This is part of a long interview with two remarkable men, Brian K. Nash and Reginald (Reg) George. Both blind from birth, they have been friends since boyhood. I feel privileged to count myself among their many other friends.
To a large degree, our friendship has been built upon our extensive e-mail correspondence. I can always count on them for astute observations, interesting information, and lots of humor. I have been greatly impressed with their separate accomplishments, as well as with the fact that they have been friends for so long. Thus they seemed to me to be natural subjects for a joint interview.
Brian trains other blind people in the use of adaptive technology, which helps people with disabilities use computers. He has also worked as a massage therapist for almost 25 years. Brian is the author of four wonderful books for children: Two Best Friends, Henrietta of Valley View Farm, Midnight to the Rescue, and Christmas on Valley View Farm. I am his editor, and my author husband, David Dvorkin, designed the covers and helped get the books published. All four books are available in both e-book and print formats. For details, please see www.dvorkin.com/brianknash
Reg is an accomplished musician and also runs Adapt on Demand LLC, a company centered around teaching others to use adaptive technology. It was Reg who first told me about Brian and his writing. For details of Reg's business, please see www.dvorkin.com/adaptondemand
This is a shortened version of the 5,000-word interview with Brian and Reg that was published in the July 2011 edition of the quarterly magazine Recovering the Self, edited by Ernest Dempsey and published by Loving Healing Press. Current and back copies of the magazine are for sale from Amazon and various other e-tailers. Click here for general information about the magazine, including its submission guidelines: http://www.recoveringself.com/about/write-for-us
Please give us some background information about yourselves: when and where you grew up, how large your birth families are, where you came in the lineup of siblings, and how and when you met each other.
I was born in 1961 in Kansas City and grew up on a farm in Kansas. I'm the fourth of six siblings. My grandparents' farm near Mitchell, South Dakota was the inspiration for my Valley View Farm stories.
Reg is a couple of years my junior. I was in third grade when we met at the school for the blind. We went home on weekends, but during the week, we enjoyed playing indoor games, using the outdoor playground equipment, and swimming in the pool at a recreation center. We loved listening to records, radios, and anything else with a spoken voice, as well as recording things on tape recorders. But nine or ten was a hard age to be away from home. We missed our families a lot during the week.
I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but I never knew my birth parents. I've been totally blind with no light perception since birth.
My adoptive parents, who have both passed away, were wonderful people. They were in their fifties when they adopted me, and had already raised four children of their own, my two brothers and two sisters. My father was an executive for General Electric. My mother had been a nurse in the States. When they had been in Brazil for six years, she decided she wanted a child to take care of, and after that, they couldn't give me up. I was with them from the time I was six weeks old.
I grew up in Prairie Village, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, and attended the Kansas State School for the Visually Impaired. It gave me a good foundation in Braille, life skills, and independent travel techniques that I wouldn't have gained anywhere else. It was a boarding school, but I went home on weekends.
Brian is a couple of years older than me, so I don't really remember the first time we met. I do remember that he was very strong and absolutely fearless. He loved to ride bikes and jump off the top of the slide. He could keep us all laughing and entertained for days on end telling great stories, and he bravely led us all into many incredible adventures. He also had a huge heart. Those qualities are all still there.
How did your families help prepare you for life in a world of mainly sighted people? What skills did they teach you? Did they have any memorable warnings for you?
My mom and my sisters Susie and Venita told me stories and read to me a lot. I was encouraged by all to be active. Mom taught me to ride a bike when I was five or six. I loved the feeling of the wind, the hiss of tires on pavement, and the smell of the fresh air. Dad often took the family to Shawnee Mission Lake, where we would fish and hunt frogs. I was fascinated by the different croaks the frogs made, depending on the species.
With my brother and sisters, I played outdoor games like Red Rover and Hide and Seek. We also gardened. I helped Mom in the kitchen with measuring ingredients and stirring cookie dough. Later, she taught me to fry hamburger patties, eggs, and bacon.
I was fascinated by the chickens out behind our house in a coop and loved to chase them around. I climbed trees whenever I could. Someone once asked me if I was suicidal, pulling all those daredevil stunts. If I had been able to see, I think I would have been a race car driver, a pilot, or a jockey. I love the feeling of coordination coupled with motion, and the risk of imminent danger adds spice.
As for coaching me how to survive in a largely sighted world, Mom was always telling me to stop rubbing my eyes or jumping up and down in place while talking to people. Those and other "blindisms" usually develop at an early age, and they need to be corrected by the people around you.
Even as a child, I knew how blessed I was. I always felt I was listened to and really heard. I was not good at entertaining myself, so I constantly pestered my folks with questions. They tried to learn Braille to help me. My dad got his amateur radio license and we learned Morse code together. They sent me to summer camp, and they let me attend public high school. I received an allowance, and if I wanted something, I had to save for it.
