On June the 1, 2019, I stepped off the plane in Denver. I had traveled from England to begin an intensive blindness skills training program at the Colorado Center for the Blind, made possible by a scholarship they offered to international students. For blind people like myself, there are skills we need to learn to be successful adults. Cane travel, how to use a computer without needing to look, how to read braille and prepare meals without seeing, to name a few. I felt like I had decent skills, but there is always more to learn.
I entered the program with a single-minded focus to gain as many skills as I could. I was going to improve my braille reading speed, learn to throw the best dinner parties, and travel all over the city. I did all of those things, but I also changed in ways I never could have imagined. While the training I received was important, it was the people I was lucky enough to meet that truly made the biggest impact.
Four days after I started the program, I was expected to travel to San Francisco for work. I was a professional, I kept telling myself—I couldn’t show any fear. The reality was I was terrified. I’d said goodbye to my guide dog only a week before and suddenly I would be traveling in a huge, overwhelming city with only my cane and the little courage I could find within myself to keep me going. I tried not to show my fear; nevertheless, there were those who picked up on it.
Two people in particular stand out in my memory. Like all of those present that weekend, they are accomplished blind adults. They are the kind of people I look up to and hope I can be like one day. They both asked me how my training was going, and when I admitted that I was a little overwhelmed, they made sure to stick by my side.
On our last day, we decided to head out in search of some food. I was extremely nervous; I barely knew how to hold my cane, let alone cross a street. They made what could have been a miserable experience an entertaining and defining one. They walked with me, one in front and one behind, ensuring that I knew where we were going and that I was able to keep pace with them. They made me feel safe, but most of all, they made me feel welcome. As members of the National Federation of the Blind, the organisation CCB is affiliated with, they both understood the demands of training and the fear you feel as a new student. Instead of looking down on me for those fears, they guided me through them, showing me that I was capable of more than I believed was possible.
There were days during my training that were extremely hard. Days when I headed back to my apartment and wondered whether I should just give up. But on those days, I would often pick up my phone to find messages from other students checking in to see how I was doing. On more than one occasion, another student would show up at my door, telling me to come out with them or simply sit on the porch and chat. I’d had friends before, but this was the first time I realized that I could and should let people in. I began to recognize the value of communication, something I have never been good at myself. I’ve never been good at reaching out to people, even those I care about. But suddenly I was in a place where I needed people to do that for me, and I understood what it feels like to need that connection.
After I finished my own training, I entered an apprenticeship program to become an instructor, working with blind students in the rehabilitation field. One morning, I was frustrated with a student. The frustration was justified on both sides—there were things they should have been doing, and I as their instructor should have communicated better with them. We were both tired and burned out, so I stepped away from the situation for a minute.
I went to the office of the assistant director, dropped into a chair, and began to tell him everything that the student was doing wrong.
“You’ve got to give them tough love,” he said. “But always remember the love part.”
Those words stuck with me. I had extremely high expectations for my students because I knew that they were capable of more than they thought. I worked well with struggling students who tried hard, but when met with a difficult, seemingly disinterested student, I cracked. I was pushing them to be better, but was I meeting them where they were at and showing them the kindness they needed in that moment?
I knew that I wasn’t. And I made a promise to myself that I would try harder every single day to put love first. How could I expect a student to progress in the program if all I did was push instead of showing them kindness when they needed it?
I have undoubtedly come out of the program a better traveler with stronger time management skills and the ability to throw a dinner party without too much stress. But more than that, I have emerged the kind of person who is able to see the good in everyone, who has learned that love, more than anything else, is what the world needs. I am a little kinder, a little more patient, more willing to reach out and give someone a hug. I was shown kindness time and time again, even when I didn’t deserve it. And it has taught me that our kindness, more than our superficial perfection, is the thing that others will remember.
So thank you, Colorado. Thank you, Federation, for the skills you taught me, but most of all for the love you showed me. I have to leave the country and return home, but I will carry you all in my heart wherever I go.