Future Reflections Summer 2011
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by Kimberly Flores
From the Editor: Kimberly Flores is president of the NFB of Texas. This article is based on a speech she delivered in April 2011 at a joint conference of the Texas Association of Blind Students and the Texas Parents of Blind Children.
Life is full of changes: transitions from high school to college, college to work, college to grad school, internships in new places, moves to new towns, elections to new positions--you get the picture. It's not always easy. In fact, I'm inclined to agree with the writer James Baldwin, who said, "Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock."
In navigating the transitions in my life I have learned some valuable lessons that I'm going to share with you today. I hope these ideas will help make some of your paths a little smoother.
Transitions are inevitable. Sometimes as blind people we are swept along by change. We do not have control, and we are unlikely to feel comfortable in the new situation or happy with the outcome. However, when we take an active role, we manage, or affect, the change. At those times we shape our own futures. We take responsibility, and we learn in the process. I'm going to present some simple strategies for bringing about change, using an old-fashioned acrostic based on the word AFFECT.
First, let's start with the A. The first thing you need in order to affect change is a good, positive, can-do attitude. You often encounter people who either believe you cannot do something or think you are amazing for imagining you might be able to try. These are not helpful attitudes. You need to believe in yourself, and you need to maintain and project an attitude of confidence. This does not mean you have all the answers. It means that you trust in your abilities and your problem-solving skills, and you know you will work things out.
When I started college at Texas A&M University, a huge campus of about 45,000 students with no real grid system, I'd wake up every morning with my heart racing. I knew I had a whole day of adventure ahead of me. In other words, I was probably going to be lost for a good part of the day. I knew how to find the buildings where my classes met, but I also needed to run errands, and I wanted to get involved in activities. I wanted to push myself from the very beginning, and I was terrified. It was hard and uncomfortable, and by the way, the temperature was about 108 degrees every day.
One afternoon I was looking for the Analytical Science Building for an extra credit lab class. I stopped a passerby to ask for directions. It turned out I had stopped a freshman, and he didn't know either, so he called over a friend. The friend, Dan, didn't know, so he called over Sarah. Sarah didn't know, so she asked Joey, who had a map in his backpack. Pretty soon everyone was peering at the map, and someone cracked, "How many Aggies does it take to find the Analytical Science Building?" Moral of the story? It's not always a blindness thing!
Toward the end of my college career I lived off campus. On the first day of the new semester I was running late. Rushing to class, I pushed open the door to a huge auditorium. The professor was already lecturing, so I went about halfway down the room to look for a seat. Students started whispering about empty seats, which apparently I had missed. Carefully and quietly I made my way from one side of the auditorium all the way across to the other. Then I turned around, based on more whispered instructions, and began the trek again, one row up. About halfway back across it occurred to me to make sure this class was Behavioral Statistics. It was Linguistics.
In my haste, I'd assumed I was late and bolted into the wrong class. I jogged back up the steps and out the door.
This incident would have devastated me my first week at A&M, but now I shrugged it off and laughed in the hallway. The change, I think, was the difference in my attitude. Over my years at college I had developed a new level of comfort with change. Since college I've adjusted five times to new jobs. Every first day was scary, but each one was also exciting. I had a sense of confidence and poise because I knew I had new opportunities. You only gain this kind of attitude from trying new things over and over.
I like to say that the F in NFB stands for flexibility. We blind people are creative problem-solvers. The best way for us to thrive is to have several solutions ready for any given problem or situation. If someone calls to schedule an interview, how will you get there? Suppose you are only comfortable using a special transit service, a door-to-door public transportation option for people with disabilities that is available in many cities. What if the interview is to take place tomorrow morning, and your special transit rides have to be scheduled thirty-six hours in advance? What will you do? If you always depend on relatives or friends for rides, what will you do if they all have obligations?
I recommend having three solutions to every scenario. This may sound like a lot of trouble, but if you plan this way it will become second nature. After a while you won't even notice you're doing it.
I don't want to sound like a hopeless pessimist, but I'll let you in on a strategy I use. I call it the worst case scenario game. I imagine the absolute worst case scenario and mentally walk myself through how I'd handle it. I figure out how I could salvage the situation. It may sound crazy, but it works.
The second F in Affect stands for finely tuned skills. Take the time to master the skills of blindness. These may include assistive technology, Braille, independent travel, advocacy, self-presentation, and daily living skills. I often meet blind people who only master one or two of these skill areas. I'm thinking of the blind computer genius who cannot make a grilled cheese sandwich or the adventurous blind pioneer who will travel anywhere independently but cannot read in either Braille or print, so is basically illiterate. Neither one of these people is very employable. It takes time to cultivate skills, and the process may be frustrating. However, when we master these essential elements we ensure that we can keep pace with our peers the rest of our lives.
It's very important to learn to accept constructive criticism. This can be a struggle for anyone, blind or sighted; but as blind people we especially need feedback about our dress, presentation, and finished products. We can only improve if we can take this feedback and learn from it. Not many of us enjoy hearing that we could have done better. I know I don't! Nevertheless, through some pretty tough conversations, I've sharpened some of my most marketable skills. Ask for feedback. By welcoming feedback you put yourself in control. You give people permission, on your terms, to share their opinions with you. Always thank them, even if what they tell you is the exact opposite of what you want to hear. Review their comments later, after you've had time to cool off. Generally there is some truth to their feedback, and it can help you grow.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "People wish to be settled. It is only as far as they are unsettled that there is any hope for them." I absolutely believe this is true, especially for blind people. Exerting yourself means pushing yourself to achieve clear goals. It requires a great deal of self-reflection and self-awareness. Sometimes I hear students say, "I'm going to take some time off. I need a break!" This thinking is very common among students between high school and college or between college or grad school and the workforce. The problem is that when you take a break you're not exerting yourself, and you're not building up your résumé. Time stretches on. When you've had enough rest, the world will not automatically supply you with an opportunity.
