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Seville Allen

Different Roads: The NFB Makes the Difference

by Seville Allen

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Spring, 1998, issue of the Vigilant, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. Seville Allen edits that publication. She is a longtime Federationist and a leader of the NFB of Virginia. This is what she says:

We hadn't seen each other since that day in June, 1959, when we graduated from the eighth grade. We had been best friends from the time we entered kindergarten until we returned to school in the fall of 1956 to begin the sixth grade. I returned as a total, as those with no sight were known at the residential school for the blind. My best friend was partially sighted, and she continued playing with the sighted kids. Our friendship faded, and by the time we graduated from eighth grade, we hardly saw each other at all. That was thirty-nine years ago.

Last spring our paths crossed electronically when I answered an e-mail she sent to a listserv requesting contact with graduates of the school for the blind we had both attended. We discovered that during the thirty-eight years since our eighth grade graduation our lives had taken very different roads. She attended a public high school in her home town. I completed my secondary education at the school for the blind. She married and became a parent, raising three children. I became a clinical social worker, then a career civil servant working as a federal employee.

My former playmate was not a Federationist, but she arranged to meet me at our 1997 convention in New Orleans so we could meet again in person. When the time came to meet her, I was a little anxious since all our contact had been by electronic mail. We had not spoken at all. As it turned out, my anxiety was unnecessary. She greeted me enthusiastically when I knocked on her door at the hotel.

Since we've met in person, we've spent many hours getting to know each other again. Her voice and personality are much as I remember. We are both avid readers, study history, and enjoy traveling. While our lives have been very different, we still have a lot in common, just as we did as children. The biggest difference I see between us now is our attitude about our blindness. Blindness has kept her from reaching her full potential. She tells me how difficult it is to do things because of her low vision or, as she says, "Because I can't see very well." But more than that she continuously marvels at what I do in spite of my total blindness. I can illustrate the difference in our approach to blindness with an incident that happened when we visited in New Orleans.

She and her husband had gone to a small, inexpensive restaurant for breakfast. She told me about the wonderful pancakes, and I asked how to get there. She began explaining where the restaurant was located, then hesitated. "Well," she said "you better have a sighted person go with you because you have to cross a street."

I joined the National Federation of the Blind about twenty-four years ago, and that changed my life. Perhaps had I not become a part of our Federation family and learned that blindness is an inconvenient characteristic, I too would have believed I needed a sighted guide to take me to that pancake restaurant.

I realized fully that our different approaches to blindness result from my involvement with the NFB when we recently met for lunch. I was visiting her city on a job-related assignment. My rediscovered childhood friend asked how I travel to strange cities on my own without fear and with no eyesight. I heard myself telling her that the National Federation of the Blind has made the difference. I told her that, until I met the Federation, I had assumed there were many things I just wouldn't do, but for me that is all different now. She was quiet for a moment then told me that, when she was in New Orleans last summer, she was overwhelmed by watching blind people running the convention.

That experience has helped her begin to re-examine her own situation. I'll continue to encourage her through my words and more through my actions, and perhaps some day she too will be a Federationist. It's never too late to put blindness in its proper perspective, as one more characteristic that makes us who we are just as do our height, gender, and temperament.