The Braille Monitor October 2005
and the Organized Blind:
New Approaches, Profound Results
From the Editor: One of the most lively and interesting agenda items of the 2005 convention took place on Thursday morning, July 7. Five Federationists came to the podium to describe their experiences with effective rehabilitation. Each was a graduate of an adult training center that had been shaped by the Federation’s philosophy of blindness. President Maurer introduced each speaker, but before they began, he set the context. This is what he said:
Even before the National Federation of the Blind came into being in 1940, blind people were deeply concerned about rehabilitation. In fact part of the reason blind people decided to organize nationally was the failure of some rehabilitation efforts in California. We could not imagine in 1940 all that the organized blind movement would become. We possessed hope but precious little else to go with that hope.
In the early fifties California established a rehabilitation program with Federation leaders heading it. With Dr. tenBroek’s urging that program hired Kenneth Jernigan. And in 1958 Dr. Jernigan left California, taking a substantial salary cut in the process, to become the director of a rehabilitation program in Iowa--the one that James Omvig described a few minutes ago and in his book, The Blindness Revolution: Jernigan in his Own Words. That program expanded the ideas under-girding the California program.
In 1985 some of the graduates of the Iowa program established a program in Louisiana. [cheers] Joanne Wilson had been a student in Iowa in the 1960’s, and she was the driving force behind the establishment of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. [applause] Before the decade of the eighties ended, we had also established programs in Minnesota and Colorado. [more cheers] The Federation philosophy became part of all of those programs.
Dr. tenBroek delivered an address in Canada in 1955 to the American Association of Workers for the Blind, which through corporate changes has now become the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). The address was not well received. In fact it was very controversial. It was called “The Pros and Cons of Preferential Treatment.” He argued that blind people should receive a certain kind of rehabilitation, training that encouraged the mastery of the skills of everyday life, the development of independent thought, and a true understanding of blindness. He said that, if rehabilitation accomplished these things, blind people would become independent and take their place as full participants in their communities. If it did not do these things, it would have failed blind people.
Almost no rehabilitation programs at the time embraced these principles--convictions that had emerged from the thinking, the history, the experience, and the knowledge of the National Federation of the Blind. The program in California had been developed in accordance with those principles although not all of them had yet been developed by 1955.
Dr. Jernigan took the concepts to Iowa, structured an entire state program on them, and changed rehabilitation forever. He started by talking a different language from that used by rehabilitation professionals in the past. It incorporated the language of independence in the teaching that took place in the Iowa program. The teachings that had begun in California were perfected in Iowa and exported and given expanded life in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Colorado.
In the following panel we have representatives from each of the rehabilitation programs where this change occurred. It has not just occurred in these programs. The language and the writings that were part of the change have become part of the entire rehabilitation system, so much so that today some of the people in the field have adopted much of the language and even some of the practices. A number of these professionals have, however, attempted to use the concepts while leaving the Federation out. I once actually heard the director of services for the blind in Missouri say, “I like your literature, and we will use it, provided that you take the National Federation of the Blind out of it,” which of course is complete foolishness. It would be like saying, “I think your religion has much to recommend it; just take God out.” We can’t take the organization, the principles of the organization, and the people of the organization out of the language, and we can’t take them out of the practice. Part of the reason rehabilitation works well when there is a partnership between the program and the blind is that the Federation is a magnificent, massive support system for those who go through the program. It helps to give students new ideas, to stimulate them, and to support them after they graduate.
The next portion of the agenda is a panel with a representative
of each of these five programs. I will begin by letting you hear from a graduate
of the California Orientation Center. Here is Tom Bickford:
In the spring of 1955 I was a blind student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. My rehabilitation counselor recommended that I attend the Orientation Center for the Blind, which was then in Oakland, California.
His reasons were far from clear to me in the beginning.
"Why should I go there?" I wondered.
My counselor said I needed to learn independent travel. He pointed out that every time I came to his office, which was only five miles from my home, someone brought me. He was right. (Later I learned to do it on two busses.) So I arranged to go to the center during the summer between my last two years of college.
