by Angela Howard
From the Editor: There is nothing more rewarding than to help someone move from skepticism to faith when they think about the abilities of the blind. Angela’s story describes one such journey, and this is how it was introduced in the Kernel Book, To Reach for the Stars: A number of years ago Angela Howard was a winner of one of our scholarships. Today she is a graduate student in public policy at the University of Texas at Austin and active in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to change what it means to be blind. Her delightful story, Carol’s Compliment, shows that day-by-day we are making progress. Here is what she has to say:
As a blind person I have often been showered with compliments that, I have to admit, are not always deserved. My teachers, coworkers, and even family and friends do not always know much about the little tricks and techniques that blind people use to complete the tasks of everyday life; consequently I have too often been deemed amazing and wonderful for completing the simplest task. I do not take offense or respond negatively to these gestures, for I know that people mean well. However, I do have to take these exaggerated compliments with a grain of salt.
I was given a compliment a few years ago that I felt extremely proud to accept. I had taken yoga classes throughout college, and it became my favorite form of exercise. In fact I took the same yoga class with the same teacher for three years in college. I was comfortable with her teaching style, and she never seemed uneasy about having a blind person in her class.
So, when I spent a semester completing an internship in another city, I decided I would join a yoga class to help keep me in practice. I learned that a yoga studio was actually connected to my apartment building, and I immediately went down to the office to sign up for a thirteen-week course.
However, my first class proved to be quite a shock. I was not met with the same warmth that I had experienced in my college class. My new teacher Carol made it painfully clear that she would have preferred that I not be in her class. “I’m just really not sure how I can best teach you.” I assured her that I had taken yoga throughout college and that having me in the class would really not be a problem for her.
I gave her some tips for instructing me. For example, I told her that it would help if she used me as the example when she demonstrated a complicated pose to the class. This way I could learn the pose along with everyone else. I also encouraged her to give verbal descriptions as she taught so that I could get some of the information others were getting visually.
For the first few weeks it was apparent that Carol was still uncomfortable having me in the class. When we tried exercises in which we had to stand on one foot, she would insist that she stand next to me to make sure I didn’t fall. She clearly made a great distinction between the other students and me. But over the thirteen weeks of the class I noticed a gradual change in Carol’s attitude and behavior towards me.
She commented with surprise one day that my balance was no worse than anyone else’s in the class, and she no longer hovered over me as I completed poses that require balance. Slowly I felt that I was becoming just another member of the class. Toward the end of the course she paid so little attention to me that I sometimes had trouble flagging her down for assistance.
I still had one problem with which I usually needed assistance. Alignment is very important in yoga, and the other members of the class were taught to line themselves up using the squares outlined on the floor. However, there was no way for me to use this method. When doing poses, I would align myself as best I could, and Carol would nudge me in one direction or another if I were a little out of line.
One day, when I arrived at class, Carol met me with great excitement, “I have figured out a way for you to align yourself on the mat. I have put a strip of electrical tape along the middle of your mat that you can feel with your feet.” I thought this was a great idea, and I wished that I had been the one to suggest it at the start. Then she said, “Eventually I want you to be able to align yourself using only your own sense of space.” This seemed to be a rather high expectation, and I knew then that her attitude towards me had completely changed.
Carol stopped me as I was leaving on the last day of class. She said, “I have to admit that I was really reluctant to have you in my class. I just didn’t know what you would be able to do. I’m really sorry I felt that way because I think you could even be a yoga teacher one day, if you wanted to.” I responded that, because she had never known a blind person before, her feelings were understandable. Then she gave me one of the greatest compliments I have ever been given. She told me that she had researched blindness-related organizations on the Internet and asked me if I were a member of one. I told her that I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind. She said, “Yes, that was the one that stood out to me, and I thought it would be the one you would be a part of.”
My friends in the National Federation of the Blind continue to encourage me when I face misunderstanding about blindness. They hold higher expectations of me than anyone else in my life, and I try to live up to these expectations as best I can. I felt honored that someone could see the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind in me, and I hope that I will always live my life true to Carol’s compliment.