by Barbara Pierce and Daniel B. Frye
In addition to the comprehensive training course offered at BLIND Incorporated, our NFB-based training center in Minnesota offers several other innovative programs to various constituencies in the blind community. Shawn Mayo, executive director of BLIND Incorporated, and her team operate a unique English Language Learners (ELL) program for blind students who need to learn to speak and write English. BLIND Incorporated staff also provide an ongoing twelve-week training curriculum for blind seniors. Finally, like our other NFB-based centers, BLIND Incorporated conducts two summer programs for blind youth—the Buddy Program for blind elementary-school-age students and the Life 101 Program for blind high school and college-bound students. All of these programs complement BLIND Incorporated’s comprehensive training program and enable the center to offer services to the entire blind community.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, is home to a large immigrant community. The largest U.S. concentration of immigrants from Somalia has settled in the greater metro area, and many of the ELL students come from this East African country. Leaders at BLIND Incorporated have identified a significant pool of blind people who would benefit from learning English in an accessible English language learners program. In conjunction with the Lehmann Center, the biggest mainstream English Language Learners program in Minnesota; the Northeast Learning Center; and other community programs, BLIND Incorporated provides initial instruction to blind ELL students to prepare them for further study at mainstream ELL programs.
According to Sharon Monthei, the principal BLIND Incorporated ELL instructor, the unusual challenge for blind English-language learners is finding a way to gather and correlate English terms with objects and concepts. Sighted ELL students learn to read vocabulary in part by looking at pictures. Blind ELL students also need Braille instruction. Because of its focus on nonvisual learning, BLIND Incorporated has found that it is well suited to helping blind people master the English language.
Students enrolled in the ELL program attend class two hours a day, four days a week. During class Sharon works with her students on basic literacy skills, vocabulary development, interpretation of tactile graphics, and Braille reading and writing. Sharon explained that one concession they have made is not teaching the entire Braille code. The students are taught only uncontracted Braille. Learning Braille contractions and abbreviations while simultaneously learning the English language seems to be too great a challenge at first. Sharon, who is certified as an ELL specialist from Hamline University, relies on a Braille version of the reading curriculum used at the Lehmann Center (Starting to Read, by Linda Mrowicki) to guide her students through the ELL curriculum. Before the BLIND Incorporated ELL students can successfully integrate into the Lehmann Center program, they must be able to read and write some English, use Braille, and possess some skill in identifying tactile graphics.
When we visited Sharon’s class, we watched her administer a spelling test on the names of twelve midwestern states. She patiently corrected spelling and Braille writing errors. Then she used fifty-piece United States puzzles to show her students how the states fit together and to reinforce north, south, east, and west. Barbara Pierce enthusiastically jumped into the teaching action too—she is a longtime puzzle player herself and has mastered the Kenneth Jernigan puzzle of the United States produced by the American Printing House for the Blind—and worked with Hasen while Sharon worked with Abdirisak.
After class adjourned, Sharon showed us other teaching tools she uses to convey abstract concepts to the students: Matchbox vehicles to demonstrate intersections and traffic patterns, and raised map books, produced by the Princeton Braillists, to teach tactile graphics in general and geography in particular.
In addition to their class with Sharon, some of the ELL students receive travel training from the BLIND Incorporated travel staff. The ELL curriculum is nonresidential. Often these students are heads of households or already know more English than anyone else in the family. They cannot be spared from home. Many of them come to realize as they are learning English that they need general blindness training, so they enroll in BLIND’s comprehensive adult training program. Presently three of the five students in the ELL program are also full-time students in the comprehensive program.
This state-of-the-art ELL program for blind students allows it to perform a comprehensive service for a subpopulation of the blind community that no other center, as far as we know, is regularly providing. The BLIND Incorporated management and staff have done national research to guarantee that they are meeting or establishing best practice. Sharon spent a week at the Kaizen Center in Seattle, Washington—a private training facility that teaches non-English-speaking blind students—working with this organization’s founders on strategies for effective teaching. Even when the ELL students enroll in the Lehmann Center to progress through the six levels of introductory instruction, transitional classes, pre-GED courses, and final GED studies, Sharon and other members of the BLIND Incorporated staff are available to consult with the instructors if necessary.
BLIND Incorporated also contracts with Minnesota State Services for the Blind and others to provide high-quality Independent Living services for the older blind population, fifty-five years and above. Lori Brown is the Senior Program coordinator. Joyce Scanlan (founding executive director of BLIND Incorporated, former NFB first vice president, and retired president of the NFB of Minnesota) also teaches the seniors. Drawn largely from people who have attended the Minnesota affiliate’s recent Possibilities Fairs for Seniors, classes of about five students enroll in a twelve-week program that meets for five hours once a week. During this sixty-hour course, seniors are exposed to a Federation-oriented philosophy of blindness, elementary concepts of Braille, strategies for living independently, safe cooking and other food-preparation techniques, and fundamental instruction in nonvisual travel skills. According to Joyce, the seniors, like the rest of the BLIND Incorporated students, are urged to do their class work under sleepshades to increase their self-confidence with nonvisual techniques.
During our early December visit Joyce and her five students, ranging in age from sixty-five to eighty-six, were meeting for only the second time. In addition to receiving copies of NFB Kernel Books to read, the class made its way through two pages of uncontracted Braille. Joyce was elated with this progress, telling us that it was the most any class of seniors had attained in a single Braille lesson. Spirits were high as the group encouraged one another as they read from the Braille lesson. They were excited to realize how useful Braille could be to them in labeling cans and other items in their homes.
Finally, they devoted about ninety minutes to a lesson on chopping and cutting as they prepared the vegetables for their tuna salad lunch. Meeting in the elegant basement family room and kitchen of the Pillsbury Mansion, the seniors brought energy and enthusiasm to the entire center. As three o’clock approached and they gathered in the lobby for their rides home, the air was filled with friendly farewells and anticipation of what next week’s lesson would bring.
Summer at all three of our NFB-based centers is an especially busy time. BLIND Incorporated sponsors two summer programs for young people, the Buddy Program for elementary-aged school children and the Life 101 Program for high school and college-bound youth. The Buddy Program, a three-week academy, occurs soon after national convention. A staff of young blind adult mentors gives the nine- to thirteen-year-old students age-appropriate instruction in Braille, travel, computers, and home management. A variety of summer recreational outings during the evenings and weekends promote social skills and increase self-confidence. Trips to local amusement parks, the famous Mall of America, movies, and the like have been past favorites of BLIND Incorporated buddy participants.
The Life 101 Program covers eight to ten weeks every summer. The highlight of this program is a trip to the NFB annual convention, where the students get a first-hand glimpse of America’s oldest and largest consumer organization of the blind in action. They are encouraged to roam the exhibit hall to learn about new assistive technologies; attend meetings of the student division and vocational organizations of particular interest to them, where one-on-one mentoring can occur; and participate in the Youth Track run by the Jernigan Institute. Leaders at BLIND Incorporated have decided that, unlike the summer programs for older youth in Colorado and Louisiana, the Life 101 Program should focus on skills development, so it has no part-time work component.The ELL, Seniors, and Summer programs enrich the many fulltime activities at BLIND Incorporated. They illustrate the creativity and resolve of its staff to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the blind students who come to Minneapolis to learn how to develop independence and self-confidence in new dimensions.