Braille Monitor                                                    November 2008

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On the Value of NFB Center-Based Training

From Dan Frye: Email exchanges on our NFB-sponsored lists occasionally reflect the thoughtful deliberations of list subscribers on topics of current philosophical, political, social, or cultural interest to our membership and the blind community in general. Correspondence among Federationists Bruce Sexton, Joe Orozco, and Mike Freeman from August of this year on the value of NFB-sponsored residential rehabilitation training and the question of whether instruction at one of our centers specifically is essential for success as a blind person may represent a discussion of potential interest to many Braille Monitor readers.

The selected excerpts for this piece begin with remarks from Bruce Sexton, an NFB student leader from California, in which he offers some autobiographical background and attests to the positive influence that training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, one of our three NFB-sponsored training centers, has had in his life. While Bruce's comments did not directly address the issue of whether attending an NFB-sponsored training center is absolutely required for a blind person to be successful, his writing inspired posts from Joe Orozco, a Federationist currently living and working in Washington, D.C., and Mike Freeman, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, in which they agreed that, though receiving services from one of our Federation centers is likely the ideal way to acquire high-quality, Federation-oriented training, it is not absolutely essential to achieving success in life. They refer to the harmful and divisive consequences that may emerge in the blindness community when a sense of training elitism develops among those privileged to attend an NFB center, and they point out that, with some discipline and a healthy attitude, useful training can be obtained from other sources.

Since the resources of our NFB training centers are finite and since for a variety of reasons not every blind person in the country who may want or need high-quality adjustment-to-blindness training can attend one of our programs, this practical discussion seems valuable. Taken together, these three perspectives offer a reasonable and healthy point of view. Edited slightly for space and clarity only, here is what they said:

Bruce Sexton

Hello Jessica and List:

Blindness training is important, and it is different from college study skills. I believe acquiring good blindness skills should be a prerequisite to life. Unfortunately college study skills are not taught to blind children nearly as much as they are to nonblind children. I now find math fascinating even though I used to be afraid of it. In the end, proper blindness skills and confidence are the recipe for success.

Proper blindness skills to me means going to one of the top centers in the country. If you ask most blind people who have gone, they will tell you that an NFB training center gave them enough skill and confidence to be determined enough to carry out their life goals. If you ask rehab counselors, they will ask you to go to an in-state center. Many intelligent people like Mariyam Cementwala, who just graduated from UC Berkeley's law school (BOLT Hall) in international law; Nathanael Wales, who went to UC Davis and is now a civil engineer; and my very own sister, Brook Sexton, who has her master’s, each took time from their undergraduate programs at prestigious universities to go to the Louisiana Center for the Blind.

I took a path different from those of the three people I just described. I went to the Louisiana Center for the Blind immediately after high school. Unlike them, I didn't learn Braille growing up, so I started from scratch. In fact, when I arrived, I had the idea that all I would learn was Braille and a little cane travel. Oh how mistaken I was. I was transformed from a scared, angry blind person into a confident, determined blind person. Of course I have doubted myself from time to time since my training, but it is my active involvement in the NFB that reminds me that I can continue forward.

I went to community college after going to the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Even though I had just left one of the best training centers for the blind in the nation and although I felt confident about my blindness, I was extremely nervous my first and second semesters of college. I now know that these feelings were normal. Had I not been confident about my blindness, I almost certainly could not have dealt with the added pressures of college.

When it came to math, I entered the self-paced classes, which were designed to allow the student to take math throughout many semesters or to finish two classes in one semester. I finished a class each semester. These self-paced courses allowed me to hire a math reader and tutor who would work with me directly from the book outside of the class. A regular lecture math class would not have allowed me that flexibility.

My first semester I got two Cs and a D. I was not discouraged because I knew that these grades meant that I needed to change the way I studied.

While I was learning how to adapt, I took fewer units. Once I figured it out, I began taking more. I took the placement assessments. I passed English and was placed in remedial math.

During my first semester I allowed the disabled student services office to find and hire my readers. The second semester I found them by announcing the job in class. I interviewed them and had a policy never to hire volunteers unless they were completely persistent and dedicated.

I took their information down in my BrailleNote, but I also put the busiest students and those who were not interested in a paid position lower on my list of people I would contact. Even so, I have had success with one or two well-screened volunteer readers. I usually explain that I would rather they be paid so that they can be dedicated to the job. When I phrased it like that and told them that the money was not coming from my pocket, they usually agreed to be paid. Nonetheless, It is good to have an emergency reader contact list.

For various and sundry reasons it took me four years to obtain my two-year degree. When I finished, I had a 3.5 GPA. I started out taking nine units a semester, and during my last semester I successfully completed sixteen units.

Nathanael and Mariyam were the student leaders in the NFB of California, where I was first introduced to the National Federation of the Blind. I attended their seminars in awe. I was struck by their ability to speak at a podium, and I knew that, if I could be half as successful as they, I would be a success in my own eyes. I later became the president of the California Association of Blind Students and enrolled at UC Berkeley. The journey is not easy, but it has been made clearer and better because of those who have fought before us.

My point is you can do it, you can. I know many students who have, without regret, taken nine months out of their school year to go to training. Proper blindness training is for everyone. I heard someone once say that intelligence is the ability to adapt. The NFB centers teach you how to do just that. I got through the community college with honors and transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. All my dreams are coming true because I have used the techniques that have been tested and truly work for blind people. I admit I have not mastered the Berkeley system yet, but I'm working hard to get my degree. I had a very poor education growing up, but I am trying my best not to let that get in my way. It is the NFB and the NFB training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind that has given me the determined attitude that I now possess. I hope you and every other blind person find these truths.

