by Christine Boone
From the Editor: I have been a reader of the Braille Monitor for at least forty years, and many articles it has carried have shaped the way I think about myself and the condition of being blind. This is one of my favorites. It not only talks about the process of gaining independence but describes just how difficult it can be to hold onto it. The honesty and capacity for self-reflection captured here make it timeless. Here is how it was so eloquently introduced in February of 1992 by then Associate Editor Barbara Pierce.
From the Associate Editor: Christine Boone is an independent young wife and mother who has worked hard for the Federation wherever she has lived since she first found the organized blind movement. She has learned the truth of the poet's statement that "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage." The most formidable limitations that stifle humanity are chains that bind the spirit, and most of these are forged in the human mind itself.
Independence is a subtle and often misunderstood treasure. People who are losing their sight frequently rail at their loss of independence, by which they mean their inability to do things in the same old way. And, if they refuse to master the skills that will enable them to carry out their daily responsibilities using alternative techniques, they are correct, for they will be forever dependent on those around them. We humans don't like change, especially change imposed on us against our wills, so it frequently happens that we focus our dislike on the manifestations of our altered condition: "I wouldn't be caught dead using a cane." "I don't need Braille." And gradually the prison walls rise around us, cutting us off both from what we have been and from what we have the power to become.
But independence is also a slippery thing. Even when we think it is safely and permanently in our grasp, it can ooze away without our having noticed what was happening. The National Federation of the Blind has always expended a good deal of energy breaking down all kinds of prison walls and striking off the chains that bind blind people. Sometimes the job requires that we insist on the right to good rehabilitation training. Sometimes we must fight for legal protections for those demanding equal treatment. And sometimes we are called upon to struggle against the temptation to sit back and let others do things for us. Here is Christine Boone's story of such a struggle:
The first white flakes of winter swept past us on the wind as my children and I hurried along the sidewalk toward home. As we reached the corner, I took a small hand in each of mine, listened carefully above the sound of the wind, and asked my son Edward if he thought it was safe for us to cross. "Yes, Mommy, it's cold!"
I admonished, "Look to your left; do you see that car coming?"
"Oh yes, we have to wait, Mommy. I knew that."
"Well, if you knew that, why did you say we could go?" I asked as the car sped past on the already-damp street.
"I don't know; I just did," he replied in the matter-of-fact tone of a three-and-a-half-year-old.
I bent down and repeated the old "Stop, look, and listen" routine for what seemed like the hundredth time. Then we crossed the street together, hurried the last quarter block, and stepped gratefully into the snug warmth of our home.
Later, as I baked a batch of Halloween cookies while Edward and Katie took afternoon naps, I pondered the events of the morning. Was there anything so unusual about our walk together? Not really, these walks had become something of a routine since my decision to take a year off from work and stay home with my little ones. It was a good routine at that--one which we all treasured. There was a bouquet of fall leaves on the buffet--leaves gathered lovingly by the children and carried carefully home, where I arranged them in a basket which was proudly displayed for all to see. Edward and Katie did not wonder at the ability of a blind mother to make a fall decoration or to keep them out of harm's way during a walk along the highways and byways of Albuquerque. Nor should they wonder about such things. For me, as for countless other blind men and women today, the absence of eyesight is an inconvenience at times but nothing more. But it had not always been that way for me.
In 1977 I entered college at the University of Colorado. To say that I was painfully shy would be the understatement of the decade. Julie, my roommate, was also not long on courage, but people seemed to warm to her somehow, while I, in my need to exhibit an independence which I did not feel, tended to push people away without realizing it. At any rate, there we were, both blind but neither choosing to admit it. We shuffled around campus, never of course carrying canes; yet somehow, by the grace of God and our fellow students who occasionally took pity on us, managing to make it to most of our classes.
As the months passed, we grew more accustomed to the layout of the campus and a little less frightened about venturing forth. Then we began receiving phone calls about an organization of blind people which met every month in Boulder. At first we had no intention of associating with "those blind people." But the woman who called us--Anne was her name--was always so kind, and it never seemed to offend her that we didn't attend her meetings. So after a few months we broke down and said yes.
How well I remember that first meeting. It was run very efficiently by a blind president. The books seemed to be well kept by a blind treasurer. The minutes were thorough and were quickly read in Braille by a blind secretary. Most impressive of all, however, was what happened after the meeting adjourned. All of those blind people left for their homes; they just left! It was dark outside, and I, caneless, was feeling a bit nervous about walking the three blocks to my sorority house. And here were these blind people just tapping their canes in front of them and heading off down the street or to the bus stop, without concern or hesitation. That night marked the beginning of a richer life for me, a life full of freedom and adventure.
Julie and I both began to use canes. She was already enlightened enough to use Braille regularly and well, and she encouraged me to use it too. I had learned the system in high school but had never really used it in my daily life. Our other Federation friends taught us the finer points of cane travel, and we soon began taking part in national conventions, Washington Seminars, NAC-tracking, and other Federation activities. Before we quite knew what had happened, we were confident, competent blind people, graduating from college. The year was 1981.
In 1982 I moved to Nebraska to take a job with the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired, and before long I was teaching cane travel to blind adults in the Orientation Center there. While in Nebraska, I met and married my husband Doug.
Because Doug is also a cane travel instructor and a truly enlightened sighted person, he expected and demanded that I, as a blind person, live what we taught in the Center; and this belief in me, together with my continued work as a travel teacher, brought me to the pinnacle of my own independence. There was really nothing I thought I could not do and nowhere I thought I could not go. It was a wonderful feeling, one I thought I would never lose.
