Braille Monitor February 2008
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by Shawn Mayo, Pam Allen, and Julie Deden
From Dan Frye: Shawn Mayo, Pam Allen, and Julie Deden are the executive directors of BLIND, Incorporated, the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and the Colorado Center for the Blind, our three NFB training centers. On Thursday, December 6, 2007, during the second plenary session of the Dare to Be Remarkable conference, these women offered a collaborative presentation outlining the essential elements for operating a top-notch residential training center. Material from their remarks will be of benefit to administrators and teachers working in residential training centers across the country. Even where the formula for a successful residential training center for the blind may be fluid and hard to capture in writing, readers of the Braille Monitor will also gain additional insight from the complementary perspectives of these three center directors. This is what they said:
Shawn Mayo: The word “organic” is a very popular term these days. We hear it often and in varied contexts, from the produce aisle at the grocery store to the latest book on business success. Merriam-Webster has many definitions for the word “organic,” but the two that speak to what we are going to talk about are: “developing in the manner of a living plant or animal” and “an integral element of a whole: fundamental.” These definitions encapsulate our position toward curriculum.
We have had discussions about whether we should produce a manual that outlines how NFB centers do our training. I think such a manual would be impossible to create. Curriculum is a living thing. It is constantly changing to fit its environment, the tools and strategies available, and the individuals who put it into practice. The part of curriculum that is written down is only as useful as a football team’s playbook. It is an important part of preparation, but it won’t tell you which play will work best in a given game situation, and it is absolutely worthless without a team to execute the plays. In fact, if you want to be a championship team, you need to have players who know when to run the play as designed and when to improvise. For example, if a student comes into computer class after having finished a travel assignment in which he is preoccupied because he was just pulled across the street by a stranger and the instructor knows from seminar class that his family has been telling him that he does not need to use his cane, the instructor may have to discuss what has happened with the student to identify solutions and ways of educating the public and his family rather than working on the dialog box assignment that was called for in the curriculum.
All curricula must begin with a goal. An outcome that the curriculum is meant to achieve must exist, or there is no point in going to the work of building a curriculum. The primary goal of adjustment-to-blindness training at our NFB centers is for our students to make blindness become a nonfactor in all areas of their lives. Many factors abound that shape the kind of life that a person will have—intellectual ability, skills and talents, work ethic, education, economic status, etc.; but blindness shouldn’t be on this list. Other things should also probably not be on this list, but those would be the domains of other types of programs.
What we know is blindness, and we know that all blind people can be as successful
and fulfilled as they would have been if they had had perfect vision. Our job
is to create an environment in which blind people can gain the skills, self-confidence,
and positive attitude they need to take blindness out of the equation–to become
as independent, socially adapted, employable, and successful as they would be
if they were not blind. Every other goal we set and everything we do stems from
this aim. Everyone we hire and every member of our boards believe in and actively
work to achieve this objective. I was going to make the analogy that this goal
is the trunk of the curriculum tree, but it is really like the tree’s DNA. It
both defines the very nature of our programs and is embedded within every aspect
of our training.
From this primary goal there come secondary goals that form the basis for the different classes we offer. In order to make blindness a nonfactor in one’s life, one’s practical needs must be met. A person has to be able to travel, read, write, access information, and take care of oneself and his or her home. Everyone has to achieve these things, but the extent to which each person needs to accomplish each of these subgoals depends on his or her own personal attributes and aspirations.
We require students to complete drop-offs. This is where they are taken to an unknown location and expected to find their way back to the center while asking only one question. Sometimes we have had students who have memory loss or other cognitive disabilities. They still complete the drop-offs, but they may need to ask more than one question. We never tell our students that they cannot learn anything—in fact we know that students can always reach far beyond what they expect--but we always keep our ultimate goal in mind. It’s not just whether they meet this or that preset standard of achievement; it’s whether or not they are making blindness a nonissue in their lives. Success is not a static term. The equation of success will be different for each individual, but blindness won’t determine whether a person reaches his or her potential.
The term “the blind” has historically given society the erroneous impression that blind people are all alike. The only real common denominator among blind people is blindness. The only real common denominator among our students is the way they conceptualize blindness and live out that conceptualization in their daily lives. One of our assistant directors at BLIND Incorporated, Dick Davis, has a tradition of giving each student a rock when he or she graduates. He explains that this rock started out large and rough and has been made small and smooth by flowing water. He explains that the rock represents blindness and that, when a person is first blind or hasn’t dealt with blindness, it is the size of a boulder, and they have to use a lot of energy to drag it around everywhere they go. But during training a student erodes the boulder, little by little, until it is a manageable size—a rock that fits in the pocket. Sometimes it will feel uncomfortable, and other times they will forget it’s there and accidentally run it through the laundry, but it won’t ever command much of their attention or strength. They won’t have to organize their lives around blindness—they can organize their lives around what matters most to them.
