Archive for March, 2011

What Does Seeing Feel Like?

Hello readers. Last week, I was on Spring break, a much needed break I might add, especially because for some reason whoever makes the calendar decisions for the college decided to make spring break two weeks later than it was my freshman and sophomore years. Although I have a lot I could talk about, especially regarding my search for an internship which is required to graduate from my college, as the subject indicates, I feel inspired to talk about something entirely different that has been on my mind the last couple months.

     I will never forget how One day–I think it was when I was eight or nine years old–my mom and I were listening to the radio when there was a commercial for some kind of eye procedure to restore vision. “Nothing is more precious than your vision,” the commercial declared. At the time, this declaration didn’t phase me, I think because I was too young to understand the shallow implications of such a remark, but perhaps also because since I have been blind since I was six months old, being blind was normal for me, something I had adjusted well to and was perfectly comfortable with. Thus, I already knew this commercial was shallow, even if I was too young to articulate it. But fearing that my self-esteem might be affected by such a superficial statement, I will never forget Mom turning down the radio and having a talk with me about that commercial, pointing out how silly such a statement is when I am perfectly happy without vision. My acceptance of blindness, made even stronger by this talk, is still as unwaivering today as it was when I heard that commercial. Sure there are the occasional times where I will feel left out when I hear sighted people raving about a spectacular full moon or something. There are even occasional episodes of feeling sorry for myself when I have to make a special trip to campus during winter and summer breaks to buy my textbooks weeks in advance and get them to the Disability Services office so they can be scanned, when sighted people can go to the bookstore the day classes start, pluck them off the shelf and they are in business. But the vast majority of the time, the fact that I cannot see is insignificant, overshadowed by all that I can do. In fact, I love to point out to people that there are advantages to being blind.

     First and foremost, being blind allows me to have a guide dog, who is also an unofficial therapy dog whom I can reach down and pet when classes are boring or stressful, and whose mere presence brings smiles to other students who miss their dogs back home.

     When the power goes out and the sighted world panics because it is dark, I can go right on reading my braille book or walking around like nothing happened.

     While sighted people step outside on a cloudy or overcast spring day and complain about the dreary weather, I view it as gorgeous weather if it is warm and birds are singing.

     Sometimes I think I relate to people on a deeper level than sighted people can because I don’t know or care whether they might be fat, wear clothing that sighted people deem unflattering, or have unusual hair styles or unattractive tatoos. Instead, in the words of Martin Luther King, I think being blind allows me greater freedom to judge people solely “by the content of their character.”

     Being blind also means I have no insecurities about my appearance. Well, my mom has taught me that I have to at least brush my hair, pull it back so it is not hanging over my eyes, and wear clothes that match before leaving the house because the reality is that it is a sighted world where I will be negatively judged for looking like a slob even though I am blind. But while sighted women spend hours getting ready in the morning, fretting about what clothes to wear or standing in front of the mirror complaining annoyingly about how terrible their hair looks today, I can be showered and dressed with hair combed in twenty minutes. If I shower the night before, I can be ready in five minutes. And when I go clothes shopping, (which is not very often because it doesn’t bother me to wear the same jeans for years if they may look worn out but still fit), I don’t step out of the dressing room like my sister and ask Mom “does this make me look fat?” in a whiny voice. Instead, I ask myself “is this comfortable?” If I determine the jeans are not comfortable, even if Mom or Grandma thinks they look cute on me, I refuse to let Mom or Grandma buy them. I have two sweaters that I wear more frequently than my other shirts and sweaters because they are especially soft and comfortable. My mom has pointed out a couple times that sighted people sometimes find it weird when people wear the same clothes too often, but I don’t care what people think!

     I also enjoy being an ambassador for the blind, answering questions from my sighted friends about braille and how I accomplish tasks without sight. At my college, there is a business class on diversity in the workplace, and every semester the course is offered, the professor who teaches it invites me to give a presentation to the class on blindness and how with just a few adaptations like screen reading software, blind people are just as capable as anyone else. (I will be doing another one of these presentations on May 13). After I talk a little bit about the adaptations I use, I open up the rest of the presentation time to questions, and one question that is always asked is “if technology developed that allowed you to see one day, would you take advantage of it?”

     What I have always told them is something on the order of “since I don’t remember when I could see, it is not something I miss. I suppose sometimes I wish I could get my sight back for maybe ten minutes, just to know what it is like to see, and to have a basic understanding of what colors look like. But I have been blind so long that getting my sight back would feel strange.”

     I will probably use this same response in my presentation this year, so as not to arouse concerns about my self-esteem and confidence as a blind person. But the truth is, just this year, I have noticed that in quiet moments, I think more about my blindness, and long to see more than I used to. This could be a result of my search for an internship, where I am learning that the real world isn’t as friendly and accommodating as school has always been for me. (You wouldn’t believe how many internships require a driver’s license, photography skills or proficiency in some graphic design computer program.) It could be due to the fact that Republicans are in power again, so it will be awhile before stem-cell research will be funded again. But shameful and ridiculous as it sounds, my longing to see really got going after hearing a news story about a Catholic church in my home state that is believed to be the site of an apparition of the blessed mother Mary to a nun, and that continues to be the site of modern miracles. The story mentioned a person who came in to the church wearing crutches because of a leg injury, who walked out of the church without crutches.

