Future Reflections          Winter/Spring 2008

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BLIND, Inc.: My Life-Changing Experience

by Sarah Leon

Editor’s Note: The National Federation of the Blind operates three rehabilitation training centers for the blind: the Colorado Center for the Blind, the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and BLIND, Inc., in Minnesota. During most of the year, the programs are available for adults only, but in the summer each of the three operate programs for children and youth. As more and more parents learn about these centers, they are asking themselves if one of them might be right for their children. Sarah’s mom asked herself that, too. Sarah Leon is a high school senior who delivered a presentation about her experiences with the Ohio Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired (BSVI) and the NFB training center for the blind in Minnesota, BLIND, Inc., at the 2006 Ohio state convention. Everyone including the BSVI director was impressed with her presentation. Barbara Pierce asked her to put her experiences on paper for publication in the Spring-Summer 2007 issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the NFB of Ohio. Here is what she said:

Sarah LeonThe airplane began to creep down the runway. I sat rigidly, gazing out the window and hoping for a safe flight. Little did I realize that I was about to embark on one of the most exciting episodes of my life.

My story really begins long before this, on a night in March when many events were set in motion. My mom spent that night sleeplessly tossing and turning, worrying about my future. I was a junior in high school and was just beginning to look into possible colleges, yet I was utterly unprepared for any college experience. When, and where, and how could I find the skills I needed? At last the idea of a school for the blind occurred to her.

The next morning she asked me what I would think of attending a school for the blind. This was not a new topic of discussion between us; I knew that I was limited in many ways. Never having learned even to cross an intersection, I was totally inadequate in travel, and I had never really worked with computers. I quickly decided that a school for the blind could be the answer I was looking for.

Since I needed blindness skills only, and since my training could not interfere with my high school education, I had to find a summer program which concentrated solely on blindness training. Mom suggested that we look into some NFB centers that she had heard of, for we could be sure of finding people there who shared our philosophy of blindness and who would give me the right kind of training. To our delight, we discovered that all three centers had the type of program we wanted.

Barbara Pierce has always been a source of wisdom for me on all issues related to blindness, so I called her to ask her advice about which center I should choose. After assuring me that training was a wonderful idea, she said that all three of the centers were fantastic and that I should call them for information and make my own choice. This I did, contacting all of the centers’ directors and finding out as much as I could about the programs. While all of them sounded very interesting, BLIND, Inc.’s College Prep/Life Skills class attracted my attention. Since college preparation was my main purpose in seeking training, I decided that BLIND, Inc., was ideally suited to meet my needs.
When I called BLIND, Inc., to ask them for application information, they suggested that I contact the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired of Ohio (BSVI) about funding for the program. They encouraged me to apply to the center in the meantime, saying that I could let them know about the funding later.

While I appreciated their kind advice, I was wary of becoming involved with an agency that I knew nothing about. Once more I called Mrs. Pierce for her advice. She soon explained to me the purpose of BSVI—to assist blind people to gain employment—its buy-Ohio policy, my right to make an informed choice about services and service providers, and my need to be approved for services. She also prepared me for the length and difficulty of the undertaking, especially if we had to appeal an unfavorable decision.

Armed with this new information, I called BSVI and asked to speak with a counselor. The counselor listened as I described my needs and desires and then set an appointment when we could discuss these things in person. In the interval I applied and was accepted to BLIND, Inc. Nothing remained now except to learn whether BSVI would fund my training.

When the day of the appointment arrived, my parents went with me to the meeting. The counselor began by asking the usual questions—how had I been educated, what was my level of blindness skills, and what were my goals and desires in coming to BSVI? She explained that any services I received would have to be part of an IPE (an Individualized Plan for Employment). I would have to set a vocational goal and show how blindness training fit with that goal before I could receive any funding. Also, because of BSVI’s Buy-Ohio policy, I would have to demonstrate that BLIND, Inc., could help me reach my vocational goal in ways that no in-state program could match.

Few sixteen-year-olds really know what they want to do with their life, and I was no exception. I was strongly opposed to being channeled into a vocation too early, instead of allowing events and college experience to guide me naturally into the right form of employment. Yet I needed the training, so I agreed to try to designate a possible future career. My counselor then told me that I had been approved for services and assured me that she would do everything in her power to help me get funding for training. She also asked me to compile a document listing my reasons for choosing BLIND, Inc., instead of an Ohio program such as that conducted by the Cleveland Sight Center (CSC).

