The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _June 1997

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[PHOTO/CAPTION: Heather Harmon]

Blind, 88, and On the Rocks

by Heather Harmon

From the Editor: If one convention speaker could have been said to steal the show at the 1996 NFB Convention, it was Heather Harmon. She charmed her audience on Thursday afternoon, July 3, with her lively personality and unassuming sense of humor. Having lived a life filled with travel and intellectual stimulation, she thought her life had virtually ended with her sudden blindness at the age of eighty-six. Characteristically for her, she decided to start reading about what had happened to her, and in doing so, she discovered the National Federation of the Blind. The rest is the story she told that afternoon. Here it is:

There is always a question about where to begin a story--because my story is true. But one must set
parameters. Alice, when she went to Wonderland, learned the answer from the walrus. He said to her, "Alice, do you have a story?"

She said, "Of course, I have a story."

"Well tell it."

"The problem is where to begin," She said.

The walrus said, "Well you begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end, you stop." So I'm going to set parameters. We're going to begin the day I became blind. That was two years ago, very rapidly, unexpected too. And we're going to stop as of today.

When I became blind, I immediately cast around for something to do. One must have a career of some kind. I couldn't find anything. The car was gone from the garage; I couldn't get a license to drive it. I couldn't work in the garden because I couldn't tell a flower from a weed. I could not read the piano scores. I could not read the organ scores. What about Shakespeare? What about the opera? I had a house full of books, and I couldn't read them. What to do? I couldn't even go for a walk, because I was timid about crossing the street. I thought, "I'm going to end up an unidentifiable mass of bones and blood." So I didn't know what to do.

My friends were still my friends. They were the same people, but after a while, when they also realized that my condition was irreversible, they thought they should step in--invade my privacy--and tell me what to do. They did preposterous stuff. We've all been through this haven't we? Preposterous! Then, when we don't do what they want, what do they do? They pity us. Well, I thought this sort of thing was too insidious. It was creeping up on me. I was becoming very dependent, not capable of doing a single thing, so I thought, I must take matters into my own hands. I called my travel agent. I said, "I understand you are planning a trip to Fez. I want to go."

"Oh," she said, "Wonderful. Wait a minute; I'll punch you into the computer." She did. She said, "Any changes over there, the same thing?"

I said, "Exactly the same--Oh, except that I'm blind."

She said, "In that case you can't go. It would be impossible."

Now, to quote Shakespeare--and Shakespeare has a quote for everything--My life was "at sixes and sevens." It was finished. One of the things I enjoyed was the cassettes from the Library of Congress. I had requested a report of a multi-national meeting in 1993 of blind organizations in Toronto. It was a long report, very interesting. (I didn't know this sort of thing was going on. The countries on this planet are getting together to help us. I didn't know that was happening. It was very exciting.)

Before the tape was over, there was another thing that really intrigued me. It was a story about a little boy who was blind, and he was put in the blind school. Now I knew all about this because in Canada as children we had studied Charles Dickens, and we knew these places. We knew that children ate from trestle tables. They ate out of wooden bowls with wooden spoons. Poor Kenneth. We knew all about that. Well, I just loved the story. It was sad, but there was a lot of humor in it too. At the end of the tape there was a name and an address. I wrote to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. [applause] I thought, what a beautiful life. If that Kenneth is this little Kenneth, he is making a beautiful life. We can be proud of him and are grateful to him.

I wrote the letter, and a few weeks later I had a telephone call. The caller identified herself as Pat Maurer. She said she was from the Federation. I said that I was so glad she had called because I would like to know about your Federation. Well, she said that she would like to send me some information, and she did. One of the things she sent to me was a Kernel Book. I read it. It was beautiful. It was the Kernel Book that did it. I called her back. I said, "Pat, this is fascinating. I did not know all this was going on."

She said, "What are you going to do?"

I said, "Well I thought I might get a modem so I could talk with the outside world."

