Tonight at Toastmasters

Tonight at Toastmasters, my speech project was to pretend that I was giving a press conference. My prepared statement was to be about 5 minutes long with about 10 minutes of questions and answers. Here’s what I said.

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press.

Tonight I am announcing a new website that you will want to visit regularly and often. It will provide answers to questions that you didn’t know you had about how people who are blind or visually impaired go about living their lives.

You may have questions you’ve wanted to ask, but you felt awkward, and by reading this blog, you might discover issues and concerns of people with disabilities that you didn’t realize were issues and concerns.

At seeingitmyway.com, you will meet a woman who has been blind for over 50 years. Through my blog, you will see the world from my point of view. Hence the name, seeing it my way. I write about a variety of life experiences, including what it’s like to ride a tandem bike with a blind person, how people who are blind can read their mail with technology, how Braille works, and what guide dogs do and don’t do.

If You know a blind person, have a child who has been diagnosed as legally blind, or are losing your vision yourself, this unique site will give you the insight to prepare you for many situations. One reader, whose child had just been diagnosed with an eye disease, wrote and said “Thank you for this blog. It has already answered so many of my questions.”

You may be familiar with Deborah Kendrick, a well known advocate for people with disabilities, who writes a bi-weekly column for the Columbus dispatch. While I may quote her from time to time, my blog is in no way in competition with her columns. Her work is based on research and interviews, with some personal experiences added to illustrate a point. My blog is based solely on my own life experience. Seeing It My Way is not just about blindness. I’ve written several posts about moving my mother into assisted living. If you have ever dealt with the care of an elderly parent, you will appreciate reading an affirmation of your own feelings and concerns. I will be writing about other life issues, as I post on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

If you are a visually impaired person yourself, you will find that this site is easy to navigate with your screen reader. My webmaster, Eric Ralph, has been very sensitive to my own need to make the site accessible. Mr. Ralph has been extraordinarily generous with his time in building this site and updating it with photos and other features. I am extremely grateful for his expertise and his patience with me, as a novice in the world of websites.

In addition to the seeing it my way blog, you can also be linked to the “Take Your Event to New Heights” page, about Mary Hiland as a motivational speaker.

Finally, you can click on the seeing without sight link, to learn about the class I offer to parents of home-schooled children. In this 90-minute presentation, the students will have a hands-on learning experience with Braille, meet my Seeing Eye dog, and gain a better understanding of people with disabilities.

Many of you have a website of your own, and some of you blog on a professional level. Currently, my blog is a community service, but in time, I’m hopeful that visitors, namely event planners, will want to “take their events to new heights, and hire me as a workshop presenter or a keynote speaker. Now I’ll be glad to answer any questions you have.

 

This Is the Way We Clean Our House

Yesterday, my house was cleaned by a team of three hard-working professional house-cleaners. They’ve been cleaning my house once a month for several years. You might think that cleaning house once a month is not exactly exemplary, but I do the everyday jobs myself.

Although dusting furniture is one of my least favorite tasks, it’s a good way to locate things I’ve misplaced and forgotten about. “Oh that’s where my scissors went.” Vacuuming is something I should do more often than I do, because of the dog hair, but it’s quite doable by a blind person. It’s done better if I’m barefoot, because I can detect places I’ve missed that way. I work in a line by line pattern, much the same as you would mow your grass. Because I don’t have the benefit of spotting dirt or stains, I try to keep my housekeeping chores on a schedule. Run the sweeper on certain days. Clean the bathroom on certain days. Other tasks are done according to when I am expecting other people to be in my house.  I wash windows when I’m expecting house guests, because they would have more time to notice if they were dirty. I like to have the kitchen sink cleared of dishes and shiny clean before I go to bed or when I leave the house. “What if something should happen and EMT’s should have to be in my house?” My house may not be, and probably isn’t, spotless, but I can’t stand clutter. Clutter, for a blind person, makes life more frustrating than it has to be. My husband was  constantly leaving papers, envelopes, receipts, magazines, and other unidentifiable trash around the house. I couldn’t throw anything away, because it might be important. Once a month, when I had reached my boiling point, I’d stomp through the house and gather all the unidentifiables into a grocery sack for him to go through. I recall the time he was sure I had thrown out his tickets to a Bengal’s game, but upon cleaning out the clutter bag, much to my relief, he found them there. How could I know they were worth a fortune, when they were mixed in with old receipts, bills, and ads? As a neatnik, I know that I’m disgustingly diligent about putting things away. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” said my neatnik mother. As soon as I get home from one event, I empty my purse or back pack from that day and prepare the following day’s purse or back pack. My shoes get stowed in their proper cubby in my closet. New mail goes into a box to be read on Fridays with my human reader. Dishes are placed in the dishwasher after each meal or snack. Keys are dropped into a dish, just for that purpose, right inside the front door.

