Braille Monitor May 2008
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by Barbara Pierce and Daniel B. Frye
Our travel plans for our visit to the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) were fine in theory: do a half day’s work in our offices in Oberlin and Baltimore, leave for the airport in the early afternoon, meet in Atlanta by six, and arrive in Monroe, Louisiana, at 7:30 that evening in time to pick up our rental car and drive to Ruston for a good night’s sleep before walking to the center with the students Wednesday morning. The problems began in Atlanta, which is the transfer point for Monroe from most cities in the United States, including Cleveland and Baltimore. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport closed for about a half hour that afternoon, but the back-ups that delay caused took the rest of the day to untangle. Both our flights were hours late, so we were relieved to learn when we landed that the flight to Monroe had been postponed almost two hours as well. We rendezvoused in the gate area of the Monroe flight, Barbara and Sylvia from Ohio and Dan from Maryland.
As the hours crept by, Sylvia, Barbara’s secretary and for this project both photographer and driver, decided to check on the rental car she had ordered for pick-up in Monroe. She was told quite casually that because of the storm they had no more cars at the airport; we were out of luck. So Dan swung into action, and within five minutes he had rented a car from Avis and had a promise from the staff person in Monroe that he would wait till our flight arrived, even though it was due to land a little while after the desk was scheduled to close. In the end we did not take off till after midnight Eastern time and did not land in Monroe until nearly one a.m. Central. As we waited to deplane, we speculated about whether or not Avis would still be open, and, if it was closed, how we would get to Ruston. We decided on a taxi, no matter the price rather than disturbing any of the Louisiana Center folks.
At that point the woman standing in the aisle in front of us turned around and said that she was going to the far side of Ruston. She asked if we were going to LCB and offered all three of us and our luggage a ride. She explained that she has volunteered as a reader at the center and that everyone in Ruston loves the LCB folks. This exchange made it clear, if we had had any doubt, that we had arrived in a small southern town.
We were glad to receive this spontaneous testimonial to the standing of the LCB in the community, and we were deeply grateful for the offer of a ride. We explained that we felt obligated to use the rental car if the Avis man had stayed open for us. She agreed to wait to be sure that we had been taken care of. After a bit of a struggle, we got our car and bid farewell to our very own Good Samaritan. Ruston is located about forty minutes from Monroe, so it was almost 2:30 in the morning before we picked up the key to the apartment designated for our use from Janette Woodard, the apartment manager, who had been waiting patiently for us for many hours. We walked into a warm, beautifully appointed four-bedroom apartment with a fully equipped kitchen. Sylvia and Barbara claimed the upstairs bedrooms and baths while Dan moved into one of the downstairs bedrooms. We agreed that, having driven from Monroe in the middle of the night, Syl should sleep in a bit and bring the car to the center midmorning, but Dan and Barbara, who are well used to going without sleep and even meals when Federation work is to be done, got up in time to have breakfast from the provisions specially laid in for their use and then join the students at 7:45 for the walk to the center. Janette assured us that we were welcome to get a ride from Jerry Darnell (JD), who stops at the apartments each morning to pick up brand new students or those with medical reasons for riding. But we were there to observe the LCB experience, so we slipped out the door and crossed the street, hoping that we would find some students to show us the way to the center. We need not have worried. Several had gathered, and Aisha, who is fairly close to graduating from the program, took the lead on the way to the center, describing what we were passing and how to tell which streets we were crossing.
The day at LCB begins for everyone with a brief gathering at 8:00 in the second-floor library. Miss Neita (Ghrigsby), the office manager, calls roll, and center director Pam Allen makes announcements. She then rings the indoor freedom bell if there are any landmark accomplishments to be celebrated. For example, while we were there the bell was rung for one student who was leaving after some weeks of intensive training and for two students who had ordered airline tickets online for the first time. Other staff members and students can also make announcements. Then, after listening to the word of the day with definition, the fact of the day, and the thought for the day, everyone scatters to his or her assigned work.