Then, in the winter of 1987, we moved to the wild Pacific coast of Oregon, where Doug had taken a job with the Oregon Commission for the Blind. For the first time in my adult life, I found myself unemployed and living in a small town with no public transportation. True, Lincoln City did have a cab--one little car, driven by one man who routinely left town for a day or two at a time, taking with him my only transit. Furthermore, though the town was only a half mile wide, it was seven miles long, which meant that walking to most stores and other businesses involved trekking two or three miles each way, usually in the rain--an exercise I did not relish.
Well there I was, watching the cold, gray winter change imperceptibly to the cold, gray summer and wondering what to do with myself. I went to the nearest unemployment office (forty miles away) and filled out applications. I sent out resumes, had some interviews, became pregnant, and volunteered two days a week at the local Chamber of Commerce as a tourist information specialist.
After ten months on the coast, we were transferred to Portland, where I immediately lumbered to the nearest bus stop and rode off in a state of exhilaration to visit my obstetrician. In the weeks that followed, I traversed the hills of Portland, both on foot and by bus. Then Edward was born, and I settled into a routine which did not involve much in the way of independent travel. It was very easy for me to rationalize this new behavior. There were no sidewalks in our part of town, and we lived near a busy street. It would be extremely dangerous for me to wheel Edward in his stroller along Garden Home Road with its speeding drivers, steep ditches, and sharp curves. Of course the bus stop was on our corner, and I did not even need to transfer to reach the grocery store, the mall, or the downtown area beyond. Nevertheless, I generally confined myself to walking the quiet streets of our neighborhood, taking the bus only once to the grocery store, and riding downtown or to the mall only if I had a very pressing reason.
Then it was time for the national convention in Chicago, and we packed up the baby and set out, ready to see old friends and learn new things. When we arrived, I was unprepared for the feelings of insecurity which overwhelmed me as we stepped through the door of the Hyatt into that throng of Federationists. No, it was not my first convention, far from it. I had participated in conventions for years, teaching cane travel seminars, working crowd control, and helping people to learn their way around the hotels and surrounding areas. Yet this year was different--gone was the confidence which I had once taken for granted, and I slipped almost unconsciously into the pattern I had begun to follow at home. I went everywhere with Doug, not using sighted guide technique, of course, but following him or waiting for him to tell me which way we needed to go. Even more startling was the fact that he was as unaware of the change as I and did nothing to encourage me to strike out on my own. The decrease in my independence had occurred so gradually that neither of us recognized the change. You see, it is true: skills which we do not use, we begin to lose. It becomes all too easy to rationalize this loss of independence and, almost inevitably, of the self-worth that accompanies it without realizing the extent to which in so doing we jeopardize our own self-respect as well as the respect of others. Fortunately for me my colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind are the best kind of friends anyone could have. They were not about to let me compromise the independence which I had worked so hard to attain.
It was about the third day of the convention, and I was having lunch with Rosemary Lerdahl. Rosemary had been my supervisor when I taught in the Orientation Center, and she is a dear friend and a wonderful person. She began asking me about the things I had done since coming to Chicago. After listening to my answers, she suggested that I take in the exhibit hall, the Taste of Chicago, and the shopping when convention wasn't in session. I explained how difficult it was to do all those things with a baby along, and she looked over at Edward, who was intermittently watching the waterfall and smiling at passers-by. She calmly remarked that he might enjoy some of those attractions too, and besides, there was childcare. What could I say? I summoned up all of my nerve and asked quietly, "Rose, do you think I'm incompetent; I mean, have I lost my skills?"
"Well I have noticed that they seem a little rusty, and I think you have lost a little of your self-confidence." Her reply confirmed my worst fears. My independence was gone, and everybody knew it. Federationists are not oblivious; they know when a colleague who once traveled independently and well ceases to do so, but neither are Federationists judgmental or critical. We stand ready to lend help and support in enabling one another to be the best we can. In keeping with this precept, Rosemary did not criticize me or ask how I could have let my independence slip and my confidence erode.
The next morning, when we left our hotel room, Doug walked silently beside me, stopping whenever we came to a turn to let me decide which way we needed to go. Lo and behold, we made it to breakfast quickly and without incident. Afterward I found the Oregon delegation, went to work at the information desk, and at noon went off alone to find lunch for my fellow workers. No, these were not milestones; indeed I have done all of them at conventions since without giving them a second thought. But that day marked the beginning of my return to excellence--the excellence I must maintain if I am to serve as a representative of the National Federation of the Blind. At the end of the day I was exhilarated. I had not lost my independence forever; it had merely taken a back seat for a time, and as a result I had begun to feel unsure of myself. I thank Heaven for that lunch with Rosemary and for her honesty and encouragement.
I returned to Portland and set to work removing the tarnish from my travel skills. Edward and I went to the mall to buy a birthday gift for Doug. We took the bus downtown and met him for lunch. Edward even came along while I taught cane travel to some Federationists in the Portland area. A few months later we moved here to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Doug joined Fred Schroeder's team at the Commission for the Blind, and Edward and I hit the road again. After all, there is much to be done when you move to a new town. Yes, I had a few butterflies the first time we set out for the bus stop, but we traveled around the city easily and without incident as Edward rode comfortably on my back, dozing in our warm New Mexico sunshine.
How fortunate I am to be a part of the National Federation of the Blind. It was through the NFB that I first learned about independence, acquired a long white cane, got my first real job, and met my fantastic husband. When I unwittingly let my skills grow rusty and my confidence seep away, it was the Federation that got me back on track again. Independence is a treasure, a hard-earned reward for a job well done. Whether we know it or not, in everything we do, we teach. So let us all protect this hard-won treasure and pass it on whenever we can.