Braille Monitor                                                    December 2009

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A Meet the Blind Month Coup for the NFB of Kansas

Jim and Lynda Canaday and their dog Darby in the living room of their homeFrom the Editor: The following profile of Jim and Lynda Canaday appeared in Lawrence, Kansas, Journal World and News on Monday, October 12, 2009. The reporter communicated exactly the message we hope to spread during this month-long effort to educate the public about their blind neighbors. We reprint it here with permission:

Keenly Attuned Blind Couple Have Different Way of Looking at Things

by Kevin Anderson

Jim and Lynda Canaday live with their dog Darby in North Lawrence. The couple need little assistance in living independently and are active members of the community. Jim has been blind since age thirteen, and Linda has been blind since shortly after birth.

{Sidebar} Meet the blind
October is Meet the Blind Month. The local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind will host a White Cane Safety Walk at noon Saturday at 11th and Massachusetts streets in Lawrence.

The walk will involve blind people gathering near South Park and then walking through downtown to raise awareness of the importance of white canes and guide dogs. {End Sidebar}

In addition to using a timer, Jim Canaday sniffs steaming bratwursts to help determine whether they are done. He prefers to grill his brats, but rainy weather prevented outdoor cooking this day. It’s boiled bratwursts for lunch today. No, that’s not the best way to cook them. Jim Canaday knows this. Grilling them outside is far preferable. But what are you gonna do? It’s raining in North Lawrence. So Canaday—in his kitchen that is crowded by pans of resting bagel dough—sets a pot to boil. He comes back to check it. He lightly touches the plastic handle of the pot and feels the vibration of bubbling water. Now it is ready.

But still he’s talking about what was not meant to be. The high flames of a grill. The heat of ash-covered charcoal. “Oh, you use charcoal?” his visitor asks with surprise.

Canaday smiles a bit like a true barbecuer would. “Oh yeah, you get much better flavor,” Canaday says with a bit of inflection in his own voice, surprised that the questioner didn’t know that.

Who would have thought that expressing surprise that a blind guy uses a charcoal grill was silly? Come to find out, it was. “People overestimate how much trouble blindness really is,” Canaday says.When Jim and his wife Lynda leave their North Lawrence home for a walk—he walks at least fourteen blocks every day—they notice which way the wind is blowing.

They notice the sound of the grain elevator, which is different from the sound of the chemical plant; the rushing water over the dam; the whistles of the trains; a spot where the pavement has a rough edge to it that marks the end of the bridge.

Jim has been blind since he was thirteen. Prior to that he had limited sight, but an infection took that from him in a week’s time. Lynda has been blind since she was born prematurely and placed in an incubator with too bright a light.

The North Lawrence details are more than just scenery to Jim and Lynda. Every little sound or feel helps guide them home each day. “It is all about getting good at mental mapping,” Jim said. “Sighted people take things for granted because you can just look at a map.” But it is about more than just having a good memory. Jim credits his father—who died when Jim was sixteen—for showing him the world. “He insisted I get out and go,” Jim said. “We built our own house, and he had me climbing on the roof and doing all sorts of things.”

And Jim insists that, if he hadn’t gone blind, he never would have attended college. Before he went blind in the eighth grade, he never learned Braille. Reading was extremely difficult. After he learned Braille, he became a voracious reader and learner. He has a master’s in clinical psychology from Kansas University.

Growing up in Southern California, Lynda was the only blind person on the campus of Hollywood High. But she already had learned much about the world by standing in her mother’s kitchen as a young girl. “I would watch her cook,” Lynda said. “I would listen to her, and then I would take my play dishes and make the same noises she would make. I would always ask her, ‘What are you doing, what are you doing? Can I do it, can I do it?’”

Evidently she could. She cooked her family’s Thanksgiving dinner at the age of 7. Lynda ended up spending a good part of her adult life as a professional voice coach and singer, performing at Los Angeles night clubs six nights per week. A medical condition unrelated to her blindness ultimately caused her to give up her career, although she does work as a part-time voice instructor.

A serious heart problem has caused Jim to largely remain unemployed for the last several years, though he serves as an officer for the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind and is a member of the city’s Public Transit Advisory Committee. “Coping with blindness doesn’t mean that we’re unusual or gifted or particularly intelligent,” Jim said. “It means that we had good training, and we did the get-up-and-go thing.” Jim is washing a load of clothes. He’s doing it carefully. Not because he’s blind. Because he’s a husband. “I have to make sure I don’t get anything of Lynda’s in here,” Jim says. A previous mishap has made that clear. “I used to let him do it, but I ended up with a lot of clothes that weren’t the color I thought they were,” Lynda says.

