The Braille Monitor                                                                        December 2005


In the Driver's Seat

by Heather Field

Heather Field
Heather Field

From the Editor: The theme of the annual seminar for parents of blind children conducted by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children at the 2005 NFB convention was "in the driver's seat." The idea was to encourage families and teachers to step out in faith and confidence to encourage their blind children to embrace independence and the alternative skills of blindness. The keynote speaker was Heather Field, a blind woman from Australia who discovered the National Federation of the Blind on a trip to the United States and decided to move to Nashville to follow her own dream of writing country music. She is also a trained and obviously gifted early childhood educator and an energetic and dedicated Federationist. Her remarks were aimed largely at the blind youngsters in her audience, but her message was also directed at parents and teachers. This is what she said:

Part of the fun of being in the driver's seat is that joyful experience of being able to blow the horn. It makes an announcement to the other drivers on the road. It says, "I'm driving my car, and I want you to take note of what my car is doing!" Sometimes it says that you aren't happy with what another driver is doing. But, more often than not, it says, "Look out! Pay attention. I'm coming through!" From the driver's seat of our lives we have to make those kinds of announcements. Even though we're not in our cars right now, we all have a life, and we have the choice to be in the driver's seat of that life and to blow our horn when we choose to.

They say, "Practice makes perfect," so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for you to get a little practice at saying, "Look out! Pay attention. I'm coming through!" During this presentation we're going to have the opportunity to blow our horns. Whenever I raise my hand like this and say, "Horn," you get to go, "Beep, beep, or bawp bawp," or whatever noise your horn makes. So let's practice. Are you ready? Horn! Oh dear, that's not a very convincing group of horns! I wouldn't be getting out of your way if I heard that. Let's try that again, ready kids? "Horn!" (Loudly from the audience, "Beep, beep.") Oh, that's much better. All right, let's get started and be ready for me to say "horn" because it might come at any moment.

"It's going too fast. We'll have to jump off or we'll fall off. Quick, jump!" My sister Lynda shouted, and we jumped off the rolling forty-four-gallon drum, tumbling into the long spring grass in the paddock being spelled this year from growing small crops.

"I don't think it was a very good idea to run to get us started," I said crossly, standing up and, my sister still laughing, we set out down the hill where the drum had banged into the fence at the bottom of the paddock.

"I didn't know it would roll so fast, did I?" she replied, evading the blame.

"Well you shouldn't have said to run," I said peevishly, remembering how many of her daredevil escapades went wrong and frustrated with myself that I so often still went along with the new ones--like the time when she suggested we climb up the tree and sit on the platform our elder brother and his friend had made over ten years before. Of course the wood had rotted, and the platform collapsed. Being the oldest, she had climbed up first, so I was on the lower end of the platform. Naturally she half fell on top of me when we hit the ground in a tangle of branches and old rope.

"Well I am not going on with you this time; I'm going to go on the drum by myself, or I'm not going. And it's my turn because you made us crash last time," I declared as we began the long trek pushing the drum back up the hill. When we reached the top, I climbed up on the drum, stood up, and began to walk, making the drum roll forward with my weight. Slowly, slowly and then, suddenly, I was off down the hill. When it started going too fast, I leaned back and went slower, and I was in control. "Horn!" (Audience loudly, "Beep, beep.") But it was no fun going slow, so I started to speed up. Oh, it was exhilarating, and I began to run, whooping as I went. Then I hit the patch of weeds, and I heard the scratchy sound that told me I was coming to the fence, so I jumped backwards off the drum as it banged into the fence. I had done it all by myself! I was the driver, and I hadn't had an accident because I couldn't see the fence coming. My sister cheered and ran down to help me push the drum back to the top so she could take her turn.

Many blind people, and by "blind" I mean people with varying amounts and degrees of vision loss, but especially blind children, never get to know the joy of being in charge of their own movement through the environment--certainly not on a vehicle like our rolling drum or a skateboard or a scooter or a bike, not even walking independently on their own two legs, making the driving decisions for their own bodies. Do I go fast or walk slow? Turn left or stop because of the weeds telling me there's a fence coming? Have I gone too far now that I have come to this driveway? No! Unlike their sighted peers, who get to make thousands of these decisions even before the age of three, many blind children never get to make even such simple decisions. Instead they are taught to walk with a sighted guide, to hold onto someone and let that someone who can see be the driver, towing them along like a trailer, nice and safe, just mindlessly hooked on with nothing to think about and no decisions to make. Easy for the sighted adults, disastrous for the blind children!

