Ali Krage, who we met briefly yesterday while reading "Romeo and Juliet" in Braille, stuck in my mind at age 16, navigating the halls of Willowbrook High School with astounding dexterity or, below, plunging into a Best Buy to pick up a DVD for her sister.
Plus she wanted to be a writer—that's a memorable ambition in any teen. I couldn't post this without finding out where she is now, a decade later.
I'm happy to say she followed through on her writerly ambitions.
"I write guest posts for the Easterseals blog," said Krage, now 26. "It's fun. I like it."
"I only have one semester left," she said, adding that she's hoping to become a mental health counselor.
She still likes to read, but more audio books than Braille, which tend to be big, thick, heavy multi-volume sets.
"No way I'd be able to lug those around," Krage said. "The only Braille I typically read now are exams."
She started school studying criminal justice at College of DuPage, where she was the only blind student, then transferred to NIU, where she lives on campus. "They have a pretty large disability community here," she said. "That's one of the reasons I chose the campus."
Here are a couple of deft essays by Ali, this one on dating blind people, and "7 Advantages of Being Blind."
Though I had met her before, writing a story about the classroom of visually impaired students she attends, I immediately do sort of a mental backflip, thinking, Whoops! "Nice to see you again." Good work, Mr. Sensitive. Maybe not the best thing to say to a person who is completely blind.
Apologize or blunder forward? I blunder forward, musing that one advantage of a physical disability is you at least know what your challenges are, while the rest of us have to confront our limitations anew at random times during the day.
That kind of interaction is actually the reason I'm here. As a blind child, Ali needs to practice going out into the everyday world, and the visual world needs practice—as my trouble even saying hello amply demonstrates—adjusting itself to the people with visual disabilities.
It's an open question who has more trouble.
"You still get the stares, the stigma," says Christopher Weinman, an orientation and mobility specialist with SASED, a DuPage County service cooperative.
Brittany Koresch, a teacher at Willowbrook, marvels at the overreactions her blind students can evoke from the public.
"They jump out of your way and go against the wall," she says. "We've been to restaurants where people pay for our food."
"And that's bad?" asks the media sponge, long accustomed to dining out on somebody else's dime.
"You don't want the pity, though," Koresch explains.
"There's something called 'learned helplessness,' " says Weinman. "The majority of our kids are helped so much, by family and friends, that they're getting older, and they lack skills they should have already."
Such as the ability to go to a big store to make small purchases. So Ali and Weinman pile in a van and drive to the Best Buy in Lombard.
"Do you know how much you were given?" he asks.
"Sixty dollars," she says. Three twenties. "I'm buying the movie 'Quarantine,' and I have to find a data card for my sister."
Ali phoned Best Buy the day before to tell them she was coming. Sometimes that helps; sometimes it doesn't. She once had a store—a Border's—say they couldn't help her, and Weinman called back to read them the riot act—or, more precisely, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that stores take reasonable steps to assist customers such as Ali.
"Ordinarily, they're pretty good about it," says Weinman. "We tend to choose stores like Wal-Mart or Best Buy, where there are greeters, so the minute she walks in, she can say, 'Can you help me locate these items?' "
In front of the Best Buy, Weinman gives Ali a small walkie-talkie—she can communicate with him if she gets in trouble—and leaves her at the door.
"I don't get out of the car," he says. "I like the lesson to be as if a taxicab dropped them off."
"What's the most important thing?" he asks Ali.
"To go with them," she says.
Weinman explains she shouldn't just stand there while the clerks go fetch her purchases, but accompany them through the aisles.
"It forces Ali to grab the arm of a stranger—[blind kids] can be nervous about taking the arm of someone they don't know—and makes the public more aware of working with a blind person," says Weinman, who is always telling his students: "We have to show the world that blind people do shop."
Ali unfolds her white cane and walks briskly inside. A man in a yellow shirt and a headset is stationed at the door, and beckons a manager.
"How you doing, miss, how can we help you?" the manager says. "Do you need someone to help you around the store?"
After a brief wait, a pert salesclerk, Gisell DaSilva, 21, appears. Ali takes her arm, and they stride into the vast store.
"Is there anything specific you're looking for?" DaSilva asks.
First on the list is "Quarantine"—like many teens, Ali is a big fan of horror movies; her mother or sister describe the action to her.
"Very, very scary," DaSilva says.
Then to the memory chip aisle, where, after some deliberation, they find the right one.
DaSilva rings up the sale. "Do you want the receipt in the bag?" she asks, then leads Ali to the door.
Back in the van, Weinman goes through the post-mortem. It turns out that Ali just took her change but didn't have DaSilva count out and identify the bills—three fives and a one.
"Being a blind person, it's always important to ask what bills you get," Weinman says. "You've gotta be a self-advocate and say, 'What bills are these?' "
"I tried my best," says Ali, who shows off the DVD of "Quarantine."
"I want to watch this movie so badly," says Ali, and I smile—"watch," that probably means I was OK with "nice to see you."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 19, 2009