Braille Monitor                                     November 2017

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Sharp Elbows, Sharper Thoughts

by Ryan Strunk

Ryan StrunkFrom the Editor: I confess that as the editor I get to pick and choose which stories we run, so it is probably no surprise when I say that I like a given piece. What I hope gets more notice is when I say I love something we are about to run, and this is just such an article. Ryan Strunk is a man who has significant accomplishments to his name, he is the lead accessibility consultant at Target, is a former national scholarship winner, serves as the Metro Chapter president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, is the secretary for the board of directors of BLIND Incorporated, is married to a wonderfully smart and witty woman, and together they share a cat. What I particularly like about this article is that Ryan takes head-on the issue of how seriously we take ourselves as blind people and the difficult balance between being a representative of the blind community and still being ourselves. This article is particularly timely in view of the fact that I have been talking with several up-and-coming Federation leaders who fear that their doubt and insecurity will keep them from maturing into the kind of blind people they want to be and the kind of men and women we want to lead our organization. This piece should go further than I have been able to go in allaying their doubts. Here is what Ryan has to say:

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good joke, and anyone who has seen me in the right circumstance knows I love a good dirty joke. I don’t know as many of them as I used to, but when I was a kid, I had a stockpile, and I let them fly pretty regularly.

Have you heard the one about the lady who … nah. I can’t write it here. But I was perfectly happy to tell it to my ninth-grade buddies one afternoon after school, standing around in the nearly empty junior high parking lot. I was so focused on the joke, on impressing my friends, that I was completely oblivious to the world around me.

Halfway into the joke, as I was establishing the pattern, somebody kicked me in the foot. I didn’t think twice about it; I just kept on chattering.

A moment later, Chad started coughing. No big deal, I thought. He just had something in his throat.

A sentence or two before the punchline, Jeremy straight-up elbowed me in the ribs, and still I didn’t give it a second thought. Just wait till they hear how it ends.

It was at that climactic moment—the one with the shock-and-awe curse word in the punchline—that the adult standing nearby decided to speak up. “Young man,” he said in that purposeful voice authority figures use on unruly students; a voice which, I’m sure, is much larger in my memory than it was at the time, “We don’t use that language at school.”

I stammered my way through the last few words of the punchline, then trailed off into silence, stunned at being caught and suddenly terrified, even as I didn’t recognize the speaker. “I won’t hear any more of that talk, right?” he asked. My face burning, my stomach roiling, I sheepishly mumbled that he wouldn’t, and with a perfunctory “good” the man walked away.

After a moment of stunned silence, I swallowed my rising horror and plucked up the courage to ask, “Who was that guy?”

“Dude,” said Jeremy, starting to snort laugh. “That was a cop. You just dropped an F bomb in front of a cop!”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded.

“I tried to,” he said. “Why do you think I kept hitting you?”

I felt like an idiot, not only because I hadn’t landed the joke, but because I felt my blindness had betrayed and embarrassed me in front of my friends. Had I not been blind, I told myself, I would have known there was a cop standing there, and I would have either landed the joke harder as a rebellious backhand to authority, or—more likely—I would have saved it for when he wasn’t around and not gotten in trouble for telling it.

These kinds of things can still happen to me today. I walk through the office, and my toe hits the protruding foot of a whiteboard. It clangs, and I feel like an idiot for not using my cane better. I turn down a different aisle than my shopping assistant. I realize they’re suddenly not there, and I kick myself for not paying better attention. My cane slides under a sign, and I find said sign with my shoulder. I curse my luck and myself.

For years I have struggled with negative self-talk, berating myself over every little slip-up that happens in my daily life. Every kicked whiteboard, wrong turn, and missed sign ends up being an incredible ordeal because of the stories I tell myself after—because of the things I tell myself about myself: “Everyone is watching you;” “everyone is judging you;” “you are setting a bad example for other blind people.” I have spent a significant portion of my life carrying around a great deal of insecurity about who I am and what I’m capable of, and I have spent far too much time and energy focusing on things in my life that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter that much.

I’m finally beginning to realize just how destructive these negative thoughts are, and I’m learning just how much they’ve been holding me back. Instead of shaking off my occasional mishaps, I have been fixating on them. I have worried about what other people will think and how I’ll be judged until I become tense and edgy. With all this negative energy, is it any wonder that I get embarrassed, angry, and self-effacing?

One of the great truths about blindness is that, no matter how good someone’s cane technique is, no matter how many skills a person has, they will eventually encounter a situation that might have been different had they been able to see. But one of the great truths about life is that, for a variety of reasons, these sorts of things happen to everyone—blind and sighted alike. The difference, I’m beginning to understand, is that most people don’t have blindness to blame these accidents on. When mistakes happen, most people laugh them off, shrug them off, and maybe do something better next time. Many blind people I know are good at this too, and I haven’t been one of them. I’m working on it, though.

I told a dirty joke in front of a policeman. He called me out for using bad language, and nothing else happened. My parents weren’t called, the principal wasn’t summoned, and I didn’t get in trouble. And even if there had been bigger consequences, so what? These things happen. They will continue to happen, and all I can do, if I want to be a happier person, is keep going and, if possible, do better next time.

“Ok Jeremy, I got a good joke. Any cops around?”

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