Embracing Change: Lauren Altman’s Federation Story

Lauren Altman

Embracing Change: Lauren Altman’s Federation Story

By Lauren Altman

“Lauren,” Carley, my O&M Instructor said, “I think you should consider going to training.”  

Sometimes, one conversation changes your entire life.

It was the day after another unsuccessful eye surgery. I was curled up in bed, on the phone with my orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor from New Jersey.

It was 3:00 in the afternoon, but I had been there for the majority of the day, slipping deeper and deeper into a depression that threatened to swallow me whole. I had counted on getting my vision back for the past several months, but that was starting to feel unlikely. All I could think about were the things that I would no longer be able to do. I missed colors, books, and my family’s faces. I missed my independence, and hated being talked about like I was fragile and broken.

It was March of my junior year of high school, just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic started. But the deadly virus faded to the background for me, as vision loss consumed my every waking thought.

I had been diagnosed with Retinoblastoma as a baby, which left me totally blind in my right eye and with some residual vision (20/160) in my left. I was no stranger to blindness, but I managed to live in the sighted world without using a cane or reading Braille. I thought blindness was embarrassing. I only disclosed it to my teachers and very few friends. When 2020 rolled around, lying was no longer possible. Over the course of four months, my sight went from not good to nonexistent. And even my ability to cope using humor was failing me.

By the end of the phone conversation, Carley convinced me to pursue training. By the end of the weekend, I had convinced my parents. By the end of my senior year of high school, I convinced my vocational rehabilitation counselor.

The August after graduation, my family and I drove to the Louisiana Center for the blind (LCB) in Ruston, where I embarked on the most challenging nine months of my life. I left with both independence skills and the confidence that I never had before. I read my first-ever Braille book, gained a love for exploring new places, and learned how to problem solve and trust in my abilities to figure things out.

One of my favorite parts of training was getting to understand the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. I challenged my internalized ableism and began to take pride in all aspects of my identity, including my disability. My instructors and peers believed in my abilities, even when I didn’t believe in myself; they constantly challenged me to do better.

I was introduced to the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) and its members while at LCB. I was instantly drawn in by how impressive our members are. I learned about what it means to be a competent person, the importance of having a positive mindset, and about approaching the uncomfortable with confidence. The students, many of whom are now close friends, helped to show me that blindness expands possibilities, rather than limiting them.

After training, I started my first year at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where I began my degree in Psychology and Special Education Studies. I pushed myself to do new things. I joined clubs, traveled to Israel with a group of other Jewish students from my area, and began performing spoken word poetry. I also got more involved with NABS and continued working with the New Jersey Association of Blind Students. Going from LCB—an environment where almost everyone uses canes—to college—where I’m the only person who uses one—was difficult. My new friends were an army of wonderful people to both complain to and celebrate with.

I was recently elected as the new NABS president, and I now have the exciting (albeit difficult) job of filling the shoes of Trisha Kulkarni. Trisha was a strong leader and has already been an invaluable mentor to me as I start my journey.

Lia Stone and Carley Mullin are two fierce leaders in the New Jersey affiliate who have encouraged and guided me since I first started getting involved in the blind community. They showed me what it meant to be a Federationist before I even knew what that meant.

Roland and Pam Allen are two other mentors that have a special place in my heart. When I first started my blindness journey, I had a lot of learning to do. Without Rolands’ patience and wisdom and Pam’s kindness and perceptiveness, my life would look a lot more like the sad future that I expected for myself at sixteen.

Most importantly are my family. They might not have always been the first to push me, but they are the first to walk behind me and support me no matter what. From the time I was little, they’ve taught me about hard-work, empathy, and the importance of a good sense of humor. I’ve done a lot of growing during the last couple of years and my mom, dad, and brother, David, have grown right alongside me.

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever gotten is to approach each interaction as if the other person is going to teach me something valuable. I know I have a lot to learn. It’s a good thing I have an unstoppable board and steadfast members to learn from.