by Paul Gabias
From the Editor: Paul Gabias was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1952. He attended his first NFB national convention in 1973. He graduated with a BA in psychology from Concordia University in Montreal in 1975. In 1988 he received his PhD in experimental psychology from New York University with a specialty in perception. He has held numerous leadership positions in the Federation. He was elected president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users and served in that position from 1992 to 1998. He also served as the editor of its publication, Harness Up, from 1996 to 1998. For the last ten years Dr. Gabias has traveled with a white cane.
Here is what he has to say about autonomy, independence, and the need to get to know competent blind people and the techniques they use in their daily lives, and, equally important, what he has to say about the belief in the public to understand our message and to act on it:
As I write this article, I am sitting outside in a very comfortable garden swing in my back yard. It is a warm, sunny September day. There isn't a cloud in the sky. Choruses of birds sing overhead. In the distance I hear the voices of children playing, the sound of lawn sprinklers, and a faint sound of a propeller plane in the sky. Our guide dogs are frolicking in their own separate enclosure. There is the occasional barking of neighborhood dogs. In short, life is quite good this morning.
I have a wonderful arrangement with my reader. She sits in her home at the keyboard, wearing a special binaural headset so that her hands are completely free to type. I dictate to her over a cordless telephone. At the moment life couldn't be better, except for the dogs next door that bark too much.
As I think of things to discuss for this issue of The Canadian Monitor, I feel somewhat at a loss. How does one communicate to others that it can feel perfectly normal to be blind; that blindness is simply a characteristic; that life need not be significantly changed by blindness; that, when you are blind, life can be easy and pleasant; that blindness need not make life a tortuous path filled with constant struggle; that in life, despite blindness, there is still beauty and poetry and zest and vivaciousness and splendor and human dignity? How do I communicate all of this without seeming miraculous and extraordinary? How can I communicate a simple truth which seems to be so difficult for most people to fathom? In an attempt to do this, I offer you recollections of my childhood. Perhaps you can relate to some of the experiences there enough to give you some vicarious knowledge of the basic truth that, all other things being equal, blind people have the same potential for success and mastery of the environment as sighted people. In the end it is all a question of desire and opportunity.
My mind turns back to when I was a child of about four or five. It's hard for me to remember exactly what that felt like, so some of this musing may be reconstructive. However, I believe that many of these recollections will be fairly accurate.
From what I know of child psychology, play is an important part of growing up. Children play at being adults to prepare themselves for the roles they will need to take on in later years. When children play, they model themselves after their parents, teachers, older siblings, and other significant adults in their lives. This roleplaying starts early, probably by the age of three. As a young child I had no significant blind adult role models in my life. At the school for the blind there were some blind teachers, but I did not think of them as role models, probably because they didn't think of themselves in that way either. As far as I can recollect, I don't remember anything about blindness or being blind until the age of five. It was simply not discussed. As far as I was concerned, I was like any other child.
In the area of child development a psychologist named Eric Erickson is famous for a proposed series of eight stages of psycho-social development. The first stage is the sense of trust. This means that children are born with the capacity to become trusting if the parents and caretakers act in a way that is trustworthy. Children become trusting when their needs for shelter, food, love, attention, and security are met. According to Erickson, the development of trust is the foundation for all the other stages. The degree to which the environment fosters a sense of trust in the child directly affects the development of the next psycho-social stage, which is the stage of autonomy. Autonomy means taking charge of one's own life, in other words, the drive for independence. Erickson suggests that, if the child has developed a complete sense of trust in his environment, the need to become autonomous will develop in proportion to the degree of trust which was fostered in the first year.
If a child does not trust in the environment, she will be afraid to follow the blueprint of autonomy which is her birthright. I use the word "blueprint" deliberately. A strong pursuit of autonomy is supposed to develop in children if they have achieved a sense of trust. This is supposed to happen in all children, whether they are sighted or blind. From the beginning of life you have probably developed a very strong sense of trust if you can say to yourself without equivocation the following statement: "From as far back as I can remember, I know that my parents always loved me and were always there to fulfill my every need." From as far back as I can remember, my parents were like that, particularly my mother. My mother's mother thought that my mother used to cater too much to her children. In an attempt to protect her daughter, she used to say to us: "You are going to drive your mother to her grave." She was not exactly what you'd call a doting grandmother.
I must have developed a strong sense of trust because, from the earliest that I can remember, I always had a very strong sense of autonomy, much as my own children have. Because my sense of trust was so strong, my sense of autonomy could develop, unfettered by blindness and unfettered by people's negative attitudes toward blindness. My mother was told, early on and in no uncertain terms, when her help was not necessary. It is the same for us with our own children, who are sighted. As they grow, we parents come to understand, if we're smart enough, when we are needed and when we are not.
My parents were very good at protecting me from the unwanted concerns of other people. I remember they taught our relatives and family friends to behave toward me the way they would have around a sighted child. I was allowed to explore people's houses and the grounds around their houses to my heart's content, provided I was careful with their possessions.
