‘My responsibility is to help other people, adults and young people, come to discover the gifts they don’t know they have’
By Bill Carr
Terry Kelly has been a friend of mine for a number of years. He has always startled me with his unbridled enthusiasm for life and laughter and song; coupled with a true sense of concern for the needs of those around him. He sees what many so-called “sighted people” often miss.
Bill: Blindness is a profound idea in the human imagination and experience… yet I’ve noticed something odd about you.
Terry: I’m an odd fellow.
Bill: True, but blindness has never defined you; you have redefined it.
Terry: Ahhh … That’s a gift that was given to me by several people; by my parents, the teachers and the people we referred to at the School for the Blind here in Halifax as house parents, and multiple volunteers.
The stage was set in two different places … by my parents who – maybe just by default because they had eight kids – didn’t take the time to baby me too much. And it was set at the School for the Blind where it was an absolute mission and the very culture of the place … which was to give you opportunities to try lots of different things and skills that will allow you to get out into the world and be independent and to give back to society – but it’s a choice you’ve got to make.
They also made sure that we were accountable for what we did and didn’t do. So if we chose to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves because we’re blind, there wasn’t a lot they could do about that, except to present opportunities to us … but we weren’t allowed to be rude or ungrateful.
Like at Christmastime, gifts were sent to us: we were given to all the time. There was a house parent, Ed Fraser, who has since passed, but he told us – when I was in about Grade 8, he said, “At Christmastime you’re going to help service clubs fill hampers for the poor, and you’re going to go out and walk in the snow and the cold and deliver them.”
He also got us heavily involved in the Scout and Venture movement, where we had to go out and camp just like all the other kids. There were certain things we had to do differently because we were blind, but we weren’t babied … someone didn’t make the fire for us. Nobody put up the tent or built the lean-to. We were taught to do that. We were expected.
They said, basically, “While you’re here, we’ll give you the opportunities and the choices, and we’ll give you what you need to be successful. And if you want to sit around and feel sorry for yourself, that’s your choice, but you’re going to be accountable and respectful.” And that saved my life.
Bill: Are you pushing other people’s expectations of you as a blind person, or just yourself as a person?
Terry: Both. There is a funny thing that may have happened. When you do something as a kid – and even as an adult – as a blind person, people say, “Holy smokes! That’s amazing!” When really it’s not amazing.
But as a kid, you pick up on that and you say, “Hey, I like this. I want more of this.”
I push myself a lot and I also do my utmost to help other people be comfortable with my blindness.
My dad, before he passed away, came out on the road with me for 10 or 12 weeks, and I did school presentations and corporate stuff. Now remember, I had been away from home for nine months of the year as a kid; I’d come home to Newfoundland from the school for summers and Christmas.
So I spent a lot of time away from family, and this was a great opportunity for Father and I to catch up. At the end of the tour, we were flying from Vancouver to Halifax and were bumped up to business class.
And we were sitting there sipping on a Scotch when he said, “You know, Terry, all my life I’ve felt guilty about something. I’m the carrier of the retinal blastoma gene that gave you cancer, and you lost both your eyes. I felt guilty about that all my life.” He took a sip of the scotch and he said, “I don’t anymore.’
Terry starts to laugh really hard and then leans in and says softly:
“Because,” he said, “I’ve come to a conclusion after being out on the road with you; I believe your blindness is a gift.”
And I thought, well, I can’t really argue with that. And I started reminiscing about all the things I had done in my life to that point; lots of things had happened as a result of being blind. And I said, “There’s one other thing, Father, that you and Mother may not realize you’ve given all the kids … you taught us it’s not what happens to us in life that’s most important; it’s what you do with it. You and Mother set an example so I could take this blind thing and turn it into a gift.”
My responsibility now is to use the gifts that have been given to me – the volunteers who taught me to downhill ski and the international track competitions in the ’80s – stuff like that.
They were all gifts that were given to me by a teacher or a house parent or a volunteer or my parents, and my responsibility is to help other people, adults and young people, come to discover the gifts they don’t know they have.
Take that challenge; whether it’s a learning disability or a jealousy or a physical disability, or whatever it might be, and turn it into a gift, as my father showed me my blindness had become.
I discovered something last November when I was doing a Remembrance Day ceremony. There were vets at this ceremony; one from the Second World War, (others) from Korea and Afghanistan. And we all had to speak to these elementary school kids for a couple of minutes or so, and I’m last and I’m sitting there thinking, “What am I going to say here?”
I was at the end. And it was one of those moments when it drops out of the sky to you.
I said, “You guys see these heroes sitting here, and you hear what they’ve done and see their medals, and you’re wondering how you could be a hero.
“You can be a hero right now, after this class is over. You can be a hero by being kind to the person next to you, or picking something up for the teacher, or holding the door … that’s where heroes begin. You can be a hero right now. Would you consider that?”
I never tell them what to do. I always ask, “Would you consider that?” That gives them a choice.
There’s that word again.
“And I think the absence of – I won’t say religion, but religion can lead you to spirituality if it’s good and it’s healthy. But I think the absence of spirituality is part of what scares kids these days.
So, if there was a discussion of God in the schools – to talk about your religion or my religion and how I might worship differently or how I might come to my spirituality differently than you do, but in the end we really all come to the same place.
So when something happens in a kid’s life, and a little thing turns into a big thing they have nowhere to go, and they’ll want to go somewhere. Sometimes it’s to a gang or to drugs, but they’ll want to go somewhere.
I know as a kid, a seven-year-old kid, I traveled here from Newfoundland … I remember the comfort of saying my prayers.
It was sometimes when I was afraid or when I said, “Thank you, God.” I think that’s part of what’s missing. And to teach kids and adults the joy of giving back to this big world; if you can give them the joy of giving and saying, “I have gifts I can share with the world.” How wonderful is that?
And then imagine transforming what you might perceive as a terrible thing in your life – as I did with my blindness, and I have to work at that every day – imagine if you can grow to say, “This is a gift!”
I’m grateful every day.
Terry Kelly is a gift. He’s earned an Order of Canada and several music awards, as well as sung for and inspired audiences, young and old, right across the country and many parts of the world. For more about Terry Kelly, go to www.terry-kelly.com.
Bill Carr lives in Rockingham where he is working on making things a gift.