Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006

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Termites, Chapters, and Changing What It Means to Be Blind

by Ray Martin

Ray Martin poses with his cane.
Ray Martin

From the Editor: In recent weeks I have been privy to some grumbling, particularly from the sort of young, energetic, creative Federationists who are the dream of every committed chapter or state president. Folks like these are needed by every organization. As the years go by, we will count on them to assume the mantle of leadership. The murmurers are voicing their dissatisfaction with what goes on (or doesn’t go on) in chapter meetings. They want more projects, more challenge, and less empty talk. They have understood what the NFB is about, and they are ready to go do something constructive to change the status quo, not sit back and complain about what is wrong.

None of this is a surprise. The challenge we face is how to spend enough time building the infrastructure of the chapter or affiliate to keep it together while channeling the energy and creativity of the young to generate the programs and activities that have always characterized our movement. Lean too far in one direction, and we stultify and lose committed, active members; lean too far the other way, and we gallop off in all directions and dissipate our focus and efficiency.

I know of no formula that can be applied to every chapter and affiliate to achieve the perfect balance. I do know that leaders have an absolute duty to listen to young voices and allow them to shake us up and out of the rut of the way things have always been done. I also know that, if we are to continue to succeed, young and enthusiastic members must make the effort to attend meetings and demonstrate their willingness to roll up their sleeves and work to share their vision of what we can accomplish. Wherever everyone focuses on making chapters healthy and active and on drawing everyone into its decision-making process, all blind people will benefit, and the NFB will grow and be well served.

The following message and newspaper article were circulated by Ray Martin, president of the Utah County Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, to his chapter members. The message seemed a good reminder to us all at the beginning of a new year. This is what Ray Martin says:

As another new year comes in, I reflect on the growth and changes that we have made as a state affiliate and a chapter. The National Federation of the Blind gives us each opportunities to work together and to change what it means to be blind. We have the chance to set in motion events that will change the lives of blind people around each of us and throughout the entire state. But if we put our personal agendas first and seek to foster our own careers at the expense of our shared philosophy and commitment to mentoring, we will have failed our common dream even while we may have individually succeeded in gaining stature in the organization.

The NFB has great leaders both locally and nationally. As I look at these powerful leaders, two conditions for their emergence seem always to be present: a persuasive and selfless leader and a critical mass of willing members that provide the leaven to raise the whole. Whether or not we have the personal characteristics and drive to become leaders, we should all try to be a part of that critical mass of willing members.

A telling analogy from the animal kingdom can be found in the remarkable mounds built by the compass termites in Northern Australia, which have a north-south orientation to keep the temperature and humidity of their brooding chambers constant. Thus the flat side of the mound faces the rising sun to cope with the early morning chill, while the steep roof deflects the heat when the sun is overhead. But what is most remarkable, according to Michael Talbot, in his book, Beyond the Quantum, is that: “No single termite could ever accomplish such a miracle of engineering. ... Even three or four termites gathered together are equally helpless. But keep adding termites one by one and sooner or later a sort of critical mass is reached, and as if the truth had suddenly dawned upon them, they gather into work crews and begin cementing grains of sand together with their saliva, building arches and connecting columns until the expertly designed fortress that will ultimately become their home grows like some strange flower around them.”

This is a fascinating biological phenomenon that has some relation to human society, and more especially to the National Federation of the Blind. I think a state affiliate could be seen as a critical mass of good individuals who work together to accomplish much more than any individual could ever achieve alone. As we work together, we will continue to accomplish great things. As evidence of the way this is working in our chapter, the article in the Provo Daily Herald demonstrates that we truly have a critical mass in action. As you read the words below, remember that each one of us made this become a positive image of blind people.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breaking Stereotypes about the Blind

by Caleb Warnock, Daily Herald

Mention putting a group of blind people into a maze, and you might get snickers. But that is just what the Utah County Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind did on Saturday—and the point was all about overcoming such stereotypes. A handful of blind children and adults, accompanied by their families, spent more than three hours at the Hee Haw Farms corn maze.

The activity was sponsored by the Federation. “I think it is important that people realize blind people are just average, regular people, who want to do everything everyone wants to do, whether that’s a corn maze or trying out for a play or going skiing,” said Kara Campbell, a mother of six who has been blind since birth. The common perception is that blind people are happy to sit at home, she said. “That’s not really the case,” she said. “We are regular people who want to do regular things. We might use different techniques to do it, but we get the same results.”

Rebekah Jakeman, who is a writer and will appear as a mentor on the NBC television show, Three Wishes, this fall, said joining the Federation and participating in its activities has taught her confidence. Jakeman was blinded by a genetic condition in 2002 during her senior year at BYU [Brigham Young University]. She had been legally blind since age fourteen. “When you are partially sighted, you play you are sighted when you are really not,” she said. “The biggest thing this organization taught me is that I didn’t have to play I was sighted. It was kind of a change of heart for me.”

In addition to advocating for the blind at the local, state, and national levels, the organization provides support and camaraderie for those who are challenged by a lack of sight, said chapter president Ray Martin. Martin was blinded by a chemical burn while working a summer job at age sixteen.

One of the chapter’s latest accomplishments was getting the Daily Herald added to a phone service in which the blind can call and be read the newspaper, he said. The organization has also been emphasizing writing to its members lately, teaching them how to tell their own stories, both to show other blind people what is possible and to explain the blind experience to the sighted community, he said.

“We also try to help blind people who lose their sight later in life try to keep their jobs or retrain and regain employment,” he said. “We encourage young kids to excel in the skills blind people need and to train in using a cane and not be ashamed, and to do well. We teach people that it’s okay to be blind. We help them break free from the myths about blindness, whether it’s a mother with children or a mother who is a teacher or a dad who is able to function as a father and in the community.”

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