That is the introduction. Now for the article. As I have already said, it is called "Dont Throw the Nickel."
When is it appropriate for a blind person to accept help from a sighted person, and when is it not? If the offer is rejected, how can it be done without causing embarrassment or hurt feelings? Since most sighted people are well-disposed toward the blind, these are very real questions-questions that I as a blind person have faced all of my life. As you might imagine, my answers have changed as I have grown older and gained experience.
When I was a teen-ager, filled with the typical self-consciousness of adolescence, I frequently rode city buses. This was in Nashville. The school for the blind, where I was a student, was located on the edge of the city, and I liked to go downtown. Incidentally, in those days a bus ride cost a nickel, as did a lot of other things-a hamburger, a Coca Cola, an order of French fries, a full-size candy bar, a double-dip of ice cream, and much else.
One day I was standing on the corner waiting for a bus when an elderly woman approached me and said, "Here, son, Ill help you." She then put a nickel into my hand.
I could tell that she was elderly because of her voice. There was quite a crowd at the bus stop, and I felt acute embarrassment. I tried to give the nickel back, but she moved out of my way and kept saying, "No, thats all right."
Everybody stopped talking, and my frustration mounted. Each time I stepped toward her to try to give back the nickel, she moved out of the way. It must have been quite a spectacle, me with my hand extended holding the nickel, and the woman weaving and dodging to avoid me. Finally, in absolute exasperation, I threw the nickel as far as I could down the street.
That was over fifty years ago, but the memory is still clear. Once the woman had placed the nickel in my hand, there was really no way I could have given it back. If I had simply and quietly accepted it and thanked her, very little notice would have been taken. As it was, I created quite a show. The elderly woman, who was only trying to help me, was undoubtedly embarrassed, and I did little to improve the image of blindness. Instead, I did the exact opposite.
Ten years later, when I was in my twenties, I was teaching at the California training center for the blind in the San Francisco Bay area. One of my principal duties was to help newly blind persons learn how to deal maturely with loss of sight and the attitudes of the public about blindness.
Late one afternoon, after a particularly hard day, I was leaving the Center to go home. When I came to the corner to cross the street, an elderly man (he sounded as if he might be in his eighties) approached me and said, "Ill help you across the street."
"No, thanks," I said. "I can make it just fine." I was polite but firm.
"Ill help you," he repeated, and took my arm. As I have already said, it had been a hard day. I made no discourteous response, but I speeded up my pace as we crossed the street.
Clearly the man could not keep up, and if I am to be honest, I knew that he couldnt. He released my arm and said with a hurt tone, "I was only trying to help."
When I got to the other side of the street, I came to a complete stop and said to myself, "Are you really so insecure about your blindness that, even if it has been a hard day, you cant afford to be kind to somebody who was only trying to help you?"
As with the nickel-throwing incident, there was a lesson to be learned. I should have accepted the mans offer of help, and should have done it graciously. We would both have profited, each feeling that he had done the other a kindness. As it was, both of us experienced pain, even if only a little and even if only temporarily.
By the time another ten years had passed, I was in my thirties and directing programs for the blind in the state of Iowa. My job required me to do a great deal of traveling, and one day when I was checking into a hotel, a bellman carried my bag to my room. As he was leaving, I gave him a tip.
"Oh, no," he said, "I couldnt take a tip from you. Im a Christian."
Unlike what I did in the other situations I have described, I did not refuse or resist. I simply thanked him and let it go at that. Of course, I might have tried to get him to change his mind, but I didnt think it would be productive. And besides, I didnt feel so insecure or unsure of myself that I needed to prove either to him or me that I was equal.
So far, I have talked about help that has been courteously offered and probably should have been accepted. But what about the other kind? Blind people dont have a monopoly on rudeness or bad manners. Sighted people are human, too.
