Old Dogs and New Tricks

Kenneth Jernigan, Editor

Large Type Edition

A Kernel Book

Published by


Copyright 1996 by the National Federation of the Blind

ISBN 1-885218-05-2

All Rights Reserved

Printed in the United States of America

Table of Contents

Editor's Introduction

Old Dogs and New Tricks

The Sliding Board

Tending to My Knitting

Roller Coasters

Serving Communion

Loving Elizabeth


With this volume we publish the tenth Kernel Book. The

first nine have been well received. No, they have been more

than that. The comments have been nationwide and enthusiastic.

I think it is not too much to say that these little books are

playing a significant part in changing what it means to be

blind in America in the last decade of the twentieth century.

And what are the Kernel Books about? They deal with

blindness, but not in a medical or professional way. They are

a departure from what is usually written, an attempt to take

the mystery out of blindness by giving firsthand accounts of

how blind people live on a daily basis. Other firsthand

stories about blindness have also been written, of course, but

not in such large numbers and not in this format.

Year after year and book after book we are building a

picture that shows what blind people are really like and how

they feel. The details differ, but the pattern is the same. In

effect, the people who are writing in these pages are saying:

Blindness is not as strange as you may think

it is, and it doesn't have to be as terrifying. I

am blind, and this is how I lead my life■not just

in broad terms but in my daily activities. Here is

how I know whether a light is on when I enter a

room■how I cook my food, raise my children, and

participate in church activities. Mostly my life is

just about like yours. It has more routine than

drama about it, being a mixture of joy and sorrow,

laughter and tears.

I don't spend most of my time thinking about

blindness. It is simply one of the facts of my

life. I remember it when I need to, but that's

about all. I think about who is running for

president, last night's dinner, and today's

discussion with a friend.

This is what the people who appear in this book are

saying. I know them. They are friends of mine, colleagues in

the National Federation of the Blind. Some have been my

students. I have met others in a variety of ways. But by and

large, our common bond is the National Federation of the


In fact, the National Federation of the Blind has been

the vehicle for improving the quality of life for blind people

throughout the country. It has certainly changed my life,

teaching me to think about my blindness in new ways and

helping me understand what I can do and be.

The Federation is a nationwide organization primarily

composed of blind people. It is a self-help and self-support

organization, believing that blind people should take

responsibility for their own lives and that what they need is

training and opportunity, not dependence and lifelong care.

The Federation believes that blind people can and should do

for themselves, that they should work with each other and

cooperate with their sighted neighbors to make the world

better than it now is.

As to the specifics of the present Kernel Book, the

title pretty much says it. It is never too late to learn new

techniques and new ways of thought. This is true for the blind

as well as the sighted, the old as well as the young. We hope

you will enjoy these stories and that whether your goal is to

climb a mountain or knit a sweater, you will succeed■and that

along the way you will learn new tricks.

Kenneth Jernigan

Baltimore, Maryland



The type size used in this book is 14 point for two

important reasons: One, because typesetting of 14 point or

larger complies with federal standards for the printing of

materials for visually impaired readers, and we wanted to show

you what type size is helpful for people with limited sight.

The second reason is that many of our friends and

supporters have asked us to print our paperback books in 14-

point type so they too can easily read them. Many people with

limited sight do not use Braille. We hope that by printing

this book in a larger type than customary, many more people

will be able to benefit from it.


by Kenneth Jernigan

Old dogs, we are told, can't learn new tricks. Maybe■but

dogs aren't human. What about humans? Can they learn new

tricks? Specifically, can a person who becomes blind in adult

life learn to function independently? And what about children?

A blind child grows up in a world designed for the sighted. If

the child is to learn to get along, he or she must find

different techniques from those used by sighted associates and


Can it be done? Of course it can. It happens every day.

The question is not whether but how. Make it personal. What

about you? If you became blind tomorrow, could you manage? How

would you handle the hundreds of details of your daily life?

When I was a child, I had a little sight■not much, but a

little. If it wasn't too bright or too dark, I could see step-

ups. I couldn't see step-downs, but I could see the lines and

shadows of the step-ups. I could see the contrast between a

sidewalk and grass, and I could see the difference between the

country road that ran by the farm where I lived and the

vegetation on either side of it. At night I could see the moon

if it was full, but not the stars.

It wasn't much, but it helped. I could go into a room at

night, for instance, and immediately tell whether the light

was on; and in the daytime I could tell whether there was a

window, and where it was. Under the right lighting conditions,

I might be able to see an open door, and I might be able to

tell where a person or a tree was. It was sometimes deceptive,

which caused me bumps and bruises, but I managed.

When I was in my early thirties, I lost all sense of dark

and light. It happened so gradually that I wasn't aware of it

until I thought back a few weeks and realized what I wasn't

seeing. For all intents and purposes I was totally blind from

childhood, but shortly after I became thirty, there was no

doubt about it. I was■and almost forty years later, I still


With that background, let me talk about techniques. How

do blind people function? How do they manage the nuts and

bolts of daily life? More particularly, how do I do it? I

can't give you a complete catalogue, of course, but I can give

you a sample.

Let's begin with whether a light is on in a room. When I

was a boy on the farm in Tennessee, it was a kerosene (or, as

we called it, a coal oil) lamp. Today in my home in Baltimore

it is an electric light. But the problem is the same. How do

I know whether the light is on?

In most situations there is a switch on the wall, and if

it is up, the light is on. If it is down, the light is off.

But there are three- and four-way switches, allowing a person

to turn a light on in one part of the house and turn it off in


I have just such an arrangement in the house where I now

live. You can turn the hall light on at the front door, at

the back of the hall, or on the upstairs landing. The ceiling

is too high for me to reach the light bulb to know whether it

is giving out heat, so unless I come up with some kind of non-

visual technique, I won't be able to tell. Yet, there are

times when sighted people visit me and then leave without

telling me whether they have turned off the light. If my wife

has gone to bed, I either have to have some way to know

whether the light is on, or else take a chance on letting it

burn all night.

The technique I use is really quite simple, and it is

quick and efficient. Several years ago a friend gave me a set

of musical teacups for Christmas. If you pick one of them up,

it plays You Light Up My Life. When you set it down, it stops.

I was curious about this and, after experimenting, found that

when light hits the bottom of the cup, it starts the music.

