Braille Monitor                                                    October 2008

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Climbing Mountains, Changing Lives

by Daniel B. Frye and Barbara Pierce

A collage of three photos.
David Neitfeld, who loves climbing, addresses the difficult side of the rock with great enthusiasm and skill.
Barbara Pierce, Dan Frye, and Steve Scheel sit on a rock chatting while they wait their turns to climb.
At the end of the afternoon all the climbers posed for a group photograph. Left to right they are Steve Scheel, Brent Batron, Carlie Forsythe with dog (behind Brent), Nehemiah Hall, Michelle Williams, Barbara Pierce, Jennifer Maxwell, Dan Frye, Katie Watson, Julie Deden, Katy Todd, rock climbing guide in back, Luis Herrera seated on rock in front, Beth Allred (holding dog), Trent Matthews, Kathleen Taber, Steve Rarey (volunteer driver), and David Paullin.

Most people who travel to Colorado expect to be enchanted by the state’s blue skies, golden landscape, and dramatic and spectacular mountains. We too arrived in Colorado with these expectations; we were not disappointed. Barbara Pierce, Dan Frye, and Sylvia Cooley, photographer for this project and Braille Monitor secretary, traveled without incident to Littleton, Colorado, home of the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) to prepare the second in this series of three Monitor reports on NFB training centers.

We reached Denver on Sunday evening, June 15; picked up our rental car; and made our way to the Fairfield Inn, a lovely hotel about twenty minutes from the CCB, where we stayed during our four-day visit. Rested and ready, we made our way to the CCB on Monday morning, eager to learn about the center’s programs and practices.

Staff and students in the CCB’s Independence Training Program (ITP), the center’s general adult rehabilitation curriculum, routinely gather at eight o’clock in the large meeting room for morning announcements. This Monday was no exception. CCB Executive Director Julie Deden warmly welcomed the Monitor staff and made other announcements of general interest. During this time anybody with something to say is invited to share the news with the group. Before adjourning for classes, in separate roll calls students and staff announce their presence in alphabetical order by last name. Useful as this information is, the exercise often seems to provide even more good-humored fun. Informed and energized, everybody breaks for classes at 8:10 a.m.

Julie DedenThat morning we made our way to Julie’s office for a brief meeting before joining some of the staff and students for a day-long rock-climbing and mountain-hiking adventure at Eldorado Canyon State Park, located just west of Boulder. Julie explained during this quick orientation that the CCB opened in January 1988 with three staff ready to train their first five students. Today the CCB has twenty part-time or full-time staff people and currently serves between twenty and twenty-five students in its ITP program and blind seniors and others in its secondary programs. Before moving into its current facility, a thirty-thousand square foot former YMCA on four acres of land, the center was housed successively at two other sites (buildings on Broadway and Acoma) in downtown Denver. With the generous support of Arapahoe County community development funds, the current building has been extensively remodeled to meet the center’s needs. Installing an elevator was the first major building upgrade, and subsequent projects have included creating two training kitchens, a senior resource center, a Braille library, a wood shop, customized classrooms, and the Legacy Garden described elsewhere in this issue.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of NFB-based training is our emphasis on challenge recreation--unconventional activities or outings that teach blindness skills; strengthen self-confidence; promote interaction with the general public; and foster fun, fellowship, and informal mentoring among students. Since the center’s inception, CCB leaders have capitalized on its location by incorporating activities that take full advantage of Colorado’s natural resources. Rock climbing, rappelling, mountain hiking, and whitewater rafting are staples of CCB student challenge recreation during the summer; skiing and other snow sports dominate confidence-building exercises during the winter.

Soon after nine o’clock on our first day, we joined about half of the ITP students; Julie Deden; Brent Batron, cane travel instructor; Jennifer Maxwell, technology instructor; and Kathleen Taber, home management instructor, for a day-long rock-climbing and mountain-hiking adventure. Packed lunches and sunscreen in hand, we piled into several vans (Big Red is the center’s fifteen-passenger van that carried most of the staff and students) for the hour drive to Eldorado Canyon State Park, where CCB staff and students have been climbing and hiking for years.

The day was blue and beautiful but cool for June. Woody, Amanda, Richie, and Karen were the National Sports Center for the Disabled program staff members. They met us at our vans and soon had us harnessed, helmeted, and shod for climbing the several rock faces that had been equipped with ropes for technical rock climbing. (See the lead photo of Woody anchoring the ropes for our climb.)

