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Disability Life
Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities
 

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In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt

by Homer Page

The cold, soaking rain beat down on Ira Graves. His feet had gotten wet when he stepped in a pool of water as he crossed the street. His rain coat no longer shed the driving rain. He was cold and wet and sick with the flu. He felt for the first time in his life, thoroughly defeated.

Ira Graves had always been a winner. He kept a positive attitude. Oh, sure, he had challenges, but he always conquered them. But not this time. This time, he wanted to sit down and cry.

Now, he wondered, if all those times in the past, when he had made excuses, laughed off painful disappointments, ignored the obvious, were not just bumps in the road as he had told himself, but rather were the deeper truths of his life. He remembered when he had wanted to compete for the trip to visit the United Nations. His high school World History teacher had refused to let him enter the competition. "You would probably win," she said. "And how would you be able to go by yourself?" There was no arguing allowed to him. He listened to the speeches of the others. His anger boiled, but he knew that if he spoke, he would be told that he had a chip on his shoulder. His teacher only wanted the best for him, he needed to learn to accept his limitations, and more and more and more, so he said nothing, and listened and knew he could have won.

There were other times. He remembered the children telling him that he could not play with them because they did not want him to get hurt. He remembered when his friends began to drift away when they got cars and driverís licenses, and he remembered the words of the girl who he invited to the prom. "You are nice, and I would like to go with you, but I would be embarrassed with my friends."

"How could I have been so stupid?" he thought. "How could I have convinced myself that I could be like other people and have a real life?"

His dismal mood was made more dismal by the traffic that splashed cold, muddy water on him, and by the woman who angrily said to him, "Watch where you are going! You almost ran into me."

"Iím sorry," he said sincerely apologetic for frightening her. He wished that he could talk with her and make her understand that he had not heard her. He didnít know that she was standing on the narrow sidewalk. He did not want to hurt her, but he knew that she was gone and would not speak with a strange man in any case. His loneliness and despair stooped his shoulders and took his breath away. This walk home seemed as if it would never end.

Ira Graves unlocked the door to his student apartment. He pulled off his soggy shoes, threw his dripping rain coat over a chair, and walked in the bathroom to get a towel to wipe the water from his hair and face. He almost called Michelleís name, but he stopped himself. "She isnít here," he told himself.

Earlier in the afternoon, Ira had met with his major professor. He had asked for permission to drop out of his classes for the semester while he tried to get his life together. He explained that Chelle had left him, and that he was distraught. He did not believe that he could work in his current state of mind. His professor was understanding and he had gone to the department office and taken care of the paperwork. Ira felt relieved, but strangely empty and confused. He had to decide what to do with the next several months, and he needed to own up to that horrible growing doubt about ever finishing his graduate program or finding a career and a job. His future seemed, at that moment, as dismal as the cold, pouring rain.

II.

Ira needed a job, but he didnít know what he could do. He called a friend and asked her if she would read the want ads in the newspaper to him. She agreed, and they spent several days looking through the listings. He signed up to take a number of State Civil Service examinations. He called for interviews. He spoke with a mother who wanted a tutor for her learning disabled son. He was told wherever he went, how well qualified he was, and how interesting he was, but he received no job offers. He began to wonder if he would ever get a chance to prove what he could do. Finally, Ira went to see a vocational rehabilitation counselor. The counselor was blind. Ira told him his problems, and the counselor listened. "Have you ever worked in a shop?" the man asked.

"No," Ira answered. "I have a Masterís degree. A sheltered work shop is not where I want to end up."

"No one wants to end up there, but if you want to work, that may be your only chance. There isnít a great market for blind men trained in theology and the liberal arts," the counselor remarked.

"I have another problem," Ira said. "Once I had enough vision to travel without a cane, but I am losing what usable vision I have. I need to get a cane and learn to use it," he admitted.

"Okay," the man said. "I will arrange for a mobility instructor to spend some time with you. This is a big step. How do you feel about it?"

"I really feel lousy about it. Right now, everything is going wrong. This is just one more thing. I donít want to use a cane. It makes a statement that I donít want to make. I want to live in the real world. I donít want to work in a sheltered work shop, and live in a blind world. I donít want people to stare at me and feel pity. I have higher expectations for myself than that."

"Itís good to have high expectations, but you have to be realistic. No matter how good you think you are, the sighted world has to share your assessment, and they do not. So, you have to adjust or you will have a very unhappy life," the counselor told him.

"I need to work with your cane travel instructor," Ira said. "Iíll get back to you about the sheltered shop employment. I will have to think about that. Iím not ready to settle for that kind of job just yet."

"All right," the counselor said. "You just let me know when youíre ready to talk some more."

Ira left the office shaking inside. "Is this really what I am going to end up doing?" he asked himself. "I will not give up," he pledged, but he was full of doubt. "I need to get away and think," he said to himself.

III.

Chelle was a small, squarish woman with short arms and legs. She had large, brown eyes, and fine, thin hair that caused her to wear a wig at all times. On occasion, she could be very pretty, and Ira loved her deeply.

Chelle had a flair to her. She had energy and creativity. She was loyal to her friends, and they to her. She rebelled against her parents by dating boys that her father considered to be losers. Ira was one of them.

Chelle married Ira under protest from her parents. Her father did not attend the wedding. "He will never be able to support you," he told her. "And I wonít support the two of you." At first, Chelle was angry with her father, but then she began to wonder if he was right.

Robert Owens was Chelleís father. He was the first person in his family to attend college. His family had neither money, nor class. He had gone into business and made a success of it. He and his family made the move to suburbia, and while they never felt fully at home, they had money and they had pretensions.

