Future Reflections         Summer 2011

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The Chance of a Lifetime: Leadership and Advocacy in Washington

by Jim Beyer

LAW students and mentors in Washington, D.C.From the Editor: Jim Beyer and his wife, Gwen, live in Missoula, Montana. The youngest of their three children, Lauren, is congenitally blind due to a genetic condition called LCA. Jim founded Montana's NFB parents' chapter, Help Other Parents Excel (HOPE), and has served on the national board of the NOPBC since 2007. In 2010 and 2011 he attended the LAW Program as a parent mentor.

The news spread like a grass fire on the Facebook group page. The bill for which the twenty-five Leadership and Advocacy in Washington (LAW) Program students had advocated during their four-day stay at the National Center in Baltimore had just been passed into law.

"And to think we lobbied for that!" Hannah remarked. "We contributed something, so we should be proud of ourselves!" One of the parents wrote, "Ross and I heard it on the news this morning before school. Very cool to think our kids had a part in this! Yeah, NFB!"

Yeah NFB indeed! The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010 was conceived and brought to fruition through the work of many NFB members and staff. It was a community effort. The LAW Program students were privileged to be part of the community that has positively affected the lives of their fellow Americans. How many of their sighted peers can stand up in class and say that a bill they have advocated for has become the law of the land? How many of their peers back home can tell about their conversation in the Old Executive Office Building with the president's special adviser on disabilities, or their meeting with the assistant attorney general of the United States in the Great Hall of Justice? How many have strode the halls of power on Capitol Hill or listened to the Gettysburg Address inside the Lincoln Memorial? Heck, how many of their peers back home know that the National Mall doesn't have a Cinnabon?

The blind and low-vision students who take part in the NFB LAW Program each April have done all that and more.
One boy examines a tactile map of the Capitol Mall.Sponsored by the Jernigan Institute, the LAW Program takes place in April for blind youth in grades six through nine or ages twelve through sixteen. For the 2012 program, watch for information to be posted on the NFB Website at <www.nfb.org/nfb/LAW_Program.asp>. Members of the Institute's education staff work with the staff of the NFB's Governmental Affairs Department to create a meaningful agenda designed to advance issues of concern to the blind in America. But while the students are changing the course of mighty rivers and leaping tall buildings with a single bound, they are also being changed themselves.

When the students enter the registration room on Friday afternoon, most of them are timid and cautious. They hover like shadows behind their parents. Some of this is normal adolescent angst. Some of it is a general lack of confidence. They stand awkwardly, ignoring the other students around them, but nonetheless their senses are alert. Outwardly quiet and reluctant, they are alive and excited on the inside.

Registration over, moms haul suitcases into dorm rooms while the students tag along, bumping into the tag-alongs next to them. At dinner the students begin to relax. "Where are you from?" "What eye condition do you have?" "What grade are you in?" "Do you like Modest Mouse?"

Later, in the Harbor Room, the students settle on couches with games in front of them and confident blind mentors beside them. The awkwardness evaporates. The students have found new friends, and the chatter doesn't stop.

The next morning classes begin. The adults attend the parents' group and the students learn about civics and the federal government.

The parents' agenda is comprehensive. Parents listen to guest speakers as well as other parents discuss a range of topics, including:

The power that parents have
Common mistakes in parenting a blind child
How to advocate
Vocational and rehabilitation services
Summer camps for blind and visually impaired kids
Socialization issues
Independent travel

The students' day is full too. They learn about:

The U.S. Constitution
The right to work
The challenges of leadership
The legislative process (again)

A group of LAW students hold signs for bills the NFB has promoted in Congress.After dinner everyone meets the NFB Governmental Affairs team to learn about what lies ahead on Capitol Hill. Later the students have a chance to enjoy themselves in an evening of goalball, or more board games if they choose not to be clobbered by a heavy speeding ball.

The adults, meanwhile, go out for a mixer. They get acquainted with strangers from all over the country and find out quickly how much they share. They will have even more in common before the four days are over.

Tonight they meet a dad from India who investigated schools for the blind in his native land when his daughter was three, only to discover that the "best" school locked the students in cages for "recess." They will learn that he and his family are very relieved to raise their wonderful, sensitive daughter here instead.

They will meet a mom who, while raising her blind child, changed careers and now works as a teacher of blind students (TBS) so she can help other children gain independence.

They will meet chaperones who are their students' TVIs. They have come to learn, to share, and to help.

They will meet single parents who want the best for their children, struggling to get it done while they cope with all the other demands that life tosses their way.

They will meet concerned dads who want to find ways to "fix it," whatever "it" is.

They will meet their future NFB family.

