Braille Monitor                                                                                                           December 2004

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The Journey from Plumb Confused to Peachy Keen

by Mary Tadum Chappell

From the Editor: Mary Tadum Chappell is a 2004 McDonald Fellowship Winner, chosen by the NFB of Virginia. Because of this fellowship she attended her first NFB national convention in July of 2004. Those who did not attend the convention last summer or read the report of that event in the August/September issue of the Braille Monitor should know that host affiliate President Anil Lewis inquired of the audience early and often how we were doing. The response was always an enthusiastic "Peachy keen!" The following is a slightly edited version of Mary's report to the NFB of Virginia membership as it appeared in the summer/fall issue of the NFB Vigilant, the affiliate's newsletter. It gives a fine description of the impact the national convention often has on first-time attendees. This is what she says:

It is profoundly debilitating to find oneself in a quandary and not even realize that one is stalled by the quagmire. This was my state of mind when I first encountered the National Federation of the Blind. My first meeting was with the Fairfax Chapter in Northern Virginia. On that day in May 2003 I believed that I was in need of some guidance as a young woman who had found herself newly blind; however, I did not realize how far off the right path I actually was.

I was ignorant about how plumb confused I was. In this year that has followed my first experience of the NFB of Virginia, I have been fortunate to have the benefit of strong role models, and I have broadened my understanding expansively. Even so, I had no concept of what experiencing a national convention would afford me.

Since I was one of two recipients of the McDonald Fellowship, a financial award given by the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia to first-time convention attendees, the organization met a portion of my expenses. I packed up my three-year-old and nine-year-old and boarded an Amtrak train headed for Atlanta.

As I reflected on my arrival at the convention, my best analogy is the experience one has when someone recommends a great restaurant, wonderful book, or must-see movie. Quite frequently the buildup is so great that when one actually gets around to checking it out, he or she is in for a big letdown. Why? Because most things can never match their hype. The national convention, however, far surpassed all of my expectations. Being in the presence of literally thousands of people who were much like me was inspiring, not because I see myself as a blind woman who can therefore only identify with blind people, but because I was encouraged by the caliber of not one, not ten, not even a hundred, but thousands of people who have a different ability, like mine, and who have mastered what needs to be done. Because these many role models were carrying out their activities before my very eyes, I had no excuse to lower the bar for patterning my life.

I arrived Tuesday morning and was actually disappointed, not because of what I experienced, but because of what I failed to experience. When I checked into the beautiful Marriott Marquis, I asked the bellman about registration and activities for the day. I was told that nothing would take place until Wednesday morning. Not until late Tuesday afternoon did I learn about the vast array of preconvention events and sessions that I had missed. Many events were of interest, and I had ignorantly accepted misinformation that caused me to miss valuable opportunities to learn and grow.

That evening I attended the Rookie Roundup and learned of the many items actually on the convention agenda. The second and final disappointment came after the Roundup. The organizers offered to arrange mentors with the understanding that mentors would contact potential mentees in their rooms to guide and facilitate the first-time convention experience. Unfortunately I never received a call. Luckily many Federationists from Virginia took me under their wing and guided and encouraged me to make the most of my convention experience. Thank you to my Virginia Federation family.

I began my Wednesday with registration. With so many bodies waiting to register, one would expect long lines and a lot of hurry up and wait--not the case at this convention. The lines all moved like express lines, not the ones in the grocery stores in which you age markedly before you ever reach the cashier. Everything went without a hitch. Next it was off to the Exhibit Hall with my chapter president, John Bailey. There were so many vendors and so much to see that I was able to see only a small portion of the exhibits. One would have needed at least a week to see it all. It was a lot of fun. A certain synergy emanated from the buzzing crowd and energized vendors and presenters.

During each session and all of the moments in between, I found a cornucopia of lessons to learn. I attended the Human Services Division meeting and broadened my understanding of the professional field in which I hope to work. It was rewarding to meet a professional in private practice working in the specific specialization on which I want to base my graduate thesis and dissertation. I am hoping that she will agree to mentor me through my education and entry into professional life. I attended a session on Public Relations and gained insights and ideas that will aid in the promotion and marketing of our chapter.

The wide range of experiences to be had at the convention seemed endless. My favorite practical lesson came at dinner in a restaurant. I had been unable to cut my food as a result of weakness in my right hand following a brain injury. An unassuming former BISM instructor gave me gentle suggestions on how I might successfully slice my food and thereby foster greater independence. I am thrilled to tell you that I tried it, and it worked. I was moving away from "plumb" and nearer to "peach."

