I watched as the young man, a teenager, ran from one side of the campsite to the other, one arm held out in front in a defensive posture, the other waving above his head with reckless abandon. He was yelling in mock-exhilaration and his friends howled with laughter.
He was telling a story. I can’t remember the substance of his tale or why it just had to include running across the campsite. My sense of the memory eclipses the details. But that doesn’t matter. Remembering him, it would have been a good story, recounted with a sly wit and impeccable timing.
Our story-teller was well-liked, even-tempered, outgoing. The other teens in the group respected him as a good listener, generous, and a friend.
He had been blind since his first birthday.
So it was with some urgency that I observed his return route crossing the campsite; his line of direction put him perilously near the rocks that constituted an edge of the fire-pit. No fire was burning on this sun-drenched June afternoon but, still, injury was a real possibility.
Another chaperone, sitting nearer the action, had the sense to alert him of this impending plight, and he had the sense to listen.
“Why’d you stop me?” he asked in good-natured bewilderment.
“You were about to run into the fire-pit,” the chaperon replied.
“Oh. But it was a good story and I had ‘em laughing.”
As I reflect on that day years ago on which fifteen blind and visually impaired high school-aged youth had gathered to participate in team-building activities, I remember … teenagers being teenagers: talking about music and movies and math class, joking with each other as they shared stories about school and home, hinting at hopes and fears and what comes next.
And, of course, trying to get laughs, sometimes, apparently, at the risk of physical bodily harm.
You see, of the things I recall about this young man, the fact of his blindness isn’t high on the list. He was blind, yes, but he was other things first. He was sociable, kind, respectful, sharp with a gift for storytelling and humor.
This memory is affirmation for me in my professional role as a Teacher for Students who are Blind and Visually Impaired: blindness need not define my students. It is a fact of their lives, to be sure, a fact that carries with it degrees of difficulty and the need for specific strategies and skills. Therefore, the work of providing accessibility and opportunity for students with visual disabilities must and will continue.
But to see another through a lens of disability diminishes an essential truth: we are here for only a moment. Do we wish to tell a story of building barriers, snap-judgements and stereotypes, dismissing segments of people based on race, gender, or disability?
Instead, let us find a better path. Let us address the needs arising from a disability without those needs defining the person. Let us seek the person and those things that connect us. Let us do the critical work of empowering our young people, blind and sighted alike, to step out into the world with optimism and joy.
The journey will not be without obstacles, as many of my students would attest. But as did those teenagers in my memory of a summer afternoon, let us meet the adventure of life with passion and laughter and, in the final reckoning, let us all be sure to share our story.
Scott Karli is a Teacher for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVI) in the Saint Paul Schools. He has worked with Louie for the many years - and is a Board Member for Louie's Vision.