Future Reflections Special Issue: The Teen Years
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by Kayleigh Joiner
From the Editor: Kayleigh Joiner is a freshman at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She was the recipient of a 2010 NFB National Scholarship.
As I approached the Louisiana Center for the Blind, housed in a square, two-story, French colonial building, I felt a rush of anticipation. This was the place where I would spend the next six months. I could hear traffic whizzing past on the nearby street, and every few hours the loud whistle of a train.
Every student attended five classes: Braille, computer, cane travel, industrial arts (shop), and kitchen/home management. Classes were held Monday through Friday from eight to five. People who had some residual vision were required to wear sleep shades in order to learn how to do things without relying on their vision. The idea was that when the student removed the sleep shade, he or she would be able to use a combination of vision and alternative techniques to accomplish tasks.
During the first few days at the center we were assessed on our knowledge so the instructors would know where to begin. Each of us had our own individual schedule. My day began with Braille from eight to nine. Then I went to a computer class from nine to ten. Following computer I had cane travel from ten to noon. We had an hour lunch break. From one to three I had industrial arts class, and I ended the day with kitchen/home management from three to five.
All of us students lived in apartments. The apartment complex was about a mile away from the center. This was my first experience living in an apartment and having to buy and cook my own food. It took some getting used to, but eventually I got into a routine. Students usually walked to and from the center every morning and evening.
My cane travel instructor was Mrs. Arlene. She was about five feet tall, had long white hair and talked with a northern accent. The first thing she went over with me was how to use my cane properly. We worked on my cane technique for about a week. Then I moved on to learn the route back and forth to my apartment. For several weeks I worked with Mrs. Arlene out in the hot sun. At first I walked very slowly and cautiously when I traveled outside with my cane. As we walked the route I explained to Mrs. Arlene what street came next and when I needed to turn.
Soon enough Mrs. Arlene announced that today I would be doing the route independently. I was quite nervous and frightened. I recall tearing up because I was so afraid. My previous cane instructor, who taught me in grade school and high school, had always followed behind me when I did assignments for her. She had me rely on my residual vision when I crossed streets or found house addresses. I had never done anything completely on my own before, and the idea was very frightening. I didn't have the confidence to believe that I could complete the route successfully on my own.
With the route mapped out in my mind, I set off on the journey. At first I got a little bit off track, but I listened to the traffic around me and was able to get back to where I needed to be. When I returned to Mrs. Arlene, I felt accomplished and proud. I had really done it. This was my first step toward gaining confidence in myself.
Getting up to Speed
Mr. Whittle, my Braille instructor, talked with a southern accent. He had a round stomach and short gray hair. During my assessment he timed my Braille reading at forty words per minute. Since I had not grown up reading Braille and was largely self-taught, this wasn't too bad. However, I knew there was room for improvement. After timing my reading speed, Mr. Whittle had me write with a slate and stylus so he could get an idea how well I wrote in Braille. For a Braille user, a slate and stylus is equivalent to writing with a pencil and paper.
As my Braille classes continued, I read aloud every morning. Mr. Whittle occasionally timed me to check my speed.
Josh Boudreaux, my computer instructor, talked with a Cajun accent. During the first few months he had me practice navigating the Internet using a screen reader (a program that spoke aloud the information on the screen). In kitchen class I worked on preparing simple foods such as muffins, pizza, and cookies from scratch.
A Leap off the Platform
In September all of the students and staff at the center took a trip to Tennessee. On the first day of the trip we had the opportunity to go on a zip line. I was quite nervous about zip lining. I had done this kind of activity before and am normally not afraid of heights. However, this time I felt different, as I would be under sleep shades. With the encouragement of my peers and instructors, I took the leap off the platform and enjoyed the ride down. I felt the wind blowing as I sped down the cable.
The following day we took a trip to Rock City. There we walked along a trail where we could touch and smell a variety of flowers and plants. We also walked through various caves. One in particular was very narrow. In one section crystals had formed on the rocks, and we examined them by touch. There was a long, narrow suspension bridge that squeaked when people walked on it. If someone was jumping on it I felt it swaying from side to side.
On the last day of our trip we went whitewater rafting. When we were on the river I could hear the roar of the rapids. Occasionally I received the paddle splashes of a water fight being conducted by another rafting group.
In October we went to Arkansas. For the next three days we rotated between hiking, rock-climbing, and horseback riding. With the exception of the whitewater rafting, we did all of these activities under sleep shades to help us build confidence.
When we went hiking I used my cane in one hand and a trekking pole in the other. Occasionally I had to climb over wobbly rocks. I found that I could easily feel the loose rocks beneath my feet.
