Braille Monitor                  February 2022

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Who Is Responsible for the Blind?

by Steve Jacobson

Steve JacobsonFrom the Editor: Steve Jacobson is one of my favorite people. He is kind, thoughtful, deliberative, and insightful. He thinks a lot about what he wants to say and then says it in a way that is both clear, informative, and friendly. Here is what he says about believing in and taking responsibility for ourselves:

Last June, Gary Wunder described an experience he had at an airport where two people physically saved him from a fast and ungraceful trip down a flight of stairs that probably would not have ended well for him. Around that same time, I read some other discussions on our email lists regarding independence, including the notion that it was no longer a relevant term. This caused me to think some about independence, responsibility, and even the role of help that we receive. Even though we live in a changing world, our ability to succeed as blind people is affected by these factors. Let me set the stage for this discussion with a fictional trip through an airport. However, while fictional, certainly some of my own tendencies are represented.

Jack is a blind college student who has solid skills and is an experienced traveler. As he returns to school after the holidays, he has to change flights fairly late in the evening, and he doesn't have much time to get from one plane to the next. If he misses his connecting flight, he has to spend the night in an uncomfortable plastic chair at the airport. He has been at this airport before, so he has a pretty good sense of where he has to go.

It had been a long day already, and Jack was tired. His cane technique left something to be desired as he raced down an uncarpeted hall to his next flight, but it was still adequate to detect most obstructions. He had just traveled this same route in the opposite direction when he went home for his break only a week ago. As he traveled quickly down the hallway toward the departure gate of his next flight, he heard someone shout from some distance away that he should be careful. Although he acknowledged this warning, people were always saying that to him. There are those who would urge him to be careful when getting out of bed in the morning.

Suddenly, Jack's cane and then his foot struck something that threw him off balance. His other foot quickly flew from beneath him, and he was momentarily flying through the air until he landed with some impact on his back, cushioned only slightly by his backpack. The Braille notetaker that he had around his neck went flying, and he heard the sound of gurgling water coming from inside his backpack. His first thought was "There goes that extra bottle of water I purchased."

An airport employee quickly arrived on the scene to see if Jack was hurt. Fortunately, he only had a few scratches and bruises, but the inside of his backpack was a mess, and his Braille notetaker appeared to be damaged as well. It turned out that Jack had collided with one of those wet floor signs that one often finds in public buildings. That caused him to trip, but his other foot landed on the wet, slippery floor. He was lucky and knew that he could have been hurt much more seriously.

Does Jack have any kind of legal recourse? Were there some violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Could there have been some kind of warnings in place that would have prevented this accident? Perhaps all of the above could be true, but that is for another article that would need to be written by one of our lawyers.

Throughout the life of the National Federation of the Blind and for years before our founding, blind people have been working hard to move from the back rooms of our families and almost complete dependency to become able to manage our own homes and be caregivers for others. This has been a long, complicated, and difficult journey which has required a lot of effort on our part as blind people. We have not completed that journey yet, although we have made great progress.

This journey is not an easy one. The "Wet Floor" signs that are placed in our path can be frustrating. It is not unreasonable for us to look for easy solutions. Still, part of this journey means that we must be willing to accept responsibility for the actions that we might take in a careless moment. We have a pretty good set of skills that, if correctly used, really can keep us safe. It is only natural that, as human beings, we are going to occasionally stretch those skills beyond their limits. We need to remember that sighted people stretch their skills with negative consequences every day. One has only to look at the frequency of car accidents to realize this is the case. It is therefore very important for part of Jack's analysis of his experience to be what he should have done differently, as Gary did in his article.

Some might say that Jack's biggest mistake was not taking seriously the warning he received to be careful. Yet, for us to become dependent upon such help or to assume that others will always be there to save us from ourselves would be a major step backward in our journey to independence and self-sufficiency. To continue this journey, we must separate areas where help is sometimes required from those areas where we can manage situations on our own by developing and refining our skills. This leads us to the terms "independence" and "interdependence."

