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Editorial: Participating in Life

From birth to death, everyone experiences major watersheds or times of transition in the cycle of life, and this is no different for people who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted. Going to school, planning a career and getting a job, moving out on one's own, getting married, starting a family, retiring, etc.--All of these stages are important in the process of growth and development for everyone .

We who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted face an additional area to deal with and resolve.

Whether we are congenitally or adventitiously blind, we must acquire the alternative skills of blindness, including orientation and mobility skills, which can lead to independence.

But living a fulfilling life involves more than just having skills; it must include having the opportunity to utilize such skills in the achievement of one's goals. Of what profit is it, for instance, if you can travel safely and independently with either a white cane or dog guide, but you are denied access or equal opportunity in terms of education, employment or recreation?

Stereotypical and negative views of blindness bombard us from the public, telethons and charities. We are constantly reminded of our limitations--real and imagined.

These attitudes are largely responsible for the "closed doors" that we encounter in our efforts to move through life as participants, not mere observers.

These ever-present views, furthermore, are sometimes internalized by people who are blind, resulting in self-imposed restrictions. Double whammy!

Clearly, our parents' approach, and the degree of support received from family, friends and those unanticipated chance encounters along the way play an important part in anyone's development. From youngest days, blind persons must be stimulated and challenged to do more, and to explore the wide world around them and participate in it.

Some of us have benefited from having a formal "mentor," while others have simply learned new skills from others in their lives.

Opportunities also play a major role, and increasing the range of options available to each of us is an important part of the work of organizations such as ours.

Many of us are asked, "What's it like to be blind?" Some sighted persons try to "experience" blindness for a few hours by donning various kinds of blindfolds to simulate what it's like to be blind. However, simulations can be dangerous and are more likely to provide a false sense, as the individual can take off that blindfold at any time and return to being sighted.

Simulations are also more likely to reinforce the negative views of blindness, rather than provide real insights into what life is really like.

Let's try asking this question in a fundamentally different way: "What is it like to live your life as a person who is blind, deaf-blind or who has partial sight?"

There is a profound difference between what it's like to suddenly lose one's vision quickly or overnight, as opposed to what life is like after some time for adjustment, reflection and the acquisition of alternative skills of blindness.

It is largely because of the public's negative attitudes and the resulting range of barriers that organizations of blind consumers like the NFB:AE were formed--to give consumers our own vehicle for changing attitudes, developing a new view of blindness, and increasing our range of options based on our own experiences.

However, whether you are blind, partially sighted, deaf-blind or fully sighted, we want to encourage each of you to join in our work.