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Jeff and Deb Altman with their daughter Jenna

The Little Red Rabbit

by Jeffrey T. Altman


From the Editor: As long as human beings continue to live and think and interact with others, we can expect to change. Our willingness to accept the new and our success in responding constructively to it determine in large part whether the changes result in growth or decay in our personalities. Jeff Altman, a Nebraska Federationist, has been looking back over his life as a blind person. His evolution from an insecure young man dependent on his remaining vision to a confident, contented cane-travel teacher is instructive and reassuring. This is what he says:


With the recent passing of Dr. Jernigan, I found myself reflecting on my own experience with blindness. My transition into blindness began only a few months after my high school graduation when I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. The plans and dreams I had held up to that point seemed like the broken pieces of a bombed-out building. I sat shell-shocked for nearly a year wondering what would become of me and wanting it all to have been a simple mistake or a bad dream.

I soon realized that sitting at home doing nothing could not continue, and my parents and I contacted the office for the visually handicapped. It took a while, but in the fall of 1977 I entered the training program for the blind located near Pittsburgh and began what I had been told was the best training available anywhere for blind people.

Of course, I wasn't really blind--not yet anyway. Oh sure, the doctor said I was legally blind, but I could still see to get around and do almost anything I wanted to do. Maybe with the right low-vision device I could even drive a car, at least for a while. This was what I firmly believed. You can imagine my shock when on the first day at the training center I was told that I could not even walk outside without using a sighted guide. I was told that I could not go anywhere until the orientation and mobility (O and M) instructor had given clearance for me to travel, and if I went beyond the limits he set for me, I could be thrown out of the program. I was young, and I listened, but still something about this seemed very wrong.

Over the next few days I met my O and M instructor, and he began evaluating my ability to travel using my vision in the daylight. He agreed with me that I could travel just fine, and he even showed me a few techniques that would help me use my vision a little better. Just when I was getting to like the O and M stuff, he told me that he wanted to do a nighttime evaluation. I did not consider this to be a big deal. Sure, it was a little harder to travel at night, but I didn't think it was all that much of a problem. After all I really wasn't blind--not yet anyway.

I was about to get my next big shock in the form of a mobility cane. My instructor told me that I would need to have a cane to travel safely at night, but for now we would work mainly on developing my ability to travel using my remaining vision.

The next week I was introduced to two new things: the mobility cane, which was silver, and my instructor's little red Volkswagen Rabbit. I began learning to walk in step with the cane, and the Rabbit became my means of transportation to almost every place I went to learn about traveling with my remaining vision. It also became the counseling office in which I learned almost everything I should believe about blindness and safe travel. My instructor was teaching me important skills, I enjoyed talking with him, and I listened.

Soon I was traveling all over the Pittsburgh area, and I was enjoying it. Even on those occasions when I was under the sleepshades learning to travel with the cane, I was having a good time.

This was a skill that came naturally to me, and my confidence grew with each lesson. The little red Rabbit became a central part of my life; it even followed the buses that I rode on during my longer independent routes. It had become something of a friend, a safe, comfortable place to sit down for the ride back to the center. I could relax after a stressful lesson and talk about how independent I was becoming.

One day in the middle of my training my instructor asked me to go get my cane and meet him at his car. When I approached the little red Rabbit, he was already inside and listening to something on the radio. I did not pay any attention to the person speaking as I climbed in, but my instructor was reacting very strongly to the commentary. He shut off the radio and announced in an angry tone, "He's a lunatic! What an idiot!" I was taken aback by this behavior. I asked who he was talking about, and he said, "Kenneth Jernigan."

