Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Event of the Century
By Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter
The winter wind whips my long hair about me as I tap my long white cane against the brick wall of Fuddrucker’s, searching for the door. My friends do the same with their canes. Grease filters through the chill air; it is the unmistakable odor of a burger joint. We’re cold and hungry. Finding the door, we scurry inside. We’re seven friends out on a Saturday having a good time—we all happen to be blind.
Piling into the entrance, we tap our white canes investigating the restaurant. Ross, my husband, and I find a wall and follow it tapping back-and-forth with our canes.
“Hey guys,” I call out, “I believe this is the counter.”
The click of cane tips echoes from multiple directions as Shane, Amy, Audra, Jamie and Carol find their way to the counter. Since the menu is not available in Braille, we ask the cashier to please read the choices out loud. Ross and I order as our friends from Lincoln, whom we don’t see often, decide what sounds best.
Grabbing my cup, I listen for the soda fountain. Ice chinks into a cup and I follow the sound. Encountering an island separating the soda fountain from where I stand, I pause for a second, determining which direction to walk around the island. Before I can take another step, though, a stranger approaches me.
“Can I help you?,” she asks.
No thanks. I’m just going to fill my cup.
Stepping around the stranger, arching my cane, I can tell she is hesitating.
Pinching a fold of my coat, the stranger yanks me around the island.
It’s this way.
Thanks, but that’s the direction I was moving in, ma'am.
Thrown off balance from being yanked about, I stand upright, adjusting my jacket, attempting to conceal my irritation.
The stranger pauses again as six other blind people move past in a flying-V looking for an open table.
“Where- is your companion?,” she asks.
Her voice is hesitant, but concerned as though she’s unsure of the situation, unsure of herself.
Well, seeing as we’re all adults, we don’t have a companion.
I follow the cane taps leaving the stranger alone to ponder the miracle happening before her eyes.
“The freak show’s out. Everyone should grab their camera,” Audra says as I approach the table.
We all quietly chuckle.
We don’t mean to be rude, but we’re all use to this reaction when in public. The amazing blind people who have left the security of their homes! Yes, I’m cynical, but this has always been a part of my character. Encountering ridiculous ideas and outdated attitudes towards blindness on a daily basis, keeps my cynicism fresh.
Leaving campus one day during college, a man approached me from behind declaring, “You are amazing!”
Knowing what he meant, I decided to act clueless.
What do you mean?
You get around so well. It is truly amazing you can walk.
Thanks, but I’m blind, not paralyzed.
I just mean it is amazing you don’t run into stuff.
Still facing away from him, I rolled my eyes, sighing, “If I didn’t use this cane, I would run into everything.”
Proving a point just as much as this was the direction I needed to go, I proceeded down the steps leading to a parking lot.
Stopping feet away from where I stood waiting for my ride, he seemed captivated by finding a real, live blind person. It was as though I was a rare bird not often seen.
Snow sifted from the sky kissing my head and face. Looking up, I turned to speak to the stranger.
Wow, it’s snowing again?
See, you’re amazing!
How do you know it’s snowing?
It must be your sixth sense.
Not completely concealing my irritation this time, I paused before speaking.
N-o, I feel it. Can’t you?
Eight years ago I never thought the hardest part of being blind would be dealing with society’s perceptions and attitudes. I quickly adjusted to my blindness, and it is a part of who I am now. Others, though, think it is all I am. I accept it just as I accept the color of my hair or my inability to solve a math equation quickly. I’m no more amazing than anyone else, but because I do things without vision, it suddenly makes me exceptional.
It is difficult to be around people, not because I have problems with my blindness, but because others usually have problems with my blindness. I’m no longer just a person; I’m now a blind person. Many can’t get past the white cane choosing to see what they want to see, but not accepting the reality of what they see—I’m human, a person with thoughts, likes and dislikes, emotions, and passions; I just happen to be blind. I’d rather spend time with children because they have an innate ability to trust and not doubt because of a perceived reality.
My favorite pastime these days is spending time with my nephew and nieces. I must have the baby bug or something—the biological clock and all that. They bring joy to my life, and yes, I admit, I talk endlessly about them.
Caiden’s seven and a bit too smart for his own good. Chloe’s six, extremely independent and loves with her whole heart. Kensley’s almost three and has the sweetest temperament, but every now and then gets a wild, mischievous glimmer in her eyes. Penny’s two, full of energy and I feel more like a mom than an aunt with her.