There are some tasks around the house that I just can’t do. When my kids were little, I’d pay them a nickel for each smudge they’d clean off the walls, especially in the kitchen. Marks on walls, stains on countertops, cobwebs, and spots on the carpets have gone unnoticed since my kids have grown up and moved away.

I thought I was doing a satisfactory job of keeping my house presentable, until I heard my friend talking about her father who is 100 years old and doesn’t see very well. She told me that because he doesn’t see the dirt in his house, she has insisted that he hire someone to come in and clean. My cousin told me that when she visited my mother, back when she lived in her own house, that the kitchen was in bad need of a scrubbing, because my mother couldn’t see the stains above the sink. Could they have just as well been talking about me? I new it was the right decision to hire house-cleaning help when my daughter came for a visit the day after they had cleaned. “Your house looks great!” she exclaimed. “The patio doors are just sparkling!” Sold. Sometimes we just have to admit that we can’t do everything.

 

Speak to Me

When I walked into the doctor’s office this morning, the receptionist greeted me with a cheerful “Good morning.” I was pleasantly surprised. You might think, “What’s so surprising about that?” It’s exactly what I need when entering an office, a friendly voice directed to me, so I can orient myself to the desk and proceed with my business. However, it’s so dismaying to discover that more often than not, the person at the desk, upon realizing that I am blind, is suddenly left speechless and completely at a loss for what to do. Believe it or not, there have been many times that the person behind the counter has sat there, staring, like the proverbial deer in headlights. This young woman was going to be different. How refreshing.

She talked directly to me, not my friend who had brought me. She told me what she was doing. “I’ll just go make a copy of your new health insurance card, and I’ll be right back…. Here’s your card.” Again, I was grateful for her words. That’s all it takes to make me happy, just a few words. Instead of slapping the card on the counter and expecting me to know that’s where it is, or instead of holding it in the air and wondering why I’m not reaching for it, or instead of handing it to my friend, she handed it to me. Bravo! Well done. She was scoring points with me all over the place until alas, she dropped the ball. “Does she want her receipt?” she asked my friend.

The Columbus Dispatch columnist Deborah Kendrick has the perfect comment for this faux pas. “Please don’t talk about me when I’m standing right here.” Every blind person I know has experienced this humiliating exchange. “Does she want her dressing on the side?” “What color of dress is she looking for today?” “I put her receipt in the bag.”

I am an adult with a fairly well-functioning brain and excellent hearing. Just because I cannot make eye contact with the receptionist, the store clerk, the server, or the person on the other side of the desk, it does not mean that I am incapable of communicating on my own behalf. Eye contact seems to be the number one channel of communication for peoplewho are sighted, and if eye contact isn’t made, the communication is broken, or worse, never established.

