Future Reflections Summer 1991

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by Ramona Walhof

Editor's Note: Ramona Walhof is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. The following article appeared in the Spring/Summer, 1989, Gem State Milestones, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho, and was later reprinted in the Braille Monitor.

For the past several days I have been in Spokane interviewing for a new office manager for our Community Outreach office. Yesterday I talked with an absolutely delightful gentleman, who began by stuttering and stammering about blindness. I did my best to put him at ease. One thing he told me was that he had seen an area for the blind in a city park. It had special Braille signs. Gently I suggested that it is hard for blind people to find the Braille signs which are scattered in parks. He assured me that there was a rope to follow from sign to sign. I did not (since I was considering the man for a job) philosophize with him about how that had affected his attitude, but I wonder how many sighted people visit that park and learn just a little more to limit their expectations of blind people. And I wonder how few blind people visit that park and enjoy the Braille trail. The rope, of course, is not a solution. It exaggerates the problem-and it is right there in Spokane today.

That experience reminded me that I had promised Mary Ellen Halverson that I would write about Moore's Mountain and the trail for the blind established by the Department of Forestry (a different kind of trail), so here it is.

One of my first experiences with nature trails for the blind occurred in 1966 in London. I was spending a summer in Europe as part of my studies for a degree in foreign languages, and while I was in England, a friend invited me to go to a famous British park to see a Braille trail. She was proud of it, and I went with her partly out of politeness. I appreciated the interest someone had in the blind in constructing such a trail, but I found what my friend had to say much more interesting and complete than the limited information on the Braille signs. In the United States I have found the same thing to be true. Where there are special trails or areas for the blind in museums, blind persons are often not encouraged to visit the rest of the grounds or facility. Sometimes we are forbidden. Directors and curators feel pride in special adaptations for the blind and often call attention to them for the wrong reasons and in very demeaning ways, implying (even if it is seldom said) that blind persons cannot appreciate museums and nature without adaptations, which reflect negatively on public attitudes and job opportunities for blind people.

Although ropes and Braille signs may not be the best way to help blind persons enjoy nature and museums, often we may wish to use different methods of "looking" from those employed by sighted visitors. I well remember visiting a place called Living History Farms near Des Moines, Iowa, where I took my children when they were quite small. There were live animals and old machinery to show how farming was done in 1920, 1880, and 1840. I took advantage of the opportunity to look (with my hands) at steers, which were being used and cared for as oxen. They were huge and interesting. I also enjoyed looking at old machinery, hands-on. My kids enjoyed different things (such as pumping water from the well), and they also had a good time. The whole place was accessible and enjoyable to me as well as to thousands of others.

When I was working at NFB headquarters in Baltimore, I was contacted about such matters. One call came from Judy Taylor (now Judy Jones of Twin Falls, Idaho). She was then working in Florida for a museum, and she had been requested as a blind staff member to help make a certain area enjoyable for the blind. I think she said they were considering a Braille trail. She had some misgivings but wanted to do what was good for the blind and the museum. If my memory is accurate, she came up with some adaptations which were useful to the blind without changing the character of the area and took the occasion to insure that blind people would be encouraged to visit the entire museum and grounds. We understand that some items in museums are (because of age or other conditions) fragile and should not be handled, but many do not need this protection. Recorded commentaries in art galleries are often as interesting and informative for the blind as for the sighted. Some tour guides give excellent descriptions, which are appreciated by blind visitors. Accessibility for the blind may consist of a variety of different approaches, most of which are not exclusively for the blind.

A year or more ago Jan Gawith of the Western Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho was contacted by staff members of the Forestry Department, which had some money to make a trail on Moore's Mountain accessible to the blind. Fortunately they asked us what to do. Jan and other members of the NFB came up with some suggestions. A tape would be made to carry on the trail, along with a portable tape player, which would be available to borrow at the beginning of the trail. Instead of a rope or hand rail, there would be a rough wood border six or eight inches high along the right-hand edge of the trail, which could be followed with a white cane. The wood would look good since it would be taken from the area and fit into the terrain. This is truly a mountain trail, 5,000 or 6,000 feet high, north of Boise above the Bogus Basin ski area. The trail was nearly finished last fall, and several members of the Western Chapter of the NFB of Idaho went up and walked along it one Saturday in October. I regret to say that I was out of town that day and did not get to go, but I am looking forward to an opportunity to do it. Our members are quite happy with the way it turned out, and so is the Forestry Department.

On April 14, 1989, there was a meeting at Boise State University to discuss "making the forest accessible to the handicapped." Our member, Dana Ard, who attended the meeting, was pleased with the tone of the discussion. The goal of the group is to make it possible for the handicapped, including those in wheelchairs, to go into the forest to camp and relax with friends and family. That would require leveling, widening, and paving some walkways. Currently most campgrounds could not accommodate a person in a wheelchair.

At the April 14 meeting there seemed to be a good understanding that all handicapped people do not require the same adaptations as those needed by individuals in wheelchairs. Dana felt good about the meeting. A few days later there was a news report on KBOI radio, and obviously the reporter (who had not been at the meeting) did not understand. Her news story indicated that the blind probably could not go into the forest without these proposed accommodations. It is safe to assume that more people heard the news story than attended the meeting, so we have some work to do with the reporter and KBOI.

It is fair to say that some adaptations are useful to the blind. I think of computers, for example. If a person needs to get information out of a computer once a week and a sighted secretary is using the computer frequently, it doesn't make sense to install speech or Braille output. Having the secretary provide the data would be better. On the other hand, when a blind person is using the computer regularly and often, speech or Braille output is the sensible way to go. Perhaps the situation is not exactly the same with nature trails-but I wonder.

