Carnival, Life Go On Despite Blindness

                      by Rhonda Nabonne
     From the Editor: New Orleans is a city that knows how

to throw a party. On almost any occasion New Orleanians can

put together bands, floats, throws, and a crowd and voila,

an irresistible parade. Walking between two of our hotels

one day during the 1991 convention, a group of us found

ourselves caught up in a parade. Gradually we noticed the

sound of music coming toward us; then suddenly floats were

passing us, and the people on them were throwing pirate gold

at the crowd that materialized as traffic came to a stop.

The jazz had everyone dancing as the band went by. It was

impossible not to smile and grab for the coins being tossed.

We clapped and waved, but too soon the little parade was

gone. We never did know what the special occasion had been,

but we went on our way energized by our brush with this

wonderful city at play.
     New Orleans has been honing its talent for throwing a

party for over a hundred years. The famed Mardi Gras

celebration during the days preceding Ash Wednesday each

year is perhaps New Orleans's most famous event. The city

prepares all year for Carnival and the celebration of Fat

Tuesday, Mardi Gras. The idea is to eat, drink, and be merry

before facing the rigors of Lent, the forty days leading to

Easter.
     Many different parades take place during Carnival. Each

one is organized and conducted by a Krewe, really a club,

comprised of prominent citizens. Each krewe, and therefore

its parade and ball to follow, has a name: Rex, Endymion,

Orpheus, Bacchus, etc. A king and queen and a court of maids

and their escorts are invited to preside over the

festivities, and organizations or groups are also invited to

ride on a series of floats behind the two carrying the

royalty.
     This year the Bards of Bohemia Krewe invited the

National Federation of the Blind to ride on float seventeen

of their parade, which took place on Monday, February 10. In

addition, Julie Russell, a member of the NFB of Louisiana,

was invited to be a maid in the court presided over by this

year's queen, the daughter of nationally known magician

Harry Blackstone. Billy Petrino, a current student at the

Louisiana Center for the Blind, served as Julie's escort and

rode on the escorts' float. Julie rode with members of the

court, and six other Federationists took part in the

festivities. They threw plastic cups emblazoned with the NFB

logo.
     The participation of the National Federation of the

Blind was noted by the media. The Cable News Network,

National Public Radio, and Associated Press carried stories

about our participation. The Times-Picayune, the most

important newspaper in New orleans, placed the story on the

front page of the Metro Section of the February 10, 1997,

edition. It speaks for itself. Here it is:

     If someone had told Julie Russell two years ago that

she would lose her eyesight yet finish college, take charge

of her life, and toss Carnival throws from a float, she

would have laughed in sheer disbelief.
     The unthinkable began to unfold in January, 1995:

Russell, a Tulane University senior in the middle of final

exams, suffered a mysterious illness that attacked her optic

nerve and in a matter of days left her blind. The scariest

part, she recalled, was not knowing what the rest of her

life would be like.
     As it has turned out, life has not been much different

than what she had expected all along. She recently earned a

bachelor's degree in English and is searching for a job in

the hotel, tourism, and hospitality industry.
     Nor has blindness cut down on her Carnival merriment:

tonight she will be a maid in the royal court of the Bards

of Bohemia and toss Carnival trinkets along with the other 

riders.
     It was Mardi Gras 1995 that she learned that she need

not be sucked into a cynical existence after meeting with

students and staffers who had come from the Louisiana Center

for the Blind in Ruston for Fat Tuesday.
     After joining the group for breakfast and getting an

impromptu lesson in travel by cane, Russell realized that

their lives weren't much different from hers before her

illness and that options seemed endless. She did have one

question.
     "I wondered how they would catch throws," said Russell.

Two years later Russell boasts she's as good as if not

better than the most seasoned bead snatcher and has a pile

of loot from Endymion to prove it. And tonight she'll ride

above the sea of hands, tossing cups and trinkets from Float

No. 3.
     The daughter of Tim and Heather Russell, she and about

thirty of her fellow members of the National Federation of

the Blind will be part of the parade, to be followed by a

ball at the Marriott.
     Russell, twenty-three, attributes her bright outlook to

the Federation, which operates three training centers for

the blind in Louisiana, Colorado, and Minnesota.
     Russell, whose family relocated to New Orleans from her

native Fairbanks, Alaska, when she was twelve, is a product

of the Federation's training center in Ruston, where

students gain self-sufficiency and get a chance to go deep-

sea fishing, rock climbing, and bargain shopping in Mexican

border towns.
     Computer classes and woodshop are part of the

instruction. To meet graduation requirements, Russell

prepared a breakfast, complete with blueberry bread, for

forty people.
     "The National Federation of the Blind gave me all this

wonderful knowledge and a perspective that blindness is

really no big deal," Russell said Sunday at her tidy Mid-

City area home, where she lives alone.
     "With proper training and skills, blindness can be

reduced to a physical nuisance," Russell said.
     Russell became part of Carnival royalty after the

krewe's executive director, Terry McIntosh, invited her

longtime friend Harold Snider to ride in the parade.
     Snider accepted, and Russell was invited to fill a slot

in the royal court.
     "There are very few people who have done what Julie has

done," said Snider, director of the International Braille

Research Center. "Adjustment is usually a more difficult

process."
     Snider, who'll ride in the parade with his wife Linda,

said he's always heard so much about Mardi Gras while

growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, and will finally

fulfill a long-held ambition to ride in a parade.
     "We're doing this to show the public that blind people

can take their place in the mainstream of life," said Joanne

Wilson, president of the Federation's Louisiana affiliate,

which will meet in Metairie from April 11 to 13.
     The National Convention, expected to draw 3,000

participants, will be in New Orleans June 28 through July 5.
     "In New Orleans the mainstream of life right now is

Mardi Gras," Wilson said. "We want to show that blind people

can ride on floats, throw stuff off floats, and take their

place in society."