Speaking of Gratitude: Givers of Freedom and Creators of Opportunity

by Tonia Valletta Trapp

Braille Monitor

April, 2004

From the Editor: The following speech was delivered at the New Mexico state conference of the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AERBVI) on February 26, 2004. Tonia Trapp is president of the Albuquerque chapter of the NFB of New Mexico. Her husband is Greg Trapp, the director of the adult rehabilitation training center of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Here is Tonia's story:

One of the most difficult tasks we face as human beings is the challenge of developing an honest and realistic view of who we are: our strengths, our weaknesses, our talents, our shortfalls, our achievements. Growing up as a totally blind person has made that challenge a little more difficult for me than it would have been otherwise. Back in Virginia my mother has a drawer full of newspaper clippings in which various journalists wrote that I was amazing or outstanding because of my achievements as a blind person. Of course such notions are ridiculous, but they do offer a useful way to introduce the question I hope to answer for you tonight: How did I get to be who I am today? As I've gotten older and hopefully wiser, I have come to the realization that who I have become has a little to do with me but has much more to do with the influences that other people have had in my life and the many opportunities that others have helped me to reach for. I feel an increasing wish to tell those people how much I appreciate all that they did for me. So tonight I will indulge in telling you about some of those people in my life. I know that each of you is influential in the lives of blind people, so I want you to know how essential you are and how much your influence matters.

I will start by telling you about the people who have naturally had the most influence on me, my parents. I became totally blind by the age of two because of bilateral retinoblastoma. So all of a sudden my parents were plunged into a new and frightening situation. They had to decide what to do with their blind child. At that point my parents made the decision that has had the greatest impact on my future, the most important decision they ever made for me. They decided that they wanted me to live a normal life, to do and experience all the things that children without disabilities experience. They let me explore my surroundings. They taught me how to swim, how to run, how to ride a bicycle, and how to dance. They let me play with neighborhood children at their houses, in the woods, and in our swimming pool. They let me go sledding and ice skating and roller skating and canoeing and horseback riding. They signed me up for Girl Scouts, choral society, and summer camp.

Were my parents taking a risk by giving me such freedom? Of course. And I did have my share of mishaps. I remember when my parents were teaching me how to ride a bicycle, and they took my brother and me to the empty parking lot at my elementary school to practice. My bike did not have handbrakes; to use the brakes, you had to pedal backwards. I remember one time I was riding my bike straight ahead, and my dad yelled, "Brake! Brake!" but I did not respond fast enough, so I rode straight into a chainlink fence and cut the bridge of my nose. No big deal. Then there was the time I went to a friend's party at a roller-skating rink. I was skating along when I lost my balance and fell. I put my right hand down to catch myself, and I fractured my wrist. The most serious injury I sustained happened on the first day of practice after I joined my school gymnastics team in the sixth grade. I was doing a move on the uneven bars, and we had a miscommunication about the location of the crashpad, a soft, squishy mat about eight inches thick, used to cushion landings. When I came flying off the low-bar and landed on a much thinner mat, I had too much momentum going, so I fell forward and put down my left hand to catch myself, breaking my arm.

You're probably thinking, weren't my parents afraid to let me do all those things? Of course they were. But did they allow their fears to hold me back? Not at all. My parents had the courage to let me live. I can never thank them enough for that. I have many memories of happiness and fun from my childhood because of them. One of the things that my mother has always done extremely well is to inspire my curiosity about the world by encouraging me to examine things tactilely. She would show me sculptures that were reachable in museums and as decorations outdoors. Even today, when we go shopping, she picks up objects she thinks I would find interesting and hands them to me. When the architecture of a building is tactile, she points that out to me so I can enjoy it. When she came to visit me here a few years ago, she showed me the nifty carved wood on the front door of the Gardunos restaurant we took my family to.

In college I had a friend who worked at a science museum, and he took me there once for an insider's view. I particularly remember two things he showed me. When we got to the museum, he told me to hold out my hands like a cup because he was going to put something into them. So I did what he asked, and he poured a bunch of fleshy things into my hands. I had no idea what they were. Then the objects in my hands all began to wriggle and squirm like mad, and I exclaimed to my friend, "What in the world is this?" He laughed and said that he had just given me a handful of worms. The other thing I remember him showing me was a baby alligator. For some reason I especially like alligators. My friend had to remove the baby alligator very carefully from his domicile, using one hand to clamp the animal's mouth shut so it could not bite. I had a fast feel over the alligator's body because my friend had to put him back quickly. How nifty that was! I was excited to be able to touch that alligator, even briefly.

