Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006


Meet the Boy Scouts

by Tracy Soforenko

From the Editor: It may be high summer as you are reading this issue of the Monitor, but before you know it October and Meet the Blind Month will be at our door. Every chapter should be planning right now for every opportunity that members can dream up to entice members of the community to meet blind people and get to know what the National Federation of the Blind is doing to change what it means to be blind. The following article first appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of the Vigilant, the publication of the NFB of Virginia.

Tracy Soforenko is a rather new member of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and already is president of the Potomac Chapter. As part of last October's Meet the Blind Month, Tracy organized a program in which Boy Scouts were introduced to blind people and the techniques they use to do everyday activities. Here is his report of the event; it can serve as an example to all of us as we plan our 2006 Meet the Blind Month activities:

As the troop meeting was about to start, a mother dropped off her eldest son. Her youngest son, probably age seven, was pulling on his mom's dress. The mother approached me and asked, "Is there any way my son can meet the guy with the guide dog?"

After introducing the mother to Alan Schlank and his dog, I listened for a moment as Alan crouched down to talk with the boy. He introduced the boy to his dog and explained that the dog is led by the blind person, not the other way round. The child was captivated for a few minutes until his mother took him home, and the meeting began.

David, my co-worker and friend, is actively involved as an assistant Scoutmaster in Troop 1577 in Herndon, Virginia. Having spent eleven years in the Scouting program myself, I have often talked with him about the challenges of turning boys into leaders. The morning after a Potomac Chapter meeting where Dr. Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, had talked about Meet the Blind Month in his recorded presidential release, I asked my friend if some of my NFB friends and I could come to talk with the eighty or more boys in this troop.

David asked the boy leaders if they were interested. The boys were very excited. To my surprise one of the Boy Scouts called me to organize the event. Eighty boys, ages eleven to eighteen, are hard to manage and keep entertained. They are constantly in motion, with a short attention span. It is not reasonable to expect them to listen to a lecture. We broke the boys up into smaller groups and routed them around to four stations:

To give you a feel for what went on, let's take a moment at the Braille station. The room roared with the sound of boys breaking up into their designated groups and heading for their tables. The boys noisily sat down on their metal folding chairs while Sue Povinelli waited patiently for them to settle down. They became very quiet while she described the Braille code quickly since she had only ten minutes for each group.

Laid out on the table before her were the Braille cells on a pegboard with the letters of the alphabet divided into three neat rows, along with several samples of Braille books and slates and styluses and a large stack of three-by-five cards. After her explanation of the Braille system, she handed the boys slates, styluses, and a three-by-five card and let them try writing their names with the aid of the Braille alphabet card. She also passed around a sliding jumbo Braille peg slate for them to experience another type of slate.

The boys wrote their names or a word on their cards and asked her to read it. They were interested in how long it took to learn Braille, why Braille is written from the back of the page, and the various uses for it. Even though the boys weren't exposed to Braille for very long, they did get an appreciation for its usefulness. I bet the next time they pass a Braille elevator sign, they will stop and try to read it.
Honestly I was a little nervous at first, not considering myself an expert at orientation and mobility, but it was really quite fun and easy. Billie Ruth was stellar with the boys, making them laugh and shaking everyone's hand. The boys were captivated. We were real people doing what everyone else did, occasionally employing a different technique to do whatever active adults do. We asked them questions to get them talking and thinking, and at the end of the ten minutes they still had more questions. I tried to answer their questions through the lens of my Boy Scout experiences.

Here are two sample questions and my responses:

Question 1: "How did you get so good at doing these blind things?"

Answer: "On your first camping trip you didn't know how to pitch a tent, make a campfire, or make breakfast over a campfire. You learned by doing, with a more senior Scout showing you the ropes and expecting that you could do it. As a result you probably ate some pretty bad pancakes as you learned to do things for yourself. Blind people learn travel and other skills in just the same way."

Question 2: "Did you get hurt learning to use a cane?"

Answer: "Yes, I did. At first I was really hesitant to trust the cane and my ability to use it to travel safely. As I continued to use it, I found that I could get places faster. My coaches and instructors expected more from me. I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, and most of the time I did fine. Occasionally I hit a wall, literally."

[This made the boys laugh.] "But this is the same way you guys learn to get good at something. Whether you are on a hike or in a canoe, you have to push yourself to get better. Being blind is no different."

In conclusion, I was surprised by the similarities between the way the Boy Scouts develop capable youth leaders and the way the NFB develops confident, competent blind people. Both organizations expect a great deal from their membership. Both organizations expect their members to be active in their community and their nation, and they foster leadership by investing in people.

Meet the Blind Month events are intended to foster our mission to change what it means to be blind. My expectations for the event were to change the perceptions of these boys and their adult leaders. However, explaining blindness and our NFB philosophy helped reinforce the effect the positive NFB philosophy has had on my own perception of myself. When you teach our philosophy to others, you are forced to learn it yourself. The best way to honor the many leaders who have gone before us is to pass along the message. Meet the Blind Month events give us that opportunity.