by Emilie Gossiaux
From the Editor: Emilie Gossiaux gave this address at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), and repeated it at the 2012 semiannual convention of the NFB of Minnesota, while she was a student at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND). She has now graduated and returned to her studies at the Cooper Union in New York, using the new skills and confidence she gained at BLIND, Incorporated. We are reprinting her remarks from the Winter 2013 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Minnesota. This is what Emily said:
Good evening, friends, family, teachers, faculty, and the graduating class of 2012. Before I begin, I want to thank the NOCCA Institute and NOCCA’s president, Kyle Wedberg, for inviting Alan and me here tonight as guest speakers. I am honored to share my story with you.
The first part begins nine years ago in 2003, when I was thirteen. I started attending classes at NOCCA. I remember feeling mesmerized by the beauty of the campus and the city. It became my second home, a haven where I could do anything and express myself freely in any way my heart desired amongst other young, blooming artists, musicians, singers, dancers, writers, and actors. NOCCA opened doors, gave me dreams, and helped me set my goals for the future. Ever since I was a young girl, I have been a high achiever. To be accepted into NOCCA was my first big accomplishment.
I believe I inherited this characteristic of perseverance from my early childhood hearing disability. When I was five years old, I put on my first hearing aids. I saw my hearing loss as something I would grow out of, as if it were an illness that would just get better over time. Unfortunately this was not the case. My heart broke when I found out that my hearing was not going to get any better and would most likely only deteriorate further. By the time I got to middle school, I was trying my hardest to conceal my hearing disability to fit in with everyone else, but I always felt that I was different. I never knew anyone or talked to another person with the same disability as mine, so I felt quite alone. I became quiet and terribly shy unless I was with my close friends, and when I wasn't, I drew. It was something I was proud of, something I felt I was good at.
After being accepted into NOCCA, I no longer felt alone or different. I knew I wanted to be an artist. It was here that I learned about the Cooper Union for the Advancement in Science and Art in New York City. I remember my mom coming home one night after a parent-teacher meeting and telling me that it was the most prestigious art school in the country. Right then, in my thirteen-year-old mind, I made a promise to myself that I would go there.
I want to talk to everyone tonight about what is most important when one wishes to become a successful artist. Talent, which I'm sure all of you have, is important of course, but, if you do not have a strong work ethic, the motivation, or the self-discipline, then it really doesn't matter how talented you are. This is the one thing I learned during my years at NOCCA, and I applied it, not only to my career as an artist, but also to everything in my life. After graduating from high school, I was accepted into my dream school, the Cooper Union, and it was there that I became a full-fledged workaholic. This time I just wanted to be the best.
The second part of my story begins in the summer of 2010. Before I started my senior year of college, I underwent a surgical procedure called a cochlear implant to improve the hearing in my left ear. After the surgery I decided to take a semester off from school. That fall I got an internship working for an artist in Brooklyn and continued creating my own paintings in my studio apartment. I rode my bicycle to work every morning and rode it home every night. I felt as though my life was finally falling into place, exactly the way I wanted it to be. I had a job I loved, I had a beautiful studio loft in Brooklyn, I was living with the most loving and supportive boyfriend imaginable, and I had the comfort and ease of riding my bike whenever I needed to go somewhere.
Only nine months after I started dating Alan, four months after I had my surgery, and one month after getting my job, everything—my entire life—turned upside down. On the morning of October 8, 2010, I got on my bike to ride to work, kissed my boyfriend goodbye, and rode off. Merely ten minutes after I took off, an eighteen-wheeler semi hit me. Six weeks later I woke up in a hospital with Alan and my mother by my side. My mother told me my accident was a traumatic brain injury (TBI), that I had a stroke in the emergency room, and that my right arm was paralyzed. My left femur was shattered in the accident and had been replaced with a titanium rod. I was also told that the optic nerve in my left eye was severed from the impact of the truck to my left side, and my right optic nerve had atrophied from the swelling in my brain. Due to my injuries, I could no longer see, I could not walk, and I had very little control of my right arm. From there on I went through many months of physical and occupational therapy as an inpatient at the hospital.
It's a strange and funny thing that when I awoke from my drug-induced coma and realized that the accident had blinded me, I wasn't afraid, and I didn't cry. Once again, I believed it was something that would come back to me and would gradually get better with the help of developing medicine and technology. However, I soon realized that I couldn't wait around and rely on that glimmer of hope. Instead I took action. In order to regain my independence as a blind woman, I started taking Braille classes along with cooking and white cane travel classes in New York City. The words “stop” and “give up” never once occurred to me. But I would be lying if I told you that I never doubted my capabilities. There I was, partially deaf, unable to walk, and now blind. The thing that scared me the most was the thought of going back to Cooper and completing my senior year as a visual art student. I was afraid of what people would think of me. How could I make art if I couldn't see? How could I ever enjoy it again? What else could I do if it was the only thing I had ever done and the only thing I was good at?
The artist in me needed the most time to heal. It took many months and the help of many friends before I felt confident enough to become an artist again. During these past four months I have been working alongside another blind artist/craftsman in his wood shop. He was born blind and has been designing and building his own furniture since he was nineteen. This man has given me a priceless gift and has shown me an invaluable lesson: that sight has nothing to do with making art; it's the vision within that matters. My dream was to graduate from the Cooper Union and to be a successful artist in New York City, and it still is.
Not only was this traumatic experience horrifying beyond imagination, it was also an enlightenment. This past year I have learned more about myself, which I probably would never have known otherwise. Because of my hearing disability, I always saw myself as being the weaker link, since I was always competing with the rest of the hearing world. However, I have discovered all of my strengths. I have learned that I have a strong will to succeed, and I have found that I have more discipline than anyone else I know. Through this experience I have also found true love and have realized who my true friends are, without whom I would not be where I am today.
You never know what kind of challenges life will throw at you or where you'll end up, but you must never forget who you are, and you must always hold on to your dreams. My mobility instructor, when teaching me how to walk with a white cane, taught me how to maneuver around objects, such as newspaper stands, bus stops, or trees, when confronted with them. I also apply his advice to how we can handle the things life puts in our way. He told me, "We must walk through life like water in a stream. When the water hits a rock or a tree in its path, it doesn't stop; it gracefully moves around that object and finds its way back on track.” This is also my advice to you. Don't let life stop you from achieving your dreams; take it as a challenge, something from which you can only gain. You must remember there is no wrong or right way, and it doesn't matter how you get there. The only thing that matters is that you get there.
And now congratulations, class of 2012; I wish you all happy travels on your journey through life. Thank you.
One of the great satisfactions in life is having the opportunity to assist others. Consider making a gift to the National Federation of the Blind to continue turning our dreams into reality. A gift to the NFB is not merely a donation to an organization; it provides resources that will directly ensure a brighter future for all blind people.
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