Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Profile: Annie Maxwell, blind woman

Posted By on Tue, Dec 9, 2008 at 9:55 PM

click to enlarge Annie Maxwell
  • Annie Maxwell

When did you discover you were blind?

When I was a child, we lived on a farm in South Georgia. My parents were sharecroppers. When I was small, nobody ever said anything about me not being able to see. I assumed everyone had the same situation that I did. I have light perception, and I have some contrast. If the grass is green and the sidewalk is concrete, I can tell where one stops and the other one ends. That’s the kind of sight that I had.

When my brother would see my mother coming — he’d say, “Oh, here comes Mom” — I would think he just knew because he was smarter than me. I didn’t realize that he could see her. When my brother was six years old, he started school. And I was a year older than him and hadn’t started. I was like, “Wait a minute! What is this?” I couldn’t figure out why he was starting to go first. I figured maybe I was just too bad, too hardheaded. I thought maybe I had to do something about my attitude before I could go.

When my brother would come home from school he would teach me how to write my letters in the dirt. So I learned as he learned. I thought when you went away to school they taught you to see.

So then one day when my mom got a job, we moved to town. My mom got a job working as a housekeeper for this woman who had moved from Macon. She knew about the academy for the blind in Macon. She brought my mom home one day. She called to me in the yard and said, “Why aren’t you in school?” And I said, “Because I’m too bad.” She was like, “Are you blind?” And I was like, “What’s that?” So she said, “Can you see?”  And I said “Yeah!” And then she said, “Then what color is my dress?” And I said, “I don’t know, you’ve got it on, you tell me!”

She talked to my mom about the academy, and she was the one who got me enrolled. When I went to the academy, I still didn’t know I couldn’t see. All these kids were there, and they were running into me and I was like, “Why are you running into me?” They were trying to explain to me that I couldn’t see either.

When I went to class the teacher said to me, “Okay I’m going to teach you how to read.” And she gave me this book with these dots in it. I was like, “That’s not what my brother reads,” and she was like, “Well, your brother can see.” I was like, “I can see too!” and she said, “We’re going to learn braille. You are going to learn with your fingers.” Boy, it took me a long time to realize that I really could not see! The kids laughed at me. They thought I was crazy. Over time, it finally sunk in.

Is anyone else in your family blind?

No, I am the only person in the history of my family who is blind. It’s not genetics. It’s what they call idiopathic, something with no known cause. It’s just a birth defect. It hasn’t done anything to really slow me down. It hasn’t taken command of my life or anything. I just refuse to let that happen.

If I want to go somewhere and nobody wants to take me, I can’t get in the car and drive. That just pisses me off. I get impatient with that. But that doesn’t happen that often, because I’m scheduled to do things around the other people in my family.

Are other senses heightened?

You have to learn to sharpen your other senses. It doesn’t automatically happen. For instance, when I was in school and working for the Center [for the Visually Impaired] and had PTA stuff and was Girl Scout leader, I did not waste a minute of the day. Rather than walking to the light and waiting and starting to listen to the traffic at the corner, I would start listening halfway down the block. When I got to the corner, I would know how long the light was changed just by listening to the traffic. That would save a couple minutes a day, just doing that. I mean, you just learn because you find ways to not waste time.

What is the hardest thing about being blind?

The fact that I can’t drive. That’s the hardest thing for me, because I’m so independent. I have to tell somebody else what time I want to go and how long it’s going to take, when they can just walk out the door and take all day doing whatever they feel like doing

When I was in college, I had to have a reader. I had to set the time frame for the reader to get my stuff read to me in the library — and they could just go to the library at midnight if they wanted to. Now that’s different, because we have all kinds of technology available. We have reading devices, electronic things. We have computerized books we can download from the library. I grew up in a time where we didn’t have all that technology access. The young people now are so fortunate that they can study on their own.

Any other anecdotes to help people better understand your world?

When my kids were growing up, I felt responsible for making them comfortable in their daily lives. I didn’t want them to carry the load of having people refer to them as the child of a visually impaired parent. One thing I realized — I had to be involved in whatever they were doing. That’s why I became Girl Scout leader, PTA President, craft teacher. All those things I did when they were younger, it’s because I wanted them to be comfortable in their world.

Usually, when you’re visually impaired they don’t see you as a regular person. They didn’t think I was raising my kids and doing things for them. They thought my kids were doing things for me. So I had to show them, by being in charge, that I was capable of making decisions and running things.  Just being a member didn’t help. I had to be in charge, so that people would pay attention to what I was saying.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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