The day is divided into four two-hour blocks and a one-hour lunch period: 8:10-10:00, 10:10-noon, lunch till one, 1:00-3:00, and 3:00-5:00. Each student has an individual schedule and is responsible for being at each class at the correct time. Students who are tempted to skip classes or tend to be tardy find their small monthly stipends docked. This rule adds a real-world inducement to developing habits of punctuality and organization. The system seems to work well. Braille and computers/keyboarding share one two-hour block of time; travel, shop and home maintenance, and home ec and daily living skills each get two hours a day. Twice a week everyone gathers for seminar—a time when the group wrestles with the basic, sometimes painful issues of blindness. Remedial coursework, college preparation, and job readiness classes are worked in as appropriate. Students often complete their shop and home ec projects early, which allows them to devote that time to the classes requiring extra effort. We were impressed at how dedicated students were to getting where they needed to be on time and settling right down to work. We never observed students standing around or wasting time.
The first order of business for us was a tour of the entire facility. Our guide was a student who had been at the center since January. She was quite knowledgeable, but every instructor was also happy to answer questions, and students seemed pleased to demonstrate what they were doing. It is obvious that lots of visitors tour the center. The best way to communicate what we found at the Louisiana Center for the Blind is to describe the various classes we observed. The resulting report may seem excessively anecdotal, but our clear impression is that what we observed during these three days was reflective of the ongoing activity at the LCB week in and week out.
Braille Class: Jerry Whittle, the Braille teacher, sits at a long table in a fairly small room on the second floor. An Arkansas black whetstone and lots of Braille documents litter the table in front of him. Students use the whetstone to sharpen styluses. Stacked and shelved around the room are volumes and volumes of Braille that the center has acquired over the years. Jerry, like all the instructors, is a sort of juggler. His students come and go. They drop in with questions and problems. At any given moment he may be timing the reading speed of a student or two, assigning a couple of people the task of writing out a list of things that make them mad or musicians they admire or foods they do not care for—anything that provides a topic to write about. The object is to give them practice writing with a slate and stylus. He might also be dictating one-line sentences from memory to a student to determine how rapidly he or she takes dictation with a slate.
Through it all Jerry remains calm and organized. Sometimes students read aloud; other times they are asked to read silently. We did not actually observe him teaching the Braille code to anyone, but as he came across interesting signs, he pointed out unusual configurations and illustrations of rare rules. He was matter-of-fact and accurate in pointing out errors made, but encouraging as he sent people back to work. Once a week Jerry conducts a college preparation class for those getting ready to enroll in courses at Louisiana Tech University. He may use the time to discuss study techniques or to deliver an impromptu lecture on something like the literary masterpieces of William Faulkner, expecting the students to take detailed notes with slate and stylus, of course. Students who raise their Braille reading speed to over 300 words a minute or who meet some other impressive personal Braille-connected goal receive a whittle stick, a wonderful walking stick that Jerry has smoothed and whittled into a unique token of his esteem. His wife Merilynn, who is something of an expert in gems and stones, sets a decorative stone in the top of each one.
Industrial Arts and Home Maintenance: The wood-working shop now occupies space in a building across a quiet side street beside the main building. This is Jerry Darnell’s kingdom. Working with JD is James Mays, who graduated himself from the center several years ago. Before his blindness James held a job that required him to measure metal parts with extreme accuracy and build his own machines. Now he teaches LCB students to measure wood and operate the shop equipment safely, and together they design student projects.
JD and James do all the teaching in the shop rather than depending on more advanced students to show new ones the ropes. The curriculum requires that each student complete two important projects: creating grid blocks and making a number of Braille blocks. They keep working on these projects until they have mastered the accurate measuring (within a thirty-second of an inch) and operation of the router, sander, saws of various types, and other wood-working equipment that the students’ final projects will require.
Central to accurate measuring for LCB students is the click rule, a clever gadget about a foot long. Extensions to the rule allow one to measure larger distances, but half of the basic foot-long rule is divided into sixteenth-inch lengths with a mechanism that makes an audible and tactile click at each division and stops unless intentionally pushed further. With practice a blind person can measure distances to a thirty-second of an inch accuracy.
In addition to observing students working on grid blocks and Braille blocks, we examined and admired a number of final student projects. One was a two-inch-thick red oak front door, made to grace a home in New Orleans which was destroyed by Katrina, before its three-hundred-pound bulk could be hung. Now it awaits hanging at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Another magnificent project presented to the center is a seven-foot grandfather clock that stands in the entryway of the center’s main building. Most students take their mantle clocks, jewelry chests, tables, shoe organizers, or other projects home with them as a permanent remembrance of what they have accomplished.
