The Man Who Taught Me To Fish

Being disabled means having your competence questioned at every turn. It means accepting that your intelligence, your autonomy, your very worth are always up for debate by those least qualified to make judgments. It means, therefore, that you must be strong, whether or not it comes naturally. Finding this strength, this essential self-reliance, can come about in many ways. For me, one of the fortunate ones, the tools for independence were introduced early and often.

* * *

We kneel together on the thin carpet of my bedroom. My favourite cassette tape, a collection of fairytales, is in my small, tentative hand. Speaking softly, my father explains how to slide the tape into the player—gently, now—and places my fingers on “play.” As the opening music rings out and understanding of my new skill breaks over me, I can only smile widely enough to split my face, thinking dreamily of how delicious growing up can taste. It’s a small step, playing my own audio books, but the joy lingers.

* * *

Each time I learn something new–even something as mundane as, say, the location of straws at the Starbucks near my apartment—I experience a moment of undiluted triumph. Often hesitant and rarely overconfident, I am not the archetype of success some would wish me to be. Instead, I skirt the gaps in my knowledge and abilities with an unthinking ease bolstered by years of practice. While my blind peers pursue adventure and hone new skills for the sake of doing so, I hold my shameful passivity close to my chest, owning what is necessary and burying everything else. Showing weakness, I have learned, is a grievous sin; admitting I’m comfortable with where I am is worse. Even so, when I break this ancient habit and push my boundaries, I feel a thrill that once coloured each day of my childhood, when there was someone there to rejoice along with me. Of course he would still do so, if I called him on the phone and said “Hey, Dad, I learned a new route today.” Surely, my cheerleader is still waiting in the wings, should I ever need him.

* * *

We are traipsing through an amusement park in the sweltering summer heat. I am sulky and bored in that particular way of children. I’ve had my fill of rides and novelty food; I am ready for familiar surroundings and a good book. As I prepare yet another whiny entreaty—let’s return to the car, get a cool drink, pull out the Harry Potter novel I wish I was reading—Dad pulls me aside to examine a life-sized, intricate statue of a cow. It occurs to him that I’ve never touched a real cow before, despite having driven past them a hundred times. As he runs my hands over the statue, describing each part with astounding patience and enthusiasm, I realize I’m feeling just a little less blind.

* * *

The process of spontaneous discovery was a common feature of my childhood years. Seized by inspiration and vicarious wonderment, Dad would pause and encourage me to notice a truck, an earthworm, a bird’s nest. New kittens were placed delicately in my eager hands, and I was free—encouraged, even—to hammer in a few nails and help paint a wall. If it captured my interest, it was mine to touch and try and learn. Assumptions about safety and propriety and ability were seldom made. Mine was a world of discovery, because Dad had no doubts, no reservations, no unreasonable fears.

And so, I had no fears, no doubts, no reservations of my own.

* * *

“I’m just bad at math, okay? I’m stupid, I guess.”

Salty tears stain the Perkins brailler I’m using to hammer out surface area calculations. Slightly flummoxed by all the tears, Dad makes a joke about me rusting the metal brailler if I don’t stop crying. He coaxes a grudging laugh from me, but the levity doesn’t make the work any easier. I have sat before this useless tactile diagram of a cube for literal hours, convinced that I must be less intelligent than fellow students, all of whom had exclaimed that this unit was incredibly simple. I, a star student then, had trouble accepting this reality in which I was in need of help with my homework.

I look up to find Dad placing a wooden cube in my hands.

“I went to the shop and made you some shapes. I think your problem is that you’re not understanding the book’s diagram. I think this will make way more sense for you. You’re not dumb; I know you can understand this. See?”

Sure enough, as he points out each facet of the cube, telling me how they correspond to the ones on the page, something clicks into place. Suddenly, I’m finding surface area as easy as everyone else had, all because someone was able to teach in a way I could grasp.

I am not stupid after all, or terrible at math; I am just blind—blind, and very bad at deciphering diagrams, apparently.

* * *

Blindness has taught me to work more diligently than others. In my slow, steady climb, there is little room for surrender or self-doubt. On this journey, there is no room at all for giving up. When everyone else seems poised to give me an out, to say, “Well, Meagan, you tried your best; you can go home now…” I am compelled to reply in the same way each time: “Never.” The stubbornness and refusal to concede, (the very qualities that justly infuriated my father while I was growing up), are the sources on which I draw for support through each new hurdle.

