by Alex Castillo
From the Editor: Alex Castillo is a disability advocate from New York City. He has been a past president of the NFB’s New York student division and has participated in and led multiple events for students with disabilities in New York. After graduating from Hunter College with a BA in political science and psychology, he left city life to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, where he discovered a love for crawfish and po’boys. He later moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, and worked for the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired as a resource and orientation counselor. It was while he was in Nebraska that he wrote this article for the blog of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind. Alex now lives in Washington DC, where he plans to attend graduate school and continue to contribute to the NFB through our affiliate in the District of Columbia. Here is his story, based on a play written by Jerry Whittle:
Most people know about Santa Claus. He's the jolly old fellow who, along with a team of flying reindeer and tireless elves, works year round so that on one night out of every year they can bring presents to children and adults all over the world. What many people are not aware of is that one year Santa began noticing that his vision was not what it used to be. Of course he did not want to admit it to himself, but driving that sleigh at night and being up there in the sky with all of those airplanes zooming by made him feel quite unsafe. It was no surprise when gossip at the North Pole had it that Santa had gone blind and that he was quitting the holidays. He became depressed, and without his work he lost his sense of purpose in life. The man was a sad mess.
One holiday night everything started going downhill and just got worse and worse. The naughty and nice lists were becoming a blur, and he handed out the wrong toys to more than one billion children. I know what you may be thinking at this moment: if Santa had gone blind, you would surely have heard about it. I'm not saying this is all true, but was there one year in which you received absolutely the most unlikely gift ever? Well, if the answer is yes, then this story might make a little sense. After getting home that night, Santa could do little more than lock himself up in his office at the toy factory. No matter how hard everyone tried to cheer him up, he could do absolutely nothing for a very long time.
This is the story I heard last year when I was visiting friends in Ruston, Louisiana. They say that, a year after he had lost his vision, Santa came down there to receive training at their blindness center. "He could barely even see Rudolph's nose," they said, "He had lost about seventy-five pounds when he first arrived and wouldn't even touch a cookie." "He'd get real close to ya when he was talking," they would all whisper, "Couldn't tell north from south even if he was holding a compass, bless his heart."
Apparently the entire town knew about this phenomenon. So well known was the story down there that a writer by the name of Jerry Whittle wrote a play about the whole ordeal, and everyone in town came to see the production. When I asked how come Santa didn't choose Nebraska to come and train—after all, we have an awesome center right here, and it would seem the rational choice with all the snow, howling winds, and freezing weather we get—the answer I received was: "Well, Nebraska? With all that snow up there, he'd be recognized in a heartbeat if he stepped outside dressed all in red in his Husker gear. Down here he's just another blind guy with a beard."
The more I thought about the story, about this blind and depressed Santa Claus, the more sense it made. Often, when people start to lose their eyesight, they feel ashamed and even worthless. People find themselves helplessly transformed from productive and contributing members of their families and communities to people who just sit passively, watching life and everyone else pass them by. We often confuse the inability to do with the inability to see, when all that it takes for us to get back into our routine, or even find a more exciting and challenging one, is simply to understand that with some blindness training many doors open up with the promise of opportunity. No training center can create Santa Claus, but a good one can help Santa figure out how he can do his job as a respectable blind person—nonvisually. As I recall, the play ended with Santa making the decision to keep the toy factories open and to stay in his job—something for which the world continues to be grateful. He arrived at the North Pole to continue his yearly duties, with some new blindness skills and alternatives. It was truly a happy ending.
But the people in Ruston tell a different story. They say that he didn't go back to the North Pole right away. "Oh, he had some trouble with the training," they said. “At first he was always lifting those sleepshades. They said he would use the excuse of being overheated to lift them and peek during every class. He didn't like travel very much,” they said. "Oh, Santa, Santa! You would see him just hiding when it was time for travel class." But what surprised me the most was when they told me, "The first time Santa stepped into the wood shop and heard those live blades running, he almost fainted." One would think that someone who has been working with factory machinery his whole life would be able to handle an arm saw.
As time went by, Santa settled into the Center and became an excellent student. But after training he didn't go back to the North Pole right away. First he wanted to try out a new career, so he went to work at this Cajun restaurant in the next town as a cook. During training Santa had discovered that he had let Mrs. Claus do all the cooking their entire marriage, but he was surprised to learn that he actually enjoyed working in the kitchen. "Could you imagine that," they said, "Santa a cook in a Cajun restaurant?" I suppose he just felt like he wanted some independence. Like many people after they finish blindness training, he must have felt a bit rebellious and must have wanted to prove to anyone that he could go far beyond the common expectations for a blind person. It wasn't until the missus threatened to come and get him that he decided to go back up north.
Sometimes the path to independence isn't obvious and clear. Sometimes, like Santa, we need to figure ourselves out, and this takes a little while. Sometimes blindness gives us an opportunity to learn and make decisions that vary greatly from our past and that we would never have thought possible if we hadn’t lost our eyesight. Sometimes we just get a stronger sense of who we are. But the first step toward independence and starting your life or getting it back is recognizing when it's time to receive training and then going through that training in a program that will allow you to fully realize that you are a person worthy and deserving of respect. After all, this is your life, and you live through your choices.
As for Santa, you can decide to believe this story or not, but the children and grownups are still receiving presents on time and without any strange mix-ups. Polls show that he's been doing a better job year after year. And just the other day I read a review about some new restaurant opening up at the North Pole which specializes in Southern cuisine.