by Priscilla McKinley
From the Editor: This article first appeared in the March 2000 issue of the Braille Monitor. We are reprinting it here because it clearly illuminates the power of one person to change her perspective on life and the importance to those of us who are Federationists to live an example that makes this positive change seem possible and infinitely worthwhile. Here is how it was introduced when it first appeared eighteen years ago:
At this year's Mid-Winter Conference of the National Association of Blind Students, two students were invited to speak about their notions of what it means to live the movement. The first to address the audience was Priscilla McKinley, President of the Old Capitol Chapter of the NFB of Iowa, a member of the affiliate's board of directors, and a graduate student at the University of Iowa. Priscilla has also twice won NFB scholarships. This is what she said:
Good morning, Federationists, or perhaps I should say, "ferret-like Federationists." Yes, you heard me right: ferret-like Federationists. The other day, while sitting in my office thinking about my life as a blind person, I was continually reminded that my ferret was in the room asleep in her hammock hanging from the ceiling of her cage—the sound of her breathing very soft but noticeable. And then I thought of it, the perfect metaphor for this speech, my pet ferret Chloe.
A few months ago I had a dream in which I had a mink, a ferret, a mongoose, and a goat. When I woke the next day and asked my husband Brian if I could get one of those, he rejected the mink, mongoose, and goat, but finally agreed on the ferret. Two days later I had a pet ferret, and my obsession began.
Do any of you in this room have a ferret? Well I can tell you a few things about them. Ferrets are adorable little animals with long bodies that seem to change form with each movement. They have triangular heads with pointy little noses. They're related to weasels, badgers, otters, minks, and even skunks. But unlike those animals, ferrets have been domesticated for centuries because they were originally used to ferret out rabbits for hunters in England and later rats on farms in this country.
Spending most of their time in dark tunnels, most ferrets have very poor eyesight. They don't see well in the bright light, and they don't see color at all. Many are totally blind. Yet according to my ferret book, blind ferrets get around better than their sighted counterparts. Studies show that the blind ferrets use their other senses and are actually more aware of their surroundings. In fact, with their keen sense of direction, ferrets have often been used to wire planes and other equipment.
So what does this have to do with my life as a blind person, with your lives as blind people? Well, since spending about ten hours a day with Chloe, whose cage is in my office, I know that ferrets have two modes of operating: lethargic and lively, off and on. First there is mode one, in which the ferret sleeps between fourteen and sixteen hours a day, often climbing out of her hammock only to get a drink or piece of food. Sometimes too lazy to get out of her hammock, she will hang over the edge, stretching her long body to snatch up a raisin or a fruit treat.
When I lost my sight due to complications of diabetes, I was much like a ferret in the off-mode, extremely passive. I was content in my situation, letting others take care of me, letting others determine my fate. At first, suffering from depression, I wanted to sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day. When my mother compared my blindness to the deaths of my sister and father, I thought she was right. I believed that my blindness was a tragedy, a death. When I decided to go back to school, my rehab counselor told me that maybe I could get a job at Goodwill—a good job in the office, not a job sorting clothes. I actually considered this for a while, but then I told my rehab counselor that instead I wanted to go back to school.
When I thought classes like science and foreign language might be too hard for me, a blind person, I requested waivers for those classes. When I was accepted into grad school and decided to apply for a job as a graduate instructor, one professor told me that perhaps I should teach a correspondence course, where I wouldn't have to deal with students. Another professor told me that I should apply for a job in the writing lab, where I wouldn't have to worry about an entire class, but would be working one-on-one.
When I registered for a practicum in that writing lab and asked the instructor when we'd be working with our students, she said, "We won't have to worry about students. I don't know how they would react to having a blind teacher." So, what did I do? I went home and cried. I snuggled up under my blankets on my bed, just as my little ferret snuggles up under her blankets in her hammock.
Even though I eventually had my own writing lab students and secured a position as a graduate instructor, I lacked self-confidence and a positive attitude about blindness. I remained in mode one—the off-mode. Then in 1996 I attended my first convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Anaheim, California. For the first time in my life as a blind person I wasn't the minority, and I started scratching at the door of my cage, anxious to move into mode two—the on-mode. Just as my little ferret does the weasel joy dance, hopping and skipping and jumping, moving independently across my office floor, I observed Barbara Pierce, one of my mentors, flying across the floors of the Hilton, hurrying to get to her public relations meetings. Just as my little ferret extends her pointy nose to ferret out every nook and cranny of my house, I observed Peggy Elliott extending her seven- or eight-foot-long cane, eager to explore uncharted territory.
Just as my little ferret takes on my two sighted spaniels, chasing them through the house, often tugging on their tails, I observed Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Maurer, and the other leaders in the NFB taking on the big dogs in the world, not at all intimidated by their size.
When I returned home after the convention, I knew that I could never go back to my cage. I had tasted the freedom and the positive attitude about blindness the NFB offers blind individuals. Unlike ferrets, which spend their lives in those two modes, we as blind people can choose the mode in which we want to live our lives. We can choose to live in mode one, content to be locked in our cages, letting others determine what we can and cannot do. Or with the love and support of the National Federation of the Blind, we can live our lives in mode two, taking on the big dogs, exploring new ground, doing the weasel joy dance for all of the world to see.