Braille Monitor February 2008
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by Stacy Cervenka and Nicolas Crisosto
From Dan Frye: On December 7, in the closing plenary session, graduates of residential rehabilitation centers for the blind from across the country offered conference participants a glimpse of their postcenter lives as an illustration of the results of what truly effective training can yield. The remarks of two of the panelists are reprinted here. The diverse range of successful center graduates who spoke as part of this panel serves as powerful anecdotal evidence of the importance of high-quality instruction. In addition to successful alumni from NFB-sponsored centers, the panel included several graduates from state-administered residential rehabilitation centers for the blind. Here are two of the presentations:
Stacy Cervenka: Good morning. I am a graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) in Ruston, Louisiana. I currently work in Washington, D.C., as a legislative correspondent for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Today Iíd like to share with you a few of my experiences as a student at the Louisiana center and also to explain a few of the many contexts in which I use the skills I learned at the center on the job and in my daily life.
One of the things I love most about my job is that I donít do the same thing every day, and Iím required to do many different types of work. I currently handle public policy in the areas of education, adoption and foster care, pro-life, disability rights, senior citizens, welfare, housing and urban development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and, as of two days ago, criminal justice and prison reform. My primary responsibility to the senator is to keep myself up to date on all of these issues so that I can respond to the constituents who write or call our office with questions and comments about particular policy positions or bills that are going through the Senate. I also meet with various constituent groups and lobbying organizations that come to D.C. to educate us on issues affecting their particular vocation, area of the state, or interest group. For instance, I might meet with an organization of school nurses and nutritionists, Head Start teachers, or of course groups like NFB and AER.
Not only does all the researching and meeting with constituent groups help me to communicate effectively to our Kansas constituents about the issues weíre working on, but I also help draft bill language, negotiate with other Senate offices in order to get them on board with our legislation, and advise the senator on the bills Iím working on. It is my responsibility to propose possible new initiatives in my assigned policy areas. Right now my first bill is scheduled for a mark-up in the HELP Committee, which has been very exciting and is an experience I know Iím incredibly fortunate to have.
When I first started two years ago, I worked in the front office, answering
phones; greeting visitors; alerting other staff when their appointments arrived;
keeping the conference rooms clean; and helping arrange various tours of the
White House, the Library of Congress, and other attractions for Kansas constituents
who were visiting D.C. The best part of my job at that time was that I led tours
of the U.S. Capitol Building. It was always fun to get to know the constituents
we served and to know that I was a part of their vacation memories.
As you can see, my job requires many different skill sets. I need to be able to do effective research both online and with print media. I need to be able to use the computer to communicate with constituents and write letters, emails, and memos. I need to be able to travel independently to meetings both on and off Capitol Hill. I need to be able to take concise, effective notes in meetings with constituents and lobbyists. I need to be able to access the information on the handouts and reports the constituents and lobbyists give me in these meetings.
On a more abstract level, but just as important, I need to be able to walk into a meeting and both put people at ease and get them to take me seriously. That was one of my biggest fears when I first moved up to being a legislative correspondent. The first time I walked into a meeting with about ten school superintendents and school board presidents, all very distinguished people in their forties, fifties, and sixties, with over twenty or thirty years of experience, I was terrified that they were all thinking, ďWho is this twenty-something little blind girl, fresh out of college? We have to meet with her?Ē So, besides actual concrete skills, I have to have a certain amount of people and relationship skills. Furthermore, as a blind person I have to have a good set of self-advocacy skills. Our office had never had a blind employee before, so I had to tell them what kind of technology I needed, where they could order it, and how I would be able to handle other tasks like reading the corrections and edits our legislative director makes to my letters and the manner in which I would read my mail.
The other staffers believed I could do all these things, but they had no idea how. It was my responsibility as an employee to figure out how I would get things done and communicate any needs I had to the appropriate people. I honed many of these skills sets (the blindness skills, the self-advocacy skills, and the techniques to represent myself well to the public) at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I believe itís the responsibility of any good blindness training center to provide students top-quality training in the alternative techniques of blindness but also to teach them how to advocate for themselves in school, on the job, and in the community. I believe centers should give students a thorough understanding of what it means to live as a blind person in our society.
