Future Reflections                                                                         Spring/Summer 2003

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Transition-to-Independence Club

by Sharon Maneki, President
National Federation of the Blind of Maryland

Sharon Maneki
Sharon Maneki

The National Federation of the Blind is a vibrant organization that continues to evolve to meet the changing concerns of blind persons and their families. Just as we have seen an increase in family activities at national convention as more parents of blind children become involved in our movement, I have seen a similar trend in Maryland. As children grow toward adulthood, we are challenged to find different activities to meet their needs and interests. As blind children advance to become teenagers in the movement, they no longer wish to attend the Christmas party with Santa. They want to move into the adult world of independence and work.

Parents and blind youth in Maryland have caused the NFB of Maryland to grow by encouraging us to create a transition club for both blind youth and their parents. In the student transition club, we talk about finding a job, advocating for yourself, hiring readers, giving directions to drivers, and other practical tips that blind adults use to function independently in the community. While the blind youth are in their group, parents share their experiences with each other on chores their children have or should have, the function of readers, how to teach responsibility, and more.

Many school systems may offer transition services. In reality, teachers of the visually impaired must concentrate on academics and frequently do not have time to provide practical experience. Our transition club is unique because blind adults serve as resources for both students and parents. Blind adults are able not only to talk about skills, but also are able to demonstrate these skills.

Transition club meets monthly from September through May. We meet before the NFB Greater Baltimore Chapter meetings to encourage parents and blind youth to participate in the chapter as well. Topics are determined from input by students, parents, and blind adults who observe the youth. We try to incorporate practical experiences for both parents and blind youth. For instance, blind adults and students took a cab ride together so that the blind youth could observe the interaction between the blind passenger and the driver. In one session, under the instruction of a blind adult, parents donned sleep shades (blindfolds) and did some cooking so they could learn the non-visual techniques for independence in the kitchen.

The Transition-to-Independence club is open to junior high and high school students and their parents or other family members. Currently, we have fourteen families who actively participate in the club. Parental involvement is important so that skills or techniques learned in the sessions can be practiced at home. Parents are often given “homework” assignments after a meeting. As a result students have independently planned and executed transportation to an event by cab (or sedan service), and made purchases in a convenience or grocery store while mom or dad waited in the car. Parents report an increase in independence in the home and improved social skills at school.

One of the unexpected benefits of the program is the bond that is created among the students. They call and e-mail each other during the week to discuss schoolwork, technology problems, or just to talk about whatever teens talk about with each other. These friendships have helped the students gain more confidence in their ability to make friends with sighted peers.

Thanks to grants from the local Wal-Mart and the Friends of the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, we have also been able to occasionally provide paid work experiences for the students. Students have discovered that even labeling and stuffing envelopes requires dexterity, attention to detail, teamwork, persistence, planning, speed, accuracy, and the ability to solve problems and work out non-visual techniques for work tasks. Because the work tasks are set-up, supervised, and managed by blind adults, they learn through observation how blind people solve work-related problems—especially those that involve using print.

The transition club has been challenging and fun for all. To help with this article, I asked the participants—parents, blind adults, and students—to make some general comments or to describe a favorite club activity from the past year, and what they gained from it. Here is a selection of those comments beginning with a description of the blindfold cooking activity for parents. The instructors for the cooking activity were Ann Taylor, a blind member of the Greater Baltimore Chapter and a technology instructor at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind; and Barbara Cheadle, editor of Future Reflections and the sighted parent of a very competent twenty-five-year-old blind cook, Chaz Cheadle.

Cooking Blindfolded

Setting: The Harbor Room and second floor kitchens at the National Center for the Blind. These kitchens are designed and equipped like any modern kitchen in the average home.

Cooking assignment: To fix Jell-O with fresh fruit (apples and bananas). Cooking tasks required: opening packages, measuring liquids, chopping fruit, boiling water, pouring, stirring, carrying a container of liquid Jell-O, placing the container into a refrigerator, and cleaning up.

Procedure: The ingredients were purchased in advance and the instructors made sure that all necessary cooking equipment was in the kitchen before parents arrived. Parents wore sleep shades (blindfolds) throughout the activity—including cleanup. For safety reasons, the instructors guided the parents through a tactile examination of the stove before they began cooking. The goal was not to teach cooking skills (we assumed the parents already knew how to cook), but to help the parents discover through guided experiences the non-visual cooking techniques used by competent blind cooks. The instructors gave minimal guidance and suggestions so the parents could proceed safely, but did not prevent them from experimenting with awkward or less efficient methods. After the activity, the instructors guided a discussion about what had been learned, compared techniques, and answered questions about how to help blind youth become more skilled and independent in the kitchen.