On my first day at the orientation center, I had an interview with Kenneth Jernigan. He was not the administrative director, but he was the philosophical and inspirational leader of the program. During that interview the subject of independent travel came up. I finally said, "Do you mean that you would take your cane and fly to Japan?"
He said, "Yes."
I didn't believe him. I didn't say so, but my silence said it for me.
Two years later I traveled from Oakland to New Orleans, Louisiana, for the convention of the National Federation of the Blind, three-and-a-half days each way by Trailways bus. Eleven years later I traveled from Paris to Moscow and back to the United States by train and plane--alone. I don't say this to boast. Probably half the people in this room have done as much and more. But remember I was the guy who couldn't travel five miles across town on two busses.
After that first summer I did go back and graduate from college, but I quickly realized I had much more to learn.
During my college vacations it had been my custom to stay with my two maiden aunts. I remember hearing them talk once about a three-day trip they wanted to take. “Who's going to cook for Tom? How is he going to eat? He can't cook for himself."
I went back to the orientation center and learned to cook. Later, when I lived alone, I cooked for myself. When I shared housing with other men, sighted and blind, we shared the cooking. When I got married, I did some of the cooking for my family. Again I don't say this to boast; probably most of the people in this room have done as much and more. But remember I was the guy who couldn't live for three days without someone cooking for me.
At the orientation center Kenneth Jernigan taught many
different classes, but the most important class was called “Business Methods
and Procedures.” We very deliberately talked about blindness in its many aspects.
We talked about how we thought about ourselves as blind people, what we thought
about other blind people, what we thought about the sighted public, and what
they thought about us.
Kenneth Jernigan would engage a particular student in dialog. Some of you have heard of Jack Polson, the electrician who was blind. "Now, Jack,” Dr. Jernigan said on one memorable occasion, “let’s say that you are a home owner. We'll forget for the moment that you used to be an electrician and that you know anything about wiring. One day you have some electrical problems in your house, so you call a contractor and ask him to send over someone to work on the wiring. All right, in a couple of days the guy shows up. He has his tool box in one hand and a white cane in the other. What do you say to him, Jack?"
"Oh, I might ask him how he was going to do his work," Jack replied.
"Now, Jack, where do you get off askin' this guy how he's going to do his work? Don't you think that the contractor knew he was sending you a competent workman?"
That was just the beginning of Jack's workout that day. Later Jack went back and earned his living as an electrician. I knew him well. Don't ask me how he did his work. I can still hear Dr. Jernigan’s voice, “Oh no, you wouldn't discriminate against him. You would just ask him how he was going to do his work, eh?”
At the orientation center we went through three very distinct phases in our development in our attitudes about blindness. They were: F-I, R-I, and N-I. F-I is fear and insecurity. You don't think you can do much, and you don't do much. I already told you about how I couldn't travel and how I couldn't cook. R-I is rebellious independence. You begin to learn that you can to a few things. You do more and more. Sometimes it gets out of hand.
There was a cold milk dispenser in the dining room at the center. One time we students decided it would be nice to have a cookies and milk party late at night. Someone else got the cookies. My job was to get the milk. So after supper I left the window unlocked between the dining hall and the screened-in sun porch, which was always open to students. Late that night I went down with a jug. While I was getting the milk, the guard came through on his rounds. I knew I was caught. I knew he saw me, but he didn't say anything. Well we had our cookies and milk. Later we learned that the guard had gone to the director and said, "Those students are stealing milk out of the dining room. What are you going to do about it?" The director was wise enough to recognize the stage we were going through. His response was, "Don't make it so hard for them."
I will just say one more thing about R-I--firecrackers in the men's bathroom, with tile walls, good echoes.
N-I is normal independence. That comes later when you discover that you can do some things; other people can do other things. You share the responsibilities of life. You don't worry too much about who does what. Life goes along better that way.
