Future Reflections Special Issue on Low Vision IDENTITY
by Michele Denise Michaels
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 46, Number 6, June 2003
From the Editor: After completing her training at BLIND Inc., with her newly earned long white cane in hand, Michele Denise Michaels pursued dual degrees in performance and music business. As she worked on her singing career, she began traveling to tell the story of her journey with blindness. When invited to speak, she sings as well. As she explains, "I speak about the gift of blindness and sing about the love of God." You can visit Michele's website at <micheledenisemichaels.com>. This article originally appeared under the byline of Michele Gittens.
I am grateful to be able to share with you my journey from the NFB national convention to Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND Inc.)--which is essentially my version of "partially sighted, really blind."
Let me first give you a brief overview of my relationship to blindness in the past few years. The cause of my blindness is unknown. I just remember that one morning, when I was in the third grade, I could see the board clearly, but when I came back from recess later that day, I couldn't see it anymore. My parents took me from our home in New York to many doctors in various countries; we traveled all over the place.
Finally somebody referred us to the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. I remember my parents putting me on a train and schlepping me all the way down to Manhattan. We went into a room and sat around a rectangular table, and I was very upset because I was with all these old people (I was about twelve, and they must have been in their twenties, but to me that was very old). I didn't say a word; I just sat there very still.
Afterward I made it clear to my parents that I didn't want to have anything to do with these people. My father, being the wise man he is (I didn't think so at the time), said, "How do you expect to live as a blind person if you don't know any other blind people?"
I said, "Dad, these people are blind. I am legally blind. We are in two different worlds; they do not understand where I come from."
From then on, the only relationship I had with the NFB was that every year I would get two flyers--one about the New York state convention and the other about the national convention. The little NFB logo was in dark print, so I could always see it, and as soon as I saw it, I would just tear up the flyer and throw it in the trash before my parents saw it. I didn't want to hear anything about the NFB.
As a teenager I no longer saw myself as legally blind; I became "visually limited." (I loved being visually limited because I never did understand the legal thing.) High school was great; it was like going to school with your mom. I had readers, notetakers, and advocates. I didn't have to deal with any of the blindness issues that came up; they just magically disappeared.
Then I went to college, where I got a dose of reality. Suddenly, on the first day, I was expected to manage my own readers, schedule my exams, and talk to my professors. Sometimes I went to professors who said, "Michele, how can we help you?"
I would get frustrated and angry, thinking, Shouldn't you be telling me what to do? Haven't you had visually impaired students before? (In college I was visually impaired.) I was so frustrated and stressed out that in my junior year, I left college and never returned. It really disappointed my parents, but nobody could tell me anything; I wasn't going back.
I did have the sense to know I needed some training, so I enrolled at a service-delivery agency in New York. I was there for about four years, and I went through all the programs they offered (I'm a very thorough person). There I learned that I was visually disabled. In one program in which I took part, twenty people were enrolled, and only one used a white cane. We were taught to "maximize our residual vision." We had computer class, and we used ZoomText, a screen-enlargement program--never any speech-access program such as JAWS. I also had travel class and was given a white cane. I wasn't encouraged to use it outside of class, and the class was certainly not a requirement. I remember being on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street and saying to my instructor, "How do I know if this is the right corner?"
He said, "Use your common sense!" (That's how people talk in New York.) "Look up at the pole, and you see there's a street sign. Broadway is a longer word, so it is a long white strip, whereas 42nd is two numbers, so it's a short strip. So that's how you know."
I thought to myself, But where's the sign?
I graduated from that program with honors and decided to move on. It was time to work, so I auditioned and got a job in London as a background singer. When I moved there, my mother made me take my white cane (that was my parents being wise again).
As soon as I arrived in London, I made a discovery: I really might be blind. I had grown up in New York, so I didn't realize how little I was actually seeing and how much I was relying on my mental picture of everything familiar to help me get around. When I got to England, everything was totally different. For the first month I would not leave my apartment unless somebody came to get me, and, without exaggeration, I cried every single day.
My parents and family and friends called and pleaded with me to use my cane, but I refused. Somebody from the agency whose program I had attended called and said, "Michele, somebody from New York died because she crossed a street without using a white cane and got hit by a car." Even that wasn't enough for me.
I said, "Well, that's nice; I'll take my chances."
In England traffic moves on the left side of the street instead of the right. One of my cousins called me and said, "A lot of people from America go to England and get killed. If you don't use your cane, you might get hit by a car, and we're not kidding."
I'm embarrassed to repeat this, but I said to him, "I'd rather die than use that stick." As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I realized I had hit rock bottom.
