Future Reflections Winter 2010
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by Joanne Wilson
Introduction by Carol Castellano: Our next speaker is going to talk to us about informed choice in the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and the IPE (Individualized Plan for Employment). No matter where your child is along the continuum, probably one of those two is going to be relevant. Joanne Wilson has a long string of achievements behind her name. She was the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and was founder and past director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She is now the director of Affiliate Action at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, doing wonderful things to help our organization thrive and grow. It's a great pleasure for me to present an old friend of mine, Joanne Wilson.
The mouse looked through the crack and saw the farmer and his wife opening a package. What food could this be? But he was devastated to see that the package contained a mousetrap. He retreated to the farmyard and shouted, "There's a mousetrap in the house! There's a mousetrap in the house!"
The chicken clucked and said, "I can see you're concerned about this, Mouse, but it's of no concern to me."
The mouse ran to the pig and shouted, "There's a mousetrap in the house!" The pig said, "Too bad. But it's not of any concern to me."
The mouse ran to the cow, and he said, "There's a mousetrap in the house!" The cow said, "I can see your concern, but it's no skin off my nose."
The little mouse went back very sadly to face the mousetrap alone. That night there was the sound of the trap catching its prey. The farmer's wife rushed to the trap. In the dark she did not see that the trap had captured the tail of a poisonous snake. The snake bit the farmer's wife. The farmer's wife developed a bad fever.
As you know, when someone gets a fever, what do you feed her? Chicken soup! The farmer got his ax and went to the farmyard to get the main ingredient.
The wife's illness continued. Many people came to visit her. The farmer needed to feed them all. He went to the farmyard once again and slaughtered the pig.
Unfortunately, the farmer's wife passed away from her illness. There was a large funeral, and of course the folks at the funeral needed to be fed. Once again the farmer went to the farmyard, and this time he got the cow.
The moral of this story is that when one of us is threatened, all of us are at risk. Each of our problems is of concern to another. Each of us is a vital thread in the tapestry of another's life.
I grew up as a blind child with retinitis pigmentosa. I did not get many services as I was growing up, but eventually, at the age of nineteen, I came in contact with the National Federation of the Blind. I went to the first training center that the NFB ran, in Iowa. It was headed by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, one of the dynamic leaders of the NFB. I graduated from that program and went back to college. I wanted to become an elementary-school teacher. There weren't any blind elementary-school teachers in my state at that time. That was many years ago! But I thought, I can do this. I took all my classes and got great grades and fulfilled all my requirements until it was time for my student teaching.
I got called in by my advisor and the dean of the college. They sat me down, and they said, "Joanne, we're not going to let you student teach, because you're blind. You won't be able to get a job when you're finished anyway, and there's no teacher who will take a blind student teacher."
Well, I went immediately to the National Federation of the Blind, to Dr. Jernigan. Everyone was there for me. Dr. Jernigan advocated with the school system and with the university, and I student taught that semester. I finished my student teaching and became one of the first blind teachers in the state of Iowa. [Applause.]
I knew there was a mousetrap in the house. I knew I had the right to become a student teacher. I knew that I could teach, and I knew that I had the right to advocate. Like the little mouse, I could run out into the farmyard and yell, "There's a mousetrap in the house!" But unlike the little mouse, I had people who were there to help me. They knew that if one of us was at risk we were all at risk. We were bound together to give each other choices.
I have a brother who is blind also. We grew up in the same household, with the same parents and the same set of relatives and friends. We both went to college and we both obtained graduate degrees. We both went through training at the Iowa Department for the Blind, the first NFB training center. We both met the National Federation of the Blind. I became a member of the Federation, but my brother didn't.
My brother has been blind for fifty years. He has never worked. He's living in a little apartment in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He's never gotten married. He will not use his cane, he will not use Braille, he hardly even leaves his house. He visited us for Christmas last year, and he needed to leave to go home early after the holidays. He said that the lady who's been getting him his groceries for the past twenty years was going to Florida for three months. He needed to get back before she left for her vacation so that he could buy enough groceries to pack into his freezer and his hall to last for the three months while she was gone! My brother does not live the kind of independent life that you or I would want for our children or for our blind rehab clients.
We all have choices. You can look around this convention and see the kind of weird blind person; the kind of helpless, dependent blind person; and you can see the blind person who is traveling and raising a family and going to work. You can even see the amazing, outstanding kind of blind person. It isn't blindness that makes the difference in our lives. It's the choices that we make. It's the choices that we make in the attitudes we develop, the training we get, and the people we spend our time with.
A famous psychologist once said that we as blind people all have choices in life. He divided the choices that we make into four basic categories. He said that the first choice we make, at the first stage, is that of radical acceptance. That's when we're deciding whether to give up the struggle. We always say that the truth will set us free, but sometimes it makes us really angry and irritated while we're going through that process! You know and I know that sometimes it's hard to use that word blind. It's hard to carry that white cane that makes us stick out and look different! And we certainly don't want to tote around those large-print books or to read Braille in front of people. Sometimes we don't even want to be seen with other blind people! We have to decide whether we should give up the struggle; we're dealing with the choice of radical acceptance.
The second choice that we all need to make as blind people is whether we decide to change the way we think about blindness. Do we begin to see that it's respectable to be blind? Do we really believe that, with the proper training and opportunity, a blind person can do what he or she would have done with sight? Do we really believe that the main problem with blindness isn't the blindness itself, but the misconceptions and misunderstandings that exist about blindness, the old stereotyped notions? Do we see blindness as just a characteristic or physical nuisance, or do we see it as my brother sees it - as a tragedy in life? We need the time to sort it all out and develop our own personal, defined beliefs. That is a choice.
Our third choice is to change our behavior. If we want equal rights, do we really take equal responsibility? Do we get the Coke for ourselves, as Fred Schroeder talked about earlier this morning? Do we take the freebies that are offered to us as blind people? What do we do about the handicapped parking thing? As blind people, do we need that privilege? Do we need special currency? What about quiet cars - do we have the right to protest those or not? Do we need all this accessibility? Do we have the right to advocate, to try to get greater access for blind people? Do we change our behavior so we see that it's our obligation to educate others about blindness? Do we really believe that we can use alternative techniques and can blend in with the rest of the world? Do we feel that it's our obligation to give back to others?Of course, the fourth choice we have as blind people is to sit and be miserable. That's the choice my brother made. It's not the choice that I made, and I hope it's not the choice that your children make, or that your rehabilitation clients make. I am so glad that you are here at this conference, because you are going to have the opportunity to get the greatest gift - a genuine belief about blindness, and the chance to know about the choices we have. Most importantly, you can come to know that when you face the mousetrap you're not alone. We in the National Federation of the Blind are here to help you with your choices. Thank you for being here!
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