One thing has always been hard for me to explain to people who haven't either been through the process themselves or seen the before and after results of someone who has been through it. It is this: the basic stock in trade of orientation centers, the most important thing they have to offer is not cane travel, Braille, computers, cooking, or wood shop. Don't get me wrong; those are essential. You need to know them. But the most important thing that an orientation center has to offer is a new set of ideas and attitudes about blindness--and I mean the National Federation of the Blind’s ideas and attitudes about blindness. By the time you were ready to leave, if you hadn't learned those ideas and made them a thorough part of everything you did, said, and thought, you didn't graduate; you "quitulated." That was a word I learned from my fellow students. We students knew who graduated and who just quitulated.
With Kenneth Jernigan there, you had better believe that place was a hotbed of Federationism. That was when I first joined the local chapter, and I'm still here today. We wrote letters to our legislators. We went to the state capital for hearings. We made friendly visits to nearby local chapters. We did lots of things together: went to dinner together, went to the movies together, and went on three-day camping trips in the state parks together. I will never forget the camping trip when Emil Borde, the former logger, took along his climbing rig and went up a redwood tree.
Was giving me all this training an expensive process for the taxpayers? I guess it was, but I have paid back a lot of taxes in the years since.
What have I done? I have traveled. I have worked. For the last thirty-eight years I have worked for the Library of Congress. Among other contributions there, I was able to demonstrate that a Braille book title can be made to fit on a cassette label. I have gotten married. My wife and I have two charming daughters and one very charming granddaughter. It is a good life; it is the kind of life I wanted to live.
So what did I learn at the orientation center? I will
sum it up in three short phrases: I learned that I could, I learned that I should,
and I learned how to! The best part is that I have.
Marc Maurer: The next person for a presentation graduated from the Iowa Commission for the Blind in the 1960’s. She became a teacher. She established a family. She created the Louisiana Center for the Blind. [applause] She became the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. And, when the Department of Education began to attack rehabilitation, she decided it would be better to be on the outside carrying on the good fight than to be on the inside trying to apologize for the behavior of those who didn't understand. Here is Joanne Wilson:
“He takes a man who doesn't want to live and makes him fall in love with life.” This is the description of the Master in the book, The Master of the Inn, by Robert Herrick.
In 1966, when I was a student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, Dr. Jernigan used to gather us around in the recreation room and read us this story. It's the story of an old doctor who brought men who had given up on life into his large home and gave them back the zest for living. He did this through hard work and experience, by sitting with them and looking deep into their souls for the reason behind the reason. He taught them the secret of giving.
Another of Dr. Jernigan’s favorite books, one which he often quoted to his students, was The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. "In the do of little things, all hope, all dreams, all desires are borne. In the do of little things, great things result." It was the little things in my rehabilitation experience that made the critical difference.
When I was nineteen years old, I was gradually but very steadily losing my eyesight. I was also losing my dreams and my hopes and my zest for living. I was in denial. I was confused. I was depressed. But I was searching--searching for something. It all started for me one day when I was walking home from junior college. I saw a car labeled Iowa Commission for the Blind parked at my doorstep. I thought, "Oh, I don't want anything to do with these folks!" I just kept walking around the block until the car left.
Well, the counselor was persistent. He knew what I was going through. He returned again, and this time he talked me into going to a student seminar at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. I did not want to go. I was dragged there. I didn't want to be around all those weirdo blind people. I wasn't like one of them. I just had this eye problem.
Within ten minutes of arriving at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, I was sitting in Dr. Jernigan's office. He asked me, "Joanne, are you blind?"
I said, "Well, no, sir. I just can't see very well." I thought he was the meanest, cruelest man around. But he was already beginning the process of showing me the reason within the reason.
That night I went off to a fancy restaurant with all the other students. It was very dark in there, and I couldn't see at night. It came time to pay. I was hanging over the candle in the middle of the table trying to see my bill. I almost caught my hair on fire! Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder; it was my rehab counselor. He said, "Here, let me tell you what's what.” Then he went a step further and showed me how to fold my money. I was already beginning to realize that I needed to learn skills.
Then it came time to walk back to the main building several blocks away. By then it was really dark. I said to myself, "Oh well, I'll just hang on to one of these sighted people. One of them will lead me back." No way; they hooked me up with Ramona Walhof, a totally blind woman using a long white cane. She led me back to the building. I thought, "Now wait a minute. There is something wrong with this picture. There is something here that I need."
