The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April, 2002

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by Karen Alexander

Karen Alexander under sleepshades during the CCB Christmas-tree-cutting expedition
Karen Alexander under sleepshades during the CCB Christmas-tree-cutting expedition

From the Editor: Those who have graduated from NFB adult training centers tell lots of funny stories and laugh about their student days. But their small struggles and victories often get lost in all the talk about the important skills landmarks they have passed and the profound philosophical discoveries they have made for themselves. Karen Alexander is currently a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind. She does not yet have the perspective on her experience there that she will acquire when she can look back at the entire experience, but she certainly does have a bird's eye view of and appreciation for the day-to-day challenges facing students in these demanding programs. In the following article she captures the frustrations and exultation of her days at the Colorado Center and the anxiety of her struggle to remain there long enough to acquire all the training she needs. The article is reprinted from the Spring 2002 issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Ohio. Here it is:

"Karen, your assignment today is to cross Alamo Street and go to the corner of Main and Prince. Get a receipt from the shop there and bring it back to me," said Sumara. I gulped and grinned half-heartedly. Sumara, my orientation and mobility instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), an NFB adult rehabilitation training center, was more confident in my travel skills than I. Sensing my nervousness, she firmly encouraged me by saying, "Ah, you can do it!" and dismissed me.

Stunned that my first solo crossing a major street while wearing sleep shades was finally confronting me, I grabbed my cane and stumbled out of her office. I proceeded to the front desk and signed myself out by typing on the Brailler. Gulping my last taste of security, I found the front doors and clacked my way out. It was a nice day for December--a little windy, but the sun kept trying to appear through the clouds. Sunlight can be an important part of orienting oneself while traveling. As I walked along the side street, the sporadic sun rays gave me unenthusiastic warmth and comfort. Telling myself that this wasn't “Mission Impossible” didn't make a difference to my nervousness because I knew I was on travel assignment.

But I knew that being at CCB was therapeutic for me. The program and the staff were helping me to trust myself again. I knew my self-confidence was beginning to return. But even though I had been there for several months, traveling under sleep shades was difficult. There were other students like me who were legally blind. They seemed to take to traveling under sleep shades like ducks to water. It seemed to me I was able to quack like a duck and waddle like a duck, but I dreaded putting my webbed foot in the water, not like a duck. Learning to travel was not easy. It seemed the other student ducklings could waddle to their pools of water and enthusiastically jump in. I on the other hand waddled around the banks of the pond, dreading to get splashed.

But it is the other ducks that make the difference. The students at CCB encourage each other. Not a day goes by that one does not hear the words, "You can do it!" or "Look what you've learned!" When students go from Grade I Braille to Grade II, the staff announce it over the school's P.A. system, and cheers are heard all over the school. Hearing those cheers is part of what changes people and reinforces their confidence. The philosophy classes are run by the staff to challenge the way we view and approach life as blind people. The wisdom taken from articles in the Braille Monitor, from Kernel Book Stories, and from the life experiences of the staff is important to hear. Perspective and wisdom come from those who walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Unfortunately too many wounded blind people can spout NFB philosophy but do not apply it in their lives. They remain unchanged and lost in comfortable prisons that protect their egos and pride. Not that they are arrogant, they are just fearful of taking that step of faith to make life-changing decisions. I truly think that deep in their hearts they do not believe the philosophy will work for them. When meeting these wounded people, I say to myself, "Don't tell the world what NFB philosophy is; show the world by using the philosophy in your life."

It is encouraging to participate in a school run by the blind for the blind. Students see others like themselves successfully living their lives. Those who only talk the talk are missing an amazing opportunity to change and better their lives. Because of CCB staff and students I can say with confidence, "Quack, quack, I will learn to swim like a duck."

Well, that day I fondly remember as facing my Alamo was exactly as successful as the original Alamo. Instead of crossing at the corner of Alamo and Prince, I turned the corner and found another corner. Of course that is the one I crossed. I had traveled a way down the street when I came to the conclusion that I had blown it. I turned around and retraced my steps. I was frustrated and scared.

Cars and trucks were zipping by me, and, as I walked over a bridge, a train passed underneath it. When I am wearing sleep shades, something about the sound of trains and trucks drives me crazy. I decided to sit on the ledge there at the bridge and have a good cry. A man came and asked if he could help me, but I waved him off. I just wanted to calm down. I knew I wasn't in danger. I knew I could retrace my steps. I just hated the feeling of being vulnerable and so awkward in traveling under sleep shades.

