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Blind Faith

Faith and fear are fraternal twins born a heartbeat apart.

On a cold May morning at the tail end of sunrise, the twins lie in wait in a canyon in Eldorado Springs. They watch silently as a group of seven students disembark a bus and prepare for their first climb up a jagged rock wall.

Muscular, cheerful instructors from the International Alpine School scurry around entangling ropes, threading harnesses, handing out soft-soled shoes. The students are a bit more tentative in their enthusiasm. The scent of a challenge hangs heavy in the air, and casual conversation masks their apprehension.

The idea of scrambling up the face of a 200-foot-high rock would take most mortals aback. Falling is not a pleasant concept. But these mortals, armed with backpacks and water bottles and guts, are more extraordinary than most.

They're from the Colorado Center for the Blind in Denver, and on this morning they will defy the conventional wisdom of the sighted and stalk the mountain sky.

As instructors make last-minute adjustments to equipment and brief their charges on the quarter-mile hike up the canyon, Diane McGeorge stands off to one side smiling as though she has just won an Academy Award. As director of the Center for the Blind, McGeorge has accompanied two previous groups of students through the six-week program. She is a veteran mountain tamer, no less fierce for her lack of sight, with unshakable praise for the program.

This has really been great for our students, she says, a hint of anticipation in her voice. One of the neatest things it's done for blind students is challenge their self-discipline. It's also been a great way of teaching team travel and building confidence in skills they don't get an opportunity to use in the city. Sure, the students are worried. All of us come here with a lot of fear and a lot of misgivings.

But perhaps the most important part of the program is that it teaches us that we can reach way down inside and do a lot of the things we didn't think we could do. We can overcome our fears - physical, mental, and emotional.

The best way to undermine a stereotype is to confront it head-on, she says pointedly. Don't argue the absurdity of the notion that blind people should be shuttled off to schools and quietly cared for. Prove it wrong.

I really believe this program dispels stereotypes, she says. People say, 'How can you do that when you're blind?' They don't expect blind people to be out tramping around in the wilderness using their white canes. They think of us on a hike as having to hang onto a sighted guide or use a bell. Well, we are using our canes to see what's in front of us - to give us that freedom.

One of the most common things I hear people say is, 'It's probably easier for you because you don't have to worry about the fear of looking down.' I tell them everybody has fears, and it doesn't have anything to do with being blind.

If you're climbing and you realize, 'My God, I'm 100 feet in the air,' or you hear the river rushing 'way down below, you really learn the meaning of trust. This is an extremely safe sport, or we wouldn't be doing it. But fear is inside you all the time. If you're afraid, you're afraid whether you're sighted or not. And you have to conquer that fear every day.

The sun has finally burned off the morning mist as the caravan starts down the trail into the canyon. The students can't see the sheer beauty of their surroundings, the angry curve of the rock, the sliver of sky that forms a canopy as they hike farther along the trail. But they can hear and smell and touch the world around them. The chatter of birds, the thrashing of a swollen stream are as vivid as any colors known to man. As the wind brushes up with a soothing sigh, they know the adventure has just begun.

If you're climbing and you realize, My God, I'm 100 feet in the air, or you hear the river rushing way down below, you really learn the meaning of trust.

In the summer of 1983 Paul DiBello was working with handicapped youths in North Conway, New Hampshire, when he thought of teaching them rock climbing.

People immediately thought it was a great idea; it was just a little surprising because you don't normally expect blind people to participate in a program like that, he recalled.

But I got together with some other climbers, and we took seven kids out to White Horse Ledge with the idea of having them do rappelling down. So the next day we scrapped our original plan and took them to the first pitch of a standard ridge, and they completed it. The instructors and kids were equally elated.

That was the first and only time the program was run in New Hampshire. Yes, it was a success. But it was temporary - an exciting, one-time occurrence. Nobody imagined or even suggested that it could be done on a regular basis and provide more than esthetic thrills. No one saw it as a tool for teaching mobility.

Still DiBello knew there was more potential to the program than the first group of students realized. They had spent only two days on the rocks. What if a group of blind students were to spend a week, even eight days, climbing?

By 1984, after DiBello moved to Winter Park and became director of the Handicapped Competition Program, the concept of blind rock climbers became an obsessive pursuit - mild but persistent. He joined forces with Paul Sibley and Sandy East, who owned the International Alpine School in Eldorado Springs, and they made a video guide for those interested in leading blind rock climbers.

A year later DiBello met Homer Page, a blind Boulder County commissioner who was toying with the idea of opening a school for the blind in Denver, a school of limited enrollment with a curriculum that stressed self-reliance.

The meeting occurred in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Page had gone to cover the ski competition for The Handicapped Coloradan, a newsletter he runs when he's not teaching experiential education at the University of Colorado.

When Paul told me that he'd been trying to get a rock-climbing program started for the blind, I said, 'That sounds really interesting, but I'm not interested,' Page recalled. Why should I want to go out and kill myself when I've got a lot of life left to live?

