How Our Lived Experience Empowers Our Educators

Karen Anderson smiles at the center of the 2022/2023 NFB Teachers of Tomorrow cohort at a meeting during the Washington Seminar.

How Our Lived Experience Empowers Our Educators

By Karen Anderson

Growing up as the blind child of a blind mom who also happened to be a teacher of blind students, I took for granted that the education of blind children would naturally be heavily influenced by blind people themselves. After all, my mom spent several summers working with teachers who were learning to teach blind kids, sharing what she had learned as both a teacher and a blind adult, and sharing the toys she had adapted for me even if I wasn’t thrilled about sharing them myself.

Though she wasn’t a member of the Federation, my mom recognized that teachers getting to know blind people was just as important for a successful career as knowing Braille or how to conduct an assessment. Many of these teachers became our family friends, joining my family for dinner, coming to birthday parties, or bringing their kids with them to spend a day with us at the park. On one occasion my family even drove from Nebraska to Canada with a new teacher friend my mom had made.

Imagine my surprise when I grew up and started working on education programs for blind kids myself. Suddenly I was talking to teachers of blind students who had never met successful blind people, aside from their students. They could not imagine that I, the person they were communicating with, was a blind person myself. Many of them said they believed in the capabilities of blind people, but that belief was only in their head. In their heart, blindness was still something to fear, something to avoid at all costs. Their teacher preparation programs had taught them things like how to conduct a learning media assessment, but they hadn’t been exposed to any successful blind adults. Consequently, though often subconsciously, teachers’ expectations of blind students are lower than they would be of their sighted peers.

As members of the National Federation of the Blind, we have both lived experience, and a belief in the full capacity of blind people, both of which allow us to transform dreams into reality. We know that, if a blind student says they want to join the marching band, or the chess club, or be a cheerleader, there are nonvisual techniques they can use to help them be successful. We can connect both the student and teacher with at least one blind person who has successfully participated in that activity, and we can dream with that teacher to find new solutions for age-old challenges. And, if we can’t find someone who has experience in that activity, we have the ingenuity and drive to figure out how to help that person be successful.

We also know that there is power in numbers. The education system is not always set up to give our blind kids all the opportunities they deserve and, despite their best intentions, not all teachers are able to advocate for what their students truly need to thrive and be successful. Members of the National Federation of the Blind can come in and support that teacher, as well as the family, and help ensure the blind student receives the services to which they are entitled. There is power in having a blind person as an advocate in Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, demonstrating the capabilities of blind adults and showing what is possible for the blind student if they are given a proper education and accommodations.

Just knowing successful blind professionals boosts teachers’ and students’ confidence. Self-confidence is incredibly empowering for students. Teachers of blind students, who have unfortunately often not met enough blind professionals, can feel lost in guiding their students toward success. Being connected with blind people living the lives we want shows teachers of blind students that blindness does not define us. Similarly, blindness should never hold their students back.

But truly, I think one of the most important things we do for teachers of blind students is to normalize blindness and nonvisual techniques. Including teachers into our social circle, really listening to their frustrations and victories just as we would any of our friends, helping them to understand we are one huge family, will help them be much more comfortable around their students and blind people in general.

I am lucky to get to call so many teachers of blind students my friends, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, sometime in the future, we ended up driving to Canada together, just like my family did when I was little.