I’ve watched them evolve from tiny beings, into real people, and it is through them I see where the future can lie.
I’m often met with dubious stares and hesitant comments while watching the kids.
How can you watch children?
Isn’t it difficult?
How can blind people do that?
Once, during a phone conversation with a family member, I mentioned how people often seem uncomfortable with Ross and I babysitting the kids.
The response was, “Well, can you blame them?”
I hear these questions and comments repeatedly, and depending on my mood, I respond accordingly. I don’t believe how insulting people can be. Why am I expected to accept ignorant attitudes because, “People don’t know better,” but no one is expected to accept me as a capable adult? Is it really asking too much? You’d assume common sense would dictate that seeing as I’m out-and-about doing things on my own, it must not be that difficult, or I’m not in dire need of assistance. It’s a simple equation.
When I take the kids to the park or the mall or on a walk, people tend to assume the kids are guiding me around. Yes, a seven-year-old, six-year-old, three-year-old and a two-year-old guide me. We would all be dead. You know what they say about assuming… I wonder if people think about what they say.
The kids never question my abilities though. Blindness is normal to them. My actions speak volumes to Caiden, Chloe, Kensley and Penny. We think children have mental limitations, but they understand what adults cannot. My babies accept me and don’t doubt their safety with me.
Caiden loves video games. If allowed, he’d play them all day. Once, while watching the kids, my mom, in an attempt to get him to stop playing and go outside, stated, “If you play too many video games you will go blind.”
His response was, said in a dry tone not common among seven-year-olds, “Grandma, it’s not a big deal to be blind. Look at Aunt Bridgy.”
Through these words, the impact of my actions is evident. These children take what I do and say at face-value instead of acting upon societal perceptions and questioning me. They are the beginning of a generation that can break the stereotypes about blindness. The efforts I make seem so small, but through these children, my babies, I know the effect is lasting.
Recently Chloe has taken to walking around with her eyes closed because she, “Wants to be like Aunt Bridgy.”
She often grabs a white cane to walk around with when visiting. She’s also fascinated with Braille, wanting to learn this tactile form of print. Every where she goes, she points out signs that have Braille on them. She has no fear. To Chloe, blindness is just another way to “be.”
Exposure to me allows my nephew and nieces to learn and understand that life doesn’t stop after blindness. My children accept me as capable and confident—just like the other adults in their lives. In their eyes, I’m no different, and there is no thought of limitations.
Kensley and Penny are still grasping the fact that I don’t respond to visual cues, like nodding their heads. Both have quickly adjusted to finding other means in which to express their wants.
Wanting to be held, they toddle to me placing their arms around my legs. Wanting to show me a toy, they place it in my hands.
Kensley and Penny don’t question my ability to care for them. To them, I’m comfort, I’m love, I’m security, and of course, I’m the lady who can dole out food! Sometimes, I pin a small bell to the back of their clothing to identify where they are, but usually their gibber-jabber pinpoints their location. As Penny and Kensley’s vocabulary grows, they will understand they must use their words, and not gestures, to communicate with me. These two will grow up never thinking I’m odd, or doubt I can care for them.
Adults, on the other hand, don’t always see beyond my blindness. The world created a reality in which blindness is a debilitating disability leaving one limited and pitiful. True, not everyone buys into the antiquated stereotypes, and not everyone believes me inferior, but, in my experience, most people still cling to old notions.
Shortly after our wedding, Ross and I ran errands one weekend. Waiting for a bus, holding hands, we discussed our plans for the day. Being January, it was cold, and I kept jumping up and down trying to warm up. Snow crunched underneath my pink, rubber galoshes. Ross laughed pulling me into a bear hug. Smiling, I rubbed my frozen, pug nose against his angular one.
Bus brakes screeched a block away. I whooped, relieved we would be on a warm bus soon. As the bus jolted to a stop in front of us, a whoosh of air blew my pink scarf up around my face.
Swiping our bus passes, then tapping our canes across the seats searching for empty spots, we reveled in the hot air blasting from the vents.
As the bus lurched onward, Ross reached his arm around my shoulders, made bulky from my purple winter jacket. We carried on our discussion, frequently grazing our tingling hands together.
Shouting over the din of the bus, a woman cut into our conversation.
You’re a beautiful couple.
Smiling in her direction, I thanked her and turned back to Ross.
“Which assisted living do you live in,?” the woman asked.
