Braille Monitor                 June 2022

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Why Challenge Activities: The Benefits and the Risks

by Gary Wunder

Gary WunderAll of us are inspired by those who go beyond the normal, attempt something difficult, and succeed. When blind people do this, we and the rest of the world get just a little more excited. For our part we see in these feats a change in the boundaries we operate within and are glad for the greater freedom and opportunity.

Since we are about changing perceptions about blindness for the blind and sighted alike, it is quite reasonable for the positive and proactive organization we support to be on the leading edge. Whether it is Hank Dekker sailing alone, Erik Weihenmayer climbing Mount Everest, or Dan Parker breaking a land speed record, we do what we can to help. In all of these events we are the facilitators, but the experts are the people we are helping to move forward in their endeavors. We support where they think they can go, they are inspired by our support, and all of us rejoice when they go where no blind person has gone before.

Every organization must set priorities since none of us have unlimited time or resources. At the same time, we acknowledge that we are capable of having multiple priorities and distributing our energy across multiple activities. This is crucial to understand because every challenge activity undertaken brings the question or sometimes the allegation that to do the challenge necessarily means not to do something else. It also raises the question whether the activity is worth what we will put into it, but in many ways these concerns are the same ones we face when undertaking any new program.

With all of the upsides of adventure activities acknowledged, there are downsides that are not well known. By their very nature these activities have substantial risks. People die while sailing; people die while attempting to climb mountains; people die or suffer life-altering injuries by driving cars at high speeds. Blindness is certainly thought to increase the risk, and at least some people believe that this reason should be enough to compel organizations of the blind to stay clear of such activities. In one of the challenge activities in which the Federation has been involved, a parent called to ask that we not sponsor it because she couldn't talk her son out of what she regarded as a foolish activity.

All of this came home to me in a more personal way when I was sitting alone with then President Maurer after the national board had just discussed one of these challenge activities. In a subdued voice he said: “You know, we all talk about how it’s going to be when we succeed, but have you ever had to consider what our reputation would be were we to fail—I don’t mean just failing to set a record, but what it will be like for us if one of these folks gets hurt or killed? Sure, we have confidence; sure we think he can do it; but how long will it take us to live down our reputation of encouraging a blind man to go to his death when we above all people should have known better? What will the press release look like if we fail, and what will I say to the family? How will I atone to the members? What will the presidency look like if this project does not succeed? What will happen to the organization if the leadership decides that fear is preferable to courage? The thought keeps me awake at night, but I do believe in expanding what we can do, I do believe in the expertise of the people we sponsor, and I do believe this advances our cause. Even so, all of this is very sobering.”

I had never considered the downside or how our president might feel an intense sense of responsibility both to the person involved in the challenge activity and to our risk of forever being regarded as a foolish and irresponsible group of men and women. It made me wonder and still does just how often we ask our leaders to carry tremendous burdens but to keep them hidden inside. So when I have the pleasure of reading about and then publishing some challenge activity, I now see that courage is not the lack of fear but embracing that fear and going beyond it. This understanding strengthens my admiration of those who have and who now lead us, and it also increases my appreciation about how seriously we take the challenge of pushing back on the boundaries of what it means to be blind.

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