Braille Monitor February 2008
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by Rosy Carranza
From Dan Frye: Rosy Carranza, coordinator of program services in the NFB Department of Affiliate Action, delivered the Thursday, December 6, 2007, keynote luncheon address. Youthful, dynamic, and professional, Rosy has evolved to a mature and nuanced understanding of blindness over a short time, but has spanned different cultures, a cross-country migration, formal adjustment-to-blindness training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, higher education, marriage, and ultimately a deep and abiding commitment to the work of the NFB. Her journey offers a compelling story and a solid rationale in support of quality residential rehabilitation centers for the blind. Rosy’s experience will have universal appeal to Braille Monitor readers and will particularly speak to the spirit of candidates facing the question of whether or not to secure training. Here is a slightly edited transcript of what she said:
It has been said that ability is of little account without opportunity. Like thousands of other blind people, I grew up never truly knowing my own abilities. It seemed as if blindness controlled every aspect of my life and limited every opportunity before me. Blindness governed how late I could stay out, what books I could read, what clothes I could wear, and which places I could go. Ultimately I thought it had the power to determine how happy I could be.
I grew up in a large Latino family in central California. My parents moved from Mexico to the United States in search of a better life and in pursuit of the American dream. Shortly after my diagnosis of eventual blindness, their ideas for me and what would happen to me seemed more like a nightmare than anything else. Lacking knowledge of the English language and critical resources, they used their amazing work ethic, great judgment, and belief in God to steer me in the right direction. I never lacked for encouragement or support growing up; everyone wanted me to succeed. My parents, family members, and friends always told me things like “If you can believe, you can achieve” or “Nothing is impossible if you try.” These well-intentioned words meant nothing to me. I had already believed and not achieved. I had already tried, and everything still seemed impossible. I ate tons of carrots, lots of fish oil, and plenty of other nasty concoctions in hopes of restoring my vision. At the end of the day all I had to show for it was shiny hair, a great complexion, and no vision.
In every aspect of my life I felt visually inadequate. I can remember as far back as elementary school, when kids were getting together to play kickball, no one would ever pick me--the blind kid; it was always the kids who could run fast or the kids that were strong who were chosen, never me. Now, to be fair, I did have a chubby physique and short little legs, but still I'm sure I could have participated.
At family functions I never quite felt comfortable. I always worried about being able to see. On one occasion we were all gathered together to celebrate the first communion of my cousin, Nora. In my family first communions were a big deal. We would have huge parties with lots of food, music, and dancing. My cousins and I were outside playing tag. We were all asked to come back in the house because we were about to cut the cake. I had a huge glass of bright red Kool-Aid that I was using to quench my thirst. I was coming into my grandmother's house, and my vision had not yet quite adjusted to the change in lighting. Before I knew it, I had run straight into Nora. I stained her perfectly white dress. Nothing could have been done at the time to remove the stain from her dress or to remove the scar from my heart. I felt terrible, and Nora was crying. I was upset, and I knew that my parents were embarrassed. Meanwhile everyone tried to blow it off and just keep on going. But inside I hated the way my blindness made me feel.
As I got older and my vision decreased, my visual mishaps kept increasing. The most memorable blind moment came the night of my high school prom. I was not going to miss this event for anything. Even though I knew I would have trouble seeing in a dimly lit party, I wanted to go and participate. I convinced my best friend, Vanessa, to wear a backless dress so that I could follow her white back around all evening. She was a little shy, but, because she liked me, she agreed to my request. We got to the party, and everything was going great. I was able to see Vanessa and follow her around. I followed her straight to the dinner table. At the dinner table two cutie boys waited for us. We sat down to eat, and I could barely see anything. We were all there, and I heard the plates come down on the table. Everyone grabbed their silverware and began eating. I very carefully fumbled around and found my fork. I felt really nervous about eating in the dark because I had been noticing I had trouble telling whether I had food on my fork. Now tonight, on my first attempt, I successfully captured my first bite of food. I picked it up, put it in my mouth, and realized it tasted like nothing I had ever had before. At that moment, Vanessa turned around and told me, “Rosy, you are eating a daisy.” Apparently a decorative daisy was on the plate. The guy next to me said, “Man, you must have really been hungry.” Not knowing what to do, I took it like a champ and swallowed the whole flower in one quick gulp.
