Asking the Right Questions

By Angela Howard, Secretary, National Association of Blind Students

The minute I set foot into my first sociology class, I knew that this field would become an integral part of the way I experience our world. And indeed, sociology has dramatically shaped the manner in which I analyze a problem or approach a situation. One of the most important lessons sociology has taught me is that questions are keys that have the ability to unlock endless numbers of doors. The shape in which we form our keys will determine the doors that they will open. The questions we choose to ask will determine the answers we find. A good sociologist learns how to ask the questions that will lead him or her to new and exciting answers.

But the art of asking the right questions is not a skill which should only be mastered by sociologists. In every discipline and in every life-task in which we engage, we should ask ourselves, "Am I asking the right questions?" As blind people, asking the right questions about our capabilities and our place in society can mean the difference between a free person and one who is a prisoner of misconceptions.

Because we live in a culture that holds as truth many misconceptions and negative attitudes about blindness, our first tendency probably will be to ask the wrong questions about our capabilities. One question I hear asked over and over again by blind people as well as sighted people is this: "Can a blind person perform this task?" Built into this question is the assumption that there are at least some and perhaps many tasks that blind persons simply cannot perform efficiently. This question leaves room for an answer that says, "No, a blind person cannot perform this task." If we leave ourselves room for a "No" answer, we are likely to give up the search before we find the "Yes."

As Federationists, we are committed to asking ourselves the right questions about blindness. We in the Federation do not ask "Can?" but "How does?" Because we have challenged ourselves to ask new and exciting questions about blindness, we have come to many different conclusions about our capabilities than most. The answers we have found help us to live productive, fulfilling lives. We have asked the right questions and come to the conclusion that we can manage the big tasks in life, as well as the small, with the utmost efficiency.

However, learning how to ask the right questions in a society that does not do so is a lifelong task. As members of a culture that continues to ask "Can?" it takes much determination to constantly ask "How does?" We will sometimes find ourselves asking the wrong questions about our capabilities and, consequently, coming to the wrong conclusions.

Last semester, I fell into the trap of asking the wrong question as I was thinking about how I could solve a minor nuisance in my life caused by blindness. I wanted to find an efficient way to leave messages for people when they were not in their rooms. I could have printed out a message, hand written one using a writing guide, or stopped a stranger in the hallway to ask for assistance; but I needed a method that was much more efficient than these options offered me. I wondered how I could solve this problem. And here is where I fell into the trap of asking the wrong question: "Can I really expect myself to find a way to leave written messages efficiently?" After some half-hearted pondering, I came to the expected conclusion that, no, this was something that a blind person simply could not do efficiently.

However, a few weeks later, a friend mentioned to me that one of our faculty members, in order to save paper, recycles her messages by writing them on note cards and reusing them when needed. Here was the alternative technique that I needed. All I had to do to solve my dilemma was to have a reader pre-write messages on note cards, retrieve them from my friends after delivery, and reuse them when I needed to do so. The answer was not far away, but because I asked the wrong question, I may never have found it. So far this semester, my message writing dilemma has not arisen, but as soon as it begins to present itself again, I will know how to handle it in a way that satisfies me.

Though we in the Federation are continuing to work to replace out-dated notions about the incapacities of blind people with new truths that we are discovering about ourselves, we will sometimes find those old notions sneaking back into our hearts and minds. But we know which shape we want our philosophies to take, and if we continue to ask ourselves, "Am I asking the right questions?" we will make life better, both for ourselves and for other blind people in the future to come.

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