Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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Fingers on Buzzers!
Kerri Regan's Jeopardy! Debut

by Anna Cheadle

Seventeen-year-old Kerri Regan was the picture of poise at her Jeopardy! debut, January 27, 2005, (filmed in October, 2004).  She answered questions (that is, questioned answers) confidently; she chatted with Alex charmingly.  She even knocked off a Daily Double with hardly a second thought. 

The game of Jeopardy! is all about not having second thoughts.  Ask Kerri, she'll tell you.  Once the cameras are rolling and the fingers are poised, you have to act before you even know the answer.  It requires a certain amount of faith that when the moment comes, you will be up to the challenge, and that if you're not, you've got the resiliency to bounce back.  Your first thought never even has a chance, if your second thought gets in the way.

Kerri Regan
Kerri Regan picks up some Braille books at the 2003 NFB Convention Braille book flea market.

The blind know the power of not thinking twice; not thinking twice is assumption in action.  There was a time when an employer assumed, without a second thought, that a blind person was unemployable.  These days, employers do think twice.  They stop themselves.  They worry about what is PC, and wonder if they can ask a candidate how they will be able to find the bathroom during the work day.  This kind of thinking twice is useful only in transit, so to speak.  While thinking twice is better than assumed inequality, it is not nearly so worthy a goal as assumed equality.  The ultimate goal is to have equality at first thought. 

So it is with a child learning the skills of blindness.  There is a place for second thoughts; there is a time to consider one's abilities and rethink what is possible.  But the time for this thinking and rethinking is during routine, not at the brink of opportunity.  Your child should never reduce a genuine possibility to a passing thought because he or she lacks confidence in the skills of blindness.  

This principle is manifest in Kerri Regan's Jeopardy! experience.  After watching Jeopardy! with her for several years, Kerri Regan's aunt and grandmother stated the obvious.  "Kerri, you're really good at this.  You should go on the show."  When Kerri needed to use the Internet to sign up for try-outs, it was no problem.  She didn't give it a second thought, as it should be.  Since the test was completely top-secret, they couldn't have it Brailled.  But no problem, don't give it a second thought: Regan had her dad read the questions while she answered.  After Kerri had made the top 9 in the region, she received a phone call from Jeopardy! asking what accommodations she would need, if she happened to be chosen as a finalist.  Well, no toughie there, Kerri hardly gave it a second thought.  She would need a sheet with Brailled category titles, and the option to use her BrailleNote for Final Jeopardy.  Kerri's years of Braille training (including one infamous summer when she read 22 books) prepared her not to have to think twice when opportunities were thrown her way.  What accommodation would she need?  She would need to read the categories–just like all the contestants–and she would need to write her Final Jeopardy answer–just like all the contestants.  What does a blind person need to read and write?  Braille.  Simple as that.

A month went by before Kerri heard anything more.  Finally, in September the call came.  It was Jeopardy! and they wanted Kerri– they wanted her next month!  Kerri, faced with having to travel across the country to Los Angeles, one of the biggest, busiest cities in the nation, didn't give it a second thought.  She had traveled before, like to NFB conventions in Dallas, Chicago, Charlotte, and Louisville.  Though she did not know what LA had in store, Kerri's extensive mobility training, practice, and willingness to try new things enabled her to act with a certain amount of faith.  When the moment came, she'd be up for it, and she didn't have to think twice to say, "Yes." 

The problem with thinking twice is that it expands.  Second thoughts become third thoughts–fourth, and fifth thoughts.  Before you know it, the mind is filled with thoughts and the will is left with nothing.  Opportunities move much faster than these thoughts.  Indeed, the only way to keep pace is to have faith in one's abilities. 

For Kerri, like most children and young adults, that faith begins with encouragement at home.  Though she credits "just watching TV and soaking up a lot of useless trivia" as part of her success on the show, there is more to it.  It was Regan's aunt and grandmother who first suggested she go on the show, but she also watched regularly with her mom.  And her brother.  Oh–and in the weeks leading up to her appearance, her father would call her from his job as a firefighter and go through the day's trivia questions with her.  Her Braille teacher of 13 years, Judi Ross, was so proud when she heard Kerri was to be on Jeopardy! that she immediately emailed her teacher listserv with the news.  This kind of diversified and continuous encouragement leads to don't-think-twice confidence.

This network of support goes far beyond a half hour daily trivia session (though the value of half an hour every day practicing anything is not to be underestimated).  Regan can at least partially attribute her success to continual involvement in organizations that provide resources and networks of support.  Involvement is a family trait: Kerri's mother was instrumental in the development of the NFB Long Island Parents Division.  So when Kerri went on Jeopardy!, she had not only the faithful eyes of her family watching, but also the NFB, the Guide Dog Foundation, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D).  Kerri uses resources from these organizations as well as the National Library Service every day to minimize blindness to the level of a physical nuisance. 

Indeed, Kerri has never made a big fuss out of her blindness, an action that by its very nature is a demand for equality.  When the school year starts out with an autobiography exercise, points out Kerri's Braille teacher Judi Ross, Kerri mentions that she loves to read, likes trivia, and sings in the choir–but not that she's blind.  By dealing with such exercises in this way, Kerri doesn't let blindness define her.  As Ross says, "[to Kerri] it's just like being tall or having brown hair."

"There might be some people out there watching who thought, 'Wow, I could never be on Jeopardy!' But you can.  You just have to go out there and try new things.  Work on your mobility skills and your reading, especially, and you can do anything you want," Regan told me.

Kerri lives these words and takes challenges in stride.  When her AP Government textbook failed to be Brailled this year, she relied on self-advocacy skills she learned through her teacher, Judi Ross, her parents, and her NFB involvement.  Thinking quickly and creatively, Kerri capitalized on her classmates' need for community service hours.  She asked Honor

Society members to volunteer to record chapters of the textbook on tape.  The hours counted toward their Honor Society memberships and Kerri could read her text independently.  It was truly a win-win situation, with some peer education about blindness thrown in for good measure.

The benchmark of independence is the freedom and will to take advantage of opportunities without thinking twice.  This independence might not take your child to Jeopardy!, but it should take them somewhere they are excited about going.  Kerri says, "It is so important for parents to encourage their kids to do whatever they want."  A good education in the skills of blindness can make this "doing" possible.  Such an education lets the child's strengths flourish, like Kerri's penchant for "soaking up trivia."  It's not that Kerri's good education got her on to Jeopardy!, but rather, it let her build strengths and pursue interests without blindness stopping her to think twice.

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