Braille Monitor                                                                                 February 2006


The Dream and the Desire: The Power of Mentoring
in Adjustment to Blindness Training

by Shawn Mayo

From the Editor: Shawn Mayo is the executive director of BLIND, Incorporated, one of the NFB’s adult rehabilitation centers. She is also a leader in the NFB of Minnesota and across the Federation. The following article first appeared in the Winter 2005 edition of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota. This is what she says:

One of the most interesting phenomena found in nature is mutualistic symbiosis. This phenomenon occurs when two or more species develop a relationship that benefits all parties involved. For example, butterflies burrow into flowers to get at their nectar and while so doing pollinate the flower with the traces of pollen they have brought along from the last flower they visited. Both species get something that they vitally need. The butterfly gets the sustenance it needs to fly freely through the world, and by contributing nectar the flowers get the opportunity to propagate themselves in another generation. It is truly a win-win situation.

On average, after three to four months of NFB-style comprehensive adjustment-to-blindness training, it is common to hear a student say, “Blind people can do anything sighted people can do.” This is a wonderful thing to hear, and when I hear a student make a statement like this, I know that student is on his or her way to independence. However, the fact that the student can make this general statement is only the first step. This often becomes apparent when that student begins looking at what she or he is going to do after leaving the program. This is when the difference between the theoretical blind person and the flesh-and-bone blind person becomes clear—the difference between “a blind person can get a job” and “I can get a job.”

Whether blind people—or people generally—reach their full potential and attain the career and life goals commensurate with their skills and passions depends on a combination of belief and desire. They must believe truly that they can attain the goal. This belief sets the desired goal in the realm of possibility, making it something that could happen rather than something that could never happen. However, in order to turn that possibility into a reality, a person must have enough desire to achieve the goal that he or she is willing to put forth the amount of effort needed—the time, sweat, and tears to climb over whatever obstacles lie between the person and the goal.

One might argue that you can’t teach desire. This is true. You can’t make a person want something; however, you can remove the fear that often blocks the path of that desire. This can be achieved by mentoring. Having a real, live, breathing person sitting there talking about the raise he or she just got, the fetal pig he or she just dissected, taking his or her three-year-old to see Santa at the mall, or building a new deck on the house, can put all kinds of ideas in a person’s head. But not only can a mentor put an idea in a student’s head, that mentor can explain in detail what it took to accomplish those goals.

So many misconceptions about the day-to-day life of a blind person are loose in the world that it is impossible to know which particular set has found its way into each student’s mind. Some of these misconceptions might seem to the student so silly or so particular that he or she will never articulate them. They can often mutate into abstract fears that prevent a blind person from letting desire propel him or her toward the goal. The student might be thinking: “I would really love that job, but what if I go into the interview and they see I have a cane, and they tell me the job has been filled. I don’t think I could deal with that.” However, when a mentor can say to a center student: “Yeah, I had twenty interviews before I got my job, and some days it was really hard to keep trying, but in the end it was all worthwhile,” or “The professor really didn’t want a blind guy in her class, but this is what I told her….” Fears about problems he or she might face are replaced by real situations with real solutions.

Mentoring can be integrated into an adjustment-to-blindness program in any of three ways: employing competent, well-adjusted blind people in all areas of the organization from the support staff to the executive director, developing an alumni network, and involving an active chapter of the National Federation of the Blind that has members willing to spend time with center students. Center staff members who are blind give students a daily reminder that blind people do work and have personal and social lives. Students see blind people every day who travel across the country, raise children, take graduate classes, pursue hobbies, etc. Then they have the opportunity to ask questions about how exactly they do what they do. While this form of mentoring is essential and irreplaceable, it isn’t quite enough. There is something invaluable about having mentors around who are not paid to be there. This is not to say that anyone would work for a Federation center solely for monetary benefit (they are called “nonprofits” for a reason), but rather to say that it makes an impact when people choose to give their free time to share what they themselves have received.

Also neither going through Federation-style training nor leaving a center is an easy time of life. The support, reassurance, and friendship a mentor provides make an enormous difference and can remove the barriers of fear and separation that keep some blind people from realizing their dreams. An alumnus mentor can sympathize with the stress and frustrations of training while proving to the student that these stresses and frustrations are temporary and conquerable. A chapter member mentor can teach the student about the history of the organized blind movement and show her or him the progress that has been made and the work that still needs to be done.

The key element in the development of successful mentoring is that these three groups overlap. Center staff should ideally be alumni and should always be NFB chapter members. Alumni, when they receive the support and encouragement of chapter members during their training, will want to become chapter members themselves. Chapter members, when they see the benefits of Federation-style training, will want to make sure that they have the skills and self-confidence that they need, and they then become alumni.

This overlap provides a network that both supports individual blind people and strengthens the organized blind movement. It allows us not only to survive but to thrive. It enables center staff, alumni, and chapter members to form a mutualistic symbiotic relationship that goes beyond mutual benefits to change the lives of blind people profoundly and permanently. It gives blind people the support they need to make it through the challenging process of becoming an independent and successful member of society while ensuring that this support will continue to be there for future generations. It both fills the landscape with vibrant and resilient flowers and gives people who thought they would spend the rest of their lives on the ground the strength they need to fly. It is truly a win-win situation for everyone involved.