I said a little prayer, but my shaken and wounded ego was still reluctant to return. The train had sped by, and there was a lull in the traffic. Coming out of my self-absorption, I heard a beautiful sound: a cane tapping the cement of the sidewalk. I called out, and to my delight it was one of the students from CCB. She gave me a hug and let me cry for a while. I decided to allow myself to be rescued and followed her on her route. When we were close to the school, I heard Sumara calling my name. She was looking for her little wandering duckling. I joked about the incident and said that I had faced my Alamo and lost. Sumara said, "Ah, Karen, you're more than able to cross that street," and walked with me back to the building.

Well you know, she was right. At my next attempt I crossed the street and found the bath and candle shop even though I (heavy sigh) got lost in the parking lot of a bank. A woman kept trying to help me, but I was doggedly determined to find that sidewalk. I straightened myself up and said with pride, "I am a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind and am on a travel assignment. I am all right." After watching me for five minutes, she shouted out in exasperation that the sidewalk was in front of me. Trying to appear dignified, I gladly accepted the information and found the sidewalk. Sometimes it is good to accept help even if it is not looked for. This was definitely a grace-growing experience.

At the shop I purchased some inexpensive scented soaps for Sumara. It was Christmas time and the day before I was to leave for home on school break. I was going to place the gift on her desk to prove triumphantly I had done the assignment. But I met Sumara on my way back and decided to give her the gift right then. When I gave her a description of the parking lot incident, she put it into perspective. She reminded me that it takes time and practice to learn skills. I was too hard on myself and needed to relax. Thinking over what she had said, I waddled after her and wondered how one relaxes when facing the crossing of a busy street under sleep shades.

When the school day was over, I walked to the light rail train and got on. I spotted an empty seat and sat down with a satisfied grunt. My sleep shades were resolutely stored in my backpack, and my long white cane was faithfully beside me. I was thinking of what I needed to get done before going to the airport the next day. My regular stop was Broadway Station, where I would get on the bus to Cherry Creek Tennis and Sailing Club apartments. CCB leases apartments there for students to live in. The complex is huge with gigantic buildings encircling a small lake. In the middle is a fountain that shoots water four stories high. When I first saw them, they reminded me of huge dinosaurs encircling a geyser. I now lovingly call the complex Jurassic Apartments.

While riding the light rail, I relaxed. I thought of the day I had had. Even though my success crossing Alamo had not gone the way I wanted, I had done it. For a first-time solo crossing, it hadn't been that bad an experience. I had crossed a major street while under sleep shades and using a cane, something I never dreamt I could do. What an accomplishment! I began to dream of the things I could accomplish and places I could go.

I remembered my feeling of losing independence as I began to lose my sight--the pity in the voices of the doctors, family, and friends. I knew they cared for me, but I could not imagine life without sight. Most of them probably couldn't either. Eventually my eyesight diminished, and I chose to give up driving. By making that choice, I felt I had given up my freedom. Crossing major streets and going places became frustrating and fear-filled. In the sunlight I couldn't see the streetlights. I was afraid to cross streets that I had known since childhood. I felt like an invalid, worthless to others and myself. Freedom became a memory.

My thoughts were interrupted when I heard the announcement that the train was approaching Evans Station. The next stop would be Broadway Station, my stop. I checked to make sure my backpack and cane were ready to grab quickly. I began to make a mental checklist of what I needed in order to finish my Christmas shopping. I wanted to go to Sam's Club when I got back to Ohio to pick up some gifts. I began to plan how to arrange a ride to the store when it suddenly dawned on me that I could go to Sam's Club in Denver. The light-rail train stop after Broadway Station was Alameda Station. I had been told that the commercial complex where Sam's Club was located was near the station.

In fact, the train stopped right behind K-Mart, which was one of the stores in the complex. It was then I decided to go to Sam's Club. I became excited by the thought of trying to do something on my own. I had been to Sam's Club but had not gone by this route. This was an exciting decision. It was like the days when I used to drive a car. I would hear about a store or some place I was interested in visiting. I would get general directions and go by myself to find the spot. I didn't labor over each detail. I knew the major streets in the area and would find the location.

My heart began to beat faster as the light rail approached, stopped, and then left Broadway Station. I had made up my mind. I was going to do it. The train approached and then stopped at Alameda. I got off and looked around, and my heart sank. It seemed I was not exactly behind K-Mart. I was at a station stop, and across the street was a parking lot. But I trusted the information I had and crossed over to the parking lot. To my joy and the health of my heart, on the other side of the parking lot across the street was a building that I knew must be the back of K-Mart. When I got to the street, I heard the sound of traffic to my left. I knew I had found Alameda.