So Jim sorts carefully, feeling fabric to determine whether it is a towel or one of his wife’s blouses. Then he touches the large washer knob that has about a dozen different settings. He remembers where the various settings are around the dial, and he lightly runs his index finger around its edge. His finger stops above the blue indicator line. It is just a thin coat of blue paint on the dial—the same as on any normal washing machine. But Jim’s finger feels the slight variation in texture on the dial, and with that he can set the washer on the right setting. Well maybe Lynda wouldn’t go that far.

He fills the detergent cup to the right level by sticking his finger in the cup and pouring until the liquid reaches his knuckle. It is just one of many tricks of the trade. He grabs one bottle of Dr Pepper and a same-sized bottle of Diet Coke. He shows how the ridges along the side of the cap of the Dr Pepper bottle are closer together than those on the Diet Coke bottle. Lynda salts her tomato by taking off the lid of the shaker and grabbing a pinch or two with her fingers.

Jim grabs items off the shelf with confidence because he knows where each item is supposed to be. That’s not Lynda’s favorite practice. It can get risky, and she’s implemented a system for putting Braille labels on most of the kitchen’s cans. (Groceries are delivered by Checkers grocery store each week.) It is worth the hour it takes with the couple’s Braille machine, which looks a bit like a typewriter.

“I once knew a guy who didn’t [label], and he called each dinner, `dinner roulette,’” Lynda said. “It was like ‘oh, what’s this? String beans. What’s this? Applesauce.’ I told myself I was never going to do that.”

There’s a bit of Braille elsewhere. A small brass plaque that hangs from the wall and asks God to bless this home is a noticeable piece of Braille. The other photos and wall hangings, however, have no Braille elements. Yes, their walls are heavily decorated: photos of family members, artwork made by an aunt or an uncle, sentimental pieces that adorn many walls in many other homes.

The couple’s conversation is peppered with phrases that may surprise. They often talk about not being able to see something. Jim described his previous white cane as being so dingy that it “looked like” it had been through a nuclear blast.

Sometimes, a person can almost forget. Like when Lynda was talking about how Jim previously did not use Braille tags to identify the color of his clothes in his closet. So he didn’t use to be such a good dresser? Lynda laughs. “I don’t know,” she says. “I couldn’t see him.”

In reality there’s much the sighted can’t see about the blind. When people who are blind close their eyes, do they dream in pictures? Can any words ever describe the color red? Does curiosity ever become too heavy a burden? “I used to think more about what things looked like than I do now,” Lynda said.

But she believes she has a good idea of the outside world. Growing up at camps for the blind, there was a heavy emphasis on touching their surroundings. Trees, leaves, even a garter snake one summer. And yes, she dreams. She dreams in colors although she doesn’t know if her blue is the rest of the world’s blue. But her dreams are detailed. She knows an apple is one color of red and cinnamon is another.

For Jim it is different. “I remember colors, but to be perfectly honest, it has been thirty-seven years now,” said Jim, who is fifty. “I have to really work to remember colors.” But as the colors of a sunset fade away from memory, Jim insists that it does not create a sinking feeling. His life is not one filled with frustration. “Everybody faces a certain amount of frustration in their lives,” Jim said. “We happen to be made so we don’t see. That means we have certain issues. “But to me blindness is a characteristic, much like height, skin color, and hair color. If you are five-foot-six and you really want to be the starting forward on your basketball team, you probably are going to have some frustration. You can either fret about that or move on and invent a vaccine or something.”

In the North Lawrence home that he’s never seen, there is much about life that is too good to fret over. As his visitor gets ready to leave, the topic of the grill comes back up. He missed that today. The temperature—according to his computer that has a speaker and an electronic voice that communicates what’s on the screen—was forty-nine degrees outside. But in reality it is more than just the weather that keeps him away from the grill. Since he’s moved to North Lawrence, it has become difficult to grill because of all the noise--the trains and everything else. The only safe way for Jim to grill is with his ears. But it’s also the enjoyable way.

“If you have charcoal, lump them all together and light them. Give them eight to ten minutes to settle down, and then close your eyes and tip your ear to them,” he says to his visitor. “You’ll hear crackle and pop, but you won’t hear a hiss. Come back when your total time is fifteen, twenty minutes, twenty-two tops, and you’re going to hear a little hiss. That’s going to tell you, ‘Oh, I can take a stick and separate the charcoals because it is all caught now.’ Yeah.” Oh, how much you miss by being able to see.

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