I RECALL many incidents of the summer of 1887 that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.
When the time of daisies and buttercups came Miss Sullivan took me by the hand across the fields, where men were preparing the earth for the seed, to the banks of the Tennessee River, and there, sitting on the warm grass, I had my first lessons in the beneficence of nature. I learned how the sun and the rain make to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, how birds build their nests and live and thrive from land to land, how the squirrel, the deer, the lion and every other creature finds food and shelter. As my knowledge of things grew I felt more and more the delight of the world I was in. Long before I learned to do a sum in arithmetic or describe the shape of the earth, Miss Sullivan had taught me to find beauty in the fragrant woods, in every blade of grass, and in the curves and dimples of my baby sister’s hand. She linked my earliest thoughts with nature, and made me feel that “birds and flowers and I were happy peers.”
But about this time I had an experience which taught me that nature is not always kind. One day my teacher and I were returning from a long ramble. The morning had been fine, but it was growing warm and sultry when at last we turned our faces homeward. Two or three times we stopped to rest under a tree by the wayside. Our last halt was was under a wild cherry tree a short distance from the house. The shade was grateful, and the tree was so easy to climb that with my teacher’s assistance I was able to scramble to a seat in the branches. It was so cool up in the tree that Miss Sullivan proposed that we have our luncheon there. I promised to keep still while she went to the house to fetch it.
Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun’s warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odour came up from the earth. I knew it, it was the odour that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at my heart. I felt absolutely alone, cut off from my friends and the firm earth. The immense, the unknown, enfolded me. I remained still and expectant; a chilling terror crept over me. I longed for my teacher’s return; but above all things I wanted to get down from that tree.
There was a moment of sinister silence, then a multitudinous stirring of the leaves. A shiver ran through the tree, and the wind sent forth a blast that would have knocked me off had I not clung to the branch with might and main. The tree swayed and strained. The small twigs snapped and fell about me in showers. A wild impulse to jump seized me, but terror held me fast. I crouched down in the fork of the tree. The branches lashed about me. I felt the intermittent jarring that came now and then, as if something heavy had fallen and the shock had traveled up till it reached the limb I sat on. It worked my suspense up to the highest point, and just as I was thinking the tree and I should fall together, my teacher seized my hand and helped me down. I clung to her, trembling with joy to feel the earth under my feet once more. I had learned a new lesson–that nature “wages open war against her children, and under softest touch hides treacherous claws.”
After this experience it was a long time before I climbed another tree. The mere thought filled me with terror. It was the sweet allurement of the mimosa tree in full bloom that finally overcame my fears. One beautiful spring morning when I was alone in the summer-house, reading, I became aware of a wonderful subtle fragrance in the air. I started up and instinctively stretched out my hands. It seemed as if the spirit of spring had passed through the summer-house. “What is it?” I asked, and the next minute I recognized the odour of the mimosa blossoms. I felt my way to the end of the garden, knowing that the mimosa tree was near the fence, at the turn of the path. Yes, there it was, all quivering in the warm sunshine, its blossom-laden branches almost touching the long grass. Was there ever anything so exquisitely beautiful in the world before! Its delicate blossoms shrank from the slightest earthly touch; it seemed as if a tree of paradise had been transplanted to earth. I made my way through a shower of petals to the great trunk and for one minute stood irresolute; then, putting my foot in the broad space between the forked branches, I pulled myself up into the tree. I had some difficulty in holding on, for the branches were very large and the bark hurt my hands. But I had a delicious sense that I was doing something unusual and wonderful, so I kept on climbing higher and higher, until I reached a little seat which somebody had built there so long ago that it had grown part of the tree itself. I sat there for a long, long time, feeling like a fairy on a rosy cloud. After that I spent many happy hours in my tree of paradise, thinking fair thoughts and dreaming bright dreams.
I HAD now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others’ lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.
At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.
I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, “love.” This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, “I love Helen.”
“What is love?” I asked.
She drew me closer to her and said, “It is here,” pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.
I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, “Is love the sweetness of flowers?”
“No,” said my teacher.
Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.
“Is this not love?” I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. “Is this not love?”
It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.
A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups–two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, “Think.”
In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.
For a long time I was still–I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for “love” in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.
Again, I asked my teacher, “Is this not love?”
“Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,” she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.”
