by Gary Wunder
There are many themes readers of the Braille Monitor will find familiar that raise our emotions and often our defenses. I’m going to tell you a story about an airport adventure. What goes through your mind? Perhaps it is being offered unwanted help. Perhaps it is being asked whether you are a frequent flyer or whether you would like the flight attendant to review the safety procedures for the 737 aircraft. Seldom does your answer matter: you are going to hear that review.
But I warn you that this is a different story. It is not a typical Braille Monitor airport story in which I am asked “Where are you trying to go,” or told “Stand right there until I can get you some help.” Because it is none of those things, I offer it with some reservation but with the feeling that perhaps I have an obligation to say that sometimes the well-intentioned efforts of sighted folks have turned out to work to my benefit.
One evening I land in St. Louis, an airport I’m pretty familiar with, and I realize I don’t have much time until my connecting flight. I am offered assistance, but just when that assistance will show up is a question mark. I politely decline the assistance, throw on my backpack, grab up my laptop, turn to the right, and off I go lickety-split to make my next flight.
I’m really feeling good about how fast I’m going, quite glad for my mobility, and really excited about the fact that whether or not I make this plane is under my control and not someone else’s. What a wonderful thing independence is. How often have I depreciated the gift by taking it for granted.
All of a sudden, two men ahead of me, one to my right and one to my left, yell stop! As a child, I actually had classes in which I was conditioned to stop on a dime when somebody yelled that word. So I did my best to stop, thinking I would explain to them that their good intentions were unnecessary, when I forcefully collided with the arms they had extended in front of me. Indeed that brought me to the stop they had suggested and one I would not have accomplished in time on my own. At the time of the forced collision, my cane tip fell down the first of what was a long flight of stairs. I had trotted off in the wrong direction, confusing the even and odd number of the gates. At the speed I was moving, the cane would not have given me sufficient time to stop. The stairs were steep, there were a lot of them, and each year I hear about someone who dies by falling down a flight of stairs.
I understand that responding to what the cane tells me should be second nature, and most of the time it is. In this case, however, knowing that I knew exactly where I was, where I needed to go, and how little time I had to get there, I was traveling like a calorie-burning fiend. Their action, unsolicited and at the time unwanted, may have saved me from broken bones, saved me from some permanent disfigurement, or even saved me from death. I was lucky. They did the right thing. They violated my boundaries, assumed they knew something that I didn’t, and, without my permission, took matters literally into their own hands. What to say but thank you.
This was certainly not Gary Wunder at his finest. It is not the story I usually tell about the man who can go to any airport in any city, find any hotel, eat in any restaurant, make his presentations, and go back home safely. And yet, this is a true story, one that today finds me safe and comfortable thanks to the willingness of people to get involved when I didn’t know I needed them. It is hard to show gratitude while feeling stupid, but it can be done, and the gratitude and the lessons that came from the experience are ones from which I have learned. Let firetrucks travel like firetrucks. Let me travel at a speed that makes sense, not just for my safety but for the safety of those around me. I will not go at a snail’s pace, in fear of what my next step might bring, but neither will I outwalk the device that tells me whether or not the next step is a safe one.
I was the beneficiary of good, kind people. My trek that day represented both independence and interdependence. In that story is a respecting of my space (no one tried to stop me from going on my own), and it is also a clear violation of my space, thanks be to God.
After several in-person national conventions, I have gotten articles that express anger about how fast some people travel in the hotel when we are in what might be characterized as rush-hour traffic. I have normally toned those articles down to remove some of the bitterness and have often thought about Dr. Jernigan’s notion that many blind people go through a stage of rebellious independence. That may be a necessary part to rehabilitation, but I had no such excuse, and I think the warning to 2022 convention travelers on the run may serve some purpose. At some level we are talking about making the convention a safe space, and I think this should be part of our Federation evolution. We can and must take the time to be kind, and even when there is no yellow light, we should always proceed with caution when the health of others and ourselves is at risk.