Braille Monitor                                                April 2013

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An Ordinary Sort of Courage

by Shawn Mayo

Shawn Mayo at her desk in the library of Pillsbury Mansion.From the Editor: The following article is the winner of the NFB of Minnesota’s 2012 Metro Chapter essay contest. It was published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin. Shawn Mayo is the executive director of the NFB of Minnesota’s adult rehabilitation center. This is what she says:

I was in an airport recently, buying a breakfast sandwich to take to my gate, when a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "What is your name?”

I immediately started worrying that I was supposed to remember her from somewhere and slowly replied, "Shawn.”

But, before I could ask her anything in reply, she said, "Shawn, your courage has inspired me today.” Now I was really speechless. It is not as if I have never been told how amazing I am because I am blind and yet manage simple daily tasks, but to me courage has always been such a large and abstract term, suitable for battlefields and burning buildings, that I really couldn't find anything resembling courage in obtaining a bacon, egg, and cheese croissant. I felt as if I was in one of those Bud Light Real Men of Genius commercials—as if an announcer should be saying: "And here's to you, blind airport traveler," and I had to fight back a laugh.

The woman and I were witnessing the same simple scene--Blind Woman Gets Breakfast, but analyzing it in two totally different ways. To me, even though it was a delicious sandwich, it was the most ordinary thing in the world to stand in line, ask what they have, make a selection, pay for it, and walk away. I do it fifty times a year. Most of the blind people I know do the same. But I may have been the first blind person she ever saw do it. To her this was highly unusual. Maybe she has never met a blind person, maybe she has met only blind people who didn't travel alone. Regardless, we were starting with different preconceptions and therefore getting totally different interpretations.

But, when I got home, I looked up the word “courage.” Here is Merriam-Webster's definition: "mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty,” and I started to understand that her word choice might not have been as overly dramatic as I had thought. Nowadays, more than fifteen years after my adjustment to blindness training at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc., my personal store of courage is tapped for other parts of my life. But back then it did take courage to get on a plane by myself, get up from my seat in the gate area to go find food, and explain to the TSA screener that I am in fact a big girl who goes places all by herself. It then occurred to me that courage is exactly what it takes to put blindness in its proper place. I then looked up the word “encourage,” and realized that this is the definition of what we do at BLIND, Inc.

It's a shame that “courage” is a noun; it really ought to have a verb form. But, since it doesn't, I am going to make one up to describe what our students do. They courage up. It's not unlike the phrase "cowboy up" or "cowgirl up.” It is also not unlike "leveling up" used in role-play gaming.

Let me now go back to the definition of “courage” to show how it plays out. In this definition of “courage” it entails three kinds of strength—to venture, to persevere, and to withstand danger or difficulty. I'm not a fan of the word “withstand” here. I think a better word would be “take on”—it's more active. So let's start with this: "to take on danger and difficulty.” Going out into the world as a blind person isn't inherently dangerous. But a number of the things we do often appear superficially dangerous, which can generate fear that can cause difficulty in its own right. In addition there are practical difficulties such as how to read, how to get around, how to use a computer, how to take care of your home, and how to do a job. Folks take these on in each of their classes. Gradually they reduce each of these things from a difficulty to an ordinary part of life.

The next part of this definition is “to persevere.” Reducing each of these difficulties to the ordinary doesn’t happen overnight. It also doesn’t happen as quickly as anyone wants. It would be wonderful if we could download all of the blindness skills we teach directly into our students' heads just the way Keanu Reeves learned Kung-Fu in the movie The Matrix, but that’s not possible.

We have been working hard to develop methods of teaching Braille faster and more efficiently, but it still takes time and hard work. Our cane travel instructors show students solid strategies for dealing with various situations, but mastery is measured in miles, not feet. Some things come more easily than others, and some things will be more enjoyable than others, but often, when students reach the end of their training, they admit that the most enjoyable accomplishments are those that took the most effort. I think it was Woody Allen who said, “Ninety percent of success is showing up.” I would take this a little further to say that it’s showing up when you don’t feel like it, when you are exhausted or frustrated, or when it’s snowing. It’s putting the miles on your cane and beneath your fingers when you would really rather be watching TV or eating ice cream.

The last element is “to venture; to take a risk.” The biggest risk our students take is the loss of their comfort zones and the likelihood that they will be different people in some ways when they finish. At student graduations people often comment: “When you first started, you were so quiet, but now you are outgoing.” Or “You used never to want to go out, and now you’re going all over the city.”

Usually, when people come to training, it’s because they find that they are in a box that had become too small. They have been limiting their life and activities. And, while they know the box is too confining, it is often a cozy place. It’s comfortable, and there’s actually plenty of room for excuses and justifications, just not much room for anything else. So, when people start working their way out of their boxes, they find new interests and passions. They make new friends. They become more assertive and sometimes more outgoing and social. They change their lives and some really noticeable parts of their personalities. Their core personality remains the same, but they act differently. This is a big change.

It’s a change for them and for their families and friends. It’s a positive change and ultimately a good thing. But everyone has to come to terms with the fact that this blind person doesn’t need the kind of help that she used to: she doesn’t need to take an arm to get through the parking lot. This changes the dynamic of relationships. It is also a risk to your pride to admit that maybe you aren’t as competent, efficient, or great as you thought you were and that you could do better. One of our instructors says that she entered training thinking she would finish in three months and run circles around everyone else, only to be left behind her first night. She found herself standing at an intersection like a lost puppy because she couldn’t keep up with the other students. Of course they came back and got her, and, when they did, she could walk faster since she was carrying a lot less ego. But that was tough to take. It took courage.

So the best way I can describe what we do as instructors and staff at BLIND, Inc., is to say that we encourage. “Encourage” can be seen as an intransitive verb. Not to get too grammatical here, but this means that we aren’t the ones doing the action. The students are couraging up. We are just giving them the time, space, tools, and support to do it. They do the work. Our work is merely to support their work and make ourselves gradually less necessary.

When our students accomplish a significant task or reach a milestone, they ring the freedom bell, and everyone comes, asks them what they did, and congratulates them. The instructor hands the student the bell, shakes hands, and walks away, leaving the student to explain why he or she rang the bell and to receive the encouragement. Instructors may ring the bell if they earn a new certification, win an award, or something like that, but the students’ successes and failures are their own. They are the ones taking all the risk, and they therefore deserve all the reward.

Our reward comes from knowing we’ve done our job well when they don’t need us anymore. This enables us to push people to break out of their comfort zones, to go farther and do better than they think they are capable of, and to reach their real potential. Nothing is more awesome to us than when a student flies right over what we thought was a high bar, then grabs the bar and sets it higher—turning in eight pages of slate work when they were required to do only three; walking home under sleepshades without being assigned to do so; decorating the lunchroom in the theme of their large meal. This is couraging up, and witnessing it is the best part of my job as executive director of BLIND, Inc.

So I wish I had had the time and presence of mind to explain this to the woman in the airport. I would like her to know that she was right. It did take courage to get from where I was to where I am now, but it isn’t any sort of extraordinary courage. Many people have it, and, if we keep encouraging, more and more people will find it, and it will become more and more ordinary. This is what we are about in the Federation. This is what we are about at BLIND, Inc.—encouraging, striving, and expecting more from others and ourselves. We take on difficulties; we persevere; and we venture. This is how we change what it means to be blind.

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