Future Reflections Special Issue: The Teen Years
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by Rylie Robinson
Reprinted from The Student Slate, Winter 2010/2011
From the Editor: Rylie Robinson is a recent graduate of the Indiana School for the Blind. In this article she describes her first experience of self-advocacy as she attempted to join a student tour of Europe.
My brother, who is three years older than I am, is also totally blind. By the time I was born, my parents had come to terms with the thought of blindness. When I came into the world, I was immediately treated like everyone else. I had most of the opportunities other kids have.
When I was old enough to start school I entered the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where my brother was already enrolled. Like my home the school for the blind was a safe haven, a place where blindness was completely accepted. To put it bluntly, I was largely sheltered from the reality of being a blind person in a sighted world. I grew up blind, had a blind brother, and lived with blind people at school five days a week. When I encountered discrimination for the first time, it came as a complete shock. I wasn't prepared for it at all.
During the summer before my junior year in high school, I received a letter from the People to People Ambassador Program, inviting me to take a trip to London and Paris. According to the letter, the trip would be an innovative educational experience that would teach me about the culture and history of these majestic European cities. For years I had dreamed of going to London, so right away I knew I'd do all I could to make this trip a reality.
I had to think about many factors before embarking on this journey, including the cost of the trip and the fact that I would have to miss some school. Then there was the fact that I'd be the only blind student in the group. The first two factors, especially the cost, far overshadowed the last one. I barely gave it any thought. I simply figured any concerns would smooth themselves out once I met everyone and showed that I was independent.
A few months after I applied for the program, my mother (not even myself) received a call from the main office of the People to People agency. By this time I had talked to the group leaders, and most of my plans were in place. As far as I was concerned, I was definitely going. But apparently it wasn't definite at all. The agency stated that it would be a huge liability for them to take a blind person along. The agency spokesperson said that I had to have a sighted person with me to assist me as needed. Furthermore, People to People wasn't even going to pay for this assistant. Due to my blindness I was expected to pay double what everyone else paid for the trip.
I had no idea what to do. I knew I was being treated extremely unfairly, but I didn't know how to proceed. I had never been in a situation like this before. The people at the agency didn't think I could take care of myself at all. They thought I'd need an assistant for everything. They even asked my mother if I could dress myself without help! She told me, "I didn't even give them the courtesy of answering the question."
We tried to reason with them, and eventually we got them to cut the price we'd have to pay for an assistant in half. They said that was as far as they would go with the negotiations. It seemed we were stuck, with no way to go forward. They said we could take their terms or I could cancel my application.
At this point we asked the NFB for advocacy assistance. I was put in touch with a lawyer who knew one of the administrators at the school for the blind. This lawyer called the agency, which was represented by another lawyer. During these conversations, my independence was the main topic. After the two lawyers had their preliminary talks, my lawyer called and asked me questions about my abilities. "If you got lost," he asked me, "how would you react? Could you get out of the situation in a calm manner? If the sighted people in your group decided they didn't want to help you at all, would you be able to do everything by yourself?" I had to think over these questions carefully. I had never really traveled independently before, and I had always been around other blind people and accepting sighted people. I realized that if it came down to it, I would do whatever it took for me to be able to go to London and Paris, even if I had to prove my independence along the way. I answered the lawyer's questions with an honest yes, and he relayed my answers to the agency lawyer. In the end, I was able to take my trip to the city I'd been dreaming about, and I had a wonderful time. I never got lost, and though I did a lot of things independently, I was able to get help if I asked for it.
Though the discrimination was unnecessary and due to sighted ignorance, it was definitely a learning experience for me. It forced me to think about myself and to evaluate myself as an independent blind person. I had to ask myself whether I really was confident enough and skilled enough to take on such an adventure. I came to the conclusion that, even though I asked for help in most situations before, I could do what I needed to do independently if it came down to it. This self-evaluation really boosted my confidence. It showed me just how determined I could be when it came to doing what was necessary in a situation. It was a rather difficult and arduous journey, but in the end I came out the victor. Faced with blatant discrimination, I was able to pull out the positives. I proved to myself and to everyone else that I could do what I said I could do.
At one point I was very close to canceling the whole thing. I began to think the trip wasn't worth all the energy it was costing. But I realized there was much more at stake than going to London and Paris. I was proving to myself and to other blind people that confidence and determination are the keys. Those attributes will help us change what it means to be blind.
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