blind person uses cane to cross street

It was a beautiful, sunny Texas day in November. I admit I didn’t much notice that, though, because I was late to class. I was nearly finished with the first semester of my junior year at UNT, and I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I wasn’t known for being the relaxed type back then.

OK, Mel, I thought. You can do this. Instead of taking my usual, longer route to class, I decided to cut through center campus. Despite my efforts to draw inner peace from the misting fountains by the library mall, my shoulders were tense with the presence of what seemed to be nearly a quarter of our student body populating the area, with no reason to convene aside from the gorgeous weather.

A group of girls was headed my way. We were sharing a relatively narrow path, so there wasn’t much time for me to slink off to the side and let them through.

SNAP!

One of them tripped on my cane. Hard.

Neither she nor her friends checked to see if I was OK; they just apologized, still giggling, and skittered away.

I was slack-jawed and spellbound. I wanted to scream at them for abandoning me, but no words came. This was a rarity for me, since back then I was affectionately known amongst my friends for being the blind girl with sidewalk rage.

So much for getting to class. How was I even going to get home? I knew my way around flawlessly, but without the security of a functional cane, my steps were halted and completely devoid of confidence amidst this sea of people. Not to mention that there were two street crossings between points A and B. And what could be done about my cane? How long would it take me to get a new one? Why had it never occurred to me to have a backup on hand? Suddenly I’d gone from being completely independent to completely helpless. I wanted to despise that girl for being able to navigate the campus with what seemed to be the utmost ease. I wanted to despise her for lacking the decency to rectify what I knew had been an accident at first but, now that she’d left me to my own devices, was starting to feel more like an act of carelessness. This was a matter of survival, however, and although I was devastated, I knew I hadn’t the time for that way of thinking.

Picking up the pieces of my cane, and what little I could of my dignity, I made my way to the nearest wall, then sat with my back to it and my knees drawn protectively against my chest. In tears, I called a mentor with the disabilities office and left her a desperate voicemail asking if she could send someone to walk me home. As I pressed “End,” I heard someone approach me.

“Are you OK?” asked a female voice that, though soft, held its own over the ambient noise of the crowd.

“Someone tripped over my cane and broke it,” I sobbed, wondering if my words were even intelligible and hating how weak I sounded and felt. “I know where I am, but I don’t think I can get home safely.”

“Can I help you?” she offered, then added with some urgency, “And can I please give you a hug?”

I pocketed my cell, picked up the remains of my cane once more and stood, however shakily. Feeling more than a little embarrassed by the situation, I was glad to hide my face in her willing shoulder for a moment.

“I’m Cortni, by the way,” she said, smiling as we broke contact.

“I’m Mel,” I replied through a lump in my throat, wiping the tears from my cheeks and trying desperately to keep fresh ones at bay. “Thank you. I had no idea what to do.”

“Where do you live, Mel?”

“Maple. We’re not far, actually.”

“Not at all! I go to Wesley a lot, and it’s pretty much right next door.”

Cortni came to my side and offered her elbow, like she’d done it a thousand times, and together, we headed south toward my dorm, chatting all the way. I wasn’t sure why all this had happened, exactly, but my gratitude for the love and kindness of a stranger, now a friend, overrode my momentary self-pity. Cortni and I had little contact after that, but I’ll never forget what she did for me.

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There are many aspects of blindness that I wish were more universally understood: What we typically do and do not need help with, the fact that we’d much rather have people ask questions than say nothing at all and the reality that just because we do everyday things a bit differently, we aren’t performing magical, wondrous feats by any means.

But these problems can be solved fairly quickly once you become friends with a blind person, sit down to think seriously about them or do a Google search. So instead of sounding like every “How to Interact With a Blind Person” article ever, I’ve put together a list of the top 10 mistakes that even my friends and family sometimes make. Even though they don’t happen often, they are the kind of gaffes that tend to hurt or bother me the most when they do occur.