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind–I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.
From the beginning of my education Miss Sullivan made it a practice to speak to me as she would to any hearing child; the only difference was that she spelled the sentences into my hand instead of speaking them. If I did not know the words and idioms necessary to express my thoughts she supplied them, even suggesting conversation when I was unable to keep up my end of the dialogue.
This process was continued for several years; for the deaf child does not learn in a month, or even in two or three years, the numberless idioms and expressions used in the simplest daily intercourse. The little hearing child learns these from constant repetition and imitation. The conversation he hears in his home stimulates his mind and suggests topics and calls forth the spontaneous expression of his own thoughts. This natural exchange of ideas is denied to the deaf child. My teacher, realizing this, determined to supply the kinds of stimulus I lacked. This she did by repeating to me as far as possible, verbatim what she heard, and by showing me how I could take part in the conversation. But it was a long time before I ventured to take the initiative, and still longer before I could find something appropriate to say at the right time.
The deaf and the blind find it very difficult to acquire the amenities of conversation. How much more this difficulty must be augmented in the case of those who are both deaf and blind! They cannot distinguish the tone of the voice or, without assistance, go up and down the gamut of tones that give significance to words; nor can they watch the expression of the speaker’s face, and a look is often the very soul of what one says.
[Readers: Sadly, in July 2012 nothing has changed to guarantee the safety of disabled students regarding the hazards described in this photo essay written in 2006. See note at the end of the essay for more information on how this essay came to be written and why nothing has yet been done to secure the safety of disabled students.]
October 8, 2006
TO: Dr. Richard Devon
FROM: Joel Solkoff
SUBJECT: Unmarked dangers to wheelchair, scooter, power chair riders and the blind immediately to the left of the Leonard Building.
The Leonard Building is a useful landmark for people going from the White Course graduate dormitories in the direction of the Atherton Bridge and the crossings on Atherton Road that do not involve going across the bridge’s steep incline.
Looking at the map, if you go left and then across the Applied Sciences building, there appears to be a convenient right at the bridge at the Information and Technology building. Or, working one’s way through the White Course Parking lot, there eventually is a street cut, making it possible to cross Atherton on a level area.
My concern in September, 2006 was that after frequent crossings on the bridge, I would wind up on the sidewalk at Burrowes Road, going in the direction of College Avenue, only to find, on one of several occasions as many of three wet/drying pieces of sidewalk concrete and no place for a scooter to comfortably get around the often heavy traffic. So, I was driving my scooter around Leonard in the hope of finding a more convenient path to College Avenue.
Power chairs and wheelchairs are similarly low to the ground. Indeed, the blind have no way of knowing about this likely danger.
“Can I help you?” she says. “Yes, take my picture.” She does, rushing back up the stairs, wishing me luck.
[Note: The reference to “football culture” in the title of this post refers to the Freeh Report on the scandal at Penn State released in July 2012. It is my contention, as a former graduate student at Penn State with a disability and as one who is part of the elderly community, that the focus by powerful officials on football-above-all has also been used to cover up exploitation of disabled and elderly students and students who are veterans (especially disabled-veterans) and to discourage recruitment of such individuals to become students.
[During the Fall Semester of 2006, I successfully completed a graduate-level independent study course at the Department of Engineering with Dr. Richard Devon. The focus of my study was access for individuals with disabilities on Penn State‘s University Park campus. The photographic essay above is one of several documents provided to Dr. Devon, whose sponsorship provided me with the ability to interview Penn State officials responsible for disability services and the construction and maintenance of the physical design of the campus to meet the special needs of individuals with disabilities.
[I showed this essay to officials responsible for correcting hazards to individuals with disabilities. I received detailed confidential explanations that correcting them to assure safety was impossible since it would involve putting up signs and drawing attention to the presence of disabled individuals which President Graham Spanier had personally prohibited because of his concern that parents of prospective football players would be dissuaded from attending Penn State if they thought the school appeared to have too many individuals with disabilities.
[The dangers described in this essay continue despite the awareness of responsible officials. The requirement to change the “culture of football” which continues these abuses to disabled students continues to pose a challenge to the Trustees and Administrators at Penn State who are under the illusion that the findings of the Freeh report are limited to the sexual predatory practices of an individual who is now in jail and to former officials who failed to protect children.