Iím often asked why I believe that Louisiana is such a great center. The first thing that comes to mind is its staff. Much is often made of the fact that most of the staff at the Louisiana center are successful blind people themselves, which just makes sense at a training center for blind people, but I think itís also important to point out the extraordinary dedication of all the blind and sighted staff members who work at LCB. Not only do they give of their time, talent, and energy from eight to five, but they are always willing and eager to mentor students after hours as well. Every Friday night, Jerry and Marilynn Whittle, who taught Braille and Home Management respectively, loaded up the LCB bus and took any student who wanted to go to the Pecanland Mall in Monroe, forty minutes away, so that students could shop, see a movie, or just generally hang out. They were not paid extra to do this, and they did so at considerable expense to themselves, but they thought it was important. These Friday nights at Pecanland Mall were some of my happiest times at the center. Then, on Sunday mornings, the Whittles were back again at the student apartments with the center bus to take anyone who was interested to church.
Several other staff members throughout the years have done this as well. The instructors gave up countless weekends to go whitewater rafting and rock climbing and to Mardi Gras with the students. If an instructor heard of a concert, a play, a haunted house, a flea market in Monroe or Shreveport that students would be interested in, someone was always willing to provide transportation to and from the event. (At this point, I should explain that Ruston is about a half hour away from the next town, which is why students needed transportation to and from events like this.)
Each day after classes Roland Allen and Angela Grafton invited all interested students to join them for a workout at Lambright Sports Center on the Louisiana Tech University campus. And each day after classes other instructors led extracurricular activities such as the roller-skating club, the bowling league, the ham radio club, the extra technology seminars, and Toastmasters, which was the public-speaking club. Incidentally, I remember well my first two-minute Toastmasters speech. I had to give an impromptu talk on the differences between life in the North and the South, and, even though I was in front of only ten or so of my fellow students, I was shaking like a leaf. Several of the students who were asked to critique my performance pointed out my obvious discomfort and nervousness. Not long ago I was told that I needed to be downstairs in one of the Senate committee rooms in five minutes to speak to over one hundred Kansas business owners on what the Senator was doing in the way of education. Our head education staffer was sick that day, so I got to be the one to do it. I can honestly say that I barely batted an eyelash. I felt excited and honored to be asked but not uncomfortable or nervous at all. Obviously Toastmasters proved to be a valuable experience for me.
And who can forget the annual play, always written and produced by our Braille instructor, Jerry Whittle? The play, which is performed at the NFB of Louisiana state convention and has two sold-out performances each year at the NFB national convention, literally takes months of after-class practice, and many of the staff members help out with this in some capacity. I honestly believe that working at a training center is a true calling, one that simply isnít for everyone since it requires such an uncommon time commitment. As a government employee (we definitely do not work weekends), I know I do not have this calling, but I am deeply grateful for the people who do.
Another ingredient that I believe was essential was that our training was considered our job while we were at the center. We were allowed to miss one day a month due to illness. After that ten dollars was deducted from our monthly stipend checks for each day we missed. As a broke college student, this was a definite incentive to show up for classes. We were expected to come to class and to go out on travel even when it was raining or cold since we knew we would one day be held to the same standard on the job. I sometimes think blind people, especially those of us who grew up blind, are often held to lower standards, and weíre often excused from doing things that we find uncomfortable or inconvenient. Iím definitely including myself in this statement. I definitely struggle with laziness and fear. I often try to weasel my way out of doing things I find scary or inconvenient or that I just plain donít want to do. If we aspire to raise the percentage of employed blind people, I think training centers really need to do more to cultivate a sense of self-discipline and personal responsibility in students. It doesnít matter whether youíre a good cane traveler if youíre not willing to haul yourself out of bed every morning and get to work on time in the first place.
The Louisiana center is widely renowned for the many challenge activities the students enjoy. In the eight months I was there we went on a week-long trip to Tennessee, where we went whitewater rafting and horseback riding, we did a high-ropes course, and we toured a cave. We went on another week-long trip up to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we went rockclimbing in the Ozarks. We took yet another week-long trip to Mardi Gras, where we learned to navigate in crowds and explore a new city. Of course there was also the Christmas-tree chopping, the walks alongside the Interstate to the nearby town of Grambling, and many other activities geared to compel students to overcome their nervousness and discomfort at trying new things.