I asked, "Who is he, and what was he saying that is so crazy?" My instructor's voice shifted into its normal, professional, matter-of-fact tone, and he said, "He is the leader of a radical organization of blind people called the National Federation of the Blind, and he thinks that blind people should be O and M instructors." I felt a spark inside. I loved to travel with the cane, and the thought of teaching others how to do this excited me as nothing else had since I became blind. I said, "That sounds like a great idea to me!" I was quickly corrected and told that it was neither safe nor effective for a blind person to teach mobility. "After all, there are some things that a blind person simply cannot do." These words brought sadness to me, not unlike the sadness I had felt nearly a year earlier when the reality of my blindness had begun to sink in. I believed in this man's knowledge and skill. He had taught me how to use the cane and helped me to rebuild my confidence, so I listened.

Some weeks later I was once again riding in the little red Rabbit, returning from a nighttime route. My instructor told me that my training was coming to a conclusion, but he added that as my vision grew worse I would need to return for further training. My confidence was shaken by this statement, and I asked why he thought this was necessary. He explained that I was doing very well with the skills I had learned, combined with my remaining vision, but these skills would not meet my needs as my vision became worse. He also said that I might need to have an O and M instructor show me around new places, such as a college campus. Yes, I listened once again, but I felt my body stiffen, and I pushed back uncomfortably against the car seat.

I returned to my dorm room at the center that night filled with confusion and some anger. The problem was that I didn't know whom to be angry with. Should I be angry with my instructor for leaving me in a state of continued dependency or myself for not fighting back.

Despite what had just happened, I had come to respect this man greatly. He had been right about so much of what I was experiencing, and I was convinced that his training as an O and M instructor made him far more knowledgeable about blindness than I was at this point in my life. Even so I felt something was wrong with the way the training had been provided to me. My parents had always taught me to believe in the value of learning and to believe that any good learning experience provided skills to build upon to deal independently with future changes.

I resolved after much thought to make certain that, if at all possible, I would never have to call upon the assistance of another O and M instructor. I was determined to solve any future problems for myself, and I did not intend to be quite so open in future to others' giving me advice about my blindness. I also left the training center still very dependent upon my vision, and I continued to make one serious mistake. I planned my future around my current level of vision. Each time it changed, I struggled until I found some alternative that would meet my current needs. This pattern became a critical factor in my life and the cornerstone of perhaps the most difficult lesson I have had to learn.

I went to college, and my remaining vision, my limited blindness skills, and my own determination, along with my parents' pushing me to succeed, carried me through rather well. I discovered that I had a strong interest in the social sciences, and after college I began looking for work in this area. I applied in many places, but I was certain at the time that the public's attitudes and, to a lesser degree, my lack of experience left me out of luck. Finally I applied at a group home serving developmentally disabled adults and was told that I did not have the experience necessary for the position.

However, during the interviewing process I learned that one of their clients was blind and in need of developing better personal skills. I decided to beat them at their own game and volunteered to work with this fellow. I worked with him on some alternative techniques for dialing the telephone. As it turned out, he also needed to learn how to travel to the other group homes located in the apartment complex. I decided that, since this was a relatively safe environment with little or no traffic, I would try my hand working with him.

The words my former O and M instructor had said years before were still ringing in my head, and since the client I was planning to work with needed a new cane, I called him and talked it over. He was very hesitant, but as I described the conditions in which we would be working, he seemed a little more comfortable. He asked me how my vision was now, and I told him that it had not changed to any great degree. He seemed much more relaxed about the situation based on this information, and he agreed that, as long as I did not take the client anywhere near traffic, it would probably be okay.

I truly enjoyed teaching this client the routes and helping him to improve his cane skills. The supervisors of the group home often told me that they were impressed with the work I was doing. Within a couple of months a position opened at this organization, and with confidence I applied. No, this story does not have a happy ending. I was told that, since I could not drive, I was not qualified for the job, even though there would be another counselor on duty who could handle the driving. This was before the days of reasonable accommodation. I called a college friend who was looking for work and could drive. Because I knew he had less experience than I did in this area, the organization's response to his application would resolve my suspicions about the real reason for my having been passed over for the position. He applied and got the job, and I decided to move on.