Chelle wanted to be a dancer, but she really wasnít good enough. That was very hard for her to accept, so she blamed Ira for choosing a university that was located in a city where she insisted no appropriate dance company existed. Chelle wanted Ira to attend graduate school in another city where she thought she might have more opportunity. Her choice for Ira was bad for him, and he refused, but his choice didnít satisfy her, and she rebelled.

Chelle had an affair, and then she had another one. She left Ira and moved in with her boyfriend. They tried to talk. "I want to have an affair with life," she explained. But Ira could not understand.

Chelle promoted Ira seeing one of her friends. This new woman loved him, and pulled him back from the edge. Chelleís relationship fell apart, and she wanted Ira back, for good and bad reasons. He agreed. Chelle got a job and Ira went back to school. They survived for several more years until Chelle once more rebelled and sought an affair with life.

IV.

"I canít deal with your blindness," Chelle sobbed. "People look at us when we go out. I have to drive the car. There are times when I have to be responsible when a man should take charge. Sometimes you are dependent on me, and II donít want anyone to be dependent on me. I donít want to be your reader. I want you to notice when I look sexy, but you canít. I am tired of people telling me how wonderful I am when Iím not wonderful at all." She cried until she made herself ill.

"I love you, Chelle," Ira told her. "But I canít go through this anymore." They divorced. Ira found a job and moved away. He made new friends. He met other blind people, and he met Judith.

V.

"I was so angry and hurt," he told Judith. "I couldnít eat. I couldnít sleep. I lost fifteen pounds. All I could think of was how wrong she was. I yelled at her, mostly in my mind. I told her, ĎIím a whole man. I can give you more of life, I am better to you, I care more about you than anyone else ever has or ever will. I canít change being blind.í But it didnít matter. My pain just made her guilt more intense, and it drove her farther away. All I could do was just get on with things."

Ira and Judith met at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind. For the first time, they felt that they didnít have to apologize for being blind. They were excited to be together. They could talk about their pain, and share how their blindness had led to the failure of their marriages. They talked to one another and to many others. It was so easy to embrace and become lovers. When they left the convention, they were committed to continue their relationship. They knew that they had found one another, and a community. Their pain and depression and self-doubt began to disappear as hopeful enthusiasm flooded over them.

Judith and Ira spoke on the phone and twice he went to visit her. She applied for law school at the university where he taught. When she received her letter of acceptance, they were elated. She moved to his city and began school. She was frightened, but she had courage.

"Iím afraid," she told Ira. "I have a test tomorrow, and my reader is ill. My professor says it is my problem, and I donít know what I can do. The school really didnít want me to enter. They are just waiting for me to fail."

"Judith, I will help you," Ira promised. Iraís secretary had a friend who was a legal secretary, but she had left her job. He called her and arranged for her to read Judithís exam. He paid her for her time.

"I could feel my confidence failing," Judith confessed. "I didnít think I could do it, but you saved me."

"There is almost always a way," Ira said. "Once, I was told by a teacher that he didnít see how I could take an art course, but I wanted to take it. I read the books, and I had someone describe the pictures to me. I learned the language of art and architecture, and I imagined myself into the world vision, if you will, the aesthetic sensibility of the artist. I got an A in that class. The professor said that my final exam was the best that he had ever received. All my life, I have been told that I couldnít do something or other, but for the most part, I found a way."

Judith and Ira became more active in the NFB. They attended chapter meetings and went to a state convention. They worked on a garage sale to raise funds for the organization. They met with their state representative to urge her to vote for an NFB bill. Gradually, they felt a connection to other blind persons, and a sense of power as blind people. They felt that there was a community where they belonged. The fell in love.

VI.

They stood on the corner waiting for the light to change and the traffic to flow in their direction. Neither of them had been in New York City before. They planned this trip as a great adventure. Ira made the travel arrangements, and Judith made the hotel reservations and ordered tickets for a play and a concert. They got addresses from their friends of restaurants and shops. They were in love. They were doing what other couples on vacation in New York did, and they could afford it. They felt that they were competent, normal people who were rather proud of themselves.

The light changed, cars began to move. Ira and Judith stepped into the intersection. "Wait!" a shrilled womanís voice screamed at them. "You must let us help you."

"No, thank you. We are fine," they politely answered.

The woman took Judithís arm and her male companion took Iraís. "This is New York. You need our help," the man said. Ira and Judith kept walking.

"Take your hand off me, or I will break it," Ira said.

"Relax," the man said. "Weíre not muggers. We just want to help. You blind ought to appreciate it when someone wants to help you."

"You must be from out of town," the woman said. "Our blind donít have to go out on the street alone. We have housing and transportation for them. Did you hear about that woman who fell onto the subway tracks and was killed? She had a dog just like you. I know you people want to be independent, but this is New York. Itís hard enough for us."

They reached the other side of the street and turned toward the theater. "Thank you," Judith said once more. "Iím sorry, we are running a little late and we donít have time to talk."

"All right, dear," the woman said, apparently satisfied that she had done her good deed for the day.

Ira and Judith made their way through the crowd to the theater entrance. They crossed the lobby to where a man was taking tickets, gave him their tickets, and found an usher who showed them to their seats. "Those people on the street were awful," Judith said.

"I am too civilized," Ira told her. "I wish I would have broken his arm."

"Before I met you, I would have been devastated by that encounter," she confidently told him. "They denied our ability to be normal people, but I am now certain that I am normal, and I can live safely and well. I can just slough off those who donít believe in me, in us."

"I know, Judith," he said. "It just makes me furious that idiots like those two intrude unasked into our lives with such a negative and demeaning message. No matter how successful we are, or how much we achieve, we will always have to shield ourselves from the doubt that the world has about us. It just never ends."

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