If you’re losing your vision, you may want to consider a training program like the one Connie Taylor is doing at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM). There she will learn Braille, cane travel, cooking, and other essentials of independent living, but students don’t enroll here only to master these skills. “The skills are the easy part,” says Amy Phelps, Director of Rehabilitation at BISM. “It’s getting to the core belief that you can do what you want to do with the skills and be confident.” Phelps emphasizes the power of learning from blind people, because the crucial lesson is confidence. “It’s about learning at a gut level that it’s OK to be blind.”
Connie Taylor enrolled in the eight month BISM program as a way to accept and even embrace the loss of her vision. “It’s hard to say if or when the rest of my vision will go,” says Taylor, who has struggled with diabetic retinopathy for 20 years, but rather than continuing to hone her “denial skills,” she has opted to prepare herself to live a full, productive, independent life. “Learning to cope gives me confidence,” she says.
Connie will live in an apartment three miles from the BISM and go in for classes. She is required to wear sleep shades all the time, cook her own meals, and keep her apartment clean. There are surprise inspections to ensure that students are following these rules. “Everything is about putting into practice during the evening what you have learned during the day,” says Phelps. Connie will learn to operate unmodified power tools and use common computer programs. She and her fellow students will go on outings to parades, amusement parks, movies, ball games, and even white-water rafting. Phelps calls it “a course in being in control.”
To complete the program, Connie will be challenged to take on tasks that would challenge many sighted people. She will have to find her way around an unfamiliar city, build something using power tools, cook a complete, formal meal for six, even prepare a buffet meal for 20 people—and all without sight. “As a part of society, whether blind or sighted, we internalize being helpless and hopeless, that there will be someone to take care of you,” explains Phelps. “We teach that you can do it yourself, learn from other blind people, and not feel alone out there.”
The comprehensive BISM program in which Connie Taylor is taking part is modeled after three NFB schools scattered around the country that teach skills and empowerment.
Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND, Inc.) is an “adjustment to blindness center” located in an historic mansion in Minneapolis, Minnesota. BLIND, Inc. also offers programs for teenagers, pre-teens and seniors. The Colorado Center for the Blind, in Littleton, Colorado, bases its programs on the NFB philosophy that “with proper training and opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers.” The Louisiana Center for the Blind, in Ruston, Louisiana, focuses on self-sufficiency and independence, and emphasizes the value of programs designed and taught by blind people.
Phelps, formerly coordinator of the NFB’s Jernigan Institute National Center for Mentoring Excellence, notes that a key element of the BISM program is that it “is based on what blind people have said works,” and stresses the importance of being active within a larger group of blind people like the NFB. She notes that BISM “shares the philosophy of the NFB that you can do what you want to do,” and that several of the BISM staff were trained at the NFB. Through the program at BISM, Connie Taylor will learn that she can do whatever she believes she can do, whether she is sighted or blind.
To learn more about BISM visit www.BISM.org or contact headquarters at:
Blind Industries and Services of Maryland
3345 Washington Blvd
Baltimore, MD 21227
Phone: (410) 737-2600
Toll Free: 1-888-322-4567
Fax: (410) 737-2665
For more information about NFB’s adjustment to blindness training centers:
100 East 22nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55404
Phone: (612) 872-0100
Fax: (612) 872-9358
Colorado Center for the Blind
2233 West Shepperd Avenue, Littleton, CO 80120
Phone: (303) 778-1130
Toll Free: (800) 401-4632
Fax: (303) 778-1598
Louisiana Center for the Blind
101 South Trenton Street, Ruston, LA, 71270
Phone: (318) 251-2891
Toll free: (800) 234-4166
Fax: (318) 251-0109
All photos on the cover and the first two stories courtesy of Rob Ennamorato.