One of the most fabulous adventures I had in curiosity came about because of an administrator at one of the museums in Washington, D.C., who invited me on a personal, hands-on tour of a part of the museum not open to the public, but reserved for older students doing scientific research. In this area nothing was behind glass. Everything could be touched and carefully handled. I got to see all kinds of biological things like bones, preserved animals, fossils, insects, and lots of other cool stuff. I am sure that having my curiosity piqued in this way had something to do with my desire to learn and to know more about the world.

Several teachers played key roles in my development as well. One of these was my teacher Ms. Schlosberg at Camp Adventure, the private preschool I attended in Tucson, Arizona. Ms. Schlosberg took a special interest in me. Shortly before my family left Arizona to move to Virginia, she gave me a doll that she had sewn together herself. Other staff at my preschool took interest in me too. I remember them introducing me to the trapeze and showing me how to sit and swing on one.

When we moved to Virginia, my parents had to convince our local public school to admit me as a kindergarten student. They did not know a lot about the Education of All Handicapped Children Act that had been passed a few years before, so they decided to approach the problem practically. They suggested to the principal of my neighborhood school that I spend a day in one of their kindergarten classes so that the teacher could observe me. That was done. My parents had taught me my ABCs and numbers and so on, so I was able to convince the school that I was a child with some intelligence. I was admitted as a kindergarten student, and I attended public school from that point forward. I still remember my very first VI teacher, Ms. Wildberger, who taught me Braille. Of all my VI teachers, I remember her most fondly.

I have always been a rather ambitious person. My mother remembers that, when I was in kindergarten, I was walking along with some friends, and I turned to them and said, "So where do you want to go to college?" Then I told them that I was planning to go to Harvard. For a long time I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. My VI teachers spurred me on by introducing me to blind adults who had jobs and were supporting themselves as lawyers, radio announcers, engineers, and so on. I was also given chances to meet with adult blind women and ask them questions about how they did things like cooking, matching their clothes, and shopping. Actually I seem to recall that my mother asked most of the questions because I got bored quickly and wanted to do something else. But one way or another, the invaluable wisdom of those blind women was passed on to me.

When I was about ten, my VI teacher taught me how to type. I despised having to practice typing; it was awful! But it sure came in handy later. This same teacher introduced me to my first computer, the Apple 2-E, with a speech synthesizer called the Echo. I even got to take a computer home one summer and play games on it. Computers were just beginning to be popular back then, so I am very glad that my VI teachers had the wisdom to teach me how to use them.

Some of my classroom teachers went out of their way to nurture and encourage me too, like my third-grade teacher Mrs. Burgess, who encouraged me to write. She also took me to the circus for the first time. I remember my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Swaim, who made sure I knew that I had great value in her eyes, and my high school AP biology teacher Mr. Sane, who gave me individual attention to ensure that I could participate in labs and learn as much as possible. Then there was Dr. Aday, who taught me criminology when I took two summer classes at my college before starting my freshman year. Dr. Aday called me a few years later to suggest that I apply for a Truman Scholarship, which I had never heard of before.

Because of the support I received from all of my teachers and because of the strong work ethic I inherited from my parents, I earned mostly A's in school, had the privilege of attending a high school for gifted students, and eventually won scholarships from the College of William and Mary, the Truman Foundation, the NFB, and several other groups. Together with support from the Virginia rehabilitation agency for the blind, those scholarships paid my way through my three-and-a-half years of college and two years of graduate school so that, when I completed my master's degree in social work in 1998, I had no debts to pay back. I know that I was very blessed to be supported so generously.

I would not want you to think that I have forgotten about my mobility teachers. I remember my first O and M teacher, Mrs. Woolsten. She taught me how to use my cane to travel around my elementary school and other places. Other instructors like her taught me how to navigate busy streets, stores, and college campuses. They taught me how to use taxis, buses, and the subway system. Thanks to them I was never afraid to go where I wanted to by myself, whether that was Washington, D.C., for summer internships and volunteering or Williamsburg for college or Chapel Hill for graduate school or Europe for swimming competitions.

Speaking of swimming, let me tell you about the people who helped me become an athlete. My first and most favorite sport is gymnastics. My mom likes to tell how she knew early on that I would be athletic. When she was pregnant with me, she sometimes felt my little fingers grasping her ribs as though I were trying to climb them like a ladder. She tells this other story about how, when I was about three, I was standing on a stool in the kitchen. Mom looked away for a second, and when she looked back, she was just in time to see me leap from the stool and do a flip, landing upright on the floor. So my parents put me into gymnastics lessons in my preschool years in Arizona.

