by Brian Buhrow
From the Editor: Brian Buhrow is a network engineer for Vianet Communications in California. He is blind, but he believes his blindness is far less significant than his ability to think, to problem-solve, and to live the life he wants.
In this story Brian recounts his adventures as a student who won the right to take classes abroad and the way his desire to see more than his classroom led to a predicament that would test his ability to remain cool while in crisis and to think his way out of a most uncomfortable situation. Here is his story:
As I stood in the vestibule of this stranger's home listening to her shouting at me though I did not understand her, I wondered how I had gotten here. The short answer was that I'd been out for the evening, and I'd taken a wrong turn getting home, but the long answer was much more complicated and interesting. It had to do with what we talk about every day in the National Federation of the Blind: how to change what it means to be blind and how to live the life we want in the world alongside our fellow human beings. This moment, alone, in a stranger's front hall was the culmination of all my work to prove that I could be truly independent and travel where and when I wanted.
So how was that moment going? Before I answer that, let me provide a bit of background. I have been blind since birth. I was fortunate in that I went to a preschool for the blind, where it was determined that I should learn Braille as young as possible. I was also fortunate to encounter teachers who stressed to my parents that I be given a mainstream education during my elementary and high school years. This meant that, while I was learning Braille and receiving mobility training, I was also attending school with my sighted peers. As a result I became used to living alongside sighted children in all aspects of my daily life. They, in turn, got some exposure to a student who happened to be blind.
I was a good student and rose to the top of my classes—not always the very top, but certainly near the top. Consequently, by the time I reached high school, I'd earned a certain amount of respect from my peers. Another change which occurred when I reached high school was that I attended a school where there were a number of other blind students. From fifth grade to eighth grade I'd been the only blind student on campus, and I'd gotten used to that state of affairs.
As it happened, most of the other blind students on campus had disabilities beyond blindness, so, instead of just being one of the blind students, I became the star blind student, the special blind student who was different from the other blind students. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I was feeling pretty full of myself. I had good travel skills, was accepted to several prestigious universities, received a substantial number of scholarships, and was pretty sure I could walk on water! To add to my confidence, one of the scholarships I received was from the National Federation of the Blind. Barbara Pierce woke me up on a Sunday morning to tell me that I'd won and that I should pack myself off to Chicago alone and at the NFB's expense to receive my reward.
It was at this point that I began to wonder if perhaps I wasn't as confident as I'd been making myself out to be or as competent as my teachers said I was. I didn't have much experience traveling on an airplane, certainly not cross-country and by myself. Still I was "amazing," and I had no reason to doubt myself as I set out for Chicago as a cocky young high school graduate. Barbara told me everything would be taken care of, and I had no reason to believe otherwise. I'd been to conventions of the blind, and they were awash with volunteers who could help me at every turn if I needed it.
My first lesson came when I reached the Chicago airport. I expected someone would meet me at the plane, and I'd be driven to the convention hotel. Such was not the case. Instead I found myself collecting my own bag from the baggage carrousel and searching for a shuttle to take me to the hotel. Once I reached the hotel, the front desk didn't know who I was, and I ended up waking the scholarship coordinator so she could give me my room assignment.
As the week progressed, I began to understand that I was not amazing at all, but rather someone who was reasonably trained in techniques of blindness and reasonably well educated. There were blind people at the convention who regularly traveled the world as part of their jobs, others who worked for multinational companies, and still others who were doing things that I could only aspire to do. My fellow scholarship winner, roommate for the week, and now very dear friend John Miller was a mathematical genius who ran his own paper route in his hometown. And did I mention that he completed one of his Boy Scout badges by setting up and camping alone in the woods for a night? I couldn't see myself doing that in a million years. In short, I learned I was normal and that I didn't have to live up to the hype my teachers instilled in me back home.