On one of our email lists, someone said that independence is no longer a relevant goal for blind people. Nobody is truly independent, and what we must strive for is interdependence. It was further said that one could only claim they were independent if they could live by themselves on an island. In my opinion it is dangerous for us to follow that path, discarding independence as a meaningful goal.

Independence and interdependence are two very separate things. They are not mutually exclusive; all of us, blind or sighted, are dependent in one way or another on other people. Interdependence is not a goal to be achieved, but rather, it is a description of the status quo. Certainly, one should have a goal to manage interdependence effectively, but one cannot "become" interdependent, because all of us are already interdependent.

Independence is less a description of how things are than a goal to be achieved. Rather than being an absolute state that requires one to survive alone on an island, it is a relative term. Independence may not mean the same thing for all of us. For one thing, many more of us have disabilities in addition to blindness than was the case fifty years ago. Yet, striving to do as much as we can do independently is as relevant today as it ever was, even if it has different meanings for different people. Here's why.

Most people with whom we interact picture blindness as having their eyes closed. What they imagine is how blindness looks without any training in the alternative skills of blindness and without the experience we have as blind people. Since most people mean well, many will tend to warn us of dangers they see based upon closing their eyes. For example, more than once I've had someone join me as I was walking, warning me of every curb or uneven surface, only to go their own way when their route diverged from mine. They gave no thought of how I got to the point where they joined me and little thought to what would happen to me when I continued on my route without their constant council. They only thought that the information they provided me, even if distracting, was necessary while they were traveling with me. Of course, I tried to view such encounters as opportunities to educate, and I hope I am generally successful.

Another example of how this can work involves a conversation I had with someone when I was out for a walk. They warned me that there were three cars parked along the street on which I was walking during the next two blocks. I replied with a smile that my cane would find them. However, they noted that they had observed me running into a parked car before our conversation. What actually happened was that my cane contacted a car, and I then walked around it as was supposed to happen. However, my cane contacting the parked car was interpreted as "running into the car." In other words, my success was seen as a failure in their eyes, because they did not understand the purpose of my cane.

Yet another example of this process occurred when I was once stepping on an escalator with which I was familiar. A well-meaning member of the public rapidly approached me from behind and grabbed my cane arm just as I was ready to step aboard. As they approached, they were saying "No, no, no!" Their intervention threw me off balance. I grabbed the railing, and they partly grabbed me as we stepped aboard. I do not remember exactly what was said, but it was to the effect that it was a good thing they were there to catch me. They had no idea that they had accidentally caused the problem they thought they had solved, and the experience reinforced, in their mind, the need to help me. Had I not carefully thought through what happened, I could easily have wondered what I did wrong.

The point here is that assistance is not always helpful even though there are instances when we might need it. If we don't have some faith in ourselves and the skills we have developed, such help can undermine the confidence we have in ourselves. If I had not had confidence in my abilities, I may have believed I narrowly escaped an accident on the escalator and that I could not avoid the parked cars. The idea of striving for independence is necessary to offset this unintended consequence of certain kinds of help. The journey we are traveling is sometimes like walking uphill. It is harder to move forward than it is to slide back.

So, what does this mean in our fictional scenario above? If we're honest with ourselves, it isn't really that fictional. Most of us who travel have found ourselves being a little sloppy in our travel techniques after a long day and in a familiar environment. Still, Jack's mistake was not that he didn't immediately put on the brakes when someone told him to be careful. His mistake was in being a little sloppy with his travel techniques. While it might have been appropriate to thank the person who offered the warning, his concern going forward has to be how to avoid making the same mistake in the future. In other words, the main lesson is not that we're lucky that there are sighted people everywhere to help us if we need it. Rather, it needs to be how we can avoid making the same mistake again so we don't need to assume that someone must be present to rescue us. Interdependence also includes the need for each of us as blind people to help one another to strengthen our skills and also to learn from one another how to avoid common mistakes.

One of the greatest gifts I receive by being a member of the National Federation of the Blind is to be surrounded by others who, through their instruction and by their example, can show me how to overcome those areas that challenge me. Together, we can all continue traveling this uphill journey toward living even more meaningful lives as full participants in society. This means, though, that we must be responsible for ourselves.

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