With kayaks, caterpillars and more, blind children get an intro to adventure.
ON PALMETTO State Park’s 4-acre oxbow lake, kayaks glide across the still water like brightly colored swans. From the grassy bank, I watch the boats, most carrying one adult and one child, paddle between the pylons of the small highway bridge, make a wide circle on the other side, and then return.
On such a warm and sunny day in March, the bucolic scene would be nothing unusual, but the boats’ passengers are here for the weekend’s BOLD: Blindness Outdoor Learning and Development event, a program organized by the National Federation of the Blind of Texas and supported by a 2022 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant. Everyone on the water, including each adult who is steering, is legally blind.
In awe, I ask Audrey Farnham, the lead instructor for the kayaking activity and a competitive masters rower, if the instructors are counting paddle strokes the way I’ve seen characters in TV shows counting their steps.
No, Farnham says, laughing. “We’ve got these representations of blindness in books and media that are just completely wrong, but because these sources have such a presence in our culture, people believe it and think that’s what blindness is, and they don’t understand what we really do, how we really get things done.” She laughs again as she adds, “None of us are counting steps, and we’re not walking up and touching each other’s faces either.”
Born legally blind but with some ability to see, Farnham had cataracts and retina disease, and as an adult lost all usable vision when her retinas fully detached. Blindness has never stopped her from pursuing challenges. She works as an administrative law judge for the Oklahoma Tax Commission, and rowing is her passion. With her club Riversport OKC, she’s usually on the water four days a week.
The secret to orientation on the water without sight? The bridge, Farnham explains. Audible clues often help the blind stay oriented to their surroundings. While the position of the sun and direction of the wind can be used as guides, here the noise of the cars going over the bridge is the simplest way to determine direction and distance. The rest is a combination of the skill and adaptability inherent to everyday life as a blind person: with a little planning and problem solving, adventure is just as possible for the blind as for the sighted.
Later I would try to recall the landmarks my other senses had gathered: the warmth of the sun on my face, the glug-glug of the water slapping against the fishing dock, the clattering sound of the paddles against the sides of the kayaks, the splash of the teenage park visitor who jumped into the lake. Though many other people were enjoying the lake, the BOLD participants — 17 blind children, ranging in age from 6 to 17, along with their parents and siblings — made up the main chorus of the soundtrack. I would find that the sounds that resonated most of all from this day were the happy bursts of laughter.
To Build a Fire
A BOLD event is anything but quiet. Group leaders call out their location, using “talking signs” to help the children find their way independently to the next assigned activity. “Over here, pods three and four for hiking!” “Pods two and six here for firebuilding!”
Most of the day’s activities take place on the east side of the park near the CCC pavilion, a 1930s native sandstone building that seems to grow like a rust-colored mushroom from the dense and swampy forest that surrounds it. The park’s eponymous vegetation, the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), is found more commonly in East and Southeast Texas, but the fan-shaped plant grows here in Central Texas in a small, island-like population just an hour from Austin and San Antonio.
Spring hums in the air like an electric current. The leaves are a vivid green, and turkeys call from the grass. The season’s new, urgent burst of life refuses to be ignored — in fact, it is often crawling up your arm, or perhaps down the collar of your shirt.
“It’s caterpillar season,” Emily Gibbs says. Each time she settles into the discussion of fire structures and how to build an “edible fire” of marshmallows, potato strings and pretzel sticks, she is interrupted by the vocalizations you might expect at the showing of a horror movie. There are gasps, thrilled shrieks and nervous laughter. Soft-bodied forest tent caterpillars, harmless but hairy, are falling from the trees like a slow and steady rain.
Gibbs, director of youth and education services for the National Federation of the Blind of Texas, is the only sighted instructor at the BOLD event. Gibbs did, however, successfully complete 12 weeks of sleep-shade training (wearing an eye mask to better understand how blind people navigate the world), and is fluent in Braille.
Norma Crosby, the president of the NFB of Texas, gives me the most important lesson I learn this day as we watch the fire lesson: the believe that blind people can live the lives they want to live, and they are proud of who they are.
As the kids pass around a wax firestarter and a set of metal tongs, Crosby says to me quietly, “So often people say ‘Don’t touch.’ They’re so used to people telling them not to, or to people doing it for them.”