     I have listened to a couple clips of televangelists supposedly performing miracles, and found them revolting even before I learned that most of these “miracles” were later proven to be merely psychological, and that they were not done in a Christian spirit as evidenced by the lavish lifestyles they enjoy with money paid to them by desperate people. Therefore, I have never, and would never waste time or money on these charlatans. I have heard about other churches where miracles occurred in far away places like Portugal. But after hearing about this church so close to home, I had this strange sense of excitement, and an urge to visit this church that I have never felt before. It wasn’t an all consuming urge: I have had to manage this excitement very carefully because my parents are very perceptive and I don’t want them to think I have gone nuts. I go about my school work without a word, and when my parents occasionally mention taking Grandma to visit this church, I am very careful to be nonchalant and not let on in the least how much I want to visit this church too. Even casually mentioning with a straight face that I want to visit this church would look very suspicious since ordinarily, I complain about visiting largely visual attractions like churches and museums. But late at night when I am lying in bed waiting for sleep, when I am home alone or when I am walking on the treadmill, that is when the excitement consumes me. That’s when I start asking questions in my mind.

     What would it be like to stand on a hill or balcony and be able to see for miles and miles? I cannot stretch my arms and touch things miles and miles away. In the summer, Milwaukee has a huge festival with fireworks that can be heard from our house which is about a half hour drive from the festival grounds. But ordinarily, I cannot hear things going on miles away. So to be able to see for miles and miles is something I cannot even comprehend.

     What would it be like to go for a run on a glorious spring day with both arms swinging at my side and not have to hold on to a cane, dog harness or the arm of a sighted guide? Once when I was in seventh grade, I went to school without my cane because I had an evening activity the night before and left it in the car that Dad drove to work. I remember Mom getting upset with me for not bringing it in, and my teacher asking me how I could forget something so essential for my safety. From then on, I became more responsible and made sure to always bring my cane in from the car because although at the time I had the attitude of “what’s the big deal? I made it through the hall fine”, even I had to admit that walking through halls as chaotic as the halls at my middle school without a cane wasn’t smart. But there was another side of that experience that I didn’t dare admit to my parents or teachers, but which I remember fondly. It was a feeling of liberation! Of course, it wasn’t the true experience of being sighted: my hands may have been free, but I walked very very slowly and cautiously, knowing that if I got hurt on this little adventure, I would be in huge trouble. But just having both hands free was exhilarating to the point that ever since, I have always wondered if running hands free like sighted people do would be just magical!

     What would it be like to just walk in to any store or building and orient yourself to its layout instantly? Sighted people have told me about situations when they got lost driving, and even walking through big buildings. But for them, it seems as though getting lost is rare, and when they do, they find their way back pretty quickly. Simple routes to the buildings on my college campus that my peers probably learned within a day or two took me months of orientation lessons, and while I will have to ask for assistance every time I go to the grocery store, it amazes me how my parents can go to a grocery store they have never been to before and just instantly know where to go for milk or bread.

     What do colors look like? Just out of curiosity, I looked blue up in the dictionary, which defined it as a color intermediate between green and violet (really helpful), the color of the sky on a sunny day (a beautiful image), but also the color of someone’s skin when they are cold or have difficulty breathing (an unpleasant image). How much more abstract can you get? Adjectives related to touch like describing something as smooth, cold, or prickly, or adjectives related to taste like sweet, salty or bitter are so much more concrete than colors seem to be. But maybe that is only because I don’t remember what colors look like, and someone who cannot taste would find sweet, salty or bitter to be abstract and mind boggling. But I long to see colors and make sense of them once and for all, and determine for myself whether blue more closely represents the sky or a sick person.

     Would my personality and interests have been different if I could see? If you were to ask me the three activities I hate most, they would be going shopping, going to museums and going to sporting events because all these activities are so visually focused and thus excruciatingly boring for me. A lot of sighted people I know love these activities, but I have also met people who can see who find these activities boring. Would I be in the camp that enjoys these activities if I could see, or would I still find them boring?

     And ultimately, as weird as this will sound to sighted people, I simply want to know what seeing even means. Put another way, what does seeing “feel like”? I have never been good at articulating to people what I mean by this question, but let me try again. Maybe I should explain by using something I do understand like hearing.

