Raising the Bar: First Tme at National Convention
by Dan Burke

From the Editor: People who have attended National Conventions know what an astonishing impact that first experience can have on a life, but it's hard to convey to those who have never taken their courage in both their hands and decided to go what a difference that week of inspiration, information, and friendship can make in their lives. They can easily conceive of all sorts of problems, real and imagined, that might befall them: lost luggage, masses of strangers, inability to find meetings or restaurants—you know the list. It doesn't matter how many times experienced Federationists explain that luggage gets found, that there are no strangers at an NFB convention, and that anyone who isn't lost will stop and help those who are. One simply has to go and experience it all firsthand.

These are logistical matters that can at least be discussed. What such people cannot begin to understand is the impact they will feel from the challenge and inspiration they find at a convention. It changes lives and brings hope and determination where they were absent. We stand a little straighter, try a little harder, set our goals a little higher.

Dan Burke is one of the leaders of our Montana affiliate. He attended his first National Convention in 1997. He wrote about the experience in the spring issue of The Observer, the organization's newsletter. This is what he said:

In New Orleans last summer the National Federation of the Blind broke its own convention attendance record: well over 3,000 blind people from across the United States, from Canada, and from around the world came to New Orleans. That was an organizational best, setting the bar a bit higher for future conventions to better. But I embraced a personal challenge—raising the bar of what I expect of myself as a blind person.

As I left high school and moved through college more than two decades ago, the wisdom spoken around me was to take the safe route, forget about childhood dreams, ignore the heart. Both my parents and my counselor for the blind in Colorado truly wanted the best for me, but my discussions with them left me with the distinct impression that the rules were different for me because I was blind, or rather because I would become blind. At the time I didn't know any better. It would be a long time before I began to realize that what needed to be different was what I thought about being blind, not about what I wanted for myself.

I struggled through college in four years, passing as a sighted person, but always afraid of being discovered and feeling the embarrassment of inadequacy at my inability to function as a sighted student. After college I put my sheepskin in a drawer and set off aimlessly on what turned out to be a downward-spiraling series of unsatisfying jobs. I skipped my ten-year high school reunion. Though I was bound for graduate school the next fall, I felt my life was at an all-time low and just beginning on its upward turn. The facts were, as I saw it that summer, that I had accomplished nothing, was on Social Security, had just become a father, and was more broke than I had ever been in my life.

I was finally heading into a rehabilitation career, but by default. Frankly I didn't have the confidence to attempt anything else, and like so many who feel little personal power to help their own circumstances, I decided the thing I needed to do was to help others.

The attitude that I must accept less than I wanted began to change, though. And by the time I landed in New Orleans last summer, I was hungry for confirmation that blindness need not mean giving up on dreams, giving up on achieving beyond the expectations of family, friends, neighbors, and rehabilitation professionals. And I found what I was looking for.

I was impressed with many things—the many divisions, such as Braille, merchants, lawyers, scientists and techno-geeks, writers, and journalists. The many professions introduced in general sessions or smaller division meetings made the greatest impression on me. The scholarship winners especially intrigued and excited me because among their many academic disciplines were several I had ruled out when I was younger as closed to a blind person. We heard from a surgeon (who once lived in Missoula!) who found his way back into employment after becoming blind, working as a consultant. I talked to a woman working on her master of fine arts in creative writing and teaching courses as well. One of the scholarship candidates was completing study as a dinosaur paleontologist. The vocational rehabilitation program in Nebraska helped a blind man fulfill his dream of becoming a trucker—not to drive, but to begin a successful trucking company.

Admittedly there was a time in my life when hearing about such successful blind people would have terrified me. It would have made me confront my own feelings about my blindness and the insecurity I felt. It would have raised the bar, the level of expectations for achievement, that didn't fit with my lack of confidence in myself. Now, however, I am tickled pink to carry my white cane. The news carrier can hear my Perkins Brailler thunking away at 5:30 in the morning as I compose poems in Braille.

In the end the talk I had with a man from Iowa, a scholarship finalist who was working on his doctorate in clinical psychology, summed it up best for me. His chief area of interest, he told me, was in examining how the way we feel affects the way we think. Of course, I thought to myself, if I feel depressed or embarrassed or useless because I can't see, then I will think there is little open to me because I can't see. But when I can begin to feel that blindness isn't the problem, I can begin to think in terms of possibilities, begin to expect more and work harder for what I want. I can raise the bar higher and higher for myself.

So since the convention last July that's what I have done.