Gratitude for the Women of the Movement

The board of directors at the BLIND Inc. training center in 2019.

Gratitude for the Women of the Movement

Growing up, I tried many different sports and hobbies: soccer, tee ball, swim team, drama club, dance classes, and 4-H. I even tried my hand at piano for a number of years. None of these activities kept my interest the way student council did. I found myself able to dive into a variety of topics. Event planning, fundraising, and public speaking were among some of the most vivid. I quickly became known as the take-charge member of any small group task force. As the school year came to a close, I recognized my natural ability to bring people together and motivate my classmates. It came as no surprise during the council election that I was named president for the next year.

Much of my sense of self changed drastically that year. I began on top of the world, having found my purpose to lead and organize a group of forty junior high kids. We put on one of the largest fundraisers the school had ever participated in, and planned some large student activities. But autumn became winter, and as the sunlight decreased, so did my ability to see.

Without the women in our movement, I do not know if I would have become as self-assured as I am today.

I recall trying to hide my panic when the words on the blackboard were no longer readable from the first row. I had spent months trying to make excuses why certain tasks were harder, or why I never went down the dark staircase at the back of the junior high without someone in front of me. Being from a small town meant everyone knew what was going on, and I swore my closest friends and boyfriend not to tell anyone why I kept leaving school so frequently for medical appointments. When it came time for the annual spring talent show, a few members who knew dim light was a problem for me strategized how I could make a graceful entrance from the dark area behind the curtains to the brightly lit stage when I entered as the master of ceremonies. It was that night I realized not only was I blind, but I was ashamed of who I was: a teenage girl plagued by medication side effects both physically and mentally, and disabled. 

Several years went by before I fully came to understand that blindness was not what would define me.

When I attended other social events with blind kids, I was always told how lucky or grateful I should be given my residual vision. I was taught the cane was for emergencies, and traveling in familiar areas would guarantee I would never find reason to panic. It was less than a year after meeting the National Federation of the Blind when I came to see how limited the last few years of my life had been, and how much I still had to work to become completely confident in my own skin.

Federation leaders like Barbara Pierce and Sharon Maneki left a huge impression on me as I watched them during my scholarship mentoring sessions in 2001. They were well-spoken, impeccably dressed, and carried themselves with the poise and confidence I craved since becoming blind.  

The next year, I spent eight months of nonvisual training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The skills of blindness I mastered were important, but the emotional adjustment was where I grew the most. I came to understand that my value was not equated by how much vision I possessed, and that I would be the person who decided my place in society. I proudly traveled everywhere with my cane, as it gave me the grace and speed to walk confidently with my head held high. I returned to college using screen-reading technology, using Braille full-time, and with a sense there was much work to be done as a member of the National Federation of the Blind.

Without the women in our movement, I do not know if I would have become as self-assured as I am today. Some of them have seen me at my most vulnerable, providing a comforting ear and a shoulder to cry on. Others took time out of their lives to be sure I could experience the latest shopping craze or teach me how to organize my shoes by color. A few of them even became my sisters and stood at the alter as my husband and I exchanged wedding vows.

It is my goal as executive director of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc. that I foster an environment where men and women alike experience the transformation of one’s self-worth that comes from attending an NFB training center.

I often sit at my desk, wondering if I could have been as bold as Joyce Scanlan was; she had the audacity to believe she knew what good training was and how to do it far better than anyone else. It is an honor to serve the organization in this capacity, and I know every life we change is a win for the blind of the world.

—Jennifer Kennedy