The experience was incredibly humbling and empowering at the same time. Here were people who were pursuing their dreams and lives with skill, dignity, and independence. If I worked hard and learned my alternate techniques, I might, just might, be able to go to college, graduate, get a job, and live as a first-class citizen. For the first time I saw this as a realistic possibility. I still didn't know how I was going to do it, but at least I'd met people who were, and, if I stuck with them, they might teach me how it was done.
"Okay, okay," I hear you asking, "but what about that lady incoherently shouting at you in her house back at the beginning of this tale?" Don't worry, we're almost there. When I left Chicago at the end of the week with my scholarship in hand, I realized that I had received much more than the dollars the NFB offered to help me further my education. Just how much more, however, wouldn't become clear for a bit longer. I went to college, where I studied a combination of computer science and English literature. I liked the technical aspects of computer science, but I needed the humanity and connectivity of English lit.
As I pursued this twin course of study, an opportunity came for me to apply to the UC Education Abroad Program (EAP) as an exchange student for my junior year. Since I wasn't very good at foreign languages, I applied to study in the UK, either in Ireland or England. The competition for these countries was fierce, and I was told my chances of being selected were pretty slim. When, as part of my application, I was asked how I would function as a blind person in a foreign country, I assured everyone that I'd do it the same way I did in the US. I knew how to work with professors and lecturers to get the materials I needed for classes, and I was familiar with working with readers for getting materials "just in time" that weren't available in alternative forms. I had a year and a half of college plus summer school under my belt, and I'd lived both on- and off-campus with roommates and housemates for all that time. The selection committee for the EAP told me I had a strong application but not quite strong enough to make the initial cut. However, I was placed second or third on the waiting list, I don't remember which, and, as time went by, my name got closer and closer to the top. Finally, in August, between my sophomore and junior years, I emerged from the waiting list and became part of the 1990-91 UC Education Abroad Program class.
That summer I flew to London for our orientation and took my place as a student at Leeds University in Leeds, England. Living in England as an exchange student, especially that year during the first Gulf War, was an experience I shall treasure forever. The pace of courses at English universities was more laid back than at the UC Santa Cruz campus, where the quarters raced by in ten-week blurs. I appreciated the non-US-centric perspectives I gained from my fellow students, and I enjoyed traveling to different parts of England, so I signed up for an Interrail pass which would let me travel the trains throughout Western Europe. The Interrail pass is much like the Eurail Pass bought in the US, except it's a lot cheaper and requires that you be a current resident of the European Union. I decided I would travel during the last three weeks of June before leaving England for the US and the NFB national convention. I bought Let's Go Europe, a popular tour guidebook for Europe, and a membership in the Youth Hostel Association.
The original plan for the trip involved one of my housemates. He and I were going to travel together, staying at youth hostels in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris. Two weeks before our departure he experienced a family emergency and was required to leave for his native Malaysia immediately at the end of the school year. I briefly considered canceling my trip but decided that, since I'd already been living abroad for a year, if I really was an independent blind person, I should prove it to myself and make the journey alone. I announced this to my friend, who, after arguing with me for some time about the merits of my decision, helped me prepare by reading large swaths of the Let's Go Europe book as well as the youth hostel guidebook. And so it was that in early June of 1991, I found myself armed with endless Braille notes on where to find youth hostels in Berlin and Amsterdam and heading for the North Sea Ferry to take me to Rotterdam.
When I got to Rotterdam I took a train to Amsterdam and thence to Berlin. While on the train to Berlin, I met a group of Americans who were setting out to explore Western Europe with the idea that they'd end up in Prague in a week or two. They seemed to know where a good hostel was to bunk at in Berlin, so, rather than finding my original destination, I elected to stick with them for the three days they were going to be in Berlin.
