I’ve stood in front of many groups of kids in classrooms or scout meetings for the purpose of talking to them about what it’s like to be blind and educating them about how to help a blind person. I’ve been doing it so long that the kids I talked to when I started out are old enough to be parents and I’m probably doing my dog and pony show to their children now.
My favorite part of these presentations is at the end when I give the students a chance to ask questions. The older the students are, the more interesting their questions. I like the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade age group the best. I’ve fielded such questions as: “Does it hurt to be blind?”, “What if you're blind and can’t hear?”, and even “How do blind people go to the bathroom?”
I treat my opportunities to speak to groups as performances, trying to make them funny and entertaining while being informative. I like to tell jokes and ask that everyone please laugh at them because I will repeat them and they are worse the second time. Like the one about the blind guy who walks into Walmart with a guide dog. He picks the dog up by the tail and swings him around over his head. The store manager approaches and says, “Hey buddy!” “What do you think you're doing with that dog?” The blind guy replies, “Just looking around.”
Oh, I got a million of ‘em. For example, when I tell the kids why most blind folks prefer a white cane to a guide dog because: “I don’t have to take my cane out at 3:00 in the morning to go to the bathroom”, “I don’t have to feed my cane”, I don’t have to give my cane a bath”, and the one that really gets them laughing “I don’t have to clean up after my cane if it throws up all over the floor”.
Even though these types of presentations have always been one of my favorite parts of my job, in recent years I have been wondering if I’m really making a difference. Are these kids learning anything, or do they even care? I always said that if one youngster thought for a minute to put on a pair of protective glasses before using fire crackers or chemicals, then I’ve done my job. But lately I’m not sure. I sometimes find myself complaining about “these darn kids today” and then realize that I sound just like my dad when he would put down my generation.
This all came to a head at an engagement I did last year at an elementary school. I use coins to demonstrate how a blind person can distinguish a penny from a quarter by feeling the size and the edges. I then asked for a volunteer who was to keep his eyes closed for the whole exercise and pretend like he is a blind person at a grocery store. I, the clerk, give him change in the form of paper money. When he is unable to identify what bills I have given him, I show him how you can fold each denomination in different ways so that it can be identified later by its shape. I turn my back on him for a minute to explain something to the rest of the class, and the little punk pockets my money.
But my faith in our youth was restored last week. It all started near the end of the school year when I was invited to talk to a 5th grade class at Spring Forge Elementary in the Northeastern School District.
I like to show the children how easy it is to help a blind person get from place to place by using proper sighted guide technique. But first, I gotta have a little fun. I get a volunteer to come to the front of the classroom and ask them to help me get to the door. The usual response is to give me verbal directions like “turn left” or “walk straight ahead”. I exaggerate what they tell me and intentionally walk right into a nearby desk or chair. This really embarrasses the poor kid.
Oh, but I can’t stop there. The next thing that typically happens is the classmates tell the volunteer to lead me by my hand. And, once again, I act goofy and stumble over something.
By now the poor kid has had enough shame and embarrassment. I then demonstrate the correct way to guide where I, the blind person, hold the volunteer’s arm slightly above the elbow and we walk to the door.
Let’s jump ahead to last week when I was on a mini vacation with my driver and her family. Her 11-year-old son, Aidan, who was a student in the Spring Forge Elementary class offered to guide me to the men’s room. With first-timers who are providing sighted guide in a busy crowded area, a blind person can expect to bump into door frames, signs, people, etc. but that’s ok. To the contrary, as we walked I noticed we were zig zagging through there with ease.
When doing sighted guide and walking through a narrow area, you put your arm that the blind person is holding behind your back. This lets me know that I should walk behind and not beside you so that I don’t side swipe any nearby obstacles.
I soon realized that Aidan was using this trick to navigate through these tight quarters without saying a word. When I asked him about it later he said, “Oh yeah, I remembered that from when you talked to our class. The fact that someone remembered such a small detail from a few months ago affirms that there really are good kids out there and they are paying attention.
When I congratulated Aidan on the good job he did for his first time he said, “Well it was OK, but you knocked over one of those little wet floor signs.” Then he added that he wants his mom’s job when he grows up.