1. Don’t play games. Playing childhood games like “How many fingers am I holding up?” and “I’m going to pretend I’m not in the room with you” are not cute or funny.

2. No surprises. You may think it’s funny to run up behind your blind friend, playfully grab them and yell, “Boo!” But it will never, ever be funny to us. If you do this, you will probably either get punched or feel the pain of our cane introducing itself to your kneecaps.

3. Mess with my cane, and you shall regret it. Never take or move anyone’s mobility aid without asking. If you’d like to look at it, or even take it for a spin, by all means ask. I’ll most likely let you. But you’d better not run off with it or leave me stranded somewhere without it.

Also, if I don’t have my cane for whatever reason, it would be extra nice if you’d let me know you’re aware of this and are keeping an eye out.

blind woman hugging dog

4. I do not need an interior decorator. I know sometimes it’s an accident, but please don’t move my things without telling me. Especially if we’re at my house, and you move something then leave. Rearranging my stuff to fit feng shui principles could cost me a few hours.

5. Sighted does not equal superior. Sometimes sighted people like tell me how to dress and present myself in a condescending tone. I can’t see what I look like, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own sense of self, identity and image. If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it. But generally, I prefer compassion, not a list of “you coulds” and “you shoulds.”

6. Quit comparing. Blindness is just one trait. It doesn’t have any bearing on anything else about blind people as individuals. We come in all different flavors — like ice cream. We don’t like being compared to other blind people. “He could do this independently, why can’t you?” “He liked audiobooks, why don’t you?” “He wasn’t awkward, why are you?”

Perhaps worse is being held up alongside famous blind people like Helen Keller and Stevie Wonder. We can’t all be blind freaking superheroes and, more to the point, most of us don’t want to be blind freaking superheroes. Most of us are just normal people who happen to be blind.

7. Be a sensitive sighted guide. Unlike many blind people, I’m not particularly fussy about how I walk with sighted guides. If we’re close, warm-and-fuzzy pals, I’ll most likely link arms or hold hands with you. If we’re more formal acquaintances, I’ll do the traditional hand-on-elbow sighted guide. But here’s the bottom line: Don’t ever clench my wrist or hand in a vise-like grip and yank me around like I’m a 2-year-old. Don’t push and pull me by the shoulders, shove me from point-to-point with your hand on my back or fling your hands all over me in an attempt to show me where to go. Not acceptable.

8. Either ignore the blind flails or help. If you happen to notice me fumbling around looking for my drink or my napkin, see my cane get stuck in a crack in the sidewalk and slam me in the chest or watch as I get spectacularly lost and wander around in circles trying to get my bearings, please don’t make a big scene about it.

My blindness-related shortcomings aren’t fair game for dinnertime story hour, unless I make it plain that a healthy dose of teasing commentary is OK and won’t upset me. I’ll love you forever if you ignore these blind flails, or if you laugh them off with me and keep them between us. I’ll love you even more if you can see a blind flail coming and can help me avoid it in a discreet manner (this, of course, takes some practice.)

9. Don’t be dismissive. If I confide in you that something’s tough or scary for me because blindness adds an extra layer, please don’t discount my feelings by saying, “Everyone feels like that sometimes.” I appreciate that you’re trying to make me feel better and less alone, but this type of response can come across as flippant. It’s as if you’re thinking, “Don’t think you’re such a tragic, special, uniquely broken little snowflake just because you’re blind.” Do we all struggle? Of course. But blindness can indisputably make our struggles different. If I’m revealing blindness vulnerability, which I rarely will unless I trust you quite a lot, it will mean the world to feel listened to, understood and validated.

10. I do not exist to make you look awesome. Don’t make a big, braggy show of helping me, so you’ll look like a hero in front of the guy you have a crush on. Don’t talk about me patronizingly as if I’m Baby Einstein: “Look what Caitlin can do all by herself! Isn’t she so smart?” And don’t treat me like a trained seal: “Caitlin, show everyone how you Braille, use the computer and walk a straight line!” If you just ask me nicely, “Caitlin, would you mind showing us how you text?” I’ll be happy to do a demo nine times out of 10.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe a time you saw your disability, illness and/or disease through the eyes of someone else. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected]. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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What does beauty mean to a person who can’t see?

