Braille Monitor                                               October 2013

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The Blind at Work in an Unusual and Demanding Profession

by Cassandra McNabb-McKinney

From the Editor: On Saturday afternoon, July 6, Cassandra McNabb-McKinney captivated the audience with her remarks. In introducing her, President Maurer said: "Blind people work in unusual professions. We have one today who is in just such a profession, which is also a demanding one. She is a funeral director and embalmer, and she is also president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Hampshire. Here is Cassandra McKinney”:

Cassandra McNabb-McKinney speaking at the 2013 conventionGood afternoon, fellow Federationists. I'm glad that you're all here—alive and breathing—and enjoying this convention. Before I begin my talk today, I'd like for you to do an activity. It's a hands-on activity. I'd like for you to take your index finger and place it at the top of your nose, and then take your thumb and place it under your nose. And then I would like you to keep your fingers right as they are and move them over to your ear, and it should be the same length. If it's not, well, nobody's perfect. I'll be sharing some more interesting facts about landmarks on your face a little bit later in my presentation.

In order to tell about my unique career, I think it's important that I tell you two stories. The first story is how I came to the Federation, and the second story is about the day that changed my life, the day I became an embalmer.

I came to the Federation in 2003 at eighteen years of age. I had never been around a group of such enthusiastic, encouraging blind people. It changed my life. At that time I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I started as a chemistry major at a college in Tennessee, because that's my home state. I soon found out chemistry was not for me because calculus was just not my friend. I decided to attend mortuary school and to pursue a career in something I felt strongly in my heart. It wasn't about being a part of something that was unique as a career, but it was about following my calling.

The journey through mortuary school was difficult. It was full of challenge because I was the first legally blind student to attend John A. Gupton College of Mortuary Science. I remember the first day of embalming class; my professor and I were having a conversation about adaptation, and I asked him, "How close am I going to be able to get to these people that I'm going to be embalming?" I wanted to make sure I'd be able to get close. His response shocked me. He said, "Well, Cassie, you can get as close as you can handle." I learned in my first day of clinicals how close that was. It wasn't as close as I originally thought.

I went on to graduate second in my class, and, following graduation, the real work started. Where does a young woman in a career that is not really open to women, who is also blind, find a job? My pursuits led me to a friend who owned a corporation of funeral homes. I sent my resume to him, and he offered assistance. He said, "Are you willing to relocate?"

I said, "Sure." A week later I received a call from Mr. Robert Di Luzio in Keene, New Hampshire. I didn't even know where New Hampshire was. I grew up in west Tennessee; it was hard enough to figure out where Nashville was, much less another state. So I got on an airplane, and I flew, for the first time, to New Hampshire. I started working there two weeks later, and I've been there for six and a half years.

Now I guess I should get back to the Federation part of this story. In 2009 I had been an apprentice for two-and-a-half years. Apprenticeship is a difficult challenge; every funeral director must serve an apprenticeship before being licensed to serve families. It had been two-and-a-half years of tears and struggle.

There were accomplishments along the way. That summer, in July, I got up early. We were going to march in Detroit. We marched for independence that day. For me it wasn't just a march for independence; it was a march for self-knowledge. During the march I received a bell; I have it with me today. I don't think there were very many of these bells made, so I count it as a very special symbol. When I returned home to New Hampshire, I placed the bell on my desk, and many people would ask what it stood for. I said that it stands for independence. My boss, Mr. Di Luzio, heard this so many times he was starting to tell people this story. When I would have a bad day, when the struggle of the apprenticeship would get too much, I would go to my desk and pick up the bell and ring it. I could remember the sound of them ringing that hot July day. The work that we were doing in the Federation, the inspiration of the people who had come before me--it helped me go on.

Now the second story: it was January 29, 2010. This is a special day for two reasons: first, it was my birthday; and second, it was the day I became an embalmer. In the state of New Hampshire you have to perform a practical exam in front of a board member for the New Hampshire Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, and they examine every process that you do in embalming a body—no pressure. So I got up in the morning, and I knew that this was the day: I knew that it was going to be a day that would change my life. I arrived at work, I made all the proper phone calls to notify the board member that I had the gentleman to embalm, and she informed me that I should go ahead and do the first steps of the process. I want to explain to you, very briefly, what those processes are. [nervous laughter] This is what you've all been waiting for, right—and right after lunch.

