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."