     Elementary school science textbooks and the dictionary describe sound as vibrations that travel through the air which are perceived by the ear. But this definition I imagine would be so incomplete to deaf people. I am listening to the radio right now, and of course a deaf person could touch the radio and feel vibration coming from it. But when the vibrations reach your ears, they are so different. Touching a radio that is turned on would allow a deaf person to know what vibration is, but sound is so much more complicated than that, with so many intricacies like high voices, low voices, intonation, dialect, instruments and harmony, which I have absolutely no clue how I would explain to them. But answering the question of what seeing means is probably just as vexing for people to explain to me, especially because the dictionary defines seeing as perceiving something with the eyes through light and I don’t even know what light is. Indoors I cannot tell whether lights are on or off. Outside, I can tell when the sun is out because the heat from it hits my eyes, but in the same way that music is so much more complicated than just vibration, I know light is so much more complicated than the sensation of heat. But in the same way that I have no clue how to explain music to a deaf person, sight is so complicated that sighted people have no idea how to explain it to me. Now that I think about it, it is occurring to me that maybe the inability of sighted people to explain this to me is not because they don’t understand what I mean by the question but because it is an experience that simply cannot be put in to words, and thus I should resign myself to the reality that I will never fully understand it. Yet it is something I have always longed to understand. (Does that make any sense or does your head hurt now?)

     When I am not asking these kinds of questions, I am dreaming of simple everyday activities that sighted people take for granted that I have always wanted to do.

     I have always wanted to learn to read print. One time when I was younger, I wanted to see if I could pretend to be sighted, so I picked up a print book, opened to a random page, held the book right up to my eyes and moved my head side to side, imitating how I move my fingers side to side to read braille to look like I was “reading”.

     “That’s not how sighted people read,” my dad said with a chuckle when he saw me and sensed what I was up to.

     That is when I learned that sighted people don’t hold books right up to their eyes and they don’t move their head. (Occasionally, I will still pretend to read this way just to be funny). But seriously, how do sighted people read? I have heard the expression “hunched over a book” and indeed when students used to read out loud in school, I could tell their face was close to the book because they sounded like they were talking in to the table. But still, the book isn’t held right up to their eyes. I have felt raised print because the type of printers used in one of the computer labs at my college raises the print ever so slightly. I cannot read it by any means because the letters and lines are so tiny and close together, but if I cannot distinguish the letters by touch, I cannot fathom how sighted people can distinguish them without holding the page right up to their eyes, or how they move their eyes across the page without moving their head. I want to find out, and then I want to throw a paperback novel in my pocket to read on a beach somewhere instead of having to haul a giant backpack required for the same book in braille. (Nowadays, I download most of my books from bookshare.org and read them on a special computer with a braille display, but I don’t feel comfortable taking this computer to places like the beach because if sand got in to the braille display somehow, or a mishap caused it to get wet, repairing it would not be cheap).

     I want to look at pictures of three-dimensional objects to understand once and for all how I was puzzling over a tactile drawing in my high school geometry book for hours one evening going “what the heck is this?” when Mom, with barely a glance said “that’s a mailbox.” Then I want to go to town with blank paper and markers and see if my lack of artistic ability was only because I was blind.

     I want to see fireworks light up the sky on the 4th of July and finally understand why sighted people are so thrilled by them when to me, they are just obnoxious noise. I want to know what is so spectacular about Christmas lights that sighted people will risk their lives climbing trees to install them, and make special trips to see them. I want to understand why sighted people rave about the beauty of sunrises, full moons and sunsets.

     I want to watch a movie like Avatar which won an Oscar and which sighted people everywhere I went were raving about the stunning visual effect. Then just once, I want to watch a scary violet movie to understand why so many people talk about having nightmares after watching them. I have listened to violent movies with lots of gunfire sounds, but they never gave me nightmares and I know it is because the visuals convey a lot more than the mere sound of gunfire.

     I want to learn to write print. I have a little bit of knowledge about what print letters look like because in elementary school, I discovered that all the classrooms had both braille and giant raised print letters on the plaque indicating the room number. In elementary school, the procedure was that the classroom teacher would escort us to our “specials”, like music, art and gym. It wasn’t uncommon for the teacher to get us to the door of these classrooms a little early when there was still another class finishing their lesson. So while waiting outside the door, I would push to the front so that I could teach myself print by matching the giant print letters with the braille letters below them. My braille and orientation instructor also taught me how to write a few letters and sign my name. But I never learned to write all of the letters, and the letters I can write, I never mastered to the point that I could trim them down to fit in the minuscule spaces between the lines of spiral notebook pages. Oh, and while practicing writing, I want to sit in a classroom desk, rip a page out of the notebook, crumple it up and flick it across the room to land perfectly in to the garbage can, a stunning display of hand eye coordination that never ceased to amaze me when I heard sighted students do it in school.

     Then once I have mastered writing in a notebook, I want to take a pen and notebook out in to the woods to meditate and write while sitting under a tree. I don’t feel comfortable taking my braille computer out in to the woods for the same reason I don’t feel comfortable taking it to the beach. If something happens to a pen or notebook after all, sighted people can just run to Walgreens and buy another one for 50 cents. But even if I were to take it out in to the woods, it would spoil the peaceful atmosphere. I know this because when I went to an earth keeper’s camp in fifth grade, we had to find a quiet place in the woods to keep a journal, and while the other students could write in complete silence, my typing on the braille writer seemed so loud it probably woke up sleeping animals for miles around.

