“Milestones” is the perfect theme for a disability blog carnival this month because later this month, I will be celebrating a milestone. That milestone is my 21st birthday. If any of you are in college, remember college, or know someone in college, you know what that means! (smile)
Actually, I am not going to be drinking on my 21st birthday. It doesn’t have anything to do with my disability since drinking has nothing to do with being blind. In fact, it could be argued that blind people could drink even more freely than sighted people since we don’t drive anyway.
Partly, I won’t be drinking because I am already prone to addiction when it comes to other vices like chocolate, so I don’t even want to go down the alcohol path. Part of it is that I am a quiet kid not interested in being involved in social circles that go out and drink. Even if I were interested, my present situation makes being social kind of hard. For one thing, my college classes are often so demanding that I have to stay home and read on Saturday nights. For another, since I quickly found out dorm life wasn’t suitable for me and my guide dog freshman year, and the area where I live has no bus service, going to social events is really inconvenient. My parents are wonderful and try to reassure me that the half an hour drive to campus isn’t that far and they wouldn’t mind staying out late if I wanted to go to social events. Even so, the couple of times I have gone to social events, I feel guilty about imposing on my parents and don’t enjoy the event as much as a result. The events I have gone to have been alcohol free, and generally ended before 10:00, which my parents consider late. But since drinking events are often just getting started at 10:00 and could potentially last until 2:00 in the morning, I would feel even more guilty about making my parents take me to these events. Then there is the fact that I have older siblings who haven’t been compelling advertisements for why drinking is so exciting, when they would occasionally come home to visit the morning after overdoing it, groaning with a hangover headache. But the main reason I won’t be drinking on my 21st birthday is because my sense of taste and smell are hyper sensitive. I can smell a glass of wine on the other side of the table from me, and even at that distance, it smells so overpoweringly fruity that I want to gag, so there is no way I am bringing a wine glass to my mouth. While I will eat pretty much anything when it comes to solid food, there is something about the taste of liquids that is so sharp and unpleasant that believe it or not, the only beverages I will drink are white milk, and non-carbonated, unflavored water. Once I inadvertently picked up a glass that I thought was my water glass and didn’t realize it was the wrong glass until a drop of beer touched my tongue, and it had the most nasty bitter taste to me that I have no plans to try it ever again. But even though I won’t be drinking on my 21st birthday, my dad thought of the most ingenious idea for how I can still celebrate this legal milestone without having to drink. At midnight on the day of my birthday, Mom (the designated driver), Dad and I are going to walk in to a bar where I will proudly show my ID and buy my dad a beer. That way, I won’t have to drink, but I won’t miss out on the milestone every college student talks about obsessively for months–the moment when they can legally buy alcohol! But as this milestone approaches, I am reminded of another milestone five years ago that I thought would mean nothing as a blind person, but again thanks to my dad, one that was still celebrated.
As young as middle school, I remember my siblings dreaming of the day when they would be eligible for freedom in the form of a driver’s license, but as a blind person, I was always aware that a driver’s license wouldn’t be a privilege I would enjoy. This may change in my lifetime because the National Federation of the Blind has partnered with Virginia tech to create a special car that gives the blind feedback to drive independently. But I think this car is still in development, and even when it is on the market, I imagine it may take awhile for blind and sighted people alike to trust that such a car would be safe and reliable. So for now, a driver’s license is still out of reach.
I actually don’t really mind not being able to drive. It is a pain to have to impose on my parents to drive me everywhere, and while other students love it when their last class of the day gets out early, I hate it because it means I have to sit and wait since my parents anticipated picking me up at the regular time and thus are running errands or doing other things and cannot come right away. But since I have been blind pretty much my whole life (I went blind because of a brain tumor that destroyed my optic nerve when I was six months old), I am not depressed by these little inconveniences because they have always been just a normal part of life for me. And in addition to the potential to drink more freely if I wanted to, not driving also means I can use the commute to school to get some reading done, do some last minute studying for tests or take a short nap if I was up late finishing homework the night before! But when all of your classmates are raving about how excited they are to get their driver’s license on their sixteenth birthday, it is hard not to feel a little down about the fact that you wouldn’t be able to drive. But then, just like now, Dad came to the rescue with an ingenious idea. After breakfast on the morning of my sixteenth birthday, a Sunday, Dad and I got in to our ’89 Toyota Camry and my dad drove to an empty parking lot. Then, my dad and I switched seats! After giving me a crash course (get the pun? haha!) on how to use the brake pedal and steering wheel, I got to drive! I think my dad manned the gas pedal as a precaution against accidents in case I pressed it too hard. But I got to have my foot on top of his, and I was in charge of braking and steering.
“Okay, turn left now,” he would say and I got to experience turning the wheel and feeling the car turn left under my control.
I wasn’t exactly the smoothest driver at first. You definitely would not have wanted to ride along with me if you are prone to getting carsick because when my dad said “brake now”, I would panic and slam the brake. But after awhile, my dad reassured me that when he said “brake now”, it wasn’t BRAKE NOW! as in “you’re about to slam in to a tree!” “Brake now” meant I had time to come to a slow gentle stop. I think I drove for about twenty minutes, by the end of which time I was quite proud of my driving skills. Maybe Dad got a few more gray hairs, but there were no crashes–not even a fender bender!
But more importantly, I was on cloud 9 when I went to school the next day. I didn’t have a driver’s license, but I excitedly told all my friends and teachers that the milestone was celebrated! I drove on my sixteenth birthday!
As a funny side note, about a year later, we sold the ’89 Toyota Camry and replaced it with a 2007 Mazda. One day, on our way to church in the new car, there was hardly any traffic so my dad said “Would you like to steer?”
“Sure!” I said, fond birthday memories flooding back to me.
Now in the Toyota Camry, making turns took a lot of effort. I remember having to turn the wheel a full 180 degrees before I felt the car turn. Not realizing that every steering wheel is different, when Dad said “turn right” I proceeded to give the wheel a strong 180 degree turn, when my dad screamed, grabbed the wheel and never offered me the chance to drive again.
But if I never get to drive again, that would be alright with me. Like I mentioned, since I have been blind pretty much my whole life, not being able to drive is a minor inconvenience which I have learned to accept. I have even found advantages of not having to drive. The only time my disability ever brought me down was hearing my friends talk about getting their driver’s license, a milestone which I thought would mean nothing for me. But while sitting at the bar with my dad on my 21st birthday, me with a champagne glass of water and him drinking a beer on my behalf, I am going to thank him for finding a way for me to celebrate that milestone, tell him how this milestone reminds me of that wonderful drive celebrating the milestone of turning sixteen five years before, and thank him for showing me that just because I have a disability doesn’t mean milestones cannot be celebrated.