by Sandy Sommers
From the Editor: The following reflection first appeared in the summer/fall issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. With the opening of convention season just around the corner, we thought it might be of interest for those who have never attended a national convention to read an account of a first-convention experience. Here is the article Sandy Sommers wrote when she returned home from Orlando in July 2011. It begins with the editor’s note:
Editor’s note: Sandy Sommers won an NFB of Ohio scholarship last November and a national scholarship this past July. Whenever I ran into her during that action-packed week, she seemed to be busy, connected, and having a great time. So I decided it might be interesting to hear from her about her impressions of the national convention and the impact it had on her life and future plans. This is what she wrote:
I brought my first baby home almost eighteen years ago. I had no idea what I was doing. I was amazed that they let me bring this little thing home, but I was confident that I could handle motherhood because I knew I had the resources to back me up when I needed help. I had girlfriends with babies who could guide me, I could call my mom for advice in the middle of the night, and I could always call my pediatrician to try to figure out what I needed to do. Many options for help were available at all times of the day and night.
For most of us blindness does not come with this instant support system. When the retina specialists told me to prepare myself for a life of blindness, I had no idea where to turn. I had never known another blind person in my entire life. My only exposure to blindness was Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli. This was hardly what I would call a big help, especially since I can’t sing or play the piano, and I had never actually met either of them. I had no blind girlfriends, friends of friends, blind parents, or even a doctor that could lend support or advice. I felt that I had no support system and nowhere to turn, and my ignorance was all-consuming.
My search for answers about living with blindness eventually led me to the National Federation of the Blind. Nobody in the Federation told me that life without sight was impossible as I had been told by countless doctors and rehab specialists; in fact, they made me realize that I still have a full life ahead of me with plenty of options.
I had the privilege of attending my first national NFB convention this summer in Orlando, Florida. Not only was I a first-time attendee, but I was a national scholarship winner as well. The scholarship alone said to me that the Federation already believed in me and that I was able to represent and be a useful part of the organization. I arrived already welcomed by the Federation because of the scholarship, and, as the week progressed, I met more and more members of the Federation whom I really wanted to get to know and call my friends. I was introduced to people from all walks of life and from just about every state--people who were intelligent, accomplished, and friendly and who were more than willing to share ideas, answer questions, and encourage me to participate fully in the mission of the Federation. I attended numerous meetings led by students, lawyers, former scholarship winners, guide dog users, parents of blind children, and teachers, to name only a few. I had meals with mentors, roommates, chapter presidents, and complete strangers (who didn’t feel at all like strangers after five minutes). Each day I took a little more information away with me and added a little more pride to the fact that I was now part of this organization.
I listened with excitement to Dr. Maurer talk about what our mission is and the resolutions of the Federation for the coming year. I listened to Ron Brown talk about playing baseball, never dreaming that ball games were still an option for a blind person. I listened to Mark Riccobono talk with enthusiasm about driving a car as a blind person and about the engineering that had made it possible. The entire time I kept thinking to myself, “Do these people know that they are blind?” I loved the positive attitude and the ability of everyone there to do what they set their minds to--with little or no vision.
By the end of the week, not only did I know that I was a Federationist, I also had almost 3,000 new friends whom I now consider my new support system. Turns out that I can do anything I dream of, and I am backed by the National Federation of the Blind. The week was a whirlwind of activity, and I loved every minute of it. I now know that I can be an independent blind person, and the NFB has given me the strength, the determination, and a philosophy that will enable me to succeed in the future. The convention confirmed that I have joined an organization that has much to give to me. I am looking forward to many years of giving back. I now dream of being a blind resource to someone in the future.