Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006

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Rediscovering Independence
A Look at Eight Months of Training at the Colorado Center for the Blind

by Klaus Zechner

From the Editor: Some readers may look at the title of this article and write the story off as one more in a predictable string of autobiographical pieces in which someone reports on exciting adventures at an NFB adult training center that result in his or her becoming completely capable and confident as a blind person. Since most of us have secret pockets or vast prairies of insecurity in our personalities, it is easy to brush off such glowing stories of success as fiction or at least an experience light years different from anything we might experience.

Klaus Zechner approaches his story as an everyman. He is bright; he has earned a Ph.D. and is working in a demanding job. But he is not a natural cane traveler or an expert Braille reader. Still his eight months at the Colorado Center for the Blind changed his life, not because of the skills he learned, though he is justifiably proud of those skills, but because of the transformation in his fundamental attitude toward blindness and living life as a blind person. In short, he has experienced the miracle of what an NFB training center--staffed by dedicated NFB members and predicated on the philosophy of the Federation--offers its students. He presented parts of his story on November 12, 2005, at the NFB of New Jersey convention. Here is his story in his own words:

My name probably tells you that I am not from the United States. That's right. I was born and raised in Austria and came to the U.S. for graduate studies in language technologies at Carnegie Mellon University ten years ago. At that time I had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) for eight years, but, as often happens with mid-stage RP, my eye problems were for the most part limited to the night time. I was fine during daylight hours and had no problems writing, reading even fine print, or working on a computer.

I was an independent person, took care of my bachelor's household myself, and did my studies, all without any visual aids or assistance. My wife can attest to that since we met in those early years in the U.S.; we both lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at that time.

I soon began having some difficulties seeing during the daytime as well, and then, about five years ago, I started using a short cane, but not with much skill. (I received some orientation and mobility training from the Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind.) As time passed, I became less and less independent as I shied away from activities that used to be so easy for me, including cooking, going to the store on my own, taking the bus to an event, and many others.

In 2001 I received my Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, and a challenging year of job search followed. It was often hard to say if I didn't get the job because of other more qualified competitors, the tight financial situation of the company (a recession was going on) or discrimination because of my visual impairment. Eventually I received multiple offers for good jobs in May of 2002 and accepted a position as a research scientist in speech technology at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey.

When we moved to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in the summer of 2002, I felt even more disabled because no businesses were in close walking distance, and only one bus went to work and back, which was a good twenty minutes away. I was too afraid to go that way on my own for fear of getting lost. My blindness was turning out to be an ever larger burden on me and was causing a major depression.

It was at this point that I attended the NFB of New Jersey state convention in Princeton and heard someone give a motivational speech about going to the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) in Denver and learning many blindness skills there, foremost being independence and self-confidence. I felt that I should do that for myself. After all, despite the inconvenience of being far from my home and wife and having to take a leave from work, being so dependent on other people, particularly my wife, was not a good feeling. Our affiliate president, Joe Ruffalo, supported my plan wholeheartedly, so we eventually visited three adult rehabilitation training centers: the Joseph Kohn Center in New Brunswick, the Blind Industries and Services of Maryland program in Baltimore, and the CCB in Colorado. Baltimore and Denver were almost tied, but Denver had a little edge, so I decided to apply there--I just had to convince New Jersey that I needed out-of-state training because it would meet my needs much better than the local center and that they should provide the funding. After I submitted a letter detailing my reasons for choosing the CCB and another letter from the Colorado Center on my behalf, in July of 2004 my stay in Denver was approved.

I had heard that Denver was a tough program. Some people even claimed that the staff was radical and extreme in stressing independence, but nothing prepared me for the real experience. Students at the CCB are required to wear sleepshades from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday. This was not an easy thing to do in the beginning because I still had a little residual vision but had to get to places and do things without being able to see anything whatsoever. A nice aspect of the CCB is that almost all the teachers are blind themselves, as is the director. This kind of role modeling has a good effect on the students. We were about twenty-four students altogether, with constant change in the identity of the student population because of graduations from and entries into the program.

We had four main classes: home management (which I call cooking), Braille, cane travel (O&M), and technology (computers). We also had classes in philosophy, in which we sometimes had guest speakers and discussed a wide variety of aspects of being blind; home maintenance, in which we learned some useful skills such as using an electric saw, hammer, and nails; and jobs, in which we explored potential job possibilities and how to get there. Since I was already employed--ETS had given me a leave of absence for these eight months--we looked for other blind scientists and researchers so that I could network with them.

