Hello friends. Since going to camp is the highlight of summer, and of the general childhood experience for many children in America, and since this is about the time I used to come home from a week long overnight camp for the blind in Northern Wisconsin, I wanted to devote the next two entries to sharing some of my thoughts on my camp experience. Ever since I can remember, my mom would rave about how much she loved going away to a church camp when she was a child for two weeks of swimming, boating, being with friends and singing silly songs around a campfire. Hearing these wonderful stories about her camp memories, coupled with strong encouragement from a teacher who wanted to make sure that I got to have the same childhood experiences as any sighted child meant that I was packed off to both day camps and an overnight camp several times as a child. But while there were definitely some fond memories of camp that I am glad I got to experience, I cannot really go so far as to say I loved it. My first camp memory was going to Girl Scout Camp which I think was the summer after first grade. My memories of this camp are kind of vague, but I think this camp was a week long day camp that my mom only took me to for three days, and I forget if this was because of a family commitment, or if my mom was so outraged by the negative experience I was having at this camp that she had enough and pulled me out early. The camp was located in a nature area where we spent the whole day outside and had to use an outhouse. I also remember my mom staying with me at this camp every day which I think was due to the fact that I was little and needed more help with some of the more visual activities and walking from place to place, special needs she didn’t feel the staff at this camp would be willing or able to accommodate. Actually, I think it was more a matter of willingness than ability because my mom still fumes about how uncompassionate the people running this camp were.
One incident in particular that illustrated this lack of compassion was when one of those old fashioned ice cream makers was set up, and all of the children stood in line and when it was their turn, could turn this crank a few times to help make the ice cream. Well, when it came time for my turn, of course, I needed help figuring out where the crank was and what to do because being blind, I couldn’t watch the children ahead of me, and I had never seen these kinds of machines before, and of course, having to be shown what to do meant that I would need just a little bit more time for my turn, something my mom didn’t think would be a big deal. But before my mom had the chance to finish showing me what to do, one of the staff snapped something like “You need to hurry up! Other children need to have their turn!” When she said this, my mom was so appalled and stunned she just whisked me away. So all of the sighted children had a turn, but this staff lady couldn’t be bothered to get off schedule by just a few more seconds so I could have mine! I actually didn’t remember this incident until the subject of girl scout camp came up recently when my parents and I were having dinner, and she mentioned the incident. I don’t know if I had forgotten about this incident simply because it had been a small incident that happened thirteen years ago, whether it was because I was so unaccustomed to this total lack of willingness to accommodate me that I chose to block the incident from my mind, or if I was simply too young to notice or comprehend the implications of this incident. I have forgiven this lady because I think I did get to crank one of these ice cream makers a few years later at a party hosted by a wonderfully nice neighbor who had one. But this girl scout camp was the only camp for sighted children that I ever went to, and the few times I asked my parents if I could go to a sighted camp when I was older, they didn’t seem wild about it, and I never persisted because even once I had long forgotten about the negative experience I had at Girl Scout camp, I think the experience always stayed with me in my conscience, and I didn’t want to take the risk of going to a camp where I could run the risk of feeling that unwelcome again. But I soon discovered that my experiences with camps for the blind weren’t all positive either.
For several summers starting with the summer after fourth grade, I attended two day camps for the blind. One was a week long camp that met at a high school in my home school district in June, the week after school let out, and the other was a two week camp in August at the Badger Association for the Blind, a center that offered services like computer training or assisted living for blind adults, but also hosted the occasional youth day camp. Both of these camps were pretty much the same. Each day, we had a fun activity like going to a local beach, a movie, the state fair or the public museum where we went to a butterfly exhibit and where we each got headsets that described things as we walked. I think we even went horseback riding once at a ranch where horses are specially trained for people with disabilities. So don’t get me wrong. This camp really did give me a lot of wonderful memories. But in addition to the fun activities, these camps also were designed to incorporate orientation and mobility practice and daily living skills. Now of course, these skills are important, and deep down, I understood that practicing these skills would help me become the independent woman and contributor to society that I wanted to be. However, most of the other children at these camps had other cognitive disabilities in addition to being blind, so since they really couldn’t handle mainstream academic classes, their school curriculum focused a lot on daily living skills. But since I was fortunate that blindness was my only disability and since I was doing well in mainstream academic classes, my parents thought my education should focus more on academics. Additionally, we live in a suburban area where there are country roads but hardly any sidewalks, and to really get practice on city sidewalks would have required me being pulled out of school a lot longer for my orientation and mobility lessons since getting to a big city required a lot more travel time. My parents knew daily living skills were important too of course, but they felt like unlike academics subjects which I really only have the chance to learn when I am young to stay on track for college and the meaningful employment that I was capable of, and which my parents knew they wouldn’t know how to teach, travel and daily living skills were things they could practice with