Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

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Stepping Out in All Weather

by James Baxter

James Baxter
James Baxter

From the Editor: This story won the 2003 essay contest conducted by the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota. It was first published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin. Jim Baxter lives in Pennsylvania, where he has returned now that he has successfully completed his training at BLIND, Incorporated. Readers will be interested to know that the man in the white shirt described in this article was Jim Antonacci, president of the NFB of Pennsylvania.

At one time I would have expected some escape from traveling in the cold winter months. I thought that, because I am blind, I couldn't or shouldn't go out in the snow. Cold and blindness were my two fears before I acquired an NFB mind. I am sure you're saying to yourself, "What is an NFB mind?" Okay, sit down, make yourself comfortable, and grab a cup of something you like to drink. An NFB mind teaches you how to adjust to learning and living with independence (mind you now, I said "living"), by making yourself open to change, by believing that life can be as fair as you want it to be. Having an NFB mind means believing that, when you give your best, you will receive the best in return. Having an NFB mind means finding enough confidence to help others learn how acquiring an NFB mind could change their lack of confidence to independence. When I talk about confidence here, I mean the deep-down confidence that comes from hands-on experience. There's no substitute for proving something to yourself by really doing it.

My story is about the cold. To me the cold is like blindness--something that used to be a convenient excuse for avoiding what I didn't want to do. When winter comes, it's easy to stay inside and not go places, blaming the cold. I used to tell myself, "I am blind." When I did this, I felt guilty, as if I had done something wrong. But after a while I became a pro at making excuses. I like to drink milk, but when it came time to go out and buy the milk, I had a raft of excuses: I can't see; I might get hurt; or, my favorite, I might get lost and not find my way back. The effect was pretty much like, "Hey, it's too cold."

One day my brother said to me, "You've got to change. Not for anybody else, but for yourself. If Mommy was alive she would make you do for yourself, not asking help from anybody." It was then that I decided to go see a doctor. So I went downtown to a retina specialist.

"Yes, your eyes are failing," he said. "There's nothing we can do but monitor the progression of the deterioration." I suddenly felt cold all over. I shrank back into a corner and huddled up as if it was ten degrees outside. When the doctor's office started to close, I decided to walk to the visual services office to see what I could do. When I reached the front of that building, I saw a bunch of blind people being helped on to a paratransit van. I suddenly felt cold all over again. I said to myself, "No fricking way am I gonna be an object of pity; I already know how to make myself feel useless." As I was standing there looking at the van, I saw a guy in a white shirt come out of the building with a long white cane and go dashing down the street. He was moving with care and not running into anything. I began to smile. I started to follow him, but in doing so I kept bumping into people and walls. He got onto a bus as if doing that was nothing at all, and I thought, "Even I with my remaining vision have trouble getting on the bus and finding a seat." The bus pulled away, and I wanted to speak to him, but I was too embarrassed and ashamed of my blindness.

Every day for a week I went downtown around rush hour to see if I could spot this guy again. I had no success, so the next week I decided to ask the paratransit driver who the guy was. I described him--the guy with the long white cane who was walking by himself and got on the bus. He knew exactly who I was talking about. The driver said to me, "That is one of them NFB guys." I felt good all over. Suddenly it was not as cold as it had been, and I became motivated to find out how this NFB guy had learned how to do what he did so well. It was all new to me. I had never seen a blind person move freely and go anywhere independently, and I was determined not to depend on anybody for anything that I could do myself.

After months of research and determination, I met the guy with the long white cane, and he invited me to come learn how I could get this training--the same training he had gotten at an NFB training center. We talked about commitment and the will to be independent, about no longer feeling cold and blind when you accept the situation for what it is. He gave me a list of centers to choose from. I was invited for a tour by a number of centers. That made me feel good. I was starting to get the feeling that I was not alone in my desire to change.

I chose Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Incorporated, in Minnesota because I used to like fishing and wanted to go to the state of 10,000 lakes. I was told that blind people fish all the time. When I heard this, I started to smile. I said to myself, "This I gotta see; no way can a blind person catch fish." But I just kept remembering the guy with the white shirt and the long white cane.

I arrived in Minnesota in May of 2003. I felt nervous but somehow not alone. While waiting at the airport for someone from BLIND, Incorporated, to pick me up, I heard sounds that appeared to be canes. It was four blind students coming to greet me; I was excited. They amazed me. They greeted me with a warm welcome, and I began to tell them how amazed I was at their travel skills. They seemed somewhat reluctant to hear me go on about how amazed I was. I wasn't trying to embarrass them. I just had never seen anything like it.

So I finally got to the center and met the instructors who were going to assist in my training. I know you may not believe this, but many of them were blind. The travel instructor, the Braille instructor, the computer instructor, the director, and even the secretary were blind. "I must have been locked up in my room for a long time," I said to myself. "This cannot be happening." Oh, but it was! I felt apprehensive but curious. No way was I going back to my cold room. No way!

So then I was introduced to the long white cane. I said to myself with a smile, "There are many canes like this, but this one is mine. I am on my way back to feeling like I belong." After class a student was to show me how to get home on the bus--another student like me, someone who was blind! Once again I could not believe this was happening. But all the while I was remembering that guy in the white shirt and the long white cane.

I have now completed my training, and you will not believe how much independence I gained at the center. I am again one of the independent people on this earth. So now when I am cold, I put something else on or turn up the heat. When I am feeling blind, I accept the fact that I am blind and do what I can to make a difference. I deal with my blindness without expecting special treatment. I remember that being independent is going to keep me out of my cold room. I am now that guy in the white shirt with the long white cane. I am not walking into people and things. I am walking into the places I want to go.

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