Now I would like to introduce Pam Allen, executive director of the Louisiana
Center for the Blind. Pam will expand on the tools that we use to help each
student wear down blindness to a manageable size.
Pam Allen: In order to make blindness a nonfactor, we need tools--ways to help our students confront their fears and increase their expectation levels. These tools include sleepshade practice, long cane use, Braille and computer literacy skills, daily living experiences, confidence-building activities, a residential living component, exposure to peer support, a unified staff, role modeling, and immersion in a positive philosophy about blindness. These tools are time-tested and can be tailored to different environments to meet the individual needs of our students. At our NFB training centers we immerse our students in an environment designed to help them question their belief system about blindness and to master the skills needed for independence. Since our students stay an average of six to nine months and participate in a required core curriculum which weaves the development of problem-solving and self-advocacy into all aspects of training, they have the opportunity to master the skills and, most important, to develop the philosophy which makes blindness a nonfactor.
Because our students are surrounded by the positive message of the National Federation of the Blind, they learn to appreciate its history and come to understand that they are part of a nationwide support system. We incorporate the National Federation of the Blind into all areas, including our philosophy classes, through attending state and national conventions and by connecting students with NFB affiliates in the states where they will reside upon graduation. We realize that training at our centers is the beginning and that students need to stay connected with positive role models who can provide ongoing support and encouragement. Also our students understand the essential element of giving back--of working together to effect positive change.
One of the tools I mentioned is philosophy class–a chance for our students to express their thoughts, feelings, questions, and opinions. I can promise you that sometimes these classes are quite interesting because they force our students to confront honestly their fears, anxiety, anger, and stereotypes about blindness. It is critical for these classes to offer a positive and constructive environment. Simply instituting a philosophy class will not empower students unless the class is truly promoting a positive attitude about blindness. A philosophy class should not reinforce negative attitudes and support fears; instead it must help students break free of these negative ideas that impede potential. Let me illustrate this point. If the person facilitating the philosophy class does not understand fully the importance of using sleepshades, when a student questions why sleepshades must be used, the facilitator might promote a negative idea or undermine a key tool of training.
Similarly, challenge and recreation activities must be geared to help students gain confidence. For example, if an activity is organized in which students go to a movie and then to a restaurant for dinner, staff members must use this activity as a time to develop problem-solving and not to foster dependency. When we organize field trips like this, for instance, sighted staff members cannot read the menu to students so that students must employ alternative methods to find out the items offered. Also, if a student is at dinner and needs to find the restroom, what a wonderful teaching opportunity--a great time for students to combine travel skills and problem-solving to locate the bathroom. Our staff members would celebrate with the student when he or she returned to the table because we know that the larger goals cannot be accomplished until one truly believes that blindness is a nonfactor and masters the skills to implement that belief and the little things. Recreational activities during and outside of class time are learning opportunities, experiential learning moments, not a break from training.
Another key element in our programs is our staff members. Like master artisans, our staff members on all levels, from the receptionist to the director, believe that, with proper training, opportunity, and a positive attitude, blindness can be reduced to the level of an inconvenience. We know that students will look to staff members for guidance and support. Change will not occur, though, by simply implementing the tools I mentioned earlier. Staff members must truly believe in the importance and effectiveness of the tools and be able to help students with individual needs to gain confidence in these methods. For example, sleepshades are a critical component of our training because they teach students that vision is not essential for performing tasks. By wearing sleepshades in all types of settings, our students replace their anxiety about their vision loss with confidence. If our office manager or receptionist sees someone not wearing sleepshades correctly, they understand that it is their responsibility to talk to the student about the importance of this strategy.
Although six to nine months sounds like a long time to some, we have a relatively short time to shape attitudes and strengthen skills. We use every minute, whether during the class day or during evenings and weekends. If our residential manager notices a student traveling around the apartment complex without his or her cane, she will make the student get the cane and take the opportunity to talk about why this is important. Because our students know that staff members will empower them and not enable them, they begin to chip away at their fears and misconceptions.
Even though the three of us are directors of our centers, we know that students need to know us in order to understand that we believe strongly in the capabilities of blind people and that we have high expectations for them. Consequently, we participate in challenge recreation activities, run philosophy classes, fill in when needed for residential living, and interact with our students and staff regularly. I certainly do not want to know my students only when they come to my office with a problem. I also want my staff to understand that I believe in them and I appreciate the hard work they are doing to help our students become empowered.
