WHY NOT JUST ASK?

by Peggy Elliott

What is it like to be blind? A very reasonable question, but one which very often isn't asked. As Peggy Elliott points out here, how much easier it would be if it were. Incidentally, for readers of previous Kernel Books, Peggy Elliott is the former Peggy Pinder. Here is what she has to say.

I've been blind for almost twenty-five years, and a lot of people have asked me, "What's it like to be blind?" Often, the questioner has in mind some experience he or she had when the lights went out or when a blindfold was voluntarily worn for a few hours in one of those "trust walks" or "handicapped awareness days."

The problem is that those kinds of experiences give a false impression of what blindness is like. People wearing a blindfold for a few hours or losing the electricity are "temporarily blinded," just trying for a short period of time to fend until the ability to see returns. They haven't learned the techniques useful for doing things without sight. They haven't had any practice at it. And, their recollection is that blindness is pretty scary. Well, it is if you don't know how to handle it.

For me, learning how to handle blindness started when I met fellow blind people in the National Federation of the Blind. These were not only experienced blind people used to doing everything without looking, but they also were interested in passing along their knowledge and lots of encouragement with it. The day I met competent blind people eager to pass along their sense of confidence was the day I started really learning what it was like to be blind. Before that, I'd just been scared.

So, what is it really like to be blind? Three experiences I had while in college taught me a great deal about what it's like to be blind and what the blind person can do about it. The first thing was that the college I attended imposed a physical education requirement for graduation■four semesters of it. I happen to be a wimp and hate exercise. Faced with wimpiness and the hurdle to graduate, one naturally starts thinking of ways around the hurdle. I did—or I did until my advisor contacted the college administration without my knowledge and presented me with the college's determination that physical education would be waived in my case. Now, that was the only way to get me to take a gym class and not complain about it.

The advisor and the administration both assumed that, because I was blind, I couldn't do physical activity and that I wouldn't want to be embarrassed by discussing it. So they worked out what they thought was a kindly way of taking care of the problem: I would be excused. I firmly told all involved that I wanted my college degree to have the same weight as all the other degrees that would be granted at the same time. If everyone else took physical education, then I would take it, too. I did it peaceably and without complaining.

That was my first lesson in what it's like to be blind: people around you in a genuine spirit of kindness think that you can't do things and are cheerfully willing to exempt you without even discussing the possibility that you can do it.

The second experience took place in preparation for a science lab. Again, a science course with laboratory work was a graduation requirement. Now informed a little better about what might happen, I went to the professor teaching the class I had selected (geology) and asked to discuss my taking the class. He immediately said that the lab requirement could be waived. I gave my reason for not wanting the requirement waived and then went on to say what I had prepared ahead of time. I told the professor that "he knew rocks" and that "I knew blindness." If we put our knowledge together and worked out ways of doing the lab so that I could learn the required material, I was sure that I could do the required lab and graduate with a degree equivalent to those of my classmates.

The professor thought about his knowing rocks and my knowing blindness for a long time. I patiently waited him out, knowing that this was a concept he needed to think about. Finally, he said: "That makes sense. Now, how shall we have you" We talked details, worked out techniques, and I successfully took the course—a good one, by the way. It's interesting to learn how the world around you got the way it is.

Armed with my knowledge from these two incidents, I was not unready when the third one occurred. I was a philosophy major, and that department required a course on logic to complete the major. I registered for the course and completed the first section with a perfect score.

When the professor gave me my test score, he informed me that I would not be able to take the remainder of the course because there was a lot of work on the chalkboard throughout the rest of the semester. He preferred to teach without a textbook, using photocopied handouts and diagrams on the chalkboard instead—particularly the three interlocking circles called Venn diagrams. He stated that there was no way I could get the information, so I would have to drop the course. I tried explaining that the course was required. He stated that the requirement would be waived. I tried explaining that I didn't want a waiver. He repeated his statement that I couldn't get the information and therefore couldn't pass the course.

Here once again, and in a very vigorous form, was the assumption that I could not do something. But this assumption threatened my major. And even more disturbing was the insistence on not discussing the issue with me. The professor simply stated what he thought and planned to make it stick. He thought he knew what blind people could do—and they couldn't read chalkboards. That was the end of the issue; and this from a professor of logic.

I decided that, in this case, I would not argue the matter at all. If someone was so certain that they knew what blind people could do, there was no point arguing. The only thing I could do was to show him. I told the professor I would be taking the rest of the class and, as politely as I could, walked away. There was no point in shouting or fussing. I'd just show him.

I was at a bit of a disadvantage in the conversation because I also had no idea how I was going to get the information. I just knew that I would. Every day, I took a piece of carbon paper to class and asked a classmate seated near me to make copies of the diagrams drawn on the board. As the classmate drew in his or her notebook, a copy was made for me.

I soon learned that this was unnecessary. The professor was such a plodding lecturer that, by the time he had finished drawing the diagram, he had actually described it about five times and explained it seven times more. You didn't need the diagram. But I had them anyway if I wanted to refer to them outside of class while using a sighted reader to explain how they looked. I also learned that nobody else in the class was paying attention. The professor's style of lecturing was so dull and uninspiring that nobody listened. They just copied the diagrams and looked at them later. The diagrams by themselves told you nothing. You had to listen. So, people started coming to me in the dorm, asking me what the professor was talking about. I ended up tutoring many of my classmates since I seemed to be one of the very few who was actually paying attention.

When test time came around, I took the test and handed it to him. He scored it and informed me that I had scored 30 out of 100, noting as he told me that he had said I couldn't pass the course. I knew I had answered perfectly and insisted on going through the test, question by question. On the first question he had marked my answer wrong, the phrasing of the question itself permitted three possible answers. He had not noticed that and had only one answer in his test key. I explained that there were three possible answers. He grudgingly agreed and changed his test key.

There was still one question left, worth half the test. He had scored me wrong on that one, too. It was a memorized answer, based on the way he had drawn the diagrams on the chalkboard. He said I was wrong. I said I was right. I offered to go back to the dorm and get my carbon-copied notes to show him that he was remembering incorrectly the way he had drawn the diagram on the board. He very angrily pulled out his own lecture notes and looked at them for a very, very long time. Then he said: "Well, you're right." I didn't hear any more from him about not being able to do the work.

Not every denial of opportunity for a blind person works out so well. I did not know exactly how I was going to do the class work; I just knew I could find a way. But we often meet people like that philosophy professor who insist that we can't do something instead of people like the geology professor who are willing to discuss alternatives.

I don't mind being asked questions about what it's like to be blind and how I do things. The only thing I mind is when people assume that I can't do whatever it is. Sometimes, I want to say: Why Not Just Ask? I'll be glad to explain, and when I don't exactly know the answer, the National Federation of the Blind usually has someone in it who does. So, what's it like being a blind person? It's like being any other kind of person.