Attached to the woodshop is a small area where students master home-maintenance skills like repairing toilets, opening a sink trap to retrieve objects that went down the drain, dealing with a breaker box, and other such useful skills. Barbara asked JD if he teaches students to change a washer in a water tap. His response was typical of the attitude of the staff: “Not usually. Students can often problem-solve their way through such tasks by the time we are finished with them, but, if a student wants to learn how to do a specific task, I will be glad to teach the skill.”
Home Ec and Home Management: On the center’s second floor are two kitchens across the hall from each other. One has a dining room behind it. This area is where some of the most spectacularly enjoyable and down-to-earth of the center’s activities take place. One morning while we were there, in Merilynn Whittle’s kitchen one student was learning to make pancakes under Kelly Womack’s supervision. He had a bit of trouble at the beginning flipping the pancakes in the pan halfway through the cooking process, but he had no trouble at all sitting down to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Another student was assembling a carrot cake using a recipe recorded on cassette tape. A third student was doing the final preparation of his meal for eight, which he served in the dining room at noon. He had made the dessert (grasshopper pie) the day before. This morning he was making cheese and garlic biscuits, chicken cordon bleu, corn on the cob, and tossed salad.
Across the hall in Jeff Pearcy’s kitchen a student was mastering the intricacies of bread baking, and another was preparing to make ice cream in a portable ice cream freezer.
The first day of our visit we were lucky enough to be invited to Pete’s meal for forty. This is every student’s final cooking project, and Pete was justifiably proud of the results. He served two variations of Hungarian goulash along with a big tossed salad, jalapeno cornbread, and brownies for dessert. These large buffet lunches serve as training for more than the cook. Many blind people have never been expected to serve themselves from a buffet table. So a staff member, in this case Kelly, stationed herself on the back side of the buffet line. She was there to identify items and provide advice about pouring salad dressing, juggling a salad bowl and a paper plate, and transferring a serving of anything from the pot to a plate.
Her advice was so appropriate and was delivered so calmly and quietly that the students obviously found it easy to take and benefit from. Sometimes students try making excuses to avoid the dreaded buffet line: I don’t care for that dish; I’m not hungry. The staff never forces students to eat a meal if they don’t wish to, but, if they themselves don’t choose to eat they must go through the line and gather a meal for one of the staff members who is busy doing something else. By the time we got to the buffet table, it was clear that several spilling accidents had occurred, but no one was perturbed. Barbara asked who had the job of washing the floor. The answer was immediate. Students who needed practice washing dishes might be assigned to help with the cleanup of the mountain of dishes required to prepare a delicious meal like this one, but washing the floor would be Pete’s job.
Cooking is hardly the only activity that goes on in the kitchens. One afternoon Jeff worked with several male students on tying neckties. Another day Merilynn Whittle was directing a student who was learning to put a belt back on a vacuum cleaner. At the same time she was supervising a student who was practicing handwriting since everyone should be able to form all the print letters and write his or her signature. Several students were working hard with computer programs drilling them in math facts. Pam Allen laughed wryly as she explained that many rehabilitation professionals dismiss the results of the NFB adult training centers. Their explanation is that our centers take only the cream of the rehabilitation crop—those students who would do well no matter how demanding or undemanding the training center was and get on with their lives after returning home. We observed some obviously bright LCB students who were clearly already successful, but we met and talked with many others who are dealing with multiple disabilities and deficits. The realities they were coping with were not about to slow them down. All the students held high expectations for themselves and for each other. They were clearly prepared to support and cheer each other. They were helpful and constructive with one another but resisted the temptation to provide inappropriate assistance or information. Everyone with whom we spoke understood that high expectations for themselves and everyone else are the order of every day at an NFB training center.
Computer training/keyboarding: Directly beneath the kitchens—not an ideal location when plumbing problems occur—are the computer labs. Josh Boudreaux and Jewel Ardoin preside over activity in these rooms. With their calm advice and suggestions students practice keyboarding skills and search for information on the Internet, order products, do research, exchange email, create PowerPoint presentations, and master the finer points of word processing. Just sitting there listening provided us with some tips on formatting documents. The staff had already acquired a knfbReader Mobile, which they were learning to use.