I froze, my expression locking into place. First glancing at Ross then turning to the woman, I smiled, but warmth no longer radiated behind the expression. Cocking my head at a slight angle, I felt my features slide into a quizzical look.
Excuse me? Are you speaking to us?
Yes. I wondered which assisted living facility you live in.
“What makes you assume we live in an assisted living facility,?” I asked.
Her voice faltered.
You’re blind- don’t you, um, I mean… Does someone just live with you?
Gripping Ross’s arm, my face flushed. I couldn’t contain my frustration. Narrowing my eyes, I skimmed through possible answers.
Squeezing me to him, his leg pumping in a restless up and down motion, and absent-mindedly fiddling with the wedding ring on my finger, Ross spoke.
We live on our own. No one checks up on us, no one lives with us.
Oh. That’s amazing.
The woman trailed off remaining silent the rest of the trip.
Diplomacy is the usual route I take, but there are times when I can no longer deal with the attitudes forced on me. I try to educate—I try to be positive, but watch out if catching me on a bad day.
A few months ago, I stood at the curb waiting to cross the street. Focused on the sound of traffic in front of me on Center Street, and adjacent traffic to my right on Paddock road, I prepared to cross.
Listening to the direction of traffic indicates when to cross, and yes, it is safe to do this. Don’t trust me? How many sighted people get into accidents? Ah, so it’s not vision keeping us accident-free after all.
Once the light changes, I have to zip across. I always wait and wait and wait. The red light which holds me captive takes forever to change, but once it switches, there’s a short fifteen-seconds allotted to cross four lanes of traffic. I checked the time, three o’ clock on the dot.
Come on. I tapped my long white cane on the pavement out of boredom.
Breaking my focused attention, grabbing my elbow from behind, with Cars zooming in front of me, a crazed pedestrian forced me into the oncoming traffic. As this Crazy Carla dragged me across the street, I had no choice but to keep truckin’ as Cars whizzed and rumbled around us.
Reaching the other side, I slapped the strangers hand away and shouted, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Are you good,?” Crazy Carla asked, ignoring my question.
Are you insane?
You can see, right?
Clearly we did not have the right-away.
Crazy Carla, who, I swore, was about to meet her fate back out on Center street, grabbed for my arm again.
Grabbing her wrist, I asked, “Do I know you?”
So what gives you the idea I want a complete stranger touching me?
Can you make it home from here?
I stared in her direction.
Can she hear?
Uh, I think I’m good.
How the hell do you think I was getting around before you, like a maniac, drove me across the street?
Have a good day.
Sure you can get home okay?
Throwing my backpack down, I shouted, “O-H MY GOD!”
Grabbing my bag, I turned, stomping towards my apartment complex.
No, I’m not proud of such outburst, but I don’t accept perceptions society has constructed about blindness either. I, who was safely and cautiously waiting to cross a busy city street, was assumed incapable by a sighted person who threw caution to the wind and placed me, and themselves, into a dangerous situation.
Instead of thinking, “Hmm, this person is blind, but they are out and about on their own, they must be okay—they must know what they are doing,”
They only “see” the blind girl standing alone and don’t get past that thought.
My friends all have similar stories. We’re seven people enjoying each other’s company, but because we’re all blind, it is considered the event of the century.
We range in age from twenty-five to thirty-five. Some of us have children, all of us work. Four of us are social workers, one an accountant, one a writer and one a computer technician. A couple of us girls wear make-up and stay current with fashion trends. The guys are avid sport nuts especially when it comes to collegiate football. Despite being adults who do adult things, it is considered an awesome accomplishment we’re socializing without a sighted companion.
It is even more incredible that our conversation sounds like any other conversation. Confusing our server, the girls chatter about what to do at the mall, and the guys shout out comments about the football game blaring on the television.
“You’re all blind, right,?” the server asks.
Seven voices chorus, “Yes.”
Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha where she majored in creative writing. She blogs about diabetes and blindness for Live Well Nebraska.com, a website of the Omaha World Herald newspaper. Kuenning-Pollpeter brings her unique, creative voice to the blog as she informs using her personal experiences. Her blogs are often published in the Omaha World Herald. She is the editor of Slate & Style, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind. She also freelances for Comm UNO, an alumni magazine for UNO. She speaks to various groups in the community educating about blindness.
Kuenning-Pollpeter resides in Omaha, Ne with her husband, Ross.