When I walk into a room for a meeting, and the person who is assisting me in finding a seat asks me, “Where would you like to sit?” I’ve learned to answer, “Next to somebody.” I don’t really care who I sit next to. What I don’t want is to be seated in a row by myself. If I am, it is very likely that no one will sit next to me. I don’t smell bad, and I’m not an obnoxious person, so I’ve concluded that the reason for being isolated is that I haven’t made eye contact with the others in the room, which would be a silent communication That I would welcome company in my row or at my table. I try to smile and try not to look scary, but unless I am proactive, it seems that no one wants to get too close. Are they afraid blindness is catching? I don’t think so. I suspect that they are not aware that the blind woman sitting alone is not alone by choice. Communication does not have to be with eyes only. If I know you are there, I will speak to you, but if I don’t know you’re there, I’ll need for you to speak first. I’ve told my neighbors on my street that if they see me out walking that they’ll need to call out to me first. And for Heaven’s sake, don’t just wave. Pippen might see you and wag her tail, but she can’t tell me who you are or even that you are there.Don’t be shy. We won’t bite. Speak up!

 

Grocery Shopping

“Who takes you grocery shopping?” I’m often asked. It is assumed that someone takes me, and in my case, that’s a reasonable assumption. I live in a suburb where all the grocery stores are huge, and all the employees are harried and way too busy to escort me around the store. I know a man who is blind who walks to his local small-town grocery, and someone at the customer service counter gets a worker to go around with him and pick up the items on his list, which he has written on a piece of paper. After he checks out, he loads up his back pack, and he walks home. He is a model of independence. When I worked in a neighborhood where there was a small grocery within walking distance, I did the same thing on my lunch hour. It Was a liberating feeling, but it required a lot of patience. First, I had to wait for a customer service worker to notice me. Sometimes blind people can be invisible. More on that in another post. Then, they would often assign a bag boy to the task, and he could barely read on a first grade level. That made finding products with specifics such as “caffeine free,” or “with moisturizer” very challenging.

I don’t work in that neighborhood anymore, and there’s nothing to walk to now, so I’m resigned to having someone drive me to the grocery store. Once upon a time, in my city, we had an organization called Volunteers Express. Volunteers were match with people with disabilities or who were elderly. I was matched with a young woman named sherri, in 1991, and we have maintained our friendship, as well as our volunteer/recipient relationship even though the organization no longer exists.

On Saturday, Sherri picked me up at 9:45 and dropped me off at the beauty shop for my bi-weekly manicure and eyebrow arch. She then scurried off to the grocery with my list in hand along with my credit card, and by the time I was done, she had finished my shopping too. It was all very efficient, because after all these years, Sherri knows pretty much what my preferences are when deciding which products to choose. For example, she knows that I always buy white tissues with no lotion in them, and I would rather pay a little more for soup if the sodium count is less. I always buy low fat cheese, extra large eggs, and skim milk. The benefit of having someone take my list and run through the store is that there is no impulse buying. The problem is that there is no impulse buying. For me, a successful shopping trip results in a few extra purchases of new foods or household products to try. It makes grocery shopping a little more fun.

Sherri is a very high-energy professional woman with a husband and two teen-agers, so I try to respect her time. We’ve fallen into a routine of grocery-shopping twice a month, with an average time spent of about two hours per trip. as soon as I answer the door, we hit the ground running. We catch up with news of our lives on the way to and from the store, discussing problems at work, recommending good books to read, and sharing joys and frustrations. But once we’re inside the store, it’s all business. It’s a job to get done, as efficiently as possible. Sure, it would be nice to get to go to the store every week, or better yet, whenever I needed an ingredient for a dish I suddenly decided to make. It would be luxurious to have three or four hours to ponder over which brand of peanut butter to buy, and whether it’s better to buy sugar free or fat free ice cream, but I would never trade sherri’s getter done attitude for a leisurely shopping trip with someone who can’t find the products I always buy. Many times I don’t even know the brand I want, but sherri can find it by looking for the familiar packaging. That’s precisely why I am comfortable sending her to the store while I get my nails done.

 

Cash Only

I’m often asked, “How do you know that’s a five-dollar bill?” It’s a good question, because in this country, all our bills feel the same. You can feel the difference between a quarter and a Nickle, a dime and a penny, but it is impossible to detect the difference between a one-dollar bill and a one-hundred-dollar bill. 180 other countries have a monetary system that is accessible to blind people. You’d think that the U.S. would be among them.