I graduated from high school that year with many questions in my heart. How was I going to get my college degree? I told everybody that I was going to college, but I really had no idea what I was going to do when I arrived. I wondered if I would get married or get a job. Ultimately I wondered what was going to happen to me as I continued losing more vision. Sometimes I would think, “Am I going to end up living in either my brother’s or sister's home?”
Fortunately for me, I got answers to all of my questions. They came from a flea market-loving, best-Indian-food-knowing, never-too-tired-to-talk-about-your love-life, amazing woman. A leader in the field of rehabilitation, Joanne Wilson had lots of answers to all of my questions. In Joanne I saw what I could become. Never before had I met such a competent blind person. She had five children. She had founded the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She was involved in her community, and for the most part she was pretty normal.
After talking with Joanne, I decided that I needed what the Louisiana Center for the Blind had to offer. I enrolled shortly after high school and began my training on March 6, 1998. I was there for nine months and two weeks. I really needed those extra two weeks. I participated in all aspects of the program. I had residual vision, so I used sleepshades and a long white cane, and I attended every class. I was very much a typical center student. At times I was eager to learn. On other days I was eager to leave.
When I reflect on my time at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I think about all of the ordinary-seeming activities that produce such remarkable outcomes. I want to talk a little about some of those activities, and in doing so, I want you to ask yourself, ordinary or remarkable? The choice is ultimately up to you in the way you teach, in the policies and guidelines that you set for your students, and in your heart, when it comes to what you believe about blind people.
One day I was in a class when I heard Joanne page me over the intercom. Quickly I did a mental inventory to make sure there was nothing for which I could have gotten in trouble. Once I called her, she said, “Hey Rosy, we have some people coming in, and I want you to give them a little talk about what it's like to be a blind person and to be in this training program.” Although I was pretty uncomfortable about this request, I said “sure.” Afterwards she said, “You're also going to help serve hot coffee and warm cookies to these folks.” I thought, “Joanne, you must be asking for a lawsuit. Surely you have people here who could do a better job of pouring hot coffee for all these guests. You are trying to make a good impression after all.”
Well I went and met about thirty folks. I gave my little talk, but I was most nervous about having to pour the coffee. I imagined myself dropping large mugs of coffee on laps. Guess what? It never happened. I went to this function with sleepshades on because it was training time. Actually what I learned with more experience at the center is that it's always training time. I poured coffee, served cookies, and even caught myself chitchatting with people, not worrying about the tasks at hand. I cannot tell you how many cups of coffee and other beverages I have poured since then, but that experience taught me that I could have the confidence and the grace to do those kinds of things.
Let me tell you about another experience, and you decide, ordinary or remarkable? This happened at the Louisiana State Fair. Now that I have this different perspective, I know that everything was planned for a reason. We did not go to the state fair on the Wednesday afternoon when there wouldn't be crowds and when there was a discount for disabled people or senior citizens. No, we went Sunday night, the last night of the fair, when everyone and their brother was there. We wore sleepshades. It was in the evening, and it was a lot of fun. A lot of the students, including me, were anxious about this outing. We were going to go to a new city where people weren't accustomed to seeing blind people running around wearing sleepshades. Surely, I thought, they would think we were part of the show.
Going to the state fair that night taught me many valuable lessons. I was able to see for myself how staff members and other students handled all the questions that people had about blindness. I had an opportunity to educate the public. At one point I was standing in line for a ride, and I heard this big, burly-sounding man saying, “Get out of the way, mam.” Apparently I wasn't fast enough for him because he picked me up and moved me himself. That opportunity gave me a chance to know how to handle myself as a blind person in those types of circumstances.
The state fair was a lot of fun. I realized how much I had changed in my view of blindness and in my feelings about my impending vision loss. When I really felt that I could actually enjoy riding bumper cars, getting on the Ferris wheel, and eating funnel cake without being worried about what I could or couldn't see and what people would think about me, I understood that I was making progress. I was there to enjoy the state fair, just like everyone else, and I felt normal. I think a lot of us as blind people don't always feel normal growing up. I realized that night that I could be normal--that I could participate in everyday activities and enjoy them.