A few months later I heard about a program in Arkansas that trained blind people to work for the Internal Revenue Service. It sounded like something I would not particularly enjoy doing, but it also promised a very high potential for employment. Of course I went for the opportunity. I did very well in the training, but once I got to the job, my declining vision and lack of alternative skills soon caught up with me. After one year I was again unemployed. At this point my self-esteem was at the lowest level it had ever been. It was nearly four years before I found employment again, but this experience had many important benefits for me.

My experience at the training center in Arkansas taught me that the treatment I received and their treatment of other blind people attending the facility were terribly wrong. It was now very clear to me that as people we deserved the same respect as those with vision. I met some people from the National Federation of the Blind, and although I wasn't ready to accept fully what they had to say, at least they didn't appear to be the crazy monsters that I had been led to expect.

I made some good friends, and I also met some folks who were being trained to work as O and M instructors in other countries. The fact that these folks were training to become O and M instructors was not in and of itself surprising to me, but the fact that they were blind was something of a shock. From my work experience I learned that I could not afford to continue trying to reach my goals without learning better alternative techniques and that it is very foolish to seek employment in a field you do not enjoy.

All of these pieces began to come together in 1988. A letter from a friend I made in Arkansas informed me of a job opening in eastern Pennsylvania for an O and M instructor. Incredibly, the employer was looking specifically for a blind person to do the job. I called the number, and the next week I was flying to Philadelphia for an interview. I was told that I had the job as long as I could obtain some form of certification that would be acceptable to the agency's insurance company. I had to find a school that could and would give me this training. My state counselor and I looked at several programs, including the one in Arkansas, but they said that they would never train and certify a blind instructor to work in the United States. Finally we settled on the one in Nebraska because it was conducted by a state agency, which meant the insurance company would gladly accept its certification.

Everything seemed fine until I started the program. They expected me to wear sleepshades eight hours a day, five days a week. They expected me to learn to work with dangerous power tools. They didn't use the same kind of cane that I had been using for years, and their approach to teaching the skills was very different from the methods used when I learned to travel. Even worse, I learned that they embraced much of the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. For several years I had been involved with another national organization of blind people, but the only philosophical information I received from this experience reinforced what I had learned during my earlier training in Pittsburgh and a number of stories regarding everything that was supposed to be wrong with the National Federation of the Blind. I was certain I had made the mistake of a lifetime, but I really wanted this job. I decided that I better take the risk and commit myself to the program.

I did not give up my beliefs easily. And given my previous experience, this time I wasn't as open to listening. Soon I received a warning from Dr. Nyman, the agency director, and Richard Mettler, who handled staff development for the agency, that I was going to return to Pennsylvania without certification if I didn't learn to shut up and listen. Given this good advice, I became a much better listener.

Among the things I began to listen to were the writings of Dr. Jernigan and other members of the National Federation of the Blind. While I didn't exactly accept this message with open arms, I was finding it more and more difficult to argue against the Federation's point of view. I also began to recognize that the criticism of the National Federation of the Blind was very short on facts and strangely charged with emotion. I had a lot of thinking to do, and I was certain that my training would be completed before I had sorted it all out.

I left Nebraska feeling much better about sleepshades and using power tools. I still didn't like the long fiber-glass cane, but I was at least thinking about the structured-discovery method, which encourages the student to learn to solve travel problems independently. I left just before Christmas with a Christmas gift that I found especially disquieting. One of the instructors had given me a membership in the National Federation of the Blind. Still a member of the other organization of blind people with its beliefs continuing to shape my thinking, I felt anything but comfortable with this gift. A struggle was taking place inside of me, and the experiences I faced as I assumed my new duties in Philadelphia would decide its outcome.

I went to work believing that I could handle anything that came along. I attempted to teach cane travel in the same way my instructor in Pittsburgh had taught me many years earlier.

This did not last long--it just didn't work. On the other hand, I knew that the techniques I had learned in Nebraska worked well there. Slowly I adopted and adapted these techniques to fit my own style and the environment I was working in. At the same time I began to discover that the attitudes of the agency I was working for were little different from the ones I had been exposed to while a client of the programs in Pittsburgh and Arkansas years before.