Observations from Carol Schaum, grandmother of Courtney Despeaux:

Carol Schaum
Carol Schaum

When I was first blindfolded, the kitchen seemed larger than it was. This was probably because I was hesitant and cautious in my movements, and it took me longer than usual to move from place to place. I discovered small things that I hadn’t noticed before, like the fact that the handles on the stove knob could be used to tell how to adjust the temperature of the burners (when the raised ridge on the knob was vertical, the burner was set on medium, etc.).

We were instructed to make Jell-O with fruit. When I put the pot on the stove, I made sure that I positioned the handle of the pot so that it extended over the counter so that once the pot was hot, I could reach over the counter until I found the handle, thus preventing burning myself. I pre-measured the water before I boiled it. Then, instead of dumping the boiling water out of the pot into a bowl, I poured the Jell-O into the pot. I held a spoon on the rim of the pot and extended it about halfway across, then dumped the powdered Jell-O onto the spoon to ensure that it went into the water.

After the Jell-O had dissolved in the hot water, I added the cold water and then I dumped the liquid into a large serving pan. I cut up the fruit on a plate and scooped it into the Jell-O with my hands so that I could feel around the plate and made sure I didn’t miss any of it. I stirred the fruit and Jell-O together. During this time I also dragged the trashcan over to the counter to make clean-up easier (I did this only after I had walked back and forth across the kitchen several times to throw things away).

I examined the inside of the refrigerator to see where there would be room for my Jell-O, then put the pan on a tray and carried it over and put the pan of Jell-O in the refrigerator.

After it was over and I removed the blindfold, I was surprised to see that there was still fruit left on the plate that I thought I had examined, and the fruit in the Jell-O was not well mixed at all but was mainly clumped in the center. I also realized that I had overlooked a side oven that was next to the regular oven.

After this experience, I encouraged my twelve-year-old granddaughter, Courtney, to thoroughly examine the kitchen, rather than just going to the cabinets where she knew she could get a cup or a snack. I wanted her to have a complete picture of the kitchen. I also had her boil her own eggs the very next day, using the basic safety techniques that I had learned. Although she had fixed snacks for herself before, she was proud that she had actually cooked something completely on her own.

Suggestions from Samta Singh, mother of twelve-year-old Nandine Singh:

Samta Singh
Samta Singh

  1.         Being blindfolded can make the room space seem much bigger, so spend time to explore the kitchen and determine the location of appliances, sink (including the hot and cold faucets), refrigerator, all cabinets, and anything else you may need to use—including the garbage can—before you begin cooking!

   2.         Familiarize yourself with the stove and the oven. Learn the location of the operating knobs and how to operate them.

   3.         Always use a larger pot to heat water to avoid spills that could result in injury. Also, a container with a larger opening helps with centering when liquid is poured into it. (Note: I don’t know if experienced blind cooks need this, but I think this is a good idea for novice parents and blind kids just learning to cook.)

   4.         When pouring liquids determine the center by circling with a spoon along the circumference of the pot, then use the spoon horizontally and vertically to gauge the center of the pot. Then pour along the center.

   5.         You will definitely be exploring and readjusting the contents of the refrigerator before placing new items in it. So, having a counter close to the refrigerator is helpful. This allows you to place the item at close proximity while you work on manipulating the items in the refrigerator. Know the shape and size of your pots, pans, and dishes and how they can fit in your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator.

   6.         Use a sharp knife to cut vegetables. Blunt knives can slip over the food item and cause injuries. Also, always place the knife on a cutting board or a ceramic plate before cutting with it.

   7.         Remember to close the cabinet and refrigerator doors when done.

   8.         Learn to relax and enjoy a well-prepared meal, you deserve it!

Tips from Karen Herstein, mother of high school sophomore, Amy Herstein:

  

Karen Herstein
Karen Herstein

 1.         When you are first learning how to cook under blindfold, don’t be afraid of making a mess. At first, when you are learning to pour, it’s hard to know if the spout is over the cup and to know when the cup is full. My fingers were not sensitive enough to feel the liquid right away. If you relax and don’t worry about spills, you will get better with practice. So, be patient with yourself, and then be patient with your kids when they first start to cook.