I think the cups cost six or seven dollars apiece, and I

have a half-dozen of them. I also now have a perfect light

detector. I have stored five of the cups in the attic and have

left one of them sitting on the kitchen counter.

Now, if I want to know whether a light is on anywhere in

the house, all I have to do is pick up my teacup and walk

through the rooms. It's quick, and it works. There are fancy

light detectors that have been invented for the blind

(detectors that cost a good deal more than six dollars), but

I don't need them. My teacup works just fine.

Before leaving the kitchen, let me deal with carrying

liquid. If the glass or cup isn't full, there isn't any

trouble. It doesn't matter if the container isn't exactly

level. But if you want a full glass of water as a measure for

cooking rice or something else, it does matter.

In such cases I used to have difficulty in carrying the

container level and keeping the water from spilling. But not

anymore. The technique I use is amazingly simple, and I think

it will work for anybody. I wish I had thought of it sooner.

I pick up the glass in one hand with my thumb on one side of

it and my index finger across from it on the other side of the

glass. I am holding the glass at the top, outside of the rim.

My hand is above the glass, and I hold it loose enough for it

to find its own level. It works well, and I rarely spill a

drop. Try it.

There isn't any magic about these techniques. It is

simply a matter of thinking them up and doing a little

experimenting. I know a blind woman, for instance, who doesn't

pour vanilla or other similar liquids into a quarter

teaspoon■or, for that matter, a teaspoon or a tablespoon. She

puts the liquid she is using into a small jar, bends the spoon

handle until the bowl of the spoon is parallel with the floor,

and then dips the liquid. It gives a perfect measure, and it's

no trouble at all. Of course, if your measuring spoons are

plastic, it won't work. Get spoons that are metal.

Then there is the matter of cooking eggs. If you want

them scrambled, there isn't any problem, but what if you want

them fried? The same woman who taught me about the measuring

spoons also taught me about egg frying.

Take a tuna can, or some other can about that size, and

cut both ends out of it. Get your frying pan to the

temperature you want; place the open-ended can or cans in the

pan; and break the egg into the can.

You can touch the top of the can to tell where it is, and

when you get ready to turn the egg, slide a spatula under the

bottom of the can, and pick the egg up. It will be perfectly

formed, and you can turn it without difficulty.

I understand that blind persons are not the only ones who

sometimes have trouble turning the eggs they are frying. Some

sighted persons have the same difficulty. Egg templates are

sold commercially, I am told, using essentially the technique

I have described■but why bother? The tuna can works just fine,

and there isn't any point in wasting money or going to extra


Some commercial gadgets are really an advantage in

cooking. Earlier, I mentioned rice. Commercial rice-cookers

solve a lot of problems■at least, the one at my house does.

My wife is sighted, and I am blind, but we both use and

like the rice-cooker. You put twice as much water as rice into

it, and you turn it on. You don't do anything else. When the

rice is done, the cooker knows and it turns itself off■no

sticking, no stirring, no wondering about how long to cook or

when to take it up.

That rice-cooker also knows other things, and it has a

mind of its own. Once I was cooking oatmeal, and the cooker

turned itself off before I thought the oatmeal was ready. I

turned it back on, but it dug in its heels. It turned itself

right off again. The cooker was right. The oatmeal was done.

As I think about it, I suppose the cooker has a

thermostat, which begins to show a rise in temperature when a

given quantity of the liquid has boiled away. At that stage it

probably turns itself off, but I really don't know. After all,

I am not interested in the mechanics of rice-cookers. I just

want to get a good bowl of rice or oatmeal or whatever else it

is I want for breakfast or dinner.

Sometimes the techniques I devise almost get me into

trouble. Last summer is a good example. I plan meetings and

seminars and make hotel arrangements for the National

Federation of the Blind. The meeting I have in mind was to be

held in Chicago.

A lot of hotels have stopped using regular metal keys and

have gone to a plastic card with a magnetic strip on it. I can

see their point. The cards cost almost nothing while metal

keys are expensive, and if somebody carries a hotel key away

or loses it, the hotel has to go to the expense of changing

the lock and replacing the key.

The combination on the magnetic lock, however, can be

changed from the hotel's front desk by a computer that is

connected to all of the rooms. It is inexpensive and

efficient. But the card must be inserted into the door lock in

exactly the right way, the proper end and the proper side

being placed just so.

The card is shiny plastic, so how does a blind person

know which side of it to place up and which end to insert? One

way to do it, of course, would be by trial and error. After

all, there are only four ways it can go■but sometimes even if

you have the card right, it doesn't work on the first try. So

the whole thing can be a nuisance if you can't tell which side

of the card is which.

But in most cases you can. Ordinarily the magnetic strip

is slightly slicker than the rest of the card, and quite easy

to feel. Usually it goes on the bottom and toward the right.

Even if you couldn't tell by this method, any enterprising

blind person would make a little nick in the card or do

something else just as simple.

When I was planning for last summer's meeting, I met with

the hotel staff to talk to them about the dos and don'ts.

Mostly I wanted to put them at ease and help them realize that

they didn't need to go to extra expense or trouble just

because they were dealing with blind people.

In this context I told them about the hotel keys and

showed them that the magnetic strip was easy to identify by

touch. I said that they didn't need to spend any time or money

making extra marks on the cards for those attending the

meeting. They said they understood, and we passed on to other


When the date of the meeting arrived and I checked into

the hotel, the man behind the desk handed me a magnetic key

and told me with great satisfaction that he had specially

marked it with tape so that I could tell which side of it was

which. What was I to do? If I told him that I didn't need the

marking and showed him how easy it was to feel the magnetic

strip, he would likely be embarrassed and maybe even angry. If

I didn't tell him, the hotel would spend time and money on

marking the keys and doing similar things, and then probably

feel that our meeting was less valuable than others because of

the extra trouble and expense.

I handled it as gently as I could, talking again to all

of the hotel staff the next day and mentioning the matter in

general terms. In one form or another this is a problem that

blind people face again and again. It has no easy solution.

Most people have great good will toward us. They think

that if they were blind, they wouldn't be able to do anything

at all, so they try to figure out ways to help us. The

situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes the help

is needed, but very often it isn't. I don't know of any way to

deal sensibly with the matter except to try to get people to

approach us straight on and without a lot of emotion. If

somebody wonders whether we need help, ask us. If we say no,

accept it. If we say yes, accept that too.