Returning home, we immediately put together the required document; explaining that BLIND, Inc., could give me sleepshade training, blind instructors as role models, apartment-living experience, and preparation for interacting with college professors and fellow students. After waiting a couple of weeks without any response from my counselor, we finally contacted her for feedback. To our dismay we learned that what we had sent was insufficient. She now asked us to give her a point-by-point comparison of BLIND, Inc.’s program with an Ohio program like the CSC’s new summer program. Excitedly she described this new program and urged us to research it in detail.

I was somewhat shaken, but I began at once to call the directors of both centers, collecting as much information as I could. Each phone call only confirmed more clearly my first conclusion: the CSC program could not meet my training needs. We laid this out in a letter, especially stressing the sleepshade training. This type of training allows students to learn alternative blindness techniques which make it possible for them to function independently and safely, regardless of further vision loss. This training is also helpful when a student has just enough vision to be dangerous when attempting to use it for traveling. I fall into both these categories. The director of CSC’s summer program told me that he did not believe in sleepshades. Furthermore, only three of CSC’s thirteen instructors are blind, and I was told that a travel instructor must be sighted to tell me how to move in my environment. At BLIND, Inc., seven of the nine instructors, including the travel instructor, are blind. Even in areas such as recreation and apartment life I found that BLIND, Inc.’s program was challenging and encouraged total independence, while CSC’s was unexciting and encouraged reliance on semi-functional vision.

Shortly after I sent this letter, BLIND, Inc., contacted me to tell me that they had to know within two weeks whether I could come that summer. Not being able to reach my counselor, I was referred to her supervisor, to whom I explained the new urgency of my situation. The supervisor told me that we would have to write an IPE and provide a cost analysis of the two programs before anything else could be done. This was alarming, since writing an IPE can take weeks, but I sent through the cost analysis immediately. I noticed that BLIND, Inc.’s eight-week program cost two hundred dollars less than CSC’s six-week program. Since my counselor had suggested BSVI might cover the equivalent of an Ohio program in funding BLIND, Inc., this was highly encouraging.

Two days later my counselor called me. Excitedly she told me that I had been approved for 100% funding of the BLIND, Inc., program, and she did not mention the IPE. Gratefully I thanked her for the wonderful news, thrilled that BSVI had come through with the funding just in time.

One month later, after much happy anticipation and preparation, I was saying good bye to my parents and boarding a Minneapolis-bound plane. I had not flown since I was a little girl, and because of my close friendships with my siblings, I had never spent even one night without someone from my family. Perhaps these were the causes of my nervousness as I sat looking out the tiny window. Yet we landed in Minneapolis without the slightest incident.

After sitting in the gate for a long time, waiting for someone from BLIND, Inc., to come and get me, I at last called the center to find out where my escort was. They told me that someone was waiting for me at baggage claim. After another long wait I secured one of the airline staff to accompany me downstairs.

There I met Dick Davis, the assistant director of BLIND, Inc., who drove me to the center and gave me what felt like a whirlwind tour of its lower floor. Then he took me to my apartment, giving me a long, terribly confusing explanation of the route the students took to school. Not until he had dropped me off at my apartment did I begin to feel at home, as I unpacked and made friends with my roommate.

My impressions during those first few days are a whirl of activity and directions, most of which I did not comprehend. Minneapolis was like a vast labyrinth of streets, names, and routes. The buses seemed terrible to me. It was like a strange game where I had to leap on and off at exactly the right instant or be sucked into the heart of the labyrinth.

Still, from the first day that I began my training, I fell in love with the center. It is difficult to say what caused me to feel this way. Perhaps it was the practical new skills I was learning daily, which were revolutionizing my ability, or perhaps it was the novelty and challenge, yet I found myself enjoying the experience immensely.

Intermingled with this enjoyment was the incredible amount of work that I was doing. I had not realized just how much I didn’t know until I arrived at the center, and I wanted to learn as much as I could in the short time I had. When the staff saw my hunger to learn, they pushed me at a faster pace, doing everything in their power to assist me. Their efforts were undoubtedly what allowed me to accomplish as much as I did.

My instructors were willing to sacrifice even their own personal time to give me the training I needed. For instance, the shop instructor stayed for hours overtime, helping me to finish a beautiful Norwegian-style bookcase. On another occasion, my last day at the center, I reminded my computer instructor that I had not learned how to do email, and I had only an hour and a half left. He immediately dropped what he was doing, leaving his break early, and taught me how to work my email account.

