by Gary Wunder
Reading Shawn Calloway’s story in the June issue of the Monitor got me thinking about my first romantic relationship, and what a pleasant thought and a life changer that was. I was raised during my teen years in a small town with a sign saying population 216. Like every young man, I wanted to date, but besides a date for the junior senior prom, mostly I struck out. In my town and in those times, the boy drove the car that picked up the girl, and without a car, there was nothing to do. Our town had a gas station and a post office; neither helped with romance unless one was dating from afar.
My life changed when I came to the University of Missouri Columbia and found that I could walk almost anywhere I wanted to go. The bank, the restaurant, the movie theater, and a nice park were all within my ability to reach without first having to arrange or beg for a ride. It didn’t take long after coming to campus to realize that there was more to college than books. There were girls, women, and one of them in particular liked me and I liked her. I love the touch of the hand, the embrace so much different from hugging mom, and the way it felt when she put her head on my shoulder. I felt more alive than I had ever felt.
She was not at all concerned about the fact that I was blind, but, like the fathers in Shawn’s experience, there was rough sailing ahead. In my story, however, the father was blind, and he was quite sure that his daughter could do quite a lot better than a relationship with a blind man. My girlfriend’s father did not work outside the home. He had very little self-confidence, and one of my girlfriend’s wishes was that she could get him in contact with people who might help change his perception of what life might have to offer if only he had a different view of himself.
After an eight-week summer program, I went off to get myself a guide dog. Sam, my girlfriend, was still uppermost in my thoughts, so one of the first people I called using the payphone at the school was her. When her father realized to whom she was talking, I heard him say, “He’s not calling collect, is he?” That might’ve been a reasonable question from any father, no matter how well he could or could not see.
It is strange to think about what motivates us in the work we do because sometimes those motivations seem contradictory. I was motivated by people who did things I didn’t think blind people could do and therefore opened up opportunities to me I didn’t think existed. I was motivated by blind people who broke down barriers so that I could go to school, hire human beings to read to me, receive special tape-recording equipment that would let me use books on tape, and the programs gave me enough money to buy food and other necessities. But I’m here to tell you that I was also motivated by that father who thought his daughter deserved better than to date a blind man. I might not be able to change his life, but what if I could change life for people of my generation and those who would come after?
My girlfriend and I were both young; we drifted apart without a single bad word or argument, and almost two decades later we started to write to one another. She was never quite sure how much her father’s opposition played in our drifting apart. The part of her who valued being rebellious thought that it played no part at all, but the part who loved her father and wanted to be the good daughter also knew that his opinion did matter.
There is no question that we want to change the opinion of the sighted public about our worth as human beings and our ability to participate in society, but it is equally true that we want to change the minds of other blind people who cannot envision the opportunities open to them if only they can believe in themselves and other blind people. When we pledge ourselves to go build the Federation, it is not organizational momentum or preservation of some legacy that we are talking about. It is talking about having a mechanism to bring about effective change, a structure that lets blind people talk among ourselves, venture to risk new ideas leading to opportunities, and knowing that we have the support of one another as we attempt the traditional or untraditional. If we are to have a hand in building the world we will live in and in the world our children will inherit, we need the right tools, and one of the most important is the National Federation of the Blind.