by Scott McKinney
From the Editor: This article first appeared on October 4, 2017, in the Kanabec County Times. It reminds those of us who have been blind a long time that getting to where we are wasn’t easy, and it tells those who are on the journey that they are not alone in their experiences and that there is hope. Here is the article:
I’m in a narrow winding stairwell, and I can’t see a thing.
The stairs are steep and make ninety-degree turns. Sometimes it seems like there are two steps to a landing, sometimes eight, and sometimes a dozen. There’s no way to tell. I can’t see anything, and the sounds I hear echo in the empty stairwell, so I can’t rely on them for direction. I edge cautiously toward what I think is a stair—but instead, I step into thin air and tumble, landing flat on my butt. No one is near, so I pick myself up, say a few choice words, and start edging cautiously forward again.
Excluding the choice words (maybe), in these fifteen minutes, I experience what many people who are newly blind and learning nonvisual techniques deal with in the early stages. You see, I’m wearing a blindfold, using a cane, and learning what it’s like to suddenly be blind.
My new day job is at Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB), supervising its Radio Talking Book (RTB) network. RTB broadcasts current newspapers, magazines, and best-selling books to thousands of visually impaired listeners throughout Minnesota and across the country. As part of my orientation, I’m attending a six-week “Adjustment to Blindness” training. SSB is Minnesota’s only public statewide organization providing services to those with visual impairments and thus has an obligation to train staff on the essential aspects and experience of blindness.
People with blindness have access to education, vocational training, and recreational opportunities in their move toward first-class citizenship. They not only participate but thrive in almost every imaginable vocational field. Surprisingly, their biggest challenge is overcoming the perception of blindness held by the sighted community.
BLIND Inc. is a nonprofit organization that provides training for adults, children, teenagers, and seniors with various visual impairments. Located in the historic Charles S. Pillsbury mansion in south Minneapolis, BLIND Inc. teaches the skills blind people need to live independently and secure employment. Just as important, the organization builds the confidence students need to put these skills into practice. BLIND Inc. also offers a six-week “Adjustment to Blindness” course for professionals working with the visually impaired. This allows me a unique opportunity to meet and talk with potential RTB listeners, our “target market.”
I’m halfway through my six-week training, and there are two things I know for sure:
One, I will never again take any of my senses for granted.
Two, I will never again think of people with visual impairment as helpless, powerless victims of their disability.
Most of the students at BLIND Inc. are young adults in their mid-twenties to early thirties. Many of them are University of Minnesota students residing in an on-campus apartment building. They deal with the same issues as other students: weighing career paths, exploring interests, and developing independence from families who sometimes “care take” too much.
On my first day of training, I was fitted with a mask and a white cane which I must use during and between all my classes. The mask is the more daunting of the two, as it eliminates all sight. In fact, all students at the center must also wear the same mask, regardless their level of visual impairment. This way, skills taught in classes are learned similarly by all participants.
Though I’m sightless with the mask on, it was tempting to “cheat” when it occasionally slid up, uncovering part of my eyes. I’m embarrassed to admit that my sudden loss of vision so disoriented me that I was compelled to peek outside the mask a couple of times for a brief glimpse of sight. But I’m no cheater—I haven’t peeked since, despite hitting walls and tumbling on steps.
I’m told that relying on one’s other senses, especially hearing, is a normal adaptation when wearing the mask. But when students are milling around between classes like in any other school, I become disoriented by the wall of sound. When things get quieter, I’m better able to find my way.
The white cane is much taller than the ones seen on TV and in movies. Everyone uses one. Mark, the instructor of mobility who is also blind, teaches his new recruits proper cane use—a light “pencil grip” for indoors, and a more secure “open palm” grip for outside. “Your cane will help you,” Mark says. “If you use it right and have no fear, it will tell you what you need to know.”
While most other students glide effortlessly throughout the ornate four-story mansion, I plod along, losing my way. Sometimes I stand for at least fifteen minutes trying to locate a stairway that is literally right behind me. “I’m frustrated,” I tell Mark one afternoon. “I’ll never get this. I know this is just a sliver of what people with visual impairments go through, but I’m terrible at this.”
Mark nods. “You’re having the true blindness experience,” he replies.
BLIND Inc. students are extraordinarily understanding toward us newbies and willing to help. Although dealing with visual impairments themselves and wearing the same mask that I wear, they offer directions and guidance. After one precarious misstep I quipped to a student, “Stairways are my downfall.” She didn’t get it.
“By the end of six weeks many of these challenges won’t be so ‘challenging’,” says Dan, who is BLIND Inc.’s executive director. “The stairs get easier, the sounds get easier. Veterans don’t struggle as much as rookies.”