In addition to these classes we took part in a number of extracurricular activities, some of which were intended to challenge us and push us beyond our comfort zone. For me this included four days of downhill skiing (which was lots of fun, except maybe for that close encounter with a tree), Christmas tree cutting, visits to local museums that had accessible exhibits, participation in community events such as the Martin Luther King parade, and driving lessons at the steering wheel of real cars. I can honestly say that I drove a car with sleepshades on. Other center activities included rock climbing, whitewater rafting, canoeing, and even sky diving (this last activity was optional).

As it turned out, Braille and cane travel were the hardest classes for me. While most students learn their way from the apartments to the center in a couple of days, after two or three months I was still getting lost regularly on my way to and from the center. Here is a short passage from my diary:

Problems [on the way to the mailbox]; after wandering around for a while, I almost land in front of the mail room when someone offers me help to get there. Afterwards I want to go to the bus stop and back--my dad recommended a walk, and the weather is sunny and nice, but on the way I get lost again and then fall into a pit on the edge of a parking lot. No major injuries, fortunately, but some real bruises on my right side… another nice person volunteers to guide me back to my apartment.

I am probably someone who has innate difficulty getting oriented, and my Boy Scout years did not help much. Additionally I have two further handicaps besides the vision impairment that interfere with travel: my hearing loss results in problems picking up auditory cues from the environment, particularly determining the direction of sounds. Also my concentration and focus are impaired because of some medication I have to take. Particularly because of my hearing problem, my travel instructor decided that I should use an Access-Ride bus service to get to places instead of public transportation; that way I would not have to cross busy intersections, which would require much more practice than could be provided in these eight months at the CCB. I first felt a little bit sad and inferior since almost all the other students used public transportation, but eventually I understood that this was a good idea for me--travel was still hard enough, despite an easier way of getting to places.

At the end of the program I successfully completed all three travel requirements: the monster, which is a route to multiple self-selected destinations in one day and accomplishing certain tasks there; the scavenger hunt, which is like the monster, but the instructor chooses the destinations; and finally the most feared, the drop, in which you get dropped off--of course blindfolded as always--at some unknown location and have to find your way back to the center by asking only one question. I was dropped in a quiet residential neighborhood, and it took me quite a while to find a busy street with a bus stop. This bus took me to the light rail, which in turn took me to a station close to the CCB, from which I knew the route back. I was proud of myself to have accomplished all of that without using any eyesight.

In Braille I struggled quite a bit but completed uncontracted Braille by the end of the program. As my graduation project, I labeled my CDs in Braille because it does get harder for me to figure out with my eyes what's on a CD. Technology was probably one of the most important classes since I use the computer for almost all my work at ETS. I feel much more confident using JAWS than before, but I still need more practice.

Finally, in cooking I saw a transformation from someone who is afraid just to put a pot of water on the stove to someone who is able to cook a complete graduation meal for fifty people, independently and wearing sleepshades. I stood in the kitchen for three days, but it was worthwhile; the all-Austrian menu consisted of cream of garlic soup, beef goulash with spaetzle (German egg noodles), and Sacher cake with whipped cream (a famous cake from Vienna, Austria). Again I was proud of my accomplishment. Before the actual cooking I had to find the recipes, translate them into English, convert the measurements, calculate the amount of ingredients needed, and do the grocery shopping on my own.

For my graduation my wife came to Denver from New Jersey, and the director of the CCB gave me the Freedom Bell symbolizing the limitlessness of the possibilities for blind people.

When I look back at my time in Denver, I see many challenges and hard, frustrating times, but also many positive success stories, caring teachers, great classmates, and an antipathy to cleaning my apartment. But more important than all the little things I learned is the big change of attitude that took place from someone afraid of challenges, giving in, relying on being taken care of by others, to someone who is confident in himself and not afraid of taking on any challenges that he may face. I am most grateful for this change of attitude, and in my opinion this should be the main reason and motivation for anyone to undertake such training.

In the days, months, and years ahead my challenge will be to work continuously on and improve the blindness skills I learned in the program. I am currently working on all four main components, but there will always be more to do.

In closing I want to say that this blindness training experience in Denver was deep and fundamental and has had a very positive effect on my current life and the way I see my blindness. I recommend it to anyone who is ready to be challenged in order to gain independence, self-confidence, and a positive outlook on blindness.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired and particularly my counselor, Mary Ann Maysonnett, for their personal and financial support. My deepest thanks also go to the staff of the Colorado Center for the Blind and in particular to its director, Julie Deden, for creating a loving and caring environment and for their dedication and professionalism. I also want to express thanks to my fellow students with whom I had lots of fun and in particular to my roommate Glenn. Last but not least, my thanks go to my wife Michelle, who remained loyal and supportive through very hard times of separation and repeated good-byes and who accompanied me every step of the way to my new independence.

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