As a further complication, what happens if a blind person

is rude or touchy when help is offered? Most of us aren't, but

unfortunately (just as with the sighted) a few of us are.

Whether sighted or blind, not everybody is an angel■or, for

that matter even a responsible, everyday citizen.

My answer is that we who are blind should be treated the

way you would treat anybody else. How would you deal with a

sighted person who behaved rudely toward you? Deal with the

blind person the same way. Hopefully, most of us (blind or

sighted) will treat each other with consideration and respect.

The techniques to permit a blind person to function on a

daily basis are worth knowing. No, they are more than that.

They are key to real independence and comfortable daily

living. But they are not the most important thing that a blind

person must learn. This brings me to the reason I have devoted

so much of my life to the work of the National Federation of

the Blind. In my opinion the National Federation of the Blind

has done more than any other single thing to make life better

for blind people in this country in the twentieth century.

I first became acquainted with the National Federation of

the Blind in the late 1940's when both it and I were a great

deal younger than we now are. It and its brilliant president,

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, helped me learn a whole new way of

thought about what I was and what I could be. Dr. tenBroek

taught by example. His blindness did not keep him from earning

graduate degrees and being a respected college professor and

Constitutional scholar. The same was true of others I met.

The National Federation of the Blind meant then (as it

means today) that it is respectable to be blind, that

blindness will not keep you from doing what you want to do or

prevent you from being what you want to be if you have

reasonable training and opportunity and if you do not think of

yourself as a victim.

A core principle of the organization is that we as blind

people do not want or need custody or paternalistic care, that

we can and should do for ourselves, that we should not ask

others for assistance until we have done all we can to solve

our own problems, and that we (not the government) should have

prime responsibility for our own welfare and support.

Does this mean that we do not want or need help from

others? No■quite the contrary. If we are to go the rest of the

way to full participation and first-class status in society,

it is true that we must do for ourselves, but it is equally

true that we must have help and understanding from our sighted

friends and the larger public. Without it we will fail.

Meanwhile, we will do what we can to help ourselves. And

despite the old proverb, we think that (whether we are old or

young) we can continue to learn.


by Marc Maurer

As readers of previous Kernel Books know, Marc Maurer is

President of the National Federation of the Blind. He spends

much of his time helping other blind people come to believe

that blindness need not prevent them from working or playing

or achieving success. But how did he come to believe this

himself? Partly through his mother's good sense. Here is how

he tells it:

Childhood is often regarded as a time of cheerfulness and

joy■and certainly I believe it should be like that. However,

I also believe that children have the same depth of emotional

feeling that adults possess. Not only love and joy but black

despair and bitterness can be the experiences of childhood■and

towering anger. It happened to me when I was six.

I was born blind, but I had a bit of remaining vision. I

did not know that I was blind until I was five years old.

Nobody ever told me. When I was standing on the front porch,

I could see that there was a tree in our yard out by the

street. When I stood next to my father's car, I could tell

that it was red with a white top.

On my fifth birthday I was given a beach ball. It had a

red section, a yellow section, a blue section, a green

section, and a white section. I stood in our front yard and

looked at the beach ball in the bright rays of the midday sun.

That colorful ball is the most striking example that I now

recall of color. I was convinced that my vision was no

different from anybody else's.

However, I sometimes wondered why I couldn't tell what

people were talking about when they said something such as

"See that antique car over there?" I couldn't tell where the

antique car was■but I tried. I sometimes wondered why I was

missing so much.

One day my brother said to a friend of his that he wanted

to go look at the truck that was parked at the corner of our

block. I was astonished. I went inside to tell my mother. "Did

you know," I said, "that Max can see way down to the corner?"

She didn't seem to think such talent was the least bit


When I was six my parents took me to the doctor for an

eye operation. They were trying to improve my sight. The

operation failed. When I came home from the hospital I was

totally blind. I was devastated by the change.

For a week I didn't do a thing except sleep, eat, and sit

in the corner of the couch during all the rest of the day. I

took no action. I ate when I was told, and I went to bed when

I was told. The joy was gone. The day-to-day excitement about

what to do and where to go and how to live was no more. I sat

and brooded.

Our family lived in a house in the state of Iowa. It had

a fine big living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a pantry

on the first floor along with a big front porch where we could

play outside even if it rained. It had three bedrooms and a

bathroom upstairs. The front yard was a good enough place to

be, but the back yard was the best. My parents had saved their

money to buy a swing set for us. They thought that I wouldn't

be able to get to the park, and they wanted our back yard to

be fun.

There was also a great big picnic table close to the

swing set. My father had painted a checkerboard in the middle

of the top of the table. The squares on the checkerboard were

almost four inches across, and my father had painted them

black and yellow. The checkers were bigger than my hand, and

they were painted red and blue.

My father thought that I would be able to play checkers

on the table because the board and the checkers were big

enough for me to see. However, I couldn't distinguish the

detail well enough to play the game, but he had worked so hard

that I didn't want to tell him. I pretended that I could play,

but I was never really any good at the game on that


The swing set had a slide, two swings, and a glider. I

particularly liked the slide-especially when it had been

rubbed down with waxed paper. You could wax the slide by hand,

but the easy way was to sit on the paper and slide down. When

the slide was waxed, it was fast. We thought it was like

lightning.There was also an old garage on the back end of our lot.

It housed gardening tools, the lawn mower, the wheelbarrow,

and a whole lot of miscellaneous junk. It was a great place to

play. The garage belonged to my Dad. Sometimes he let us play

in it if we were very careful and didn't get it too messy.

But after my operation I didn't go outside■not even onto

the front porch. I didn't care about the picnic table or the

swing set or the garage. I wanted to stay inside, and I wanted

to be left alone. I sat in the corner of the couch being

gloomy, doing nothing.

After a week my mother had had enough. She told me that

I was going to go outside to play. I said I wasn't. But she

said I was, and she was bigger than I was. She said, "You are

going outside to the swing set, and you are going to slide

down the slide." I refused. My mother took me by the arm and

pulled me to my feet.

Although I resisted, she marched me out the back door and

across the back yard to the swing set. When we got to the

ladder that led to the slide, she said "Climb!" And I climbed.

