The Braille Monitor                                                                                       July 2003

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Is This a Twenty?

by Mary Ellen Halverson

Mary Ellen Halverson
Mary Ellen Halverson

From the Editor: Mary Ellen Halverson is a longtime leader of the NFB of Idaho. She is a mother and grandmother, and she is also a thoughtful and competent blind woman. Here is her story:

We have all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the event I am about to describe, a brief question revealed a whole history and painted a clear picture of what individuals and society believe about blindness.

One summer several years ago I was working in the Summer Youth Program at the Idaho Commission for the Blind. We had ten lively students between the ages of fourteen and sixteen who were attending a four-week program to learn or brush up on the skills of blindness and to receive a healthy dose of positive philosophy about blindness. The teens took orientation classes from 8:00 in the morning until midafternoon, when they left to take part in other activities. We soon discovered that most of the kids had poor Braille reading and writing skills, very poor spelling, and inadequate cane-travel skills. Despite all this, they were typical active and fun-loving teenagers. As the days went by, we learned many things about their real beliefs about blindness and about themselves as blind people. The following is an example of what I mean. What appeared to be a simple question revealed much about one young woman's perception of blindness.

As the Summer Youth kids arrived on the first morning of training, we all gathered in the rec room for an introductory meeting and to hand out class schedules. I was the Braille instructor and had been assigned to run this first meeting and distribute schedules. Of course I had them all written out in Braille so that I could tell each student his schedule. We also discussed housekeeping items, our expectations of the students, and the way the day would unfold.

All the students and teachers introduced ourselves that morning before beginning our day. After addressing questions from the students, we were off to class. All staff members helped show students where their first classes were located, since most of them had never been in the building before. Each would then get a thorough introduction to all classrooms in his or her first cane-travel class.

Two or three days later one of the girls, Amanda, came into Braille class and asked, "Is this a twenty?" At first I wasn't sure what she meant, then it dawned on me. She thought I could see. She was holding up a bill across the room. I am totally blind and had been using my cane and Braille notes all week. I said to her, "Amanda, I can't see it either."

She responded, "Oh, I thought you could see." At first I wondered how she could have missed the fact that I was using a cane and reading the class schedules in Braille. She and I had also discussed some personal grooming questions, and I had given her some new ideas and suggestions.

As I pondered why she had thought I could see, a clear picture began to take shape in my mind. There were several reasons why Amanda thought I was sighted. First of all, and I think most important, I had been in charge of the meeting the first morning. These young people were definitely used to sighted people being in charge. I had read them their class schedules fluently and easily from my Braille notes. They had never had the opportunity or experience of observing blind people reading Braille quickly and efficiently. Also I had been moving around the room easily, without stumbling over furniture or kids. I had shown several of them where their first class was or shown them to the travel classroom to pick up their new canes.

I think the truth is that Amanda just didn't expect a blind person to be in charge or to operate efficiently and responsibly. Her personal experience had taught her otherwise. She had accepted the ideas and beliefs of her family, friends, teachers, and society in general that blind people will never quite meet the standards of those who can see. This kind of thinking is subtle and sneaks into our minds as we go through life. It clouds our perception of the truth about blindness. This is exactly why we who are blind need intensive training programs based on the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. We need to be awakened and jolted out of old beliefs and stereotypes about blindness.

Who would have thought that the simple question, "Is this a twenty?" could be so revealing and significant? I am deeply thankful for the founders, leaders, and members of the National Federation of the Blind who continue to teach the truth about blindness.


Pooled Income Gifts

In this plan money donated to the National Federation of the Blind by a number of individuals is invested by the NFB. Each donor and the NFB sign an agreement that income from the funds will be paid to the donor quarterly or annually. Each donor receives a tax deduction for the gift; the NFB receives a useful donation; and the donor receives income of a specified amount for the rest of his or her life. For more information about the NFB pooled income fund, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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