Photo of Barbara Walker

Barbara Walker

The Missing Piece

by Barbara Walker


From the Editor: Barbara Walker is a long-time leader of the National Federation of the Blind and a frequent contributor to these pages. She delivered the following speech at the 1998 convention conducted jointly by the NFB of Iowa and the NFB of Nebraska. Here it is:


In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story he read in a book which he calls a fairy tale for adults. It is called "The Missing Piece," and it goes like this:

"Once there was a circle that was missing a piece. A large triangular wedge had been cut out of it. The circle wanted to be whole, with nothing missing, so it went around looking for its missing piece. But because it was incomplete, it could only roll very slowly as it rolled through the world.

"And as it rolled slowly, it admired the flowers along the way. It chatted with butterflies and enjoyed the sunshine. It found lots of pieces, but none of them fit, so it left them all by the side of the road and kept on searching.

"Then, one day, it found a piece that fit perfectly. It was so happy. Now it could be whole, with nothing missing. It incorporated the missing piece into itself and began to roll.

"Now it was a perfect circle, and it could roll very fast--too fast to notice the flowers, too fast to talk to the butterflies.

"When it realized how different the world seemed when it rolled through it so quickly, it stopped, left its missing piece by the side of the road, and rolled slowly away, looking for its missing piece."

When I first read that story, I felt uneasy. Even as a child I didn't like fairy tales that seemed either far-fetched or unfinished. Life is teaching me that reality itself is often far-fetched; and the journey can be worthwhile, regardless of the outcome.

Still I felt disturbed. After all, why couldn't this one have ended with the words, "satisfied with its new-found wisdom" rather than "looking for its missing piece"--especially since it had already found the piece? Had it so soon forgotten? What was going on?

As I read and thought about what Rabbi Kushner said that the lesson of the story was for him, I found myself thinking about the first time I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. He was then both President of the National Federation of the Blind and Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Perhaps some of you will find yourselves connecting with your own thoughts of Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Maurer, or others who have influenced you as I share some of what Rabbi Kushner had to say:

"I suggested in my sermon that the lesson of the story was that, in some strange sense, we are more whole when we're incomplete--when we're missing something. There is a wholeness about the person who can give himself away--who can give his time, his money, his strength to others--and not feel diminished when he does so. There is a wholeness about the person who has come to terms with his limitations, who knows who he is and what he can and cannot do; the person who has been brave enough to let go of his unrealistic dreams and not feel like a failure for doing so.

"To be whole before God means to stand before Him with all of our faults as well as all of our virtues and to receive the message of our acceptability. To be whole means to rise beyond the need to pretend that we're perfect; to rise above the fear that we'll be rejected for not being perfect. It means having the integrity not to let the inevitable moments of weakness and selfishness become permanent parts of our character."

As I mentioned before, this description of wholeness took me back to my first meeting with Dr. Jernigan. It happened on December 4, 1974, at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in Des Moines. I was there in response to an opportunity presented to me through my work at Nebraska Rehabilitation Services for the Visually Impaired to go and observe any agency for the blind in the country. The purpose was to learn about how work with the blind was being done elsewhere and possibly to find new methods we could use in our fledgling Orientation and Adjustment Center in Lincoln.

I admit that I chose the Iowa Commission with ulterior motives. I had heard that it was run by the National Federation of the Blind and that people there were forced into membership. My only knowledge of the Federation was from people at the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped (NSVH), who, on the rare occasions when they talked about blind adults at all, said that Federationists were pushy radicals who badgered people if they didn't get their way.

I recall now only two vivid first-hand encounters with the Federation prior to my trip to Iowa. The first was in 1971, when our Nebraska affiliate was being reorganized. Mary Ellen Anderson (now Jernigan) and Arlene Gashel (now Hill) visited my sister and me on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to talk about the upcoming meeting and offer us a subscription to the Braille Monitor. We decided not to go to the meeting in Omaha because transportation wasn't provided. And when the Lincoln chapter was formed, I opted out. I said, which was true, that I was very busy with my studies. What I didn't say was that many articles in the Monitor made me nervous and I didn't want to share the struggle which reading it was causing in me.

