Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

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Blind Lady Coming Down!

by Aloma Bouma

Aloma Bouma
Aloma Bouma

From the Editor: Aloma Bouma has recently returned to school to earn a master's degree. This story appeared in To Reach for the Stars, the twenty-fifth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:

Aloma Bouma grew up in Nebraska and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she has been a leader in the National Federation of the Blind for many years. Her blindness has never prevented her from pursuing her love of travel. Here she tells of her experiences while visiting the British Parliament:

One of the minor regrets in my life is that I did not choose to study and work in the fields of anthropology and archeology. Too long after college and too late to develop a successful career in either of these fields, I discovered my love for them. This failure has deprived me of travel in the areas of the world most closely associated with human development--travel I would have thoroughly enjoyed and still hope to do some day. This does not mean, however, that I have not traveled. I love traveling and make special efforts to fit visits to other countries into my life whenever I can.

During one visit to London I found myself with some free time for sightseeing. Everyone who visits London looks forward to hitting the usual tourist sites: the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, a ride on the top of a double-decker bus, a trip to Windsor Castle or Hampton Court, a ferry ride down the Thames, or a stroll along Oxford Street for some power shopping. Having done all those things on previous trips, I decided to check out Trafalgar Square and visit the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.

As a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I have spent some time visiting my senators and representatives and the U.S. Capitol. Additionally I have observed Congress in action both on C-SPAN broadcasts and from the congressional observation seating for visitors, and I have seen bits and pieces of American broadcasts from England's Parliament. None of this, however, prepared me for what I found at the Houses of Parliament.

As I entered the large and impressive building with Big Ben sounding from its tower above, I was immediately struck by a sense of history, power, and solemnity. The area was hushed, with very few employees or visitors around. I approached a visitor information desk and asked about visiting hours and opportunities to observe the Houses in session.

I learned that I was welcome to observe the House of Lords from balcony seating. Someone would be happy to show me the way immediately. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Very soon someone accompanied me through the corridors toward the entrance to the Lords visitors' area. The atmosphere remained quiet, and, even though my sense of anticipation was building, I continued to be awed by the dignity that surrounded me.

After passing through the maze of ropes and enduring security screenings, intensive by any standard, I was shown where to enter the balcony. Just before I slipped quietly in, I was ever so properly and politely reminded to remain silent and to demonstrate respect for the work that was being conducted. I spent about an hour watching with fascination and respect, even though I cannot now tell you what the discussion was about.

The members behaved exactly as I had expected them to: very dignified, quiet, and soft-spoken, respectful to one another, and moving through their business with courteous precision. I felt my overwhelming good fortune as I recognized not only that I, an American visitor, could share this moment but also that as a blind person I had had the ability and confidence to travel alone to London, seek out historic sites, and participate in the things countless other tourists do every day.

After a time I decided to inquire about visiting the House of Commons. At this point things began to change. As I walked back through security upon leaving the House of Lords, I asked if someone could direct me to the House of Commons visitor seating. I was told that someone would be happy to show me, and off we went. However, my experience at the Commons was quite different from the routine at the Lords visitor entrance.

As we approached, I noticed no visitors, ropes, security screening, or large entrance area. I was conducted through a relatively small door leading to a winding staircase. When I inquired where we were going, I was told this was the entrance to the Commons viewing area.

Something was clearly wrong, but with no previous experience of the area, I wasn't sure precisely what. I asked again if this was the usual way for visitors to reach the observation area for the House, and I was once again assured that this was the proper path. But we were ascending a narrow stairway obviously not meant for the public. I asked to be shown the public entrance, explaining that I had not wanted special treatment or opportunities different from those provided to other members of the general public.

I found myself facing a real dilemma. The philosophy I had learned from the National Federation of the Blind has taught me to believe both in myself as a blind person and in the importance of participating in society the way my sighted friends do. However, here I was, in a foreign country, unfamiliar with many of the customs, and especially unfamiliar with parliamentary staff attitudes about blindness. How could I make my point without offending them and appearing to become a rude, impolite, ungrateful American tourist?

Not sure I was making the right choice, I decided not to make a scene by arguing. I chose to comply with the requirements but to make a point of discussing the matter with someone before I left the building. Perhaps I could provide a little public education and make it easier for future blind visitors. I was shown into the balcony through a door leading to an aisle behind the back row of seats. Along that back wall, under a speaker, a man placed a wooden chair.

Leaving the House of Commons, however, turned out to be just as frustrating as arriving had been. I bid the gentleman good day and stepped toward the winding stairs. Before I could descend, though, the ushers stopped me. Wouldn't I please take the elevator down so that I wouldn't hurt myself? Apparently in their view going up the stairs is not as dangerous for the blind as going down.

No, I said, I would be fine on the stairs. I simply said no thank you, and took off alone down the long staircase. When I reached the halfway point, I heard one of the men bellowing from the top of the stairs. "Blind lady coming down!" he yelled to his colleagues at the bottom. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

For a long time I reflected on my experiences in Parliament--the contrast between my House of Lords visit, which went so smoothly, and the one to the Commons, which went so differently.

Mostly, when I think about it now, I am grateful for the National Federation of the Blind and for what I have learned of the strong self-confidence and ability that ground us. We have each other to turn to when we do not know all of the answers or find ourselves facing situations in which no answer seems the perfect choice. I wouldn't trade my experience in Parliament for anything. It strengthened my need to hold to personal convictions under unfavorable circumstances, and it taught me that sometimes diplomacy and cultural differences must be balanced against individual philosophy and principles.

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