by Larry Johnson
(Reprinted from “The San Antonio Express-News,” July 19, 2014.)
(Editor’s Note: You may contact Larry Johnson via e-mail, [email protected], or visit his web site, www.mexicobytouch.com.)
Being blind since birth, I didn't know that when you're driving a car you have to keep moving the steering wheel left and right just to keep going straight. I didn't know this until I actually got behind the wheel and drove a car with the assistance of a sighted friend. I fulfilled this rather capricious whim on a freeway in Chicago when I was 21. It was an exhilarating experience.
I didn't know that the skin of a dolphin feels like wet plastic until I actually got to hug a dolphin named Napoleon during a Dolphin Encounter experience in Cozumel, Mexico, on a cruise with my wife 12 years ago.
I didn't know that you weren't allowed to touch the hat of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican in Rome until I asked during my recent trip and was smartly told “No.”
The learning process for a blind child or a blind adult flourishes best in an environment where there is opportunity for exposure to new experiences. This requires openness, flexibility and patience. Most of what sighted children learn, they learn first by watching others — everything from throwing a football to jumping rope to threading a needle. They learn by seeing someone else do it first.
Blind children miss out on a whole lot of information and experiences by not seeing things happening around them. Blind individuals learn by doing — the hands-on experience of throwing a football, threading a needle, hugging a dolphin or driving a car. (Well, the latter perhaps not recommended for everyone.)
It may take a little longer, a little more patience and certainly a sincere commitment from the teacher, family member or friend. How can I describe for you the sensation of skiing, if you have never been on a pair of skis? Sensation and feeling are a vital part of the learning experience. The more experiences we are exposed to, the greater is our capacity to understand and relate to the world. The more knowledge and experience we acquire, the greater are our opportunities and choices. And that is what independent living is all about — the right and human privilege to practice self-determination, to choose our own lifestyle, our own success or failure.
Independent living is, in the broadest sense, exposure to an unlimited number of choices to experience life. To the extent that parents, teachers, rehab professionals, society in general, provide children with disabilities the opportunity for exposure to those choices and to those experiences, to that extent will their needs be met and their dreams fulfilled. And that's how I see it.