     I want to have enough of an understanding of the capabilities of vision that I will quit asking stupid questions in a futile effort to understand. For example, in sixth grade, I remember asking my mom questions about how far the eye is capable of seeing and she said that people can see until vision is blocked by an obstruction like trees or buildings. “So let’s say you could cut down every tree on earth, and knock down every building on earth. If you did that, essentially getting rid of obstructions, could you stand on the tallest mountain and see the whole earth?” I asked. “Well no,” she said, pointing out that would be impossible just because of how the earth is shaped. I have never heard little sighted children ask questions like this which means it is probably something that is automatically understood by even the youngest sighted people.

     I want to gaze at my reflection in the mirror, at first just to marvel at the concept of seeing your own reflection and make goofy faces at myself like a baby discovering mirrors for the first time, which in a sense would describe me if I were to get my sight back. But then, I want to use the mirror to be my own judge of my appearance. My family and friends tell me that I am beautiful especially because of my naturally curly hair, but I know a lot of sighted people who are told they are attractive but don’t like their own appearance. So I want to know how I would perceive myself if I could see what I looked like. I want to know what my tastes would be in terms of clothing and hair style. Clothes shopping especially is so subjective, with Mom and Dad constantly disagreeing about whether clothes look good on my figure or whether they are “old lady clothes”. So what would I say about the clothes my parents have always picked out for me if I could see them?

     Finally, I want to know what the members of my own family look like, and how my features fit in to the genetic equation. This question too is so subjective. Once when I asked my parents whose features I inherited most, I think my dad said I inherited a lot of his features, while my mom said I had more features in common with my brother than either parent, noting that despite the fact that my brother and I are nine years apart in age, we look identical in baby pictures. Actually, of all the things I have mentioned in this entry, I think this is what I long for most of all, and I must confess, I desperately hope that science will develop a way for me to see while my parents are still alive. So much of the banter at family gatherings is centered around pictures and discussion of physical features, and it is at these events that my blindness really hits me and I feel left out. I have no idea what I look like or what anyone in my family looks like, and thus sometimes I feel like I am missing a piece of my identity.

     Thinking about all these things I would love to experience kind of reminds me of the fantasies people have when they think about how wonderful it would be to win the lottery. But in both situations, we both know that will most likely never happen. Actually, the odds of winning the lottery are probably better than the odds that some miracle at a church will restore my sight. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. Catholics do believe miracles can happen and scientists have validated miracles bestowed on people after visiting holy sites or receiving blessings from popes or saints. But the very definition of miracle is that it is a surprising extraordinary event and thereby is not something that everyone has the privilege to experience. If it were, everyone with disabilities would have flocked to churches to be healed and there would be no handicapped people in the world. Of the miracles I have heard about, they have all been bestowed on people who either didn’t believe in God to turn them in to believers, or on devout believers like nuns. By these standards, there is nothing special about me and thus no reason for me to be deserving of any miracles like this. There is also the fact that Christians believe God is all-knowing and therefore he will know my self-centered purpose if I were to visit this church, I am ashamed to admit. But more importantly, Christians believe that everything happens for a reason. So maybe I was meant to be blind so that I could teach people how to look at life in a positive light, to see it as a lovely day even if there are clouds in the sky, or show employers that you don’t have to be physically perfect to be a contributing member of society, or teach people that life is too short to spend hours in the mirror agonizing over physical appearance and that there are more important questions we should be asking than “does this outfit make me look fat?” As I mentioned earlier in this entry, I enjoy this ambassadorial role, and although I would like to know what I look like, it would be a shame if I was given the gift of sight again, only to use it for shallow purposes like this. Thinking rationally about these things usually allows me to stay in touch with reality and all of the things I have expressed a longing to experience, and all of the concepts I have longed to understand, have stayed in the dream realm as unlikely to come true as it is unlikely my family will win the lottery. But when it really gets scary is when I start thinking about the practical implications of such a miracle. When my thinking gets this far, I start to wonder if it would be better that I not visit this church because as hard as I would try to keep myself grounded and not expect a miracle, I worry that after thinking about it with such thoroughness and excitement, I would feel let down and devastated if I walked out of that church no different than when I walked in.

     In the same way that my parents get carried away discussing how they would use their lottery winnings first to pay off all the bills, and then live out the rest of their days quietly in a modest house, in a community where no one knew them to avoid being scammed or robbed, I think about how I would react if suddenly, I could see. I am sure I would be so shocked that my first instinct would be to just go hysterical and tell everyone about the miracle. But then it has occurred to me that in the same way that lottery winners wouldn’t want to announce their newfound fortune to the whole world as then everyone would suddenly pretend to be their friend, I would probably want to keep this miracle quiet too to avoid becoming the object of a media circus. My parents are all about keeping a low profile so although I have never discussed this with them, I am sure they would say that every effort would be made to ensure my space and privacy. But let’s be realistic. If a person walks in to a church blind and walks out with vision restored, and the person has a condition that modern science has yet to find a cure, a media circus would be inevitable and after being granted such a miracle, I would want to spend my time out exploring the world with my newfound superpowers, not in some science laboratory undergoing tests to determine if this miracle was real. Even if the media never got wind of this miracle, I might want to live a secret life and keep this miracle quiet even around my parents who as wonderful and well-meaning as they are, would go ballistic with amazement and ask me all kinds of questions. I would tell them eventually of course, but maybe a couple weeks after the fact so that when they do go crazy with shock and amazement, I have had time to process life as a sighted person. Being that I have been blind my whole life, I am sure I would have no problem acting blind when my parents were around, and then letting loose to explore the world while they were running errands or something. (Haven’t there been movies written with this kind of plot?)

