Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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Baby Steps, Long Strides, and Elephant Seal Humps

by Priscilla Leigh McKinley

Priscilla McKinley
Priscilla McKinley

From the Editor: Priscilla McKinley was a 1996 National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner and a 1998 tenBroek Fellow. By the time the NFB first made contact with her, Priscilla was well on her way to developing for herself the philosophy that characterizes Federationists. The Federation certainly speeded her evolution into a healthy, contributing blind woman and a leader of the National Federation of the Blind, but she was heading in the right direction when we met. Until she and her husband Brian Miller moved to California last year so that he could take a job with the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Priscilla was president of the Old Capitol Chapter of the NFB of Iowa. She received her master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction writing and is now working on her Ph.D. in language, literacy, and culture through the Department of English Education at the University of Iowa. She expects to finish her dissertation in December of 2005 and then hopes to teach creative nonfiction writing, ethnographic methods in literacy research, or approaches to teaching writing to English as a second language to students. She is vice president of the National Organization of Blind Educators, and until September she served on the board of directors of the NFB of Iowa.

Here is Priscilla's description of her early days as a blind person and her struggle against learning to use the long white cane.

One October day about seven months after I start losing my sight due to complications from juvenile diabetes and pre-eclampsia during the birth of my son, my mother drops me off in front of the hospital for an eye appointment. When the humming of her Chevy disappears in the direction of the parking ramp, I stand and listen for the sound of the forced-air, temperature‑controlled open entrance of the hospital. I have memorized the way--stepping through the open space, passing straight through the lobby, turning left to the elevator, pushing the third button from the bottom on the panel, getting off at the second floor, and following the walls down the hall to the eye clinic--left, left, and left again. But, because of the cold weather, the open space has been replaced with glass doors, and I walk into them, face first.

The pain spreads from my nose to the rest of my face, causing tears to well up in my eyes. I must look crazy or drunk, and a number of people run over, asking if I need help. "Are you hurt, honey?" "Are you here alone?" "Where are you headed?" Stunned by the pain, I can't answer. Even though my nose hurts terribly, I do not cry because of the physical pain. The pain I feel pushes up from the pit of my stomach, pulsating through every part of my body. For the first time I realize that I need to make changes in my life. I admit that I am blind.

That was the way my life as a blind person began, like a slap on a new baby's bottom. Welcome to the world of the blind! But how does a woman all of a sudden change the way she has done everything throughout her life--reading, writing, and even walking? She doesn't, or at least I didn't. I wasn't willing to accept the fact that I would never see again, nor was I ready to do anything to help myself adjust to my blindness, including using one of those long white canes. I figured my sight would come back and my blindness would be one of those conversation starters I could use at cocktail parties, a story to get people's attention. "Yeah, I went blind for a while, and I even learned cane travel, but then I got my sight back." But in reality I would never regain my sight, and I would have to learn the skills I would need to get around in the world. Unfortunately, at that time I wasn't a member of the National Federation of the Blind, and I resisted learning those skills for as long as I could.

In many ways I felt like a toddler, like my son Jonathan, who was exploring the world for the first time. However, I lacked the enthusiasm he did in experiencing new things. While he tried to figure out ways to push round objects through square holes and to catch the chickadees and cardinals that landed on the bird feeder outside the window, I tried to figure out ways to make caring for Jonathan a bit easier. I felt his mouth with one hand while shoveling food into it with the other to avoid getting strained peas or carrots in his eyes or nose, something he managed to do on his own. I used twenty diaper wipes when I changed him, and it wasn't hard to tell when he needed a change.

The pediatrician had told me that Jonathan might be a bit slow from being six weeks premature, so I was relieved when he started moving around, but I was also a bit nervous and put bells on his booties and shoes so I could follow him. Instead of crawling, he humped like an elephant seal. He would scoot his legs up under himself and lunge forward, landing on blocks and other toys, laughing all the while. He never hesitated to hump from one room to another, even when the obstacles were as big as the three stairs from the living room to the family room. However, when he pulled himself up and started taking baby steps around the furniture, he moved slowly, cautiously, much like his mother, who was just starting to learn cane travel.