Then we moved to Virginia, and I began elementary school. Sometime during my first two or three years there, my PE teacher Mrs. Hurst, noticed that I greatly enjoyed swinging around on the playground equipment. She wanted to encourage my athletic ability, and she wanted me to be safe, so she suggested to my parents that I stay after school sometimes so that she could teach me more gymnastics. When she had taught me all she could, my parents took me to a private gymnastics club run by Mr. and Mrs. Roltsch, who had never worked with a blind child before. They decided to give me a test run to see what I could do and to see if I would be fearful or timid as an athlete. They soon learned that the answer was "no," so they took me on as a pupil. My gymnastics teachers came up with some creative and useful ways of teaching me. To show me how to do a cartwheel, they used a doll to demonstrate what the movement should look like, which worked very well. It would have been difficult to grasp the concept without such a tactile model. Then when I needed to learn how to do cartwheels in a straight line, my coaches showed me a crack where two mats joined, and they told me to practice doing the cartwheels along that crack in the mats.

My favorite gymnastics event was the uneven bars. To show me how to do certain moves on the bars, my coach would call over one of the more experienced gymnasts and ask her to do that move. He would stop her at strategic points during the move and ask me to feel the position of her body so I could see what I needed to be doing.

The last creative teaching method I will tell you about had to do with my floor-exercise routine. I needed to follow a particular geometric pattern as I did the routine. In one of my routines part of the pattern involved making ninety-degree turns and moving along the square area of the spring-floor, which was no problem. But at one point I needed to move on the diagonal. To facilitate that, my coaches put the tape recorder that played the music for my routine at a particular corner of the spring floor so that I could move toward the music and thereby cross the floor diagonally. This method, like all the others, worked quite well.

I competed in gymnastics with my sighted peers, where I did especially well on the uneven bars. In the spring of 1985 I went to my first United States Association for Blind Athletes (USABA) national competition for blind gymnasts in Trenton, New Jersey, where I won four gold medals and one silver.

But when I broke my arm in the sixth grade just after joining the school gymnastics team, I faced a new challenge. Of course I had to give up gymnastics long enough for my arm to heal. Then I resumed my private gymnastics lessons. My coach took me to the uneven bars and asked me to do a move very similar to the one I had been doing at school when I broke my arm. The move was called a soul circle. It involved swinging around the low bar and letting go of the bar to land on the mat. I was afraid to do what my coach asked. I would perch on the low bar, do a preparatory movement that would set me up for the soul circle, then stop. I repeated that sequence over and over, too afraid to follow through. My coach waited patiently, lesson after lesson. He knew I was afraid, but he kept asking me to do the soul circle. He understood that it was crucial that I conquer my fear. And eventually I did. And I continued to compete as a gymnast.

In the spring of 1987, when I came here to Albuquerque to compete again as a blind gymnast in the USABA games, the coach of the national blind swim team happened to see me perform. He approached my parents and explained that, if I were interested in becoming a competitive swimmer, I could compete, not just nationally, but internationally as a blind athlete. So I decided in the seventh grade to take swimming lessons. Then, when I was in the eighth grade, my swim coach decided it was time for more serious training to bring me up to the level where I could join a sighted swim team and compete at that level. During that year I had three swim coaches, who worked with me to get me into shape.

I joined a sighted swim team, and in the spring of 1988 I swam in the USABA games in Indianapolis, where I set six national swimming records and was picked to be on the national blind swimming team going to Seoul, Korea, that fall for the Paralympic Games. For those of you who may not know, the Paralympics is the Olympics for the physically disabled, including people with vision impairments and various kinds of paralysis. At age fourteen I was the youngest American athlete to go to Seoul that year, which was a bit daunting. I was fortunate to be a member of two relay teams that set world records and won gold medals for two swimming events in Korea. Over the next two years I got to go to Holland, England, and France to compete in other competitions for blind swimmers. I also competed as a part of several sighted swim teams, including my high school team.

Now I have told you about some of the people who have been critical to my accomplishments. But I would be remiss if I did not tell you that I could not have come this far without God in my life. God has always sent me encouragers when I needed them most, people who poured their kindness and strength into me so that I could keep up a good fight and keep pressing forward. It would take me a long time to list all of the encouragers who have helped me along the way.

I have much to be grateful for: a wonderful husband and a very happy marriage, good friends; a job I enjoy; a comfortable, cozy house that I like to come home to; and groups and activities that I enjoy participating in. In a nutshell, I am living the kind of life that my parents envisioned for me long ago. But that does not make me amazing. All my accomplishments do not make me amazing. I am a person with some intelligence, some athletic ability, some tenacity, and some courage. But my abilities would have lain dormant and untapped if my parents, teachers, friends, and other people had not actively created opportunities for me to excel.

You too can be a creator of opportunity for a blind child or a blind adult. You can see the boundless potential that blind people have, and you have the power to harness that potential and channel it into great and small accomplishments. I could not have achieved all that I have without the help of many people just like you. You can help shape the lives of blind people into the exquisite works of art they were meant to become. I challenge you to use every such opportunity that you can find.