A month or so later I was sent at the expense of the Iowa Commission for the Blind to my first national convention. It was 1966 in Louisville, Kentucky. I experienced what you are experiencing at this convention. I looked around and saw blind people doing all sorts of things. But I also saw all the Iowa Commission for the Blind staff there--my rehab counselor, the sighted staff, the blind staff. They were there for the same reason I was--to learn about blindness.
I became a student in the orientation center in Iowa. I was given hard work and lots of experiences. I began looking deep into my soul for the reason behind the reason. I was taught how to deal with the public. I was taught the secret of life, which is giving. I watched blind mentors there cooking and serving dinner. I saw them knitting. I saw them dancing. I saw them walking through deep piles of Iowa snow. I saw them shopping.
I was pushed to cook and serve dinner but also to bake thousands and thousands of cookies at a state fair exhibit. I was taught to knit but also to sew and start making some of my own clothes. I was taught to dance but also was invited to the governor's ball. That’s not just any dance. I plowed through the Iowa snow. I also learned waterskiing, tried woodcutting, and went on huge graduation routes. I was taught to shop. One day I was asked to go buy some equipment for the kitchen. I was handed some money and expected to do the job by myself. What trust!
I sat through many business classes, seminars, and philosophy
classes and learned a defined philosophy about blindness. I clearly remember
the day in the Braille class when the teacher and I talked about why she never
had children. When she was growing up, the people who ran the rehabilitation
system said blind people should never be parents. If she wanted services, she
needed to be sterilized.
I remember the day when I was on a hike, looking at the beautiful scenery. I said to a sighted staff person, "I'm really going to miss all this when I lose the rest of my vision." What a discussion ensued! I remember the day when I was hanging over a bowl of spaghetti with my sleep shades lifted up. The deputy director (whom all the girls had a crush on) came by. Without saying a word, he pushed my sleep shades down. I remember the day when the maintenance man, after finding my cane hidden at the bus station, came to me and said, "You really need to use this when you go home, Joanne."
I was taught to give. We were out selling candy bars in
the snow. We had people staying with us in our room so that we could be there
to mentor them. We did thousands and thousands of tours and speaking engagements
so that we could learn to give back.
I remember being asked what I wanted to do--what I wanted to become. I said, "Oh, I would like to be a teacher of sighted children." Now no one told me that Iowa hadn't ever had blind classroom teachers before. Instead they said, "Okay, we'll introduce you to blind teachers in California and other states. And they did that. I met those mentors.
The Iowa Commission for the Blind did more for me. It went the extra mile. It helped find summer jobs. It was there, on my side, when the Department of Education at Iowa State University was not going to let me student teach because I was blind.
The rehabilitation program gives us direct services, and it gives us money to buy the services we need. But true rehabilitation happens when we meet other blind people and learn the truth about blindness. We learn the philosophy. We learn the collective viewpoint and the high expectations of the organized blind. This was the kind of rehabilitation I had. This was the kind of rehabilitation that Dr. Jernigan understood and put in place.
Forgive me, but I just can’t help using professional rehabilitation jargon to describe my experience. In the 1960’s Dr. Jernigan was providing individualized services, developing comprehensive services, helping students reach their full potential, giving folks choice, dealing with high-quality employment, and mentoring. He was a visionary. He created the blueprint that rehabilitation law followed later, much later. It was not until 1973 that rehabilitation law scrapped the medical model and started looking at the individualized needs of people with disabilities. The choice provision of the law was not added until 1992. The rehabilitation establishment did not emphasize the full potential of people with disabilities until the 1990's. Fred Schroeder introduced the concept of helping people find high-quality employment later in the nineties. The reauthorization bill for the Rehab Act is just now including the words "mentoring” and “consumer organizations." Dr. Jernigan was truly a visionary. He knew what needed to be done because he listened to the collective experiences and viewpoints of the blind. He proved the National Federation of the Blind’s contention that the consumer-based model of rehabilitation worked.