A few years ago I went backpacking and camping with my teen-agers and one of their friends in an area near Red Fish Lake. We had planned to take a six-mile hike up the mountain to a small lake, camp overnight, and come back down the next day. I was not prepared for what I found. I was carrying a forty-pound backpack; was wearing tennis shoes instead of hiking boots; and was somewhat overweight, inexperienced, and physically out of shape-and in addition, the trail was six or eight inches wide. On the left was a drop-off toward a large creek or river. On the right was a steep mountain going up. The trail was rough, crooked, rocky, and beautiful. We were 7,000 feet above sea level. The air was thin, and the sun was hot. I was with three sighted teen-agers, and blindness was not an asset. We traveled about two miles along that trail, and for me it was slow and painstaking. I appreciated the assistance of my daughter, who went at my pace just in front of me while the other two covered far more territory on ahead. After two miles of mixed enjoyment and toil, I decided to turn back, to the disappointment of three kids-and, incidentally, me. That decision was not made simply because of blindness, but blindness was one factor in my ability to negotiate that trail. Along with my inexperience, blindness helped to slow me down. We camped at the bottom of the trail instead of the top.

I expect to find the trail on Moore's Mountain more pleasant. It is wider, and the guiding border along the edge will make it easier to follow. It is truly a mountain trailþwith all of the rocks, plants, animals, insects, dramatic views, and general atmosphere which cannot be found anywhere else.

However, I certainly would not want to be barred from doing backpacking with my kids at Red Fish. Blind persons must insist on their right to be included in all areas, not just certain ones that have special modifications.

Like the sighted, the blind must have the right to make decisions, attempt difficult feats-and, yes, take risks. We must insist on the freedom to reach for more than we can grasp, try when we may not succeed, and learn for ourselves-with no more interference than the sighted experience. That is the very essence of learning, growing, and indeed a full life. How many sighted mountain climbers would ever have reached the peaks if they had been judged by the standards which society has traditionally imposed on the blind? I wonder how many of those who have been reading this article have already said (either to themselves or others), þWell, naturally she couldn't successfully compete on the trail at Red Fish. No blind person could do it. Moreover, this torpedoes her whole NFB philosophy of independence and competitiveness."

Those who have had such thoughts should read again and think again. They have not understood. Let them read on. There are blind people in Idaho who go backpacking regularly and are far more skilled at it than I. There is no question that experience and equipment make anyone far more successful, so I say that there is room for a variety of approaches.

Speaking of experience, consider the conditioning and opportunities which have traditionally been available to the average blind childþor, for that matter, the average blind adult. My son Chris (sighted) first went backpacking with the Boy Scouts. He has become good at it and has the necessary equipment and confidence. At a young age he learned to enjoy and respect the wilderness and be quite self-sufficient. My daughter Laura (also sighted) went backpacking with a junior high church group for a week and also learned to enjoy the wilderness.

I wonder how many blind children have had these kinds of opportunities, or are having them today, or will have them tomorrow. In our state the Lions and the school for the blind sponsor an annual winter camp for blind teen-agers. Blind kids from throughout the entire state go there and, I gather, have a good time. And they accomplish at least two things: First, they get to know each other. Most have no contact with other blind people in their communities. Second, they get some good outdoor experience, which may be rare for some of them. But I wonder how many of those teen-agers would (even by those who applaud their going to the special camp) be encouraged to go camping in the wilderness with scouts or church groups.

To a large degree, wilderness opportunities for blind children and adults will depend on what you and I as members of the National Federation of the Blind do. Working with the forestry department on Moore's Mountain is part of it, and educating news commentators is another. Meeting with other groups of handicapped people who wish to make the forest accessible is still another. Being vigilant about attitudes and living active positive lives will do even more. That is what the NFB is all about. We talk to civic and school groups, sell cookbooks, work on legislation, try to educate the airlines, and build better training and employment opportunities for the blind. And we work to see that opportunities are available for the blind in parks, museums, and the wilderness. It is all part of what we are and what we do.

More and more people are coming to Idaho to go camping and backpacking. Wilderness backpacking trails are challenging and scenic, and Idaho provides many unique and interesting experiences. I myself have climbed down rocky and steep slopes to wade in Indian bathtubs, hiked a very easy trail through the Birds of Prey Reserve, walked and crawled in and out of caves at the Craters of the Moon, and climbed the sand dunes at Bruno. There are other places I have visited or still wish to see in Idaho, and I am sure that many other blind people in this state have done likewise. I am equally sure that many blind people have been cautioned, discouraged, and prevented.

So while our chapter discussed the trail at Moore's Mountain, I reflected and meditated. When I can find the time, I am going hiking at Moore's Mountain-and I may have another try at the trail at Red Fish Lake.

Postscript: The following item about Moore's Mountain appeared in the Fall, 1990, issue of the Gem State Milestones.


On Saturday, July 14, Western Chapter members and friends headed for Moore's Mountain. As you may recall, the Forest Service has worked with the Western Chapter in establishing trails around Moore's Mountain. We were very pleased the Forest Service came to us for input regarding any special needs we as blind people might have for hiking along the trail. In general, we know that blind people can go hiking and camping anywhere they like with no problem. However, the Moore's Mountain trail has a couple of minor accommodations that make for a pleasant and leisurely stroll around the mountain top. A five- or six-inch high "kick board" has been set along the right hand side of the trail so that our canes can easily find it. It is unobtrusive and natural looking. The Forest Service will also be producing a tape which will describe sites of interest along the way. The texture of the kick board will change as one approaches one of these sites.

Best of all, the trail is natural, complete with stinging nettle, horsemint, big granite rocks within one's reach, and fields. If you prefer a more rugged hike, Idaho has many beautiful forests and wilderness areas to offer!

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