Future Reflections Fall 1988, Vol. 7 No. 3

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BLINDNESS AND INDEPENDENCE
Report on the July 2,1988 NFB Parents Seminar

[PICTURE] Diane Croft (standing in front of the typewriter), Marketing Manager of the National Braille Press, discusses the parents' seminar agenda with Debbie Hamm, Secretary of the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division.
[PICTURE] Mike Delaplane of Illinois has a chat with his son, Matt, before he takes off for the zoo and Dad attends the parents' seminar.
[PICTURE] Lori LeBlanc (back row, far right) organized and conducted a trip to the zoo for some thirty children on Saturday, July 2, the day of the parents' seminar. It was a toss-up about who had the most fun-the helpers (back row) or the children.

On July 2, in Chicago, Illinois, about 200 parents, teachers, and interested blind adults gathered to explore what "independence" means for blind children and adults. It was a truly enlightening and exciting seminar.

While parents and older blind youth mentally explored what it meant to be blind and independent, younger children had a chance to do a different kind of exploration. They were taken on trips to the zoo and nearby museums by blind members (volunteers) of the NFB.

The seminar was kicked off with a presentation by Diane McGeorge, First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind. Mrs. McGeorge talked about her early childhood and how important it was to her eventual independence that she had a mother who didn't tolerate her temper tantrums, and insisted early on that she take responsibilities just like everyone else in the household.

Next, a panel discussed how parents can lay the groundwork for independence during the infant, toddler, and preschool stages. Barbara Walker, a blind mother who grew up as a blind child, had a useful and unique perspective to offer because her older sister was also blind. Although both of them are happy and successful adults, they developed very differently as children.

Jane Kronheim, creator of "Learning Pillows," was the next speaker on the panel. Jane talked about her background as an educator of blind children, and how she came to invent Learning Pillows; pillows with special features for the blind child to discover as the parent or teacher tells the story or poem that comes with the pillow. Jane emphasized the importance of developing basic concepts and skills in the early years and of learning to use the senses (especially touch) skillfully. The final member of the panel was Charlotte Verduin, mother of a blind child. Charlotte shared her experiences within a framework of what is known about how children develop and mature. Her knowledgeable and commonsense approach was inspiring.

We then moved on to a discussion of independence and the older child. Doris Willoughby, a teacher of blind children and author of many excellent publications on the education of blind children; teamed up with blind adult and former public school teacher, Dr. David Ticchi; to give a presentation full of sound, practical advice on how to promote independence in the older child.

We then changed the orientation some, and moved to a panel discussion entitled, "What Does Independence Mean for Blind Parents and Their Children?" Blind parents Mary Willows and Gary Mackenstadt both concluded that basic skills in alternative techniques (such as mobility, Braille, etc.) are really important to blind parents. Without the skills and confidence, blind parents are limited in how much they can get involved with their child's education and interaction with the world outside the immediate home environment. Not only was this panel useful to the blind parents attending the seminar, but it was truly instructive to parents of blind children who want their children to someday have families of their own.

One of the big hits of the day was the panel of college students. Melody Lindsey, Tom Ley, and

Patti Gregory shared some very personal experiences with us. Although each had a different background--they became blind at different times in their childhood or youth, and two were from broken homes--they all emphasized the importance of becoming independent and responsible in the small everyday aspects of life, as well as in mobility and reading Braille.

After lunch, we had an instructive session about technology and the blind. Debra Bonde, Director of Seedlings, Braille Books for Children; Diane Croft, Marketing Manager for National Braille Press; and Curtis Chong, President, NFB in Computer Science Division were the panelists for this session. Debra Bonde talked about how computer technology has made it possible for her to transcribe and make Braille books for children available at such reasonable prices. Diane Croft gave an overview of how advances in technology, greater public acceptance of the handicapped, and a growing unfulfilled need for service workers, is creating a better than ever employment climate for the blind. She also warned of the dangers of Braille illiteracy and the adverse impact this would have on employment possibilities for the blind. Curtis Chong wrapped the panel up by placing technology in the proper perspective; that is, technology doesn't solve problems, people solve problems.

Finally, Ruth Swenson joined with blind student, Todd Elzey, to talk about independence and the blind, multiple handicapped child. Ruth is blind and has arthritis. She has a son who is blind and learning disabled. To top it off, she has worked professionally with blind, mentally retarded children and adults and is currently a practicing attorney. She talked about evaluations and educational placements of the blind, multiple handicapped child. Todd gave us an upbeat, personal perspective on what it is like to strive for independence when you are blind and hearing impaired.

The formal presentations ended at 3:00 p.m. and for the next two hours, participants could choose to attend small group workshops on Cane Travel, Braille, or Touch-It.

In the cane travel workshop, parents were given canes and taken out into the halls of the hotel, or even outside, and given instruction by blind adults who travel this way all the time. For those parents who had questions about mobility that they wanted discussed, they also had the option of joining a discussion group led by Fred Schroeder. (Fred is the Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. He has been a mobility instructor and an administrator of public educational programs for blind children.) One parent commented that she hadn't realized how "illiterate" she was about what was involved in independent cane travel until she attended this workshop.

Nadine Jacobson, the Braille instructor at Blind, Inc. (the NFB of Minnesota rehabilitation training center), coordinated the Braille workshop. Parents were given a slate and stylus, a Braille alphabet card, and Braille paper and then asked to don sleepshades (blindfolds) for this learning experience. It must have been a good experience for a large number of parents chose to buy slates after the workshop. Teachers of blind children were also on hand to field questions about Braille instruction for children.

The 'Touch-It" workshop was led by Barbara Walker and Jane Kronheim. The emphasis in this session was in how to develop good tactile skills in young blind children. Jane demonstrated her products and talked about how parents could use them to develop skills and concepts (follow the rick-rack path up and down). Her learning pillows are also designed to appeal to the visual sense, and there was much discussion about how parents can help a child learn to use and integrate whatever vision he/she has with other methods (such as tactile) of gaining information.

When the day ended, parents were reunited with the children who had gone on the NFB sponsored zoo or museum trips. Both parents and children were tired, but happy. Parents learned how they could better help their blind child negotiate that sometimes rocky road to independence and children and youth had a chance to interact with blind adults who live and work independently as a matter of course.

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