   2.         Hands-on orientation to the kitchen is very important. Know where everything is—the refrigerator, oven, measuring instruments, ingredients, trashcan, hot mitts, etc.

   3.         It’s hard to pour out and measure small amounts of liquids (such as vanilla extract) out of small mouth containers. It’s easier to measure if you transfer the item to a large mouth container, such as a baby food jar. Then you can “dip” and measure instead of trying to pour and measure.

   4.         Pre-measure liquids before heating so you don’t have to measure hot liquids.

   5.         Before you put a pan in the oven, check and see where the shelves are and if there is space on the shelf. It’s best to do this BEFORE you heat the oven. Also, make sure there is space on the counter before getting hot items out of the oven.

My experiences as a blind mentor in the Transition-To-Independence Club—Mildred Rivera:

Last year I assisted in the use-of-readers session of the transition club. I worked with a partner, Gerald Jeandron, who is a good Braille reader. (Though I learned Braille in 1989, since I primarily use large print I have no speed in Braille and use it primarily for labeling and for short notes.)

Mildred Rivera discusses college transition topics with Kevin Hatton Jr. during a transition club session.
Mildred Rivera discusses college transition topics with Kevin Hatton Jr. during a transition club session.

I had a Braille and large print version of a local restaurant menu, and Gerald had a Braille cookbook. We were the designated readers for Quantrise, a partially sighted high school junior who did not have experience using readers. She and all the other blind students were given an assignment to direct a reader and find the answers to about eight or ten questions about the menu, and also to find specific types of recipes in the cookbook and to answer specific questions about them. Like Gerald and me, the other “readers” were blind Braille reading members of the local NFB chapter who volunteered to be mentors for the transition club.

However, before our paired reading activity, several of the blind adult volunteers put on an amusing skit about the proper and improper ways to use sighted people as readers. Through the skit students were given some general guidance on using a reader.

They learned that it is important to: 1. be prepared with the proper materials before the reader arrives for work; 2. have a “road map” or plan of action about how to proceed; 3. be organized; 4. give clear directions; 5. require promptness of the reader; and 6. focus on the task. After a short discussion we broke up into small groups for our reading activity.

Quantrise, the student Gerald and I were paired with, was very hesitant at first to take charge, but with some encouragement she began to direct us through the menu. She learned that menus have different sections, such as appetizers and beverages. It took a few times through the menu to get all the information. For example, one of the questions was, “What is the cheapest item on the menu?” As she continued to direct us in reading, Quantrise also learned that this cookbook had a table of contents. Once she learned this, she was able to more quickly locate the appropriate recipes for Gerald to read.

After the paired reading activity the students got back together in a large group, shared their answers, and talked about what they had learned.  The kids apparently put their new knowledge to use right away.  I understand that parents reported immediate improvement in the way their kids directed them as readers. The kids employed new strategies they had learned, were better organized, and were more assertive in taking charge of the reading process.

Thoughts about the Transition-to-Independence Club from a student—
Amy Herstein:

Amy Herstein and Gary Kammerer take notes at a transition club meeting.
Amy Herstein and Gary Kammerer take notes at a transition club meeting.

Our transition club is popular with blind teens that want to learn about gaining their own independence. In this club I have learned about using taxicabs and about other ways blind people get around. A second topic that I learned about is social behavior. I learned how sighted people interpret different body postures and facial expressions with different emotions. We also discuss hiring and using readers, obtaining and utilizing technology, and about preparing for college. From time to time the club provides us with paid jobs so that we can experience work on a small scale. This experience has helped improve my understanding of jobs.

In the club, blind adults did a skit for us about using readers, and then they sat down with us one-on-one and pretended to be our readers (they had Braille materials) while we told them what to read. Also, we took taxi cab rides with blind adults so we could watch them and learn the best ways to get a cab, give directions, pay the fare, etc. Here are some of the tips I learned about using a reader or driver:

•  Know what you want

•  Interview the reader or driver first

•  Have a backup plan in case your original plan backfires

•  Don’t let people boss you around

•  Be persistent—until you get what you want

•  Do your job efficiently

For more information about the NFB of Maryland Transition-to-Independence Club, contact Sharon Maneki at nfbmd@earthlink.net or call (410) 715-9596.

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