The staff’s impact went far beyond teaching me skills, however. They completely changed my ideas of independence and blindness. Before coming to the center, I had unconsciously set limits for my independence, but the daily exposure to blind instructors who lived truly independently shattered those limits, an experience that I could never have gotten from sighted instructors. Sometimes it was the little things, like watching the guys run down the stairs, that affected me most. They inspired me to learn to live independently as well, and I eagerly accepted the challenge.

My training was not free of difficulties. One day, after I had spent two miserable hours wandering around on what should have been a one-hour assignment, I shared my frustrations with my travel instructor. To my shock, he replied, “Well, that’s wonderful!” As I stared at him in disbelief, he explained, “I like all my students to have at least half a dozen similar experiences before they graduate. Look at what happened; you got lost, but you used your knowledge and creativity to get unlost. That’s really valuable.” From this I realized that part of BLIND, Inc.’s training philosophy was that experience, even if it is failure, is the best teacher for life.

Interspersed with the work and the challenges of my training was a lot of laughter and fun. One day the entire school went out to a water park. One of the rides there was an alpine slide, a long concrete and fiberglass track which ran in a series of curves and drops down a small mountain, down which one rode on a small sled on wheels. When we arrived at the top of the hill after a long ski lift, we ran across the platform and grabbed our sleds. I was wearing my sleepshades, since this was a school recreation event, and I could only hear the others whiz down the track into silence. Then I was off, nervously holding my brake at half-throttle. After two fun and uneventful rides, I decided to make the third one worth remembering. I shot down the slide, going as fast as I dared and careening around curves at a thrilling speed. Suddenly I felt the ground level beneath me, and I pushed the speed full-throttle. My friends turned around just in time to see me come shooting down the last stretch of track and collide into the all-too-solid safety cushion at the track’s end. For one breathtaking moment I was airborne. Then I landed once more on my sled, amid the others’ hysterical peals of laughter.

The climax of my training came during my last week at the center, when I was given a drop-off. The drop-off, to me, is really a symbol of the entire BLIND, Inc., philosophy, a philosophy which says that students should be placed in lifelike situations where they learn problem-solving skills, build confidence, and discover new blindness techniques, also known as the “structured-discovery method.” BLIND, Inc., does not believe in making things artificially easy for its students; instead it gives them a wide base of practical knowledge and experiences that they will draw upon for the rest of their lives.

Thus one morning I found myself standing on an unknown street corner in Minneapolis. I was allowed only one question to get me back to the school, and it could not be, “Where am I?” or “What street is this?” Quickly I began to walk back towards the nearest busy street and located a bus stop. When the bus arrived, I rode it for a short time, figured out where I was and walked the rest of the way back to the center.

Still buoyed by the extra confidence which this success gave me, I left the center at the end of the week, but I did not leave as the same person who had arrived. I carried away with me a host of new skills. From not knowing how to cross an intersection, I had progressed to my first drop-off. From knowing nothing of computers, I had mastered the basics of Word and been introduced to the Web. Finally, I had discovered my love for woodworking, improved my Braille speed, and learned new cooking techniques.

Supporting me in these new skills was a valuable network of friends and instructors. Such resources should not be underestimated since difficulty and discouragement do not cease after graduation from an NFB center. As I discovered, it is all too easy to begin to slowly let go of one’s independence without the support and challenge of others.

By the time I left the center, my confidence and freedom had been transformed. This time, when my plane landed, I walked alone from the gate to baggage claim to meet my parents. I carried with me a new zest for the unknown and the challenging. Even my perception of myself as a person who is blind had changed. The burdening belief that my blindness was a weakness was gone, replaced by a healthy knowledge of my ability and independence. Finally, I left the center with the living knowledge that whatever my dreams are, whatever God’s calling is upon my life, I can pursue those dreams and that calling unhindered by my blindness.

NFB Training Centers for the Blind

Colorado Center for the Blind
2233 West Sheppard Ave
Littleton, Colorado 80120
Phone: (303) 778-1130

100 East 22nd St.
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404
Phone: (612) 872-0100
Toll Free: 1-800-597-9558
Fax: (612) 872-9358

Louisiana Center for the Blind
101 South Trenton Street
Ruston, Louisiana 71270
Phone toll free: (800) 234-4166
Phone local: (318) 251-2891
Fax: (318) 251-0109

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