I decided I had to do something, so I called the Royal National Institute for the Blind and made an appointment to meet with a counselor. I wanted to hire a travel instructor, but she said that would not be possible because I was a partial. I said, "Partial what?"
She said, "You're partially sighted, like me."
I asked, "What do you do about it?"
She said, "You just get used to it."
Every day I had to go someplace different to work, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to die, but I still wasn't going to use that stick. I started coming up with my own alternative techniques--my blind-person-pretending-to-be-sighted tricks. It worked somewhat, but I decided to interview other blind people to find out what they did. That led to reading books and doing a lot of research; suddenly I had to go to every seminar on blindness I heard about.
One day my mom called and said that there was a letter for me from the NFB (of course I hadn't had a chance to tear it up). She said that they were having a convention in Philadelphia. I decided to go because I hadn't yet figured out a good way to walk down a flight of steps. I was once doing a show in which, to get off the stage, I had to come down stairs from the stage into the audience. I fell down the stairs, got up, and fell down the stairs again. I was mortified, and I had a thing about stairs from then on. I used to tell people that I would have no problem if there were no stairs in the world--the problem was not my eyes; it was the stairs. So I flew to this convention to learn about going down stairs.
I got to the hotel with a friend, and we noticed all these people with white poles. I thought to myself, Is this a tryout for the summer Olympics? Then we went to registration, and I saw that everybody had them. I realized that of course they were canes, but I had never seen them used like this before. I got excited because I saw people walking by themselves without guides.
I was beside myself. I talked to everybody (well, almost everybody, since there were three thousand people). I called my mom and said, "Mom, do you know blind people have jobs?" Almost every blind person I had met until then was on SSI (Supplemental Security Income). I said, "Mom, do you know they have houses and families?" I had assumed that I would never have a family.
My father got on the phone and said, "I told you. How do you expect to live as a blind person if you don't know any?"
At the convention there was a presentation about cane travel. I talked to Joe Cutter, an orientation and mobility instructor from New Jersey, and told him my sob story about stairs. I didn't have a cane with me, so when I finished my tale, he said, "I have a present for you." He offered me a cane; it was beautiful. I was now happy because I had a pole like everyone else.
Joe Cutter introduced me to Ron Burzese. Ron listened to my story, and he was both gracious and patient. We went to a staircase, and he told me to close my eyes. I'm from New York, so I was suspicious and made sure my friend was watching, but I did it. He showed me how to use the cane going down the stairs, and it was the safest feeling! When I got to the bottom of the stairs, Ron said in his deep, Barry White voice, "You have a decision to make. You can either live the rest of your life as a clumsy sighted person, or you can become a respectable blind person."
Those words hit me. Many people had pleaded with me, but when he said that, it was as if he knew me. Now I thank him every day, about twice a day.
After the convention I went back to London to finish up my jobs. Then I came back home. Three days later was 9/11, September 11, 2001. I thought to myself, I am never getting on a plane again! So much for my dreams of going anywhere. A few weeks later there was a big deal in the news about how Mike Hingson, a blind man, got out of the World Trade Center, and I said to my parents, "How much you wanna bet he's from the NFB? Anyone who went to the training center I did would never have gotten out!" A while later I received the Braille Monitor with the article about Mike, and I went crazy. I thought, This is another sign.
I know many people in those towers did not have the opportunity to get out, but even if I had been there and had had the chance, I probably wouldn't have taken it. My fear of coming down a flight of stairs was so deep I would have sat there and perished. I realized then that getting good training wasn't just about becoming respectable; it could be a life and death matter.
All my life I have said that there were two places I wanted to live: London and Minneapolis. I grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore, and I wanted an M like the one she had in her apartment. I did check out the other NFB training centers, but I already knew I was going to Minneapolis to attend BLIND Incorporated. It was very challenging to get New York to pay for me to go there, but that story is for another time. I kept knocking on the agency's door. I knew that eventually they would give me what I wanted just to shut me up, and they did. My thanks go to Shawn Mayo and a lot of other people.
I have been at BLIND Inc. only a few months, and I have already seen a huge change within myself. I knew I needed confidence, but I could never figure out why I couldn't get it. I realize now that the key is the training. I'm walking around and not banging into things. As a singer I travel a lot. I used to get someplace, cry for a week, and then get going. I have not cried yet in Minneapolis, and I am thrilled.
In closing, I'd like to thank the Federation on behalf of myself and my fellow BLIND Incorporated students. Thank you, not only for challenging us to embrace our blindness (or aspects of our blindness), but for providing us the opportunity, the wisdom, the mentoring, and the tools that enable someone like me to stand now as a respectable, independent, sky's-the-limit blind person.