by Albert Spooner
From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Gem State Milestones, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho. Al Spooner attended his second National Convention last July in Philadelphia. He is clearly a perceptive and dedicated new leader in the organization. This is what he says:
They just don’t get it! These are words I have heard from some members of the National Federation of the Blind this last year and a half since I joined the Federation. Hearing this I wondered to myself, “Do I get it?” not really being sure what “IT” was, but I thought I did.
In the past year and a half I helped organize the Panhandle Chapter, of which I am currently President, in my hometown of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This last March I was elected as Second Vice President of the NFB of Idaho. During these same one and a half years, I have been honored with two scholarships from the NFB of Idaho, each for $1,000. In July of this year I attended the National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a national scholarship finalist. There I received a $3,000 scholarship from the NFB and an additional $1,000 and the popular Kurzweil reader software program, a $1,000 value from the Kurzweil Educational Foundation. Whew! Talk about overwhelming. I tell you all of this not to brag, but in hopes that it will help others understand what “IT” means to me.
As a scholarship finalist at the National Convention I got a close-up look at the NFB from the inside, getting to rub elbows with the people you read about in the Kernel Books, the Braille Monitor, and other publications: people like Peggy Elliott, Steve Benson, Allen Harris, Barbara Pierce, Bruce Gardner, Diane McGeorge, and Ramona Walhof, to name just a few. Although excited to be able to meet these people, I prepared myself for seven long days full of lengthy, mind-numbing meetings.
During the convention I listened to many inspirational people on a multitude of topics: Steve Marriott of Marriott Corporation, who happens to be blind; Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind person to climb Mt. Everest; and our President, Dr. Marc Maurer.
At the meetings I attended, we discussed such things as legislation to ensure that the blind have access to the technology being used today, talking ATM machines, voting access, training for blind instructors, audible traffic signals, talking prescription drug labels, Medicare’s funding of skills training and equipment for seniors, Braille literacy in schools, guide horses—did I say mind-numbing? These and many other real-life issues that affect all blind people were scrutinized and dealt with. It was energizing to be a part of something that has such a positive influence on many of us.
The NFB proclaims, “The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight but the misunderstanding and lack of information which exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance.” The NFB leaders I met not only believe this, but are also inspiring, living examples of their convictions.
I found that these are real people with a vision and a purpose. They have fought many battles in previous years to win the rights for the blind that we enjoy today. Yet they are just like you and me, with families and jobs. And get this, they are all volunteers. They don’t get paid to do this—even the President.
Where am I going with all this you might ask? Well I need to tell you that I am not a young college student but a forty-two-year-old father of three young children. I have been married for twenty years, and I became blind just two-and-a-half years ago. I had never dealt with blindness or blind people until then. When my world came crashing down around me, the NFB stepped in and offered to help.
Through all my experiences with the NFB, and especially the National Convention as a scholarship recipient, I realized that if you can muster enough courage, put your best foot (or cane) forward, and simply try, the NFB will be in your corner to help anyone who wishes to help himself or herself.
“Changing what it means to be blind” is more than a catchy saying. It is all that has been accomplished for blind people, all the chapter meetings, the state and national conventions, the fund-raisers, and all the dreams and expectations for the future. This is what “IT” means to me.