Dr. Jernigan died on October 12, 1998. But he is survived
by those of us whom he served in the sixties. Even though he didn’t personally
teach them, he is also survived by the Angelas, by the Seans, by the Katrillas,
who represent the NFB training centers on this panel. There are thousands and
thousands of people his legacy will help who are not yet born. The monument
on Dr. Jernigan’s grave says, "He taught us it is respectable to be blind."
Dr. Jernigan taught us the reason within the reason so that we can all fall
in love with life. Thank you. [applause]
President Maurer: A graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the center established by Joanne Wilson and the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana, here is Angela Wolf:
In 1985 Gorbochev became the leader of the Soviet Union, Coca Cola decided to alter their ninety-nine year old formula with unpopular results, and British scientists announced a discovery of a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. That same year a precocious six-year-old girl entered the first grade at South Highland Elementary school in Shreveport, Louisiana. She was fully sighted and loved to play T-ball, create artistic masterpieces with Crayola crayons and construction paper, and ride her bicycle until sunset. She dreamed of what she would be when she grew up. For her the possibilities were endless. Sixty miles east of her hometown, a group of dedicated blind people led by Joanne Wilson were building a dream--a dream that seven years later would change that little girl's life--my life--forever.
The summer I turned twelve I developed a blood clot in my brain, which caused the pressure inside my head to rise. The pressure primarily affected my optic nerve. The doctors proposed that I have a shunt inserted to try and relieve some of the pressure. They told my parents and me that, if I had the surgery, I might be able to save some of my vision. Without the surgery I would go blind. After having endured so much during the two months I spent in the hospital, my parents and I wondered what benefit could come from undergoing such high-risk surgery, especially when it seemed that the reality was that I would probably go blind. My parents and I refused the surgery, and I did go blind.
I tried my best to establish a sense of normalcy in my life, but the fact is that I did not know how to live my life as a blind person. I was dependent on others for everything. I hated feeling so helpless. My parents hated seeing their daughter, once a very independent child, struggle without skills. They were in constant search for resources to help me regain my independence. So when a friend of the family who happened to be from Ruston, Louisiana, sent them information about a training center for the blind located there, my parents were ecstatic. They called the Louisiana Center for the Blind immediately. After speaking with Joanne Wilson and learning that the center even offered summer programs for blind children, my parents felt as though they had finally found the opportunity for their daughter for which they had been hoping.
As soon as school let out for the summer, we packed my bags. I was off to the Buddy Program. As my parents left me in the charge of Pam Allen, the director of the program at the time, I was very anxious about what the following month would be like. I called home every day that first week and begged my parents to come and pick me up. But they insisted the experience would be good for me. They assured me that I would begin enjoying myself; I just needed to give it a chance. It was not easy for my parents, but they knew that making me stay was the best thing for me. They were right. After getting through the first week, I rarely ever called home. I was so busy having fun that there was no time to worry anymore about going home.
It is difficult to put into words how pivotal that summer
was in my life. I was impressed with the accomplishments that I had made throughout
the program, but I was even more impressed by the competent blind people who
worked in the program. Because they believed in me, I could believe in myself.
Because of these mentors I also learned about the National Federation of the
Blind. This organization--consisting of an enormous network of successful blind
individuals--believed in the capabilities of all blind people, including me.
It had fought to insure equality for all blind people, including me. Now that
was something I wanted to be a part of!
After I graduated from the Buddy Program, my parents and I began to attend our local chapter meetings and other affiliate events. I must admit that, after emerging from the Buddy Program, I had a slight case of rebellious independence. But for the first time since I had become blind, I felt a true sense of freedom--a feeling I did not want to lose. Because of this I was eager to return to the center the next summer to attend the Step Program. The Step Program provides kids the opportunity to receive training and secure a part-time summer job. In addition, during the eight-week session we traveled to the NFB national convention. Consequently I attended my first convention in Dallas in 1993. Because of the power of the collective spirit of thousands of blind people, the spark of Federationism that had begun in me ignited into a flame of passion for the organized blind movement.
