Nikki Zimmerman uses a slate and stylus to write notes during class at Carl Traeger Middle School in Oshkosh. Nikki Zimmerman. (Note: In the August/September Braille Monitor a picture of Nikki Zimmerman at the Dude Ranch was incorrectly identified as Nikki White of Maryland. We regret the error.) The Fifth Generation Speaks Out From the Editor: What impact can the NFB's National Convention have on a newly blind twelve-year-old? What impact can that twelve-year-old in turn have on the world around her? Nikki Zimmerman and her family fought against glaucoma and the fear of blindness for eleven years. When they lost that fight a year ago, they might have concluded that in significant ways Nikki's life was over. But the family heard about Bonnie Peterson, then President of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin, and Bonnie helped them acquire funding to attend last summer's National Convention in Dallas. Nikki and her mother were both optimistic and open to the possibility and promise of the NFB's philosophy of hope and high expectation.
But it wasn't enough for Nikki to get the instruction in cane travel and Braille that she needed. When Nikki heard talk of the NFB of Wisconsin's annual walk-a-thon, she wanted to participate. She began signing up sponsors and recruiting walkers among her friends. But no other blind people near Oshkosh were planning to walk. How ought she to conduct the walk-a-thon? Nikki's mother Patty called Bonnie for advice. The solution was simple: several hikers from Milwaukee would drive over to Madison to join Nikki, her friends, and members of the school board who had decided to participate in the walk. That way the kids and school officials could all learn from the blind adults taking part in the hike, and the experienced Federationists could help Nikki conduct the event.
But the Zimmermans weren't finished. Patty Zimmerman recognized that publicity for the hike would help, so she set out to interest the local newspaper in doing the kind of story about Nikki, an ordinary sixth-grader, that would tell the world what she and the National Federation of the Blind thought about blindness. The following article is reprinted with permission from the September 29, 1998, edition of the Oshkosh Northwestern. It demonstrates just how well Nikki has understood the NFB's philosophy of normality and just how effectively she has taught her teachers and fellow students to adopt the same notions. Here is the article: ********** Typical Courage Oshkosh Sixth-grader Refuses to Let Blindness Be Disability by Gina Mangan ********** Following eleven-year-old Nikki Zimmerman as she zips between classes and through the halls of Carl Traeger Middle School in Oshkosh requires a good pair of walking shoes and a healthy set of lungs. With an air of confidence she deftly dodges fellow students and turns corners with ease.
Once inside the classroom Nikki barely takes a breath while quietly reading out loud to partner Jessica Pernsteiner from a teacher handout. She takes notes as social studies teacher Paul DeShambo writes on the marker board and talks articulately about economic issues during a class discussion.
Outside on the playground she chats with friends. She seems like an average sixth-grader. For the most part she is. Nikki, whose highlight during her first day of school was a reminder by science teacher Jim McClowry to return to her desk and push in her chair, wouldn't want anybody to see anything other than normal.
"Being blind isn't a disability unless you make it one," says Nikki, who lost her sight last winter after a lifelong struggle with congenital glaucoma. "There's nothing I can't do, except ride a bike."
But because she's blind, being viewed as typical has taken extra effort, a bit of special training, a lot of determination, and the right opportunities.
During the past year Nikki repeatedly struggled against a societal tendency to pamper the blind, fighting human nature's desire to force the world to adapt to individual differences. Instead Nikki has chosen to adapt to the world.
Nikki uses a long white cane to get around. She's fully trained in Braille and writes with an embossed-dot-producing slate and stylus.
And while her eyes don't work, her mind is as sharp as that of the next sixth-grader. Her ability to perform in class isn't an issue. But her family still had to fight to keep her in the math and English classes they believe are critical to her future.
In fact, Nikki and her parents have turned down traditional help offered by well-meaning people within the school system, insisting that expectations for Nikki be no lower because she can't see.
When the school district wanted to hire a teacher aide to guide and help Nikki--as is done with other blind students--the Zimmermans said no.
"She's blind, but her feet work," said her mother, Patty Zimmerman, noting Nikki's cane.
When the school offered to let her leave each class five minutes early, the Zimmermans said no again.
"Someday Nikki will be married and have children, and if her child runs into the road, she's not going to have five extra minutes," Patty Zimmerman said.
When Nikki began learning Braille, specialists working with the blind through the Cooperative Educational Service Agency told the family it would take her three years to function at the same level as her peers and wanted her to spend valuable class time in a special resource room.
But with the help of a private instructor, it took Nikki only six months to learn Braille, although she's still perfecting her skills. She's enrolled in all regular education classes.
Nikki's determination hasn't gone unnoticed by her peers-- many of whom refer to her as the "cool blind girl"--or her teachers.
"Her expectations for herself have been greater than anything I would have held her to, not only because she's blind but because she's only a sixth-grader," DeShambo said.
Nikki and her family adhere strongly to the philosophies of independence and equality embraced by the National Federation of the Blind, and they hope Nikki will become a role model for other children. She's a scheduled speaker at the NFB's state convention, and she's organized a three-mile white cane hike-a- thon to raise money for the NFB, which promotes the white cane as a tool of "stature, respect, and independence." The walk-a-thon will be held Saturday.
"She lost her sight, but she has her life back," Patty Zimmerman said. "We hope she can inspire other children to become more independent."
This year has been the first full, normal year for Nikki, whose earlier years were fragmented by sixty-one operations and countless trips to the children's hospital in Madison. Doctors tried desperately for years to regulate the fluid that would build up behind her eyes. That buildup created a constant, painful pressure on the optic nerve, as well as failing vision.
After placing two shunts and plates in her eyes last October, doctors were forced to remove her right eye five days after Christmas. She now wears a prosthesis and has been relieved of much of the pain. The shunts remain in her left eye, but the pressure hasn't stabilized, and Nikki says she can see only "blobs of color."
During her fifth-grade year Nikki received tutoring at home. Despite a string of surgeries, chronic pain, and lost vision, she successfully completed her fifth-grade year.
But the prospect of blindness left her depressed and frightened at first, especially in the months before she learned white cane and Braille skills. But her life turned around when she traveled to Dallas, Texas, July 4 to the NFB's national convention. There she met attorneys, college professors, accountants, and other professionals who didn't let their blindness stand in the way of success.
Bonnie Peterson, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin, said Nikki is like many others who adopt the NFB's philosophy. "We look at blindness as a physical condition, like baldness or shortness or anything else," Peterson said. "With the proper training and opportunity, that condition will be reduced to nothing more than a physical nuisance."
McClowry, Nikki's science teacher, said Traeger's sixth- grade teachers are well aware of Nikki's desire to be treated the same as her peers.
Although they recognize she has a special learning need, they see her as a confident, articulate sixth-grader who's eager to learn.
"I'm impressed with her in the way I'm impressed with any sixth-grader who is in a new environment, is confident, and has taken ownership of her learning," he said. "I don't have any gripping statements to make. She's a normal sixth-grader." ********** ********** Planned giving takes place when a contributor decides to leave a substantial gift to charity. It means planning as you would for any substantial purchase--a house, college tuition, or car. The most common forms of planned giving are wills and life insurance policies. There are also several planned giving options through which you can simultaneously give a substantial contribution to the National Federation of the Blind, obtain a tax deduction, and receive lifetime income now or in the future. For more information write or call the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.