They would let me bring kids home with me on the weekends, kids who weren't as fortunate as we were or who were just my friends. We were in People to People, so we had guests from other countries stay with us. That helped me learn that there were other ways of seeing the world.
Both parents read me books and made sure I had what I would need to succeed in anything I might take an interest in. They wanted me to have every opportunity. They encouraged me in music and kept me practicing piano.
I don't remember any specific warnings except things like use your manners, sit up straight, do your homework, wash your hands, finish what you start, and no roughhousing in the house. If you ask me, all that is pretty important stuff for the long term.
You both attended the same school for the blind. Please tell us about the school: its overall size, how long you attended, what the main methods of instruction were, and what your favorite subjects were.
I attended from first through eighth grade. The entire student body was around 110 students when I started, but had dropped to maybe 80 by the time I left.
I remember leaving my first grade classroom in a trance and wandering into the auditorium every time this one particularly gifted student would practice on the built-in pipe organ. I would stand by her quietly and listen until Mrs. Apante would come get me and gently take me back to my class. I don't remember getting in trouble for that.
I loved social studies, English, and reading, but enjoyed all my classes and the many activities. The school had a wood shop, boys' and girls' swim teams, wrestling, boys' and girls' track, and a recreation center with a pool and a two-lane bowling alley. There were bowling competitions with other schools. There was an amateur radio station on the campus which was maintained and run by students.
The school educated from first through twelfth grade and did an incredible job of it. We ate three meals a day in the dining room, family style, learning to pass the bowls of food, butter our own bread, and cut our own food. We had daily mobility travel instruction. As we got older and gained proficiency with the cane, we were allowed to walk off campus after school to go to stores or a nearby café.
By about fifth grade, we turned in most of our homework by typing our assignments on electric typewriters. But what made me literate and allowed me to write as well as I do today was Braille. The language of Braille is falling out of favor, now, but how can blind kids expect to learn how to spell or learn proper punctuation just by hearing sentences? They can't. So this is a problem, as far as I'm concerned.
Brian, I know you've competed in many sports. How did you get into those activities, and do you keep them up now?
Athletics always came naturally to me. I was on the varsity wrestling team by the age of 12, and often wrestled guys who outweighed me by 20 or 30 pounds. But I survived, and continued wrestling through my junior year of high school. We competed with local high schools. My opponents always seemed pretty upset when they were bested by a blind guy.
I was on the swimming team for a year. We traveled all over the Midwest, competing with other schools. We had a track team, and I excelled at distance running. I loved every minute of it all. After competitions, we had pizza parties and played cards with the kids from other schools.
I competed in tandem bike racing and weight lifting as a member of the United States Association of Blind Athletes. I never had any formal martial arts training, but friends have taught me some judo moves. I still bowl, take walks, exercise with weights, jump rope, and use an exercise bike.
Reg, when did you first get interested in music? What instruments do you play? How long were you a member of the Kansas City Singers?
I can remember being interested in music at a very early age. I play keyboards and sing a little. Having perfect pitch helps. When I was eight through 13, I participated in a traveling vocal group from the blind school called Sweet Sixteen. The Kansas City Singers was a sixteen-voice a cappella vocal group doing a variety of material. I was with them from 2004 until 2007, when we took a trip to Germany and performed in friendship concerts with other groups there. That was a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, the group disbanded after that.
I've played keyboards in many classic rock, blues, funk, variety, and reggae bands over the last 33 years, both locally and on the road. I never wanted to be a star, though, or play music all the time. It's just been a lot of fun, a creative outlet that has given me a lot of good memories.
Brian, what are some of the things that you and your wife, Sue, most enjoy about spending time in your rural cabin? And Reg, what are some of the things that you most like about city life?
We love the simplicity of rural life and enjoy socializing with our neighbors over dinner and around roaring bonfires. However, city life does offer more independence to blind people. There, they can walk to businesses or access public transportation. I've been there and done that, so am perfectly happy here in the country. I love having so much time with Sue, my wife and soul mate. I look forward to spring and fishing.
I may stay in Kansas City forever, and I live alone. It's really the best choice for the work I do if I want to be as independent as possible. I try to live where I have transportation services, so I don't have to ask my friends to change their lives around just to help me get places. Public transportation can be a big help, too.
There are more things to do in the city. There's more culture, more infrastructure. The minuses are that it can get lonely when you don't feel like fitting in, and sometimes you aren't as connected as you would like to be to the people and the world around you. Also, other people can go their own way, of course, and you have to find ways to adjust to that reality.
Brian, your books for children are set on a farm. What were a few of your most memorable experiences with farm life when you were growing up? When you and I were doing our interview together for ACB Radio in 2010, I thought the way you talked about the farm animals showed great kindness on your part. In your books for children, the various dogs are both loving and brave. Did you have dogs growing up?
Our many farm dogs could be a nuisance or a joy, depending on their behavior. Growing up in the country, I enjoyed hobbies and work that wouldn't have been possible in town. I rode my bike and horses on the gravel and dirt roads in the area, making it across bridges by listening to the water in the creek on both sides to judge where the middle of the road was.