The next summer I returned to the Step Program. I continued to sharpen my skills and strengthen my philosophy, and I attended my second national convention. During the meeting of the National Association of Blind Students, I delivered my first speech. Dr. Maurer happened to follow my panel on the agenda. He proceeded to give me a mini lesson on speech writing. I was mortified and perhaps a little angry. But after I reflected on what had happened, I realized that, just as the instructors at the Louisiana Center for the Blind had passed on what someone had once given them, Dr. Maurer and the leaders of the Federation teach younger generations what they themselves have been taught. Passing along our wisdom is the best way of insuring that the blindness movement continues well into the future.
Dr. Maurer’s comments to me that night also motivated me to give better speeches and inspired me to do my best and work my hardest in everything that I do. As Federationists we know the importance of giving back to the movement. Because of the mentors I had and the training I received at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I felt a sincere obligation to make a difference in the lives of blind children, just as someone had made a difference in mine.
After graduating from the adult program, I returned to
the center almost every summer for the next five years, serving in various capacities
in the children's program. Each time a group of students received their freedom
bells, I would fill with pride as they bragged about their accomplishments.
We were giving them skills. We were giving them confidence. We were giving them
The center's twentieth anniversary is this year. It has grown a great deal since 1985 and has served over 800 students since its doors were opened. Yes, that dream that was built twenty years ago has changed my life and the lives of many others, but it has also continued to change the field of rehabilitation for the blind. We are indebted to those who had the spark of imagination and dared to dream of a better future for all of the blind. [applause]
President Maurer: The next person is the director of Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions, Inc., our center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Here is Shawn Mayo:
After a long day at work a mother came home feeling she needed some time to relax before getting on with her evening tasks. Soon her daughter came to her saying, "Mommy, mommy, let's play."
"Wait a little, Honey, while I rest a bit, and then we can play."
But her daughter persisted, "No, I want to play now!"
The mother glanced around and picked up a magazine she saw on the floor. Thumbing quickly through it, she ripped out a picture of the world and tore it up into little pieces. She handed the pieces to her daughter, thinking this would buy her some time. "When you have put the puzzle together,” she said “then I'll play with you."
The mother settled back to relax. Not much later the little girl came running back and said,
"Mom, let's play. I have the puzzle together."
Astonished, the mother said, "How did you do that so quickly?"
The little girl said, "It was easy. When you turn
the pieces over, there is a picture of a little girl. When the pieces of the
little girl fit, the whole world hangs together." We all have many pieces
that we need to put together, and we are usually passionate about doing it.
During high school I started losing my sight, although I did not consider myself blind. I certainly had passion--passion about hiding my blindness. I put much passion into learning tricks. I would schedule myself to go out when other people were going. When I did go out with people, I would stare at their feet. When they stepped down, I would step down. That was the only way I could tell about steps. Meanwhile I was getting bumped on the shoulder at times by objects that I didn't see around me. I think we all know such tricks; we have developed a few of our own.
Then I went to college, and I became even more passionate. I started carrying a cane, but I really didn’t know how to use it properly. I needed to find a way to handle steps safely when I couldn’t see them, so I came up with the brilliant idea of asking the university to paint them yellow. With the ADA by my side, I met with the president of the university. After going around and around and being told that the buildings were historic and could not be altered, they finally relented and asked for a list of my classes for that semester. They painted those steps yellow. Well guess what? The next semester my classes changed. The pieces of my puzzle were not coming together.
My rehab counselor, who happened to be blind, thought that I needed training. She encouraged me to go for a couple of weeks so that I could learn to maximize my vision. Fortunately I was introduced to the National Federation of the Blind during that year. Federationists began telling me that I needed to attend a Federation center. By this time I had seen enough Federationists to know that they had the skills and confidence that I wanted.
I asked to attend BLIND, Incorporated, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My request was quickly denied. We spent the next six months going through appeals and fighting for my right to attend BLIND, Inc. We were successful because now I had the passion of the NFB, and our collective activism carried the day.