That’s the question at the center of the commercial below. Dove asked three Swedish women who have lost their sight to describe beauty. The video is part of Dove’s international campaign called #ChooseBeauty.

It comes from within,” Naomi Allback, who has been blind for 15 years, says in the video below. “If you radiate warmth, humility and love, then you are beautiful to me.”

Watch the video below for more on how these women perceive beauty:

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Mickey Sarrialle is a hang gliding pilot, Tommy Hollenstein is an artist and Chad Allen is a magician, but they all have something in common. They’re living their dreams despite obstacles. In the video below, around the 1:48 mark, each man reveals what could have held him back in life but didn’t. Their stories are a wonderful reminder that we all face challenges, and perhaps, that’s our greatest similarity.

Want to learn more about the men in this video? Here are three things we learned while filming Mickey, Tommy and Chad.

Mickey Sarraille, Wildomar, California

1. Mickey has been hang gliding for 32 years. He started on a sand hill in Mexico and is now part of the Lake Elsinore E-Team. He hang glides two or three times a week.

2. He’s always loved flying high. “As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut and then I wanted to be an airline pilot.”

3. He chooses to compete against “regular” athletes instead of in para-athletic sports. “I think one of the hardest parts is not only the physical but the mental part — people look at you differently. I don’t want to be treated differently, I’m still a whole person, just missing a part.”

You can watch his hang gliding footage on Mickey’s YouTube channel.

Tommy Hollenstein, Canoga Park, California

1. His service dog Weaver inspired him to start painting. “I got my first service dog, and as he started to get older, I wanted something to memorialize all those good times we had together. So, I rolled through paint one day, had him walk through it, and I saw a set of tire track and paw prints, thinking, ‘Oh wow, that’s really cool.’ That’s how I knew I wanted to be an artist.”

2. Tommy did food art. After going to restaurant business management school at Orange Coast College, Tommy made a 50-pound banana squash into Noah’s ark and turned watermelons into rabbits.

3. He believes the backstory is just as important as the art itself. “A lot of people come to the gallery without knowing the technique, without knowing the backstory — just for the art. I want it to speak to them. You don’t have to be disabled to have a challenge.”

Check out Tommy’s website.

Chad Allen, Los Angeles, California

1. Most people think of magic as a visual experience, but Chad but didn’t start practicing magic until after he started losing his vision. “I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 15, but I didn’t really start practicing the performing aspect of magic until I was 21.”

2. Chad does more than magic. He also tap dances, emcees burlesque shows and plays the blues harmonica.

3. Chad’s magic tricks are on the big screen. He is featured in the documentary, “Dealt,” about the magician Richard Turner. Chad is also known for card tricks, sleight of hand and his billiard balls routine.

Visit Chad’s website.

This video was produced by Wire Walker Studios, a media company for social change.

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I wasn’t exactly thrilled about starting second grade. After all, first grade hadn’t been a picnic. Learning to practice cane techniques and street-crossing meant I was frequently pulled away from recess. I’d overheard my parents’ concerns about my constant “t-a-l-k-i-n-g” in class; they worried the many visual activities and my resulting boredom were to blame.

Though I could speed through easy chapter books and correctly spell most of the big words in the long stories I wrote, I still couldn’t make heads or tails of most math problems and graphs. And P.E., which I’d eagerly awaited ever since my older sister had told me about it, was one of the biggest disappointments of all.

“You can’t always be with Cati,” an adult would invariably lecture whenever my best friend took my hand to run alongside me during capture the flag. Cati never cared that helping me would slow her down, but most of our classmates certainly did. Each day during P.E., I was shunted from classmate to classmate until Cati inevitably wound up holding my hand once again. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to sense that my blindness made me different; most people wouldn’t really, truly want me on their team the way Cati did.