[I plan to continue documenting details on the wide-ranging abuses by Penn State toward individuals who are disabled (including veterans), the elderly, and the community which is economically dependent upon Penn State until these abuses are recognized as part of what is popularly known as the Sandusky sex scandal and until these abuses are corrected. As Judge Freeh observed, wide-range reform is required for Penn State to recover from the worst scandal in its history and once again demonstrate that it is an institution devoted to education and the welfare of its students, faculty, employees, and community. “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”]
University Park, PA – On Thursday, September 22, at 9:30 a.m. Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering hosted a session entitled “Using Virtual Reality to Construct/Remodel Health Care Facilities & Independent Housing” in the Alumni Suite at the Nittany Lion Inn. [Listen to the entire session at the end of this posting.]
The session is part of the Pennsylvania Association of Rehabilitation Facilities’ (PARF) annual conference which defines the agenda for the Commonwealth’s disability community. PARF is a statewide organization of facilities serving individuals with physical, mental, social and/or emotional disabilities. This year, for the first time since PARF was established in 1969, the organization has reached out to Penn State’s Architectural Engineering Department for its expertise in virtual technology. Gene Bianco, PARF’s CEO and President explains, “I was impressed by the ability of 3-D and 4-D technology to help our membership cut costs while increasing quality.” [3-D provides images that appear life-life in three dimensions; 4-D adds time as a dimension, and so, when building a home for the elderly, provides the viewer with the ability to see the construction of the building during intervals, for example, of 3, 6, and 12 months.]
Panelists for the virtual reality session include architectural engineering professors Richard Behr and John Messner. Behr, as director of the Smart Spaces Center for adaptive aging in the community, has been called one of the country’s early prophets of the concept of “aging in place” as a way of preserving individual dignity and saving the considerable costs involved in institutionalization in assistive living facilities.
Messner, who as director of the Computer Integrated Construction (CIC) Research Program, has been using virtual reality to involve end users in the design to create hospitals, health care facilities, and housing for the elderly and disabled.
Panelist Sonali Kumar, a graduate research assistant to Messner, demonstrated two aspects of virtual reality directly related to the members of the audience who have signed up for this session. The first aspect is the work she has done in creating an animated 3-D model of a residence designed for an elderly family whose members may have a disability or may develop one over the course of the aging process.
The second aspect Kumar demonstrated is experience-based design, a generic description of a body of academic literature that focuses on the importance of consulting with users in the design process. There are a number of users and end users affected by the way health care and facilities for the aging are designed. They include, for example, residents of the facility, health care providers, maintenance personnel, and people involved with the construction. Kumar’s final model will reflect observations from elderly residents of Addison Court, a State College residence for the elderly, planned critiques from a member of the deaf community, and comments from the mobility disabled community. Kumar changed the model to reflect changes from a wheel chair-based observer who suggested replacing an additional bathtub with a roll-in shower.
The fifth and final panelist Joseph Fagnani provided the prospective of a likely resident of an independent living facility for the aged. Fagnani is an Altoona, Pa based visual disabilities advocate who has been legally blind since childhood. Fagnani has the understanding and skill to provide design suggestions to a model intended to visualize how construction takes place even though he is blind. One of Fagnani suggestions is that controls for the stove use voice synthesis to inform residents when burners are turned on and whether the heat is low, medium, or high.
The following organizations were represented by audience members who signed up for the session:
Transitional Services, based in the Pittsburgh area, provides up to 240 units of permanent housing in addition to temporary housing and services for individuals with mental disabilities leaving state mental facilities. The organization has $7.5 million in operating expenses and serves 390 individuals. http://www.transitionalservices.org/index.php
Clearfield-Jefferson Mental Health/Mental Retardation Program. With an annual budget of $4 million from federal and state sources, this organization provides a wide range of mental health services including housing. Participant Susan Hartzfeld, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) Director points out that her organization’s name will soon change to reflect legal and other requirements that the “r word is an inappropriate and insensitive designation.” http://www.cljmhmr.com/
JEVS Human Services, based in the Philadelphia area, serves more than 20,000 individuals each year. According to participant and JEVS Director Jill Rogers, the organization plans new housing construction for the up to 25 elderly and disabled residents and is looking forward to learning how virtual reality “can be a useful tool.” http://www.jevshumanservices.org/
Spectrum Community Services, based in Berks and Carbon counties, was originally founded in 1979 by a group of parents who were looking for living arrangements for their grown children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to a variety of housing options, SCS also provides support services. http://www.spectrumcommunityservices.org/
Allied Services, serving the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, provides rehabilitation medicine, senior care, home health care, and vocational and residential services. The organization, which serves nearly 5,000 people a day, is the largest employer in northeastern Pennsylvania. http://www.allied-services.org/
Special thanks to Joseph Fagnani for not only participating, but for recording the session and making it available. http://www.altoonamirror.com/page/content.detail/id/530388/Blind-man-looks-past-disability-to-help-others.html Of course, thanks to BCC without whom this would not be here.
