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President's Column

By Jennifer Dunnam

Many benefits flow from being a member of the National Federation of the Blind.  Some of these are the mutual support and encouragement, the ability to make things happen together that we could not do alone, the sense of community, and the useful information and resources.  The collective experience we can call upon is deeper with more of us in the mix, and the more of us there are, ready and willing to participate, the more we can do.  There is one aspect, however, that is a bit more complicated to describe, but it can apply to all of us individually — whether we grew up as a blind person or lost sight later in life.  Participating in the National Federation of the Blind can help us "calibrate."

The word calibrate has numerous definitions, but here is the one that I (nerd though I may be) find relevant: "To check, adjust, or determine the graduations of a quantitative measuring instrument by comparison with a standard."  Certainly, this is not a precisely relevant definition, since we're talking about humans, but perhaps I can illustrate with a bit of personal history, which is no doubt similar in some ways to the experiences of many others.

My parents are the best anyone could ask for.  They worked hard to ensure that I, their daughter who has always been blind, would live a normal life, able to take care of myself and to get along and do my fair share in the world.  They knew that sometimes toughness was necessary from them in order to achieve these goals.  However, they were not with me everywhere I went, could not always influence the ways others treated me, and, with a few rarely-encountered exceptions, did not have exposure to other blind people who could show by example how to live a successful life as a blind person.

There were many other people in my early life, also with the best of intentions, who had little exposure to the truth about blindness and also did not have the same incentive to consider my future as my parents did.  Many felt sorry for me or constantly told me what an inspiration I was.  Most wanted to do all they could to make life easier for me.  Therefore, although I was fortunate to receive a good education at public school, I also received many strong messages that I was not like other people, and that the rules were not the same for me as for others.   

For most of my school years, I always sat in the very front of the class (or sometimes at the very back), in a different type of desk from everyone else.  I was often allowed to leave class just a little before the end, so that the fellow student who helped me get to my next class would have time to get me there and then to get herself to her own class (no independent cane travel training for me until I was twelve, and even then it was very limited).   It isn't that no one ever insisted that I come up to the mark and meet standards like everyone else.  I remember how grouchy I was when suddenly I was expected to start doing more chores.  I was offended when a teacher said, "You're responsible for cleaning out that desk just like everyone else.”  These were important lessons, but they were harder to take because the messages were not consistent and I was so often treated differently from others.

One time there was an article in the town's newspaper about me — all about my good grades in school, my climbing on the playground equipment, my school friends, and on and on.  Certainly, it can be argued that there is merit in such an article showing a positive image of blindness, but none of this would have been newsworthy at all if I were not blind.  However, as a young child I was not mature enough to keep it in the correct perspective, so I fear I took it all to heart a bit overmuch, thinking that maybe it meant I really was as amazing as everyone said I was.

The other side of the coin of being "different" started to rear its ugly head more as I became a teenager.  People my age often did not want to hang around with me much.  My younger sisters got driver’s licenses and could drive off wherever they wanted, but I could not have even told you the name of the next street over from where we lived much less navigated around the city.  My sisters and friends spend as much time as they could walking around the mall, but it was a struggle for me to just walk around my own school building independently.  And if I did go to the mall with them, I spent a lot of time waiting, because, unless I could talk them into going somewhere particular, they set the course.  The feeling of powerlessness is hard to convey to one who may not have experienced it, but I imagine many readers here know what I am talking about.  I and everyone else assumed this was how it had to be and would likely be so for my whole life.  To survive, I simply began to adjust to this way of being — the waiting, the loneliness — and began to stop hoping for better.  Because of the mixed messages and relative powerlessness, I did not have a good grasp of how to view myself as just a regular person, not more and not less — even though at the time I might even have been able to say the right words about it.  It was all very confusing — to be "special" but also somehow inferior — amazing but also to be pitied and shunned.

During high school, I attended one summer at the school for the blind.  In some ways the experience was helpful in that in this setting, I was not so special, weird, or different from the rest of the crowd.  However, most of "the crowd" were kids with similar struggles of not being viewed with normal expectations and not knowing how to deal with it or even quite realizing it.  Besides which, there was a strong sense that how much sight one had was a primary predictor of how much responsibility one could be expected to take.  The experience, although it was not all bad, did not generally present much hope to me.

Fortunately, I soon met the National Federation of the Blind and was very astonished to discover that my own expectations were actually far too low.  For example, I got to know people who not only walked independently around their cities, but they took control of things by hiring drivers rather than waiting and hoping people would be willing to drive them somewhere.  Not only that, I witnessed blind people taking charge of navigation when riding with a directionally-challenged sighted driver, and knowing precisely where specific locations were, even in a mall.  After recovering from the shock, I got to work on improving my skills and learning all I could from my new role models. 

No less important than the skills, and probably more so in the scheme of things, were the adjustments I was able to make to my approach and attitude.  Learning new skills went a long way to helping me understand that I was not somehow a lesser person than others were.  However, it was in some ways a rude awakening to figure out for sure that I was not actually the least bit amazing, either.  There were many blind people smarter than I was, more talented than I was, and with better social skills.  In this group, one helped with the cleanup regardless of level of sight — no excuses or special treatment for me.  People assumed, respectfully, that I was capable of doing a given thing and would ask if I needed help, rather than immediately scurrying to the rescue at the first sign of questions.  If I didn't know how to do something, people would teach me rather than just doing it for me, and they kindly but frankly let me know if I did or did not do things that would be detrimental to general life success.  I learned, directly and by example, how to fit in in the larger community and to do my share.  The messages were consistent in this environment, and so it was possible to learn how to put the views of the larger society into perspective.  I have now been a Federationist for many years, and the help of this organization in this respect remains invaluable.

This experience is not unique to people who grow up blind.  Many who lose their vision later in life may start out maintaining the independent spirit that they had when they were sighted, but as time goes on without a supportive community and without strategies to deal with the constant barrage of well-intentioned low expectations from others, it becomes just easier to give in — to stop trying to live the life we want, which can make us dependent and disabled in ways that are not really necessary.  The Federation can help us get that spirit back, and to get the five ingredients of freedom that Jim Omvig so aptly enumerates in his book Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment:

  • coming to believe, emotionally and intellectually, that it is respectable to be blind;
  • learning the skills and mastering the alternative techniques of blindness;
  • knowing how to cope effectively and unemotionally with things people do and say because of their misunderstandings about blindness;
  • having the discipline, the flexibility, and the work ethic, grooming, and appearance to "blend in"; and
  • giving back, both to other blind people and to society.

I am grateful to be able to "calibrate" from time to time with my Federation family — people who show by their example how to be a blind person with confidence, class, resourcefulness, and willingness to believe in and help others.  We strive to create a space that lets us measure ourselves against normal expectations, to keep low expectations from coming between our dreams and us.

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