When voices say, with stolen authority, “Meagan, you’re blind. You will never—“ another voice pipes up, strident even in its secret uncertainty: “Watch me.” Much as Dad must have cursed my inflexibility, I think he has grown to respect its power. He should, for I believe he is the one who gave it to me.


Dad taught me to fish, of course. I’ve been fishing since I was so small that my rod had to be tied to my life jacket. He taught me to cast and jig and reel in even the most unwilling ones. (He also taught me to respect the fish, never causing undue suffering or taking more than my share.)

But, as you may have guessed, he taught me to fish in other, less obvious ways. His unwavering faith in my personal abilities meant I was rarely allowed to think of myself as excessively disabled. I was not permitted to wallow in self-pity or allow anyone else to feel pity, either. Through patience and determination, my father convinced me that I am strong and capable—not constantly, but often enough to succeed. To this day, my dad is the person I think of first when I prove to myself, once again, that blindness doesn’t have to ruin my life or my career or my dreams. Whenever he describes something new or lights a much-needed fire under me, I remember and honour the joy of learning to fish—because at the end of the long, hard day, all I have is me. I have my father, among many others, to thank for making sure I’m a damn good person on which to lean.
So, thank the people who taught you how to fish, and those who remind you that you still know how. You owe them a lot.

Guest Post: Building Bridges

Today, we’re very lucky to have a guest post by Gregg Chambers. As he’ll explain below, he is covering the very thorny issue of mutual understanding. As blind people, we understand that we’ll never know what it is to be sighted. That said, we must also acknowledge that sighted people (even if they close their eyes and bumble around for a bit bashing into things) will never understand what it is to be blind. As I’ve mentioned, this is a profound and thorny issue, and so Gregg brings you his take on the matter (with far more eloquence than I could). I promised I wouldn’t try to speak for all blind people, and I won’t; however, I’m more than happy to let others speak for themselves, and am proud to give them the venue in which to do it. So without further ado, here’s Gregg.

 

 

We often say that “everyone is different”, and what we usually mean is that difference is not something to be feared or persecuted. Misunderstanding is probably the single largest gulf we need to cross, if we can, and in that light I’d like to offer some insights that might help us narrow the gaps in our understanding of one another.

 

The very first thing I want to do is to clear up one particular misconception. These bridges, as it were, rarely cover their intended distance entirely. There is always a little space across which you must leap or, more often, be carried.

 

Misconception 1: The blind and the sighted can understand one another’s worlds completely if they try hard enough

 

No, they can’t. They can try very very hard, and it will never form a complete picture. We must rely on others to carry us across the gaps we cannot bridge on our own.

 

Having been born without my sense of sight, I will never fully understand what it is like to see unless there comes a time where that sense is somehow given to me. If I listen to what people tell me instead of hearing what I expect to hear, if I absorb information and do my best not to make assumptions, I can learn a great deal, but full understanding will forever be beyond my grasp. If you are reading this with a pair of functioning eyes, then you are in the reverse position. You will never know in full detail what it is like to live in a world without light, without shadow, without colour. You will never know on a gut level what it means not to view almost all of your environment visually. All of this is completely okay, because no two people share precisely the same view of the world. Problems arise only when one person presumes to know more about someone else’s situation, either deliberately or without realizing it.

 

Sight is a very resource-heavy sense. If you have it, then most of your experience contains visual elements. If you don’t have it, then you are largely ignorant of those elements. Restoring someone’s sense of sight after they had been blind since birth would be a traumatic, bewildering experience. Robbing a person of their vision would be devastating in its own right. Such drastic changes lead quite naturally to most people pondering how they would cope if they suddenly found themselves blind and, owing to how much they depend on sight, these thoughts usually tend toward how difficult everything would suddenly become. This makes sense, and no one should be blamed for being afraid of a world they do not know and do not yet understand.

 

Misconception 2: All blind people are struggling mightily just to perform everyday tasks

 

No, we aren’t. While many of us do have trouble with certain aspects of daily life, most of us figure things out rather quickly. We do it because we have to, and mostly we don’t even think about it.

 

While blindness might seem foreign and scary to you, it is nothing more than another facet of life for us. We might be anxious in certain situations, particularly if we’ve never encountered them before, but we are not afraid of being blind, any more than you are afraid of having sight. No matter how daunting the prospect of sightlessness is for you, it is very important that you not assume that we view the world the same way. You must remember that for us, blindness is normal, and not frightening at all. Accepting that we can perceive the same thing from different angles is the first step in the right direction.

