The Braille Monitor                                                                                       October 2002

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Coming to Terms with Independence

by Denna Lambert

From the Editor: Denna Lambert was a 2002 NFB scholarship winner. Last February she was one of the presenters at the National Association of Blind Students midwinter conference in Washington, just before our annual Washington Seminar. This is what she said:

Denna Lambert
Denna Lambert

What memories do you have of your childhood? What books did you read? Did you have other blind friends? While some of my memories are neither pleasant nor painful, they do fall into the category of life's lessons and in the to-do list of things to change in myself in order to grow.

During the summers between my years in public school, I attended various summer programs for blind youth. Unfortunately, even considering the benefits I did receive over the years, they were nothing compared to the summer programs sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. As the years flew by, I became close friends with some of the students in the program. In addition to age we also shared the same vision specialists and travel instructors.

At the time the main difference between us was the amount of vision we had. Many of you may know all too well the way that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be used to avoid providing a proper education to blind children. I was labeled partially sighted. My friends were blind. With the support of their confidence in my ability to see, I grew secure in my label as the sighted one. When we went on outings, I could lead my blind friends wherever our curiosity took us. With low-vision gadgets like magnifiers, which could put any Wal*Mart optical center out of business, I could read the labels, menus, and whatever was out of reach of my blind friends. This falsely superior mentality went unchecked in me for quite some time, but eventually I reached the point when I began to tackle some of those to‑dos on my list that would start to change my outlook on blindness, the abilities of blind people, and my own expectations for myself.

I noticed the way my close friends functioned in the classroom and other areas of their lives. Their fingers glided quickly and effortlessly across the pages of speeches, textbooks, library books, and even recreational reading. Those last were the very materials that I found too agonizing even to try. As a result I lack some common, cherished memories that many sighted children and early Braille readers have from growing up. I never read The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Paddington Bear, The Babysitters Club, and other childhood classics that provide a sound foundation for creativity, imagination, and reading ability. I remember listening to those stories using my Talking Book player, only to fall asleep almost immediately. Many of you

have had the same experience, I am sure. The debate whether this is functional reading is a topic for another discussion, but back to the changes I was embarking on as a young adult.

While my friends looked confident when reading Braille, I can only imagine the impression I gave as I read with the printed material two inches from my face. What type of traveler would I have been if I had had a cane in my hands at the age when a child begins to walk? I hope and believe that I would be a confident cane traveler today. Where would I be now if my introduction to functional reading and Braille had been at the age of four instead of the age of eighteen? Undoubtedly I would have read the same things my friends read as children.

What if? I would like to think that I would have come naturally to believe strongly in the philosophy that is the basis of the National Federation of the Blind. Perhaps I would never have realized that I had actually gone through the stages of independence that Dr. Jernigan wrote about in his reply to three STEP students at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 1993 in "The Nature of Independence."

As it was, I was stuck for a long time in the fear-and-insecurity stage. I cringed whenever the teacher called on me to read the next passage in whatever we were reading. I prayed every time I went into a new environment that I wouldn't make a fool of myself as the result of taking part in the fine but dangerous art of faking vision. Effectively using a long white cane could have eliminated the fears I bottled up inside myself--like reliving the painful memory of running into the Gap's clear glass wall, a wall that a cane would easily have detected. We do not have to go any further evoking the scenarios that occur in the fear-and-insecurity stage. Many of you have stories that could top my own.

Like Dr. Jernigan and his quest to find better canes and better teaching methods, I ventured to think outside the box I was in, a box created by the misguided philosophy that focused on which label to place on a blind child. Maybe the specialists hoped that, if they labeled me partially sighted, I would not have to suffer the stigma attached to those who were called blind. I do not know. All I know now is that blindness does not detract from a person's respectability or character. I have learned this from the large family I have in the National Federation of the Blind.

Moving on to the rebellious-independence stage, I graduated from high school and was preparing for college. I came to the clear but daunting realization that I needed skills that I should have learned years before. I entered the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). I had never seen the fire, enthusiasm, and professionalism of the instructors at LCB. At the time I did not know if this was because I arrived just after the 1999 national convention or if it was a normal occurrence at the center. Now I am more than sure it was not just any old postconvention rush; it was the daily atmosphere communicating that these blind instructors truly believed in every student. This conviction was not based on the amount of vision the student had.

After a few weeks of training, I caught the fire at the core of all of the instructors and staff at LCB, so much so that after only four weeks I felt that I had gotten what I came for and it was time to go to college. I had learned the Braille code. I had the most basic techniques of blindness. After leaving LCB and starting college, I found out that my training had only begun. Absolutely nothing can replace well-invested time in a training facility such as the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, the Colorado Center for the Blind in Denver, and BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis.

One occasion last semester showed me exactly how much I had grown in my quest for true independence, but also how much is left to do in breaking the ugly stereotypes that discolor the victories of the NFB. The National Federation of the Blind has fought to change public opinion about the capabilities of blind people, but we still have a lot more work to do.

Like many other college students on Friday night, a group of us went out to the Outback Steakhouse. The decision to eat out was based on the university's dining hall selection for the night: barbecue meatballs, baked squash casserole, and Razorback marble cake. Let's just say that the food that night was not to our liking. One sighted friend was with us. We could have taken a cab or public transportation--if any had been available--to the restaurant. But the outing was not a test of our travel skills, and I for one was past feeling that getting everyplace without aid was necessary to prove that I was truly independent.

At one point in my life I would not have brought my cane to such an outing since I was with friends. I would have counted on them to tell me what obstacles were ahead. But that night I used my cane, just as I do every other day of the week. When we were seated, feelings of fear, anxiousness, and dread did not fill my consciousness as they had a few years before whenever the lighting was poor or my vision wasn't good that day or I was in a place I had never been before. I did not need assistance to read the menu, because it was in Braille, which is something I am very proud to be able to read today.

After we were finished with our meal, a very interesting topic came up. Clearly we all had enjoyed our time together, but our sighted friend said something that has made its way into my personal convictions and fuels my determination to embody sound philosophy to those who are imprisoned by stereotypes and to misguided professionals who claim to know what is best. Being the honest person she is, our friend commented that spending time with us did not feel as if she was working a job. This was contrary to the way she has felt spending time with other blind people, dealing with tasks like reading menus, making sure that someone did not wander off, and describing in detail the location of food on a dinner plate.

At the time I did not know whether to take her comment as a compliment or an insult. I couldn't decide whether her perception was a commentary on our level of independence or on the inferior capacities of our blind brothers and sisters. That's another question to ponder. Believe me, such questions would have the makings of a challenging philosophy seminar. Plainly I have come a long way from where I would have been without meeting the members of the NFB. Also I have chilling evidence of how much more work is left to do in bringing a healthy philosophy to the forefront of the education, nurturing, and belief systems of both blind and sighted people.

As my understanding of Federation philosophy has grown in the past few years, I have discovered that the very aspects of blindness I once believed beneath me are now the solid foundation on which I function as a competent, first-class blind young woman. I asked earlier if my beliefs would have been different if I had acquired the necessary tools and attitudes towards blindness earlier in my life instead of just a few years ago. My answer is that there would be a substantial possibility that I would not now personally understand the irreversible consequences of an improper education on blind children, youth, and potential leaders. I certainly would not believe so strongly in the early introduction of Braille and the long white cane. I doubt that I would see the positive changes that have taken place in me. Most important, I would not now clearly foresee the changes that are needed to continue enlarging the legacy the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind have established for us.

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