The Braille Monitor                                                                                       June 2003

(back) (next) (contents)

Shaping Our Environment

by Marcus Schmidt

From the Editor: The following speech was delivered at the 2001 convention of the NFB of Arizona. Marcus Schmidt is first vice president of the Arizona affiliate. He is an engineer and is completely bilingual in English and German. Here is his tribute to wonderful parents and a reminder that the principles that the Federation espouses are not, as some of our opponents would have it, the creation of the NFB only. Dedicated, energetic parents with common sense can advocate effectively for their blind children everywhere, and we can all change the world.

In the last year I have been reflecting upon the people who have contributed to my success and the things in my past that have shaped my views on life and blindness. Those of you who have heard me speak before know that my parents were very supportive, encouraging, and progressive. Though they weren't familiar with the National Federation of the Blind during my childhood, they modeled NFB philosophy for me and did their best to instill it in me. For instance, they expected the same things from me as from my sighted brother and sister, and they never let me use my blindness as an excuse to get out of anything.

As I grew up, I became increasingly aware of how fortunate I really was, since I knew several parents of blind children who were quite fearful, stifling, and backward. The attitudes in Germany were such that my parents received criticism for allowing me to explore the world in my own way. I was also very lucky to experience several positive changes in my environment, which made my life more enjoyable and made it easier to achieve my full potential. Only fairly recently have I recognized that many of these changes weren't just a result of happenstance, but were rather attributable to my parents' efforts.

Though my mom and dad are--and always have been--very different people, their differences complemented each other in their united fight for my freedom and progress. With my mom's emphasis on technology and training and my dad's emphasis on institutional change, the two made a very effective team.

One of their earlier successes concerned mobility training, which I was fortunate enough to begin receiving at the age of nine, after we moved to America. Within a few months I was comfortably navigating the streets around the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, which I was attending at the time. After four months of training, we returned to Germany, and I could not continue receiving this instruction. Unfortunately, we found the attitudes there to be at least twenty years behind those prevalent in the U.S., so we faced a lot of fear and opposition from school administrators and even parents.

My parents pushed the local blind school hard for the completion of my mobility training, but the school principal refused, probably because I was so young. Since words couldn't persuade him, my parents simply had me walk through the streets of town one day with the principal and several blind students' parents watching, mouths gaping in amazement. After that the principal allowed me to finish my training, enabling me to use public transportation independently by the time I was ten. Having had this positive experience, the school began offering mobility training to other younger children.

When I completed sixth grade, I had to switch to a boarding school about 120 miles away from home, the only college preparatory school for the blind in all of Germany at that time. Right away my parents had to fight a major battle to allow me to come home more than once every six to eight weeks. When they found that the principal wouldn't bend, they rallied the school's parent-teacher association to the cause. It apparently had more power than American PTA enjoy. With father as the PTA vice president, they forced the principal to be more progressive by threatening him with early retirement.

When the six-week limitation was abolished, I generally took the train home about every other weekend. Instead of my being looked down on by my peers, as the principal had feared, some of my buddies joined me, and we started a trend. To guarantee this freedom to other students long-term, my parents became active in Germany's national blind parents association and had it put the rule in writing.

With my parents' positive influence at the school for the blind and my excellent mobility skills, instruction in mobility and independent living skills for all students was increased, and the entire climate improved. In fact, by the time I left the school just three and a half years later, virtually all seniors were participating in off-campus independent living programs, from which my blind friends were able to benefit later on.

Though things were going well at that school, my parents decided that the best thing for my education would be to integrate me into a regular school, which at that time was unheard of in Germany. My parents tried to persuade schools close to home to admit me, but all of them turned me down. I vividly remember hearing one of the principals say: "Why, he might fall down the stairs and hurt himself; we can't accept that liability." My parents wouldn't take "no" for an answer and took my case to the state's education minister. When that failed, they searched far and wide until they found a school in Vienna that would admit me. The entire family moved, even though this meant that my dad had to take a sizable cut in pay. The school, called the American International School, welcomed me enthusiastically, and I graduated from it with honors in 1981. Having received the skills I needed and my parents' healthy attitudes, I didn't have much difficulty adjusting to the new school or to college thereafter.

One of the important skills I had acquired was reading using the Optacon, a device that converts printed images into tactile images on an array of vibrating pins. My parents knew it was important for me to acquire this skill in order to continue my education independently, especially since my areas of interest were engineering and mathematics. Since good instructors for the Optacon were hard to come by in the mid `70's, my mother acquired the necessary training to become an instructor herself and then taught me and continued to drill me.

Being proficient with the Optacon, I was able not only to read printed text without assistance but also to look at graphs and complex diagrams and read computer screens. Now that speech output has become much more affordable and reading machines have been developed and perfected, the Optacon has lost its popularity. But remember, things haven't always been this way.

Back in the mid `70's computer speech was still fairly primitive, and reading machines existed only in people's imaginations. But, when my father heard that the German postal service had begun using computerized scanners to sort mail, he knew that reading machines for the blind were just around the corner. So he decided to research the matter himself and collected all the information he could at the country's largest technology expo. He found that, even though the technology was all there to create a reading machine, nobody was doing it. So he put together a convincing proposal to the German government to find a developer and fund the research for a reading machine. They were very impressed with his proposal, and within a fairly short time the German company AEG Telefunken took the ball and ran with it. After a mere eighteen months they demonstrated a working prototype to my father; and to this day they are one of the leaders in the business.

Paralleling these efforts, Ray Kurzweil and his staff were developing a reading machine in the U.S. Though we were still living in Europe at the time, my father made a personal visit to the States and presented his research proposal to the Kurzweil group. When he learned of their struggles with speech output, he suggested to the team that they concentrate their efforts on optical character recognition (OCR) and defer speech output development for a while. They followed his advice since the Germans had already developed the software to translate computer text into Braille.

As soon as Kurzweil had conquered the OCR challenges, they developed good speech output, thus creating an excellent reading machine by the time I reached college. It helped me get through the vast amounts of text material I had to read during my studies, and I have continued using reading machines on the job. In fact, I recently purchased the Kurzweil 1000, deemed by many to be the best OCR software on the market.

When I expressed my gratitude to my parents for the tenacity of their fight to bring about these changes, they said that they had just done what any parent would have. But, when I look around, I find that they are the exception, not the rule. Not that parents don't want to fight for what is best for their children, but they feel powerless to break down barriers, change rules, and advance technology. I'm afraid that many parents have succumbed to the increasingly popular philosophy that people are victims of our environment. They then pass this philosophy on to their children. I expect that some of us have embraced it as well. But, although this way of thinking provides a convenient way of avoiding the blame for our past failures and current shortcomings, it also prevents us from reaching our full potential. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would admit that we have indulged in this rationalization at one time or another.

I have written this to urge us all to shake off this destructive outlook and to take full advantage of the great network of people we have in the NFB. One of the statements that inspired me at this year's national convention was "Raindrops make a forest grow and bring strong mountains down." Not everyone has connections with the people in power or the wherewithal to push forward technological advancements. But, when we draw from the experience and expertise of those around us and in the organization, we can successfully change our environment.

(back) (next) (contents)