First Person: Risking absurdity

I didn't climb Everest, but I've taken a remarkable journey

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Hey, Sally," my friend said. "Have you heard about Bill Irwin? He hiked the Appalachian Trail with his guide dog."

"Really?" When I lost my sight at 26, I found a 15-week training program and learned Braille, cane travel and other skills to pull off ordinary life. But I didn't take hiking lessons.

"Yeah. He was all alone in a snowstorm, found a ranger cabin and holed up for three days." She laughed. "What have you done lately?"

I'd just returned from a great adventure -- 100 days on a university ship that circled the globe with my professor husband and family. I'd lectured and chaperoned my kids by cabs to schools in Japan and Brazil. I thought these feats were pretty triumphal. Our son and daughter were 14 and 11, but I'd chauffeured them everywhere in backpacks when they were toddlers.

"Remember, I took the kids to swimming lessons through snow, my version of fog?"

"I'm just teasing," she said.

And I didn't hear any more about it. Then, 10 years later, Erik Weihenmayer had to go climb Everest, which really put on the pressure. I was a veteran blind person. I sure didn't expect I'd have to climb K2 to hold my head up.

"How many mountains have you climbed, Sally?"

Now I believe in giving credit to the deserving. I don't deny that Bill and Erik are altogether extraordinary. Erik even carries other disabled people on his back up mountains. Who can compete with that?

Still, to someone like me, who functions independently if not stupendously, Bill and Erik can also seem a little exhibitionistic.

I mean, did Erik ever spend hours pinning Braille color tags on tiny clothes? Did he ever get a baby and pre-schooler fed, dressed and onto two buses? Every day? In torrential rain?

I'm betting he didn't.

I admit I lack the daredevil-blind's risk gene. My derring-do consists of crossing streets overrun with drivers as old as I am behind the wheel. All of them honking. All of them snarling out windows. All of them flaunting their slowed reflexes.

Or worse, crossing intersections with drivers half the age of my children, texting while holding a tall latte between their knees. Danger also involves losing my way just when all the pedestrians who could direct me disappear from the planet. Or forcing myself out of the house in blind person's fog because if I don't give my guide dog two miles a day, she'll morph into a phlegmatic pet.

"There are lots more accomplished people with disabilities," I tell my friend.

Better Braille readers. Better blind travelers. Better users of echo location. Better users of facial vision.

I read Braille with a second grader's speed. Because I'm deaf, I can't use echo location. And I will rarely venture out without having a mental map of my route. Not only because I fear abandonment, but because the adolescent inside me doesn't want to risk absurdity. I want to be in control and elegant.

But no matter how competent I am with my disabilities, I ask the bus driver where there's a seat and still land in someone's lap. And the rear ends? I can't count the number of bottoms I've groped. And more embarrassing -- the genitalia, men's crotches particularly.

So, many with disabilities surpass me in skills. But there's one way in which I rival all the alpha blind. And that's in the way I've adjusted to my life with disability -- not just adjusted, but improved.

The congenitally blind have the experience of feeling different. Those of us who become blind feel that difference, but also the loss. But if we surmount the grief, we have advantages, a visual memory which helps in orientation, nonverbal communication (gestures and facial expression) that help socially. It's a difficult journey, but like an Everest climb, like a long hike, there's lots to gain from surviving.

For instance, I became a reader. Before blindness, I was a jock, and books seemed too sedentary. But in the hospital with my eyes patched, I found audio tapes and discovered books. Changing from tennis to golf isn't a huge shift. But changing from tennis to reading can expand into a rich mental life, to living more deeply, with activism. Suddenly, I had a voice. People hired me to speak.

From reading, I became a writer, which has led me back to a teaching career.

So I'm up against Erik and Bill, I know, and probably a lot of other disabled show-offs, too. But I give no apologies. I've walked a remarkable journey so far, with miles to go each day, sometimes with a bag of dog poop in my pocket since I can't find a dumpster. My hikes haven't landed me superhero status, but just maybe they've shown me the superheroness of a rich, ordinary life.

opinion_commentary

Sally Hobart Alexander teaches writing at Chatham University and is an author. She lives in Squirrel Hill. (shalexan@verizon.net)


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