The following is my May, 2010 column From Where I Sit for Voices of Central Pennsylvania:
Imagine racing a Ferrari F430 (worth $406,000) at nearly 182 miles per hour and being blind since the age of three. This event took place last month at an airport in Turkey where Metin Fenturk, a folksinger, broke the Guinness “world record for fastest unaccompanied blind driver” previously held by a British manufacturer. On winning, Fenturk said, “I don‘t knowi there are any words to describe this feeling. I am completely happy. It was really hard, like a dance with death:” [See http://voicesweb.org/driving-blind]
On a less-than-pedestrian note, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University(Virginia Tech) has made a major contribution to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) challenge: Design an automobile for an individual who is totally blind to drive safely to and from work by oneself. “Can you imagine a blind person behind the wheel of a car?” the narrator of a video produced by Virginia Tech asks. “Well today it may not be long before you won’t need to imagine.” Virginia Tech’s vehicle was driven by a person who is totally blind and successfully passed a parking lot driving course of considerable complexity.
Virginia Tech’s Steven Mackay, at the engineering college, told me this month two Ford Hybrids are arriving to be retrofitted for people who cannot see. I have been trying frantically to understand the intricacies involved with this technology. My mind is overflowing with technical details I do not yet understand. Meanwhile, Mackay’s clear explanation will have to suffice:
“This laser sensor, mounted on the front of the…vehicle, operates similar to sonar. It sends out a laser beam that will bounce back to the device as it hits an obstacle. The sensor then figures out the distance to the obstacle by measuring the time of flight of the laser beam. As the laser sweeps the environment, the computer constructs a map of all obstacles around the vehicle.”
Here in State College, a discussion with Cary Supalo provides context to encouraging developments for career training for blind students and how Virginia Tech technology energized an NFB science camp when camp members lined up eagerly for their turn to drive. Supalo is president of the local chapter of the NFB, but he is best known for his Penn State career in chemistry. Supalo has a master’s degree on the subject at Penn State and is expected soon to obtain a doctorate and a job as a professional chemist.
Supalo‘s work to encourage blind children to take math, science and engineering courses has been exceptional. As someone who has recently begun a job [technically “a job training program” with the opportunity of a permanent position], I look with hope to Supalo’s lead.
My job for the Altoona-based Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind is to find jobs for people who want to work but cannot see. Most people who are blind in Altoona and want work do not have the educational background to do anything but themost menial work. Altoona has a surplus of “able-bodied” u n e m p l o y e d workers who can’t find work. On the order of the ladder, in these still difficult economic times, people with disabilities are at the bottom. The immediate solution is to work to improve the economic situation as a whole throughout central Pennsylvania. As the expression goes, “All boats rise with a high tide.”
Meanwhile, the orchestration of Virginia Tech’s successful test has Supalo’s handwork written all over it. Supalo is an energetic leader. When I visited Supalo’s office, he was developing professionally required tests a blind chemist can perform independently. Supalo, who is charming and astoundingly energetic, comes closer to anyone I have met to having the charisma to lead the emerging disability rights movement—a movement that badly needs leaders.
The Jernigan Research Institute wrote the following about Supalo: “His loves are helping blind students expand their comforzones, assisting them to stretch their minto go beyond societal limitations placed on
them since birth and encouraging them to strive to follow their dreams.”
The best job a disabled person can have is one that is part of a career— well-paid, stable, leading to advancement and providing profession rewards. Our disability community through central Pennsylvania must work vigorously to change our area’s education system so students graduate from high school after mastering basic requirements so becoming a scientist is an achievable goal. As a society, we are wasting the talent of the physically disabled whatever their individual career goals. This waste is not only a crime; it is bad for the economy.
