Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Words Define and Guide Us Revision

Words Define and Guide Us

"I, personally, prefer to use the word "sight" rather than "vision" because one can possess much vision with no sight; while the converse results in sighted people who are by no stretch of the imagination, visionaries. Blindness, to whatever degree, is simply the absence of sight; vision is quite another matter."
- Chet Smalley, Blindness and mobility specialist, Erie, PA.

A few days ago, I was asked to participate in a survey by a doctoral student at Louisiana Tech University because my mobility specialist thought that I could contribute positively to this research. I was reminded of how far I had come from that covert, secretly-out- of-my-element, ha-ha, sorry-so-clumsy- today young woman. Few knew then that I had struggled for many years with Retitinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease robbing me of my sight. Today - one year later to the day from my first training experience - I use a cane, smile a lot and can speak openly about my RP. As a high school teacher, I set out not only to teach English but also to model self-confidence and independence.

Chet, the mobility specialist assigned to teach me the basics of cane use to give me more confidence and have less accidents getting around, alerts me to language in my speech that he believes holds me back from becoming the best I can be. He said, "You, for example, Amy, still think of your blindness as a condition rather than one of your many characteristics.” I had told Chet about my desire to befriend a young woman who had RP. I felt she was avoiding meeting me, and concluded that it was probably a little frightening for her to think of meeting another person with vision problems.

Chet's response was quick, "Listen to your language: you are using: the words "vision" and "problems” in the same breath. That’s deficit language. Blind can also be construed as a deficit word until one becomes acquainted with blind people who are productive, happy and well-adjusted to their blindness. Blind people by the thousands are demonstrating that the world need not be interacted with just by way of sight."

That’s true. I’m discovering that I can get around better when I apply my non-visual techniques to walking. I bump into fewer objects, trip over stairs less and what’s even better, people don’t get angry when I do make mistakes because they see my cane. But I tend to use my cane at work, at night and in supermarkets and theaters when I have more difficulty. Does that then make it a condition in my eyes?

My instructor went on to say that when we look at blindness as a characteristic instead of a disability, blindness can become just one component of an otherwise fulfilled person. I realized that although I had made progress on this continuum of accepting myself as blind, I still had a journey before I would be comfortable thinking of blindness as simply another characteristic of myself. I wonder how one gets to that point?

Chet believes it is through immersion cane training and exposure to positive role models that enables one to truly adjust. There are a number of places across the US where one can live and learn the skills necessary for coping with blindness. They are “immersed” in cane training, which means candidates receive in-depth ongoing and regular daily training with their cane that makes using a cane second nature. In a day that consists of learning meal preparation, alternative means of accomplishing tasks and computer instruction, cane training is a priority.

He points out that adjustment to blindness means living the life to which one is hoping to adjust, and living should not be accepting less of what one desires. If using my cane becomes so second nature that I do see my blindness simply as another characteristic and not the defining characteristic of myself, will I have arrived at the understanding he envisions for me?

It is this question I grapple with now. If I intend to positively impact the lives of a different set of students, for example, ones who are also blind, then I must be certain that I have the best understanding of who I am with my unique capabilities and characteristics. This identity Chet describes has to come from within myself. It's not something I can put on or take off at random. The question returns: how do I reduce a condition to simply one of my many characteristics?

As always, God provides me with the answer. In the book of Colossians, Paul exhorts his Christian brethren, "We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” (Col 1:9) This tells me that we have brothers and sisters who pray for us. God tells us to ask for wisdom, and assures that He will provide. Whether God provides wisdom through training or through our identity in Christ, we trust and move forward in that understanding.

If I choose to walk by my defining characteristic, my love for Him, then He will make everything clear in His perfect timing. As I grow and adjust to this continuum of blindness God has allowed me to go through, He will place markers along the way to guide me. I believe Chet's attention to my deficit language is such a marker.

Paul goes on to say, "And we pray this [wisdom and understanding] in order that you might live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God..."(Col 1:10).

When I first became a teacher, I doubted my skills and abilities yet God put me in situations where my talents bloomed. In fact, He not only shouldered my fears and developed my talents, He brought me to many peaks in my professional life.. As a result, I have become an even better teacher than I dreamed I could be. I have influenced many students both here and abroad. This has placed me in a beautiful position to share God’s love in more than thirty-three countries! I believe the fruits of my labor will extend to blind students as well. I know that every experience we go through prepares us to serve in bigger capacities and it is with that knowledge that I set myself to have my blindness become only a characteristic and not a condition.

Thank you, Lord that even as my sight diminishes, You continue to magnify my vision.

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