by Mary Ellen Gabias
From the Editor: Mary Ellen Gabias is a leader and a founding member of the Canadian Federation of the Blind. Before marrying Dr. Paul Gabias and moving to Canada, she was a member of the National Federation of the Blind and was employed at the National Center for the Blind. Readers of the Monitor will appreciate once again her insightful writing, her clarity, and her conviction. Here is what she says:
Journeys make me think about travel and moving around. The notion of travelling represents a metaphor for how I live my life and what the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) mean to me. Over the years I have discovered that the stories I tell myself about what has happened to me shape my destiny more than the happenings themselves.
First Paradigm: Don’t move. When I was five, a buddy knocked on my door and asked me if I could go outside to play cops and robbers. My mom said yes, but she asked me to stay in the backyard. "Don’t go near the side yard. Workers are repairing the septic tank," Mom said.
If I had listened to my mom that day, I wouldn’t be telling this story now. All I can say in defense of my five-year-old self is that, when Elliot Ness was in hot pursuit of Al Capone, he probably didn’t remember everything his mother told him either. I will spare you the details, except that, when I was running full speed ahead and suddenly there was no ground under me, it felt like I was flying--until gravity won. My mother stated the lesson from that event simply: "You pay a price when you don’t pay attention." How grateful I am that was her message. It so easily could have been "Don’t run; it’s too dangerous."
My parents encouraged me to move on my own, but unfortunately other people and several circumstances did not. My brothers usually parked their bikes in the wrong places; it is amazing how many bruises one can get from falling over a bicycle. Many people said, "Don’t worry; I’ll do it; you might fall; just sit there." So the idea that moving was scary entered my consciousness.
A long white cane would have made things easier for me, but my parents told themselves a story that, along with a tin cup and a handful of pencils, the cane was part of the beggar’s badge. So I became afraid to move because I lacked that tool.
Second Paradigm: Exploring is fun. In grade two I learned about explorers: Christopher Columbus, Magellan--those brave people who went out and discovered new continents. Our school’s acreage was relatively small, but it felt enormous. I set out to explore every inch of it--charting unknown territories. Without a cane to check out the ground ahead of me, my explorations were more arduous than they needed to be. Even so, I began to believe that life was fun; getting around was an adventure. Then home to Mom’s cupcakes--no starving in the wilderness! So the idea that exploring was a joy became part of my life.
Third Paradigm: Am I good enough? I heard the family of another blind student talking about cane travel. They said of their child, "He moves as fast as a sighted person." I wanted that. I begged for cane travel lessons and insisted that my parents change their story about what it meant to use a white cane.
I was instructed by an orientation and mobility specialist trained in Boston. She called herself a "peripetologist"--a pretentious and intentionally manufactured Greek word, meaning the science of getting around. I learned the two-point touch, three-point-touch, touch-and-slide, touch-and-drag. I learned to go with a sighted person the first time I went anywhere to make sure the new route was safe.
The third paradigm became: "Am I doing it right? Am I a good traveler or a bad one?" All of these paradigms existed simultaneously. Sometimes I was scared to move, sometimes I was excited, and sometimes I wondered if I was good enough. Then I became involved with the National Federation of the Blind--a growing, changing and dynamic organization in the U.S. My first trip to a Federation convention, where hundreds of blind people gathered together, helped me understand my paradigms better and changed the stories I told myself.
At convention in 1972 far too many people still believed that independent travel meant that not everyone had his or her own sighted guide; independence meant that one guide worked with five or six people. Groups of us travelled by train--not Amtrak or light rail--but a train in which the sighted person guided five or six blind people who hung on for dear life. Heaven help you if the trains got tangled up. The sighted people would get into arguments about who had the right of way and which train should move. The blind people stood patiently waiting, while the sighted settled the matter.
I also encountered a new and exciting spirit at that convention. Canes tapped; people walked by themselves with their heads high, with speed, with joy. Sometimes one person linked arms with a less confident colleague, or sweethearts held hands. I deliberately followed those confident travelers around the hotel and the downtown Chicago streets and imitated everything they did. I added yet another paradigm to my list.
Fourth Paradigm: "Of course, I travel; I’ve got places to go, and I’m going to get there." Blind people live with all of these paradigms of travel and life. Yes, sometimes moving seems too dangerous; sometimes it is an adventure to explore and try new things; sometimes self-doubt stops us from trying at all. But more and more, because of the Canadian Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, blind people travel because they have places to go. The techniques are the same; the stories are different. Federation conventions change your life. You cannot imagine, until you go, the many empowering stories you will hear and the way these stories will change your life and the lives of others in many subtle ways.That day, when I was playing cops and robbers, if my mother had said, "Don’t move, it’s too dangerous," my plunge into the septic tank would not have been just a humorous story. It would have ended my desire to move and dream on my own. I would have become afraid that independent action would lead me into the mire, instead of learning that, when you pay attention, you don’t have to pay a price. I am grateful to my parents and to everyone in the Federation for helping me understand those lessons, for teaching me the way, and for sharing my journey.