We who are blind have developed individual methods of keeping our cash organized. There is no one right method, so I’ll tell you about mine. I keep all my ones flat in my wallet. I fold my fives in half from left to right. I use a lot of five-dollar bills for my transportation, so that’s usually all I carry, ones and fives. It makes life a whole lot simpler. However, if I do have a ten, I fold it like a five and then fold it over again. I fold my twenties over like a five and then down from the top. In this way, I can easily tell which bill I have plucked out of my wallet. The trick is to get them stashed properly in the first place. Here’s where some issues of trust and honesty come into play.

When I make a cash purchase with a $20 bill, and I’m expecting change that includes a higher denomination than $1, I always ask the person handing me my change to tell me which bills are which. I don’t mind taking a few extra seconds to do this, for two reasons. First, it helps me keep control of my money. Secondly, it reinforces to all the fact that I am indeed in control of my money. Have you ever seen that TV show, “What Would You Do?” They had a situation on it in which the blind person was cheated by a store clerk, who handed her the wrong amount of change. He thought he could get away with it, but by-standers came to her aid. If I am ever in doubt, I say, “here’s a twenty.” That way, the clerk can never tell me that I only handed him a one. And if I have accidentally pulled out the wrong bill, my mistake will be noted by us both.

Have I ever been cheated? Not to my knowledge. In fact, it is more likely that a clerk will point out that I have handed him a twenty instead of a ten, not the other way around.

Another method I use, particularly when I am traveling, is to keep ones in my righthand pocket and fives in the left. That way, I don’t have to fuss around with digging tips out of my purse. Of course the problem can be remembering which pocket holds which denominations. I think One time, I accidentally tipped a sky cap $10 instead of $2, but that wasn’t his fault. It was just his lucky day. Or maybe he thought I was Miss Money-bags, and I always tip like that.

Writing and keeping track of checks can present more of a challenge. There are check-writing guides for those whose handwriting is legible. They are made of plastic or cardboard, with windows cut out where you fill in the date, the amount, etc. I keep track of my own checks by recording them in a very old piece of technology called a Braille & Speak. I call my bank regularly and check on the status of my account. Automated phone systems are great, but those who are more computer savvy than I can do the same on line.

Whether I’m keeping track of pennies or my life savings, the most important thing to remember is to not get lazy and to always be in control.

 

Reading bills, how Empowering!

Would you pay $1,000 for the privilege of reading your own mail? Who would ever think that being able to read my own phone bills would make me feel empowered? Until today, I had the opinion that blind people who loved to spend hours scanning their mail and then reading by using their text to speech soft wear were wasting their time. I pay a woman who comes to my house once a week to read to me such necessary evils as bills, forms to fill out, ads, and a variety of other print. But there’s a trade-off here. For the sake of time saved, I forfeit my privacy. I always thought it would be a waste of time to read the entire bill, when I have a sighted person here to look for the important parts, i.e. how much I owe and when it’s due. Today, however, I discovered the joy of being in control of my own papers.

Last week, my friend Lee downloaded a program made by Kurzweil, which allows me to scan a letter or document, and then it reads it back to me, in a clear, pleasant, and understandable voice. By adjusting the settings, I can change the pitch, the volume, or the rate of speed with which it reads. I still think it would be a more efficient use of my time to have my human reader help me with the bills, but I started practicing with my new toy on the inch-thick stack of documents and papers I have in a folder for my mother’s affairs. In that folder are a copy of her living will, her assisted living bill of rights, a letter from Social Security, and all sorts of things that I really needed to sort out. I had been putting that chore off, because, first of all, who really likes doing that? And secondly, doing it myself, in private, allows me to think about how I want to file it and whether or not I really need to keep it. It takes a while to scan each piece of paper, but it’s worth it, and I know I’ll get faster at it, once I learn to use the program with all its features.