I slid down the slide and turned around prepared to head back

inside. But my mother wasn't having any. She said, "Now do it

again." I thought it wasn't fair. She had said I was to slide

down the slide, and I had done my part. Now she wanted me to

do it twice.

My brooding despair changed to boiling anger. Once again

I climbed the ladder and slid down the slide. But I thought to

myself, "I'll show you. I won't go back in the house. I'll

stay out here, and maybe I'll run away."

My mother left me and headed for the back door. I stayed

in the back yard, and after a time I forgot both my despair

and my anger. I began to play with the things in the yard

until I got hungry. Then I thought that my mother was maybe

not so bad after all. She made the best grilled cheese

sandwiches, and she was also good at cookies. I found my way

to the kitchen, and I was not disappointed.

All of this came to mind when I attended a recent

convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I was

speaking to a large gathering of parents of blind children.

What are the problems that these parents face? And what are

their blind kids thinking and feeling? Whether we are adults

or children, we need to know that blindness will not prevent

us from working or playing or achieving success.

I don't know how other children react to becoming blind,

but I remember vividly how I felt. I'm glad that my mother

made me get up and move. I am fortunate that my despondency

lasted only a week. We in the National Federation of the Blind

are committed to helping others recognize that blindness

properly understood cannot prevent us from playing checkers,

swinging on a swing, playing in a yard, or having a good life.


by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce is president of the National Federation of

the Blind of Ohio. She is a faculty wife, a mother of grown

children, and a leader in her community. She has confidence in

her own abilities. But it wasn't always that way. By tending

to her knitting, her confidence grew■a stitch at a time. Here

is how she tells it:

I have always suspected that someday scientists will

identify the gene that controls the ability to sew and the

enjoyment of doing so. I know that I don't carry the trait,

and I come by my dislike naturally. My mother didn't enjoy

sewing and left all the mending she could for my grandmother

to do when she came to visit, so she never taught me to sew.

Grandma was a wonderful seamstress, but she was not up to

teaching a blind child to hem doll clothes or operate a sewing

machine safely.

In fact, when I was a child, no one thought seriously of

teaching me to sew. But since Mother taught me everything else

about running a household, I am sure that her unwillingness to

tackle this one had less to do with the widely held assumption

that a blind child could not sew than with the fact that she

was fundamentally uninterested in the activity.

As an adult I have met many blind women who enjoy sewing.

One friend had been a fine seamstress all of her life and saw

no reason to abandon her hobby when she lost her sight. She

continued to sew for years after she became blind.

Another friend, who has been blind all of her life, made

her maternity wardrobe and continues to sew whenever her busy

schedule allows her the time to do it. I have always admired

anyone who could turn a heap of cloth into something beautiful

and useful, but I have never experienced the slightest twinge

of envy or impulse to learn the art.

I managed to duck sewing almost completely when I hit the

clothing and textiles unit in junior high school home

economics. The teacher closely supervised my laborious

construction of an oven mitt, but after that she suggested

that for the rest of my home ec credit that quarter I have my

mother teach me to knit.

Mom did so, and I struggled to create something that I

optimistically called a scarf. It was actually a sort of

pennant■wide at one end and narrow at the other, with

interesting holes from dropped stitches scattered

unpredictably from one edge to the other.

No one would have worn that scarf even if I had had the

nerve to present it as a gift, but at least it fulfilled my

textiles obligation, and when the term ended, I thankfully

abandoned my knitting needles.

I might happily have remained in that needle-less state

for the rest of my life if it had not been for my college

roommate Judy, who was an inveterate knitter and who decided

that I should take up the sport again. She pointed out that

she knitted in movie theaters and while she read, so she saw

no reason why I couldn't derive as much pleasure from

knitting as she did. Besides, she wanted to see if she could

explain the various stitches in words alone rather than

demonstrating as she had always done in teaching people to


She suggested that I make matching sweaters for my

boyfriend and me and that the first sweater be his Christmas

present. Judy maintained that an ambitious and attractive

goal, and a friend to cope with the inevitable knitting

crises, were the two keys to becoming a successful knitter.

She was right.

I had never known anything like the satisfaction of

completing that first sweater and presenting it at Christmas.

By the time I had finished both sweaters, I could knit evenly

and rapidly. I then began to master the more complex stitches.

Mittens, a stole for homecoming, layette sets, and finally

garments that had patterns of several colors followed.

Judy still rescued me from time to time, but the summer

after my junior year I decided to tackle an afghan as a

wedding gift for a girlhood friend. Judy was hundreds of miles

away, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that the

pattern was fairly simple.

I used my commuting time on the streetcar to and from my

summer job for my project. The hour of knitting in the morning

was fairly easy because my home was far enough from the city

to insure that I would have a seat for the entire trip. But in

the evening I climbed aboard with standing-room only. There

were people who would have been happy to offer their seats to

a blind person, but I was twenty and perfectly capable of

standing, so I always refused these offers politely, wrapped

one arm around a pole, and pulled out my knitting.

Gradually the trolley would empty, and I would take a

seat, where there was less chance of dropping a stitch. As it

happened, I finished that afghan during an afternoon trolley

ride. But when I started to tuck the empty needles into my

knitting bag and roll up the end of the afghan, a chorus of

voices demanded to have the entire thing unrolled so that they

could see it all for the first and last time.

I hadn't realized from the occasional questions I had

answered about my ability to knit and the actual project

through the weeks that my progress was being monitored by

quite a little klatch of commuters.

I married straight out of college, and in the early years

of juggling home, job, and then babies, I put away my

knitting. But when my children were quite small, I began

teaching childbirth education classes several nights a week.

For part of that time I was the head instructor in the

organization for which I worked, with responsibility for

training new instructors and seeing that they were well

trained and got a good start in teaching.

Sometime during this period I came across a clever idea

for a teaching aid, which involved using a doll and a knitted

bag with a ribbed top and a draw-string opening to demonstrate

the effect of uterine contractions. The pattern for knitting

the bag was simple, and I whipped one up for myself in a few

hours. Of course, all the instructors wanted similar aids, but

apparently I was the only one who could knit. Several of the

instructors made arrangements to have them made, but the rest

couldn't seem to find anyone to make a bag for them. As a

result I found myself with the job of manufacturing these

teaching aids fairly regularly.

