Braille Monitor February 2007
Why I Am a Federationist
by Joleen Kinzer
From the Editor: Joleen Kinzer received National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) during the meeting of the National Federation of the Blind board of directorsí meeting on July 2, 2006. A number in the audience then wondered who she was. She is now teaching cane travel at the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center in Austin, Texas. Here, reprinted from the Fall 2006 issue of the Eyes of Texas, the NFB of Texas newsletter, is the story of why she is a Federationist:
My presence in the NFB seems to be a mystery to the locals. Most people want to know how I got involved in the first place. I had no blind friends or relatives to introduce me to the NFB, no favored teacher to tell me about the O&M program at Louisiana Tech University, and Iím sighted. So how did I wind up teaching O&M and advocating the NFB philosophy? Really, how I got here is a story of fate or faith (take your pick); the reason I have stayed is that I believe in you.
A couple of years ago I was going through what I refer to as my ďquarter life crisis.Ē I felt stuck; I had a college degree but a passionless job. I wanted to go to graduate school, but I didnít know what I wanted to study. So, while I was figuring everything out, I worked with the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired for a summer. My job was to hang out with teenagers all day. We went swimming, camping, running, and hiking; we had water balloon fights and rope swing contests. I canít tell you how much ice cream I ate. It wasnít a difficult job to enjoy. My enthusiasm was recognized by several staff members, who subsequently recommended that I look into TVI (teacher of the visually impaired) and O&M programs.
I was ecstatic. Never mind that I didnít know about blindness; I was being offered a way out of my vocational uncertainty. I called several schools about O&M programs. They all offered professional opportunities (and scholarships that were hard to ignore), but I immediately noticed one difference--something exciting and positive--about the Louisiana Tech University program. The attitude of the O&M programs towards blind people was obvious in those brief phone calls; Louisiana seemed to care about where blind people were coming from and what they needed, while the other programs seemed to emphasize what sighted people could do for the blind.
Remember, I didnít just want a job, I wanted to be passionate about my job, and the passion of the O&M program in Louisiana reeled me in. Six weeks later I found myself in Ruston, Louisiana, where I attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind and was inundated with the NFB philosophy.
Iím not going to say that it was an easy ride--rehab can be hard. I needed to learn to believe in myself and my capabilities as a blind person, just like my fellow LCB students. I also needed to learn how to teach others those same skills and attitudes about blindness. The more challenging aspect, however, was learning how to challenge appropriately the mainstream opinion of blindness and actually help change what it means to be blind. While being trained to become an O&M instructor and advocate for the NFB philosophy, I felt productive, not because I was going to be helping poor blind people, but because I was going to stand up against social negativity and teach blind people to help themselves.
In the short time I was in Louisiana, I met some wonderful people--some blind, some sighted, all passionate people intent on changing what it means to be blind. That attitude is addicting. I owe a lot to my instructors at LCB: my adoptive NFB parents, Dr. Ron Ferguson and his wife Jan; and my friends Rosy, Marco, Mandi, Mary Jo, Amber--the list goes on. My new colleagues had encouraged me throughout the O&M program, but they cautioned me that it would be an uphill battle once I got into the real world. Their cautions proved true. I am teaching O&M, but I am also trying to change the perspectives and attitudes of conventionally trained blindness professionals, which is a much harder task.
I enjoy my job, but I have my moments. Sometimes trying to get blind people to recognize their own potential to be fully independent is tiring. Sometimes trying to get blindness professionals to stop being custodial of the blind wears on me, discourages me, and takes the joy out of working with the blind. When my job gets me down, the NFB revives my passion about blindness. My passion isnít necessarily to improve the condition of blindness, but to teach everyone, blind and sighted alike, that blindness is just another characteristic. I am the average sighted individual you hear about so frequently, and I am your colleague. What can I do now except teach others that a characteristic should not define a personís ability to achieve? Blindness itself is not shameful, pitiable, or treacherous. The way the world reacts to a blind child, however, is shameful; the lack of competitive employment for the blind is pitiable; and a blind person choosing to be a second class citizen because itís easier is treacherous.
I continue to be involved in the NFB because I believe that people who are advocating for a fair chance and who are willing to work for that chance deserve to have it.