Bruce Sexton

Joe Orozco


I would also like to raise another point that I feel other people are too shy to raise in NFB public forums. Simply put, what would you say to the vast majority of people, like me, who choose not to attend one of the NFB training centers? I do not debate the potential good that can stem from such training, but it has always been my impression that people who choose not to seek out this training are somehow looked down upon for making that choice. I do not think it wrong to learn from experience. I do think it wrong to presume that training at anything less than the NFB-supported model is setting up the individual for a less satisfactory quality of independence. Something should be said for getting out of a program what the individual puts into it, no matter where they go.

Like you, I experienced difficulties with math in college. When I joined the organization, I was told over and over that the only way to resolve my academic standing was to gain the proper training by attending an NFB training center. Had I gone to a center, I would have been doing this to satisfy my mentors. Would I have learned something? I am quite certain that I would have learned plenty, but I also understood that the largest obstacle to my academic achievements and personal independence would always be my own attitude. Despite my struggles with math, I got my act together, and I am sure my professors would be appalled to learn that my current managerial position has so much to do with statistics and balancing budgets.

I sometimes find it hard to believe myself, but in the midst of my undergraduate laziness, I also never anticipated getting good enough to start preliminary steps toward the establishment of my own business either.

What worked for me had more to do with people telling me to get my stuff together and less to do with nine months at any training center, NFB or otherwise.

The reality is that NFB training can only reach so many people at any given time, either because of uncooperative rehabilitation counselors or as a result of simple capacity constraints. So then, what is to be done with the hundreds of people who either cannot go to an NFB training center or, like me, are too stubborn to see the personal benefit? Ample evidence suggests that NFB training can make a great difference in someone's life, but it is my position that people should always understand that they have options.

Success is always dictated by oneself, and there is no greater barrier to that success than when one feels as though there is only one method of achieving it.


Joe Orozco

Mike Freeman


Mike FreemanI'm going to surprise you. I agree with you. Certainly NFB training centers are among the best--if not the best--training centers in the country. And there is no question that time at an NFB training center will jump-start one's life journey as a blind person. Those who disagree with us are right in saying that our centers are a boot camp, but it's a boot camp for life as a blind person. Any good rehab center is a boot camp; it just doesn't call itself that. No question but that most of us could benefit from some time at an NFB center.

But NFB centers and the training they provide are not the end-all and be-all of functioning as a successful blind person. That honor goes to having the proper attitude about one's blindness and truly coming to believe that one can and should function as an integral part of society with all that this implies for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Put another way, with all due respect to the fantastic training our NFB-run centers and those that espouse a like philosophy of blindness provide, such training, while helpful, is not the absolute passport without which one cannot achieve a successful life as a blind person. Nor does NFB-center training guarantee that one will succeed at life as a blind person. After all, sighted people are often not successful too. Why should it be different for the blind? It's just that blindness makes it harder to function on the margins of society due to the prejudicial attitudes of the public.

So I, like you, get rather irked when we observe people acting as if our centers were the only portals to living successfully with blindness. It is this sort of attitude that breeds intolerance and conceit.

I dare say that Dr. Jernigan, were he still alive, would agree with us, except that he would be in a tough position in that he ran perhaps the best center in the country. But recognition of what independence truly is was one of his lasting legacies, and "The Nature of Independence" is one of the best speeches he ever gave.

Having agreed with you, however, I think those who have graduated from our training centers have a point when they tell students asking about such centers or how to function in college that it's better to get good blindness training first rather than taking it on later in life when one has perforce begun to assume the rights and responsibilities and duties of functioning as a contributing adult in our society. In a sense college is also this--it is the one time students get to spread their wings and show curiosity and are encouraged--nay, expected--to ask questions about life, the universe, and everything. For blindness skills and attitudes, our NFB-operated centers do the equivalent. So going to one is time very well spent. But such centers aren't the only road to success as a blind person.

Remember that (aside from Iowa Center graduates) almost no one in my generation (I'll be sixty at the end of October) went to an NFB center. And I consider myself successful, although I would be arrogant in the extreme were I to opine that I had lived up to my potential; very few people (blind or sighted) really can say they've done that. But we're doing our citizenly thing with about as much success or failure as everyone else. However, looking back, I find that I got far better blindness training than I knew at the time--training that is surprisingly lacking these days.

One more caveat and then I'll get off my soapbox. I think we must be careful to tell those who do not go to NFB-run or NFB-inspired centers that, while many agencies claim to a greater or lesser (mostly lesser) degree to conform to NFB philosophy, it is honored far more in the breach than in fact. So what I tell people is that, if they want to go to our local training center, they can learn some skills. But they'd better be pretty confident of their NFB philosophy in that they will be surrounded by those who say they believe in our philosophy, but, when it comes to action as opposed to verbiage, they don't truly believe in themselves as blind people, let alone the larger capabilities of the blind. And they don't even know or recognize that they don't buy into our philosophy. They truly believe they've got it--all the while expecting less of themselves and expecting special treatment. And it's hard not to pass this on implicitly to their students. After all, it's a truism that the parental refrain of "Do as I say, not as I do" works about as well as a flashlight with dead batteries.

Bottom line, people can succeed--yes, even as blind people--without going to NFB-inspired centers. But the burden is very much on them--the people--to internalize NFB philosophy and integrate it into their daily lives for the world won't expect them to function on  par with their sighted colleagues as our NFB-inspired centers try to do.

Mike Freeman, President
National Federation of the Blind of Washington

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