My first session was the Resolution Committee meeting. I was fascinated by the resolution process and wondered if everything typically went so smoothly. I had many questions, and our state president, Charlie Brown, clarified each issue and insured that I understood the process from start to finish. Now I have at least a cursory understanding of how the policies and platform are erected.

My appreciation for the Federation and the role that it serves in the formation of my rights and liberties was heightened a hundredfold by that experience. Far too often the younger generation overlooks the trials and tribulations that have come before and the efforts that have afforded even the beginnings of equity. I too was one of those who turned a deaf ear to the movement and what it meant to my very existence. The resolutions experience changed all that--a little less plumb and a little more peach.

The mock trial conducted by the lawyers division was a real eye opener. The lawyers recreated (with dramatic license) a case from recent history in which several blind citizens were denied their right to serve on juries because of their blindness. Unless you are exposed to such in-your-face discrimination, you may fail to recognize its very existence. The reenactment of the two cases sharpened my awareness and furthered my commitment to the movement.

I have heard affiliation with the NFB equated with belonging to a cult. What I witnessed in the simple retelling of two Federationists' stories confirmed my conviction that the practices and teachings make sense and are essential if we are to win freedom and equality. I am gravely concerned about the alternative if I choose not to participate in this movement. I fear a great likelihood of prolonged inequity; camouflaged discrimination; and continued inequities in economic, social, and civic practices that affect every aspect of a blind citizen's existence. Fear is a motivating factor in my commitment to Federationism. I love what my association with this organization is doing for me, my community, and society as a whole. As my confusion diminishes, I get keener and keener.

With the opening ceremony came incredible awe. So many people like me were gathered in that one place. They were from far and near--convention attendees hailed from every state within our borders and lands across the globe. When Dr. Maurer gave his presidential report, I felt pride at his acknowledgment of Virginia Chapter President Larry Povinelli's legal coup and its meaning to the movement. I felt good just knowing him and recognizing the difference his legal efforts will make to my tomorrows. Many aspects of the report offered confirmation to my reasons for being there, being a part of the Federation.

My experience was punctuated by opportunities to talk with our state chapter's first lady, Jackie Brown. It was very helpful to have her full attention on several occasions during the convention. As a sighted spouse she offered the perspective that I vitally needed to enlighten my husband. I had plans to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind this fall, but my husband had squelched that plan. I was feeling ill-equipped to formulate the argument for my attendance at a rigorous NFB program. Because I have performed well academically, handle my children and household adequately, and appear to travel relatively independently, my husband saw no need for more intensive training. He said, "You don't need that; you're doing great." Unfortunately, from his light-dependent perspective, capacity to function adequately was enough.

I, however, want to function with efficiency and confidence. I believe, and the first lady seconded my belief, that time at a center will make all the difference in my tomorrows. The confidence and competence I witnessed at the convention further supported my hypothesis. The first lady offered another solution: Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM). I had already explored that option but was now armed with a sighted-spouse counterargument. When I got home, I won a victory in the battle to be better.

Each foot of my journey to, through, and from national convention was a positive, life-altering experience in one way or another. The grandest experience took place at the banquet on July 4, 2004. Dr. Marc Maurer entertained us as he admonished misguided researchers for their idiotic innovations, such as vibrating shoes, by suggesting pulsating pants that would aid blind wearers in locating such hard-to-find items as the nearest toilet. He decried the editors who have written disparaging words about the blind. He challenged us to assimilate crisis.

At the point his message became clear, I had an epiphany. My blindness was a misunderstood gift from God rather than a curse from some negative force. This state of blindness has allowed me vision that offers a true perspective. During his message I reached a clearer understanding of my purpose: to assimilate all of the knowledge I am amassing and share it with those who are seeking clarity. I am being called to give something back and affect my world through this offering. The revelation made me shudder, yet it revitalized me and brought true meaning to my existence. I will make a difference through my actions, example, and all that I share.

The profundity of my clearer, more defined purpose and state of being makes me all the more peachy keen. For those who desire a more precise understanding of the spirit and meaning of the Federation and all that we have attained through our efforts, I highly recommend the journey from plumb confusion to the pinnacle of feeling peachy keen. I have more learning to do and an immense journey ahead in order to arrive at the true point of being peachy keen. I cannot wait to see what that excursion will bring. Whatever may come, I expect it will be fruitful.

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