by Barbara Pierce
What happens when twenty-four blind middle-school students, their mentors, and their chaperones gather for five days of activities and touring in and around the nation’s capital? The answer is learning, discovery, and challenge.
For the second year the NFB Jernigan Institute’s Education Department planned and conducted the Leadership and Advocacy in Washington (LAW) Program, April 8 to 13. The students were divided into six delegations of four, each of which had a blind mentor assigned to work with those students. In addition to learning about the NFB’s legislative efforts on Capitol Hill, the delegations learned about NFB history and activities by studying six leaders—Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan as well as four of today’s NFB leaders. Each delegation created its name by incorporating the name of its leader in its title—Wilson’s Watch and Team tenBroek, for example.
While the students worked together all day Saturday, their parents and teachers met with parent mentors Laura Weber, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, and Jim Beyer, NOPBC board member. The seminar provided useful information about a number of rights that blind students and their advocates have or should have. The parents also heard from a panel of blind adults, who told the parents what they wish their parents had known about the rights of the blind.
Meanwhile the students were engaged in several challenging exercises. First they worked with the NFB constitution and a number of source documents. Their job was to decide which article of the constitution addressed the issues raised by each item under consideration. In addition to letters and documents, the tenBroek Library staff had assembled a number of hands-on items for tactile exploration. These included Dr. tenBroek’s cane, a plaque of the original NFB logo, early Braillewriters, and two different baskets woven in sheltered workshops.
In another exercise called “We Want to Work,” the student delegations read a series of primary source brochures, letters, and reports and answered thoughtful questions about the purpose and implications of them for blind job seekers. These documents provided lots of opportunities for the mentors to fill in information and provide additional history of the organized blind movement: the fight for civil service jobs, the struggle for collective bargaining in sheltered workshops, the right to take the Foreign Service qualifying examination, etc. All documents were available in large print and Braille, and the delegations had to decide how best to get them read for the entire group. Print users frequently discovered that the Braille readers had an easier time dealing with the documents.
After lunch the Governmental Affairs staff gave the students a crash course in getting bills through Congress. Then groups of three students each walked their assigned bills through the actual process that the piece of legislation had been subjected to. Mentors staffed tables with such names as Entry into the House (or Senate), House (or Senate) Committee, House Rules Committee, House (or Senate) Again, Conference Committee, and President’s Desk. When a bill had acquired sponsors, a button boasting the cosponsor count with Velcro on the back could be added to the group’s sign. Two of the bills, the Louis Braille Commemorative Coin Act and the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, actually made it to the president’s desk, staffed by NFB of Georgia President Garrick Scott.
Sunday the families had a chance to tour Washington. The weather was cool but fine, and everyone had a great time.
The entire group was back again on Monday in Washington, where everyone went to the House floor to learn about the history of the Capitol and how the pages are hired and how the Senate cloakroom operates. Then it was time for a brief but fascinating tour of the Capitol rotunda. In the afternoon the group went to the Department of Justice to hear from Mazen Basrawi about his job and the workings of the Department.
After dinner back at the National Center that evening, the students got some pointers on talking with members of Congress and their staff members. Then the delegations separated to plan their presentations about the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind the next day. As practice, each delegation met with three different Senators, played by Center staff members, and tried to keep their attention and the conversation focused on our need for equal access to home, office, and kiosk technology. This was a constructive exercise since Tuesday each delegation visited the offices of its students’ four members of Congress to meet with a staff member or representative. Parents were along to observe and take photos, but they had been urged to keep their participation to a minimum. The mentors could nudge things in the right direction, but mostly the students were responsible for making the case for the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind Act themselves.
The closing activity of the program was a banquet. In their spare time during the preceding days, the various delegations had been working on brief presentations about their LAW Program experiences. Their charge was to create a presentation that could be used to catch the attention of next year’s potential student applicants. The four living leaders that students had studied were present to have dinner with the students, who had gotten to know them through their biographies and discussions of personal struggles that the leaders had described to them. Mary Ellen Jernigan dined with the Jernigan delegation, and Lou Ann Blake, who has worked extensively with the tenBroek papers, got to know the tenBroek delegation. President Maurer and NFB First Vice President Fred Schroeder, both NFB leaders studied by the students, addressed the group after dinner. The remainder of the program consisted of news programs, skits, and even a brief NFB LAW Program Jeopardy contest.
We will conclude this report by including some of the comments made by students and parents:
“I have also seen many positive changes in Brian. I owe it all to this life-changing experience of the NFB LAW Program. It has given him great confidence and the ability to get out of the house and take back his independence. I tried to provide those skills to him; however, I just couldn't do what so many of you did for him.” Shelly Lowery-Rowan
“This trip was what Emily needed, because although she had a cane and O&M training, she was not using it. From the time Emily received her new cane, she has been using it, and she has become more independent. It was a very positive experience for both of us. Emily told me before we left Baltimore that she would like to stay there for a year, so she should do fine with the seven-week training program.” Angela Woods
"I had so much fun at the NFB LAW program this year! It really opened my eyes (so to speak) about a lot of things going on in the world. I hope the Technology Bill of Rights is passed into law. That would be a huge step forward for us. There were many people who impacted me throughout this entire program. Garrick was soooooo funny. Natalie was a great leader and mentor. Lauren McLarney, government program specialist, prepared us so well for our meetings with members of Congress. I could've never done it without that preparation. Treva, Corbb, Karen, and everyone at NFB, you are awesome!" Gabriel Lopez
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