I think of a time when I was standing on a street corner in Des Moines, minding my own business and waiting for a friend. A big husky fellow with the momentum of a freight train came along and scooped me up without ever even pausing. "Come on, buddy," he said, as he grabbed my arm, "Ill help you across the street."
As it so happened, I didnt want to cross that street. I was going in another direction. But he didnt ask. And he wouldnt listen when I tried to tell him. He just kept walking and dragging me with him.
In the circumstances, I planted my feet and resisted-and I should have. All of us, whether blind or sighted, owe courtesy and consideration to each other, but in this case I was being treated like a none too intelligent child. No, worse than that-for children are rarely manhandled in public.
Not long ago I entered an elevator, and a man standing next to me reached out and placed his hand on my arm, between me and the elevator door, in a protective manner. He probably felt that I might lean into the door as it was closing or that I might have difficulty when the door opened. It was a sheltering gesture, totally inappropriate but meant to be helpful. He would have been shocked at the thought of behaving that way toward a sighted adult passenger, but in my case he saw no impropriety.
When the door opened, he restrained me with his hand and said, "Wait. You cant go yet." Since I was standing immediately next to the door and since there was no traffic outside, it is hard to know why he felt I should wait. Maybe he thought I should take a moment to get my bearings, or maybe it was simply more of the protectiveness. Who knows?
He treated me very much as he would have treated a small child. How should I have reacted? It all depends on how insistent and how obtrusive he was. There is something to be said for restraint and not hurting other peoples feelings, but there is also something to be said for recognizing when enough is enough.
In what I am about to say next, I am not just talking about persons who are totally blind but also about those who now see so poorly that they cannot function the way a sighted person normally does-persons who may be losing sight and who may be having trouble accepting it. I am also speaking to relatives.
As I have indicated, most blind people appreciate help when it is offered. When a blind person is walking through a crowd or down the street with somebody else and trying to carry on a conversation, it is easier to take the other persons arm. This is true even if the blind person is quite capable of traveling alone.
All of us like to do things for ourselves, but there are times when refusing to take an arm that is offered constitutes the very opposite of independence for a blind person. If, for instance, a blind person is walking with a sighted person through a crowded restaurant, the sensible thing to do is to take the sighted persons arm and go to the table without fuss or bother.
As you can tell, my views about independence and help from others have changed over the years. Probably the single most important factor in helping me come to my present notions has been the National Federation of the Blind. Having chapters in every state and almost every community of any size, the Federation is the nations oldest and largest organization of blind persons.
As it is with me, so it is with thousands of other blind people throughout the country. We work together to help each other and ourselves. We give assistance to parents of blind children, to blind college students, to the newly blind, to the senior blind, and to blind persons who are trying to find employment. Above all, the Federation teaches a new way of thought about blindness. We want to take the mystery out of blindness. Mostly, we who are blind are very much like you.
This is the message of the National Federation of the Blind, and it has made a great difference in my life. If I had to sum up my personal philosophy in a single sentence, it would probably be this: Do all you can to help yourself before you call on somebody else; try to make life better for those around you; and dont throw nickels.
There you have excerpts from the two Kernel Books for 1997. I believe our efforts at self-improvement and public education will be advanced by these books and that we will go the rest of the way to full participation and first-class status in society.
While I am talking about the future, let me say something else. I never come into one of our convention sessions without feeling a lift of spirit and a surge of joy, for I know to the depths of my being that our shared bond of love and trust will never change, and that because of it we will be unswervable in our determination and unstoppable in our progress.
Through our public service announcements on radio and television, through newspaper articles and personal contacts, through gatherings like this, through our mail programs, through our publications, through public speaking engagements, through meetings with government officials and corporate leaders, and especially through our Kernel Books, we are telling our story-and we are doing it in our own way and with our own voice. The day after civil rights is fast approaching, and we will meet it as we have met every other challenge we have ever faced-joyously, actively, and triumphantly. My brothers and my sisters, we are truly changing what it means to be blind-and the Kernel Books are helping us do it.