Paul said, 'I think blind people can do this, but all these professionals tell me that they can't.' Immediately that changed my position. While I hadn't thought much about climbing, the idea that blind people can't climb was insulting. So I said, 'Let's do it.' I got two of my students, and the three of us climbed with Paul.

Convinced of the sport's benefits, Page made the rock-climbing class mandatory when he launched the Colorado Center for the Blind in January, 1988. Students would learn to read Braille. They'd learn how to travel independently, cook for themselves, and live on their own. And they'd learn to climb rocks.

The most recent class was the third to complete the course (it's offered in the spring and fall). About 20 students have participated in the program, the only one of its kind in the country, and so far no one has been seriously hurt.

Most blind children growing up today don't receive the kind of education, positive attitudes, and skills needed to become solid adults, Page said. In most cases, families love the children, but they don't really know how to relate to a blind child. They tend to protect them, and they don't understand that a blind person can be a competitive part of society. They try to make life easier rather than making it realistic.

Students at the Colorado Center for the Blind will spend six to 12 months learning to cope with life in an urban environment. By the time they graduate (each course is individualized), they are prepared to go to college or enter the job market.

Page believes rock climbing forces blind students to confront their fears.

While I hadn't thought much about climbing, the idea that blind people can't climb was insulting. So I said, Let's do it.

Some of them never do like it, whereas others want to continue climbing for years, he said. You can tell people that blind people aren't limited by lack of sight, and it goes in one ear and out the other. It's just not the same as going out and tackling a tough physical challenge. We want them to come away with a feeling that they can do many things they never imagined. They don't have to quit. They don't have to be afraid of life.

It's high noon on a sweltering June day in Gregory Canyon on the outskirts of Boulder. The sun bleeds sweat from the pale pink rock, banishing shadows to the safety of an occasional crack. This is the fabled amphitheater, where the last class of each session takes place.

And today is graduation day.

The group's composition has changed somewhat. A few of those who started six weeks earlier are gone. In their place are some new faces. Eager. Anxious. Unbowed.

The objective is for students to top-rope it up this unforgiving rock and rappel back down. By this final day, the instructor's primary role is to offer encouragement from below. It will be a test of blind faith. Courage and commitment.

Yet, unlike the first day of class, when anxiety was the prevalent emotion, today the talk is boisterous, the laughter common, and the energy level high.

For 40-year-old James Wolcott, the six-week span has brought a big change.

This is the first time I've ever taken a class like this, and I think it's great, he said, lightly stepping over a carpet of broken rocks. It's definitely been a challenge. The hardest part has been forcing myself beyond what I thought I could do. Society probably doesn't understand what we're doing here. They probably don't think something like this is possible, but I know it's very possible. I'm scared every time I climb up there. But afterward I feel really great.

For group leader Joanne Yankovich, who has been leading the class since its inception, such an endorsement makes the long hours and tiring regimen - including a couple of 3-mile death marches to condition the students - worthwhile.

The funny thing is how much I learn about myself through this class, she said, securing a top rope for the first of the students. The climbing issues are the same as any other class - fear, athletic self-doubt, and learning to trust your equipment and your partner. But the fact that these are people who don't have sight brings up special issues, especially social stereotypes about what they can or can't do. Whenever I tell (sighted) people about this class, they're surprised. They've just never considered a blind person's being able to climb a rock, or even wanting to.

Of course, the school's main objective is mobility. If they can get through this, it gives them a lot of confidence to try other things. This is probably the most complicated set of mobility problems you can give anybody, blind or sighted. I mean, in an urban environment everything is normally square or rectangular. When you're climbing a rock wall, a cane isn't of much use.

Every challenge provides an opportunity for growth.

It's about assuming responsibility for one's self in an age when people are more and more willing to abdicate that, she said. Yes, there is risk involved. But it's like anything else: if you want to test your limits it can be hard. But ultimately, it is also rewarding.

For Tom Anderson, 36, who teaches typing and Braille at the Center for the Blind, there's nothing quite like the thrill of a climb.

I think a person goes through different feelings when climbing, he said of his third time in the class. At first, it's kind of scary because a person may not be sure where the footholds and handholds are. But as one gains more confidence, the feeling changes from one of being really scared to one of exhilaration. It's reminiscent of when I was a kid and used to climb around on things. Some climbs are plain hard work, but once you make it, there is a real sense of accomplishment.

There is also a valid practicality to the course, he added.

If you can climb a rock, crossing Broadway and Evans in Denver isn't so scary, he said. Something like this gives you a sense of perspective.

When The Circus Comes to Town

Janet Erikson takes her Federationism seriously. When a worker at the CNIB offered her free tickets to the Shrine Circus, Janet thought about the implications of the offer and was not impressed. Unlike many of us who squirm uncomfortably in these situations but do nothing, Janet took the time and trouble to write to the sponsors of the circus to raise important philosophical questions.