This happens for many reasons, most of them stemming from the belief, on the part of those who can see, that, because these children can't see well enough to gather information about their environment visually, they simply cannot travel safely to a destination and will get hurt or lost or both. This belief is of course nonsense and absolutely false because information about the environment can be gathered nonvisually, and safe and direct travel by blind people occurs all the time, as demonstrated by thousands of competent blind people every day all over the world. Yet this belief persists, fueled by stereotypes of the helpless blind person portrayed by the print media, literature, and television. Even worse, it is reinforced by the experiences of people who lose their sight later in life and who aren't taught the skills of blindness using nonvisual, alternative techniques that can reduce blindness to simply another of life's many inconveniences. These poor souls and their families and friends languish in the perceived tragedy of blindness when in reality blindness need be nothing more than a nuisance. Sadly for all concerned, they believe that blind people, far from being in the driver's seat of their lives, can be nothing more than a cumbersome trailer, grateful for being taken for a tow now and then.

I was fortunate because my parents already had three children before I was born, so they knew what children could be expected to do at various ages. By the time I had lost my vision at about eighteen months of age, another brother had been born, and Mother simply didn't have time to run around after one child. Pregnant again, she had to keep house as well as do work around the farm because Daddy was away at work all day. So I was expected to do as much as possible for myself, and, just as important, I was not stopped from trying new things.

I pulled everything out of the shoe cupboard and crawled inside. I snuck under the rainwater tank on its low stand and lay with the new puppies. I danced on the picnic table, and I climbed on the couch and jumped up and down and then jumped off, and Mother never knew. She did know when I climbed up on the new wardrobe from Auntie May, however, because she got a terrible scare when I shouted "boo!" from the top as she walked past where it stood in the hall.

Life was an adventure, and I loved it. I longed to know and to move and to learn, and Mother encouraged me. She always seemed to know that being blind didn't automatically mean that I would be incompetent or have accidents. When it rained and rained for days at a time, Mother would relent and let us children ride our little bikes around the circuit of the house hallway, and, I'm proud to report, it wasn't me who scratched the fridge when a bike crashed. It was my little brother Robert. "Horn!" (Audience loudly, "Beep, beep.") Even at age three and four I was allowed to be age-appropriately in the driver's seat of my life, getting practice at making my own decisions and gathering my own information about my environment using nonvisual cues--sound cues and texture cues, smells and distances, slopes and context. I was choosing my speed and my direction, and I was choosing my destination. Most important, I was deciding when I would stay in one place and when I would go. I wasn't waiting around for some adult to hook me up and tow me like a trailer to the next place he or she wanted me to go.

Now, mind you, Auntie Emily didn't think much of that independent driving my parents fostered, and she was especially unimpressed by the way they let me be in the driver's seat of my own life when I would climb. "You get down; you'll fall," she would cry when she spotted me sitting up on the crossbar of the swing set or balancing as I practiced walking along the top rail of the fence or scrambling among the branches of the big mulberry tree. I spent many joyful hours during long summer days climbing in that mulberry tree. Climbing way up high, hiding among the leaves, playing at being a naughty monkey, and learning to trust my own judgment and to be brave and confident. Checking the strength of each branch with my feet before I decided whether it would take me higher up and whether it would take my weight, feeling the direction of the branches, deciding whether it went down or up or had lots of leaves so I could hide. Sitting so still that the sighted people couldn't even see where a naughty monkey was hiding. I loved that mulberry tree.
On one of those summer days some relations came to visit. Now it was no use calling oneself a naughty monkey if one in fact never did anything naughty. So, when unsuspecting Auntie Emily walked underneath the berry-laden mulberry tree, I decided that a truly naughty monkey's moment had come. Quickly I used those seven-year-old problem-solving skills, nonvisual techniques, and decision-making skills and put a plan into action. I gathered some over-ripe, squishy, juicy, very purple mulberries, and when Auntie Emily was almost under me, I opened my hands and dropped them all down where my ears told me she was. "Ahh, aahh," went the monkey.
"Ohhhh," shrieked Auntie Emily in surprise and, "Ooo dear," she wailed in displeasure as she looked at the stains on her dress, where the purple juice had slopped. "Oh, look at this stain!" said her angry voice as she peered vainly up into the tree to see the identity of the naughty monkey. Immediately another of my nonvisual techniques, ascertaining mood by tone of voice, told me that perhaps this was not the best decision this monkey had ever made. Not surprisingly, Mother was unconvinced by my claims that I couldn't see where Auntie was and that it was an accident. Declaring that I had known perfectly well where she was, she sent the naughty monkey off to its punishment. I spent the next hour and a half up the mulberry tree using those nonvisual techniques and decision-making skills to fill a bucket with mulberries at the right stage of firmness for a pie she wanted to bake that night.

