Reflecting on Fear of Blindness
by Seville Allen
From the Editor: Seville Allen is First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. She is also a member of the governing body of St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington. Like other blind people she works constantly to teach those around her that she is not so different from them. Sometimes the job seems too big, too demanding. Then something encouraging happens, and suddenly there is reason to continue the effort. The following story first appeared in the Spring, 1997, edition of the NFB Vigilant, a publication of the NFB of Virginia. Here it is:
It was almost noon on Saturday at the vestry retreat. The morning meeting was breaking up, and we were about to move down the hill for lunch. My usual anxiety began to rise as I contemplated yet another social situation in which I find myself feeling isolated and awkward as people divide into dyads and small knots, often moving away from me as I approach to join them. As I put my slate and stylus into my purse and closed my notebook, one of my fellow vestry members came and said, "Seville, I want to go to lunch with you because I need to talk to you."
Pleasantly surprised, I answered, "Certainly." What followed was one of the most honest and positive experiences I have ever had in dealing with blindness. The young man who asked me to go to lunch with him had just joined the vestry. I knew him by name and reputation as an excellent youth leader, but we had not spoken before.
As we left the building to walk down the hill to the cafeteria, I explained that I could take his arm as we talked or walk beside him. He offered his arm, I took it, and we started down the hill as the snow fell on our heads. We had only walked a few steps when the young man announced that he wanted to talk to me because he was afraid of me as a blind person. "Seeing you frightens me because I would be helpless if I couldn't see." I was shocked at his honesty, paused for a few seconds to gather my thoughts, and then answered that I was not surprised to learn how he felt, but surprised that he was so up front and honest about it.
As we continued our walk to the retreat center cafeteria, we discussed his fear and the realities of not seeing. When I explained to him that, most important, blindness has nothing to do with darkness--the thing he feared the most--he began to relax. I explained that blindness means the lack of eyesight, nothing more, nothing less, and that darkness must be seen to be experienced. I also told him that, if he were to lose his vision, he would be frightened, depressed, and probably angry. I assured him that would be a very normal reaction. I explained that he would need time to learn how to function as a blind person and that this learning would take several months in a good rehabilitation center. Using our Federation philosophy, I explained that we have come to understand blindness as a characteristic which is often inconvenient but not a tragedy.
By the time we reached the cafeteria, we had moved on to other subjects, such as the lunch menu, and I explained how he and I would navigate the food line, carry our trays, and reach the table to join our colleagues.
I share this delightful experience because I hope it may provide you, as it did me, a reminder that, as we are changing what it means to be blind, the change takes place slowly and will be accomplished through incidents such as this one.
Unfortunately, my conversation with our new young vestry member was an exception to our usual fatiguing treatment as helpless children, unaware of where we are or what we are doing, and from the social isolation caused by neighbors and colleagues who avoid us because they are afraid to talk to a blind person. This positive, honest interaction certainly has renewed my desire to continue the much-needed education that we must effect as we journey on our road to full equality.