by Carrie Gilmer
From the Editor: Experienced Federationists are always telling new people that they should get to the National Convention if at all possible. Dr. Jernigan wrote that advice to me in 1974 just after I had had my first contact with NFB literature and was eager to establish a new chapter in my area. I had a sneaking suspicion that he was right, but I had three small children, including a young infant, and I didn't seriously consider getting myself to that summer's convention in Chicago. I now regret that I missed that convention, but when I showed up the next year, I immediately understood what he had been trying to tell me.
Sometimes the most effective voices in making such recommendations are those who have just experienced their first convention. Carrie Gilmer is the mother of a blind son. The two of them attended the 2000 convention, and life will never be quite the same again. She recounted her experiences in the Summer, 2000, issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Minnesota. If you have never been to an NFB convention, read what she has to say and see if it persuades you to join us in 2001.
About four years ago I received a phone call from my youngest child's eye doctor. "Your son is legally blind," he said. "We think Jordan has a retinal disease, and there is nothing I can do." In shock I asked some what-do-you-mean questions which he hurriedly answered. He told me he would inform State Services for the Blind and then more or less wished us luck. I hung up the phone realizing our lives had just changed forever. What did I know about blindness besides Helen Keller, bead stringing, and Ray Charles? Not much. I proceeded to cry nonstop for about three weeks.
We had just moved, and after my long cry I went back to the task of unpacking. In one box I found a little book my grandmother had given me. It was written by blind people. I read it and soaked it up. I read about blind lawyers, scientists, parents, teachers--people living normal, happy, fulfilled lives. It gave me hope that our new road in life could be as bright as the old one had looked. I told myself I should learn more about this organization. But I got busy with the here-and-now.
Jordan was six months away from kindergarten--the perfect age to learn multiple languages, so we decided he should learn Braille alongside print from the beginning. The school agreed. Soon we had a visit from our SSB [State Services for the Blind] counselor, Curt Johnson. He stressed Braille also. Our doctor had recommended low- vision devices, and Curt helped us out with that as well as giving us good advice on how to talk about blindness with Jordan.
For nearly three years we went forward, thinking we knew what we were doing and had Jordan's needs covered. But little leaks in the boat started occurring. We had Braille teachers with different philosophies, P.E. teachers who said he did as well as his sighted peers one week and then sidelined him for safety reasons the next. He didn't run, and he hated balls. Legally blind? Try and explain legal to a seven- year- old.Then one day Jordan and I were lying on the living room floor. "Are blind people happy?" he blurted out. I realized that we had a long way to go and that we had better start getting there quickly. I recalled the little books I had read and contacted the NFB of Minnesota. Judy Sanders quickly contacted me. She was kind and helpful and even offered to come to Jordan's school the next week. She stressed the importance of role modeling for Jordan. She also told me that I could learn information in one week at the NFB National Convention that might otherwise take me years to accumulate.
Jordan and I decided to go. Upon checking into the hotel we noticed right away that we were surrounded by hundreds of blind people. There were so many that the perspective changed from noticing who was blind to noticing who wasn't. That experience lasted all week and was one of the greatest for Jordan. All at once he saw hundreds of people--all colors, ages, shapes, and sizes--traveling, eating, reading, dancing, writing, walking, laughing. And all of them blind to one degree or another. He learned--low-vision, partial, impaired, legally--it's okay just to say blind, no explanation necessary.
Jordan used a cane on a scavenger hunt while blindfolded and then kept the cane as a gift. He was told the cane was his third eye on the ground. It would look down so that he could look up. He could stand up straight and walk proudly--not fearfully. "Cool!" he said. He found out for himself that blindness doesn't have to be the biggest deal in his life.
I learned all this too plus parenting tips, facts and myths about blindness, what a slate and stylus are, the importance of normal expectations, and the need to quit guiding his eyes with my hands. I learned how to make the most of the vision he has now in conjunction with blind techniques when vision fails or is unreliable. We both made lifelong friends. Judy Sanders was right; it would have taken years to accumulate what we received in one week in Atlanta. Biggest convention tip: bring an extra suitcase for all the freebies from the sales vendors! For us, since that convention, it really is a whole new world.
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