One day I was invited to a neighborhood coffee, and I

decided to take my latest knitting project with me. The new

teacher needed it quite soon, and I hated to waste a single

minute when I knew my hands would otherwise be idle. With

three young children at home, I had very little time for


At the coffee I was knitting quietly and talking with a

neighbor when a rather overbearing and formidable woman

approached me. She had always treated me, a young faculty wife

and a blind woman, with annoying condescension■an amusing

child playing grown-up rather sweetly.

"And what's that you're making?" she boomed. "A dear,

little purse for yourself?" The yarn was an uninteresting tan,

and there was no pattern to the bag at all. It would have been

an indescribably ugly purse, but it was just like her, I told

myself, to presume the worst about my fashion sense and

ability to knit.

Something snapped inside me, and I rebelled against all

the admonitions to treat this rather powerful faculty wife in

our small college town with deep and unvarying respect and

meekness. I smiled up at her and said sweetly, but very

clearly in the pause that followed her shouted question, "No,

a uterus." For once in her career of intimidation, she was


Shortly thereafter our family moved to London for a year.

Even though we didn't have a lot of money with which to enjoy

the city, we had a wonderful sabbatical year. The children all

needed sweaters as part of their school uniforms, and I

decided to make them really warm, hand-knitted ones that they

could use all winter long when their classrooms would be quite


This was a bold decision on my part. In all my past

knitting projects I had had someone near me who was a better

knitter than I and who could help when I got myself into

trouble■and one always gets into trouble a time or two when

knitting. Here I was, knowing no one in London and preparing

to tackle my first fisherman knit sweaters. I could hardly

believe my own courage.

I recognized clearly that until several years before I

would never have tried it. The daring decision had been

brought about directly by my discovery of the National

Federation of the Blind. As a result of that experience I had

recently met and become friends with hundreds of blind people

who were confident in themselves and confident in me.

They were teaching me that I had always underestimated my

own abilities. As I stretched myself to try things I had

assumed blind people couldn't do, I learned that there is very

little in life that a determined person cannot find a way to

do if he or she really wants to get it done. And I really

wanted to make those sweaters.

There in London I learned stitch by stitch a lesson that

the Federation constantly teaches me and every other blind or

sighted person who comes in contact with its positive

philosophy: when you get right up to a problem and take a

good, hard look at it, there is almost aways something

practical you can do to solve it.

With a small house to take care of and no job outside our

home, I had lots of time to knit. And at least once a week I

fed the children, got them into their pajamas for the night,

dressed for the theater, and raced to the tube so that I could

meet my husband in town in time for the opening curtain of a

theater production. By the time I sank into my train seat and

pulled out my knitting, I was glad for forty-five minutes in

which to knit quietly and collect my wits, making the

transition from frazzled mother to intelligent theater

companion. I was not the only knitter on the train during that

year, but I was probably the only one in the theater.

Today I am still knitting. These days I do most of my

work in airports and during meetings. I find that knitting

helps me concentrate on what's happening in the group and

keeps me from becoming frustrated when time is being wasted.

After all, I remind myself, I always have a few inches of

knitting to show for even the most unproductive meeting.

By now I have been knitting for so many years that

Brailling the patterns I use and the charts associated with

the more complicated ones seem second nature. I have devised

ways of marking the skeins or bobbins of the different colors

I am using. And I can locate and correct errors I have made as

easily by touch as most other knitters can by looking at the


My roommate was right all those years ago. Knitting is

wonderfully relaxing and satisfying. I am grateful to my

mother for first teaching me to knit and purl. I am even more

grateful to Judy for sticking with me until I learned the fine

points of this lovely craft. But most of all I am grateful to

the National Federation of the Blind for giving me the

confidence to discover my own competence, not only in

knitting, but in every other aspect of my life.


by Peggy Elliott

Peggy Pinder Elliott, the Second Vice President of the

National Federation of the Blind, is familiar to previous

Kernel Book readers as an attorney and thoughtful observer of

attitudes toward blindness■both her own and others'. Here she

relates a recent encounter which occurred amid the high drama

and emotional tensions of the hospital operating room:

There are lots of old sayings that we all think are a

little simplistic and, yet, they often have a very large

kernel of truth. One of them is that life is an emotional

roller coaster. I sometimes think that, in addition to the

roller coaster for everyone, there is a special one for the


You never know when you will meet someone who thinks you

as a blind person cannot do the most ordinary of things. And,

then, you meet up with ten people in a row who are pleased to

accept you as a friend, a client, a colleague, a boss.

This acceptance can be more precious to us than it would

be to a sighted person. Here's an example of what I mean.

My sister Jeanne was having her first child, which turned

out to be twins. When the time came, her husband was unable to

be present for the c-section operation which became

unexpectedly necessary. My sister asked me to be the one to

accompany her into the operating room.

This was a request I was thrilled to be able to fulfill.

Being a small part of the circumstances that bring new life

into the world is always awesome, and one's own sister's first

children under circumstances that could have become dangerous

for all three was even more awesome.

I went to the hospital with mingled feelings of elation

and worry. I wasn't thinking at all about my blindness. But

the hospital orderly was. They wheeled Jeanne out for the

preparation procedures, and the orderly marched in with the

hospital greens I was to put on. She didn't hand them to me.

Instead, she stood there holding them and asked if I wanted

her to put them on me.

I politely declined, took the clothes from her, and

walked into a nearby rest room to change. It was clear that

the orderly thought I had no business being there at all.

I came out in a few minutes, ready for my job of support

to my sister, and the orderly had vanished. I waited, thinking

the orderly had gone to do a quick job and would be back. Time

oozed on and still no orderly. Finally, I heard an

authoritative voice way down the hall demanding: "Where is

she? They're ready." I strode down the hall toward the

authoritative voice. When I arrived, my sister was already

prepped, and the operation had been in progress for at least

ten minutes.

I was glad I hadn't waited any longer for the orderly to

come back-I might have missed a pivotal point in my sister's

life because of that orderly's notions about blindness.

The operation went smoothly, and both baby girls were

fine from the minute they reached the world. My sister did not

do quite so well.

One danger sign was blood pressure, and the

anesthesiologist was supposed to be keeping it artificially

low to protect her. He did his job. In fact, he did it so well

that she began to feel nauseated. He was watching the

operating doctor, a master at these operations who was about

to retire.