I was also faced with the same attitudes from many of the blind people that the agency was serving, including those that belonged to the national organization that I had been a member of for several years. The general public was also a source of attitudes that reinforced the idea that blind people would have to live in a state of dependency and could not expect to hold positions of true responsibility or even achieve anything beyond basic existence. These attitudes weren't overt, but they were clearly present and destructive to any blind person exposed to them. My instructors in Nebraska had warned me of this possibility, but I simply was not prepared for the conflict. I suddenly found myself in a cold war of attitudes, and I was basically standing alone. That was when I met Ted Young, the District Supervisor for Blindness and Visual Services in Philadelphia and state president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. He invited me to a meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter, and suddenly I wasn't alone anymore.

Other things became more clear to me. The skills I had developed during my training in the Nebraska orientation center were making a real difference in my life. My vision, or the lack of it, didn't seem to be an issue for me anymore. Also a funny thing started to happen with the cane that I had been using for so many years. I found that I was bumping into a lot of obstacles and tripping over things far too often. I spoke with the university-trained O and M instructor who worked with me at the center, and he told me that I needed to slow down and that my technique was probably not consistent. This wasn't the answer I was looking for. Why should I have to slow down when all I was doing was walking at my natural pace, and my cane technique had never been a problem before? I began experimenting with a longer cane. Soon I was using and issuing longer canes as a normal practice. Later I also tried out an NFB cane and made a real effort this time to understand how it worked. I haven't considered going back to the aluminum cane since. It seems that structured discovery learning works on more than one level.

After six years working in eastern Pennsylvania, I began looking for a change. Dr. Nyman and his staff back in Nebraska gave me an important opportunity. I was offered the position of Lincoln District Supervisor. With only limited experience I wasn't sure that I was right for the job, but knowing that someone was willing to give me this chance, I was determined to put forth my best effort. For more than three years I did my best, but I came to realize that my heart wasn't in it. My first love is teaching cane travel, and I truly wanted to return to being an instructor. By this time Dr. Nyman had retired, and I talked with our new Director, Dr. Pearl Van Zandt, about my feelings. She understood and respected my desire to return to teaching travel.

As it turned out, my timing could not have been better. Although I was not aware of it when I approached our director, an opportunity to make this change had arisen. The process of making it a reality would be complex, but Dr. Van Zandt was determined to go the extra mile for me. I am now the Travel Instructor for our Orientation Center in Lincoln. I know in my heart that an agency like the one here in Nebraska, where showing true respect for blind people is a natural part of our daily work, would never have come into existence without the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind and the leadership of people like Dr. Kenneth Jernigan.

Since 1990 my wife and I have attended several state conventions, and in 1997 we attended our first national one. We returned last year to the Dallas convention, and we will be attending future ones as often as possible. On October 9, 1998, with our two-year-old daughter we attended the first joint state convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska and the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa. All of us attending the convention felt a strange mixture of excitement at the event unfolding before us and great sadness knowing that Dr. Jernigan's battle with cancer was nearing its end.

In what proved for me a strange turn of events, our Orientation Center staff had planned for a couple of months to visit the Iowa Orientation Center on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the week following the state convention. Sadly, this turned out to begin the day after Dr. Jernigan died. On that Wednesday morning I found myself sitting in the apartment where Dr. Jernigan had lived when he was the Director of the Iowa program, discussing travel techniques with one of the staff members of the Iowa center. The glass of juice my host provided helped to soothe the lump in my throat that I was doing my best to hide.

I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jernigan only once. He was everything I had come to expect and none of the things I had once believed of him. I wish that the National Federation of the Blind had been a part of my life from the beginning of my blindness and that I had accepted and understood the philosophy of our organization earlier in my life. Dr. Jernigan, thank you for the radio message that I didn't get to listen to that day in the little red Rabbit.