Interestingly, it wasnít one of the challenge activities that really terrified
me. I had been whitewater rafting with my family and taken a semester-long rock-climbing
course in high school. For me it was grilling a steak and also lighting birthday
candles that really forced me to learn to carry on in spite of serious fear
and discomfort. In high school one of my friends died in a house fire, so I
was terrified of fire and flames. I remember hoping the tears I was crying under
my sleepshades wouldnít show as I learned how to use a barbeque grill, light
matches, and light birthday candles. I was honestly terrified that Iíd set myself
on fire. Often, when I feel afraid of doing something now, I look back on learning
to grill and light candles, and I realize that itís okay to be afraid, but itís
not okay not to push myself and not to try.
As blind people we often feel nervous, afraid, or apprehensive about the way an employer or a colleague is going to perceive us, joining a gym, taking a belly-dancing class, or accepting a blind date. Learning that you can still get through something, even if it makes you very nervous, afraid, or uncomfortable, is a good skill for us to cultivate.
The final ingredient that makes the Louisiana center effective is that LCB staff constantly stress the importance of activism and giving back to the blind community and the community at large. Students are encouraged to get involved at all levels of the National Federation of the Blind and to help one another out as fellow students. But weíre also taught how important it is to give back to the community. Sometimes this means educating them about blindness. Throughout our time at the center students were tapped to speak to civic organizations, sororities and fraternities on the Louisiana Tech University campus, and senior citizensí organizations. Each week several students would be called to lead tours of the center for prospective students, community members, elementary school classes, and so on.
In order to graduate from Braille class and technology class, students had to use their Braille and technology skills to benefit the community in some way. Usually this involved Brailling menus for restaurants that didnít have them already or Brailling brochures or information packets for organizations that needed them. This involved obtaining the printed materials; scanning them; editing them using JAWS, the eighty-cell Braille display, and Braille translation software; and then embossing them and delivering them to the business that had requested the Braille materials. Aside from blindness-related service, students were encouraged to attend Red Cross blood drives, and the center had many relationships with other community organizations in which students could get involved. This spirit of activism taught students that we had been given the uncommon opportunity to attend one of the finest training centers in the country. Therefore we were expected to give back. I firmly believe that from one to whom much is given, much is required. The Louisiana center does much to instill this philosophy in its students.
In closing, I once heard someone say that all rehab centers do is teach people
the way to live more contentedly within the cages society has imposed on us.
Let the blindness training centers in America not be like that. Let our centers
do more than teach students the rudimentary skills they need to get by, to survive,
to manage, to live lives that are not as limited and hopeless as they once were.
I want to dare all of you to ensure that your training center is a place where
students learn to pursue their dreams, not simply to be less limited. None of
us was made to survive; we were made to be excellent. None of us was made to
get by; we were made to maximize and be good stewards of all of our God-given
strengths and talents. I want to dare all of you to ensure that your training
center is a place that pushes the envelope on what is considered possible for
people who are blind, a place that is a hotbed of advocacy and activism, and
a place that sees its mission to be a training camp, with the ultimate goal
that students enter the game and play to win.
Good morning. Participating in this conference has been a wonderful experience. As a student I had no idea how much thought and strategy goes into the independence training process. After learning so much about the methodology, it is clear to me how and why it made such a positive impact on my life.
When I attended the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) in 2002, I was about to finish my last year at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). I was fortunate to meet a rehabilitation counselor who gingerly persuaded me that learning some blindness skills before finishing my degree and going out into the world could benefit me. I was not totally convinced, however, because I was a student, simultaneously certain of my ability and full of doubts and questions. Even after I spoke with Julie Deden and heard the amazing description of the Colorado center curriculum and activities, I still did not understand what I needed to learn.
Before arriving in Littleton, I had never been given a cane or mobility training. I had never been taught a single dot of Braille. I did not like watching the movie, Jaws, let alone know how to use the program. I had never been called blind. By the time I got to college, I started hearing ďlegally blindĒ and ďlow visionĒ used to describe me because I could try to use huge print or magnification. Yes, I had readers to put my books on cassette, note-takers to provide copies of class notes, and people to enlarge copies of materials on eleven-by-seventeen-inch paper for me. Of course I had a lot of passing techniques and strategies for walking around relatively safely. Then again, the only other blind people I knew were students who seemed worse off than me because they asked people to help them all the time.