Come to think of it, Auntie Mary wasn't sure about my parents allowing me to do so much driving and deciding for myself either. Although she was prepared to watch with warnings--"Be careful, be careful," she'd say--I never knew quite what I needed to do to be careful or, for that matter, what it was that I should be careful of, so it wasn't much help. But anyway, at least she didn't harass me with demands to stop.

Auntie Mary used to come to visit us on the island where we spent our vacations. The only way to get to the island was on a little passenger ferry. You boarded it from a jetty on the mainland, and you got off onto another jetty on the island. For those who may not know, a jetty is a long thin construction, rather like a bridge, that goes out over the beach and the water until the water is deep enough that ferries can come alongside and tie up. People can then use the jetty steps to board the ferry. I had been playing on the jetties and getting on and off the ferry since I was six years old, so I spent many happy times terrifying the bystanders. They simply could not understand what was wrong with my parents, letting a blind child roam freely about the jetty, playing in such an obviously dangerous environment without assistance, let alone allowing me to board the ferry by myself.

Anyway, after one of Auntie Mary's visits when I was about nine, we decided to walk over and see her off. They had just built a brand new, much longer jetty for the island, and it was still exciting to me to go out on it. This was because, while one side of the jetty had railings all the way along and down around the end--the sort of railings of which the terrified bystanders would approve for a blind child--the other side had railings only half way out. Then it just had big posts, where fishing boats could tie up every twenty feet or so all the way along to the steps at the end, where the ferry docked. These steps went down to the water, and only one side had a railing. The other side had to be open to allow access to the ferry. Since the water level went up and down with the tides, the ferry would pull in next to whichever wide concrete step it was level with.

There was something thrilling about walking out along that jetty with no rails between me and the water and having to keep myself away from the edge. When my brothers and sisters and I and Auntie Mary started walking out along the big new jetty, Auntie Mary made it clear that she didn't want me walking near the edge without rails, and she certainly didn't want me walking down the steps without holding onto someone.

Then she didn't want me stepping out over the water across the two feet or so of space between the rocking ferry and the jetty without holding on to anyone or anything. She wanted me to let the ferryman lift me on. But that was never going to happen. "You're such a stubborn little piece of work! Why don't you let someone help you?" she'd say exasperatedly as I'd say, "I'm okay; don't worry, Auntie."

"Oh, crumbs, be careful!" she'd say. "I can't watch." Poor Auntie Mary! I'm sure she had visions of me plummeting down into the water from the moment we set foot on that jetty. But, to her credit, she never let her fears stop me from being in the driver's seat of my life. What she didn't understand, however, was my belief that I was like all the other kids my age. They walked on the jetty unguided, and they walked down the steps unaided, and they boarded the ferry without help, and so, I knew, could I.

I'm sure she would have felt better if I'd used a long white cane, but I didn't use a cane because I didn't want to look blind, and my daddy didn't want me to look blind either. Ridiculously, the school for the blind didn't teach any orientation and mobility skills to me, so I didn't know what a cane would do for me beyond advertising to the world that I was blind. Since it wasn't respectable to be blind, who'd want that? I had to wait until I found the National Federation of the Blind to learn the value of a cane and the respectability of blindness. Nevertheless, looking back I realize how frightening it must have been for poor Auntie Mary and the other passengers, having the stereotypical view of the helpless blind person in their minds, and being forced to watch a blind child refusing to be guided, withdrawing her arms from the grabbing hands, driving herself right past those gaps in between the jetty posts and down the steps--holding their collective breath while she felt with her feet to find the edge of the wet step, and then reaching out into nothingness with left hand and right foot for the moving target of the ferry steps.

But I loved it when I was like all the other kids and I got on the ferry by myself and achieved it without letting anyone help me. No one was going to take that feeling of independence and achievement away from me. "Horn!" (Audience loudly, "Beep, beep.") That feeling was so important to me as a child, even when I was very small. I remember it: so sweet, so affirming, laying down strength of character, building belief in oneself, confidence that perseverance would bring mastery and triumph. How sad that over the years so many people tried to take it from me, wanting me to sit down and stay safe and scared of the unknown or be passively towed along through my life by whatever sighted guide took pity on me that day.

But it was not so with my beloved mother. She expected me to live the life I had to the full. I remember feeling very grown up when she sent me on messages. Mother would say, "Run down to Auntie Pearl's and tell Lynda it's time to come home for lunch." Now Auntie Pearl's land joined ours at the bottom of the small crop paddock, and it was her fence that the drum banged into at the bottom of the hill. But actually going to her house was not as easy as it sounds. You see, the gate into her yard was right in the middle of the fence. You walked out of the side door of our house to where the grass was warm from the sun, turned right, and headed downhill towards the gate.

