The Braille Monitor                                                                                January/February 2002

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First-Timers' Convention Reports

Chancey Fleet
Chancey Fleet

From the Editor: The NFB of Virginia conducts a program which provides assistance for two members to attend the National Convention for the first time. They call these grants McDonald Fellowships in honor of a longtime leader of the affiliate. Chancey Fleet and Joann McSorley were the 2001 McDonald Fellowship winners. These two women, at very different stages in their lives, struck the same note of wonder and excitement. Chancey is a student at William and Mary College, and Joan is a newly blind mother with college-age children. Here is what they had to say as first published in the Summer, 2001, issue of The Vigilant, the publication of the NFB of Virginia:

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Chancey Fleet: Before I even arrived in Philadelphia, I knew I would be in good company at the National Convention. Standing at the gate from which my flight would take off, I discovered that another Federationist would be on my aircraft. In the few minutes before we got on the plane I learned that this blind Texan was outspoken and independent--just that week she was defending her right to continue her job at a local childcare center despite the doubts of some of her colleagues. She was reasonably upset at the challenge to her competence, but I could tell that she had the resolve to win and the backing of the Federation to help her stay confident.

Once I arrived at the Philadelphia Marriott, I became fully aware of (and a little overwhelmed by) the complexity of National Convention. I was given a several-page pre-agenda covering just two days of meetings and activities. I found that my hotel and the one across the street were both almost exclusively booked by blind people (much to the bewilderment of a handful of sighted vacationers).

Each day I spent in Philadelphia I expanded my understanding of how the Federation works. I learned that we have fifty thousand members. We have been instrumental in the decline of sheltered workshops for the blind. We have divisions of every kind from one for writers to one for educators and a plethora of other things I hadn't known before. What struck me most about the national organization was discovering that we reach out to every sector of the blind population. During general session I heard about a program called "Braille Is Beautiful," designed to increase the understanding and acceptance of Braille in our society by introducing it to sighted middle-schoolers in classrooms.

I also heard about our involvement in the World Blind Union and our commitment to working with blind people outside the United States. A bill designed to use Medicare funds for blind senior citizen rehabilitation services and another which would increase the incentive to work for those of us who receive Social Security Disability Insurance were discussed.

I spent a few fascinating hours in the exhibit hall, a huge space on one of the lower floors that was filled to capacity with gadgets, daily-living aids, books, souvenirs and information of every kind. I have a particular interest in technology and was instantly drawn to booths with names like "Clever Devices" and "Beyond Sight."

The innovation I was happiest to find was the Bank of America's talking ATM, which operated smoothly through a speech interface. I was able to use my Bank of America card to make a bank transaction without sighted assistance for the first time in my life. Thousands of other blind people will be able to experience this financial liberation in the coming months. Talking ATMs are being installed in a few cities now, and they'll be popping up all over the country soon.

The best gadget I discovered was the Atlas/GPS-Talk, a compilation of nonvisual maps of the entire country (stored on CD-ROM), a vast collection of points of interest (also on CD), and a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver the size of a cell phone. The CDs alone allow the buyer to explore his or her city from a computer or learn the lay of the land in an unfamiliar area. In combination with the receiver, the maps can be used on a notebook computer to tell travelers exactly where they are and how to get to where they want to be.

Inevitably new technology isn't always what the manufacturers or consumers expect. At one booth I happened upon a little magic wand that didn't work--a small device which purported to know and announce the color of any object. I've never actually observed the color of my hand, but I'm fairly certain that the little wand was lying when it told me my skin tone is "mat-black."

I spent seven days in Philadelphia, but two moments stand out in my memory like none of the others. The first occurred while I was watching the annual play put on by the Louisiana Center for the Blind. This year the focus was the achievements of the NFB in general, with particular attention to Kenneth Jernigan. Toward the conclusion of the play three children took the stage to sing about Kenneth Jernigan and their desire to "teach the blind like he did." The genuine feeling in the voices of these members of the fourth generation was a strong reminder of how the Federation changes lives.

The other highly memorable moment took place during the banquet, and I can't ascribe my feelings to a single sentence that I heard or a single idea that I gathered. Instead it was Marc Maurer's entire speech that left me feeling both impressed and invincible. His speech was by turns witty and stirring, and his command of language was amazing. I felt as if the power of his speech represented the power of the Federation, an organization of people as competent in their own walks of life as Dr. Maurer is as a leader.

I'm intensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to go to Philadelphia and to learn and experience so much in one short week. Thank you to everyone in the Virginia Affiliate who made my trip possible--I hope that the fellowship can be continued in future years so that other Federationists in Virginia can experience the National Convention firsthand.

Joann McSorley: Overwhelmed does not begin to describe my feelings accurately as I entered the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia on July 1. There were hundreds of people, hundreds of white canes, many dogs, and twice as much luggage. This was my first solo trip with my cane, and I admit that I was somewhat anxious. It hadn't occurred to me that I am almost always with a sighted family member or friend, but now I was totally on my own. And I am happy to report that I survived, quite well I think.

Being in Philadelphia was going home for me. It's my hometown, and I still have many family members in the city and the surrounding areas. It just felt right hearing and seeing the sights and sounds of a familiar city.

But I must get back to the convention. Another first for me was that I had never attended a convention of any kind before, and I really did not know what to expect. My education began immediately--people and more people from all over the world, people talking, people laughing, and sometimes engaging in impromptu fencing matches with white canes right before me.

The bustle and activity was stimulating to all my senses. After waiting for a few hours for my room and wandering around the hotel hoping to find members of the Potomac chapter, I finally checked in to my room and relaxed. Later that night I found a friend, and still later in the evening I found myself at the Hard Rock Cafe enjoying drinks with other chapter friends. This is not what I normally do on a Sunday night, but I was enjoying myself.

On Monday I registered and started attending various meetings. I was impressed by the welcoming atmosphere and the relevance of the subjects being covered. The entire week was a learning experience, and I loved the feeling of belonging with these people, truly a brotherhood.

A friend and I spoke of being normal for a whole week and how wonderful it felt. I attended the introduction of the recipients of student scholarships and sat in awe. They were well-spoken and definitely motivated, but the range of subjects being pursued was amazing. There were no slouches here. From archeology to genetic engineering, the list was incredible and the spirits indomitable.

When the convention opened on Wednesday, once again I was very impressed with the speakers. All were inspirational, and the learning process continued. The days were so full and busy that it was hard to believe that the banquet had arrived on Friday night and the week was drawing to a close. As I packed to leave on Saturday morning, I realized that I didn't want to go home and doubted that there would be fresh towels in my bathroom the next morning. My other life beckoned, and I did return home. However, I am really looking forward to next summer and Louisville!

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