Suddenly, my sister started to mumble that she felt sick.

She had asked me to keep her awake, though she was allowed to

sleep if she chose. I was seated at her head and, to keep her

alert, I pulled her hair at irregular intervals at which she

could not anticipate. I was also stroking and patting her head

and shoulders, but this was the first time in my life I got to

pull my sister's hair without being scolded.

She wanted to hear (though they screened her sight)

everything that went on and to see the babies right away. She

was sleepy and mumbly, and her indications of feeling sick

weren't offered with much conviction. But, I knew my sister.

That's part of why I was there - to be on her side, no matter


I turned to the anesthesiologist and told him that my

sister would not mention her nausea unless she was feeling

very, very nauseated. What was wrong? He looked down at his

dials and discovered that he had let her blood pressure slip

so very low that she would feel sick. He immediately began

pushing buttons and talking directly to my sister until he

stabilized her blood pressure in a more comfortable zone for


I am not saying that I saved my sister. The

anesthesiologist was a pro. He wouldn't have let my sister

slip away. But, these men and women worked as a team - operating

doctor teaching a student doctor, two anesthesiologists in the

same relationship, a doc and a nurse for each baby, and two

nurses for my sister. I was made part of the team when I came

in, included as a person who had a vital interest and a role

to play that no one else could play just then. No mention of

blindness. Just everybody doing their part of this exciting,

delicate job.When the baby girls were gone to the nursery and Jeanne

was ready for post-op, one of the doctors asked me to step

back so they could unhook her.

They gently and professionally put my sister back onto

her rolling bed and wheeled her out the door to post-op. No

one looked at me. I just followed behind the bed, listening to

the doctors and my sister talking and using my cane to be sure

I didn't hit anything as I walked.

In post-op, they put her in one corner and then decided

to roll her to the opposite corner where the best equipment

was available for monitoring. I caught the change of direction

with my ears, waited until they had settled my sister into her

monitors, and then moved up beside her.

The post-op nurse brought me a chair and, later, a warmed

blanket because it was freezing in there. She, like the

operating team, treated me as another member of the team.

It was one of those roller coaster days for me: a

wonderful event in our family mixed with anxiety for my

sister, whose reaction to the anesthetic took quite a while to

wear off; two new nieces fine and healthy; one bad experience

with an orderly who didn't want me around at all; and eight or

ten professionals who welcomed me as a team member.

I came away remembering that each of us who is blind has

a role to play, things to contribute, our own worlds to

conquer, and roller coasters of life to ride. And, the

wonderful thing is that there are now more straight-aways than

there ever have been, more people who do welcome us into the

mainstream of life.

More and more people are spiritually joining the National

Federation of the Blind in our effort to make blindness just

another characteristic■a difference among people that doesn't

really matter.


by James H. Omvig

Jim and Sharon Omvig live in Tucson, Arizona. They are

leaders in the National Federation of the Blind, in their

community, and in their church. Attitudes toward blindness are

changing in this country, and one of the reasons for this is

the steady, day-to-day effort of people like the Omvigs. Here

Jim relates an incident that took place in his church and how

he and Sharon handled it:

"My goodness, things are so bad over there at the church

now that they even have the blind serving communion!" So said

an elderly, homebound member to one of her close friends and

confidants on a particular Monday morning.

The church in question was the one I attended for several

years in Baltimore, Maryland. The poor blind man who had

supposedly been so abused by this congregation was me. Here is

how it all happened.

At the time of this incident I had been blind for many

years and had been an active member of this church for a short

time. Years earlier, I had had the great good fortune of

encountering the National Federation of the Blind, and I had

experienced enormously valuable training and insight.

I had been taught (and had come emotionally to believe)

that as a blind person I was simply a normal human being who

happened to be blind and that the opportunities for me to work

and participate fully in the world were limitless.

I had also learned that erroneous attitudes about

blindness rather than the physical condition of being blind

are the most persistent problems with which each blind person

must deal on a daily basis.

Finally, I had come to understand fully that as a

successful blind person I had an obligation to do what I could

to help change those existing, negative public attitudes.

I was living to the hilt what I had been taught by the

Federation. I had become an attorney and was the director of

a major program of the Social Security Administration at its

Baltimore headquarters. Additionally, I was married to a

wonderful wife, had a fine young son, served as vice president

of my Lions Club, was an active member of my church's

governing board, and was also active in the local chapter of

the National Federation of the Blind. My life was in every way

normal, if busy.

A few weeks before the communion incident occurred, I had

been asked by the minister (we'll call him Bob) if I would be

willing to have my name placed in nomination to become one of

the deacons of the church. I agreed and, as church elections

generally go, I was elected without a hitch. It had not

occurred to me that one of the duties of a deacon (at least,

at this church) is to serve communion at the Sunday service.

Some time after the election we had a day of planning and

training. Early on, the minister Bob came to my sighted wife

(not to me) and said, "I'm making out the communion-serving

schedule of deacons for the year. Jim won't want to serve

communion, will he?"

My wife Sharon is also well grounded in proper attitudes

about blindness and in the knowledge that we have a lot of

work to do to make things better. She knew as well as I that

Bob's real question was, "Since Jim is blind, he wouldn't be

able to serve communion, would he?"

Even so, she just smiled and said, "I think you had

better ask Jim about that."" Then she came to me in another

meeting and told me about Bob's question.

What was I to do? One thing was clear: It would not be

helpful or even desirable for either of us to become upset or

angry. Far from useful, such a reaction would have served only

to teach the minister (and anyone else who happened to learn

of it) that the blind are not only helpless and incompetent

but also rude and ill-tempered on top of it.

Frankly, I had not given a thought to the fact that

deacons serve communion or the way in which I as a blind

person might accomplish the task. I determined then and there,

though, that it would be important for me to do it and that I

would find a way! The National Federation of the Blind had

taught me that. I decided to do it both because it was my duty

as an elected deacon and because this would be a marvelous

opportunity through quiet example for me to teach hundreds of

people at a single stroke about blindness.

We decided that I would just wait until Bob came to speak

with me. But, of course, he did not come. Some time in the

early afternoon Bob went to Sharon again and said, "Jim won't

want to serve communion, will he?"

Again she said, "You need to talk to Jim about that." And

again she told me, and I waited a little longer.

