Future Reflections                                                                                               Winter 2001

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Breaking Ground, Building A Dream

Dr. Maurer opens the ground-breaking ceremony for the NRTIB on October 19, 2001
Dr. Maurer opens the ground-breaking ceremony for the NRTIB on
 October 19, 2001.

On October 19, 2001, under the bright blue sky of a perfect autumn day, the National Federation of the Blind celebrated the groundbreaking for a dream. Of course, the media called it “The National Research and Training Institute for the Blind,” (NRTIB) but we, the parents of blind children, and blind people throughout the country, knew better. We were breaking ground in preparation for transforming a dream into a reality. A dream that all blind citizens of the United States will have the opportunity for full, rich lives – lives that include a good education, satisfying employment, fulfilling personal relationships, and opportunities to participate completely in the community.

We know that this can happen, that blindness alone need not be a barrier. Many blind people have achieved this dream. But the barriers are many, and the majority of those who are blind continue to live on the margins of society; never gainfully employed, never realizing their full potential. Despite advancements in public education about the capacities of the blind, blind people still suffer a seventy percent unemployment rate. Among all those with disabilities, blind, deaf-blind, and multiply disabled youth have the highest unemployment rates (National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students, 1991).

Of course, the five-story, 170,000-square-foot building, which will be connected to the present 200,000 square-foot National Center for the Blind, is only the housing for the dream. It is the programs in the NITIB that will make the difference.

Among the program priorities identified by the NFB for the Institute, are the Blind Children’s Initiative, and the Braille Literacy Initiative. Both of these initiatives will address the most intractable obstacles to the preparation of blind children for independent lives; obstacles such as shortages of specially trained teachers, limited access to computer technology, low expectations, and inadequate Braille instruction.

 Among the programs possible with this new institute are:

¨    Educational classes, both on premises and via distance learning technology, for teachers of the blind, vocational rehabilitation professionals, and parents of blind children.

¨    Pilot projects to develop, demonstrate, and disseminate model learning strategies that have been tailored to meet the needs of blind and visually impaired students.

¨    Research to develop innovative methods for learning Braille that combine new technology applications with the experience of competent Braille users.

¨    The development of new access technology; such as computer-based speech- and Braille-output educational software and games to use in motivating, teaching, and preparing blind youth for the computer age.

But, first things first. The building to house the programs must first go up before the programs can be established. And so, on October 19, at 10:30 a.m., some 300 Braille and print agendas were distributed as people gathered outside  along Wells Street, the southern boundary of the NFB property in Baltimore, Maryland – site of the National Center for the Blind. We all cheered as Dr. Maurer broke out the gold shovels for the groundbreaking. Dr. Maurer served as Master of Ceremonies and also made some brief remarks.

Some of the other dignitaries and contributors who spoke at the ceremony were Steve Marriott of The J.Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation; Maryland Senators Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes; Barbara Walker, President of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults; Congressmen Benjamin L. Cardin and Robert Ehrlich; Patricia Schroeder, President, Association of American Publishers; Walden W. O’Dell, President and CEO, Diebold, Inc.; and Joanne Wilson, Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education.

One of the first speakers at the ceremony was Michael Hingson, a long-time member of the NFB and a survivor of the September 11 terrorist attack; his office was on the seventy-eighth floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One. His remarks, printed below, capture the spirit of the event:

Questions and Choices

by Michael Hingson

Michael Hingson and his guide dog, Roselle.
Michael Hingson and his guide dog, Roselle.

September 11 was a day of change for the entire world. It was a day of destruction. It was a day of terror. It was a day of questions. Also it was a day that offered choices for us all. Some of us were involved personally in the events of that day. I was on the seventy-eighth floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center in New York when an aircraft slammed into the building. I faced personally the terror, the destruction, and the challenges of a rapid building-evacuation. I experienced, first-hand, debris falling around me as I fled for my life during the collapse of Tower Two.

Since the Center’s destruction I have asked many questions as have all of us. For example, what kind of being would plan and carry out such a campaign of mass death and destruction against innocent bystanders? How can I possibly help console those who lost loved ones? Finally, where do we go from here?

The media have taken notice of me and my guide dog Roselle because our story is different. The question asked of me most often is “How did you get out of the building?” My immediate reaction is to answer that I walked down the stairs, of course. I know there is also a question which is never asked. This question is “How can any blind person be working in the World Trade Center?” My real answer to both questions is the same. It is this:

The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is that blindness is not our handicap; poor attitudes and misconceptions about blindness are the largest barrier we face.

Long ago I adopted the Federation’s philosophy that it is OK to be blind. I made a conscious choice to live my life to its fullest. I adopted the reality that I can use alternative techniques to sight in order to go about my business.

In this light, getting out of the World Trade Center was the same for me as for the others who escaped except for my employing the technique of using a guide dog. I would also add that, due to the incredible volume of dust and smoke, no amount of eyesight helped those near the buildings as they collapsed.

I know that having a strong positive attitude about myself as a blind person helped me to focus and thus to survive the terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, not all blind persons have had the opportunity to embrace the upbeat philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.

The ground we break today will open new opportunities for blind persons to climb their individual mountains even in ways not yet conceived. The creation we begin today is more than a physical place. It is the embodiment of the ideas and ideals nurtured by tens of thousands of blind persons. It will be a place where we can remember and ponder our past. It will provide an environment to learn as well as to teach. Here blind people will move forward on their own life journeys.

People everywhere are still asking questions about September 11. It remains to be seen whether or not we as a world community will learn and grow from the tragedy. For years we who are blind have been asking questions and seeking answers about ourselves. This new institute will represent the choices we make. I pray that all of us, blind and sighted, will find ways to move forward past our own personal roadblocks. God bless you all.

Editor’s Note: For a complete report about the groundbreaking ceremony and the gala black-tie event which followed later that evening, please see the November 2001, issue of the Braille Monitor. It is available for viewing on the NFB  Web site at <www.nfb.org>, or from the NFB Materials Center in large print, cassette tape, or Braille. Contact:

NFB Materials Center
1800 Johnson Street
 Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314
nfbstore@nfb.org

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