Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1998, Vol. 17 No. 1


Learning What it Means to be Blind
by Nicole Delfert

Reprinted from the 1995 issues of the Blind Missourian, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri. The original article was published in two installments.

Editor's Note: One of the myths the public often holds about blindness is that somehow, it is easier if one is born blind (or becomes blind as a child) as opposed to losing vision later in life. They apply the "ignorance is bliss" theory—how can you miss what you never had? Parents of very young blind children may find comfort in this myth for a time, but it's not helpful over the long haul. A healthy adjustment to blindness has little to do with when or how one loses vision, it's about something else entirely—it's about coming to grips with societys' attitudes about blindness. Nicole Delfert describes how, after a childhood of denial and avoidance, she finally, as a young adult, grappled with "learning what it means to be blind." Here is how she tells it:

The evening of February 13, 1992, turned into the morning of the 14th, and I was still searching through my collection of cassette tapes, looking for something to read. After several minutes, I finally settled on the December, 1991, issue of the Braille Monitor. Not that I thought the Monitor was particularly entertaining. To the contrary, because I was having trouble sleeping, I figured it would be sure to put me to sleep within minutes.

I had been receiving the Monitor for some time but had read only one article. All I knew was that the philosophy of the Monitor and the National Federation of the Blind seemed directly opposite to my own feelings about blindness. My idea, in a nutshell, was "I wouldn't be caught dead with a cane." It had always been important to me not to look blind in any way. I didn't leave my home without the assistance of a sighted guide. I went out with friends shopping, and to movies, to church, to get my hair and nails done, I even went to broadcasting school for a year and to college for several years. It never occurred to me that I was missing out on anything.

Most of that December, 1991, issue, which would start a chain of events that would inevitably change my life, covered the picketing of ABC-TV and other efforts to take off the air the sitcom "Good and Evil." Many Federationists everywhere were battling to get the show off the air because it portrayed a blind character as an incompetent, bumbling idiot. Having been offended at such media stereotypes myself, I was impressed with the persistence of the Federation.

During the next few months, I found myself waiting for the next issue of the Braille Monitor. As one might expect, some of the articles dealing with the long white cane evoked anger and even what was really long-suppressed hurt. I remembered the close friends and family members who had told me that I wasn't accepting my own blindness. My response had always been, "Of course I accept my blindness. I'm blind. That's obvious. I just don't particularly like to advertise it." Reading the Monitor, I was just beginning to see that I had been saying "I know that I'm blind but I would rather pretend I am sighted."

I spent many of the months of 1992 floundering, wondering what to do with my life. I was twenty-three years old and still living with my parents. Many times I had talked about moving out but had never done it. I filled up my time with some volunteer work. I didn't really want to go back to school, so I promised my mother I would find some employment. As the months went by, I found myself increasingly unmotivated to do much of anything. This was partly because I didn't have a clue about what I wanted to do. But the truth of the matter was that I didn't know how I could get to work every day. I knew I couldn't always rely on someone else, and I certainly could not take the bus. I'd have to use a cane if I rode the bus. Besides, other than a bunch of blind people, I heard that only "weirdos" rode buses.

A cane had been forced upon me in junior high and high school, supposedly for my safety as well as the safety of other students. I'll never forget my very first day of junior high. The principal took me out of my third period class to tell me, in a very degrading way, that I had to carry a cane on campus at all times or would not be allowed to attend "his school." From that time on, for at least the first half of the school year, there was either an office worker or some hot-shot member of the student body who would yell "Use your cane!" as I passed by. That did more to turn me off than anything else. After all, no other student was harassed like that. Being so singled out was as bad as being made fun of. All the anger from those memories had a long-lasting effect on my life. After graduation day, my folding cane, which came up to my chest, was folded and put in a closet never to be touched again.

I knew no good blind role models. No one could quite convince me that blindness was just another trait, not a deformation of my character. "Looking blind" became a stigma. It seemed so degrading that I would even have passed up a good job if it meant having to use a cane on the work site.

But as September turned into October I began to wonder if lowering myself to looking blind might be less degrading than my current situation. In mid-September I had grasped the first opportunity for employment that opened up, a phone soliciting job with a local newspaper. Phone sales were never something I liked to do. But the ad had read "no experience necessary," and the boss let me sell from home to spare me the trouble of having to come in to work. Unfortunately, I soon found out that I disliked the work and was not motivated to make the sales. I quit after two weeks.

My next step was to contact Norm Peters, the acting president of the San Diego chapter of the NFB. I figured he might have some suggestions or employment leads. He did. He first suggested I contact Job Opportunities for the Blind. Then he invited me to the next chapter meeting. I told him I would go if I could get there. I then made very clear my feelings about public transportation and using a long white cane. If he started hassling me, I figured it was best to hear it on the phone so I wouldn't waste my time on his meeting. The last thing I was ready to deal with was somebody telling me to "use my cane." To my surprise he just asked me how I got around. Rides with friends, I told him, and taxi cabs. I didn't tell him that I considered taking a cab by myself a great act of independence. And he began talking about a training center in Colorado where they taught cane travel, daily living skills, Braille, and even skiing and rock climbing. Of course I already knew Braille and wouldn't consider a cane, but I had been skiing once years ago and had even won a trophy for racing in a blind skiing competition. Even the rock climbing sounded pretty interesting.

The following Friday, I got in the mail a book entitled Holding on to Heaven with Hell on Your Back. I thought that perfectly fit the story of my life. It was written by Sheila Walsh, whom I had seen on the 700 Club; some of it was autobiographical and some told stories of others she had interviewed which particularly touched her.

One story touched me in an important way. This was the story of a woman who lost her sight. She prayed for healing, but she also prayed if she were to be blind, that her blindness not be in vain. She earned a college degree, married, had a child. And one night during prayer, she was miraculously healed.