The chores I had made me feel useful and helped me gain self-confidence. I fed and watered the chickens and gathered and washed eggs. I churned cream into butter. We made home made ice cream in the winter after skating on the pond, and I tended the wood stove in the basement. Many of these experiences are depicted in my Valley View Farm books.
Adaptive software, which reads aloud the text that the blind or otherwise disabled person is either reading or writing, is a huge step forward, a gateway to a vast amount of information and a wonderful communication tool. Can you name any other recent technological advances which have made a difference in the lives of the blind? Also, are there public funds available to help blind people buy adaptive devices?
With cell phones, we no longer need pay phones when we're out and about. Recently they came out with a little gadget, about the size of a mini tape recorder, which is similar to an e-reader, but it does a lot more. You can also record notes on it, store podcasts, and download radio shows and audio books. I'm also excited about the hand-held GPS systems which are now available, which you can use when walking.
The Internet, and computers in general, have leveled the playing field for us more than anything else. Products like the Mac and iPhone are easy for everyone to use, with features that support visual, tactile, and audible ways to interact with the products. This is the paradigm-shifting event of the 21st century, as far as I'm concerned. More and more companies are now seeking to make technology accessible to everyone.
As for resources: The VA has rehabilitation centers across the country that provide equipment and training to put blind and disabled veterans back to work or to make their lives at home more fulfilling. Your first place to turn should be your state rehabilitation agencies. There are also national assistive technology conventions designed to bring people in the field together and to educate consumers on what's out there. Google is your friend.
Please give any more details that you care to about both your current work and any past occupations.
Reg is a superb trainer in adaptive technology, a local treasure. We often consult with one another regarding clients' problems and needs. In the past, I've worked as a rehabilitation assistant, doing various types of factory work, answering phones, running snack bars, and more. I've also been a massage therapist for close to 25 years, but now I work only occasionally with friends and old clients. I'm pretty focused on my writing these days, which is fine.
Many of my clients lost their sight later in life and are learning about adaptive technology for the first time. I love helping them open doors that they may have thought were closed to them forever. It's a rush when you see someone smash through a barrier and succeed. In my technical support work and training, I try to solve real world problems and be an ongoing resource. I don't want to see anyone give up hope or fall through the cracks. I enjoy working with Brian when I can, and feel that our approaches complement each other. It's hugely satisfying to both of us to be able to bring joy back into people's lives.
Brian, when did you first start writing? Would you say that writing has been your most creative endeavor so far?
Writing is definitely the most creative thing I've done. I've always been a long-winded storyteller, though. My daughter Evelyn, who is about to enter graduate school in Communications, would beg me for stories when she was a little girl. I'd make them up for her at bedtime as we rocked together in the big La-Z-Boy recliner. She's the first one I told the story of Henrietta to. The other two stories in the Valley View series came years later.
Reg, how did you set about learning to play music without the benefit of sight? Have you composed any music of your own, or do you mainly learn and perform the music of others?
When I first took piano, I tried to learn Braille music notation, but it's a very clumsy, slow language. So I soon started learning by ear, from tapes. I also took classes in piano tuning and recording engineering. I love learning about the processes that make music come together and how to make things sound a particular way. Being good at music gives me great satisfaction.
I mostly play the music of others. I like being a part of writing and recording good music with creative people, but I think I like performing that music just as much, if not more. That's less stressful for me.
In closing, please tell us anything else that you would especially like the readers to know, either about the lives of blind people in general or about your lives in particular.
You can consider blindness a handicap or simply a nuisance. I aim for the latter attitude. After all, there are lots of people with all manner of disabilities who still face the rising sun every day with the highest aspirations, who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve great things. So the next time you see a blind person walking down the street with a cane or on someone's arm or with a guide dog, know in your heart that we are the same as everyone else. Don't be afraid to talk to us and ask questions. Who knows? We might be able to help you with a computer problem or happily autograph one of our books for you!
Leonore, you and David were both a huge help in getting my books out into the world. Your editing and David's formatting and cover designs are superb. I also want to express my immeasurable thanks to my wife and daughter, as well as to my family and all my friends who have been there for me from the beginning.
A blind worker, like any other, needs to be reliable, but also as independent as possible. No one is going to hire you if you come to a job with the mentality that someone is going to be there to help you through the cafeteria line every day, or that it's okay to be late, or that you can ask someone else to do the parts of your job that you don't like.
Independence means different things to different people. I think Brian is more independent than I am because he can do things like build a barbecue fire and take care of a home, even though he lives in a world where he is more dependent than I am on friends and family to go anywhere. But he can get up and throw a fishing pole over his shoulder and hike down to the lake and fish if he wants. I would never do that.In conclusion, I'd like to thank you, Leonore, for being such a good friend and for helping Brian with his books. David, thanks to you, too, for your expert help.