After a little walk, if you were lucky, you would come onto a little track worn by the feet of children running through the grass and weeds that grew in the paddock. If you didn't pay attention to the track under your bare feet or if they had mowed it and all the tall weeds on either side of the track were gone, you would veer off to the right or left. And when you came to the fence at the bottom of the hill, you wouldn't know whether you were to the left or to the right of the stupid gate. Then you'd have to decide which way it might be and follow the fence along till you came either to the gate or to the corner. This was very annoying and time-consuming, and it took much too long for an impatient girl. But no matter how long it took, Mother would always send me.

One day when the weeds had been mowed and the track was hard to follow, I decided that there must be a better way. Out of complete frustration I decided to think of a new way to find the gate. I stood still in the silence of a hazy, hot summer midday and thought. Suddenly I heard a crow caw, and I heard the echo bounce off the house way over across the paddock, and I had it. I knew what to do. I'd clap my hands periodically and try listening to the echoes that would bounce back from the wooden fence off to the far left of the gate. If I heard it getting too close, I'd know to go right. Yes. I would not make a mistake this time. Oh, joy of joys when I straightened myself up three times: once by detecting the less trodden grass when I had veered off the track and twice from the fence echoes. And I found the gate really quickly.

It was thrilling, I remember the smells and sounds and the very feel of the hot day when I bring it back to mind. I had solved my own problem, and, I thought proudly, I was only ten. I leapt over the locked gate (it had to be locked to keep our cows from eating Auntie Pearl's garden), and I went galloping over the yard to Auntie Pearl's house yelling, "Lynda!" in, as Auntie Pearl informed me, a most unladylike manner.

Years later I asked my mother if she had known how much trouble I had finding the gate when she sent me on those trips. She said, "No, I never really thought about it." She just expected that, if I had a problem, I'd figure it out and go and do the job I was sent to do. She didn't know the nonvisual techniques I would need to get myself from point A to point B, but she knew that I needed them and that I needed opportunity and the motivation to develop them for myself. She knew that, if I got lost, I would need to figure out a way to get myself unlost. I was safe in the confines of the farm and the neighborhood, and there I learned the lessons that only experience can teach.

Her expectation that I should walk up and close the henhouse for the night or go down to the shop and get a loaf of bread just around the corner at the bottom of our street or collect the kindling for our stove or pack my own overnight bag for a sleepover, just as she expected the other children to do, sent me the message, "Of course you can do it. Blindness has nothing whatsoever to do with your ability to do what everybody else does." The attitude that she fostered made my brothers and sisters and me think that it was natural that I would be in the driver's seat of my own life. "Horn!" (Audience loudly, "Beep, beep.")

Yes, thankfully, I learned that it was my life and that, when I grew up, it would be me controlling it--controlling it as a high school student choosing my own courses, controlling it as a university student choosing my readers, moving out and sharing a house with other people, making my choices to become a teacher, choosing to join the National Federation of the Blind, and getting my own, very blind-looking cane, and even moving to America to risk all as a songwriter competing alongside my sighted peers.

It is very likely that within our lifetime, certainly within the lifetime of the children here today, there will be a car that blind people can drive. Are you parents and teachers teaching these children to expect that they will, that they must, as competent adults and responsible citizens, be in the driver's seat of their own lives and maybe even of their own cars? Are you giving them opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to travel independently? Do you dream big? Are you excited about the prospect of a blind son or daughter going down to the hardware store to get the gas bottle filled so he or she can grill the steaks while you make the salads for the cookout? Are you excited about the prospect of your blind son or daughter coming in the car to take you out for a day's drive to give you a break from the nursing home?

Or do you think of yourself as the driver? Are you imagining that in thirty years your child, though an adult, will still be a trailer being towed along by a sighted guide? Are you imagining your child, with all this potential, sitting, a passive blind adult, rocking on the sidelines of life without a real say in what happens to him or her, all the choices being made by somebody else? In your imaginings do you secretly think that someone will always need to be there, if not you, then perhaps another person, but always someone who can see to take care of your adult child? Or do you daydream about a competent man or woman who just happens to be blind, achieving and living alongside other adults who happen not to be blind? Are you giving your child or your students the opportunity to get lost and the time to develop the courage and self-confidence to know that they're not going to be rescued, so they better get unlost by themselves?

Do you imagine a future filled with possibilities in which blind drivers understand yield signs and five-way intersections and use them and count freeway exits as they speed home from college for Thanksgiving, driving themselves? You know, a dream costs nothing, and imagining is free, but they both pay enormous dividends when you teach your blind children that they can be as much in the driver's seat of their lives as their same-aged sighted peers. And it's never too young to begin. It's up to you to let them know that it's up to them. "Horn!" (Audience loudly, "Beep, beep.") Let's get our young people into the driver's seats of their lives and get those horns honking, "Look out, pay attention, I'm coming through!"