I thought it was better not to tell anyone that I could not see well. I had myself convinced that only my professors and note-takers should know why I needed a little bit more time and larger print. Fortunately (or so I thought at the time) the disabled student program counselor was great at helping me keep my secret as much as possible. I was definitely one of those blind guys--not blind enough for some people and too blind for other people. Perhaps that is why no one had talked to me about independence just yet.
In high school no one ever mentioned blindness. I was in an accident in seventh grade, and I lost a good chunk of vision. I made it through high school reading about seven words a minute with the paper about three inches from my face. I could not use a closed circuit television because the light made what was left of my vision worse. For me UC Berkeley was such a truly intense academic experience that after my fall freshman semester I began having seizures. It turned out that what was left of my vision was not stable and that there was additional neurological damage. (A nice side effect of seizures is not remembering the embarrassment of going blank while chopping broccoli at a street fair and falling directly into a pile of fluorescent light bulbs still in their boxes.)
Nevertheless, the continuing vision loss happened gradually so that I actually believed that the techniques I had developed for getting by were what I needed to be successful in life. Mostly I had thoroughly internalized negative stereotypes about blind people, and I was doing everything I could not to become a blind person. Needless to say, I was shocked when the sleepshades went on, the cane went into my hand, and I had no time to reconsider my informed choice.
I know that attending the Colorado Center for the Blind was the right decision because, when I left, I was immediately able to put all the nonvisual techniques to work that the independence training program had instilled in me. Before returning to Berkeley, I spent the summer doing research at Cornell University in the Mathematical Theoretical Biology Institute. I had attended this research program as a student in 2000 and again in 2001, but when I had the seizure at the end of 2001 that significantly decreased my vision, I thought I would not be able to work in math anymore. My professors and colleagues were supportive when I told them what had happened, but they were more supportive when I was able to accept their invitation to return to the program in the summer of 2002 after graduating from the Colorado Center for the Blind with a completely different outlook on life and my career.
In addition to doing research and helping the new students learn the basic techniques for solving differential equations and creating mathematical models of biological and behavioral systems, I was given the task of teaching the students how to create PowerPoint and poster presentations. This required a lot of problem solving, to say the least. I applied what I learned about JAWS and navigating through help menus in order to explain how to use the computer programs. I relied on my cane and travel skills when I went with the students to New York City for a weekend, and I chaperoned the less street-smart students around Times Square all night. When I had to model effective public speaking techniques, I relied on the confidence and poise that the NFB philosophy offers every blind person.
After graduating with a bachelorís degree in math, I returned to Oxnard, California. I began working at the California State University Channel Islands, (CSUCI) teaching math and study skills in the Educational Opportunity Program. In 2004 I entered the math masterís program, and I have taught math at CSUCI in three different programs: a computer literacy course for the computer science department, a residential summer program, and in the university committee to create the Chicano Studies Program. Of course the teaching and academic service all take place while I take more math courses to complete the masterís degree, which keeps me very busy when I am on campus. Given my attitude about blindness, blind people, and me just five years ago, I am amazed at what the Colorado Center for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have given me.
My job requires me to move quickly between classroom, office, off-campus, and back. Since CSUCI is a new institution, there is a different construction site or bus stop or barrier every week. This means that I am constantly exploring new routes and encountering different traffic patterns. If I had learned fixed routes and guided-travel techniques, I would not be able to work at this institution. I am able to do so only because the orientation and mobility training I received at the Colorado Center for the Blind taught me listening and mapping skills along with the way to take into account ever-changing environmental cues in order to travel confidently.
Additionally, to teach effectively in a college class, the instructor has to be able to gain the respect of the students. Being able to walk into the classroom and confidently locate the podium is just the first step. I bring the security that I gained from my travel skills into the classroom with me. I use my positive attitude about blindness and the entire NFB philosophy as tools to deal with classroom management issues that can be difficult for other instructors.
College can be a very lonely place for students, and I try to make some of the adjustments that I need to function prove equally effective and beneficial for my students as well. For example, since I cannot see my students, I make sure I learn their names quickly. I ask them to say their names each time they ask a question. I have found that this is a first step to fostering a supportive learning environment because they learn each otherís names. It helps them get used to speaking up in class and participating. Then I get to remind them that they will always know the answer to at least one question that I ask them in front of the class.
