A Painful Lesson
by Chris Kuell
Danbury, Connecticut

Last Memorial Day our family was invited over to some new friends' house for a cookout. We arrived, watermelon and a cooler full of beer in hand, and settled in on the deck behind their home. Sam and Dina, our hosts, have three children, and our son was soon off playing basketball with their boys, while the girls went inside to look for the family cat.

Using my cane, I explored the deck, learning where the door to the house was, where the table and grill were, and then I hit something metal. "That's the frame for a canopy," Sam explained. "When the boys come back, I'll have them help me attach the cover and mosquito screens, and we'll pull it up."

What he didn't say, but what I heard as clear as a fire alarm, was--I'd ask you to help, but you're blind. This sentiment isn't anything new. In fact, it's fairly common among people who haven't had the opportunity to interact with a competent blind person. "Here, let me get that for you." "Oh, you don't have to help, just sit there and relax." "Is your son available? I need help moving this bureau."

My friends and family know I'm a relatively healthy and fit man, and there is very little I can't do. I've done carpentry, cut wood with a power saw, worked on my wife's car, trimmed the bushes with an electric trimmer--whatever needs doing. So, when someone who doesn't know anything about blindness presumes I can't do something, I try to take advantage of the opportunity for a little lesson. Instead of sitting, I help wash the dishes. Using my cane, I help carry things out to the grill, and even tend the grill if our host is busy with something else. "No," I'll say, "My son is busy, but I can help you move the bureau--no problem."

I can talk until I'm blue in the face about the abilities of people who are blind, but nothing drives home the message like experiencing it in person. When I changed the tire for a friend who was giving me a lift, I think she started to believe that I really could do almost anything I put my mind to doing. After my neighbors witnessed me painting our detached garage, one came over and offered to pay me to paint his.

So, after Sam's, "When the boys get backĀ…" comment, I had to respond, "No need to wait, Sam. I'll help you." Before he could object, I collapsed my cane, put it in my back pocket, and began to feel the aluminum canopy frame. It was fairly large, tipped on its side like a framed wall before the drywall is nailed on to it. I felt along the edge, side-stepping to picture the dimensions, figuring there would be some sort of hook in the corner for attaching the material, when my left foot came down on nothing. There wasn't any time to save myself before I dropped like a rock off the deck.

As you can imagine, I landed awkwardly, wrenching my knee in a way not designed for the human skeleton. I got up and brushed it off like I was fine, but in truth I was in a great deal of pain. I so wanted to get back up there and cover that canopy, but instead I opted for a chair and an ice pack for my knee. My attempt at educating about the abilities of blind people was not successful. Even worse, I probably reinforced the stereotypes they already had.

Despite my unexpected experiment with gravity, we had an enjoyable afternoon. I wish I hadn't fallen, but accidents happen to everyone, and by definition they aren't expected. I still believe it is every capable blind person's duty to demonstrate to the world our abilities. I don't think there is a more effective way to bring about the attitudinal changes we desire. When I lost my sight 10 years ago, my father asked me if I needed him to cut up my food for me. After witnessing my determination and capabilities, last summer he asked me to split and stack a half-cord of wood for him. Hanging back and accepting help would be easier, but it doesn't sit right with me.

I plan on inviting Sam and Dina and their kids over to our house for a cookout. Hopefully there won't be any unexpected tumbling, and they'll be able to observe me in action on my own turf. I'll chat with them about my vegetable gardens while I'm grilling, and explain to them how I designed and built our octagonal picnic table. In time, they'll come to see that blindness is not a tragedy to me--it's just sometimes a real pain in the knee.

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