It’s not cheap by any means. It costs a thousand dollars, and at first, I was horrified at the thought of spending that kind of money so I could read my mail. It’s not right that it is so expensive to make life doable for people who are blind, but that’s the way it is. Then I began to plan the next project. After I get all of Mom’s stuff in order, I’m going to attack my own file drawer and clean out stuff I haven’t been able to identify for years. Most things I’ve labeled in Braille, but there were times when I was in a hurry and just stuffed them in the drawer. Then, after I get good at this scanning thing, I’m going to read my own toastmasters manual, and then I’m going to scan at least one of the many books my aunt and my mother wrote together. Those books have been sitting on the shelf for about 40 years, and I’m finally going to get to read them. Of course it’s not the same as having a real live person read to me, but I don’t happen to have a staff of half a dozen people hanging on trees ready to read to me whenever I want.

For pleasure reading, I use the talking book library, from the National Library Service, and for newspapers, I use Newsline, a telephone dial-up service, but for everyday reading needs, like the instruction booklet for cleaning my oven, I’ll be thanking Mr. Kurzweil.

 

Transportation

I was sitting on a wicker loveseat, thoughtfully placed between the outside door and the inner door to the lobby of my mother’s assisted living home. I was waiting for my ride to come and take me home after visiting my mother. Being blind, I can’t drive, so I must depend on the kindness of my friends or public transportation. I typically use what is called a “para-transit.” It is operated by our Transit Authority and is available for people with disabilities who are not able to use a regular fixed-route bus. I can’t ride the bus, because there isn’t a bus line between my home and my mother’s. In fact, there isn’t fixed bus route between my house and anything, so I use the para-transit system about 5 times a week. They pick me up at my door and deliver me to my destination, which sounds great, and usually it is, but at times, it’s a real pain in the neck.

As I sat there waiting, I wondered how many hours of my life I would be spending in that foyer. I imagine that it will be freezing in the winter, with the outer door being opened by people going and coming constantly, so I’ll probably have to sit in the lobby and listen to the ever-blaring tv. But it sure beats standing at a bus stop. At least I do have some form of transportation. I have to call at least 24 hours in advance to request a ride, and although I must be ready 15 minutes early, they are allowed to arrive 15 minutes after my designated pick-up time before they are considered late, and I might have to share the ride with one or two other passengers, who might need to be picked up and/or dropped off while I am on the vehicle, but it’s much more affordable than a cab. A cab would probably cost about$25 each way for this trip, and for para-transit, I pay $5 each way.

A few days ago, I arranged for my mother to be evaluated for eligibility for this service. I had filled out all the paperwork, but I still had to take her to the para-transit office for them to interview her. “Do we really have to go through this?” I asked. “My mother is 96. She’s barely able to walk, and she can’t see, and she can’t hear. What more proof do you need to determine she can’t drive or take a regular bus?” It seems that rules are rules, so off we went to get signed up. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

A week before our appointment, I had to arrange my own transportation to and from my mother’s place, so that I could accompany her. She needed me to explain what was happening each step of the process and basically be her ears. On the day of her appointment, I was picked up at8:15in order to be sure to arrive by8:45at Mother’s, for her8:55pick-up. She was ready when I got there, so together, we waited in that foyer. I insisted that she use her wheelchair, rather than the walker, because I was pretty sure that being loaded onto the van with a lift might feel insecure if she were standing with a walker. At the para-transit office, they took her picture for her photo i.d. and took her back to an inner office for her interview. They asked her irrelevant questions like “How long have you had arthritis?” Now seriously, does that really matter? It was a good thing they made me wait in the lobby. They allowed for an hour for this process, but she was done in 15 minutes, which meant that we had to wait 45 minutes for our11:10ride back to the home. The ride back took about 50 minutes, (a 20-minute drive in a car) and then after dropping Mom off, I had about a half-hour ride back to my house. It was12:30before I got home. We were both exhausted. It was a feat of orchestration, but in the end, Mother will have transportation to come and visit me at my house or to church or some other event, without having to impose on my friends. Then she will be the one sitting on that loveseat in that foyer…waiting for her ride.