Okay, so, nonvisual techniques of embalming: here we go. I had never shaved a man before I became an apprentice embalmer. And so I thought, Oh my goodness, sharp object, a person that everybody's going to see; this could be interesting. I learned that gentle strokes are best, and I also learned that, after you've finished, if you gently run your hand across someone's face, you can tell if you missed anything. This is what I do to this day—I do it this way. So I did this portion: I closed the person's eyes and mouth (I won't tell you how we do that—many of you probably don't want to know). This is all part of the beginning processes to make them appear as they did.

Then comes the surgical portion. Now, I'm only going to tell you a little bit because it's important. When doing the surgical portion, there are two main vessels that you have to locate: the carotid artery and the jugular vein. They are identifiable by touch. For those of you who have never felt an artery, it feels like a large rubber band, and the only way I can describe how you know where the vein is to say that it is colder than anywhere else that you're touching. See, that wasn't too bad, right?

So the board member watched. I remember that, as I was doing the exam, we were talking about how to make chicken and dumplings. I explained that my mom owned a restaurant. Most of you might not know my mom, but some of you do—her name is Sharon Treadway. She is a Randolph-Sheppard vendor and also a member of the board of directors for the National Merchants Division. So she taught me how to make chicken and dumplings.

At the end of the exam I thought it went very well. At the end of the exam the board member doesn't tell you if you passed. You either get a "you've passed," or "we'll see you in six weeks." So she had Mr. Di Luzio come down and they walked out—didn't say anything.

People always ask me, "Do you ever talk to the people?" And that day I did. I remember saying, "I think we did pretty good."

So Mr. Di Luzio came back. He had been working with me for three years. He walked across the room, and he gave me a hug. I was crying, of course, overwhelmed. And he said, "You passed." I got even more overwhelmed then.

After I collected myself I looked at him and I said, "You know we just made history, right?"
And he said, "We did."

It wasn't that I was doing something extraordinary; it was that I was doing something as a pioneer, that there weren't other embalmers in New Hampshire who were legally blind. Now this knowledge of being a pioneer—I think of it as a responsibility. I have a responsibility to the generations after me to show them that anything is possible, that you might not become an embalmer, but you can do anything that you can imagine.

I also want to speak for just a moment to the parents who are here. I am blessed with parents who supported me, who never told me that my dreams were impossible. The fact that you are here for your children shows that you believe that their dreams are possible. My father is sighted. He knew when I was born that the world would be different for me. But he didn't let that stop his dreams and his aspirations for his little girl. I have one short story that deals with my dad, and then I'll conclude.

When I was three, we lived in west Tennessee, and in our backyard was a swamp. There were these turtles that would come up, and my father thought it would be awesome if his little girl could see what these turtles look like. So he caught one one morning, put it in an old swimming pool, and charged my mom with the job of making sure it didn't leave the pool. Then he got me up—it was probably like eight o'clock in the morning—he got me up and he brought me outside to the pool. He was so proud. And he showed me the turtle. I was able to see what it looked like; I was able to touch it, and I still remember what it looked like.

My father didn't know about the Federation until almost twenty years later, but he had the philosophy—both of my parents did—and I don't think that I would be the young professional that I am today if it hadn't been for my parents.

I promised you that there'd be some more landmarks. In the geography of your face your face is five of your eyes wide if you measure from left to right, and you are exactly six-and-a-half heads tall. That's just Jeopardy information for you.

I am honored that Dr. Maurer has asked me to speak to you today. It is an honor to stand here and be able to tell you my story. I hope that it is a positive influence; I hope that it inspires you to pursue your dreams, to go out and do whatever it is that you would like to do with your life. Dream big, work hard, and someday maybe you can say that you've made history. Thank you.

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