What does the offer of free circus tickets say about the capabilities and the status of blind people receiving them? No one gives charity to people perceived as being better off than the giver. Anyone who doubts this should spend a few hours trying to raise money for a new branch bank building. All charitable campaigns, no matter how carefully they are planned and conducted, tend to reinforce the notion that the recipients of the charity are needy. A well run campaign can help change public notions about the nature of the neediness. For example, "Blind people need opportunity, not pity." Anyone running such a campaign has to weigh the cost of inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes against the benefit of a successful campaign. In other words, is it a good or a bad deal?

In this case, the benefits to be gained by blind people were clear - free tickets to the circus. The proceeds of the fund raising campaign were intended to go to the Shrine Hospital - not to services for blind people. The cost to blind people was the announcement to all donors that circus tickets would be given to the blind. We "paid" for our free circus tickets with an unhealthy reinforcement of the notion that blind people are impoverished, passive recipients of charity. It was not a very good deal.

Janet thought about the image of blindness conveyed in the seemingly charitable gift of tickets and compared it to the reality of her life and the lives of many blind people she knows. She wrote, "In North America there are many blind people who lead active lives. These people work in a wide variety of jobs including computer programming, data entry, psychology, music, teaching, chemistry, physiotherapy and religion. There are also many active senior citizens who are blind and travel, read, care for their grandchildren, participate in sports and do handicrafts."

Then she attempted to explain why blind people are viewed as charity cases despite the obvious success of many of us. "This fact (blind people's success) is almost hidden from the public because our society has many myths that go back thousands of years about what it's like to be blind. For example, blindness is equated with the dark, with being poor, or with being deprived of a good life because of the inability to see the beauty of the world around you."

As Janet pointed out, "Since society still holds to these myths, many blind people internalize them which perpetuates a cycle of chronic poverty both spiritual and financial." This interplay between attitudes, expectations and the daily lives of blind people goes on continuously. Almost everything we do, whether any of us likes it or not, reinforces or changes our attitudes about ourselves. The way we think about ourselves influences the public perception of us.

Is this a whole lot of fuss about nothing? After all, the Shrine Circus gives away tickets to Brownie Troops, school classes, and a whole array of other groups. Aren't blind people being a little touchy when we object? There are blind people who lead very restricted lives and greatly appreciate the chance for an outing. Who should be making the decisions about what's best for blind people?

The responsibility is clear. If we want our lives to change, we must find ways to think and behave which promote the kind of change we want. If we decide that accepting free tickets to the circus is counterproductive in the long run, then we should not accept them. If, after carefully considering the question, we decide that the cost to our self-esteem and the public perception of us is small compared to the benefits of attending the circus, we should go with a clear conscience. We should know what we're deciding and have the courage to face the issue honestly. At the same time, we should not become so concerned about every little decision that we lose joy and spontaneity.

Janet thought about what was most important to her. She didn't want to be in the same category as little school children. In fact, she wanted to change the perception of the Shriners. "One of the ways to stop negative thinking about blindness is to stop giving free tickets to the circus. I think that your time and money could be better spent by giving encouragement to blind people to lead active lives. This could be done by supporting programs which promote the use of braille and the long white cane. Blind people need moral support and encouragement when we know we can do things and are discouraged from trying by sighted people who think we can't succeed. It's all right to be blind just as it's all right to be a member of any other minority."

It's not always easy to measure our success. The Shrine will no doubt continue giving free tickets to blind people. However, Mr. Dick Benzies took the time to think about what Janet had to say.

Dear Mrs. Erikson:

Thank you for your comments regarding the distribution of free circus tickets to various segments of our community.

If by doing so we offend you, please accept our apologies. We have however, been encouraged to believe, from past experience, that those that are provided the tickets receive them enthusiastically. As a result they can enjoy the feeling, the sounds and the smells of the circus, and find them most enjoyable.

This type of fundraiser is for the purpose of raising administrative funds in order that 100% of all the money we raise in the name of charity goes to that charity.

The Shrine own and operate, throughout North America, 22 special hospitals to offer free, highly specialized treatment to children with orthopedic, burn and spinal trauma patients.

We empathize with what you feel because in treating our children, we not only treat the physically disabling problem, the hospitals treat the whole person.

I know that many of our members, as individuals, support the work of the CNIB in their efforts to give "encouragement to blind people to lead active lives."

Yours In The Sunshine Of the Shrine R.H. Dick Benzies Gizeh Shrine Temple Recorder For the Office Burnaby, BC V3G 3K9

Sometimes we make large changes. Sometimes the changes are almost imperceptible. Perhaps the most important changes we are making is the change in our own approach to blindness. As we examine practices which were once taken for granted, we grow in understanding and in belief. The more we believe in ourselves the more others will come to believe in us.

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