The next day is a free day. Everyone boards the bus and rides to Washington, D.C., to spend a day at the Mall (not that kind of mall!) They are dropped off at the west end and set loose on D.C. for about six hours. Most ascend into the Lincoln Memorial and then descend into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After that, small friendship clusters scatter to the nearby sites: the Smithsonian, the White House Rose Garden, the Washington and Jefferson Monuments. Some kids walk hand-in-hand with their moms; others amble slowly, maintaining contact with other travelers; some practice good posture as they tap their new long white canes before them. The really adventurous ones hop the Metro to wander the sacred grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, Robert E. Lee's old plantation.

On the ride back to the National Center a few kids and grownups try to nap, but it's pretty hard, given all the excited chatter--and not all of it comes from the students.

Monday begins with another bus ride to D.C. and a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Not just a regular tourist trip, this cook's tour is unique. It starts with a session on the House floor with the Honorable Bill Zeliff, a former representative from New Hampshire. This is the room where the State of the Union Address is given each year, and it is a rare privilege indeed to be allowed on "the floor." Some parents wonder what famous people have sat in their seat. Some of the students, their confidence growing, may be wondering when they will be elected so they can come back and sit in one of these seats again.

The Rotunda, the original Senate Chambers, the whispering spot, and Statuary Hall with John Trumbull and Helen Keller all await. After lunch all head downtown to visit the Executive Branch of the federal government. This visit may occur in the White House, the Great Hall of Justice, or the Old Executive Building, each a very impressive structure in its own right. The Class of 2010 met with Kareem Dale, the special assistant to the president for disability policy. In 2011, students met with Mazen Basrawi, the counsel to the assistant attorney general. The students were free to share their experiences regarding life and blindness and to learn from both of these high-powered men what the federal government does regarding blindness and disability issues. Oh--both of these men are blind.

Back at the National Center that evening, it's crunch time--time to settle down and receive a briefing for the next day's work. Students and parents assemble in the auditorium with the Governmental Affairs team to learn about the items being addressed on Capitol Hill and the names and numbers of any bills that need help. These students are just the ones for the job. They learn who sponsors and cosponsors each bill, and where each bill lies in the process toward passage. They are briefed on the importance of each bill, and then they engage in role play with program staff to sharpen their advocacy skills. And they need to be sharp! Representatives in Congress have high expectations.

The bus ride in the morning feels different from the last two. The passengers are more focused, and they are dressed for success. Wearing jackets and ties or dresses and pumps, the students mean business. Today, in delegations of four, each student will meet with his/her district representative. Each student will inform his/her representative of the issues at hand, what needs to be done, and whom to contact for more information.

This is the students' day to shine. Parents hold their breath and silently watch their kids advocate for themselves and for the greater good. It is better than watching them score a touchdown!

What is the goal of the LAW Program?

Is it to change the laws or the funding structure in our country? Perhaps.

Is it to help students understand our civic structure? Sort of.

Is it to have a really cool field trip? Yes, that too.

But the real goal of Leadership and Advocacy in Washington is for twenty-five blind youth each year to walk into a Congressional office, on their own, stand up and speak for themselves about relevant issues in a competent and dignified manner, building their confidence as they do so.

At the formal dinner on that final evening, it is apparent that a transformation has occurred. The reluctant kids who hid in the shadows have become confident, independent leaders. Saturday's hand-holders walk unassisted with their canes to the podium for their final presentation to the group. They know that they have done what very few have done or ever will. Friday's children are no more.

Departing the next morning, it feels like Christmas is over and all the friends are heading home. Boxes of Kleenex are shredded. Once a collection of strangers, the group has become a family. Everyone will stay in touch on the Facebook page created just for this group. Members will continue to help each other with the details of living with blindness, providing encouragement when those details seem overwhelming. The students have added to their own Facebook friends. They are off to the future with their new, farflung pals.

On Facebook one mother writes, "Do you know that my son got on his sister's new four-wheeler yesterday? He rode slow, but he loved it. I think everyone telling him he could do anything reminded him that he can do anything, and he did."

Another says, "My three sons are getting along much better since we returned home. The students at the program were kind to and accepting of each other. My son brought home those positive feelings and is, so far, much nicer to be around."

And another, "This trip was what my daughter needed. Though she had a cane and O&M training, she was not using it. From the time she received her new cane she has been using it, and she has become more independent. It was a very positive experience for both of us. She told me before we left Baltimore she would like to stay there for a year."

And, "I have also seen many positive changes in my son. I owe it all to this life-changing experience of the NFB LAW Program. It has given him great confidence and the ability to get out of the house and get his independence back. I tried to provide those skills to him, but I just couldn't do that for him like so many of you did. Thank you."

Want to know the purpose of NFB's LAW Program? That's what it's all about!

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