Of Milk Cartons and Belief

by Noel Nightingale

From the Editor: Since she wrote this story, which first appeared in Reflecting the Flame, Noel Nightingale has been elected to the NFB Board of Directors and become a mother. Last November she and her husband Jim became the parents of baby Lela. Beginning with Dr. Maurer's introduction, here is Noel Nightingale's contribution to the seventeenth Kernel Book:

Noel Nightingale is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. A competent young lawyer, she carries her share of the workload in the environmental law firm where she is employed. Her blindness has come gradually over a period of a number of years.

In her story "Of Milk Cartons and Belief," she tells of her battle with the office milk cartons and what that battle taught her about her own blindness. Here is what she has to say:

For several years I casually wondered how I would know which end of the milk carton to open when my failing vision finally prevented me from seeing the arrow on the carton indicating which end to open. Less casually, I often think about how I can make people with whom I work at ease with me and my blindness and, more basically, what I can do to make sure that I fit in.

In the office where I work, we have a lunchroom. We have all sorts of amenities, from twenty-five-cent soda pop to free bottled fruit juices to gourmet coffee. In the lunchroom refrigerator are cartons of milk for use with coffee. The milk is shared communally among coworkers.

Frequently, after I have poured my first cup of coffee in the morning, I reach into the refrigerator for some milk and find that there are no open cartons. During the first year or two of work I could vaguely see the arrow pointing to the end of the carton to open. As my sight rapidly degenerated, I often reminded myself that I needed to ask one of my blind friends how I would know which end of the carton to open when I could no longer see the arrow.

It seems silly, but I did not want perpetually to open the wrong end of the carton, having then to turn the carton around and open the right end. Everyone in the office who also used milk in their coffee would undoubtedly know that it was the blind woman who could not manage to open the correct end of the milk carton. Silly or not, exceedingly self-conscious or not, I wanted to be able to open the right end of the carton on the first try.

I had intended to ask one or two blind friends what their techniques were for opening milk cartons. The question had not, however, risen to the level of a priority by the time I actually needed to know the answer. One day I walked into the lunchroom and found that I could no longer tell which end of the carton had the arrow on it.

I took a stab at opening the carton, and as I had feared, I opened the wrong end. For the next week or so it seemed as if I opened the wrong end more often than not. When I went back for that second cup of coffee, I would reach into the refrigerator and find the carton with both ends open. I heard it screaming, "That blind woman opened me!"

Over time I experimented to determine whether one end of the carton was easier to open than the other. It is. Once I started paying attention to the feel of the carton as I tested each end for ease of opening, I found that it is actually quite easy to tell which end is the one that wants to open. It is no longer even a low-level issue percolating in the back of my mind.

I have spoken with several older blind people who lost their sight late in life and who believe that they cannot operate a touch-button telephone because they are blind. They believe that they must be able to see the numbers to know which buttons to push. This is simply not true. I cannot see the numbers but use a telephone many, many times a day. Most blind people I know use the telephone as quickly and frequently as people who can see.

There is no trick to dialing a telephone without being able to see the numbers. It is merely a matter of remembering where the number one key is and knowing how the keypad is organized. And it is not just blind people who memorize this information; sighted people instinctively, if not consciously, know this information as well.

Why do these people who were blinded late in life believe that they cannot perform this daily task of living? Probably because they have dialed a telephone by using their sight most of their lives and cannot imagine that they can do it another way.

Why did I believe that I could find a way to open milk cartons correctly? Through my membership in the National Federation of the Blind I have learned that I, as a blind person, can perform those small tasks of daily life as well as sighted people. I just need to approach those tasks differently from the way I did when I was sighted.

Sometimes I need to use my imagination, try several methods, or ask my blind friends what their techniques are. I have also learned, through the National Federation of the Blind, that I can accomplish the larger tasks of life. I work; I am married; I own a home with my husband; and I am actively involved in my community. My activities have increased, not decreased, as I have lost more sight.

Since I began opening milk cartons using my alternative technique, I have had several blind people point out to me that milk cartons come with indentations at the end of the carton that indicate which end should be opened. I had not noticed that before. There is usually more than one way to accomplish a task. The trick is believing that, one way or another, we can do it.

I recently found a couple of cartons in the lunchroom refrigerator which had had both ends opened. No other blind people work with me, so it could only have been the handiwork of one of my sighted coworkers. I clearly did not need to feel so self-conscious about whether I opened the milk carton correctly.

The real issue raised by my battle with milk cartons was my anxiety that, if I opened both ends, I would be seen as different from the rest of my coworkers. Of course, opening both ends of a milk carton would be the least of our differences. Most of the time I do things very differently from my coworkers because I use a long white cane, Braille, and special computer equipment. On the surface it appears that I have little in common with my sighted colleagues.

The National Federation of the Blind has taught me that my blindness does not make me inferior to my sighted colleagues. It just means that I need to do things differently from the way they do. When I use the tools that blind people have developed, I am capable of working at the same level as my sighted peers.

I still strive daily, though, to do everything I can subtly to show my colleagues that we have more in common than not. They may not think consciously about how to open a milk carton or dial a telephone, but then neither do I most of the time.