Two of the staff were new summer interns, inexperienced at working with blind people. They expressed reservations about having us belay each other, but after Julie’s explanation and gentle persuasion, they grasped the importance of having students actively involved in all aspects of the rock-climbing experience. Woody and his team worked with each individual on climbing and belaying (the skill of managing the rope that connects the climber’s harness to the anchor at the top of the rock and protects him or her from falling). Some CCB students were new and nervous; others were experienced and enthusiastic. Some climbed tentatively; others scaled the rock like aggressive spiders crawling up almost vertical rock faces. No matter the climber’s skill, both belayers and those waiting their turn cheered and encouraged them as they climbed.

Students at the CCB use the long white cane during all aspects of their formal training. Center policy, however, does allow students who use guide dogs to keep their service animals resting near them during the training day. They usually keep their dogs in the quiet of the Braille library or, if they prefer, in the corner of the classroom where they are working. In this way center students can attend to the animals’ needs throughout the day and may work them at lunch and on breaks. On day-long outings such as rock climbing trips, however, students are allowed to bring their guide dogs with them so that they can personally manage their needs. On this occasion two students brought their dogs. The foregoing generally describes the CCB guide dog use policy, but, as with any practice, individual circumstances are always taken into consideration and may result in slight variations for a particular student.

Following lunch beside a chatty little river winding through the park, students chose whether to continue climbing or to join Brent and the Braille Monitor team for a hike on a mountain trail. Our path was rated as moderately difficult. The excursion required careful footing and good cane technique, but we all returned exhilarated and relaxed after a pleasant stroll in one of nature’s most idyllic spaces. As is almost always the case, both students and staff returned to the vans commenting that the day had been successful and that the experiences on the rocks and hiking trails had affirmed again our belief in our capacity as competent blind people.

CCB literature characterizes the ITP program as “an innovative training center for blind individuals who wish to develop and expand the alternative skills needed to function independently.” Center literature further explains, “At the CCB it is understood that skills alone are not enough. The key to being successful as a blind person lies in developing self-confidence. Each student’s program is designed to prepare him or her to become an independent, self-supporting member of society.”

Following our Monday in the mountains, we spent two full days observing classes and general center activities. We were left with the impression that the high expectations of the staff were equal to the center’s mission of improving the lives of its students. This cohesive team—as much friends as colleagues—consulted one another about best practices for teaching alternative blindness skills. They looked for ways of incorporating their discipline-specific subjects into one another’s classes. Brent and Kathleen, for instance, talked over a social dinner on Tuesday evening about how they could combine a travel lesson with the necessary shopping for a home management assignment.

We dipped in and out of classes for a glimpse at what was going on and being taught at any given time. The typical CCB student, however, follows a set course schedule, which provides structure and definition to the training day. CCB managers have devised an unconventional student-class-scheduling matrix designed to enhance practical learning through longer instructional periods for travel, home management, and industrial arts. Classes are divided into instructional blocks in the morning or afternoon half of the training day. Grouped together, Braille, technology, and organizational skills are hour-long classes five days a week. Travel, home management, and industrial arts are the second class grouping. Once a week students receive one session each of long travel and long home management, a class using the entire morning or afternoon. During a third day students receive ninety-minute sessions of travel and home management, each lasting half the morning or afternoon session. The remaining two days students receive ninety-minute classes in travel and industrial arts, again splitting the morning or afternoon. Finally, each student takes blindness philosophy class four days a week and jobs class one day a week, each for forty-five minutes.

Dan Frye and Barbara Pierce examine a kitchen of a student apartment.CCB students can deviate from this complex schedule for occasional sets of confidence-building courses in art and martial arts. Such classes meet once a week for five or six weeks, and students miss a core lesson in order to take them. Additionally students who need intensive home management support leave classes for as much as a half day a week to work one-on-one with the residential manager in their individual apartments on cooking, cleaning, or other home maintenance. Finally, students sometimes have challenge recreation outings and other ad hoc programs. The frenetic feel associated with the absence of a consistent routine may have its disadvantages, but all of the varied activities featured in the CCB program are designed to teach real-world blindness skills and to reinforce progressive attitudes about blindness.

First thing Tuesday morning David Nietfeld, a student soon to graduate from the center program and now manager of the residential apartments, gave us a comprehensive tour of the refurbished YMCA building. He led us from class to class, where each instructor offered a general description of his or her class. Now oriented, we set out to explore the center and its programs.

