MORE THOUGHTS ON
INDEPENDENCE

by Robert Feinstein

 

The articles and editorial about independence in the January issue of BENT made me realize how my own definition of independence has changed. I want to tell you how that happened.

When I was a child it was drilled into my head that I had to be as independent as possible. To this end, I was taught Braille, how to type on a standard typewriter, how to tie my own shoes, and how to dress myself. Blind children were not encouraged to travel independently, and I was not given a cane until I was about 15, which was still very young.

One day my friend Alberta and I decided that we wanted to go to a local restaurant called Jahn's, a trip that meant negotiating two long blocks and one small crossing. Alberta could see a tiny bit, whereas I am totally blind. My mother wanted to walk with us, but I was adamant about going on our own. After all, I had spent a solid year learning to "make a proper arc" and had practiced this outing with my mother following behind. I was 15 years old, Alberta was 16, and this was our first adventure without sighted help.

We started out with Alberta holding my arm, both of us swinging our canes to establish a good rhythm: when I swung to the left, she covered the right side; after the first few steps our canes didn't get tangled. We walked the first block, got to the corner, and turned right. The next block was difficult because a chain that separated grass from sidewalk broke mid-block at a parking lot, a spot I had veered into on trial runs with my mother. Now I hoped that Alberta's residual sight would keep us straight. Somehow we managed to find the chain again, which guided us to the next corner, where we had to cross a small street. I had been told to ask for help, but I didn't want to. After all, what would Alberta think of me?

We rushed across the street to reach the upcurb before any cars approached, veered, missed the curb, and found ourselves lost in the street. "Where's the upcurb?" I yelled. "Can you see it?" "No," said Alberta, "the sun is too bright. I can't see anything." "What are we going to do?" I said, losing my composure. "Well," Alberta answered, "we have to go more towards the right, make a really wide arc, and then . . . " Bang! We smashed into a parked car (I've never been happier to collide with an object), followed it around, got back on the sidewalk (but not at the corner) and stood there, totally lost.

"We have to ask sight for help," said Alberta. "But I want to do this without help," I protested. We started off again, dragging our canes this time, something blind people will do when disoriented. Suddenly our canes dropped off a big step. We stopped, petrified. "You're right, there's nothing to be done, we need help," I said, and when I heard a passerby, I asked "Can you help us?"

When we told the man who approached us that we wanted to go to Jahn's, he said, "It's right there, about thirty feet away. You can't miss it." "Sir," said Alberta, "we can't see and we need your help please." "If you can't see, why are you wearing those thick glasses?" he replied. "Umm, I can see a little, but not enough to find Jahn's. I can see light and some big shadows." The guy said "Well, doesn't seem like those glasses do much," and took us to the door of Jahn's.

A walk that might have taken a sighted person ten minutes had taken us almost an hour. We were tired and not very triumphant, and after our meal I asked the waiter to dial my mother's number and ask her to come get us. Walking us home, she could tell from our silence that something was wrong. When we told her what had happened she said, "Yes, but you got there. It's never bad to ask for help."

A Braille teacher once told us, "a blind person will probably need sighted assistance many times during a normal day, especially when traveling. Despite the obvious truth of that hardheaded observation, rehabilitation is based on the premise that blind people must be independent at all costs, a goal that can be unrealistic. I remember, for example, hearing of a blind woman who had just learned to use the Optacon. She took the machine to a restaurant, where she struggled for an hour to make sense of the menu, finally ordering the only thing she could read, "an egg salad sandwich."

That experience and a host of my own make me pose the question like this: is it independence if you need help from others, even if you have a cane or a dog? Is it independence if you have to ask a neighbor whom a piece of mail is from? Is it independence if you go to a store and need help finding a few items? I say Yes, because you are doing what you can do while relying on others only when you must.

Last Sunday I was going on a date with someone I've been seeing. Since losing my guide dog I use taxis more often, but my new friend suggested I take the subway instead, to save money. Foolishly, I said yes. Subway platforms, with their tracks on both sides, their poles, benches, trash cans, and milling people are treacherous places for us. Because my neighborhood station does not have warning strips near the edge, I knew I would need to ask for help or spend a half hour making my way up the platform. It's still hard for me to ask for help from people I cannot see, and who I do not know are even there. Luckily, a young girl walked me up the platform, and the rest of the trip was uneventful—until I reached my station, where the platform was deserted. My friend had told me to meet him upstairs, but how was I going to find the stairs? I knew I had no choice but to wait. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I heard someone, who responded to my request for help (people often don't answer) and showed me to the stairs.

Pride had prevented me from asking my friend to meet me downstairs, but I vowed I wouldn't do that again. "Either I take a car service or you meet me on the platform," I said. "This was too difficult and dangerous." He promised that we'd plan better next time.

Eating in public offers another opportunity to understand the difference between sensible self reliance and asking for help. I took lessons for a long time to learn to cut meat. I'm still bad at it, as are most of my blind friends. I could probably struggle, or simply order hamburgers, but now I'll ask a friend for help, or, if I'm alone, ask the waiter.

After writing this, I called Alberta and we talked about our first date. She reminded me of one incident that had slipped my mind. We both ordered hamburgers, French fries, and chocolate milk on that long-ago day. We talked and waited for our food until, finally, I said, "Waiter, when is our food coming?" A man at the next table said, "It's been in front of you for ten minutes." If this happened to me today, I would have asked why he didn't tell us, and asked him to reheat it, but we were only fifteen years old, so we didn't say anything. We had been rigorously taught "not to touch things too much," so we had dutifully kept our hands in our laps, so of course didn't know our food had been served.

Alberta no longer wears her glasses; they really didn't help her and only made people think she could see. "Now people can tell I can't see," she says, "and if I do catch a shadow, or notice a person near me, I just don't say anything."

I am fifty-four years old. Blindness has taken its toll on me. I feel I have come as far as I can, and if friends don't want to help me, or feel I should be more independent, then they fail to understand the realities of my life. Independence is a wonderful thing to strive for, but perhaps I am most truly independent when I weigh my capabilities realistically, learn to ask for help without feeling demeaned, and refuse to measure my self-worth by my ability to do things sighted people take for granted.

2004 Robert Feinstein

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Bob Feinstein lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Search Bent Voices and Archive for other articles by Bob, who is always interested in hearing from readers and loves to keep up with friends by phone.

 

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2004