In spite of my misgivings, the first day of second grade rolled along without a hitch. I paged through my new Braille books during silent reading, made it to and from the cafeteria by myself and joyfully reunited with the jungle gym, swings and monkey bars during recess.

For the final activity on that first day, we were to take turns contributing to a group painting. My table was called first, but before I had time to panic, Mr. Damaschino himself guided me to the back of the room. As my table-mates chattered nearby, Mr. Damaschino leaned down to my level. “What would you like to paint, Caitlin?”

“The sky,” I said shyly. “But I don’t know how, except we have to use blue.”

Mr. Damaschino placed a paintbrush between my fingers, directed it to a jar of paint, and guided my brush-strokes as expertly as if he assisted amateur blind artists every day of his life.

“Would you like to hear a secret?” he asked, still in a conspiratorial stage whisper.

“Yes!” I was awed by the prospect of hearing a real live teacher’s secret.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “but there was a big fight at the last staff meeting.”

“There was?” I was astonished; I couldn’t imagine teachers fighting. “About what?”

Mr. Damaschino chuckled. “About which of us would get to have you in our class. All the teachers wanted you, but I wanted you the most, so I told them they couldn’t have you.”

I thought about P.E. and about being passed from hand to unwilling hand. What my new teacher was saying didn’t jive with my own experience.

Mr. Damaschino was still guiding my hand—still helping me paint my sky—but nonetheless, he must have seen the perplexity on my face. “I’ve heard—from many people—that you’re a very smart, very special girl.” He gave my fingers a gentle squeeze. “I think we’re going to have a wonderful time together.”

woman with her retired guide dog and rainbow cane

And we did. I worked hard on my math in the hopes of earning Mr. Damaschino’s signature smiley-face stickers. I sat with the girls at lunchtime and went on countless playdates after school. The boys were quick to defend me when kids from other classes pulled down my sunglasses or cut in front of me in line, and they never once balked when I asked to join their games of tackle football.

Our class was encouraged to write letters to one another, which were delivered daily by the mail monitor. Knowing how much I loved to keep my friends’ words, Mr. Damaschino made sure that the notes my peers wrote to me were translated into braille. I learned to touch-type, and Mr. Damaschino promised that, one day, I would be an author. And through it all, I came to understand that though I might not be everyone’s first choice—though my differences might initially cause others to hang back—I could and would win them over in the end, simply by being myself.

On my first day of second grade, when Mr. Damaschino helped me paint my sky, we painted it without limits.

The Mighty is asking the following: Can you describe the moment someone changed the way you think about a disability or disease? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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Dear Blindness,

As with all good and bad memories, the day you came into my life is a day I will never forget. After years of being able to see, imagine my surprise when you showed up.

At first, I hated you. You took so much away from me! Because of you, I would never drive a car again, I would never see the sunshine or the smile on my husband’s face. Because of you, I would no longer see the flowers blooming in the spring after a long hard winter. Because of you, I would no longer have a life.

Or so I thought.

But…

Because of you, I don’t worry about getting stressed out fighting with traffic.

Because of you I hear the smile in my husband’s voice.

Because of you I feel the warmth of the sun upon my face or the coolness of the rain against my skin.

Because of you, instead of looking for the color of the rose I actually take the time to smell it.

Because of you, dear Blindness, I’m no longer afraid to speak to strangers, and some of those strangers have become dear friends.

Because of you, I no longer sit on the side lines while others advocate for what is right. I’m leading the pack!

So, I have to say, dear Blindness, for everything you took and for all the anger and tears you caused, you gave me so much in return. You didn’t take my life; you just taught me a different way to live it. In a way, you helped me find the person deep inside I always was.

You gave me, me.

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The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could write a letter to the disability or disease you (or a loved one) face, what would you say to it? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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