me on our own timeline since they are a lot easier to learn than academics, and since colleges and future employers will care a lot more about my academic abilities than my mastery of daily living skills. Since my vision teacher had worked with me since I was three years old and saw the academic promise in me, she fully supported my parents’ thinking too. So at the time I started going to these day camps, I had enough cane technique to walk independently and confidently through my school building, and I had been on a few tiny sidewalks relatively close to school where I had a basic grasp of shorelining with my cane. I had been on a few escalators at a nearby mall, and learned the basics of what was in each aisle of the grocery store as well as basic cooking skills like stirring and measuring. But since my parents and the teacher wanted me to focus on school and have time to do homework and enjoy extracurricular activities with my sighted peers after school, this teacher only pulled me out of school to work on orientation and daily living skills once or twice a week rather than every day like other children with cognitive disabilities. So when I would go to these day camps and we had to practice cane travel on unfamiliar sidewalks or inside overwhelmingly large unfamiliar buildings, I would fall way behind the rest of the group. When we were cooking, it always took me longer to spread peanut butter, and was scared to death when I was assigned to recipes that required pouring liquids from a huge jug in to a tiny measuring cup or standing over a sizzling stove. And since my vision teacher often had summer commitments that precluded her from attending these camps, I was stuck with vision teachers who didn’t work with me on a regular basis, and thus didn’t know me, or understand that my situation and long-term goals were different. This meant that without fail, every year, this camp which was supposed to be about having fun and enjoying new experiences, instead felt more like an evaluation, after which these teachers always seemed to judge me, my parents and my teacher. I felt this judgement when the rest of the children and teachers were way far ahead of me when we walked on our outings, and I was left lagging behind praying that I wouldn’t lose track of the sound of their voices, and when we were cooking and they would tell all of the other children what a good job they were doing while saying nothing to me. My parents, and even my older sister who had just gotten her drivers license when I started going to these camps and was thus responsible for picking me up when my parents had to work felt this judgement when teachers would lecture them about how I needed to start traveling more independently on streets and sidewalks, and cooking more at home. And I knew my teacher had been judged because when I would come back to school in the fall, she would report that she had been told I was the slowest person there which sparked a new pressure induced determination to get me walking faster and having more confident cane skills.
To be fair, I will admit that I was to blame for a lot of my poor demonstration of orientation and mobility because for some reason I have never always had the most confident self-motivated desire to learn these skills, and every psychologist whose advice you read or hear on television will tell you that a person cannot learn something or change a bad habit unless and until they have the right attitude and want to change themselves. I know this fact about myself is true because even though I have matured a lot since going to these camps, this lack of motivation still plagues me to this day. In fact, as I write this, my parents have been so busy refinishing cupboards for an unplanned need to replace our dishwasher and countertops, as well as helping my grandma clean up a basement flood, the result of a recent storm, that they haven’t had the chance to go to the grocery store. We have a pantry full of random cans of soup and vegetables, and a refrigerator stocked with milk and fresh fruit. But we ran out of bread and lunch meat, and all day, I have been craving a sandwich. I have three paychecks worth of money and a debit card to withdraw it. I could, and if my teacher were here I know she would say I should, look up the number of our grocery store and prearrange for someone to assist me in finding bread and lunch meat. In fact, way back in seventh grade, my vision teacher had me do this for one of my orientation and mobility lessons, and it went really well. For this lesson, the teacher drove me, but I can still remember her saying that if I wanted to go to the store on my own, I could look up the number of a local taxicab service and make the arrangements to get to the store. But what if this display of independence turned out to be a disaster when my teacher wasn’t watching from a distance ready to rescue me if I was really having trouble? What if the cab driver and I have a miscommunication and I am taken to a completely different place than I had intended? Or what if the cab driver seems like a nice guy when he pulls up, but only after I am in a moving vehicle do I find out he is drunk or a creep who now has the perfect victim, a captive blind woman? What if I had been promised assistance by a staff member at the grocery store over the phone, but when I got there, something came up and there would be no one available to assist me after all? Do I really want to go through so much arranging and potentially put myself at risk just for a sandwich? The answer is no, so I guess I will let my mouth water until my dad gets home from Grandma’s house and plead with him childishly to go to the grocery store. I know this is an extremely unhealthy attitude to have, especially when you realize that I have been blind since I was seven months old, basically my whole life, so I have no reason to be afraid of my blindness or lack so much confidence. But those psychologists you read about and hear on television also say that the first step toward changing a negative attitude is to acknowledge it, which I have just done, and I also meet the criteria for a person who really wants to change this attitude since the older I get, the more I find that I am tired of relying so much on my parents, and long to find out what it would be like to live on my own something I am planning another entry to rant about. Eventually, I know this longing for independence will become so intense that it will overshadow my negative attitude. But while I still don’t have the confidence and self-motivation I would like to have, I had a lot less confidence at the time I went to these camps.