When sighted people take time off, they nearly always hold a retail job or work in a restaurant twenty or so hours a week. They're getting out and about, networking in a way, and gaining résumé filler.
You should always have school, an internship, a volunteer position, a paying job, or, better yet, a combination of these things. If you do not, members of the NFB can and will help you find something. The less you have going on in your life, the harder it is to find something constructive to do.
Before I graduated from college I was accepted into a public policy internship program through A&M. It was a paid internship in Washington, D.C., with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. I was in Washington for about five months. It was enough time for me to decide that I like policy work, but not on Capitol Hill. Here is an example of how exerting myself worked to my advantage. Interns were responsible for going through all of the major newspapers and literally clipping out stories about the senator. (I have no idea why.) I was stumped when I tried to come up with an alternative technique for this one, so I proposed that I do something different and better. I offered to fill in for staff at various committee hearings. I would take notes and write up summaries. As a result I had a much more educational and fulfilling experience than the other interns received.
I also secured two other jobs during college. One was an AmeriCorps position with the March of Dimes. The start date was flexible, so I was able to begin in August, allowing me to direct the youth programs that summer at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
So far so good, right? When I finished my March of Dimes stint I decide that one year with AmeriCorps was enough. I applied to Saint Edwards University to obtain a master’s degree in human service administration. I moved to Austin in October and took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). I had to wait nearly a year to enter school, so in the meantime I started looking for a job.
Soon I got a call and heard, "Your résumé looks fabulous! I think you'll be a great fit! We can't wait to meet you!" But when I went in, the person conducting the interview told me flat out that she didn't think a blind person could do the job, working at a home for abused and emotionally disturbed children. I was caught totally off guard, so the rest of the interview did not go well. Needless to say, I didn't get the job. (But hey, good news! She found me inspiring!)
I did not find a job until February. All things considered, five months is not a terribly long time to search for work, but it scared me. Ultimately I was successful because of the groundwork I had laid ahead of time--exerting myself and planning, building a résumé with no down time.
My first job in Austin was a wonderful opportunity. I was part of a collaboration of nonprofit organizations, but I didn't earn much money. About a year into that job I got a contract job with another nonprofit for a few hours a month. I was working two jobs and finishing up my master’s studies. When I completed my degree I got my first job with the state of Texas. Last September I got another opportunity with a different state agency, the Texas Workforce Commission, which is where I work today.
I've been very fortunate, and I've also worked hard to get where I am. I've exerted myself and pushed beyond my comfort zone every step of the way. If you are bored and what you do is not challenging to you, do more. If you watch twenty hours of TV a week or sleep twelve hours a day, consider restructuring your time. Exert yourself to improve, and make your next transition easier.
When I was a student I got invited to all kinds of conferences for blind youth. I was the only blind student in my school district, and of course people thought I was amazing. I got rock-star treatment. When I went to conferences I ran into the same thing. I remember one conference where the parents and children were working together to describe how to make a fruit salad. They weren't really making one, God forbid! They were just talking through the process, nice and easy.
Then, when I attended my first NFB convention, it was a different experience! For once I wasn't the brightest star in the room--far from it, actually. I was holding onto my mom's arm, with my cane folded tightly in my hand. People were flying past me with dogs and canes, and they knew where they were going! They had confidence and poise that I didn't have.
I was faced with a choice. I could have become irritated and resentful toward all of those confident, capable blind people; or I could push aside my fear and insecurities and try to learn from them. That's what I did, and it changed my life, drastically and unmistakably. I'm sure I would have gone to college either way, and I probably would have found a job, but I would have been ruled by a fear of change. I would not have known how to affect transition.
I hope that this conference is a positive experience for you. We are all like you, and we are all different. Like people in any group, sometimes we agree, and sometimes we disagree. But when you have struggles, we will support you. When you want to quit, we will help you carry through. We believe in you. When you don't know how you can do something, we know that you can and you will. Within our membership, there are blind people doing almost anything you can imagine. We can provide mentors and friends. A few minutes of networking can save you hours of brainstorming and work!
Finally, the T in Affect stands for time. Learn to manage your time effectively as soon as possible. Eliminate the habit of procrastination. As soon as you fall into procrastination, you limit your flexibility. When technology fails you, and it will, you will be in trouble unless you have prepared in advance. You'll have to explain to your professor or your boss that you don't have the assignment ready because your technology crashed and you couldn't use a public computer at the library like everyone else. We need to work in advance, and often our work needs to be reviewed visually by a reader.
My jobs involve technical writing. I've learned every formatting trick with my screen reader, JAWS. Nevertheless, I use a reader to check my projects before I submit them to my boss, and there is always something that must be touched up. Find someone to review your work who pays close attention to detail and who is brutally honest.
Some professors might not mark you down for errors that they assume are due to your blindness. Do you want mercy points or do you want to learn to be accurate?
A very important part of time management is taking time out. All of these elements: attitude, flexibility, finely tuned skills, exerting yourself, and cultivating networks, take energy. Allow yourself some time outs so you can feel comfortable and get recharged. Choose friendly environments where you feel right at home. Sometimes it's a relief to share your great blind stories with friends. I have one or two blind friends who will always sympathize when I share my most painful or embarrassing blind moments. Better yet, they'll try to top the stories I tell them. That always makes me feel better!The future is brighter for blind people today than it has ever been in history. We walk alone, but we march together. With attitude, flexibility, finely tuned skills, exerting ourselves, cultivating networks, and time management, anything is possible through all of life's changes and transitions.
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