Project BOLD: Fostering Inclusion Through Immersion and Observation

A group of blind teens and adult mentors hike through the woods.

Project BOLD: Fostering Inclusion Through Immersion and Observation

By Norma Crosby

In the spring of 2023, the National Federation of the Blind of Texas hosted our first Blindness Outdoor Learning and Development (BOLD) project. As the name implies, Project BOLD provides blind children with an opportunity to experience the outdoors by spending a full day in one of our state parks. The program was sponsored through a co-op grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). This statewide grant program is intended to introduce our state parks system to underserved populations, including people with disabilities.

Our program took place at Palmetto State Park, which is located between Austin and San Antonio. We didn’t camp outdoors. Instead, we spent Friday night at a local hotel and spent about twelve hours in the park on Saturday. During the program, children ages seven through seventeen participated in activities like kayaking, hiking, fire theory, and tent building. The state park staff provided a touch table that allowed our kids to learn what armadillos and other wildlife felt like. Rather than tactile graphics, the touch table had animal skins for an immersive experience.

Sighted siblings and parents were invited to participate alongside our blind students. The blind kids were separated into pods, and the sighted siblings had their own pod led by two blind mentors. Sighted siblings were not asked to use learning shades—the idea was not to make them experience temporary blindness, but to teach them how to be better allies for their blind brothers and sisters. We allowed parents to watch their children as they participated, but they were asked to stay back and allow their children to learn from their blind instructors. We wanted the kids to learn from their blind instructors, rather than relying on their parents as they might do at home. We also felt that the parents needed to understand that nonvisual techniques were safe and effective. They did a great job of following that rule, and they were all happy at the end of the day when they saw what their kids had been able to accomplish with the help of blind instructors.

After a full day of outdoor fun, the kids helped cook their hotdogs and s’mores, and they shared dinner with our staff, volunteers, and their families. Following dinner, everyone helped clean up. Then everyone went back to the hotel tired, but excited by what they had learned and experienced.

While the kids were preparing to cook their hotdogs, the parents spent about an hour with Federation leaders, discussing the day and the Federation’s positive blindness philosophy and high expectations of blind people. They asked great questions and expressed a new understanding of what they could expect of and for their kids.

I think the most interesting question that a parent asked was: “What can I expect my child to be able to do when they grow up?” Most of the parents had expected very little before coming to Project BOLD, but after meeting competent blind people working in a variety of fields, they were relieved that they didn't have to adhere to their previously low expectations. We told them about ourselves, and also about other immensely successful blind professionals. The parents were surprised to learn that professional options were open to their kids, but they went away with a sense that the future was not what they had thought it was before arriving. They were filled with the love, hope, and determination that is our Federation philosophy.

Our Project BOLD program was incredibly successful. We recently applied for and received a second co-op grant from TPWD. Our new project is called BOLDER, which stands for Blindness Outdoor Learning and Development Extended Reach. The new program will happen in the spring of 2025 and will include three tracks: a training weekend for instructors, mentors, and other volunteers; a weekend for blind children and their families; and a weekend for blind adults and their children.

Texas is very fortunate to have a diverse group of talented leaders who work hard to make programs like BOLD possible, but we could not have done it without the assistance of a few gifted Federation leaders from around the country. Audrey Farnum of Oklahoma, Lisamaria Martinez of California, Ben Schuler and Georgie Sydnor of Louisiana, and Karen Anderson of Baltimore were all critical to our mission—we appreciate their contributions. Emily Gibbs, Mika Baugh, Haley Spencer, and the rest of our team did an amazing job, and they deserve kudos for all their hard work.

Project BOLD and similar programs share the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind by teaching other blind people and members of the general public that high expectations should be the norm and not the exception. These programs also allow blind people to learn from one another. They build our community. They allow blind people to gain experiences that will create future opportunities, and they teach everyone that nonvisual tools are just as good as those used by sighted people. They build confidence, and they change what it means to be blind.

To learn more about Project BOLD and Project BOLDER, you can visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.