Braille Monitor                                                 June 2012

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Blind Man Experiences Weightlessness

by Mark Riccobono

Dominic Del Rosso, Leland Melvin, Mark Riccobono and Terry Lee smile at the camera while in the aircraft used to simulate weightlessness.From the Editor: Mark Riccobono writes the lead article for an electronic publication from our Jernigan Institute entitled Imagineering Our Future. This month he discusses his trip to NASA, the time he spent in a craft simulating weightlessness, deciding to leave the safety of his seat to explore movement in this environment, and his hope that this is only the first of many trips blind people will take, going ever higher, until one day we reach outer space. Here is what our first blind driver has to say about taking another exciting ride:

Mark Riccobono and Leland Melvin have their hands clasped in front of them in readiness for a dive.Dear Friends,

Since 1940 the members of the National Federation of the Blind have been directing their own movements. Before that time blind people did not have that degree of freedom and independence. An essential element of that freedom and independence has been working together to direct ourselves into new realms and explore horizons that were previously unimagined.

For about a decade the NFB has been working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create greater opportunities for the blind. I was recently invited to participate in a reduced-gravity flight along with NASA astronaut and Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin. Reduced-gravity flights attempt to simulate weightlessness through a series of parabolic dives. During our flight in early February we experienced thirty-two periods of weightlessness.

Mark Riccobono is shown doing a summersault, but since he is weightless, no part of his body is touching a solid surface.My goal in flying on this trip was to explore something of what the experience would be like for a blind person as part of NASA’s astronaut program. At the beginning of the flight I needed to learn how to manage my newfound freedom of movement in ways I had never before experienced. Like early Federationists I did not have a great wealth of experience to draw upon. My choice was simple: I could sit belted into my chair and experience weightlessness from a safe and extremely limited position, or I could be like those early Federationists (who were not content being confined to rocking chairs and sheltered employment) and venture out to learn how to be independent in the new environment.

Mark Riccobono goes down the stairs as he exits the simulator.The Federation creates opportunities for blind people to expand their horizons and provides a network of friends who provide a knowledge base from which to start. Although we have yet to go many places, the experience we have accumulated through the Federation is a tremendous guide in our new adventures. Whether it is a newly blind person learning to explore the world in a new way or an ambitious blind youth seeking to explore an area not yet well known, the Federation provides an unparalleled framework of knowledge and support.

By the end of our reduced-gravity flight I was doing summersaults and learning how to use the weightless environment to move and explore. I can’t wait until that glorious day when a blind person sits in the International Space Station and reports to us what a sustained period of time in weightlessness is like and how this learning can be applied to other domains. The power in our work comes from our individual experiences shared through a collective network for independence and freedom.

Your support of our work plays an important role in giving blind people a greater degree of freedom than ever before in history. Where will we go next, what will be the next horizon, and how will it change our understanding of hope and freedom? Our commitment and imagination will be the only limits to the answers for those questions.

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