At first, when Don, an independent living instructor, said a cane was necessary to regain my independence, I protested, saying, "Mary Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie didn't use a cane, so why should I?" Mary walked along the rustic wooden sidewalks, sometimes being led by a sighted person, sometimes counting steps. Don argued that I shouldn't be led around like a dog and that counting steps worked only on television. He also said the method I had been using wasn't very effective--shuffling like an old woman, holding my arms out in front of me, using my feet as a guide. But, even though I didn't want to carry a white cane, letting everyone see that I was blind, I agreed to the lessons.

"When you step forward with your right foot, swing the cane to your left. When you step forward with your left foot, swing the cane to the right," Don reminded me every few steps, his voice echoing behind me.

With the difficulty in distinguishing between gravel and grass on the country driveway, I wandered off into the yard a few times. Don said to hold the cane directly in front of me, using only my wrist to fling it back and forth, but, because I was right‑handed, I tended to hold it over to my right. Don couldn't see how I held the cane, but he knew I wasn't doing it right when I smashed into the tree on my left. Even though I wasn't hurt, I complained enough to put an end to my first lesson.

When another independent living instructor arrived for my second lesson, I hoped for a little sympathy, but Chuck wasn't willing to give it. He wouldn't put up with my stubbornness, my resistance. When I showed signs of giving up, he said, "If I can do it, so can you." I didn't think this was fair. Chuck had been blind since birth. He knew how to read and write Braille, how to use a cane, how to be blind. When I told Chuck my practice only included going up and down the driveway a few times, he suggested we go into St. Ansgar, my small hometown in northern Iowa, and I imagined the people on the street watching me, a lifetime resident. Some would probably feel sorry for me, saying things like, "She can't see! She has to use a cane--a white one. The poor girl." Thinking of these things, I objected to the lesson in town, but Chuck persisted and finally won.

"You have a little sight, right?" Chuck asked.

I climbed out of the car, trying to hide the cane. "But all I can see are light and shadows!"

"Well, then," he said, placing something in my hand, "you'll have to wear these."

I felt the strap and the nylon patches and recognized the sleepshades. I had heard of them and knew I might have to use them for travel lessons, since I could still see light and shadows out of my left eye. "I'm not wearing these," I said, handing them back to Chuck. "I'll just close my eyes. I promise I won't cheat." After telling Chuck I would rather wear a paper bag than the sleepshades, after feeling my eyes fill with tears, I persuaded Chuck to let me go without them, and I took off down the street, passing the produce store and the post office. But on this second cane travel lesson, I didn't feel independent. I didn't run, nor did I walk. Instead I staggered down the sidewalk with Chuck following, listening for my mistakes. When I reached the first curb, I stopped, afraid of falling off the six‑inch drop. When I finally got up the courage, I stepped down and crossed the street diagonally, ending up in the dirt. After I sent my distress signal--the word "shit"--Chuck came over and bailed me out, leading me over to the sidewalk of the second block. Slowly gaining confidence, loosening my grip, swinging the cane back and forth, alternating my footsteps, I pushed on. Then suddenly, in an instant, before I had time to react, my cane flew out of my hand and fell into the deep window well of an old‑fashioned basement barbershop. I heard the cane strike the window, echoing in the well, but luckily I didn't hear any breaking glass.

When Chuck heard me cursing, he came over to see what was wrong. As I explained the situation, I heard the footsteps of the old barber climbing the stairs from his shop. "Did you drop this, honey?" the old barber asked, placing the stick in my shaky hand.

I thanked him, pleaded with Chuck to go home, and climbed into the car, putting an end to my second lesson.

For my third cane travel lesson, my first in Iowa City, where I planned to move with Jonathan, I arranged to meet the travel instructor for the area on a late afternoon in January. Because of the distance from my hometown to Iowa City, I came down the night before and stayed with my friend Lynn, but she had to work all day. Terrified to go out by myself, I spent the entire afternoon cooped up at Lynn's place, watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver on television, listening to Wally and Beaver argue for hours on end, wondering who was in the right.