I remember my mother telling me that I was impossible to go shopping with. She told me that, by the age of three, I was no longer content to sit in the shopping cart while she wheeled me around the store. Being a normal three-year-old, I wanted to walk around the store and explore. My need to run was not diminished in the least by blindness. If I thought the coast was clear, I ran.
I remember that, on the way to our grocery store, we had to walk through a lane. I thought the lane had a wall on each side of it. But on one side the lane was bordered by a dug-in driveway that sloped down toward the garage door. There was a verge, maybe a foot high, between the lane and the driveway, which was parallel to the lane. As you walked along the lane, the driveway paralleling it got deeper and deeper. This meant that, although the verge was a foot high, the drop-off to the driveway became deeper as you moved along the lane. I did not know that a veritable precipice developed on the right side of the lane as you walked along, just beyond the verge. One day during the summer, just after my fifth birthday, I got the brilliant idea that it would be fun to run down the lane. I did not tell my mother what I was planning to do for fear that she would say no. As soon as my mother and I got to the beginning of the lane, I yanked my hand away from hers and tore down the lane, but I didn't make it to the other end. I fell into the driveway and bruised my collarbone. I didn't know what had hit me, except that something had gone very wrong. I had a deep fear of hospitals, and I was much more frightened by the trip to the hospital and the emergency room than by the actual fall. If I remember correctly, I had to wear my arm in a sling for a while. I don't remember which arm it was, but I do remember telling myself that I had to be more careful in the future.
It was also during my sixth year that I broke my arm. I was fascinated with heights. We lived in a two-story home, and I remember liking to throw things out the second-story windows. My father's alarm clock was a favorite projectile. I suppose I loved to hear objects fall because it gave me a way of assessing how high the second floor actually was.
It is surprising that I retained this fascination with heights, because I am told that as a crawling toddler I actually fell out of a window. There was a window on the landing between the first and second floors of our home. It was about a foot above the landing. For reasons that I don't understand, that window was open with no screen. The window faced the backyard. They told me that I must have climbed up the stairs and crawled out of the window. I fell onto the cement patio six feet below. My mother said that, responding to a little cry in the backyard, she found me there on the cement. My sister, who is older than I am, tells me that she couldn't look. She thought I was dead. Apparently I was fine, just a little shaken.
Continuing with my undiminished fascination with heights, I remember that on one fine Sunday morning my brother and I decided we were going to play heaven. My brother was two, and I was five. The idea was that we were to climb on the highest piece of furniture we could find. Since I was older, I would get the higher one. In my parents' bedroom upstairs, there was a ladies' dresser and a men's six-drawer chiffonier. My "heaven" was to be the chiffonier. It was so high that I needed a stool to help me climb to the top. My parents were cooking Sunday dinner downstairs. It was around noon. My idea of heaven was to jump up and down on top of the chiffonier as high as I could. I had no idea that I would move as I jumped. I thought that, as long as I jumped up and down in the same place, I would be safe on top of the chiffonier, in heaven. Suddenly my parents heard a crash on the second floor. Heaven had come to an end, and hell was about to begin, not only for me, but for my brother. Of course, I had to endure an itchy cast on my left arm for forty days and forty nights. But my brother had to endure being hit with it.
You might think that my fascination with heights would have diminished some. Of course I learned to be more careful, but I was not cured. At age six I attended first grade at the French school for the blind in Montreal, L'Institut Nazareth. In the schoolyard they had a set of monkey bars. In French they called it a trapeze. I had heard of the "Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." As I walked through the schoolyard, I discovered a post, and I heard a whole bunch of older boys on top of the post. I was fascinated. How could people be on top of a little tiny post? It was hard for me to get the appropriate explanation because I didn't understand French yet. All I knew was that the boys were high up above the post, and I wanted to be there too. I tried climbing the post, but I wasn't strong enough. By and by, I discovered that the posts—there were in fact two of them—were posts you could use to slide down from the highest part of the monkey bars. If you were strong enough to climb on top of the monkey bars, you could crawl along the bars and go up a ramp to the top level, and there you could be, sitting right above the posts. There was a good deal of space between the top rung of the ladder on the monkey bars and the actual set of horizontal bars along the top. At six I was too short to climb onto the top bars. I couldn't wait until I was tall enough to climb to the top. What a day that was when I succeeded! I was the king of the monkey bars and king of the sky.
For a long time the monkey bars provided me with a great deal of enjoyment. I learned to hang upside-down, and I developed the strength to move along the structure from bar to bar, hanging by my hands. Not satisfied with that, I learned to stand up on the main longitudinal bars. Having mastered that, I imagined what fun it would be to be able to walk along the longitudinal bars from one end of the structure to the other. I could not do that very far along on the monkey bars at the school because there was a ramp that led to the elevated part of the structure. The angle of the ramp was too great, and I had no intention of falling.
But the monkey bars in the playground near my house were level. Routinely I gave the park keepers apoplexy by standing up and walking along the bars. They screamed for me to get down, and, the more they screamed, the more I enjoyed it. Maybe it was my way of getting back at all the sighted people who were afraid that I would have trouble going up and down a simple flight of stairs.