 

Respect

We were supposed to be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but I was so choked up that I could only mouth the words. We had just stood for the presentation of the American Flag by the Color Guard of the American Legion in our town. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, as we heard the haunting melody of Taps. Even though it was only a recording, I allowed myself to forget that it wasn’t a real live serviceman, performing the last rights of every American soldier. . I grieved for my father, who served in the Army twice, for my brother, who served in the SAC division of the Air Force, and even my x-husband, who served in the Navy submarine service during the Vietnam Conflict. I thought about all the men and women in this country who put their lives on the line for our freedom, including my own son, who served in the Coast Guard. Most of all, I opened my heart to all the men in that room who had served our country.

I was visiting my mother in her assisted living home, and on this afternoon, they had a solemn ceremony to honor all the residents who were veterans. Each veteran’s name was called, and each man received a pin. I suspect that every man in that room received a pin, because every resident in that room had either served during World War II or had supported our troops with their love and care. My mother was among them. Her cheeks were wet as well, as we stood in silence as the Color Guard proudly marched to the back of the room.

I’m embarrassed to recall snickering at those old guys in the Memorial Day and 4th of July parades, “playing soldiers.” Shame on me. These are men who proudly carried the flag when they were strong and young. Now, they probably have heart conditions, breathing problems, and countless aches and pains of old age, but they can still march in step, and they still love this nation. Afterward,cake and punch were served, and someone played patriotic songs on the piano. A roomful of old and fragile voices gathered strength,singing God BlessAmerica and It’s a Grand Old Flag. There was no Sinicism here, just pure joy for having survived. All this may sound a little hokey, but I’m just saying, it was downright humbling. Here is a generation that lived what we read about in our history books. They are stronger and wiser than I’ll ever be. They may not be able to remember what they had for breakfast, but they know what it’s like to wake up to war and to live through the depression. They may not be able to balance the checkbook anymore, but they deserve our respect. This little ceremony was well worth the afternoon. It made me look beyond the wheelchairs and walkers. I heard their music. I felt their courage. I saw their determination to get through another day.

 

 

Right Over Here

Have you ever been in the position of having to direct a blind person to a chair? To the door? To the counter? For some reason, this seems to be a monumental puzzle for many people, but it’s really quite easy, if you just learn your right hand from your left.

Yesterday, a sighted friend took me to a community center to go swimming. The first thing I had to remind her of was not to give directions to my guide dog. Instead of saying, “Come on Pippen,” she should have said, “We’re going to go to the left.”

When we got ready to get into the pool, and after I had secured Pippen to a bench, near the pool, my friend, whom I’ll call Joan, (not her real name) said, “here’s the ladder.” Where was “here?” To make my entry into the pool more graceful, she should have guided me to the ladder, and then put my hand on the railing. That way, I could have been oriented to the ladder. The same method should be used when guiding a person to a chair. If you put her hand on the back of the chair, she will know which way to sit on the chair. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat sideways on a chair until I finally located the back. Back to the pool. After I got into the water, I asked Joan where the lane divider was, because I moved along to my left where I thought it should be and couldn’t find it. She said, “Right over here.” Where was “here?” It turned out that the ladder was on the side of the pool, not at the end, which I was expecting. I should have known better, but it was the first time I had been to that pool. It would have been easier for me if Joan had taken the time to say, “When you go down the ladder, you’ll be facing the side of the pool. Go to your right, and you’ll be at the shallow end.” Once I was oriented, I had a glorious time swimming laps.