Another important element of teaching math at the college level is the ability to present the material in clear written formats. When I write on the white board, I use nonvisual techniques to keep track of where I still have free space. As I write, I use my left hand to find the top left corner of the board and write across from left to right with my right hand. As I get to the end of the board space, I know how far to go down by slyly counting the sections on the left side of the board so that I know where to start the next line. If I need to break the board space into sections, I place an eraser on the tray to mark the place where I want to keep the writing separated. My students realize quickly that there is no reason a blind math instructor cannot write mathematical expressions and lecture from the board. They just cannot expect me to erase and correct an error on the board. When I do make a written error, I use it as a teaching opportunity and get one of the students to go up to the board and work out the example. It helps them stay alert in class, and they end up getting more out of the lecture.
When I lecture, I also use a laptop and JAWS. While doing research with Cornell University, I learned a mathematical typesetting language called LaTeX in order to write research papers. At the Colorado Center for the Blind I spent my time in technology class learning about JAWS, and I was especially intrigued by the dictionary manager and scripting options. Now I can write in LaTeX easily, and, using JAWS, I can read LaTeX in class for lectures more easily than if I were using sight. I can also teach sighted students LaTeX faster than teaching them Nemeth code so that they can communicate with me directly and it can be written in any word processing environment, including email. Even the handouts I create for my lectures are written in LaTeX. This way the students get the typeset version which looks exactly like the math they are accustomed to seeing in a text book or on the board, and I read the LaTeX code directly off of the computer with JAWS. Additionally, creating exams and quizzes using LaTeX is easy. Then, when I need to correct homework assignments or exams, I can work with any reader because the format in which I read and write math is easily available. Another bonus to using LaTeX is that I can quickly get access to textbooks for teaching or studying. Further, if the text is not already available in LaTeX, it is cost effective to have it translated from print.
As much as I use JAWS, without Braille I would not be able to stay organized during lectures. I use Braille to keep track of announcements and other details. I keep my handouts labeled with notes in Braille so that I do not waste time in class trying to figure out which stack is which. In meetings I usually find it easier to use the BrailleNote or slate and stylus for note taking. Using headphones can make it difficult to hear everything going on, and some people have cognitive disabilities that make overhearing JAWS disruptive for them. I may not be the fastest Braille user, but Braille plays an important role in my job, and I only wish I had learned it sooner.
A unique aspect of working at CSUCI is how integrated technology is in the curriculum and the core mission statement. Every student is required to be computer literate. The technology-related skills I gained from the independence training program that have been most useful are not software- or hardware-specific. My problem-solving attitude and a willingness to explore and discover the way technology works and a desire to cultivate innovative uses for it are the most valuable skills that the Colorado Center for the Blind helped me develop. This is why I applied to teach computer literacy. I was sure that, if I could pass on some of what the CCB had taught me and help the students lose their fear of exploration, they would be well on their way to preparing themselves for all of the technology-related projects they will be required to complete before they graduate. When I tell them how I learned how to use all the different technology and computer programs, they know that they can learn them too.
The hardest lesson for me to learn while at the Colorado Center for the Blind was how to deal with societal stereotypes about blind people. This was probably because I had held on to so many of the fears and misconceptions myself. When someone would try to over-help me or the opposite, accuse me of not being blind enough to need Braille or a cane, I did not always have a graceful response. But now that I have had more time to live with the philosophy and experience of believing in the ability of blind people, it really does make a difference. I feel it. I do not believe that I could handle being challenged by students who want to know how they are going to learn math from a blind instructor if I did not believe that, when they give me the chance, I could quickly and certainly convince them that a blind person can be much more than a competent instructor. Without the strength of the NFB philosophy, I would have had a much more difficult time educating my department chair about why I hire nonmath majors as readers. I know that I need only their eyes and that I have the rest of the skills to do my job. So the best way to teach the other professors is to give them the chance to watch and learn.
Finally, the high expectations for my students that I carry into every class
are a reflection of the soaring expectations that Julie Deden and the rest of
the staff and students at the Colorado Center for the Blind had for me when
I was a student. I know, in my heart as much as in my head, that what I as a
blind person have been able to achieve is directly related to how much I believe
it is respectable to be blind. Passing on that conviction in the potential of
the human spirit through teaching is my way of honoring the commitment and the
philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. I do not think I am remarkable,