The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______    December 1997

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The Other Side of the Mule

by Randy Cox

From the Editor: Randy and Kristin Cox are active members of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah. The following article first appeared in the fall, 1997, edition of Insight, the publication of the NFB of Utah. This is what Randy says:

I suggest that there are two main steps in solving a problem: 1) correctly perceiving what the problem is; and 2) using the right method to solve it. The first step largely determines the second. Let me illustrate this with an example.

A Zen master is walking through a small town when he comes upon a group of irate people arguing. He asks a person at the center of the fray what the commotion is about. He is told that a mule is in the middle of the street, kicking people as they walk by. The crowd is trying to determine how to get past the mule safely.

The Zen master watches as several strong young men try to walk by the mule holding boards up as a shield only to have the board shattered and their arms hurt by the mule's hooves. He overhears an optimist declare that they just need the right attitude and then observes him walking down the street and being kicked as well. He turns to see a group of intellectuals bringing a chalkboard onto the nearby shop's front porch while they discuss the reasons why the mule may be kicking and the impact of each kick. Many conclude with solemn faces that they will be unable to go down that street anymore.

A tranquil smile crosses the Zen master's face as he rises from his seat and quietly begins walking down the street. Slowly the villagers become aware of the old man and stop their chatter to see what he will do. They watch as the master makes a left turn several yards in front of the mule onto a cross street. They watch until he disappears. As they look around, they suddenly see him reappear from the left but several yards past the mule. As it dawns on the crowd what the man has done, they notice him stop to wave before he continues serenely on his journey.

This story illustrates the two points about problem-solving I mentioned earlier. The villagers perceived the problem to be the mule. Consequently, that is where they focused their attention. Some tried to force their way past the obstacle. Some tried to change their attitude. Some tried to analyze the problem. Some just gave up. But the mule kept kicking.

The Zen master, on the other hand, realized that the problem was not the mule but the route. As a result he focused on finding a path that would get him where he needed to go without meeting the mule. I am reminded of a comment Albert Einstein made once:

"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

What does all this have to do with blindness in general and with the National Federation of the Blind in particular? Let's say that someone has recently become blind. For the sake of this example, we'll call him Johnny. He experiences the usual frustration of not being able to read and do well in his work. He has difficulty getting around town as easily as he used to. Tasks that used to be simple he now perceives to be hard. In other words, he now finds himself with a problem.

Let's go back to the two-step process mentioned earlier. Step one is correctly identifying the problem. If Johnny perceives the problem to be blindness itself, this obviously has a large impact on his approach to step two: applying the right solution. If he thinks blindness is the problem, he may try to continue doing things the way he did before he was blind and force his way along. He may try to ignore the reality of his situation and just work on his attitude. Perhaps he studies the causes of blindness, various degrees of vision, the impact of blindness on those confronted by it, etc. He may just put his life on hold and simply wait for his blindness to be cured. But after all of his effort, Johnny is still blind, still unable to read, and still prevented from traveling effectively.

To continue our example, let's say Johnny meets a member of the NFB whom we will call Sue. What does Sue think Johnny's problem is? For starters, she does not identify blindness as the problem. She recognizes that Johnny's perception that blindness is the problem is actually most of the problem. The remainder is his lack of proper training and opportunity largely resulting from society's misconceptions and ignorance about blindness.

Since Sue sees the problem differently, her approach is different as well. Instead of encouraging Johnny to read print, she teaches him Braille. Instead of watching Johnny get lost and bump into things while working to keep a good attitude, she shows him how to use a long white cane. Instead of allowing Johnny to sit home asking "Why?" she introduces him to people who are saying, "This is how."

In my experience the NFB is the only organization with the correct perception of and approach to blindness. Some may argue that we are wrong, But they argue as they watch blind people wave back to them from the other side of the mule.