Future Reflections        Convention Report 2011

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Looking to the Future

by Frederic Schroeder, PhD

Fred Schroeder

Introduction by NOPBC President Laura Bostick (formerly Laura Weber): Dr. Fred Schroeder is first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. He is a research professor and served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Prior to entering the field of vocational rehabilitation he worked as a special education administrator and as a teacher of blind students. He is a crowd favorite here at our NOPBC conferences. Every time we go over questionnaires at the end of convention, people want more Fred! So we're going to give you more Fred this morning.

Be careful what you wish for. [Laughter] I am so excited about the Braille Readers Are Leaders winners who are here at this convention! I'll be thinking of you as I go through my Braille copy of the convention agenda--I noticed that it has 103 pages! I didn't read Braille when I was growing up, and as a result I'm not as fluent a reader as you guys are or will be.

The future for blind people is brighter today than it has ever been. That is true, frankly, because of the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation believes in blind people. That means all blind people, including blind children. It means all blind children, including those who have disabilities in addition to blindness. We do not write anyone off. We believe in blind people.

I have been blind since the age of seven. I had some vision after age seven and became totally blind when I was sixteen. From the time I was seven until I was sixteen I did not read. I listened to recorded books. I heard a lot of material, but I did not read until I was sixteen years old. At that time I taught myself Braille and taught myself how to read. I remember the first book I read in Braille was George Orwell's Animal Farm. I picked it because it was short; it was in only one volume. When I started to read it I timed myself, and it took me forty-eight minutes to read a page! (I would try to figure out how many words per minute that is, but I might end up figuring out how many minutes per word!) [Laughter] I came across words like neighbor. Have you ever tried to sound out the word neighbor if you've never learned to read?

When my kids were little I got Braille books so I could read aloud to them. I had to prepare first by reading the book over and over to myself so that I'd be able to read smoothly and they wouldn't get bored. I remember coming across a word that was spelled a-c-r-e. The Hundred Ack-ree Wood.  [Laughter] Of course, the word was acre, but I didn't know that.

It was a tragedy. My literacy was compromised, not only as a kid in school but for all my life. But that is not the real essence of the tragedy. The tragedy is that my compromised literacy reinforced in me a belief that as a blind person I could not do the things that other people could do. It reinforced in me a feeling of inferiority, a belief that others around me were more capable than I was. I didn't have a cane. I didn't know how to read. I spent much of my time waiting. I hated going places with my family because wherever we went I got plunked in a chair. I would sit there waiting, and now and then somebody might come by and say something to me. It was a horrific, passive existence. The tragedy is that I believed that's what life always would be like for me because of my blindness.

Because you and your blind children are here at this convention, your kids are getting opportunities to shape a very different view of blindness from the one I had as a youngster. I'm on the National Scholarship Committee, and I remember years ago meeting a young man who had just graduated from high school and was going off to college in the fall. He wanted to major in composite materials engineering. I said to him, "When I was your age I didn't know there was such a thing!" He said, "When you were my age, there wasn't!" [Laughter] What a very different perspective on life! That's what the Federation offers.

We push Braille for two reasons. Obviously literacy is one of them. Literacy is the foundation of education. But we push Braille for another reason, too. We push Braille because we want young blind people to grow up believing that they can do what other people do, that they can read as well as sighted kids read. We read differently, but Braille is not a make-do reading system.

Let me tell you a story about confidence and capability. Some years ago we had our convention at the Galt House, a big hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. It's actually two hotels connected by a sky bridge. One day I was in the East Tower heading over to the West Tower, and I met a blind girl who was about ten years old. She got off the elevator and started asking people where the sky bridge was. I thought, this little girl is out here by herself? Ten years old? I'm all for independence, but as a parent it made me a little nervous! So I walked with her. We walked across the sky bridge, and I told her that off to our right was the Ohio River. You could hear the bell of a boat out there and some music that was playing. I found out that she had wanted to get continental breakfast in the East Tower, so her parents gave her some money. She went downstairs, found her way from the West Tower across to the East Tower, went down to the lobby level, found the continental breakfast line, bought her breakfast, and was walking back to her room.

We got back to the West Tower and I asked her if she needed help finding her room. She said no, and she got on the elevator and went away. I turned around and there was Mom, who had been following her.  [Laughter]

I think about how different that life experience is from mine at that girl's age. Sure, you're not going to let your ten-year-old wander around a big hotel unsupervised--for safety reasons, but not because of blindness. That little girl is going to grow up with a level of confidence and a belief in herself because she's learning an important skill. The younger we learn a skill, the easier it is and the more facility we'll have. It's not only the mechanics of moving around independently. It's the mindset of thinking, If I want to go get breakfast, I'll get breakfast. It's about believing that you can do whatever you want to do. It's about believing that if we don't yet know a nonvisual way to do something, we'll find a way.

Looking to the future--the future starts today. The future for your kids is bright. You are part of a family that believes in you and believes in your children. We are ready and willing to do anything that we can to help promote opportunities beyond what many of us had as blind people growing up. Congratulations to all of you Braille Readers Are Leaders winners! I'll be looking for you guys to help me read the agenda!

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