by Brianna Lillyman
From the Editor: The following remarks were delivered by Brianna Lillyman at the NFB of Illinois convention in 2010. They were published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Braille Examiner, a publication of the NFB of Illinois. The NFB Jernigan Institute is raising the expectations of blind young people one student, one program, at a time. If you wonder what difference the NFB is making, read on:
I'm sixteen and a junior in high school. When people hear that I'm sixteen, they typically ask, "Do you have your driver's license yet?" I have to answer no. But now, thanks to the NFB, I have the confidence to say, "Not yet." [Laughter and applause]
Because of the NFB I have had opportunities to travel and have met some incredible people. The most important thing that the NFB has done for me is to instill the belief that I am capable of doing anything I want, despite my blindness. I had my first experience with the NFB when I was eleven years old and attended a summer camp. Since that time I have attended several other NFB camps and programs, the most recent being the Youth Leadership Program at NFB headquarters in Baltimore last February. This is my second state convention.
The summer camp I attended when I was eleven was the first time I ever met other blind people. It had been a hard year because I had just lost a significant amount of vision. I didn't expect the camp leaders, speakers, and mentors to be blind. I was inspired by their confidence and competence and by the competence of the other campers my age. I was extremely jealous of their ability to read Braille. I realized right away that Braille would be an asset for me. I would be able to read without getting headaches or having to rely on other people to read to me.
I requested Braille instruction at my first IEP meeting when I was a freshman in high school. It was a battle, but after two years I finally began Braille lessons early this year. [Applause] I've put a lot of effort into learning it. I'm still not very fluent, but I like to show off my skills.
My trip to Baltimore this past February was the first time I ever traveled without a parent. I hate flying, and I was really nervous. It was worse still when we were told that our flight had been canceled, and the only way for us to get to Baltimore would be to take a flight to Florida and catch another flight from there to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. From Dulles, Katie and I would have to be responsible for getting a cab to Baltimore.
It was a very stressful experience, and there were moments when I thought we would never get there. The worst moment came when the cab driver asked me to program his GPS. I told him I couldn't because I couldn't see it. You'd have thought that my cane would tip him off, but I guess he just didn't expect two blind people to be traveling by themselves. He spent an extra thirty minutes driving in circles trying to find the Center. Overall, I'm proud of the way I handled that trip. I knew it would have been easier to stay home, but we finally got where we wanted to go.
Through the NFB I have done a lot of things that have been both challenging and exciting, things I never thought I could do. I have witnessed other blind people doing things I always assumed couldn't be done without vision. Involvement in the NFB has helped me overcome the stigma of blindness. So this past spring, when I went on a trip for blind youth sponsored by a non-NFB group, I was shocked. The sighted chaperones guided my peers around, not requiring them to use their canes. They did not treat them with the respect I believe a blind person, or any person, deserves. All of the kids on the trip were great people, but, because of the way they had been educated, they were not independent or confident in themselves. During that trip I kept hearing, "I can't, because I'm blind." The other kids were shocked when I talked about the things I had done. They were surprised that I have been involved in theater and school plays, but to me that is not a big deal. They couldn't believe that I figure skate. I wonder what their reaction will be when they hear that I'm learning to synchronize skate?
The attitudes of those kids make me sad. I know they just haven't heard about all the opportunities that are out there. After being involved in the NFB over the years, I have come to take that message for granted. I expect all blind people to strive for independence and to demand respect. But the fact is that many blind people view themselves as incapable, and lots of sighted people, a huge number, are ignorant of blind people's capabilities.
On that trip I realized how important it is to get other blind people involved with the NFB. I know that the NFB can be the greatest ally for someone who is struggling with the loss of vision as I was. I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had and the things I have learned. Some day I hope I can pay it forward.