Finally, toward the end of the day, Bob came to Sharon

yet a third time. This time he sounded a little impatient. He

said, "You know, I have to finish this communion schedule

today. Jim won't want to be on it, will he?"

This time Sharon said, "Come along, Bob; let's go find

Jim; and you can ask him. I can't speak for him."

When they found me, Bob asked if I would be willing to

serve, and I casually said, "Of course I will."

He sounded more than a little concerned and, with some

awkwardness, he finally got around to asking, "But how will

you do it?" At this church the deacons who are serving gather

at the back of the sanctuary and then walk two-by-two up to

the front of the church and up the steps to the altar. They

take the trays from the minister or elders and then go back

down and serve the individual members of the congregation row

by row. When all have been served, the deacons return to the

altar to leave the trays and then walk again in pairs back to

their seats.

I told him that I had not yet had the opportunity to

think about it but that there was a way. And there was, and I


On the first day I served, the church was a-buzz. Later

Bob said to me with real warmth and an obvious feeling of

pride, "You were more of an inspiration here today than I was.

I actually saw people with tears in their eyes."

So it was that by Monday the story had spread throughout

the congregation, even to the shut-ins. It is true that the

activity seemed noteworthy in the beginning■even remarkable to

some. But the end of the story was the most gratifying for

Sharon and me. For in a very short time whatever I did

(whether it was serving communion or serving as head of the

finance committee or serving as a trustee) was accepted as the

ordinary and unremarkable activity of a church leader. My

blindness simply was no longer an issue, and through the years

Bob has become one of my best friends and a true believer in

the cause of the blind.

As I look back now, I'm glad that the question of serving

communion came up. Bob learned from it, the members of the

congregation learned from it, and my wife and I learned, too.

We came to have an even deeper understanding of the normality

of the blind and the importance of the work of the National

Federation of the Blind.


by Nadine Jacobson as told to Bill Holton

The following article first appeared in the "Profiles in

Courage" section of Family Circle Magazine. Nadine and Steve

Jacobson are leaders in the National Federation of the Blind

of Minnesota. They are not the first nor, regrettably, will

they be the last couple to have difficulty adopting a child

simply because they happen to be blind. Here is Nadine's


My husband Steve and I were so excited. There was a

newborn boy in Arkansas, and after years of hoping and trying,

it looked as if we were finally going to become parents. The

private adoption seemed so certain, we started buying baby

clothes and furniture for the nursery. But then, abruptly, the

lawyer who was handling the adoption stopped taking our calls.

"I'm sorry," he said when I finally got through to him,

"but we changed our minds and decided to give the baby to

another family." He explained that it wasn't because there was

a problem with our home study or that Steve and I couldn't

support a child financially. The lawyer made it perfectly

clear there was only one reason we weren't getting that baby

boy■because Steve and I are both blind.

Steve and I have known each other since I was six and he

was eight. We were both students at the Minnesota State

Academy for the Blind, where we pretty much grew up together.

We started dating when he was fourteen and I was twelve. We

played in the school band together and sang in the choir. I

was a cheerleader; Steve wrestled on the school team.

When Steve graduated and went on to college, I left the

Academy and spent my last two years in public high school back

home in Richmond, Minnesota, where I became involved in speech

tournaments, had parts in several school plays, and graduated

near the top of my class.

We were married in the spring of 1973 and set up

housekeeping in Minneapolis while I finished college and Steve

started turning his math degree into a career in computers.

Like many couples our age, we always planned on having a

family but decided to wait, wanting to become a bit more

settled first.

Steve went to work for 3M, where today he's a lead

programmer analyst. I got my master's degree in social work,

and over the years I have licensed foster homes, done advocacy

work for the elderly, taught Braille, and done career

counseling at a private rehabilitation agency for the blind.

About ten years ago Steve and I decided it was time to

begin our family. Unfortunately, nature didn't agree.

Fertility drugs, making love on a schedule, many trips to the

doctors didn't help. Eventually, I underwent surgery to try to

increase my chances of conception. When even this failed,

Steve and I were forced to face the truth: I was probably

never going to get pregnant.

We'd talked about adoption many times. It was always

something we hoped to do after we had a baby of our own, but

now that it looked like a biological baby wasn't going to

happen. . . .

Walking into that first agency interview in June of 1989,

Steve and I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. Although

social workers are educated to understand how the disabled

function and adapt, all too frequently they harbor the same

misconceptions and negative stereotypes as does much of the

general population. We knew we were going to have to do a lot

of educating, teaching them everything we knew about how blind

parents function.

"Please, ask us anything you want to know," I encouraged

the agency officials. They seemed open to what we had to say

and asked a lot of detailed questions. For example, how would

we know if our child were sick or playing with something that

might be dangerous?

I explained to them that, like most parents who don't

spend every minute of every day in the same room with their

child, you do a lot of careful listening. If the child becomes

too noisy or too quiet, then you know it's time to check. You

become especially careful not to leave things lying about that

a small child could hurt himself with or put in his mouth.

Also as a blind parent you tend to spend more time with

your child, sitting on the edge of the tub or standing right

there beside the swing set. And as for illness, they do make

talking thermometers, but what mother can't tell when her

child is sick just by the sound of her breathing or a gentle

kiss on an overheated forehead?

During the following weeks we filled out any number of

forms, provided written life histories and philosophies of

parenting and such, and prepared ourselves for that all-

important home visit. Everything seemed to be right on track,

and Steve and I started to feel cautiously optimistic.

When the social worker who did the home visit asked how

we would feel about adopting a blind child, we told her that

we wouldn't have a problem with it but that, if we'd had our

own baby, he or she wouldn't have been blind, so we didn't

think eyesight should be a consideration. "Yes, well," she

replied matter-of-factly, "I can't imagine we would even

consider placing a sighted child with you."

Steve and I were disappointed by her attitude, but we

understood it. In any placement the agency needs to keep the

best interest of the child as its first priority, and

apparently this woman simply did not believe the best interest

of a sighted child could ever be served by placing him with

blind parents.

Understanding her position, of course, didn't make it any

less misguided. There are thousands of blind parents raising

sighted children and doing a fine job of it. After all, it's

not what you can or can't see that makes you a good parent;

it's what you teach your child about love and life and living

in the world.