The Pinnacle at Mountain Gate apartmentsCCB students live at the Pinnacle at Mountain Gate, a complex of spacious apartments in Littleton, about five miles from the center. We toured one of the two-bedroom student apartments. It was well appointed and nicely maintained, so that these 1,093-square-foot apartment homes are also active teaching laboratories for independent living skills. Center staff periodically inspect student apartments to ensure that they are clean and that the students are applying their skills there. CCB students have ample opportunity for after-hours exercise and recreation. The apartment complex has a state-of-the-art workout facility and swimming pool and is only minutes away from shopping, dining, and other local attractions. Following orientation, students use a combination of light rail and city bus to make the five-mile commute to and from the center each morning and afternoon. Traveling every day between the center and the residential apartments is a real-world mobility lesson for students.

Tom Anderson works with four students.Our visit to the Braille class was highly instructive. Tom Anderson, Braille instructor since the center first opened its doors twenty years ago, casually attended to the needs and demands of four students with different levels of experience and ability reading and writing Braille. At one moment Tom was delivering a simulated college lecture to a student who was to take notes on its content with her slate and stylus. Moments later he was dictating sentences that were to be written down word-for-word by another student who was developing slate and stylus skills. He asked a third student, a beginner, to read aloud from his Braille text, and a fourth student, an experienced Braille reader, was working on increasing his reading speed through silent reading of a novel, which he was ultimately to summarize for Tom. With quiet confidence he responded to student questions, administered his teaching exercises, and effectively dealt with a variety of classroom needs in such a way that Braille instruction remained the focus for everybody during the hour.

Jennifer MaxwellChip Johnson and Jennifer Maxwell teach access technology at the CCB. Throughout our visit we observed students practicing diverse skills, from learning basic keyboarding technique to mastering the use of JAWS to access Microsoft Office PowerPoint and Excel. The CCB technology curriculum covers other skills such as using email and the Internet, working with Windows XP, using scanners, and operating Braille displays and embossers.

Shelley Bruns teaches Carry Joanis to iron a shirt while Beth Allred waits her turn.CCB managers have fashioned a catchall class called organizational skills with a variety of daily tasks that might be lost or forgotten in a conventional home management curriculum. Students must apply the full range of blindness skills to master the interdisciplinary course content in the organizational skills class. When we visited, Shelley Bruns, organizational skills instructor, was working with students on clothes labeling, sewing on a button, and ironing. She customizes this class to meet the needs of each student. A college-bound teenager may devote time to administrative tasks, including methods for paying bills, managing money, and sharpening study skills. Another student may learn how to research and execute the necessary steps for making personal appointments, reaching these appointments on time, dressing for these occasions, and comporting oneself appropriately. Executive Director Julie Deden explained during our interview that one of her primary objectives is to see that CCB graduates exit the program with knowledge of practical blindness skills for survival and independence.

Dan Frye, Barbara Pierce, Kishia Mason, and Brent Batron leave the light rail station on their way to find the public library.We accompanied Brent Batron and two students on a cane travel lesson on Wednesday afternoon of our visit. Brent told the students to get us from the center to the public library in a neighboring community, which required some walking and a brief journey on the light rail system. Brent purposefully questioned these beginning students about cardinal directions; the significance of traffic sounds; the importance of landmarks; use of the light rail system; and the value and feel of echoes and other changes in the environment created by buildings, open spaces, and different walking surfaces. In short his technique balanced direct teaching and independent student exploration, applying the structured-discovery method used at NFB centers.

Meanwhile we watched Steve DeKruger, another cane travel instructor, work with several students to research a route by coaching their call to RTD, the public transportation system for the Greater Denver area. One student explained the route to the operator and posed appropriate questions to get the necessary bus route and schedule information. The second student used her slate and stylus to take down this information. As we observed this exercise, Steve explained that, in order to graduate from the CCB, students are required to complete the “monster route,” an outing that requires them to travel to at least four destinations in different communities using public transportation. He reminisced about a student who traveled to four restaurants in different parts of the Denver area for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.

Julee Mullen works with a Business Enterprise student in the kitchen.We spent a portion of one morning watching Kathleen Taber, home management instructor, work with students to prepare picnic lunches for a whitewater rafting trip later in the week. Kathleen juggled working with one student on chopping and bagging vegetables while helping others bake a cake, fry chicken, and make sandwiches. This work was quite an undertaking since most of the CCB’s adult and summer students were being fed. Kathleen even took a few moments to offer Barbara Pierce some instruction on a nifty nonvisual technique for cutting wax paper into a circle for lining a cake pan. Barbara reports that she has used this skill with great success since leaving Colorado. Kathleen and her students coordinate their schedules to share one of the newly renovated commercial kitchens with students in the Business Enterprise Training Program that the CCB also operates. Because these programs work in concert, CCB students receive a thorough grounding in using a well-equipped and spacious kitchen. Before students graduate from the home management course, they must prepare a meal for the entire center using the commercial-sized kitchen. The CCB contracts with the state vocational rehabilitation agency to administer the Business Enterprise Training Program. Four BE students are currently enrolled, and Julee Mullen directs their training. While we were there, the BE students prepared and served a full lunch and breakfast that staff and students could purchase; we enjoyed the lunch Wednesday, but the breakfast was unfortunately Thursday morning, after our departure.

