My Very First Rehabilitation Lesson

by Carl Jarvis

Blind or sighted. Male or female. Black, white or any color between. We Americans are all products of the same culture. Who we are is, in great part, shaped by the cultural beliefs about us. We have certain stereotypes that define certain members of our greater society. We do not discard our stereotypes easily because they are the foundation from which we make sense out of our world.

At 30 years of age I became totally blind. Even having been a person of limited vision, I had never allowed myself to think in such terms. I was sighted. I had to be sighted in order to fit into my perception of who I was. Now, at 30 and totally blind, I referred to blind people as "those people." I was not one of them because I did not fit my beliefs of who blind people were.

If I were to be rehabilitated as a blind man, I had to learn far more about blindness than how to wave a stick in front of me, or how to run my fingers over bumps, or how to flip a burger on a hot grill, or how to run a board through a table saw. I had to unlearn all that my culture had taught me about who we blind people are.

My greatest single step on the road to rehabilitation came not through hours of walking with an O&M instructor, or days of drilling braille, or making a chess board in shop, or making a Denver omelet. It was that day, early in my new world of blindness, when Harry Trabaugh, a totally blind rehab teacher, appeared at my door. I was shocked to open the door and find Harry standing there all alone after he'd taken a bus across Seattle to reach my house.

I explained to Harry that I was unable to do any of the things that were important to me. Certainly I would never work again. I was afraid that as time went on I would begin to "look blind." This meant to me that I would begin to look like an idiot, since that was my innermost unspoken image of blind people.

But I also told Harry that I loved to run. I would never be able to run again. Harry, a short, wiry man, jumped to his feet, grabbed his cane and told me to take his arm. We went out the door, across the front yard and down into the middle of the street. Harry turned to the east and said, "Here we go." With that, he took off at a dead run with me clinging to his arm like a frightened rabbit. After about half a block Harry stopped dead in his tracks, looked up at me and asked, "Just how much faster do you want to go?"

And so began a new picture, a different stereotype, inside my brain. As I went through the Orientation and Training Center, this little rehab lesson grew and flourished and bloomed into the person I now am.

Was there risk in doing what Harry did, running wildly down the middle of the street? You bet! But so was the fact that he, a totally blind man, jumped on a bus in the south end of Seattle and traveled the length of that city, crossed a very busy highway and came to my door. Living life is a risk. But if we lay all our fears at the door of blindness it tells me that we are not overcoming our cultural fears about who we are.