Obviously, that doesn't happen every day. In fact, I knew the chances of it happening to me were almost zero, although I never put anything past God. But what about the second part of the prayer? I was going nowhere fast, either for God or for myself. I confessed that I knew I would have to get some kind of training because I didn't have many of the skills of blindness that would help much in the world of work or whatever else God had planned for my life. During that time of prayer, He gave me the answer to my prayer. That answer was the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). Exactly three months to that very day, I became a student there.

My first day at the CCB is not one I'll soon forget. There were several surprises in store for me. I knew that the long white cane I would be carrying would be much longer than any cane I had ever carried and was not collapsible. The only cane I had seen like that was big and bulky. But these long straight canes I had heard so much about were light. Now that my cane reached up to my nose I was able to walk faster and with more confidence, knowing that I had plenty of cane to cover me. My second surprise of the day was not such a pleasant one. Trina Boyd informed me that she would not be accompanying me on the bus trip home. Several of the students would be with me. At first I took it personally, wondering if she had something against me. Then what she was saying hit home hard. Two blind people were going to walk with me to the place I'd call home! We'd never make it! We'd all get hit by cars or something! Since I myself had never crossed an intersection independently, I couldn't imagine that any other blind person had. Needless to say, none of my fears came to pass. Trina had put me with two extremely competent travellers. I never will forget those streets I crossed, panicking every step of the way, with my sightless guides. That kind of anxiety persisted for several weeks of the next seven-and-one-half months.

But after some time, as I watched other blind staff and students get around competently, I myself began to gain more confidence in travel. I began to do things on my own that are usually taken for granted. I went to the beauty salon to have my hair and nails done. I went shopping and out to lunch. I got the chance to meet my parents at the airport. That was definitely one of the highlights of my stay at the CCB. My parents were visiting for the weekend and were not expecting me to show up to meet them, much less coming independently. My mother had tears in her eyes when she learned that no one had accompanied me there.

Another highlight of the CCB was my first National Convention of the NFB in Dallas. I went wherever I wanted to go that week at my own leisure and enjoyed every minute of doing so. Now I have a confession to make: it was during the very last session of convention, and I was growing a little restless toward the very end. Because a friend of mine was in her room packing to leave, I figured it wouldn't hurt anything if I took off a few minutes early to see her and say good-by. It didn't occur to me that my name might be called for one of the door prizes. As it turned out, it must have been no more than two minutes after I left that it was called. I was a bit chagrined at missing out on that twenty-five dollars. But now, looking back, I believe the independence that I showed by even choosing to leave by myself without fear was worth far more to me than the money.

Several times a week Diane McGeorge held business class. The training center calls it business class because it deals with the business of being blind and is every bit as important, if not more important, than the other classes. In this class I finally began to understand that it was not my blindness that I was ashamed of, but the misinformation and misconceptions about blindness that had been passed on to me over the years. During one business class in particular, I became keenly aware how much I and others around me had bought into those misconceptions. Diane asked everyone around the table to say the first word that came to mind when she said the word "blind." Almost everybody said something negative: "inferior," "stupid." But the most degrading association came from my own mouth "subhuman." What I had really been fighting was society's notion of blindness. The many messages I had received over the years was one message: "We know you're blind so nothing you do will measure up to normal standards." Many of the same people conveying this message were the very ones who wanted me to be independent. No wonder I couldn't be independent. The word was loaded with mixed messages indicating that I could never measure up.

Another means of gaining confidence in myself came through going with Tom Anderson, the Braille instructor, to various schools to educate students about blindness. Tom and I, accompanied by one or two other students, demonstrated reading and writing with Braille and cane travel. And we would also tell students of some of our experiences as blind people.

The final highlight of my stay at the CCB was my completion of the "drop" in travel. I first learned what a "drop" was in my second week at the CCB. But I didn't for a minute think that I'd be able to complete one. A "drop" is exactly what it sounds like. It consists of being driven around by car in any and all directions and then being dropped off at an unknown location and expected to get back with only one question that could be asked. Otherwise, the direction of the sun, traffic patterns and any other discoverable clues are what the student has to use to get back to the Center. It took me between three and four hours to get back. I'll never forget what it felt like when my cane reached the planter in front of the Center. I had thought the task so impossible, and it turned out not to be! At first I thought I was dreaming and really had it still to do. But it wasn't a dream, and after seven months at the Center and by the grace of God, the program was completed.

Now, as I finish this article, the year 1994 is coming to a close. It seems hard to believe that so much time has gone by. Within a month and a half of my return to San Diego I was employed by the San Diego City School District. That job lasted five months. It would have lasted longer, but I chose to marry Eddie Delfert in the family room of my parents' home. Eddie, incidentally, was one of the very competent travellers who walked with me to the apartments on that first day at CCB. We moved to St. Louis in late March. In June we learned that our first child would be born in early February of 1995. In October we closed on our first house. At the present time I am a homemaker.

I believe God has used the CCB in my life. But I still consider myself in training. I will continue that training for the rest of my life. The learning process in anyone's life should never stop.

I don't believe I have to be the perfect blind person. After all, I have yet to meet a perfect sighted person. I have learned that it really doesn't matter if I meet the standards of the NFB, the CCB, or any other organization. It doesn't necessarily matter what the sighted world thinks about what I look like using a cane. When it comes right down to it, it doesn't even matter what I think of what I look like using a cane. To me, it matters what the Lord who created me thinks. I think the most important thing I gained from the Center was the heart-felt understanding that it really is OK to be blind. It is OK not to be able to see, it does not make me "subhuman," and with a little effort whatever I make up my mind to do will measure up to "normal" standards. Perhaps even beyond "normal" standards.