(We later learned of another reason the agency wanted to

limit our adoption to blind children. They were afraid that

eighteen years from now a sighted child might sue them for

forcing him to grow up with blind parents.)

We tried to educate them, but it became clear that their

minds were set: they would help us find a child, but it was

going to be a blind child.

Were we equally set against adopting a blind child? Of

course not. Steve and I don't think any less of ourselves or

each other because we happen to be blind. How could it make a

difference in the way we would feel about a child? But we did

want to adopt a child, and fewer than 1 in 200 children in the

world are born blind. And many of those babies also have

severe physical problems that make them unlikely candidates

for adoption.

We had chosen this agency because they specialize in

finding children in Korea and South America, where there are

far more babies waiting to be adopted than adoptive parents.

We figured the larger the pool of potential children, the

sooner we'd find a baby who was just right for us. But then

the agency tells us that for us the only right baby is a rare,

blind baby.

So rare that, after a year and more of searching, the

agency hadn't been able to come up with a single potentially

adoptable child for us.

Eventually Steve and I began to look elsewhere. We ran up

huge phone bills calling other agencies in other states as

well as attorneys who specialize in private adoptions. There

were agencies that would agree to help us, but then we'd never

hear from them again. Even though attorneys were more

straightforward, they couldn't help us either.

By the summer of 1992 Steve and I were despairing. And

then we were introduced to a social worker from Washington

State named Barbara Freeman. Barbara and her husband Mike had

experienced many of the same roadblocks to adopting a child as

had Steve and I.

It had taken them five years to find a child,

particularly discouraging since Barbara wasn't blind; only her

husband was. Barbara told us of an agency in Oregon called

Holt International Children's Services, which specialized in

placing children with special needs. We contacted them at


Again we were asked if we'd mind adopting a blind child.

Again we explained that, blind or sighted, it didn't matter to

us■what we wanted was a baby, a precious new life to love and

cherish and raise as our own.

It was a few months later, in September of 1992, when we

got a call back. "We think we've found a baby for you. A five-

month-old little girl from Korea named Kang Soo Jee."

Steve and I tried not to get too excited. We didn't want

to get our hopes up, only to have them dashed again. Sure

enough, a few weeks later we got a call. "We don't think this

child is going to work out for you after all," the woman


"What's the problem?" I asked, my stomach tightening into

a knot.

She explained that Kang Soo Jee wasn't totally blind, and

they were worried that a partially sighted child might be too

much for Steve and me.

Back to square one. I explained to her that I had been

partially sighted as a child, so I knew what it was like. I

understood the sort of things Kang Soo Jee needed to know in

order to make the best use of her limited vision and how

techniques used by the blind could help her avoid the dangers

of partial-sightedness.

The agency representative promised to take what I'd told

her under advisement. Six weeks later we received their

decision: Steve and I had been approved for adoption. Though

the waiting wasn't over■there were papers to be filed, a

passport and visa to be secured, and about a million last-

minute things that could go wrong■it began to look as if Steve

and I were finally going to get the baby we'd been praying


Our daughter arrived in this country at 1:45 p.m. on

March 25, 1993, five days after my fortieth birthday, and

eight days before her very first.

"Oh, Elizabeth!" I wept, accepting my baby girl from her

escort and using the new name we planned to give her. Steve

was right there by my side, a proud new papa.

She was so tiny, so beautiful, and after all these years

of wanting and waiting, I could hardly believe she was really


When she first came to us, she was mostly crawling, and

she could only speak a few words of Korean. Just today she was

chasing the cat around the house with one of the arm

protectors from the sofa, calling, "Kitty, night-night! Kitty,

night-night!" Later, while I was fixing dinner, she sat on the

kitchen floor with most of the pots and pans out, banging the

lids and saying, "`abeth cook too!"

Elizabeth loves watching Barney on TV. She sings along,

and when it's time for the "I Love You" song, she always runs

over and gives me a great big hug. After Barney, we often go

to the little park up the street.

Sometimes I take her in the stroller with the handle that

reverses so I can pull it with my right hand while I cane with

my left, or else I fasten a loose string tether around our

wrists and let her use her own, smaller cane. She does pretty

well with it, too.

I stick pretty close to Elizabeth in the playground and

usually dress her in a pair of shoes with tiny bells on the

off chance she decides to go exploring.

After dinner the three of us go for a walk, and Elizabeth

gets to ride in her daddy's backpack. Elizabeth loves her

daddy. She loves listening to him read to her from one of her

picture books with the text transcribed into Braille, or

helping him put together one of the many puzzles I've Braille-

marked on the back so I know which picture we're working on.

I've similarly marked the colors of many of her toys, because

no one is ever going to say my little girl doesn't know green

from orange because both her parents are blind.

I hope, though, that we'll be able to teach Elizabeth

more than just the colors of the rainbow or how to read

Braille or use her white cane to negotiate her way across a

busy intersection. If Steve and I are truly to succeed as

parents, we're also going to have to impart to Elizabeth

everything we know about growing up to become a decent and

responsible human being. We'll have to show her how to enjoy

each day of her life to the fullest and, most important, give

her the support and confidence to recognize that there isn't

anything in this whole wide world she can't accomplish if only

she sets her mind to it.

But then, aren't these the very same beliefs, values, and

ideals that parents everywhere hope to instill in their


You can help us spread the word...

...about our Braille Readers Are Leaders contest for blind

schoolchildren, a project which encourages blind children to

achieve literacy through Braille.

...about our scholarships for deserving blind college


...about Job Opportunities for the Blind, a program that

matches capable blind people with employers who need their


...about where to turn for accurate information about

blindness and the abilities of the blind.

Most importantly, you can help us by sharing what you've

learned about blindness in these pages with your family and

friends. If you know anyone who needs assistance with the

problems of blindness, please write:

Marc Maurer, President

National Federation of the Blind

1800 Johnson Street, Suite 300

Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998

Other Ways You Can Help the

National Federation of the Blind

Write to us for tax-saving information on bequests and

planned giving programs.


Include the following language in your will:

"I give, devise, and bequeath unto National Federation of

the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Suite 300, Baltimore, Maryland

21230, a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, the sum

of $ (or " percent of my net estate" or "The

following stocks and bonds: ___") to be used for its worthy

purposes on behalf of blind persons."

Your contributions are tax-deductible