by Nancy Burns
From the Editor: Nancy Burns is well known to readers of the Braille Monitor. She has a life filled with rich experiences, and what is so fantastic for readers of the Braille Monitor is that she knows how to share them. Here is what she has to say about her public education and the role that Dr. Isabelle Grant played in it:
Commitment is a commonly used word in today’s vocabulary. Television commercials may boast of a commitment to giving the buyer the best deal if you purchase a car from this dealership. Banks or loaning agencies may boast of being committed to providing customers with the best rates. Every business, from grocery stores to shoe stores, may boast of their commitment to providing customers with the lowest price. All of these promises seem to dilute the true meaning of commitment since they are tossed around so frequently and casually.
The National Federation of the Blind exemplifies the true meaning of commitment. This organization, which stretches from coast to coast and from Alaska to Puerto Rico, provides sincere commitment to the blind, visually impaired, and to their friends and family. At the root of this commitment is a philosophy, the cornerstone of which is the belief that blind people will lead happy and productive lives if they have a positive attitude and the proper training.
The best way for this writer to explain commitment is to share some of my own personal experiences. At the age of eleven I suddenly lost my vision as the result of a traumatic injury to both eyes. This took place in Southern Missouri, where I grew up and attended school. My parents knew nothing about blindness and mostly survived on denial and were certain that the next of numerous surgeries would restore my vision. This, however, did not happen.
A representative from our local school board visited and told us about a school for the blind in St. Louis. I was sent, although reluctantly, to this school, and that was the best thing that ever happened. It became the beginning of the belief in myself as I saw active blind students. They roller skated, swam, and carried around large Braille books which were used to do their homework assignments. Shortly after enrolling, I was taught Braille, and I soon found that I too could skate, swim, and read my assignments in Braille.
As I was ready to begin the tenth grade, my mother told my sister and me that we were moving to California. We were not pleased with this decision, but the move was made.
It was assumed that I would again attend a school for the blind, but this was not the case. We were living in the Los Angeles area, and the California School for the Blind was in Northern California. This transition in my life was yet another important turning point. I was enrolled in a large, metropolitan high school in Los Angeles. This move forced me to adjust from the segregated school for the blind to the “real” world of sighted students. This is where I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Isabelle Grant. I find it difficult to verbalize the right words to express the important role she played in my life. She was a tiny bundle of energy who said that she was Scottish, not Scotch. She explained that Scotch was something one might drink.
Dr. Grant had been the principal of a large school in Los Angeles until she lost her sight as the result of glaucoma. She was then placed in a resource room in the school I attended. This was way below her qualifications, but her impact on the blind students who returned from the classroom to that resource room was nothing short of phenomenal. If I asked her the meaning of a word, she didn’t stop at the definition but would tell me the derivation. She also strongly encouraged me to take the college prerequisites. Prior to her encouragement, I had no intention of attending college, and, without her support, I doubt that I would have gone on to UCLA. Much of who I became and who I am is the result of my association with Dr. Isabelle Grant. She opened my mind to possibilities that I might never have considered without her encouragement. She was truly a huge influence in my life.
In addition to her academic support, she began speaking to me about this organization of blind people. She invited me to her home one Friday evening, and I just went because she wanted me to do so. I was only a high school student, and the picture I had of this meeting I would attend was this room full of blind people, and most likely old blind people. Some of these attendees were possibly in their 40s or even 50s while I was a kid of only seventeen.
With her white cane she took us by bus through busy Friday evening Los Angeles traffic to her home. Blind men and women began arriving, and I met mechanics, homemakers, social workers, and office workers. During a break Dr. Grant served tea and cookies. What an eye-opener this all was. No pun intended. This was the beginning of a true commitment to me on the part of Dr. Isabelle Grant. No other individual has ever affected my life in such a positive manner. She encouraged me and began filling me with NFB philosophy. What an awesome honor for me to have her guidance.
After graduating from high school, I met several college students, and once again the name National Federation of the Blind popped up. I found myself in the student’s group and even became president. This was the first of many positions I have held within the NFB. It was also another lesson in the true meaning of commitment.
Students supported one another in many areas of life, and during these years the influence of Dr. Grant was again felt. She spoke with students and discussed the importance of organizing and of the affect that Dr. tenBroek was having on the blind population. She told us about the work at state and national conventions and encouraged students to become involved. As a blind teacher she led the movement in California to remove the vision requirement for teachers. She put forth the argument that, as long as an applicant was otherwise qualified, there should be no vision test required. With her support a law was passed revoking the controversial vision requirement.
I moved to San Francisco and completed my bachelor’s degree in sociology at San Francisco State. Good fortune continued to follow me since that was where I met Laurence (Muzzy) Marcelino, another dynamic leader in the National Federation of the Blind. I joined the local San Francisco chapter and demonstrated my own commitment to growing the NFB.
After completing my bachelor’s degree, I returned to Los Angeles and became even more involved in the movement. Since this organization had become a huge part in my training, I became totally involved and organized several local chapters. Even after marriage and having two sons, my commitment to the NFB continued to grow. I remember bundling my babies up, and my husband and I took them to chapter meetings.
I began attending state and national conventions and was elected to the California Board of Directors in the 1970s. My husband and I divorced, and I gained full custody of my boys. I was hired by the California State Department of Rehabilitation and maintained my involvement in the National Federation of the Blind.
In 1993 my life took yet another huge turn while attending the national convention in Dallas, Texas. It was there that I met Don Burns, a gentleman who asked me to dance with him at a huge barbecue. He was involved, although recently, in the NFB. Don was in the process of losing his vision, his wife, and at the same time he was struggling with his future. He was from New Mexico and had connected with Fred Schroeder and Adelmo Vigil, who became his mentors. We connected immediately, and three months later Don and I were married. Don told me about an opening at the commission for the blind training center, where he was working as a cane travel instructor. While still working in California, I had completed my master’s degree in Counseling and Psychology and was not certain as to where I wanted to work. I applied for the position of independent living instructor and was accepted and moved to New Mexico. Besides our love for one another, we both shared a commitment to the National Federation of the Blind. He confided that after losing his job in the field of construction for many years, then losing his wife, he had struggled until he met members of the organization. Our love for one another, along with our commitment to the organization, has continued to develop and grow.
After working for the commission for the blind for a year, Don and I moved to Burbank, California, where I still owned property. We both maintained our involvement in the NFB. Don was appointed to the position of legislative director by then NFBC president, Jim Willows. He worked for several years on legislation, and his work was instrumental in creating Braille and math standards for blind students in the state.I was elected state president in 2000 and served until 2006. Following my service we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We, of course, maintained our commitment to the Federation. It is my sincere hope that I have been able to give to others even a small portion of the gift which was given to me by Dr. Isabelle Grant. She was the epitome of love and commitment, and her influence is still felt within the movement. The best way for me to describe the influence of Dr. Isabelle Grant on my life is to quote some words from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints on your heart”.