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President's Column

By Ryan Strunk

(Editor’s Note: In this thought-provoking piece, our state President shares the importance of realizing the truth about oneself, the freedom found in asking for help, and the power in being a real team member.)

I was not an athlete in high school. (Sadly, I suspect this is true for a lot of blind children.) I did think of myself as an intellectual, though, and mom always accused me—rightly—of being argumentative, so when I learned I could combine the two by joining the debate team, I was excited at the prospect. When I read in the informational packet that I could use the powers I would develop to argue for a later curfew, I was hooked.

Within a week of joining the team, however, everything changed. Our first assignment was to debate the pros and cons of capital punishment. Each of us was given a side to discuss, and we were told to research the arguments for that side of the issue. We were encouraged to make use of the library and the internet, and we were given free reign for forty minutes a day during the A lunch period. At the end of the first week, we were told, we would come back and discuss what we had learned in order to formulate arguments for the debate.

This assignment terrified me to the point of freezing. I had never needed to do open research before for a school assignment, and I had no idea how. I knew how to read books, having scanned a few of them for book reports, but I had no idea how to make use of the library as a blind person. I was overwhelmed by the shelves and stacks, the inaccessibility of the racks of old newspapers and sheets of microfiche, and I could not even fathom where to begin. I could read a book if I had it, but I didn’t know how to find a book in the first place.

I should have been saved by the internet. After all, everyone was coming online back in the late '90’s, and there was no shortage of content online. In those days, however, I only used the internet for chat, email, and gaming. It never occurred to me that newspapers were electronically available, let alone how to find and read them, so that direction was closed to me as well.

I spent my first week on the debate team sitting in the classroom, idly starting to write arguments out of my own head and deleting them, picking at my lunches and filling time with nothing. Instead of asking for help from the teacher, I sank deeper and deeper into hopelessness until I could not find a way out. Before the first assignment was due—before anyone could realize I had no idea what I was doing—I went to the teacher and told him I wanted to drop the class.

I never told him the real reason. The one I gave him was that I was just too closed-minded. I didn’t have the ability, I said, to see things from multiple points of view, especially on that issue. My mind was made up, and it couldn’t be changed. He laughed in a way that sounds, in my memory, like the verbal equivalent of a shrug and signed the drop form.

I liked that version of my story better than the truth. It made me the maverick, the kid who didn’t play by the rules, the guy who already had the answers and didn’t need to find them in books. That was a lot more palatable than the guy who didn’t know how to do research and was too proud to ask for help. I wrapped that version around myself, and I wore it so long that I eventually believed it. When the subject of debate would come up in college and beyond, I told people that “debate just wasn’t for me,” and I believed it.

It wasn’t until just a few months ago that I realized the truth I had been hiding from myself for half my life. The topic of high school debate had come up again in some mundane conversation, and when I reached to pull out that worn old story, I saw what was hiding behind it. I was a kid who didn’t have the skills I needed to be successful, and I was too scared and too proud to ask for help.

To this day I don’t know what kept me from reaching out. I can guess at reasons, but I’m not sure I’ll ever know exactly why. I spent too long denying reality. What feels more consequential to me now is that all the reasons I can think of today are things that can still hold me back, and I suspect they drag at a lot of people who are blind: admitting I can’t do something makes me less independent, asking for help makes me less independent, solving the problem is complicated to the point of being impossible.

The paradox of that thinking, though, is that not asking for help, not admitting the places where I don’t have the answers, and abandoning a problem rather than solving it actually make me less independent. I never learned how to debate. I’m marginally competent at doing research. It took me years to develop the ability to see an issue from multiple perspectives. All those deficits narrowed the options available to me and had a huge impact on my life. Had I made that realization in high school, things would have turned out different—not better, but different.

The truth about blindness is that sometimes we do things differently. We use alternative techniques to accomplish ordinary tasks, and we live fulfilling lives as a result. Sometimes we create those techniques ourselves, but often we learn them from blind people who have gone there before us and can teach us what they learned. If we don’t admit what we don’t know, choosing instead to try to figure out our own way in the name of supposed independence, we can miss out on learning the answers someone else has already discovered. Choosing to ask for help doesn’t make us dependent. It means we’re strong enough to admit when we need a hand.

Over the years, I have received a hand from the National Federation of the Blind on numerous occasions. Even now, as I write this, my first successful attempt at polishing shoes are drying on an old grocery bag. (I learned that blind people polish shoes from Dr. Maurer’s article "Gray Pancakes and the Gentleman's Hat".) Members have taught me how to barbecue a steak, match suits and ties, find the bus stop in the snow, create a complicated to-do list, host a convention, pass a bill in the legislature, and so much else. If I hadn’t had the help and understanding of the National Federation of the Blind over the years, things would have turned out different—and likely worse.

I’m happy with the life I have now. I like how things have turned out, and I wouldn’t change them. I want to make sure, though, that other people who don’t have the answers they need know that it’s OK to ask for help, and that other blind people are here for them. If they’re struggling with school, work, technology, cooking, or anything else, the members of the National Federation of the Blind will be ready with understanding, encouragement, and advice.

I couldn’t admit in high school that I didn’t know how to do research. I believed it was my responsibility to figure out my problems alone. I know better now. I know that asking for help makes me more independent—not less. I know that I have a whole support system of friends and family who will help me to be successful.

If you need help, we’re here for you, too.

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