It is not always easy to help our students challenge their views about blindness. As we've discussed at this conference, change is hard. But as we often hear, anything worth having is worth working hard for, and our staff members exemplify that idea. It would be easier to put all of the ingredients on the counter for a student in home economics class instead of having the student find them independently. But what message would that send?
Just like all of you today in this audience, we face challenges on a daily basis. Like you we must constantly search for funding opportunities and work on recruiting students to our programs. We also serve many students with disabilities in addition to blindness, so we need to be creative and apply our philosophy to meet individual needs. We meet with resistance from our students. Sometimes they are so anxious and fearful that they struggle to be open to our methods—the methods that we know will lead to empowerment and independence. Our students ask us why they have to wear sleepshades. They want to know why they cannot use a folding cane. They ask why they have to go rock climbing or whitewater rafting when all they really want to do is increase their computer skills.
Like you, we are here at this conference to share ideas and to stretch ourselves. But we know that as Mark Caine said, "The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself." We know that we must take advantage of every moment to give our students the tools, philosophy, and connection with the NFB in order to help them achieve true independence.
I would now like to introduce Julie Deden, executive director of the Colorado
Center for the Blind, who will share ideas on how we combine goals, tools, and
philosophy to empower our students.
Julie Deden: It's exciting, it's wild, it's challenging, and most of all it is wonderful working at an NFB training center. Anything can happen at any time, and it often does. Our students learn how important it is to be flexible. Sometimes we may make a schedule change or go on an impromptu activity. Even though our students don't realize it, everything we do serves a purpose.
Shawn discussed the foundation of our centers, which is the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. Without this philosophy only a shell of meaningful training exists. Pam instructed us about the tools that are an integral part of training. From her remarks we know that these tools must be used carefully and masterfully in order to achieve the results that we want.
Working with our students and our staff creates so many variables that each day is new--filled with energy and electricity. At our centers we begin each day with announcements, and it's hard to believe that we have so much to discuss. Our students know that we expect them to be on time every day. There is no excuse for being late. Students are expected to take an earlier bus if necessary; they definitely learn that they should leave early if there is a lot of snow on the ground. Teaching these strategies isn't necessarily part of the curriculum; it is just part of life, whether you are sighted or blind.
One of my favorite times of the week is our staff meeting because we get to work together as a team in order to figure out what methods we should use to move our students and each other forward. A couple of weeks ago someone brought up Terry and said, "What are we going to do with him? He just doesn't seem to understand why he is here. He doesn't wear his sleepshades like he should and only seems to follow through with things because we want him to, not because he wants to. Maybe he should not stay here." Then someone jumped in, "Remember, Terry has bipolar disorder and is having a lot of family problems. He has always been told that he will not measure up. We need to challenge him in an encouraging way because he needs to hear that he is making progress." I am happy to report to you all that Terry is making great progress now in dealing with his blindness. In fact he encourages others to wear their sleepshades, and he is now gaining more and more confidence in himself each day. This has happened for Terry because we were all on the same page with him. Each of us encouraged him in the way he needed it. Kelly is blind as a result of brain cancer. Part of his face has been removed as he has undergone extensive therapy. Kelly was determined to come for training and had to fight to be with us. He is highly motivated, but he can be single-minded. Change is not easy for him. One morning Merle was teaching him the route to the center from his apartment. At the light rail station Kelly became very frustrated and agitated. He threw his cane on the ground and began yelling, "This is not the way I want to be taught!" Merle said, "Tell me how you want to learn. I know that you can do this, and you will. We will take our time." Merle believed in Kelly and encouraged him while at the same time letting him know that he could handle this route and much more. Today Kelly has not only mastered this, but he also takes a short cut each day where he jumps over a fence to get to the center more quickly. Kelly is flourishing.
The seemingly little things often have the most impact for us and for our students. In October we all went fishing, and one of our newest staff members was asked, "Will you show me where the restroom is?" Wayne replied, "I will give you directions." Wayne knew that this was the right thing to do, but prior to training and being around all of us he would probably have just walked with the student to the restroom, and that student would not have believed that she could find it on her own. Always keep in mind that it is not days that we remember but moments.
What do the Louisiana Center, the Colorado Center, and BLIND, Incorporated, have in common? What we have is a deeply rooted belief system--a philosophy that it is respectable to be blind. We will take full responsibility for ourselves as blind people, and we will work together to gain opportunity for all blind people.
Take the challenge to be remarkable within yourselves and the work that you do. You can make a difference. Remember these three principles:
1. Believe in blind people.
2. Challenge yourself each day–take a risk.
3. Be passionate and love what you do.