In the changing room, we faced our final challenge of the day. It was a family changing room, which was great for me. I didn’t have to navigate a complicated route from locker to shower and back. Everything was in one small room. I asked Joan to tell me where everything was, starting with the chair. Again, she said “It’s right here.” I guessed she meant near where she was standing, so I went to the chair and used it as my reference point. “where is the shower?” I asked. “The shower is straight ahead.” “Straight ahead” is a pretty useless direction, because it is dependent on which way the person is facing as to whether or not it is accurate. Totally blind people need literal directions, and straight ahead, more than a few steps, is rarely useful. After she left the room, I explored the space, by starting with the chair and walking around the perimeter. I discovered a changing table in the left-hand corner. Then when I turned right, there was the shower, and next to it on the right hand wall was the toilet and sink. The shower was not straight ahead at all but in the right-hand corner of the room. But Joan was standing in front of it when I asked her, and I was facing her, so that translated to “straight ahead.” This sounds much more complicated than it is. A better way of describing the room would be, “The chair is to your left. As you go around the room, you’ll come to a changing table, and then the shower to your right. On the right-hand wall are the toilet and sink..” Another way would be to use the clock method. “Starting from the chair, the shower is at 2:00, etc.” A simple rule to remember is, eliminate the use of “right here,” and “over there.” That will force you to use “right” and left,” but that does mean you will have to know your right hand from your left.

The next time we go, I’ll make it easier for Joan by asking her specific questions, like “Is it on our right?” And if she says, “It’s right over here,” I’ll push her into the pool!

Toastmasters Tonight

Tonight, I am to be the Toastmaster for the evening at my Toastmasters Club meeting. That means I am to be the Master of Ceremonies for the portion of the meeting that is devoted to giving prepared speeches.

A Toastmasters club is a gathering of folks who want to improve their communication and leadership skills. We accomplish this by presenting short speeches at our meetings. Each speaker then has an evaluator, who presents a brief critique of the speech. It’s called an evaluation though, because we emphasize the strengths and the growth of each speaker and offer suggestions for improvement. We have manuals to work from, which guide us in focusing on many facets of public speaking, such as vocal variety, posture, gestures, speech construction, and respect for time. Most speeches are from 5 to 7 minutes long. The manuals cover subjects such as presenting awards, accepting awards, performing a roast, after-dinner entertainment, press conferences and much more. It is a safe and friendly venue for learning to be comfortable with communication, whether it is in front of your boss, in front of your employees, or in front of an auditorium full of strangers. We have contests that start on the club level and continue to the district level. The winners of the district level contest then go on to compete in the International Speech Contests.

I learned about Toastmasters from a friend who happens to also be blind. At a Mary Kay party I hosted about 10 years ago, Barbara mentioned that she had participated in a speech contest that day. Of course we all insisted she give us her speech. It sounded like fun, and I thought, “I could do that.” I love performing—always have, and unlike most people, I had no fear of public speaking. That’s not to say that my knees weren’t knocking the first time I gave a speech. It’s true. They were actually shaking, but I was loving it.

As a toastmaster who is blind, I’ve had a few obstacles to overcome, but just like everything else in my life, I’ve developed what I call “work-arounds.” First, there’s the issue of gestures. Standing behind a lectern and holding onto it for dear life is going to give the impression that you are scared stiff, and you will probably be boring. You need to move around, or at least move the top half of your body. I hadn’t been able to see the gestures people make as they speak for years, so it took some practice to make mine look natural. Then there’s eye contact, which is vital to engaging your audience, but I’ve been told I do a pretty good job of faking it. Over the years, I’ve become fairly comfortable with stepping out from behind that lectern, but when I’m competing, I use a not so secret prop. Before I begin my speech, I place a throw rug in front of the lectern, and I stand on it for the duration of my speech, stepping to the right or to the left, but never leaving that home base. It gives me a frame of reference, so I don’t wind up addressing the back wall.

I’m still working on a graceful way to approach the lectern and then return to my seat unassisted. It would be so easy if we met in a conference room, where a table lectern was set up. Then I could just sit nearby and step over to the lectern. In our meeting place, however, the lectern is out in the middle of nowhere, facing rows of chairs in a large church sanctuary. Tonight, because I will be going to and from the lectern several times, as I introduce each speaker on the agenda, I will sit in the front row, center. That way, I can take 4 confident steps forward, and I’ll be there. The only problem with this plan is that nobody likes to sit in the front row, so I’ll be sitting alone. I don’t like sitting alone, but we all have choices, and in this case, I choose to sit where I can perform my duties efficiently and without drawing attention to my disability. I’ll socialize next time.