As a child I enjoyed climbing trees. I would climb as high as the branches within reach permitted. On St. Helen's Island near Montreal, there was an artificial tree especially designed for children to climb. I climbed all the way to the top. Climbing up was always much more fun than getting down. On the way down you had to search for good places to put your feet. If you can't see where those places are, you have to hang on to the branch above you and search with your feet until you find a secure spot. You need to have strong arms so that you can take the time to search properly.
As you might imagine from this history, I was fascinated not only with heights but also with speed. I loved roller coasters and Ferris wheels that turned you upside-down. The faster we could go in the car, the better it was. I remember on the way to the boarding school for the blind on Sunday nights, my father would allow me to press the gas pedal of the car while he did the driving. I was not more than six or seven, but he must have had an incredible trust in me. I knew all about the perils of crashing, and I knew that my father would tell me when to stop pressing on the pedal. This must have been a way to make the drive to the school more pleasant for me. I hated going back to that school and being away from my parents for the whole week. It was difficult for my parents too. They gave me chips and chocolate bars to ease the pain until I got too fat.
My father and I had developed a wonderful trust in each other. When I was five or six, we went to the ocean on Virginia Beach. He used to take me into the ocean with him, into deep water, way over our heads. My father would warn me of big waves coming toward us. He would say, "Here comes a lulu!" The waves would push us around and suck us under. I would hold my breath and wonder if we would ever come up. I trusted my father. I knew he would not let go of me, and I knew that eventually we would come up. Of course we always did, and I felt perfectly safe with him.
Despite all of these experiences, things could have been so much better for me if my parents had known about the National Federation of the Blind. For all my feelings of autonomy, even though I learned to travel alone from my house to my parents' friends in the neighborhood and some stores nearby, I walked quite slowly compared to sighted children my age. Any time I was out with my parents, I held the arm or hand of one of them. Sometimes I walked with my sister, and sometimes I walked with my younger brother. I should have been walking on my own whenever I could. But my parents did not know enough to introduce me to the long white cane. Had I used a long white cane from early childhood, I might have avoided falling into the driveway along the lane. I would have had a chance to explore my environment to a greater extent than I had, and I probably would have known that there was a huge drop-off beside the lane. I could have run in perfect security.
Parents and blind children today are more fortunate. The National Federation of the Blind has pioneered the concept of cane travel for very young children. Canes are available for toddlers. They can be purchased from the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, 200 East Wells Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. The Federation also has a number of excellent books and articles which deal with teaching cane travel to young children.
Blindness is no more than a characteristic. The white cane must not be regarded as a symbol indicating the need for help. It must be regarded as a tool for opportunity. Learning to use the long white cane is much more than learning how to handle a long stick. In the public mind there is a very strong stigma of helplessness associated with the white cane. In Canada, white cane week is associated with raising money to help the blind. The white cane has been used as a symbol for raising money for the helpless blind, instead of being promoted as a badge of independence for the industrious blind. When I was growing up, parents with a sense of decency and respect for their blind child would not permit their child to be connected with the fundraising and pity racket associated with the white cane in Canada. Being a part of the same social fabric as the rest of the people in my society, I too learned that the white cane was for pitiful blind people who tapped their way through life, needing help at every corner or every turn. Money had to be raised for them because they couldn't work or live independently without the help of the agency for the blind or their close relatives. The agency for the blind could help to ameliorate the condition of blindness, to diminish the challenges of blindness, to help the blind live more independent lives. But, when all was said and done, blind people would always require looking after to some degree, even in the best of circumstances.
I do not mean to imply that money does not need to be raised to improve the well-being of blind people in our society. We need for people to be generous toward the blind, but not for the purposes espoused by many of the agencies. We need money to provide training and opportunity for people so that they can truly come to believe that blindness is no more than a characteristic. The white cane must not be regarded as a symbol requesting help. It must be regarded as a tool for opportunity. It must be regarded as the foundation for independence. It is not to be used to raise money from the wellsprings of pity but from the wellsprings of pride and achievement.
The kind of training for blind people which instills pride, achievement, industriousness, self-reliance, and a competitive edge does not exist in Canada at this time. Something must be done about that, and we intend to do it. A 90 percent unemployment rate for educated blind people between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five is simply unacceptable. Society would not tolerate it if they knew better. Through public education we will make sure that society knows better so that people of goodwill will no longer tolerate the intolerable. Capable people are living empty lives of desperation with no hope, just because they are blind. For them there is no training and no opportunity.We will no longer permit this to continue. The travesty has gone on long enough, and we know that our Canadian social conscience will rise to the occasion and help where help is needed. We need money—lots of it—to teach the sighted public what they are only too glad to know when they truly come to understand. We need money to teach society that the blind are normal people like the rest of sighted society. We come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of intelligence and aptitudes and moral development, with varying degrees of physical capacities. What we are saying in the National Federation of the Blind and the Canadian Federation of the Blind is that, with training, opportunity, and motivation, blindness need not be an additional significant negative factor toward the pursuit of happiness, fulfillment, and productivity. You can make it all come true by working with the Canadian Federation of the Blind. I welcome your support and thank you for it.