Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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The Federation in Your Journey
The Courage to Try

by Mary Ellen Gabias

Reprinted from The Blind Canadian, Vol. 5, July 2012

Mary Ellen GabiasFrom the Editor: Mary Ellen Gabias grew up in Ohio, lived for several years in Illinois, then in Maryland, and settled in British Columbia in the 1970s. She is deeply committed to the organized blind movements of both her native land and her adopted country. Currently she serves as president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB).

Journeys make me think about travel and moving around. The notion of traveling is a metaphor for how I live my life and what the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) mean to me. Over the years, I have discovered that the stories I tell myself about what has happened to me shape my destiny more than the happenings themselves. I find that I have lived with a number of paradigms that sometimes support and sometimes conflict with one another.

First Paradigm: Don't move! When I was five, a buddy knocked on my door and asked me if I could go outside and play cops and robbers. My mom said yes, but she told me to stay in the backyard. "Don't go near the side yard. Workers are repairing the septic tank," Mom said.

If I had listened to my mom that day, I wouldn't be telling this story now. All I can say in defense of my five-year-old self is that, when Elliot Ness was in hot pursuit of Al Capone, he probably didn't remember everything his mother told him, either. I will spare you the details, except to tell you that when I was running full speed ahead and, suddenly, there was no ground underneath me, I felt like I was flying--until gravity won. My mother stated the lesson from that event simply, "You pay a price when you don't pay attention."

How grateful I am that that was her message! She so easily could have said, "Don't run! It's too dangerous for you."

My parents encouraged me to move on my own. Unfortunately, other people and circumstances did not. My brothers usually parked their bikes in the wrong places; it is amazing how many bruises one can get from falling over a bicycle! Many people said, "Don't worry; I'll do it; you might fall; just sit there." So the idea that moving was scary entered my consciousness.

A long white cane would have made things far easier for me, but my parents told themselves a story that, along with a tin cup and a handful of pencils, the cane was part of the beggar's badge. I became afraid to move because I lacked the tool that would have helped me.

Second Paradigm: Exploring is fun. In second grade I learned about explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan--those brave people who went out and discovered new continents. Our school's acreage was relatively small, but it felt enormous. I set out to explore every inch of it, charting unknown territories. Without a cane to check out the ground ahead of me, my explorations were more arduous than they needed to be. Even so, I began to believe that life was fun; getting around was an adventure. Then, home to Mom's cupcakes--no starving in the wilderness! The idea that exploration was a joy became part of my life.

Third Paradigm: Am I good enough? I heard the family of another blind student talking about "cane travel." They said of their child, "He moves as fast as a sighted person." I wanted that speed and ease for myself. I begged for cane travel lessons and insisted that my parents change their story about what it meant to use a white cane.

I was instructed by an orientation and mobility specialist who had been trained in Boston. She called herself a peripetologist. Peripetology was a pretentious, manufactured Greek word referring to the science of getting around. I learned an assortment of techniques--the two-point touch, three-point touch, touch-and-slide, touch-and-drag. I learned to go with a sighted person the first time I went anywhere in order to make sure the new route was safe. The third paradigm became: "Am I doing it right? Am I a good traveller or a bad one?"

All of these paradigms existed simultaneously. Sometimes I was scared to move, sometimes I was excited, and sometimes I wondered if I was good enough.

Then I became involved with the National Federation of the Blind--a growing, changing and dynamic organization in the US. My first trip to a Federation convention, where hundreds of blind people gathered together, helped me better understand my paradigms and changed the stories I told myself.

For far too many people at convention in 1972, independent travel meant that not everyone had his or her own sighted guide. Independence meant that one guide worked with five or six people. Groups of us traveled by "train"--not Amtrak or VIA Rail, but a train where a sighted person guided five or six blind people who hung onto each other for dear life. Heaven help us if the trains got tangled up! The sighted people would argue about who had the right of way and which train should move. The blind people waited patiently while the sighted guides settled the matter.

At the same time, I encountered a new and exciting spirit at that convention. Canes tapped everywhere. I met blind people who walked by themselves with their heads high, with speed, with joy. Sometimes one person linked arms with a less confident colleague, and sometimes sweethearts held hands. I deliberately followed those confident travelers around the hotel and the downtown Chicago streets, imitating everything they did. I added yet another paradigm to my list.

Fourth Paradigm: I've got places to go, and I'm going to get there. Blind people live with all of these paradigms of travel and life. Yes, sometimes moving seems too dangerous; sometimes it is an adventure to explore and try new things; sometimes self-doubt stops us from trying at all. But, more and more, because of the Canadian Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, blind people travel because they have places to go. The techniques are the same; the stories are different.

Federation conventions change your life. You cannot imagine, until you go, the many empowering stories you will hear, and how these stories will change your life and the lives of others, in so many subtle ways.

That day when I was playing cops and robbers, if my mother had said, "Don't move, it's too dangerous," my plunge into the septic tank would not have been just a humorous story. It would have ended my desire to move and dream on my own. I would have become afraid that independent action would lead me into the mire. Instead, I learned that when you pay attention, you don't have to pay a price. I am grateful to my parents and to everyone in the Federation for helping me understand those lessons, for teaching me the way, and for sharing my journey.

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