The training I received began directing my passion. I learned that passion can often be misplaced. I immediately started learning more about the Federation. Three of the main puzzle pieces of my life started coming together. The pieces of skills, self-confidence, and a positive attitude toward blindness started connecting and forming a picture of a girl. I started to learn why attending a Federation center was so important. All of the staff around me were Federationists. Each staff member with whom I came into contact had a Federation attitude. The passion for independence was shared among the staff and the students. A staff member's day did not end at five o'clock when the normal workday ended. Time was given to the students after normal working hours. The staff at Federation centers are role models. We went out in the evenings to the movies or to plays. I remember one time getting involved in building a float for the May Day parade. Oftentimes, while we were out observing that blind people truly lived normal lives, our discussion turned to the Federation.
I am not saying that this training is easy. Changing one's attitudes is very difficult and takes a lot of work. Change must occur at the gut level in order for one to grow.
At Federation centers we have a belief in blind people and blind people's abilities that we share with one another. Throughout my training I was encouraged to attend chapter meetings of the National Federation of the Blind, and I had the support and the encouragement of the Federation while going through training. This was important for me when I finished training so that I could take the Federation philosophy with me wherever I go and whatever I do. After training I immediately went into graduate school. I remember the first day. I was walking with my cane in hand and proudly came up to the steps of the building where my class was; I smiled to myself, knowing that the steps did not need to be painted yellow.
Behind each piece of the puzzle of ourselves is the world. This world is the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, and the pieces combine to make the collective activism that carries us forward. I was given the opportunity after graduate school to work at BLIND, Inc., and I am now proud as executive director to give the opportunity I had to other blind people. We as Federation centers bring our students here to convention, so I am happy to have many of our students here today, so that they too can learn what the Federation is about and that it is far-reaching across the nation. [applause]
Federation centers are places where passion and philosophy
synergize. I think Federation centers, like the Federation as a whole, combine
the desire to create change, innovate, and make life better for blind people
with the time-tested, practical philosophy of what blindness is and what blindness
is not. The secret is in the combination. So let's work together and share our
ideas and experiences, ensuring that every blind person, no matter where he
or she happens to live, has the same opportunity to receive the Federation training
that will make him or her more competent, more confident, and more employable.
Good training is comprehensive. We will put our Federation passion behind the principle of informed choice. We will make state agencies understand that there is no substitute for the type of training at a Federation center. It is life-altering, and it cannot be found anywhere else because the environment created when Federation philosophy synergizes with the Federation passion for changing what it means to be blind will not occur without the Federation. We have the pieces, and we know how to put them together. [applause]
Marc Maurer: Now we have a graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind, established by Diane McGeorge and grounded in the theory of the National Federation of the blind. For her presentation here is Katrilla Martin:
Good morning. As the agenda reads, I am a graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind. My name is Katrilla Martin, and I entered the independence training program on Tuesday, January 13, 2004, and graduated from that same program on Wednesday, August 25, 2004. Why are the dates important? Because my experience at the Colorado Center for the Blind opened a world of freedom--freedom that had been denied to me by others but, most important, freedom that I denied myself. I will come back to those freedoms, but I first want to tell you a little about myself. We'll talk more about those freedoms; then I will leave you with a message.
I live in beautiful and historic Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I attend the University of Mary Washington. I am a graduate student in the university's first educational leadership program. "What do you want to do with that?" you may ask. Although I have a gift for educating others, especially children, my desire has always been to be involved with educational policy and reform with an ultimate goal of one day becoming secretary of education. I have an eight-year-old son named Robert, who is usually at convention with me but is spending this summer with his grandparents. Before I received training at the Colorado Center for the Blind, my interests were meeting new people and learning new things. That has not changed. However, I have newfound interests, including cooking, specifically baking; skiing; and Tai Kwon Do--all interests acquired at the Colorado Center for the Blind.
I mentioned that my son is spending the summer with his grandparents because I am interning at the National Center in Baltimore. When I tell people this, I get varied reactions. Many people tell me it's a wonderful opportunity, and they wish me well, but some inquire and complain about the dress code, the long hours, and the stuffy atmosphere. My reply is this: we are no longer a gathering of dreamers from seven different states. We have built that dream and are now living that dream, and the dedicated professionals at the heart of our operation should not be criticized but complimented for their efforts in changing the lives of blind people across this country and the world. I think we need to move on and talk about those freedoms.