School begins at 8:00 a.m. with a daily meeting, followed by a session of light calisthenics. Then, classes are held throughout the building: Braille, Technology Training, Home Management, Career Building, Travel (mobility), and Industrial Arts. BLIND Inc. also provides a language learning lab to those for whom English is not a primary language, where currently a number of blind Somali students are learning English. The day wraps up with a discussion session called “Seminar” that addresses current events and day-to-day issues.
Classes are a challenge. Expectations are high, and students are given opportunities to try, fail, and try again. Most students complete the program in six to nine months. During my first three weeks, I sat in on graduation ceremonies for four students. The ceremonies are filled with laughter and some tears. Classmates and instructors share stories and encouragement, and each graduate receives a “Freedom Bell,” symbolizing the freedom and independence each has achieved.
Each class has a requirement for graduation. In home management, students must plan, prepare, and serve a meal for fifty guests. In Braille class, students must organize an activity or adapt a board game for the visually impaired. In Industrial Arts, students must design and complete a woodworking project using traditional shop tools, with some adaptations.
Even the most routine daily activities require some adaptation. “You know what’s really challenging about being newly blind?” I say to Mark. “Going to the bathroom.”
Mark nods. “Ah, just sit down,” he says. “No one’s gonna see you.”
It’s interesting how we “Minnesota Nice” people try to “help” those with visual impairments. “I’m passing on your left,” we say, or “I’m holding the door for you,” or “You’re going to run into a bench,” or “There’s a car coming down the street.” One BLIND Inc. student says, “If I seem to need help, introduce yourself to me, and ask me if I need it. If I don’t, I’ll say ‘No thanks,’ and go on my way. Don’t feel hurt if I reject your offer of help, and don’t insist that I accept it. I appreciate your offer. Just say something like, ‘Okay, have a nice day,’ and go on your way.”
I learned my own lasting lesson one afternoon. Mark and I embarked from the center to practice outdoor cane use. The day was rainy, windy, and chilly, and I stumbled back and forth to find the elusive door and return inside to comfort. Finally I’d had enough. “That’s it,” I say. “I give up.”
Mark whirls around. “Never say that,” he replies. “Never give up. That’s not an option. I can’t give up, and neither can you. Never give up. No fear.”
I’ve stricken “I give up” from my vocabulary. I don’t say it anymore. I’m not blind, but I’m less afraid of blindness than I was before. Blindness changes how we do things, but doesn’t stop us from doing them. As Helen Keller famously said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision.” Halfway through my training, I’m beginning to “see” that.
To learn more about BLIND Inc. and its mission, visit them online at www.blindinc.org. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a stairwell to tackle.
For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax-deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.
With your help, the NFB will continue to:
Creating a will gives you the final say in what happens to your possessions and is the only way to be sure that your remaining assets are distributed according to your passions and beliefs. Many people fear creating a will or believe it’s not necessary until they are much older. Others think that it’s expensive and confusing. However, it is one of the most important things you will do, and with new online legal programs it is easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do decide to create or revise your will, consider the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary. Visit www.nfb.org/planned-giving or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2422, for more information. Together with love, hope, determination, and your support, we will continue to transform dreams into reality.
The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back. A donation to the National Federation of the Blind allows you to invest in a movement that removes the fear from blindness. Your investment is your vote of confidence in the value and capacity of blind people and reflects the high expectations we have for all blind Americans, combating the low expectations that create obstacles between blind people and our dreams.
In 2017 the NFB:
Just imagine what we’ll do next year, and, with your help, what can be accomplished for years to come. Below are just a few of the many diverse, tax-deductible ways you can lend your support to the National Federation of the Blind.
The NFB now accepts donated vehicles, including cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, or recreational vehicles. Just call (855) 659-9314 toll-free, and a representative can make arrangements to pick up your donation—it doesn’t have to be working. We can also answer any questions you have.
General donations help support the ongoing programs of the NFB and the work to help blind people live the lives they want. Donate online with a credit card or through the mail with check or money order. Visit www.nfb.org/make-gift for more information.
Even if you can’t afford a gift right now, including the National Federation of the Blind in your will enables you to contribute by expressing your commitment to the organization and promises support for future generations of blind people across the country. Visit www.nfb.org/planned-giving or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2422, for more information.
Through the Pre-Authorized Contribution (PAC) program, supporters sustain the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind by making recurring monthly donations by direct withdraw of funds from a checking account or a charge to a credit card. To enroll, visit www.nfb.org/make-gift, and complete the Pre-Authorized Contribution form, and return it to the address listed on the form.