     But as my dad says when the rest of the family talks about the practical implications of winning the lottery, “why are we even talking about this?” As I mentioned before, miracles are so named precisely because they are rare, and I believe there is a purpose for me being blind.

     Judging by the fact that when we are doing group activities in school and I will spot someone’s notebook on a desk and caress the tiny wrinkles in the page made by their writing with admiration, and they say “oh that’s just my notebook” moving it because they think it is in my way, it could certainly also be noted that sight only seems amazing to me because I don’t remember when I experienced it, and that my amazement with sighted people is no different than the amazement expressed by sighted people when they see me typing on my Braille computer, something which to me is just ordinary. So perhaps what I am trying to say with this long wrambling entry is that there are so many reasons why I would love to see someday which can cause me to get carried away by thoughts and fantasies and dreams of a miracle. But writing this entry has helped me sort out my thoughts and realize that there are also so many reasons to be happy with the purpose God has given me as a blind person. If I am able to see one day, it would be exciting. But until then, I can accept staring longingly over a figurative fence in awe and wonder at the sighted world while sighted people stare back in amazement of me as the way my life was meant to be.

Another Paper Worth Preserving

Hi readers. Before I get to the subject of my entry, I should mention that the last entry I wrote about milestones for a Disability Blog Carnival is a carnival you can participate in as well. I apologize for not posting the link to participate in this carnival sooner. Part of the reason was that I have noticed a lot of you readers seem to prefer more private blogging to the public environment of blog carnivals. But at the time I submitted my entry, the host of this carnival was concerned because my post was the only entry so far. So she suggested that I see if any of you readers might be interested in participating. I apologize for the short notice: the carnival goes up on March 25 and I think she wanted entries by March 23 or 24. The last couple weeks before spring break have just been so busy I never had a chance to get the link posted. But if any of you have entries about milestones related to your disability that you would like to share with a wider audience, or if you would like to write one despite the short notice, here is the link. http://writerinawheelchair.blogspot.com/2011/2/im-going-to-be-hosting-75th-disability.html

     Remember when I posted a research paper about September 11 that I wrote for a politics class last semester? (By the way, I didn’t know what I received for my grade on that paper since I turned in the paper at the end of the semester and never saw the teacher again to find out my grade. But on Wednesday, I e-mailed him to ask this because I am thinking about using that paper for an internship with the governor’s office that I am applying for, and he said I earned a 95 percent on it!) Anyway, this semester produced another paper I wrote that I want to preserve beyond burial in the landfill. This paper is for a Communication ethics class, and the assignment was to do an ethical analysis of a situation that we were either personally involved in, or had a connection to because it involved people we know. (In other words, no headache inducing, blood pressure spiking and often futile searching of the library databases was required!)

     I actually turned in the paper two and a half weeks ago but was debating whether I wanted to post it because while I was proud of it, this class is a very abstract kind of class where I am learning that ethics isn’t as black and white as I always thought. So I decided not to post it until I knew how I did on it, and had my paper been figuratively ripped to shreds, I would have spared myself the embarrassment of posting it here. But I am thrilled to report that I can post it with pride because I earned a 93 percent on it!

     What’s even better is that most teachers I have had in the past have either put print comments on my paper for my parents to read to me or sent comments via e-mail. I rarely ask my parents to read comments to me because for one thing, I forget about it amidst all the other assignments I have to do. But also on the few occasions I have asked my parents to read comments, my parents say they cannot read the professor’s writing, or the comment will be written in such a way that neither my parents or I are sure what they mean. E-mail comments are better because I can read them for myself, and electronic comments allow more room for detail than handwritten margin notes. They have all been the kind of teachers where if I asked them, I am sure they would have been happy to sit down with me and go over their comments in person, but often both of us have other classes we have to get to right away after their class ends, and my grades have always been high enough on these papers that I didn’t think it was worth the hassle of going to their offices which are located in old difficult to navigate buildings apart from the main campus. So I generally tell professors to just e-mail me their feedback. But my teacher for this ethics class believes in a more personal approach, so last Thursday, he actually stayed an hour after class, a class which ends at 7:50 at night to go over the paper with me. And to my amazement, he did not rip it to shreds, but praised it, saying that usually by the end of the second page, he has several critiques, but by that point in my paper, he only thought one sentence could be improved.

     Furthermore, there were a couple places where my analysis was flawed, like when I applied my analysis on lying to all lies in general when it really only applies to lies of silence. But most of the time was spent on finer, what he called more advanced advice on my writing for how to make sentences sound more polished and less lengthy at times. I am also a little embarrassed that he caught me on several instances of subject pronoun disagreement. If you are like me and forgot middle school English lessons, this means saying something like “if a student is allowed to break rules, THEY will think it is acceptable” when the proper grammar for this is to say he/she, or that student because I am referring to a singular person. But other than these small criticisms, he loved my paper, and maybe you will too.

