by Jennifer Dunnam
From the Editor: As you read in the last article, blind people in rehabilitation programs across the country are learning to batter down their own preconceptions about limitations in traveling using the long white cane. In the Fall 2011 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, NFB of Minnesota President Jennifer Dunnam reflected on her personal voyage from incompetence as a cane traveler to complete confidence using the mobility tool that enables her independence. This is what she says:
Members of the National Federation of the Blind have said repeatedly that one of the most important and sometimes unexpected benefits of joining and participating in our organization is that it challenges and stretches its members. It asks things of us that we never imagined being able to do. Meeting these challenges strengthens us as people. Such stretching opportunities are not reserved for our newer members—they can happen to any of us.
When I first met the National Federation of the Blind, I was a young teenager attending public school. In general my blindness skills were reasonably decent, and I had the beginnings of positive attitudes about blindness even though there was plenty I did not know yet. One essential skill, however, was lacking—my ability to travel independently from place to place. I knew the technique for using a white cane, which I had learned at age twelve, but, beyond walking in school halls, I did not have much place or opportunity to practice using my cane. My family lived in the country, where there were no sidewalks, so I did not have much experience with understanding traffic patterns or street crossings. The only way I could get anywhere other than to my classes was to be either driven in a car or led on someone's arm. My family and I were well aware that other teens my age were doing far more, but we did not know how I could do the same thing as a blind person.
What a shock it was for me when attending my first NFB student seminar to head off on an errand in a car with several students and discover that the person who knew most about how to get there was in fact, not the driver, but one of the blind students. He navigated, telling the driver exactly where to go, pointing out landmarks along the way without any visual clues. How could that be? What was I missing? I was determined to find out.
Becoming more involved in the NFB and getting to know the members gave me glimpses of a whole world of possibilities that had previously been unimaginable. I eventually received some excellent cane travel training involving frequent trips to unfamiliar places. I learned to be comfortable asking a passer-by for information if needed or popping into a nearby business to ask directions if I was not sure of them. I learned how to ask artful questions to elicit just the information I needed without getting unwanted help that would inconvenience others or me. I learned about the many ways to get information about a new place, including using a print map and a human reader. I learned about forming mental pictures so that, if I did not end up on my exact pre-determined route, I had enough information to get to my destination. I learned a great deal about how to avoid getting lost or disoriented, and at the same time I got lots of practice actually getting lost and figuring out how to get back on track, which did much to make me a better and more confident traveler. However, because my travel skills were not really developed until I was practically an adult, I sometimes still have to concentrate hard to travel well, especially if I am tired.
Since the time of my training, my travel skills have been put to the test. I traveled abroad for several summers during college. When I worked at the University of Minnesota, I was involved in a program that required me to go to parts of campus that I had never visited before to interview people. This was not something I had imagined doing when I first took the job, but I had the foundational skills and knew how to learn as much information as I could ahead of time, ask questions along the way, leave a little extra time in case I took the long way there, and arrive poised and ready to do the interview without taking others away from their own work to help me get there.
In my current job I travel coast to coast, constantly going alone to airports and cities where I have never been before. I can now do this with ease, and sometimes on these trips I find myself remembering how things were when I was younger, recognizing how far I have come.
Earlier this year I was asked to be the coordinator of the marshals for the 2011 NFB Youth Slam, our summer science camp for well over a hundred blind teens and their mentors. The marshals are the people who facilitate the movement from place to place of large groups of people unfamiliar with the geography by acting as talking signs at strategic locations. This method works much better than having individual guides escort each person as is done in some other summer experiences for blind youth. This technique also provides some students their first taste of walking independently using a cane.
Besides developing the plan of action for the marshals and coordinating the people, one of the roles of the coordinator was to teach the marshals and the mentors how to get around the campus of Towson University in Maryland, where the NFB Youth Slam was held. Surely with all my experience traveling to places I'd never been, this should have been a piece of cake. I must admit, however, that I was a bit apprehensive about this task. I had confidence that I could get myself around the campus, no problem—but a group of a couple hundred people, the vast majority of whom were no more able to look at a print map than I? That was a different matter. The occasional detour when an individual is heading for a destination is no big deal, but with a group this large, it is best to be precise. College campuses are generally large and not particularly symmetrical, full of crazy angles, wide-open spaces, and multiple possible paths to get anywhere. I would be able to make only two visits to campus before the Youth Slam began—just two short tours of the area we would be using.
Maybe, I thought to myself, I should delegate the campus-orientation portion to someone else who would be better at it. Delegation is an important aspect of leadership, right? Very soon, though, another inner voice kicked in, and before long I was having a little chat with myself, just as I had done often years ago when traveling independently was new and frightening to me. Why exactly was I considering delegating this job?
What was actually required in providing an effective campus orientation to a large group? To acquire a good mental picture of the geography, to be able to describe the geography in useful nonvisual terms, and to travel through the campus according to the description so that they could experience it themselves. What part of that could I not do? Who else would do it if I did not? Every person on the leadership team had a heavy workload. Some people may have had the time, but they had had even less chance to get to know the campus than I had had or had less experience giving the kind of nonvisual information that would help, or they simply weren't available at the time the campus orientation was to take place. Obviously, my little chat became more of a lecture. Since there were no good alternatives and my biggest barrier was clearly my nerves, I set to work getting ready.
Since I do not live in Maryland, I needed to get started on this preparation from a distance. My first step was to find a campus map and sit down with a human reader. I asked questions and had the reader describe everything she could about the geography. The exercise was helpful, but the map was not very clear. We next opened Google Earth, which shows pictures of a location, including details that cannot be easily represented on a map. That turned out to be more helpful. Still, having something described, no matter how thoroughly, is no substitute for experiencing it for oneself.
The two advance campus visits occurred about a month apart, and they involved a group of people and had purposes besides helping me learn the campus. During both I took copious Braille notes during breaks in the walking. After each I compared impressions with others who had been on the tours to get as solid an understanding as possible. By the time the volunteers got there for a couple of days of training before the youth were to arrive, it seemed that this plan just might work.
First I walked with the marshal team around the campus so that they could get a feel for it and learn where they would be posted at various times. It was like a rehearsal for the larger orientation, and it went off just fine, as did the later, larger orientation session. Did everyone come away from that session with a complete knowledge of every nook and cranny? Certainly not, but they all got enough of an understanding to work with and fill in the details as needed. Now, instead of just a few people who knew their way around, a whole group could help one another and discover all the different paths to get from place to place. We had increased our collective experience, and, when the youth joined our ranks, we had even more expertise.
The NFB Youth Slam is often a life-changing experience for blind youth. For many it is the first time they have been able to participate directly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities. Many have never had exposure to well-adjusted blind adult role models. As a one-week program, it is a different experience from our summer programs such as that at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc., which provides focused, in-depth training for eight weeks. The Youth Slam allows many young people to get their feet wet, not only on STEM subjects, but about positive blindness philosophy, organizing, advocacy, and the like. Like all of our programs, however, many of the most important lessons are not the ones they learn during classes or sessions.
Of course those of us who work during the program learn a great deal and grow from the experience as well—I certainly did. The Youth Slam and our adjustment-to-blindness training programs provide an environment in which people believe in the student more than the student believes in him/herself. I think that our entire organization provides this environment to its members in addition to what we work to accomplish for the larger society. It gives us a way to measure ourselves against normal expectations, not against the low ones that society generally has of us. Each of us, longtime or brand-new member, can grow and can help others to do the same. To do so helps us each as individuals; it helps our organization; and it helps society in general through all that we have to offer. This work we do is important.