At the end of the day Lynn held my elbow as we descended the three long flights of icy, wooden stairs, releasing her grip when we reached the ground. Left, left. Right, right. Switch feet or switch cane. Left, right. Right, left. I walked along the sidewalk, tapping the concrete, sticking to snow, taking baby steps all the way. Finally Lynn stopped and said, "Here it is."

I saw a tall shadow and, taking my cane in both hands, I swung it back like a baseball bat and let it fly forward with all my might, expecting to connect with a pole. At the same time I asked, "Is this the bus stop sign?"

"Ugh," a woman grunted loudly. "I'm not a sign."

"I'm sorry," I said, embarrassed. "Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine," the woman answered, her voice shaking slightly.

I heard the bus pulling up to the curb, screeching to a halt. Hunting for the door with my cane, I managed to climb the three steps. I reached into my pocket and took out two quarters. After waving my hand back and forth and searching for the coin slot with my limited sight, I was relieved when the driver finally took the money and put it in the slot himself. I thanked him and sat down, sighing and feeling safe on the bus.

"Have you ever been in this mall?" Joe asked as I got off the bus and entered the mall through the glass doors.

"Yeah, but it's been a long time. I was only here once, before I lost my sight."

After walking a bit further, Joe stopped and said, "Here's what I want you to do. Find your way back to the escalator--we just passed it--and take it up to the second level. Then find your way to the glass elevator at the other end of the mall. I'll be waiting for you when you get off." Then, he placed a pair of sleepshades in my hand.

"What? You expect me to find my way around the mall by myself with these things on?" I gasped, my mouth hanging open. Then, thinking about it, I said, "Okay, but I'm not wearing these things. I'll just close my eyes."

"You can do it. How do you expect to move here if you can't even find your way around the mall? It's now or never," Joe said. When I didn't respond, he added, "You make sure those eyes are shut."

I smiled and turned around, heading back toward the mall entrance, opening my eyes as soon as I thought I was far enough away from Joe. Blocking out the sound of my cane hitting the hard tiles, I scanned the area for the escalator. After running into many shadows, including many angry shoppers, I heard the mechanical sound and located the escalator with the little sight I had left. Reaching out toward the shadow, searching for the rail, grabbing the banister, working my way up, I felt a human arm, a hairy, muscular arm.

"Can I help you?" a man asked, a deep masculine voice.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought this was the escalator," I said stupidly, pulling my hand back.

"He's not an escalator," a woman giggled. "It's a little bit further. This is just a bench."

"Sorry," I said, quickly walking away from the couple, escaping further embarrassment.

Why did I depend on the little sight I had left? The light and shadows only led to trouble. I knew I couldn't trust them. I had resisted the sleepshades, but now I understood their purpose. Closing my eyes and listening more intently, I found the escalator by feeling the metal stairs with my cane and gripping the rail with my hand. As the stairs moved, I imagined losing my balance, continuously falling backward as the stairs moved upward. However, this didn't happen. I felt for the tile floor with my cane and stepped off.

As I headed toward the other end of the building, more aware of my surroundings, I relaxed, taking long strides. When I heard the roaring of a blender, I remembered the Orange Julius and turned right. Then I heard the video arcade on my right�Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Space Invaders, all blending together in harmony. Finally I heard the purring motor of the glass elevator. Swinging my cane back and forth, moving slowly toward the sound, I tap-tap-tapped through the already open doors, pushed the lowest button on the panel, and headed down.

When the doors opened, Joe laughed, "I told you that you could do it! You just need a lot more practice. Before you know it, you'll want to run in a marathon. Of course, as fast as you go, your cane will send the sparks a-flying."

Well, to this day, I haven't run in any marathons, and I haven't sent the sparks a-flying, but I have come a long way since the day I ran into the glass doors at the hospital. I moved from baby steps to long strides. However, it wasn't until I discovered the National Federation of the Blind that I took those strides with confidence. The NFB provided the inspiration I would need to travel outside of my comfort zone and into unfamiliar places and explore the world, as my son did when he was a toddler, excited to go to new places and discover new things. Like my son, who faced huge obstacles but confronted them without fear, I began to experience the excitement of doing the elephant seal hump.

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