by Mary Fernandez
From the Editor: Mary Fernandez was a winner of a National Federation of the Blind scholarship in 2010, graduated from Emory University in 2012 with undergraduate degrees in psychology and music, and is currently working as a paralegal at the law firm of Brown, Goldstein, and Levy. What follows is a slightly revised version of a speech she gave at the annual meeting of the National Association of Blind Students, which was held in Orlando, Florida, in July of 2013. Here is what Mary has to say about the pressures of being a blind student, learning to feel comfortable in her own skin, and extending the hope and optimism she now feels to others:
I moved around the kitchen, using a measuring cup for the first time to make ice cream. I argued with my peers about why we needed to put some caramel in our chocolate ice cream. In a sly move I sneaked up to the ice cream maker and poured in some caramel. When they all tasted it, they said, “Someone put caramel in here,” and unknowingly proclaimed my brilliance by repeatedly complimenting the texture of the ice cream. Since we were all under sleep shades during the cooking activity, no one had solid proof that I had been the miscreant who dared put caramel in the ice cream.
That same weekend I got to use a chainsaw, in heels of course, and for the first time listen to blind adults talk about their lives, their dreams and aspirations, and the ways they had made those dreams and aspirations come true. That was the first weekend I visited the National Federation of the Blind headquarters, and, from that weekend forward, I have never looked back. I walked away having seen three things I did not associate with blindness: belief, hope, and passion.
I was born in Colombia, South America, and lived there with my grandmother until the age of seven. My mother left to come to the United States when I was two years old. A year later I became totally blind from glaucoma. As a three-year-old I thought everything in my world was still fine, but then my older brother started going to school. In Colombia parents pay for children to attend school, so, since my brother was sighted and I wasn't, he had priority. I remember that I went to school for about a week, but, since the teachers didn't really know how to teach a blind child, I was declared unteachable.
In the meantime I was taken to what seemed to be every eye doctor in the country. I despised eye doctors, because all they kept saying was, “This girl is blind. She needs to sit around all day. You shouldn't be running around, little girl; you’re blind.” Then to my grandmother they would explain how I wasn't a normal child because of my blindness. I didn't know how to verbalize to these adults that that wasn't right: that I couldn't see but that I wanted to know things. I wanted to explore the world around me, and why did my brother get to do those things, and I didn't? What made me so different from other children?
Finally, when I was seven years old, my mother came back to Colombia to bring us to the US. When I came to America, I knew no English, had had very little interaction with children my age, had very poor social skills with people outside my family, had never attended school for longer than a week, and had the unhealthiest and most negative attitudes about blindness. When I first started school, I was terrified; I did not know how to act with children my age. And, to top it all off, some old man came by and put a cane in my hand and told me I had to walk around with it. I was like, “Sure, in your dreams, Dude,” and promptly dropped the cane on the floor.
After repeated prodding and questioning, I told my O&M instructor that canes were for old people, and I was seven, not an old lady. He tried to tell me blind people used canes to help them travel. I knew better, and, while I would use it when he was around, I would do anything possible not to use it otherwise. It didn't help that the school had given me an aide who would let me travel sighted guide with her all the time. Once my mother got wind of this, she wasn't having it. She told me that, if it was the last thing she did, she would have me using that cane and learning how to use it properly. Now, remember I hadn't had a mother since the age of two, but I quickly learned that this woman's word was the law. So sulkily, ungracefully, and with the poutiest face in the world, I used that stupid cane.
Though using a cane was awful, I did find Braille to be really cool. I loved my Braille teacher, but, even after I had been here a year, I refused to speak English to her. In a show of my defiant nature, I got it into my head that no one would get a word of English out of me until I could speak it without an accent. Though I liked Braille, for some reason I didn't want to practice it at home, and even my mom's threats didn't work until the day she had enough. She gave me a Braille book, Freckle Juice, by Judy Blume, and, with me kicking and screaming, she shut me in my room, and said I would not be coming out until I read that book. For about half an hour I cried and sobbed and went on and on. But finally I settled down and started reading. When I was done, I very sweetly asked her if we had more books at home, and, in a very nonchalant voice, she replied that we did.
Though I had acquired passable blindness skills and did well academically, I was still very socially awkward. All of the schools I attended insisted that I have an aide with me every place I went. Though my mom did the best she could, she unfortunately did not know about the Federation’s parents of blind children division and didn't speak enough English to be able to research resources beyond what the schools provided.
So I was stuck with an aide. I was also very self-conscious about my blindness and felt ungainly. I started feeling like such a freak of nature that, in my freshman year of high school, I would come home and start crying for no reason. My mother kept asking me what was wrong, and I didn't know how to explain to her that I hated being blind, that all the other kids thought I was weird, and that I didn't like having an adult with me all the time because I felt that this was why nobody wanted to talk to me.
All of this changed in April of my freshman year. I went to the National Center for the Blind for a weekend trip with other blind students my age. All of a sudden I talked and laughed and felt comfortable. I learned that there were differing levels of sight, but I realized that I felt better when everyone was under sleepshades. That weekend planted a seed that grew into an idea that would become an essential trait of my personality: to be confident, to believe in my abilities, and to believe in myself.
I went home happy, but of course things didn't change just because a little attitude change had occurred inside me. That summer I participated in the Rocket On Program, which at the time was the STEM summer program at the Jernigan Institute. We got to work with NASA to build and launch a rocket. That in itself was cool, but aside from that I got a whole week of being around blind people and sighted people who didn't care that I was blind. I felt good enough about myself that I was using my straight cane, got a crush on a boy, and even flirted—a characteristic that would become an essential part of my character.
I determined that things were going to change at home. So, when I had my IEP meeting for the next school year, I walked in with my straight cane and said, “I don't want an aide with me at all times." I might as well have said that I wanted to bring my pet duck to school, judging by their shocked reactions. Reluctantly, the school told the teachers that I wouldn't have an aide in class. The head of the English department was alarmed and apparently told my aide that she had to be in the classroom: what if I fell out of my chair? The principal of the school then got involved and said that he felt uncomfortable with me not having an aide. I told my mom, “Well, too bad for him.” She agreed. The battle lasted a full semester, but finally I started walking to class by myself just fine and didn't even fall out of any of their chairs.
As the years went by and I became more deeply involved with the NFB and understanding and incorporating its philosophy, I sadly realized that the way the administrators at my school reacted wasn't unusual. No, I wasn't in Colombia anymore, and yes, I was allowed to go to school, but the world viewed me as far less than an equal. Expectations were so low that people were surprised that I could walk and talk at the same time.
As I stand before you today, I have hope. I have hope because each and every one of you has now been introduced to the NFB in a big way. There are thousands of blind people living in this world who have jobs, families, and a good measure of perseverance and stubbornness. I am hopeful because you have been introduced to the concept of self-advocacy. You now know that we all believe in you and that we are not only willing to fight for you anywhere you may need us, from your school to the halls of Congress, but that we want you to join the fight. There is a moment in every life when the belief that others have in us is the thread that keeps that fragile, silken fabric of hope from falling apart. It is that hope which feeds our dreams and allows us to go on. And I am hopeful because you now know of the passion and love we pour into this organization. Everyone here today, be he or she a lawyer or a scientist, believes in you and shares the hope that one day we will be first class citizens and have the passion to pursue that dream.
The great children's writer Shell Silverstein said:
Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, and the WON’TS
Listen to the never haves
Then listen close to me--
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.