by Nancy Burns
From the Editor: Nancy is a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind and often makes contributions to our magazine. Here is another of her thoughtful offerings, this time speaking about independence, when it must be asserted, when it may take second place to meet the temporary needs of another, and the way in which it may change over time. Enjoy:
Diversity in opinions and long-held philosophical beliefs could possibly create a platform for open discussion on a variety of issues. The following comments are based on my own personal experiences, however, I believe that as a longtime Federationist, others will relate to these words.
Learning that in 1940 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek possessed enough faith in blind individuals to create the cornerstone of the National Federation of the Blind became the source of my own philosophy of life. Fortunately, such Federationists as Dr. Isabelle Grant and Lawrence (Muzzy) Marcelino were my personal mentors and contributed to my growth as an independent blind woman. These names may not be familiar to all, but they were most incredible and positive influences within the state of California.
It was with the encouragement of Dr. Grant that I joined the blind student’s group. For the first time, I observed young, blind students traveling independently all through the city of Los Angeles to attend NFB and other meetings. They were even planning a trip to San Francisco for a state convention. I swallowed my fear and traveled with my new friends. By observing students buying tickets, boarding a Greyhound bus, and checking into a hotel, I gained valuable lessons not taught in any of my classes. I simply observed, learned, and enjoyed this trip. It was a challenging and totally exciting experience for me. I learned that I, too, could travel independently with the use of my long white cane and my hearing. My self-confidence took a huge boost during this trip.
My good fortune continued as I met and worked with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. His seminars were brilliant and energizing. It was he who not only confirmed my concept of independence but convinced me that independence was and still is the right choice for me. A portion of this philosophy was to adapt the belief that blindness should not be used to take advantage of certain situations. There are negative repercussions when blindness is used in this manner. I can still hear him saying, “There is no free lunch”. Thus, my philosophy of life was truly established.
In addition to formulating my own independence, I developed the desire to work with and advocate for other blind people. While bringing together blind individuals, it became apparent that peer interaction is invaluable. Working with people who are recently experiencing vision loss is particularly rewarding. It has always been my desire to share with others the message of independence that was so generously shared with me.
Though it was at first surprising to me, it was sometimes difficult to make the right decision as I practiced my own independence. For example, while standing in a long bank, store, or other such line, there have been times when I was told I could move to the head of the line. If I felt that this offer was based only on my blindness, I politely thanked the person but refused the offer. It was my habit to allow time for such situations. One such incident occurred as I was standing in a long bank line during my lunch break. It was the manager who offered me the opportunity to step ahead of others in the line. I thanked him and said that most everyone else was more than likely on their lunch break, and I chose not to step ahead. The lunch break was important to all of us, so why should I be allowed to move ahead of others simply because of my blindness? At the time, I was working in a Federal building in Los Angeles and knew that the majority of the people were waiting to cash checks since it was payday. I have often pondered the basis of such actions. Was the manager motivated by pity? Thinking of this always causes me to be uncomfortable and encourages me to educate the public about blindness. I was learning that microaggressions about blindness does exist and have attempted to deal with it during my life experiences.
Since I was working in Los Angeles, it was necessary to navigate busy and congested sidewalks and to cross noisy intersections. While waiting at one such intersection, all too often someone would grab my arm and drag me across the street. This usually resulted in my becoming rather disoriented when my long white cane missed my usual landmarks. These incidents caused me to become resistant when such a person felt obligated to guide me. However, if I stood at an unfamiliar intersection, I was comfortable saying “yes” when asked if I needed assistance. There are simply times when it becomes necessary to say, “yes please,” rather than the usual “no thank you.” Safety is always the issue in such circumstances. I suppose the obvious question that arises is does saying “yes” really cause the loss of independence? This question is, and likely will be debated forever. The answer is not easy. If I don’t know the skill and am not comfortable using it, taking the help reduces my independence or lengthens the time it takes me to gain it. If I have crossed the street so often that I could do it in my sleep, perhaps saying yes is okay.
Some years later I was working for the California Department of Rehabilitation and had the opportunity to travel to London with a friend. During this trip, a most favorite memory and experience took place while walking independently down Bronson Road during lunch hour for Londoners. I was able to step out of a department store and simply walk along with other busy Londoners. As I stopped at a noisy intersection to listen to traffic flow, a gentleman asked if he could assist. I said yes, that would be helpful. I was quite competent in listening to the traffic flow in Los Angeles, but in London, the traffic was moving in the wrong direction, and I chose not to risk becoming a hood ornament on a fast-moving vehicle. So, when a Londoner stopped and asked if he could assist, I said I was looking for Selfridges department store. He advised me that it was across the street and that he, too, would be crossing. He simply walked beside me, and when we reached the opposite side of the street, he told me that he was going to the right and that the store was to my left. I thanked him and continued down the sidewalk. All of this is to say that my philosophy of independence has helped me to feel good about myself. These events occurred during the 1970s and ’80s.
Fast forward to the early 1990s. During a convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Dallas, Texas, it was my pleasure to room with a dear friend who held the same basic philosophy about independence as I hold. It was during this conference when I met, and soon afterwards married, Don Burns. It was the second marriage for both of us, and he was recently experiencing vision loss. But had quickly adapted a similar philosophy of independence. All of this is simply to lay the background for the next several years of my life. As a blind couple, we have traveled extensively, and our experiences are phenomenal. We have learned to accept those sometimes demeaning and often annoying comments while at the same time attempting to educate the offender. The general public has little connection with the blind population and is unaware of the vast interests and abilities of those of us who happen to be blind. We are often called amazing or even courageous. If time allows, we spout a quick response, always indicating that we are just travelers who happen to be blind.
As we age, and our bodies slow down, we learned that saying, “yes, thanks” becomes easier. This is somewhat difficult because of my years of independence and of politely refusing such assistance. Don and I have learned that at times it becomes necessary to swallow our pride and put safety first. During a recent trip abroad, we were in customs and heading toward a down escalator. Both of us were loaded down with luggage and backpacks. When a customs agent advised us of the location of an elevator, we both readily accepted the suggestion. Based on the years of declining such suggestions, this acceptance was tough. We both realized that it was time to put safety first.
All of this is to say that we do not lose our independence when accepting assistance. Self-confidence or the lack thereof is the true issue in such cases. The National Federation of the Blind, the largest and most powerful organization of the blind, is the backbone of the blind population in the United States. Throughout the decades, hundreds if not thousands of blind people have become successful and effective members of society.All of this is the result of a forward thinking, young, blind professor. I doubt that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek had any realization about the impact his philosophy would have on the lives of future blind citizens. Thank goodness he did what he did, and thanks also that we continue to do what we do.