Braille Monitor                                             December 2015

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Building from the Outside In

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara PierceFrom the Editor: Barbara Pierce is a person who needs no introduction to readers of the Braille Monitor. Even so, I owe her so much for teaching me some of the rules of grammar I understand that I dare not short her an introduction.

Barbara is the mother of three, who lives with her husband Bob in Oberlin, Ohio. She is an accomplished woman who worked for Oberlin College and later as the longest-serving editor of the Braille Monitor, the flagship publication of the National Federation of the Blind and the largest circulation magazine in the field of blindness.

Barbara did not begin with good techniques or role models who could help her learn about blindness, but she took good advice where she found it, learned to work hard and make the most of what she had, and was receptive enough to take in outside information that would eventually lead to the confident, committed, and philosophically sound woman who has guided many blind people to lives of progress and independence. Here is her story:

I was twenty-nine before I learned anything about the National Federation of the Blind. But when I began reading Kenneth Jernigan's speeches, I felt that I had come home. I knew immediately that I was where I belonged, fighting for the rights of my brothers and sisters and reconsidering the limitations that I had set for myself.

I had been legally blind all of my life, though I had been gradually losing sight through my childhood. My parents made the mistake that many parents of blind children make. When I entered school, I could read the print in the first-grade primer. I read with one eye and needed bright light to decode the words one at a time. But because I could make out the text, they rejected the idea of sending me to the school for the blind across town. They preferred to work with me at home while sending me to my neighborhood school.

I struggled with that print. As the years went by, the print got smaller, the pictures were fewer, and the other students got the hang of reading better. All these things resulted in my losing ground as a reader. I thought I was getting dumber. It never occurred to me that I was losing vision and working at a greater and greater disadvantage. I was fitted with an expensive lens for my good eye, and that certainly made it possible for me to read for a year or so longer.

But gradually my teachers and I worked out a series of accommodations that allowed me to avoid reading. They recognized, though I did not, that I was bright and that it was unfair to hold me back at my reading level. My parents gradually assumed the responsibility of reading my history, geography, and science assignments to me. They wrote down the answers to my arithmetic work, which I did in my head. In reading class I was paired with a bright child, who would read the assignment and then write down my answers after she had finished writing her own. Working with me became a reward to other smart kids. It was a crazy way to acquire an education, but it seemed to work.

My parents were adamant that I would do all the work that other students did, and they made sure that my teachers kept me honest. But there was never any talk of teaching me Braille or expecting me to do the reading assignments myself. This was before the days of recorded textbooks or cassette players to record answers. I deeply regret the decision to avoid Braille, but I count myself lucky that we were not tempted to cut corners on homework or group assignments. My friends and I worked out ways in which I could carry my share of the responsibility. I was not much good at art work or coloring in figures on murals, but I could do research and come up with ideas of what to draw.

In elementary school I did not realize that I was smart. I got C's and, in one grim reporting period, a D. That was in penmanship. The C's were in art and gym. These teachers had no idea what to do with me, and they certainly got no help from school or rehabilitation officials, so they graded me according to what they expected of all their students.

Seventh grade was an awakening for me. Penmanship dropped out of the curriculum. The art teacher liked me and concentrated on finding projects that I could actually do. The gym teacher worked to involve me in the activities, and I think she was pressured into giving me good grades for trying. In any case, I opened my first report card that fall to discover that I had straight A's. I was stunned. My parents paid a teacher that year to teach me to type. The summer after seventh grade I traveled downtown to learn Braille, and I mastered almost the entire code before school began in the fall.

This turned out to be another missed opportunity. I was told to read a lot of Braille, and my father even bought me a subscription to the Reader's Digest in order to provide me with interesting material to read in Braille. But I didn't really understand the importance of practicing. I knew only that my Braille teacher was not a rapid Braille reader. She told me that her husband was really fast, but I don't think I believed her. I did not understand that it takes time to sharpen the sensitivity of one's fingertips and that, if I would just practice, I could read Braille as rapidly as my friends were reading print. I was given heavy oak tag [oak tag is the type of paper used to make file folders, also commonly called manila tag] as Braille paper and told to use a slate and stylus to take notes in school. This was exhausting to use even after I had formed calluses. The result was that I used Braille enough to keep the code fresh in my mind, but not enough to become proficient. My junior year I finished learning the Braille code.

My senior year I took physics. The school system went to great expense to have my physics textbook transcribed into Braille for me. No one considered that the Nemeth Braille code used for writing mathematical equations was completely foreign to me and therefore unintelligible and that physics was not designed to inspire me to keep reading Braille. It would take me ten to fifteen minutes to read a Braille page, and reading assignments were twenty to thirty pages long. It is not surprising that I found it easier to have my parents, my brother, or my boyfriend read the text to me.

That was also the year that I had sixteen lessons in how to use the long white cane. By this time my vision was poor enough that I really could not travel independently. I had been depending on friends to help me find my classrooms for several years. I was excited at the prospect of independent travel. The problem was that the lessons were postponed because the cane that was made for me to use was given to a blind professional in the city who needed it to travel in his job. I understood about this delay, but I have always wondered how I would have felt about those cane lessons if they had begun when I was excited about them.

