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.
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
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?
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
"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.
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.
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 uneventfuluntil 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.
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
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
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.