I traveled down to the major intersection. My long white cane was faithfully finding the bumps and curbs. I wasn't afraid. I knew how to cross the street. The training I had received under sleep shades now paid off and gave me confidence to cross a street that I would never have considered crossing before my training. When the parallel traffic took off, I crossed the street. I then hunted for the driveway that would lead me into the complex and eventually to Sam's Club. It was a thrilling moment. I could take care of myself. I could do what I wanted to do on my own. The wind was blowing through my hair, and I felt as if it was a Yorkshire Chocolate Mint moment. I was independent!

I walked through that complex and found Sam's Club, and I was able to purchase some gifts. But I will never forget the thrill of that moment of independence. The crossing of Alamo under sleep shades will never compare to that experience. But the crossing of Alamo gave me the confidence and skills to go by myself to Sam's Club that day.

I am now halfway through my program, and it's been a fight to get the funding needed for my independence training. It seems that those who work at the Ohio Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired (BSVI) do not understand why I need training. They believed that, since I have some sight, I wouldn't need an intensive training program. I was told that I was intelligent, that I could figure out and learn on my own the skills I needed to return to school and then the work force.

When I arrived at CCB, BSVI had committed to paying for two months of training. I had tried to communicate with my counselor my need to complete the full program. I needed to become literate again by learning Braille. I needed to learn alternative techniques and organization and personal skills to deal with the loss of my sight. But most of all I needed to grow in confidence. She didn't respond positively to my point of view.

I am fortunate to have NFB advocates in Ohio who really care about people. Barbara Pierce and Eric Duffy are treasures that we dearly appreciate and love. They work hard. From helping blind parents keep their babies to wrestling with city metro bus drivers who refuse to announce stops, they have made a difference in many people's lives.

I had a staffing at the end of November with my instructors and BSVI counselor. The staffing conference was done using a speakerphone in order for my counselor to participate. It was useful and gratifying for me to hear the comments of the CCB staff regarding my progress. The last two months had been profoundly challenging, and I was deeply thankful for the opportunity to be at the CCB and participate in the adult rehabilitation program. I hoped we were able to communicate to my counselor some part of the progress I had been making, but she did not think I needed the full training program and said she could not justify paying the additional money needed to complete the program.

From the beginning Barbara and Eric had supported and encouraged my choice for independence training. When the two months were almost completed at CCB, they helped convey my desire and need for additional training at CCB to BSVI supervisors. Because of them I gained three more months of training.

The frustration I now face is that the more progress I make, the more clearly I realize the true distance I still need to go. First of all, if I am going to make a success of college courses, I must be fluent in reading and writing Braille. I must be literate in order to complete my undergraduate degree and successfully re-enter the working world. Frankly, though I am making progress, I am not there yet. I believe blind students should be able to take their own notes, not depend on sighted note-takers. I must also have reasonable command of JAWS and the computer programs I will need to do my work. I am not yet quick or confident in any of these areas.

In addition, if I am to travel efficiently to and from campus, around the university, and in my personal circles, I want to master cane travel thoroughly. I now have almost within my grasp the ability to use a cane with a facility that is virtually unknown outside of the community of people trained at NFB centers. I am still some distance from achieving this degree of independence, but it is coming.

I am beginning to understand that the confidence in all areas of my life that I am gaining here at the Center will sustain me wherever I go in future. One of the most important things this program does is to allow me to look my fear of blindness in the face and realize that it does not have to mean the end of my useful life. With the skills I am beginning to master, I can become a productive citizen and create a fruitful life for myself.

I fear it is unlikely that I will ever have another opportunity to be part of a program like this one. Therefore I believe strongly that I need to complete the six-to-nine-month program now, before I have to face the academic demands of college and the challenge of traveling independently around Ohio and wherever else my career leads me.

I am thankful that BSVI has believed in me thus far, but I hope they can understand why I feel compelled to point out my pressing need for full support. The sad truth is that I am now nearing the condition of being half-baked, and like a cake beginning to rise in the oven, I fear that I will fall flat if I am forced to move on to the next stage of my life without full mastery of and confidence in the skills I have begun to learn. I am working as hard as I know how to, but acquiring life-changing skills and attitudes does take time.

I hope my training will allow family, friends, and those who work in the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired to see what can happen to those who complete NFB training programs so that other blind people can have the same opportunity that I have had. I give many thanks to my family, friends, and church who have supported me with their prayers, encouragement, and finances. I thank the BSVI for their financial support. I thank the National Federation of the Blind for its belief in me, and I thank the students and staff at the CCB, who are making a difference in their own lives as well as mine.

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