The Braille Monitor                                                                                               __May 1997

(next) (contents)

Climbing the Acropolis

by Susan Povinelli

From the Editor: The following story first appeared in the Summer, 1996, issue of the Vigilant, the publication of the NFB of Virginia. Susan Povinelli is an engineer by training. She works for the United States Navy. She, her lawyer husband, and their children live in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and are active in the Virginia affiliate. This is what Susan says:

As I climbed the multitude of steps to the top of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, I thought of all the ancient Greek philosophers who climbed this path to the summit to sit and contemplate the meaning of life. I reflected on the wisdom of those ancient philosophers. Now I reflect on how I took that opportunity to travel to Greece.

In April, 1993, I was offered a job with my agency's training group as a training system manager to support one of our foreign military sales programs. I remember spending one sleepless night contemplating two great philosophical ideas. The first was the general public's philosophy of blindness: that because of helplessness a blind person cannot travel independently and conduct business in a foreign country. The other was the National Federation of the Blind's philosophy that a blind person with the proper skills and training can travel independently and accomplish a multitude of jobs. I recalled a blind colleague's struggle to enter the foreign service, and I decided that, if he
could travel abroad independently, so could I. So I accepted the position. That sleepless night was not the last time these two competing philosophies would come into conflict around me.

About a month after I started the new job, a discreet effort was made to transfer me out of it. The old philosophy of blindness had reared its head again. Questions were raised. How would the customer perceive and react to a blind manager? How would a blind person be able to interpret nonverbal communication? I assured them, as I had done many times before, a blind person using good management and blindness skills could do the job efficiently. As for nonverbal communication, there would be others available to advise me on any matter I had missed--nonverbal communication or technical issues.

Let me briefly describe what I do as a training system manager. When a customer (foreign government) procures an aircraft, its personnel need to learn how to maintain and fly that aircraft. The training team and I develop a training program and then implement it. I incorporate the following techniques in my job:

I use Braille throughout my work. Pricing data are developed with a computer spreadsheet program, which I then translate into Braille using the Duxbury translation program on my MacIntosh computer. This allows me to reference the data while on the phone or in a meeting. I use Braille briefing sheets that correspond to the printed view graphs. These are notes for my brief.

My job requires that I travel to the customer's country and assess the facilities where the training will be conducted. This survey is usually conducted by a team of technical experts. The experts and I look at the facility. The expert points out what is wrong and what is right. We then discuss items needing correction and develop a plan to remedy the problem.

One of the management tools used is a milestone chart. This graphically displays each event by its duration. For years I was baffled about how to make raised-line drawings quickly and inexpensively. I learned to use a child's screen board (a piece of cardboard with wire window screen placed over it). A member of my support staff places the milestone chart on top of the screen board, traces the milestone chart with a crayon, and labels the events in Braille. This same technique could be used for floor plans, engineering drawings, or any diagram which has few details.

Now that you know what I do and how I conduct my job, it is time to catch an airplane and fly to Greece. I remember the first time I went. The rest of my team was already there, and I had to make the trip alone. Once again the two philosophies clashed. Airline personnel, especially in foreign lands, believe that a blind person cannot travel independently and find the boarding gate. Most airlines have policies to escort the blind person to an assist lounge or to chairs outside the boarding gates. The questions that plagued me were, would accepting assistance impede my independence? Would I miss my connection and spend the night in John F. Kennedy Airport? Could I catch a taxi in Athens if no one met me at the airport?

I realized that the real problem was not my blindness but my lack of Greek. I was more frightened of not being able to communicate than of getting lost in an airport. I frequently use the airport assistance services when I travel alone because I know it is the most efficient way to travel through large airports, especially in Frankfurt, where I know there are no chairs outside the boarding gates and the airport is so large that dragging around carry-on luggage is difficult.

I can proudly claim that I have made that trip across the Atlantic several times alone. As I was standing next to the rock from which Saint Paul was supposed to have preached Christianity to the ancient Greeks, I wondered what important message I had to share. At the time nothing came to mind. But a few weeks later, as I was giving a presentation on blindness to my children's school, I recognized it: being blind is not a tragedy. With the proper skills and alternative techniques, a blind person can live a
successful and productive life.