The other encounter was when my sister and I were invited to entertain at a Lincoln Chapter meeting when some Iowans had come to discuss pending legislation. They certainly were blatantly frank in their comments on the issues at hand. I chalked it up to the Federation pushiness I had heard about at NSVH and wondered why they came all that way to interfere with Nebraska legislation. I also wondered why, if it was so important to the Nebraskans there, they didn't just handle it and let the Iowans go home and deal with their own legislation.

With these things in mind I went to the Iowa Commission to see for myself what Dr. Jernigan and the National Federation of the Blind were about. It is no exaggeration to say that the few days I spent in an environment where the underlying assumption was that it is respectable to be blind changed my life. And my meeting with Dr. Jernigan was the climax of that visit. He answered my pointed questions directly and without apology or equivocation.

His message was both clear and compelling: with the proper training and opportunity the characteristic of blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance, making it possible for the average blind person to do the average job in the average place of business as well as his or her sighted neighbor. This was, he said, the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. The organization was founded on November 16, 1940, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and blind people from seven states who intended to work collectively to make the philosophy a reality. When I met him, Dr. Jernigan was both living this philosophy and helping it to reach fruition in the lives of his students, staff, and colleagues in the movement.

I went there about half of my life ago, having lived almost twenty-four years searching for, or trying to compensate for, my missing piece. I believed then that I knew what that missing piece was. It was the fact of my physical blindness.

But for the first time I wasn't hearing about being incomplete or unwhole because I was blind. I wasn't hearing that the only viable answer for earning full inclusion in the world was to find a way physically to see.

I left both exhilarated and unnerved. It buoyed me up to know that, to this experienced, highly-respected blind person, I had neither to pretend nor to prove anything. But at the same time it was sobering to accept the responsibilities inherent in the kind of wholeness Dr. Jernigan both embodied and offered to me.

He helped me to understand that my missing piece--the thing that kept me from feeling and being perceived as whole--was not the physical fact of blindness. At least part of it consisted of the misconceptions which I and all of society around me had about blindness and blind people.

His words and his presence awakened something in me that gave me courage to try harder to find ways to participate more fully in life. But along with that came the realization that, if I were to be honest with myself and others, I must be willing to question behavior either in them or in me which would stifle growth. For me this was the hardest part of accepting the gift of that knowledge of wholeness. I really don't like making waves.

But Dr. Jernigan that day gave me something every bit as precious as the recognition of my wholeness just as I was. He gave me, as he has to so many before and after me, the key to the National Federation of the Blind--the vehicle through which we, the blind, are finding for ourselves the missing pieces of security, equality, and opportunity for all blind people in our society and putting them into place.

It is hard to articulate the difference that knowing this wholeness and being part of the Federation have made in my life. Perhaps a recounting of something tangible may help me to express it.

During my first meeting with Dr. Jernigan he offered me some banana chips and other snacks I had never tasted. The banana chips were my favorite. Over the years thoughts of that meeting have often brought those chips to mind.

In the spring of 1997 I saw an infomercial on television about a food dehydrator. My first thought (after considering the cost, of course) was, "I could make banana chips with that." It was wonderful to have that instantaneous response. I did not feel, as I once would have, anxious about cutting myself while slicing, hung up about making uniform slices, troubled about the possibility of burning myself on whatever generated heat for drying things, or convinced that I would need sight in order to use the machine effectively. I made room in my budget and placed an order, thanking God and the National Federation of the Blind for the changes in my attitude which made this possible.

Later that same year, as both an expression of gratitude and a symbol of my progress as a blind person, I gave Dr. Jernigan some banana chips and other fruit I had dried myself. It was a small gesture, but his gracious and understanding acceptance of my gift made it a poignantly unforgettable moment for me. It is, I believe, mostly through such simple, day-to-day actions and statements that each of us comes closer to finding the missing pieces in our lives.

It is neither necessary nor possible for everyone to make the tremendous and far-reaching impact in the world that our Founder, Dr. tenBroek, our President Emeritus, Dr. Jernigan, and our current President, Dr. Maurer, have made and are making; but it is necessary and possible for each of us to do and be what we can to reach out to give the gifts of knowledge of wholeness and the National Federation of the Blind to all blind people so that we can search on an equal footing with our sighted peers for that ever-present, still-elusive missing piece--whatever and wherever it might be.