by Hannah Adams
From the Editor: The following article is reprinted with permission from the May-June 2009 issue of LifeGlow, a magazine published by Christian Record Services of Lincoln, Nebraska. Though the Nebraska adult training center is not operated by the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska, Federationists are active in its administration and operation, and the NFB’s philosophy of blindness and belief in the abilities of blind people shines through in this story. Here it is:
Fear would have driven many out of the room—sighted and blind alike. Not Alex. Smooth pieces of wood taken from a poplar tree wait on the table before him. Wood essence permeates the surrounding area jumbled with equipment—a band saw, table saw, drill press, and many other woodworking tools sit ready for use.
The Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired doesn't kid around. Empowering people who are blind, promoting opportunities, and building belief in oneself is more than just the organization's motto. "We want people to be totally confident in their life, not just pass by," says Fatos Floyd, director of the Nebraska Center for the Blind, a part of the Commission. "Anybody can pass by. But are we on this earth for that? I'm not."
Teaching woodshop skills (see cover photo), an area that often creates anxiety, is only one of many services offered by the commission. "If I can run a power tool, I can do anything," Floyd laughs. But thirty-four years ago Floyd couldn't run a power tool—or even function independently in day-to-day situations. The summer before she was to start at Bosphorus University in Turkey, two brain surgeries left her completely blind. Unwilling to give away her hard-earned spot at the institution, Floyd pressed ahead and graduated a few years later with a double major in psychology and teaching. "After I finished, I realized I was one of the most educated, but most illiterate persons in Turkey," she recalls. "I couldn't read and write, and I was functionally illiterate."
Moving to America, Floyd attended what was then called Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind, now Lions World Services for the Blind. By age twenty-four she had learned basic life skills, including Braille—opening up an entire new world for her to experience. For the past fourteen years Floyd has directed the Nebraska center to give others a similar chance at a self-sufficient life.
“Society in general believes that blindness is something to be feared, that blind people are helpless and hopeless," Floyd explains. "There are a lot of misconceptions. So, if we live in such a society, we begin to believe these things. We need to educate. It is not out of negativity that people say that blind people are helpless and hopeless—it is out of ignorance. People do not understand how a blind person will live a productive life."
Blind individuals are shattering stereotypes. Erik Weihenmayer, blind since the age of thirteen, has climbed the seven highest mountains in the world. In 1997 he got married at the height of 13,000 feet on Mount Kilimanjaro. In England private pilot Jim O'Neill was blinded due to a sudden stroke while flying. However, he was able to safely land his aircraft with aid from the Royal Air Force.
"We have people doing really interesting jobs, jobs that people might think you need vision to do," Floyd says. "The only jobs that I do believe blind people cannot do are truck driving and car driving. We know that blind people can do things. The reason they're not isn't blindness. Society believes the myths and misconceptions about blind people."
It isn't easy changing society's views. Movies and books portray people who are blind as incompetent. As the visually impaired are a minority, the sighted don't often meet a person who is blind or get to see how successful many truly are. Ignorance harms all involved, even in the form of compliments. "We forget you're blind, because you act so natural," Floyd was told during a meeting with other master's-level professionals. "Well, I forget you're a woman because you drive so well," she shot back.
Floyd says that, before offering a supposed compliment, people should think about what they're getting ready to say. "When you make a comment about blind people, if you just change the blindness to another minority—woman or Jewish or whatever—then you begin to realize it's really not a compliment that you're saying. It's really putting that group down," the center director explains.
In Lincoln people who are blind work hard at changing, not only perceptions, but also their own lives. Considered one of the top four centers in the United States, the Nebraska Center for the Blind is a busy place. Ninety percent of the clients live in apartments downtown and commute each day to the center, where their training course may last anywhere from nine to twelve months. How do they make it to and from the center?
Jeff Altman, a tower beside the tiny, vivacious Floyd, trains students in cane travel techniques. Clients learn everything from basic long cane use to locating street addresses and using Lincoln's bus system. Altman doesn't teach specific routes, such as going to the post office. Instead he gives clients skills they can use anywhere.
"Jeff has a good analogy. Imagine us dropping you with a parachute in Turkey. You've never been there and don't know a word of Turkish," Floyd says. "We can drop you by yourself—nobody there to help you. At the end of the year you will have learned Turkish, but will have gotten into a lot of trouble. Or we can drop you with a native Turk whose second language is English and they can interpret everything. Would you learn Turkish by the end of the year? No. Our way is that we will drop you with someone else. They will teach you the basics but then let you practice things by yourself."
That philosophy guides the way the students learn everything, not just travel. From navigating buffet lines to communication—such as handwriting and computer programs like Excel—students begin with 100 percent assistance from the instructors. But by the end of the year students are able to accomplish it all by themselves. "We teach the basic structure but set it up so people have a time and place to practice what they learn and problem-solve by themselves," Floyd says. Instead of teaching the students how to brown a burger, for example, Cindy Zimmer, home management instructor, teaches them how to tell when the burger is brown. Many of the center's clients were previously sighted and must learn alternative ways of managing.
"When you're at a party and you're the only blind person, guess how many people are looking at you?" Floyd asks. "Everybody. We need to realize that it's okay; I don't care if people look at me. But we are representing, as one person, the whole group. It is a big thing to carry on our shoulders, but that is the reality. From one blind person others are going to deduce that all blind people are like that."
The sense of responsibility may seem heavy, and, although Floyd jokingly refers to the center as a boot camp, the clients' search for independence is often full of laughter and fun. They attend cultural activities, such as local theaters and festivals, as well as work on community projects. Jokes are cracked in the classroom; meals made by clients are set up for newcomers as well as entered into cooking competitions. The family-like atmosphere pushes students toward an assurance that soon becomes integral to who they are.
"Blind people need to have the confidence in themselves to go into an interview and say, `You will benefit from hiring me. This is not a hand-out. I will do a good job,'" Floyd explains. It's not just the feeling of self-assurance the center teaches. The practical ways of successfully living instead of simply existing are paramount to the operation. Some things aren't written in a guide somewhere and must be discovered along the way.
At one point a client asked, "Can a blind person be a waiter?" The dining room was then set up as a restaurant, and he was given four tables to wait on. Calling last names, just as in a regular restaurant, Floyd played the role of a hostess. "What would be the most functional way of taking orders?" the group asked one another. Slate and stylus wouldn't be practical to carry around. A digital recorder, however, turned out to be the perfect solution. "He served all of us that day, and realized, 'Yeah, it can be done,'" Floyd says.
The Nebraska Center for the Blind continues to teach its students important skills. A wooden desk taking form in front of Alex, a middle-aged client, is a tangible representation of what he's learning at the center. "I'm gaining confidence to know that I'm working on these tools with no guards or anything, and that I can do it," he explains. As Alex picks up his woodworking tool, he begins shaping his future. Fear is not an option.