I am specifically speaking to the people who may be considering attending a training center or perhaps those who are not and to parents and teachers and friends of blind children who know that the child in their life needs training but don't know how to go about getting it. I know what you are thinking: "But I have school or a job." I took a semester off school and find that I am more effective because of it. Others of you are thinking: “I have children and other responsibilities.” I left behind the saddest pair of puppy dog eyes as I boarded a plane for Denver. A few of you are thinking: "My life is in crisis right now, so I will go when things get better." To the woman I met here in the elevator, I say that, before I received training, I walked away from an abusive and violent marriage, and I am better because of that.
I can guess what you parents are thinking: "My child really isn't blind; he or she is visually impaired, and the Colorado Center is not the place for a child to receive training because the program focuses on adults." Well, I tell you that I too am a partially sighted blind person, and I spoke with students enrolled in the summer program at the Colorado Center for the Blind last night, and they tell me how they have improved their blindness and social skills. Before receiving training, I believed there were things blind people should not do and places they should not go. I can tell you now that I slice, dice, and cut comfortably in the kitchen and create, send, and attach documents with the stroke of a key. I used to think that grassy areas, crowded spaces, and escalators were forbidden places to the blind, but I now travel about these places with great ease. Am I saying that if I were not blind, I couldn't be content? No, I am not. I am saying that, because I am a properly trained blind person, I can do anything that I desire.
Before I read to you from a book created by my son (he wrote a poem about his blind mother's newfound freedom), there are some people that I would like to thank for my experience. To Mrs. Cheadle, it's been a privilege working with you and the others at the National Center. To the Virginia affiliate, a thank you seems so small compared to all you've done. To the Colorado affiliate, thank you for welcoming me with open arms. To the wonderful staff and instructors at the Colorado Center for the Blind, you have changed what it means to be blind for me. You have encouraged and listened and challenged and pushed me. And in turn I will change what it means to be blind for someone in the generation to come. You see, your gift keeps on giving. To my son Robert, who is listening to this by telephone, you will always be my sweet boy, and I am so glad that you have come to realize that having a mother who is blind is nothing to be ashamed of. To my friend Mary Chappell, who is always there to listen, congratulations on your scholarship award. You deserve it. Last but not least, to Yolanda Dominguez, thank you for your friendship, your support, and showing me how love is supposed to be.
Here is what my son has to say about his mother's newfound
My mom is blind, but that's okay.
She can do all the same things your mom does every day.
My mom uses a cane to go here or there.
She labels things in Braille so that she knows what's where.
But did you know that Braille is a system of dots
That allows blind people to read using their fingertips?
My mom makes the best cookies, cakes, and treats;
But don't think she makes a mess; she keeps everything neat.
She irons my clothes and makes sure I do my homework each night.
She reads to me from her Braille book. She can do this without using a lamp or light.
My mom had to go away to the CCB (Colorado Center for the Blind).
At first it made me sad, but now she's the best blind person in the whole country.
At the CCB she learned to read and write Braille.
She learned how to use computers, how to travel with her cane, and how to manage her life well.
And when she graduated from CCB, they gave her a cool gold bell.
I'm going to skip to the last page. In closing, he says:
So maybe your mom is different from mine.
Maybe your mom doesn't use a Braille watch to tell time,
But my mom is special in so many ways,
I'm going to love my mom for the rest of my days.
So when you see me and my mom walking down the street,
Come up and say, "Hi,"
But don't grab her. She's not weird.
She's funny, and she takes great care of me.
I have in my hand that cool gold bell my son spoke of. This is the bell of freedom I received from the Colorado Center for the Blind upon my graduation. I'm going to ring it in memory of Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan, and I want you not to continue to put off your training, but to continue to fight with rehab--we can help you do that--not to continue to think that, because you are partially sighted, you don't need training. I am pleading with you--go seek your freedom and the training you deserve. I did it at the Colorado Center for the Blind. You can do it too. Thank you. [sound of the bell ringing and applause]