A cherry jewelry case with fitted trayMerle Schippert, industrial arts instructor, showed us around the recently constructed woodshop, located on the center’s bottom floor. As in the Louisiana Center industrial arts course, students are required to demonstrate basic competence at measuring and drilling by creating a grid block, a small square of wood with intersecting horizontal and vertical lines cut into the surface of the wooden piece. Once familiar with safety procedures and the common tools of the trade, students define and complete a personal project. Merle allows them to build anything they can reasonably imagine. We examined several jewelry boxes, some humidors, a couple of clocks, and a few desk organizers specially fitted to accommodate slates and styluses. These attractive student products were made out of high-quality cherry, maple, or oak. Merle made it plain that the real goal of his class was to help cultivate a true sense of self-confidence among students who would not otherwise believe that blind people could safely produce craftsman-like results.

Doris Willoughby and Melissa Heck prepare for the GED.CCB students needing remedial academic support have access to Doris Willoughby, a gifted and experienced academic skills instructor who consults with the center as needed. During our visit we observed Doris working with Melissa, a recent center graduate, to prepare for the GED. Doris drilled Melissa on complex mathematical concepts. Melissa answered all of Doris’s questions flawlessly. In this case, Doris had her using a talking calculator and Braille to manage the math being studied. Doris uses a variety of tools to make academic materials accessible to blind students. Unlike many teachers of the blind, she clearly demands a lot from her students and has high expectations for their performance. We are pleased to report that later in the summer Melissa passed her GED with high scores.

Philosophy class is a forty-five-minute discussion every day in which staff and students discuss and explore fundamental social and emotional issues about blindness, unlike other adjustment-to-blindness training centers that hold longer, less frequent seminars. CCB leaders have found that this schedule works well for keeping a lively dialogue going among seminar participants. Staff and students share rotating responsibility for facilitating discussions. During our visit we conducted a philosophy class, in which we told our personal stories as a means of emphasizing the importance of the Federation and its philosophy in the lives of well-adjusted blind people. Twice a week Brenda Mosby, vocational specialist, conducts a forty-five-minute jobs class in which students are introduced to résumé writing, interviewing, searching for targeted work opportunities, and more.

This article has mentioned by name most of the CCB instructional staff, but the entire administrative staff of the center is also familiar with and invested in the spirit and mission of the program. Carol Elzi, administrative coordinator to the executive director; Robert Dyson, receptionist; Kimberley Johnson, student services coordinator; and Jennifer Stevens, director of community outreach, each play a vital role in making the center the special and effective vehicle for training that it is. When Robert, who is stationed at the hub of CCB activities at the front desk, coaches a disoriented student looking for his class, he is teaching. When Carol notices and addresses a student not using her cane or violating the sleepshade policy, she is teaching. When Kimberley works with a student to advocate for rehabilitation funding or to arrange for an individual service, she is teaching. It is that intangible mix of CCB staff, roles, and personalities that creates the unique dynamic known as the CCB experience.

The renovated Littleton train depot now includes a gift shop and a coffee shop.While Littleton is a suburb of Denver, it has its own identity and small-town feel. We toured the local downtown to get a sense of the community atmosphere, visiting a local candy shop, a spice store, a restored train station that houses Metro offices, and a few local restaurants. The CCB is a well-known part of the community. Several local merchants told us that they regularly receive business from CCB staff and students. The most telling testament to the positive influence of the CCB on the mindset of Littleton residents comes from the story of the local policeman who told a student in training that she was just cheating herself by lifting her shades while on a travel lesson. The officer is said to have offered this simple observation and then moved on. The student in question was left with something to think about, and the CCB leaders were able to celebrate the fact that the important work of the center was being absorbed—one person at a time—in Littleton. This simple reminder that such little victories ultimately lead to large triumphs is what keeps the staff at the CCB, and all of our Federation centers for that matter, motivated to continue their life-changing work on behalf of people needing solid adjustment-to-blindness training.

 

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