She said, "Why don't you come down to see us? Our Mr. Ring has a room full of computers. He will help you." I thought that sounded great, so I said I'd do it. Then she said as an afterthought, "Come down for the Washington Seminar."

I said, "Great, I'll do that." So I did. That's another story. We're not going to touch on that one.

At the end of the last day of the seminar, we were rather late getting back to Baltimore. We were standing in the reception area, where the telephone switchboard is. I had just gotten my cane. Lorraine Rovig was standing there looking at me. I sensed that she was rather critical of me, but I didn't know what she was criticizing. I didn't ask her. Just then Scott LaBarre came in. He is our resident attorney. He had been with his peers all day long--and you know how tiring that can be! Lorraine said, "Scott, show Heather how to manage her cane. She doesn't know how." With all the graciousness in the world, as tired as he was, he instructed me. He hung in with it until he was sure that I knew how to manage it--very, very gracious.

Then Mrs. Thompson--Mrs. Thompson and I liked each other so much we thought we'd get related to each other, so I'm her grandmother. She's started something because all the children at the Center in Denver are now my grandchildren.

The next morning Pat said, "Let's talk." I said that I had five questions. The first four we settled easily. We both agreed on our answers. But the fifth one was about blindness skills. I didn't even know that term; I had never heard it. So we talked a little while, and she said, "Let's go across the hall." So we went across the hall and saw Marc, who happens to be her husband and our president. He talked for a little while. Then he picked up the phone and talked with someone he called Home--the author of the epics, you know. Well, after a while Marc said to me, "Pick up that phone over there. Homer will talk with you."

So I picked up the phone and I said, "Yes, Homer."

He said, "Yes, Heather, we have quarters for you if you can get here right away."

I said, "I'll do that." So I was there. I got there in time for a belated Valentine's Day party. The love in that place--the place was filled with so much love! It was palpable; you could feel it.

A few days later we had some very nice guests. Mary Ellen Jernigan came and Priscilla Hudson. We had a lovely conversation. One of the things that Mary Ellen mentioned to me was Walking Alone and Marching Together. I said that I didn't know anything about the book but that I would like to. So a few days later in the mail I got a package. You can guess what it was.

The teachings at the Center in Denver are on several levels. The student takes all the levels necessary to meet his or her needs. The first level, as I figured it out, is the level of cane travel. That's very important. We are taught to use our ears instead of our eyes. Then we come inside, and we are taught Braille. We learn to use the ends of our fingers instead of our eyes. We go to the talking computer, and it's much the same thing. That is one level. These are the compensatory skills. Compensation, that is a good word, an important idea.

Then there is another level of teaching at the Center. (The Center is very new, you know.) Diane McGeorge is there to help us. She intuitively knows what the students need to make progress. She knows what we need, and she is capable of giving it to us. She gives it to us without our even asking.
That is another level of teaching--teaching the art of living. If you want to change the "l" in that word to a "g" that makes it giving, and that's what she does. Without saying a word, she teaches us the art of living and the art of giving.

There is yet another level of teaching, and that is something I discovered from a book its author titled Transcendence. The author is the second director of the Colorado Center. Diane was the first director. I like that word--transcendence. I like the prefix t-r-a-n-s. It suits well this age we are living in, the age of quantum physics. The author is Dr. Homer Page. I marvel at the great economy of words in his book. The search he must have made for words of great meaning makes me think of Abraham Lincoln and Gettysburg. Every word in that book means something. I've gotten permission to quote loosely from this book. It is just a few lines, but they bear thinking about. "My blindness is a great source of strength. I love more. I give more freely. I receive more graciously. My blindness is a source of great strength." Those are the words.

From those words we learn the art of living with ourselves. So you see in the beginning we master these compensatory skills. Then Diane comes along and teaches us the art of living. Finally we find the art of living with ourselves, knowing ourselves better. All this insight and experience came out of a Kernel Book. Would you believe it?

We're coming to the end of this story, and there is just one thing more. You remember the walrus? He said, "When you come to the end of the story, you stop." So I'm going to stop.