While I was waiting for them to begin, I became aware that my mother was deeply distressed about the prospect of having me wandering around the community using a white cane. It was a combination of worry about my safety and embarrassment at having me identified as blind. I know now that, to be successful at mastering the white cane, one must use it all day, every day for months. Ideally the teacher should be a person who has great confidence in the efficacy of this mode of travel. The state gave me two two-hour lessons a week for eight weeks. I arrived home after each lesson to find my mother in bed with a sick headache because of her fear for my safety. I got very good at hiding my cane and smuggling it out of the house when I had to take it to school. It never occurred to me to use the cane any time but during my lesson. It was remarkable that I did as well as I did with the cane.

I was looking at colleges during this time, and I had fallen in love with Oberlin College in northeast Ohio. I was accepted early decision, so I knew halfway through my senior year where I would be going to school. How I would do the work and get around the campus was not anything that I remember worrying about.

That summer the state of Pennsylvania arranged for me to talk with a blind counselor who worked for the rehabilitation agency to ask him any questions that I had about college. I remember only one question and answer. I asked him what his advice was about using the long white cane. My cane was made of aluminum. It had a crook covered with leather at the top, and it came to my diaphragm. I hated that cane. I felt that people were staring at me when I used it, and I was not confident with it. Unfortunately he had a definite opinion, and it was about the worst advice I could have received. He recommended that I ditch that long cane and replace it with a folding cane, which did not need to be anywhere near that long. A folding cane, he assured me, need come only to my waist. That advice made no sense. If you need length to know what is in front of you when you are using a long white cane, you need it to provide the same information when you are using a folding cane. I did not stop to consider this obviously fallacious reasoning. He was telling me what I wanted to hear: you can fold up your blindness and put it away the minute you find a sighted person to hang on to. I was delighted. I don't think I even took my long cane to college with me. I got a short folding cane, and I considered that I was good to go.

I went to college in the middle of September. I had been assigned a single room because, they explained to me, they did not want me to become dependent on a roommate. I was very disappointed at this news, but I am sure that they were absolutely right. We arrived on a sunny day, and I unpacked and became acquainted with the women in my section and my junior residents. My father described the streets around my dorm, and then it was time for my parents to leave.

I was alone. I knew no one on campus. I did not know much about the geography of the college, and I had done my academic work depending on my parents, who were on their way home. I sat down in a panic. I decided that the only way I could survive was to pretend that I knew what I was doing. I would have to be honest about what I needed in the way of information, and I would have to pretend that I was completely comfortable talking about my blindness. One of my junior residents worked with me to learn the geography of the campus. I began recruiting readers for my various courses. I decided that I could not cope with the heavy Braille paper. Instead I would get the same spiral notebooks that everyone else used and write Braille notes in those. This meant that the Braille was easily squashed. I knew that my Braille was inaccurate enough that I had to come back from lectures and transcribe my notes onto open-reel tape so that I would have an audible record of my notes. This had the added benefit of making me review the notes while they were fresh in my mind and while I could straighten out any confusion that I had been left with in class. These notes became a hot item in my dorm after people noticed that I was making A's on my exams. They would borrow my notes after I went to bed the night before the test.

That first semester was not easy. It was exhausting to pretend all day every day that I was happy and in control of my life and work. I made some wonderful friends who went out of their way to assist me and help me learn my way around campus. One of them even taught me how to knit, which was a wonderful outlet. I felt like a hypocrite much of the time. But gradually I discovered that I was crying less, that I was managing to supervise my reader pool efficiently, and that I was picking up my short cane and getting myself independently to class and meetings of the organizations I had joined.

I was not at ease traveling, and I certainly was not a fast Braille reader or writer, but I made those tools work. I was not a well-adjusted blind person, but I was successfully pretending to be one. It was not a great solution, but it worked well enough to get me through.

I completed college and married one of my professors. We settled in Oberlin, where we have lived for the past forty-seven years. When I was a young wife and mother, I found that my old trick of building from the outside in still worked. I could still not read Braille well, but I had Braille recipes and cookbooks. I was not a comfortable traveler, but I could use a cane well enough to get my children and me to piano lessons, the dentist, and the doctor. That was my attitude and outlook at the time when I found the Federation. The NFB finished the job of making me a complete person. I met people who could read Braille flawlessly and rapidly. They traveled where and when they wanted to and didn't think anything of it. I suddenly understood that confidence was all that I had been lacking. By the grace of God I had obtained the skills that I needed to live a full and satisfying life, though my cane needed to grow, and I needed to learn to trust it and the information it gave me. I have discovered like thousands before me that you must acquire the skills to give you competence, and you must learn to claim your freedom even when you are unsure of yourself if you are to become confident. It is all well and good to build from the ground up if you have the support and expertise to do so, but it also works to build from the outside in, as if you were pouring concrete. When you take the form away, you are left with a strong and solid creation.

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