This brings us to cane travel, perhaps the most spectacular element of NFB center training. Students get two hours a day of structured-discovery travel training. Frequently, (but only after the instructor is sure the student is ready) students receive instructions to go out on travel routes by themselves. The three travel instructors are currently Arlene Hill, Roland Allen, and Darick Williamson, who also teaches at Louisiana Tech. They are very careful to give a full description of the route and to have the student repeat the directions and answer questions about it to demonstrate their mastery of the assignment. However, often the instructor goes out with the student. On our first day Arleen was getting ready to walk back to the student apartments with a new student. She was preparing him for the day soon when he will make the trip in the morning on his own. The day we left, seven or eight students and some of the travel instructors were headed for Monroe in a freak snow storm to work on bus travel—Ruston does not have any city buses.
Late Wednesday afternoon we trailed Adam on a two-mile travel route with Roland Allen. It was anything but a stroll in the park. We of course had no idea where we were going, so we couldn’t have cheated by helping Adam even if we had wanted to. Roland left to run an errand for us during part of this route. Adam went too far before making a turn. When Roland found us, he asked several pointed questions, and when Adam had formulated a theory about where he might have gone wrong, he led us back the way we had come to check out his theory and get back on track. When we returned to Roland’s office, teacher and student sat down together to have Adam analyze what had gone well and where he had let his insecurities lead him into errors. Throughout this exercise Roland was quiet, positive, and affirming. Adam must have left the center that afternoon feeling good about his performance and about what he had taught Barbara and Dan about demanding travel training.
We have already mentioned that students show remarkable initiative in doing their work. One student took justifiable pride in telling us the story of a morning when he forgot something he needed during the first class. He had reached the center before he remembered what he had done. He immediately turned around and raced back to his apartment, grabbed the item, and trotted back the half mile to the center. He had missed the announcements, but he was on time for class. In our three-day visit we never heard an excuse. Instructors are friendly and accessible, but they don’t waste time, and they structure their classes so that students don’t have to waste their time waiting for attention.
Ruston is a town of somewhat over twenty-one thousand with an additional ten- to eleven-thousand students at Louisiana Tech University. The townspeople are friendly and might be tempted to undermine the center’s efforts to teach its travel students to be independent and to figure out the best course of action when they are uncertain what to do, except that, throughout LCB’s twenty-three years of existence, the staff has worked steadily to be a good corporate citizen and to educate the community about what and how the students are learning. The result is that LCB students are welcome as customers in community businesses. Moreover, residents watch with interest and pride as they see students hone their skills through the months of their programs. They have been known to comment to staff members on what they have observed, and one suspects that they now educate each other about when to intervene—when a student might be in real danger—and when to stand back and let students gather the necessary data to resolve their problems.
There are clearly disadvantages in having the center located in small-town America: no buses or rapid transit easily at hand, an absence of truly complex traffic patterns, no mobs of shoppers or sports fans to negotiate. Yet the LCB staff has found ways to introduce such challenges to the students. Besides many benefits accrue from living and working in a quaint and lovely community comprised of friendly people. In a small town thirty students constitute something of a market force. Cashiers automatically count out change by identifying the bills. Most things are in walking distance. Students really can become part of community life.
To spend a few days in Ruston and at the Louisiana Center for
the Blind is to want to return, perhaps in another season to appreciate the
community in another mood. While we were there, the baskets hanging from lampposts
were filled with blooming pansies. When the temperature rises in a few weeks,
what flowers will replace them? Later this spring Ruston will conduct a peach
festival. Navigating the booths, displays, and hoards of visitors will provide
new challenges for the students. The Louisiana Center has made a place for itself
in Ruston. Students and staff have mastered the art of southern hospitality.
On the day we said good-bye, students and staff members repeatedly stopped us
to invite us to return and to assure us how much they had enjoyed the seminar
we had conducted the preceding afternoon. As we tried to find the words to thank
Pam Allen for the hospitality we had received, she responded by saying that
she was only grateful that we had had an opportunity to glimpse the miracle
that they watch unfold every day. We understood exactly what she was talking