The second part of the fire lesson is led by Benjamin Schuler, a cane travel instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, who assists the kids in striking a match or lighting a candle with a lighter. Most have never tried this before, and he guides them gently. To the boy who voices a fear of sparks, he says, “There’s a little trick to it.”
Schuler lights the lighter first, showing by touch and verbal description that he’s holding his other hand up alongside to feel the heat.
Some of the parents are accompanying the pods through the activities. As a mother, I can feel their concern and share it, watching those little fingers so close to the flame. But then I see, as they must, too, the answering flicker of a smile on the boy’s face. It’s the universal, slightly wicked grin of the adventurous soul testing his mettle against something new and exciting.
What follows next is a lively “what if” discussion from the children regarding the open flame, the powers of gravity and the likelihood of “barbecued caterpillars.”
Setting up Tents
OBSERVING THE tent-pitching activity, I notice an 11-year-old girl from Garland named Zoe, small and dark-haired, who is quick to respond to questions, or in this case, to entreaties for assistance.
“I’m really lazy, and I need someone to help me out!” tent-pitching leader Glenn Crosby says, standing with his hands stubbornly at his sides.
Glenn’s pink shirt, matching Norma’s “President” shirt but with “First Gentleman” emblazoned on the back, makes sense to me when I find out that Glenn is Norma’s husband of 34 years. For most of their marriage, they owned and managed their own food-services business; retired since 2013, they now volunteer for NFB full time. The shirts were a joke by the staff.
I ask Norma how long Glenn has known how to set up a tent, and she says a very long time — Glenn is 78 years old. When Glenn was young he often camped with his sighted family. “He was lucky,” Norma says. “They made him help.”
Zoe and the other kids in the pod are essentially forced — Crosby is an authoritative first gentleman, to be sure — to set up the tent themselves. They are encouraged to speak to each other, to coordinate, to use nonvisual techniques even if they do have some usable vision. Crosby gives them cues and suggestions, but they are left to their own devices to figure it out.
They hammer in the stakes, then are invited inside the tent when it is finished, Running her hands across the nylon fabric, Zoe says, “It makes a funny noise.”
At this inaugural BOLD event, the kids will spend all day in the park from early morning to late evening, when they’ll cook hot dogs and s’mores over a campfire, but setting up the tents is just learning the ropes; overnight they will stay in a nearby hotel. Maybe soon another BOLD event will allow them to experience a state park after nightfall.
I meet Zoe’s mother on the group hike with the rotation of the sighted sibling group. She’s accompanying Zoe’s younger brother, who is a big fan of the caterpillars: his entire hand is wiggling with them.
As we file through the rustling palmettos like explorers of the forest primeval, Zoe’s mom says, “We need more programs like this.” She explains they don’t really know any other kids Zoe’s age who are blind. There’s often a disconnect, she says, between parents who need help and where they can find it.
I can hear that connection happening here around me, between parents and kids from all over Texas. I hear questions asked and answered, ideas about future projects and events exchanged. “I can give you more information on that,” I hear the adult instructors say.
I think about how hard it is for me to let go of my children, to understand them as they age and move toward independence: when to step in, when to stand back. Sighted parents of blind children have a much more difficult task because they have never personally navigated the challenges their children are facing. I like that here on the trail we, the sighted ones, are being directed by capable, confident instructors who are blind: they show us much more than simply the way we are going.
Navigating the World
A SIGHTED PERSON will perhaps always have difficulty understanding how a blind person can paddle a kayak, row in a race, light a match, walk neighborhood streets or cook dinner alone — but these can be everyday tasks for people who have learned to live by using their other senses and who embrace that life on their own terms.
On a touch table, I watch Zoe’s hands move over animal pelts, learning the animals they’d belonged to. Moments later I hear her correctly identifying them one by one: squirrel, fox, otter, beaver, a half dozen others.
But it’s when Zoe moves to the 3D-printed replica of Goliad State Park & Historic Site’s chapel set up nearby that I feel that sense of awe creep over me again. Her fingers don’t just touch the model … she walks them up the miniature steps of the old mission, one by one. The movement is fluid, careful, soft as silk; it is somehow inexpressibly beautiful. I know that Zoe is seeing all the details with her fingertips that I am seeing with my eyes, and I wonder if she is seeing them better.
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