. This whole exposure to the Federation has been a mind-changing experience. After I met the Federation, my perspective kept opening to a broader and broader world. Like many of you I owe my wonderful life to the National Federation of the Blind.
Note: After he finished speaking his wife asked him to tell the story about why he gave up his driver's license. Larry said that he was driving up a hill at sunset. He was following the yellow line and at a pretty good rate of speed ran right into a county truck. His eye doctor told him that he had better stop driving before he killed himself or someone else, so he did. Judy Sanders [president of the Seniors Division] asked Larry when he first got married. He said that he was slow to catch on, so he was forty-six. Sometime after his first wife [Cathleen Sullivan Sebranek] died, he married Sue, and as seniors they really enjoy cruising.