We found our hostel, dropped our bags, and set out to explore the city. We visited the synagogue where Mendelssohn is buried and learned just how thoroughly the Nazis denuded the lands of Jewish people. This synagogue had over 30,000 members before Hitler came to power. By the time the Marshall plan was implemented, there were 1,300 people left. We spent the next two days exploring various tourist sites in Berlin, as well as sampling a few of its beer gardens. On the third day, I said goodbye to my new friends, and they boarded the train for Prague. I decided to explore the area of Berlin around the Wall more thoroughly, and I enjoyed the afternoon I spent at one of the museums commemorating the history of the Wall and what it meant for it to be torn down.
That evening I went to a small beer garden and enjoyed some excellent German beer as well as a very tasty and generous meal. I'd become familiar with the subway system in Berlin over the past few days and was quite comfortable making my way through its environs. My hostel was just a few blocks from the subway stop, and I was confident I knew where it was.
So after my meal and a pleasant walk in the fine summer evening, I boarded the subway and got off at the appropriate stop. My hostel was three blocks to the right, a left turn after crossing the third street, and the seventh house on the right. The hostel consisted of two buildings, separated by a courtyard. One walked through the first building, straight back, into the courtyard, and thence to the rear building, where the sleeping rooms were.
On all the other occasions when I'd returned to the hostel, the door to the front building had always been open. It was more of a breezeway to the courtyard rather than a building. On this occasion the door was closed and apparently locked. "No problem," I thought. I'd always returned earlier in the evening. Perhaps they had a policy of closing up after a certain hour. I rang the bell and waited. After a few minutes the door opened, and a woman asked me something in German. Now I was confused. I'd never seen a woman caretaker at the hostel before. Surely she knew I was a guest there. I tried explaining what I wanted in English, and she became even more confused. After a few more attempts at communicating, she invited me into the hall and asked me to wait. When I stepped in, I realized I'd done something terribly wrong. The hall was warm and brightly lit, and there was a cozy living room adjacent to it. None of that existed at the hostel. Soon the woman came back with a man, probably her husband, and we tried again. His English was slightly better than hers, but still not enough to tell me exactly where I was.
At some point I realized there was no way we were going to gain an understanding, and they were becoming more and more distressed by the moment. I decided the best way out of this situation was to flee! I headed for the door and quickly left, not knowing how to do anything else to comfort these people I'd so rudely disturbed. As I retraced my steps to the subway station, I reflected on the predicament I was in. Here I was in a country where I didn't speak the language, in a city where I knew no one. Nor was I quite sure of the address or name of my hostel. In those days cell phones were virtually nonexistent, and GPS technology was used only by the military. In other words, I was on my own, and I would have to get myself out of this situation. When I reached the subway station, I thought about my options. This didn't take long since I couldn't think of many. One way or another, I had to find my hostel because all my belongings were there, and I'd already paid for the lodging for the night. So I tried again.
Three blocks to the right, cross the third street, turn left, and find the seventh house on the right. This time, when I tried it, I found the door open as I expected, the front building was like a breezeway, there was the courtyard, and most important there was the sleeping room with my stuff on one of the beds. As I climbed into bed that night, I was not only extremely happy that I'd found my bed, I also realized that I had found true independence.
The next morning I awoke, made my way to Cologne, Germany, took a cruise on the Rhine River, and ended up in Amsterdam. I finished my travels in Amsterdam, where I met another American traveler who agreed to go tandem bicycling with me through the Dutch countryside. While I didn't get to Paris on that trip, I did see a good bit of Germany and got a good feel for the attractions Amsterdam has to offer, as well as what the surrounding countryside looks and feels like.
It hasn't always been easy to make my way forward in life since that nerve-wracking night in Berlin, but that night plus my continuing participation in the activities of the National Federation of the Blind and the consequent association with the brightest and most forward-thinking blind of our nation has served as a constant reminder that I can succeed even when others believe that I cannot. As a result I've had the privilege of living a full and adventurous life. I've been able to earn and retain good jobs; travel widely, participating in many adventures during those travels; and live life as a contributing member of my community and society. And to think, in many ways, it all started for me while I stood in a stranger's front hall and listened to her interrogate me in a language I did not know.