At the rock-climbing site we all suited up into our harnesses and helmets. Some of the rocks felt rough and others felt smooth. The rocks in general were about fifty feet high. When I was about halfway up the first rock, my legs began to tremble. I wanted to go back down, but my peers and instructors kept giving me words of encouragement that helped me make it to the top.
When it was time to go horseback riding, I was quite anxious. I am not much of an animal person, and I didn't know what to expect. Luckily I got a horse that was very gentle. As I rode I heard the clopping of the horse's hooves on the trail. I also heard the guides giving us verbal directions on which way to turn.
Measure Twice, Cut Once!
The Monday after we returned from Arkansas, I was in shop class about to cut another piece of stock using the table saw. Shop class was not intended to teach woodworking as a trade but as a confidence builder. I had prepared the machine and started to cut my piece of stock when I realized that something was wrong.
"What did you forget?" asked JD, the shop instructor.
"My measurement must be off," I mumbled.
"You haven't measured anything yet," JD reminded me.
I began to mutter about other things I might have done wrong.
"What did you forget to do?" JD pressed.
"My fence isn't over far enough," I replied.
I started the table saw again and cut my stock. I then measured it to see if it was 44/16ths inches, as it was supposed to be.
"It's too wide," I said.
"What's one step that you forgot?" JD asked again, waiting for me to realize my mistake.
I was silent as I adjusted my click ruler, thinking that I had it set incorrectly. A click ruler is a measuring device for the blind made out of a long metal rod. It has raised indentations every half inch and smaller ridges measuring sixteenth-inches.
"You had your click ruler set correctly," JD informed me.
I went through the steps out loud. "I never measured," I said with sudden realization.
"You never set the saw up to cut 44/16ths," Said JD in a matter-of-fact tone.
After I set up my saw to cut 44/16ths of an inch, I prepared to make the cut.
"How do you find your right hand safety?" JD asked.
I was silent as I moved my hands to what I thought was the correct position.
"Where are your reference points? How do you know that you are safe?" JD urged.
I was silent once more.
"There is no law out there that prevents you from saying you don't know. Not everybody knows everything," JD said. I thought he sounded pretty knowledgeable himself.
"I don't remember," I said meekly.
JD proceeded to show me where the reference points are, and I began to cut my board. Then I measured and found that I had cut my board to exactly 44/16ths. I learned a very important lesson that day. It is okay to admit that you don't know or remember something.
In mid-November I was a month away from graduating from the adult program at the Louisiana Center. One day in Braille class Mr. Whittle timed me at sixty words per minute. I felt frustrated that I wasn't getting any faster. I had been in the sixties for at least a month. I was reading the number of pages he wished me to read, and I couldn't understand why I wasn't progressing more quickly. I didn't feel like it was very respectable to be reading at that rate. Mr. Whittle assured me that in fact it was very respectable, especially since I had learned Braille as an adult and not as a young child.
Near the end of our time at the Louisiana Center, all of us in the Adult Program were expected to do a "drop-off." The drop-off was one of the greatest challenges in the program. Under sleep shades, each of us was driven to an unknown location and dropped off, with no information about where we were. We were expected to use the techniques we had learned in order to figure out how to get back.
As I listened to the van drive away I drew a deep breath. This was the final test of all the knowledge I had gained from my cane travel instruction. I listened carefully, and when I heard the sound of traffic I headed in that direction. I felt the sun's rays on my left cheek, and I knew that because of the time of day the sun was to the southeast. I heard a lot of cars traveling in one direction--south. Based on this information I deduced that I was more than likely on Trenton Street.
If I had followed my instincts I would have returned to the center a lot sooner than I did. Because I didn't listen to my instincts and trust what my environment was telling me, I ended up taking four hours to return. That day I learned that my instincts are usually right and that I should trust more than doubt.
At last it was December 17, 2010, my graduation day. Pam Allen, the director of the center, began the ceremony by talking about some of my accomplishments. When she finished she opened the floor for my instructors, family, and friends to speak. I was deeply touched as I listened to the things everyone was saying about my achievements. I realized how far I had come in the past six months. I was more confident and had a new belief in myself. I had managed to double my Braille reading speed to eighty words a minute, and I had learned that I could trust myself. Confidence and trust are the biggest things that I gained at the center. Wherever I am, I am able to put them into place.
At the end of the ceremony, each graduate received a silver bell with an eagle on top. The eagle represented the graduate's freedom to go out into the world with the skills that he or she had gained. The bell was inscribed with the graduate's name, the date, and the motto of the Louisiana Center for the Blind: "Together we are changing what it means to be blind."
My months at the Louisiana Center for the Blind changed my life forever. The Braille and computer skills I learned are a tremendous help now that I have entered college. Using my long white cane, I travel wherever I want to go. Because of my training, I now go out with my friends at night, something I never would have done in the past. I know that with confidence and a positive philosophy about blindness, blind people can accomplish anything.
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