 

Misconception 3: Being blind would make life virtually unlivable

 

No, it really doesn’t. Life can be annoying, frustrating, exhausting and sometimes nerve-wracking, but most blind people lead full and happy lives.

 

If you are a sighted person who is terrified by the idea of going blind, and you continue to insist that all blind people must be living a nightmare existence, you are letting your fear trump our experience. Let us show you that our world isn’t as bad as it looks, and while we may never be able to convince you that sightlessness isn’t scary, we may be able to show you how we get along from day to day. If you can’t do this, then whether you intend it or not, you will continue to quietly assert that your view of blindness matters most, and doing so has potentially awful consequences.

 

Misconception 4: These fears and assumptions can’t hurt anyone

 

Yes, they can. They can and they do. Just because they aren’t hurting you doesn’t mean they aren’t harming someone else.

 

Blind people are largely very normal. We wish to be needed, to be loved, to be respected, to carve out our own little niche in life and to be happy there. We don’t wish to be made into something we’re not. As soon as you start behaving in a way that limits or glorifies what a blind person does because they can’t see (barring the more obvious things like stopping a blind child from trying to drive a car, for instance), you’re putting your opinion of blindness above everything else, including the person in question. We’re generally perceptive enough to catch this when it happens, and it hurts. It can make us think that someone’s view of us is polarized by something we can’t help or change. It can also cause us to wonder just how much we’re being perceived as people rather than as inconveniences, necessities and complications. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: let us tell you and show you what we can and can’t do.

 

Misconception 5: Blindness is hard, so it’s amazing when blind people do common tasks

 

No, it’s not. Some blind people have done some pretty incredible things, but by and large, the things we do are pretty unremarkable. We eat, dress, shop, go to school, go to work, travel abroad, maintain social lives, make love and raise families just like the rest of the world.

 

While most everyone likes honest praise for a hard job well done or a little encouragement when things are tough, we probably won’t react favourably if you make a habit of blowing our everyday accomplishments out of proportion and giving us praise we neither want nor deserve. Some of us find it condescending, because there is an assumption buried in every bit of unmerited praise: “I couldn’t have done this, so if I couldn’t do it, then you must have had a hard time.. What’s worse is that this sort of behaviour isn’t present when dealing only with sighted people, so the focus is clearly on the sighted person’s perception of blindness as an unbreakable obstacle rather than on the abilities of the specific blind person. We can’t represent ourselves if you force your opinion of blindness to represent us.

 

Misconception 6: Blindness is hard, so I should give blind people a break wherever possible

 

No, you shouldn’t. We largely don’t want a free lunch, and we’re often just as capable of helping out as anyone else. Let us prove it.

 

If, instead of giving too much praise, you want to make our lives easier by letting us dodge things that you presume will be too much effort or will present too much danger, please bear in mind one thing. Although it is wisest to understand someone’s abilities before setting them a task, you will never know the limitations of blindness as well as a blind person. If you know that your blind friend can cook, and if you know that he can get around his neighbourhood pretty well, then not expecting him to bring food to a family reunion on account of his blindness, particularly if others were expected to do so and if he had asked if he should pitch in, would be an insult. Don’t give us busywork or try to puff us up with a false sense of accomplishment either; instead, try and ignore the blindness outright for a moment and then reconsider the scenario. If a blind person knows they are capable, offers to help and is turned down for no other reason than that someone else believes their blindness will make things too difficult, it can foster feelings of worthlessness and, in some, can compound the issue by making the blind person in question stop trying to offer help. What’s the point in offering to assist if you’re always going to be turned down, after all?

 

If the way I’ve displayed these misconceptions strikes you as obvious to the point of offense, I apologize. They may appear this way because the thoughts which drive them are so simple and direct that they often go unrecognized. I believe that when the above situations do occur, they happen mostly without consideration, and that’s most of the reason I decided to write this post. If I can get one person to stop and think before deferring a task, if I can get one person to ask instead of assuming, then I can safely say that I’ve done something worthwhile.

 

Every one of us has something to learn. There are no exceptions. If all of us can remember this one thing, above all others, then we should be able to bridge the empty spaces in our comprehension of one another. If that happens, the pain caused by ignorance and intolerance will recede, replaced by the curiosity and eagerness of an open mind.