While now I only lack the confidence to take on big endeavors like taking a cab to a grocery store, I used to lack the confidence for tasks as small as pouring a glass of milk. Even if I put my finger in to the glass so I could feel when it was getting full as I poured, and even though my teacher suggested putting the milk glass in the sink so that if I did spill, it would just go right down the drain, I hated the thought of spilling milk. So what was the harm in just asking my parents or one of my older siblings to pour it for me? It wasn’t until eighth grade that I decided I was tired of depending on others for a glass of milk, and thus got the confidence to pour my own milk. I did spill a few times, and still spill when the gallon has just been opened and is really heavy causing my hand to shake and therefore not be as coordinated. But I love that saying which says “Don’t cry over spilled milk” because it really isn’t the end of the world, so I don’t cry over it. I just get a paper towel, clean it up and move on. By the way, one advantage that will come with living on my own is that I won’t have to worry about politeness or sanitation for the sake of my other family members, so I plan to drink straight from the carton until it is light enough to pour without my hands shaking. If any of you friends come to visit though, don’t worry. I will wash the mouth of the carton off thoroughly before you get there, or buy a separate uncontaminated gallon of milk for you (smile). Wow, I really got off track there. But what I was trying to say was that while I didn’t develop confidence and self-motivation as quickly as some of the vision teachers wanted me to, I don’t view myself as a disappointing representation of the blind community, and wish I hadn’t been made to feel that way by these teachers just because I choose to develop confidence and independence on my own schedule.
But I was not only judged by the things I couldn’t do, but also on the things I could do, but chose to do differently than the way these teachers thought they should be done. Of course, there are things that need to be done properly like knowing how to swing your cane in a way that doesn’t threaten the safety of people around you for example. But for other things, like the technique for riding escalators, my teacher and I both agreed that there was a little more room for flexibility. However these feelings were not shared by some of the other teachers at these camps. I have always had issues with a lack of confidence and fear of loosing my balance on escalators, but one thing that helped tremendously in making me feel a little more balanced was after finding the start of the escalator with the tip of my cane and stepping on to it, I would stand with one foot a step above the other if I was going up, or a step below the other when going down. This method had two advantages. It made me feel more anchored while the escalator was moving, and when it was about time to step off, one foot would level off before the other, and that couple seconds of advance notice from having one foot level off first allowed the other foot to step off with more reassurance as opposed to having to frantically get both feet off the escalator with hardly any warning. But the teachers that ran these camps were the kind of people that insist everything be done by the book, and one of them insisted that I put both feet on the same step, turning one of the few things I was starting to do with confidence in to another situation that proved my lack of confidence.
I am not looking for pity by ranting about all of these frustrations. I am only trying to illustrate why despite the many fun experiences I had with these camps, to me they weren’t worth putting up with all of this judgement and criticism. Sometimes I also feel as though this judgement and criticism still affects my confidence today because even though I have developed a lot more confidence since the days of these camps with the help of Gilbert, who navigates me around obstacles and across streets more smoothly than I ever did with my cane, I still don’t have the confidence that so many other blind people my age have. City buses that seem to just drop you off in the middle of nowhere scare me so much even when I am being accompanied by a sighted person that I cannot imagine myself traveling alone on them yet, and though I learned through dog training that falling is not the end of the world, I still prefer to take it slow when going to unfamiliar sidewalks where my feet haven’t memorized the feel of the sidewalk and all of its dips and bumps and other tripping hazards to be aware of. So what if I go to an event for the blind where my lack of confidence with buses is exposed and I am made to feel like a disappointment again? What if my cautiousness is still construed by people as the result of being out of shape, or lacking confidence that I should have developed by now? To avoid this stress about what other blind people or teachers who don’t know me might say, I will go to events for the blind every now and then just to be sociable, but since I get so nervous in the days leading up to these kinds of events, I don’t participate in them very often, and I was actually almost glad that I did not win a scholarship for the National Federation of the Blind the last two years, so I wouldn’t have to face the stress of flying out to Dalas or Detroit all by myself to be judged by an even larger blind community, too high a price to endure just for a scholarship award. So while these camps were probably supposed to boost my confidence in my capabilities as a blind person, I actually think these camps lessened my confidence, at least in the presence of the blind community, so sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off staying home. Also, on a side note, another thing I didn’t like about these camps was the fact that since the vast majority of the other children at these camps had cognitive disabilities, while there were a lot of activities that are universally fun like going to the beach, there were also a lot of educational activities that the children with cognitive disabilities benefitted from but which were kind of insulting for me. For example, one day at camp the summer after fifth grade, we went to a fire station where I had to listen to a kindergarten level presentation on fire safety and the other children got to explore a fire truck. Now, I really don’t mean to sound like a snob or give the impression that I’m too good to be seen with children who have other disabilities. But I was at that age when I think all children want to feel grown up and start doing activities with children at their own level, and those were the moments when I desperately wished I could have gone to some of the camps my mainstream sighted friends talked about, and would have especially loved the chance to go to a music camp instead. But I guess it wasn’t meant to be, so I won’t dwell on what day camp experiences I missed when there is still a world full of other experiences that are not confined to the childhood years, not to mention the fun overnight camp experiences I have yet to talk about.