To Snitch or Not to Snitch

Allison Nastoff

     In my junior year of high school, I took a Spanish class with an absolutely wonderful teacher. I had never taken a Spanish class, and wasn’t sure if I would have a negative experience since a lot of the methods for teaching foreign languages are visual. But this teacher put me at ease the moment I met her. She would always adapt visual activities so that I wouldn’t feel left out, and I was doing so well and enjoyed the class so much that she nominated me for a school student of the month award, an award which I won. Thus, I suppose one could say I was the “teacher’s pet” of this class.

     Then one day when I got to class, the teacher gave us an assignment to work on individually and said she had some very important work she needed to do and therefore needed us to be quiet. Anyone caught talking she said would get an after-school detention.

     So I got to work on the assignment and was vaguely aware of the teacher yelling at students for talking, but didn’t pay attention to who was being yelled at figuring it was none of my business. In my next class, a science class, I was listening to the teacher lecture having totally forgotten about Spanish when I heard a teacher walk in and whisper to the science teacher, and then I was called out in to the hall.

     The teacher was my Spanish teacher. Having never been called out in to the hall to speak to a teacher in the middle of class, especially a teacher who admired me as much as this teacher, I started to sweat wondering if I had done something wrong and didn’t realize it. But it turned out I wasn’t called out in to the hall because I had done something wrong, but because this teacher wanted me to reveal other students who had been talking in class.

     “Today, I told three students they were getting detentions for talking in class. I know Kathy was one, but forgot to write down the names of the others,” she said, “do you remember who the other students were?”

     The truth was that I was so focused on my work I tuned out the names of students she had yelled at, and this is what I told her. But what I didn’t tell her was that the thought flashed through my mind that there is an unwritten rule among students that you don’t tattle on other students, so even if I had remembered who she had yelled at, I wouldn’t have told her. However now that I am in an ethics course that has forced me to examine values and principles more closely, I would think differently if a similar situation presents itself today.

     Growing up, my parents and teachers instilled in me values of honesty, and doing the right thing, even if it isn’t the most popular. I always thought I lived by those values, but this situation with my Spanish teacher was the first time I questioned whether these values were as firmly instilled as I always thought they were. It is relatively easy to be honest with a teacher who asks if you did your homework, or stay home and study while your friends go to a party. These decisions after all only affect me personally.. But what about situations where the decision you make will have a negative effect for another student? Should my loyalties lie with the teacher whom I respect, or with the student body which I am a part of and want to stay on good terms with? In other words, if a high school student were asked to report on the rule-violating conduct of another student, what would be the most ethical communication from the student being asked? To answer this question, I will apply this situation to five ethical principles.

     Aristotle’s golden mean principle says that, “Moral virtue is appropriate location between two extremes.” One of these virtues is courage, which lies between the extremes of cowardice and foolishness. This virtue is very relevant for my case. According to this principle, one could argue that the ethical communication from the student which would have best demonstrated the virtue of courage would have been to tell the teacher the names of the students who were talking. Not doing so could fall under the extreme of cowardice in that keeping silent demonstrates fear of doing what is unpopular. Telling the teacher who was talking in the presence of the whole class could be considered foolish since everyone would know that you were the one who told on the student which would lead to unnecessary resentment. But in the case illustrated above in which the student is whispering to the teacher alone in the hall, telling the teacher who was talking would have been the most ethical communication in terms of demonstrating the virtue of courage. After all, this action wouldn’t have been foolish since presumably, the teacher would not reveal to the class, or even the rule-violating student, the name of the student who reported them. Most importantly though, it would have avoided the extreme of cowardice by doing what is honorable, even if it is unpopular.

     But this case becomes more complicated when applied to Immanuel Kant’s principles. Kant’s categorical imperative says that one should “Act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law.” In other words, live by rules you believe the whole world ought to live by. Such a principle might be difficult to apply to the exact case outlined above since reporting students talking in class is a minor scenario with only short-term and relatively minor consequences. Even so, the ethical communication decided upon in this case is also applicable for more serious rule violations like cheating on a test.

     Let’s say that the Spanish teacher had asked me to report students I observed cheating on a test. On the one hand, if I placed myself in the shoes of a student cheating on a test, I would want this action to go unreported. On the other hand, as a student who earns As honestly, I would not want silence on such a matter to be a universal maxim. For one thing, it would not be fair for someone to get As through cheating while everyone else earns As honestly. But more importantly, if silence on such a matter was a universal maxim, more students would be inspired to cheat if they knew no one would report them, not just in high school, but in college or graduate school as well. Such a maxim would have serious long-term consequences for society as a whole. For one thing, if they earned a medical degree through cheating, they might not be equipped to practice out in the field since test scores were the focus, not real learning. For another, if students got away with cheating in school, this maxim would persist in to adulthood with cheating on other matters like taxes. The cheating scenario is easily relatable to the original case in that if a student is uncomfortable with reporting a minor infraction like talking in class, they will certainly be equally if not more uncomfortable reporting a more serious infraction like cheating on a test which would have negative consequences long after high school. Therefore, I would want reporting of rule-violating conduct of other students to be the universal maxim.

