Future Reflections                                                                                           Convention 2004

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Blind Youths Expand Horizons - Convention Offers Astronomy Lessons, Babysitting Class

by Nancy C. Rodriguez

Reprinted from the Sunday, June 29, 2003, The Courier-Journal Metro, Louisville, Kentucky.

Astronomer and DePaul University professor, Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, finds that blind people of all ages at the NFB convention are interested in astronomy.   Above, he helps preschooler Mikaella Besson learn about planets.
Astronomer and DePaul University professor, Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, finds that blind people of all ages at the NFB convention are interested in astronomy. Above, he helps preschooler Mikaella Besson learn about planets.

Taking her granddaughter’s right hand in her own, Beverly Martorana of Warren, Michigan, slowly ran it across a picture of Jupiter. “That’s Jupiter. Can you feel it? That’s what it looks like,” Martorana said as Rebecca Budney’s fingers moved cautiously across the picture’s bumpy surface, eventually finding the planet’s great red spot. Later, the 8-year-old held a scale cutout of Mars that allowed her to compare its size to the rest of the planets in the solar system. “That’s a teeny tiny one,” she said.

The astronomy lesson was among several activities organized yesterday at the Galt House by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, the parental division of the National Federation of the Blind, which is holding its annual convention in Louisville. The convention which began yesterday and continues through Friday is expected to attract more than 3,000 people.

Based in Baltimore, Maryland, the Federation represents more than 50,000 blind and visually impaired people, parents of blind children and others throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Mark Riccobono, the Federation’s Wisconsin representative, said the Parents of Blind Children is always looking to offer new experiences that society often thinks are beyond blind children’s capabilities. “That’s kind of my goal, to say, ‘No. These are really things that you can do, and don’t let the attitude that you can’t do it stop you from trying,’” he said.

Last year, the focus was on recreational activities, and youth had the opportunity to try origami paper art and cooking, and to take part in a tug or war and sack races. This year the organization turned its attention to space exploration, bringing in Noreen Grice from the Boston Science Museum and Bernard Beck-Winchatz, a DePaul University professor and astronomer, to run workshops covering topics from the solar system to asteroids to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

During both workshops, children used tactile images taken by the Hubble telescope. “The misconception is that you need to be able to look through a telescope to do astronomy. The truth is that most of the interesting things about space are viewed through telescopes that have electronic cameras hooked up to them that detect infrared light,” said Riccobono, who also is the Director of the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “Even sighted astronomers are not looking through the telescope and using their naked eye.”

Grice who has written two books with tactile pictures of the solar system for blind children, also used basketballs, soda cans, string and paper cutouts to help explain planet sizes and distances. Holding one of the larger cutouts close to her face, Catherine Jacobson from Minnesota excitedly announced, “Jupiter is bigger than my head.” A smaller cutout of Pluto prompted the 8-year-old to compare it to “a hole punch.” Later, Grice unfolded a cutout as big as the table and draped it over the children’s heads like a tent. “A million Earths can fit inside the sun,” she said.

Debra Baker, a teacher from Springfield, Ohio, who is blind said there has been a misconception that science was not something that can be taught to blind children. “When I was growing up I didn’t get to study that at all; that’s why it’s so wonderful. It’s wonderful that it’s here for the kids now,” Baker said. Barbara Pierce, the Federation’s director of public information, said that during the convention the children and other blind participants will have an opportunity to hear from scientists and engineers who are blind. “Most of us really like to know that someone else has done it or is doing it,” she said.

Yesterday’s convention schedule also allowed teenagers to learn babysitting skills. Participants learned about safety, food preparation, and craft projects they can do with children. Riccobono said blind teenagers often do not gain the experience that their sighted peers do of holding down jobs, like babysitting, that help build confidence and teach responsibility. Ultimately, he said, that contributes to a more than 70 percent unemployment rate among working-age blind people. “It hurts then in the long run because they don’t have work experience, no matter how small,” he said. “Those jobs are critical to opening the door to other jobs.”

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