Let me tell you about another situation, ordinary or remarkable? We had a student at the center who was going to have a baby. We were going to have a baby shower for her. Growing up, I felt that I was always attending events but never being a part of the planning. A lot of times as blind people we have found ourselves shoved in a corner and told, “Don't worry, it's under control. We'll take care of it. Enjoy yourself.” Well, for this baby shower all of the students were the ones taking care of everything, and we were the ones who were in control of the party. If we were going to have food, it was because we were going to prepare it. If there were going to be games, it was because we were going to do the planning for them. We went out and purchased gifts and wrapped them ourselves. That evening was a wonderful event, put on by all of us for a fellow student. Aside from many of the practical things that we learned that evening about planning parties and doing things for ourselves (moving tables, pouring drinks, and blowing up balloons), I learned that blind people could effectively decorate for a party. We learned on this occasion to give. We learned that we were expected to give and contribute to society.
One of the experiences I had at the Louisiana Center for the Blind that I felt really was a testament to how much I had changed and how far I had come came one night when I was with a group of friends and staff members at a local restaurant. I needed to go to the restroom. Without thinking about it, I grabbed my cane, asked for directions, and went to the restroom. Now to some of you this may not seem like a big thing, but for me it was a huge deal. Never in my life had I been able to do something like that with no fear and such grace before I received training. I used always to limit how much I drank when I went places because I was scared. I wanted to avoid having to go out and find the restroom by myself or having to ask my mother or my sister to take me there. Tonight was different. Using the skills and the positive attitude that I learned while I was a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I was able to do that on my own.
Critical to my transformation at the center were three things. First, the blindness skills I acquired—learning to travel independently with a long white cane—added to my sense of self-confidence. Second, getting and developing this new attitude about blindness was especially important. Going to a training center gave me an opportunity to challenge my attitudes and improve them so that I really could believe statements like “If you believe, you can achieve.” Never before had I been able to talk to anyone about my blindness and the way I felt about it. But at the training center I found the chance to get a whole new attitude, a whole new mindset that would help me in years to come. This continues to help me today.
A third critical benefit was being put in touch with a consumer organization. While in training, we learned about consumer organizations. We learned about the National Federation of the Blind and about all of the wonderful things that the organization does. Part of my training was attending NFB events. I attended state and national conventions. I spoke to members. I learned much from them about how to manage as a blind person. I think one of the major things that has contributed to my being really independent and comfortable with my blindness and also in ensuring my long-term success was my introduction to the NFB. The training environment gets you ready for life; joining a consumer organization like the National Federation of the Blind ensures that you can really live your life.
After finishing my training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I attended Louisiana Tech University to pursue a degree in elementary education. I wasn't quite sure how a blind person would be able to teach, but from what I had learned in the National Federation of the Blind, I knew it was possible. Since then I have been able to finish, and I do have a degree. Later I pursued a graduate degree in teaching blind students, and throughout my college years I was able to draw upon all of the resources and mentors of the National Federation of the Blind to help me when I didn't know how something could be done. I continue every day to draw much encouragement and access resources from the NFB in all aspects of my life. One day I hope to be a parent, and I know that's truly possible because, when I look at the Federation, I see many leaders and everyday members who have raised their families successfully.
In this conference our theme is “Dare to be remarkable.” My experiences in the National Federation of the Blind and at the Louisiana Center for the Blind have taught me to dare to be respectable. I have learned that being blind is okay and that blindness doesn't have to be a horrible tragedy. I have learned that life can go on and that I can contribute and really be a part of things. It taught me to dare to be responsible. I had to learn the skills and competencies of blindness in order to go out and find a job and become a confident person. LCB instilled in me the conviction that I needed to be a giver and not just a taker. I have been given a lot of opportunities that came because people worked to help me get to the point where I could take advantage of them. The National Federation of the Blind gives us all an avenue, whether we are blind or sighted, to give, contribute, and grow. I think that nothing is more exciting than being part of an organization in which one is expected to do this.
I want to leave you with one other quote and talk to you a little bit about it: “We don't know who we are until we know what we can do.” I want you to think about that on two levels. First is the way you interact with your students in helping them see their own potential so that they can learn who they are and learn what they can do. Second, apply this quote to the way you structure and run your training centers. It's always good to keep on growing. I recognize that all of you are at this conference to get ideas to keep on stretching what you can do and learning how you can change lives.