     But when examined using Kant’s maxim which says, “never lie”, this particular case is more complicated, since this principle doesn’t refer to all lies as one might think, but to contractual agreements. When the Spanish teacher asked me which students were talking, it was simply a question, not a contractual agreement. The honest answer was that I hadn’t been paying attention to who she had yelled at, but she never raised the question “would you have told me if you knew who was talking?” Thus, since she never raised this question, I was under no contractual agreement to reveal that I wouldn’t have reported the students. So while to the outside observer, it may seem as though withholding this information was a lie of omission, my decision not to reveal my thinking to the teacher was perfectly justifiable according to this maxim.

     Determining the most ethical communication for this case is easy however when examined using Mills’s Principle of Utility which says to “seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. In other words, the most ethical conduct is conduct that is best for the well-being of humanity. When applying this principle to the above case, it is clear that the most ethical conduct for the welfare of humanity is to report rule-violating students to the teacher. The reasoning used when discussing how this case relates to the maxim I would want to be universal law is also applicable to the utilitarian principle. After all, not reporting infractions, be they minor infractions like talking in class, or major infractions like cheating on a test will ultimately have a negative effect on the well-being of humanity since people will see nothing wrong with breaking rules in every area of life if there are no consequences for such behavior. Therefore, when the principle of utility is applied to this case, it would be most ethical to report the rule-violating student not only because it is unfair to the majority of students who do follow the rules if rule-violating students don’t face consequences, but also because while the rule-violating student may resent the fact that they were punished in the short-term, learning that it is not acceptable to violate rules as students will save them a lot of hardship in the future. Thus, reporting rule-violating students is the best course of action according to the principle of utility because from a long-term perspective, reporting rule-violating students will result in the greatest happiness for all of humanity.

     Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance principle which says, “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations”, is also applicable to this case, and it too favors reporting the rule-violating student. As a high school student, it is difficult to ignore social differentiations because of the subtle peer pressure that comes with your identity as a student. But when Rawls’s veil of ignorance is applied, the most ethical course of action would be to do what is right and be indifferent to the expectations associated with identity as a student.

     Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Judea-Christian principle which says, “love your neighbor as yourself”, or put another way, “do unto others what you would want them to do unto you”, is also applicable to this situation. The caveat of this principle of course as that individuals don’t always treat themselves with love. So on one level, a student could argue that they wouldn’t report a rule-violating student because they wouldn’t want another student to report them if they were to violate a rule. But once again, while a student might resent being reported because of the short-term punishment, on a deeper level, they might come to realize that reporting them was an act of love by teaching them a valuable lesson that will make life better in the long-term, and that they want to be treated in a way that will bring them long-term happiness, even if they cannot admit this right away.

     Of course, when a real life situation presents itself, students often panic and cannot give ethical principles and values a thorough analysis before responding to the situation. For this reason, I cannot promise that if a similar situation presented itself after taking this course, that I would not revert to my high school way of thinking, and feel a stronger need to place my loyalties with student short-term interests. But overwhelmingly, this analysis of ethical principles indicates that reporting the rule-violating conduct of another student is the most ethical communication. I hope that if a similar situation presents itself in the future, that I could recall these principles and respond in an ethical manner.

Celebrating Milestones with my Dad

“Milestones” is the perfect theme for a disability blog carnival this month because later this month, I will be celebrating a milestone. That milestone is my 21st birthday. If any of you are in college, remember college, or know someone in college, you know what that means! (smile)

     Actually, I am not going to be drinking on my 21st birthday. It doesn’t have anything to do with my disability since drinking has nothing to do with being blind. In fact, it could be argued that blind people could drink even more freely than sighted people since we don’t drive anyway.

     Partly, I won’t be drinking because I am already prone to addiction when it comes to other vices like chocolate, so I don’t even want to go down the alcohol path. Part of it is that I am a quiet kid not interested in being involved in social circles that go out and drink. Even if I were interested, my present situation makes being social kind of hard. For one thing, my college classes are often so demanding that I have to stay home and read on Saturday nights. For another, since I quickly found out dorm life wasn’t suitable for me and my guide dog freshman year, and the area where I live has no bus service, going to social events is really inconvenient. My parents are wonderful and try to reassure me that the half an hour drive to campus isn’t that far and they wouldn’t mind staying out late if I wanted to go to social events. Even so, the couple of times I have gone to social events, I feel guilty about imposing on my parents and don’t enjoy the event as much as a result. The events I have gone to have been alcohol free, and generally ended before 10:00, which my parents consider late. But since drinking events are often just getting started at 10:00 and could potentially last until 2:00 in the morning, I would feel even more guilty about making my parents take me to these events. Then there is the fact that I have older siblings who haven’t been compelling advertisements for why drinking is so exciting, when they would occasionally come home to visit the morning after overdoing it, groaning with a hangover headache. But the main reason I won’t be drinking on my 21st birthday is because my sense of taste and smell are hyper sensitive. I can smell a glass of wine on the other side of the table from me, and even at that distance, it smells so overpoweringly fruity that I want to gag, so there is no way I am bringing a wine glass to my mouth. While I will eat pretty much anything when it comes to solid food, there is something about the taste of liquids that is so sharp and unpleasant that believe it or not, the only beverages I will drink are white milk, and non-carbonated, unflavored water. Once I inadvertently picked up a glass that I thought was my water glass and didn’t realize it was the wrong glass until a drop of beer touched my tongue, and it had the most nasty bitter taste to me that I have no plans to try it ever again. But even though I won’t be drinking on my 21st birthday, my dad thought of the most ingenious idea for how I can still celebrate this legal milestone without having to drink. At midnight on the day of my birthday, Mom (the designated driver), Dad and I are going to walk in to a bar where I will proudly show my ID and buy my dad a beer. That way, I won’t have to drink, but I won’t miss out on the milestone every college student talks about obsessively for months–the moment when they can legally buy alcohol! But as this milestone approaches, I am reminded of another milestone five years ago that I thought would mean nothing as a blind person, but again thanks to my dad, one that was still celebrated.

