The Braille Monitor                                                                                               January, 2004

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Consumer Organizations as Partners in the Rehabilitation Process

by Rosemary Lerdahl

Rosemary Lerdahl
Rosemary Lerdahl

From the Editor: Rosemary Lerdahl is director of rehabilitation for Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM). The following remarks were prepared for delivery at the Rehabilitation Services Administration institute for residential rehabilitation programs serving blind consumers that took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico in November of 2003. Here it is:

Consumer organizations of the blind and rehabilitation programs for the blind have sometimes historically found themselves in adversarial roles, even though both of them supposedly work for the benefit of the blind consumer. We would like to share with you how Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) has worked effectively with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in many different ways for the mutual benefit of both organizations and particularly for the benefit of the blind children and adults that we serve.

We are extremely fortunate to be located in the same city (Baltimore, Maryland) as the national headquarters of the NFB and therefore are able to make use of the wonderful resources and programs the NFB has to offer. We are also able to work closely together on many projects and activities. We work with the NFB at the local, state, and national level and find benefit and support for our consumers and staff at all levels.

We have an informal system of reciprocal referrals. Members of the NFB are always willing to provide support and advocacy for our students struggling with the bureaucracy of the Social Security or rehab system. Our students participate in state and national legislative activities such as the day in Annapolis and the Washington Seminar, where we meet with state delegates and national senators and representatives to discuss issues that affect blind people. Some of our students do community service work at NFB-sponsored events. We attend the national convention, where our students have the opportunity to meet some of the most accomplished blind people in the world.

We are also able to take advantage of the many wonderful resources of the NFB such as the International Braille and Technology Center. Recently we started working together on some new senior blind initiatives. This partnership allows us to provide a network of national resources about blindness to our staff and students. The state affiliate has also provided funding for some of our teen transition students attending our WINGS program who were unable to obtain funding through the rehab agency.

In addition to these varied ways of working together, we have also built a partnership to provide programming for blind children. After receiving many, many requests from parents whose blind kids did not fit into traditional summer camps, we met with members of the Parents of Blind Children division of the NFB of Maryland to find a solution. In response to this critical need, KIDS Camp was born in the summer of 1996. We have jointly planned, organized, and run annual KIDS Camps and Teen Retreat Programs for blind children and youth since then.

Our director for both of these programs is a special education teacher who is the mother of a blind child and a member of the parents division. She writes grants to assist with the costs of these programs. The BISM staff and students (most of whom are blind) serve as the adult role models and teachers. Each child is paired with a different blind buddy every day so that he or she can spend time with different blind adults.

KIDS Camp is a fun, educational, week-long residential summer camp for blind children ages six to twelve. The goal of our KIDS Camp is to help blind children develop appropriate blindness skills, social behaviors, peer relationships, and a sense of identity and increased self-esteem through interacting with and learning from blind adult role models. The critical element that makes our camp different from many other camps for blind children is the fact that our instruction is done almost exclusively by blind adults, who serve as mentors, role models, and teachers.

Each KIDS Camp has a special theme and activities to go with that theme. They all, however, incorporate teaching blindness skills with having fun. We always focus on cane travel skills, Braille skills, and daily living skills. The kids are all shown how to serve themselves at meals, carry their own trays, and clean up after themselves. Then they are expected to do so. They always keep a Braille or large-print journal of activities. They also do all of the fun things that other kids do at camp, such as swimming, playing ball, hiking, making crafts, and playing games; but they do these together with blind adults who show them how to participate in all of these activities.

Many of the children who attend our KIDS Camp are the only blind child in their school, so we have discussions every day in which the kids can talk about how they interact with their peers and family members, etc. KIDS Camp gives the children a chance to have lots of fun, learn skills, and truly come to believe that it is okay to be blind.

Teen Retreat is the ultimate weekend camping experience for blind and visually impaired teenagers. It offers skills training in a fun, outdoor setting. Adjustment to blindness, confidence-building exercises, and career exploration are emphasized. Teens go hiking, grill out, and enjoy lots of other outdoor physical activities while they also learn and practice their social and team-building skills. Each Teen Retreat focuses on a specific skill area. Previous Teen Retreats have focused on cane travel, sports, leadership training, socialization skills, Braille, etc. Teen Retreats are now held in the spring and the fall and offer blind teenagers a fun, educational camping experience that also helps them focus on how to become a competent, contributing adult.

The methods used and the goals and objectives are very similar for KIDS Camp and Teen Retreat; they are just modified to reflect the age difference of the children.

Methods:

     • Braille

     • Orientation and Mobility

     • Daily living skills

     • Individual and small-group instruction

     • Blind adult instructors and role models

     • 1:1 mentoring

     • Skills integrated activities

Goals and Objectives:

     • Develop age-appropriate skills

     • Improve problem solving and communication skills

     • Improve socialization

     • Increase self-esteem

     • Increase sense of identity

     • Improve organizational skills

     • Improve teamwork

     • Have fun

Successful Outcomes:

     • Independence and self-sufficiency

     • Using cane appropriately

     • Making and staying in touch with friends

     • Improved peer relationships at school

All of our programs work effectively because they are a successful combination of instructors with years of experience in the field of blindness; confident, competent blind adult role models; and an unwavering belief in the abilities of blind people. It only makes sense to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge, the expertise, and the accumulated experience of the many blind people we have access to through the National Federation of the Blind.

Thus this partnership between the BISM Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind has greatly benefited and enhanced the training experiences and outcomes for the participants and the staff of the program. It has also greatly increased our ability to serve consumers of all ages.

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