“…Dr. [Margaret] Pfanstiehl…said her goal was to engage the sight-deprived to‘live a 20/20 existence without 20/20 vision.’”
–from The Washington Post.
Dr. Pfanstiehl, mourned last month in a Maryland ceremony, was blind and promoted audio description technology to the point where a blind patron can hear audio description of dance.
From where I sit on my $5,000 power chair, two issues come to mind immediately. First, President Obama, the man I supported to be president, plans to reduce the Medicare budget by nearly half a trillion dollars. These cuts, intended to help pay for health care reform, have come on top of procedures that hurt me and others who are elderly or disabled. The argument is that current and future cuts will reduce “fraud
and abuse.” Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.’s fraud and abuse prosecutions are notable for their relative insignificance.
The second issue that comes to mind is when elderly and disabled voters are organized,
they constitute an effective voting bloc. As I write this column in Addison Court in State College, I note that Addison Court has about 90 residents who are 55 or older or who have disabilities or impairments.
Most of us are registered and vote even in low-turnout elections. Addison Court now has a tradition of iinviting candidates to inform our residents about the issues. To date, residents (eating
Elaine Mede-Wilgusr donated food from Webster’s Café) have heard R e p r e s e n t a t i v e
Glenn (GW) Thompson, his challenger Mark C. McCracken (currently a Clearfield County commissioner),
Assemblyman Scott Conklin, State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, and four State
College Borough Council candidates representing both major parties.
When George Bush was president, he attacked Medicare, creating barriers that
made it more difficult for eligible citizens to obtain medical oxygen for homecare,
wheelchairs, power chairs and scooters.
To take me as an example, in March 2008 a power chair was prescribed for me after (in-patient
hospitalization at Health South). I received a thorough evaluation from physical and
occupational therapy. My physician, Dr Colin McCaul, a specialist in rehabilitation,
prescribed the chair because he said it would be useful for me to have more support
for my right arm, helping to avoid surgery.
It would also be useful teaching my left arm how to perform functions previously
done by my right. The chair’s controls are on my left causing much trouble
before I finally learned how to drive lefthanded.
Medicare required that I go through an hour-and-a-half test with a rehabilitation
specialist. After passing the test, I saw Dr. McCaul in the hallway. The rehabilitation specialist
emphasized the importance of the doctor scheduling a one-on-one appointment devoted strictly to why I need a power chair and to be followed by a paper prescription with the magic words on top “after a one-on-one appointment.”
Since I had seen Dr. McCaul immediately before the test, he said it wasn’t necessary
to meet again. He would take care of it. Medicare, which has been consistently negligent in explaining the rules to physicians rejected the prescription and would not pay. The prescription was not written in keeping with Medicare regulations. [How I obtained payment from an agency other than Medicare
is a story for another time.]
When Obama became president I thought he would reverse those policies. He has
made things worse. Especially distressing is that while Obama has been busy with health
care reform in which Medicare was a significant factor, he had not named a director of
Medicare, the largest health insurance company in the United States. Assistive technology
(which gets me from bed to the bathroom reliably) generally helps the disabled
avoid assistive living (which costs Medicare more than $40,000 extra per person
per year than independent living. Also, independent living
allows a greater sense of independence and helping to improve morale.
I said in my last column that I would discuss John Wayne’s comment that after
cancer surgery he did not feel sorry forhimself, despite the temptation. Wayne
proved it by getting back to work, filming a movie only two weeks after surgery.
For those of us who are disabled, not feeling sorry means having the equipment to
get a job, equipment suc as that listed above.
Assistive technology for the blind especially have resulted in
very exciting developments Disgracefully, technology that is very
useful to help individuals who are blind gain indepence
is not paid by Medicare. We also need technology for those who cannot
hear—only some of which is paid for, including controversial cochlear implants.
The most effective message to the Democratic Party is the creation of a bloc
within the party that will vote strictly on disability and aged concerns—a bloc which
will flirt with the Republicans if it does any good. [It should go without saying that this
bloc would include disabled veterans, but all too often veterans are neglected even
when intentions are best.]
—Joel Solkoff, author of “The Politics of
Food.” Contact him at [email protected]