     As young as middle school, I remember my siblings dreaming of the day when they would be eligible for freedom in the form of a driver’s license, but as a blind person, I was always aware that a driver’s license wouldn’t be a privilege I would enjoy. This may change in my lifetime because the National Federation of the Blind has partnered with Virginia tech to create a special car that gives the blind feedback to drive independently. But I think this car is still in development, and even when it is on the market, I imagine it may take awhile for blind and sighted people alike to trust that such a car would be safe and reliable. So for now, a driver’s license is still out of reach.

     I actually don’t really mind not being able to drive. It is a pain to have to impose on my parents to drive me everywhere, and while other students love it when their last class of the day gets out early, I hate it because it means I have to sit and wait since my parents anticipated picking me up at the regular time and thus are running errands or doing other things and cannot come right away. But since I have been blind pretty much my whole life (I went blind because of a brain tumor that destroyed my optic nerve when I was six months old), I am not depressed by these little inconveniences because they have always been just a normal part of life for me. And in addition to the potential to drink more freely if I wanted to, not driving also means I can use the commute to school to get some reading done, do some last minute studying for tests or take a short nap if I was up late finishing homework the night before! But when all of your classmates are raving about how excited they are to get their driver’s license on their sixteenth birthday, it is hard not to feel a little down about the fact that you wouldn’t be able to drive. But then, just like now, Dad came to the rescue with an ingenious idea. After breakfast on the morning of my sixteenth birthday, a Sunday, Dad and I got in to our ’89 Toyota Camry and my dad drove to an empty parking lot. Then, my dad and I switched seats! After giving me a crash course (get the pun? haha!) on how to use the brake pedal and steering wheel, I got to drive! I think my dad manned the gas pedal as a precaution against accidents in case I pressed it too hard. But I got to have my foot on top of his, and I was in charge of braking and steering.

     “Okay, turn left now,” he would say and I got to experience turning the wheel and feeling the car turn left under my control.

     I wasn’t exactly the smoothest driver at first. You definitely would not have wanted to ride along with me if you are prone to getting carsick because when my dad said “brake now”, I would panic and slam the brake. But after awhile, my dad reassured me that when he said “brake now”, it wasn’t BRAKE NOW! as in “you’re about to slam in to a tree!” “Brake now” meant I had time to come to a slow gentle stop. I think I drove for about twenty minutes, by the end of which time I was quite proud of my driving skills. Maybe Dad got a few more gray hairs, but there were no crashes–not even a fender bender!

     But more importantly, I was on cloud 9 when I went to school the next day. I didn’t have a driver’s license, but I excitedly told all my friends and teachers that the milestone was celebrated! I drove on my sixteenth birthday!

     As a funny side note, about a year later, we sold the ’89 Toyota Camry and replaced it with a 2007 Mazda. One day, on our way to church in the new car, there was hardly any traffic so my dad said “Would you like to steer?”

     “Sure!” I said, fond birthday memories flooding back to me.

     Now in the Toyota Camry, making turns took a lot of effort. I remember having to turn the wheel a full 180 degrees before I felt the car turn. Not realizing that every steering wheel is different, when Dad said “turn right” I proceeded to give the wheel a strong 180 degree turn, when my dad screamed, grabbed the wheel and never offered me the chance to drive again.

     But if I never get to drive again, that would be alright with me. Like I mentioned, since I have been blind pretty much my whole life, not being able to drive is a minor inconvenience which I have learned to accept. I have even found advantages of not having to drive. The only time my disability ever brought me down was hearing my friends talk about getting their driver’s license, a milestone which I thought would mean nothing for me. But while sitting at the bar with my dad on my 21st birthday, me with a champagne glass of water and him drinking a beer on my behalf, I am going to thank him for finding a way for me to celebrate that milestone, tell him how this milestone reminds me of that wonderful drive celebrating the milestone of turning sixteen five years before, and thank him for showing me that just because I have a disability doesn’t mean milestones cannot be celebrated.