by Chris Kuell
From the Editor: This example of how attending the NFB national convention has changed the lives of many of us is reprinted from the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the Federationist in Connecticut, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut which is edited by Chris Kuell. He is the president of the Danbury chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut.
Most of us who faithfully attend NFB annual conventions have stories about the impact our first convention had on us. This is what Chris says about attending his first national convention:
In the summer of 1998 my wife and I entrusted the care of our kids to my brother and his wife, said a few prayers, and headed to Dallas for our first NFB national convention. My gut was full of anxiety, both because it was our first time leaving the kids for more than a few hours and because of the unknown that the convention was to me then. I really had no idea what to expect, except that a blind friend named Betty Woodward had encouraged us to go. She told us it would change our lives. Since my entire life had been overturned in the previous year after I lost my vision, I figured any further change could only be positive.
We caught a shuttle van from the airport to the hotel. A guy on the seat next to me asked if I was going to the NFB convention, and I said, yes, how about him? He told me he was going to his fifth convention. His name was Ed, and he was from Detroit. I asked whom he was traveling with and got my first shock of the week. "Nobody" he said.
"Nobody?” I asked, trying to wrap my head around this concept. I had received a white cane from our state agency for the blind and even knew my way to my kids’ school and the local Rite-Aid, but the concept of traveling to another state alone was beyond my comprehension. How could you find the door? How could you find the front desk to check in--or your room, for that matter? My brain nearly burst with questions.
I held my wife's elbow tightly as we checked in at the front desk, surrounded by blind people. Several asked my wife for directions, which she gave. We had to walk down a long hallway to another building to get to our room. As we walked, I heard little feet and kids laughing as they sprinted by. "You won't believe it," my wife said. "That was three blind kids, racing with their canes down the corridor."
Blind kids, running? Once again my mind was filled with one question: how?
We spent the afternoon listening to talks. I popped into a meeting of blind diabetics and another full of blind scientists and engineers. Before dinner we went to the pool for a swim. There I met Dan, a blind computer teacher who answered some of my many questions about JAWS. We spoke with two women who had driven down from upstate New York with a van full of kids. I talked with a blind single mom who was raising a daughter the same age as my son. She worked as an accountant at a company in Virginia.
My wife wanted to clean up before dinner, and she turned the TV on for me before showering. I listened as a man with a strong voice and a slight Tennessee drawl spoke about a blind man who was sitting at home waiting for someone to help him. He said the guy called and called his state agency for the blind, but they rarely called him back, and, when they did, they rarely did anything for him. They reminded him of all the things he couldn't do. The man felt worthless, he felt afraid, and he lost all hope for the future. As I listened, tears began to stream down my cheeks. The man on the television said he was talking about a guy named Bill, but I didn't think that was the case. He was talking about me.
After dinner we went to the bar, where I learned another truth—blind people like to drink. I talked with a guy named Mike from Canada and a man named Felix from San Diego, who had lost his sight, had it restored through surgery, and then lost it again. I heard stories of frustration, stories of adventures, and stories that made me laugh so hard my belly hurt. I felt more relaxed than I had since the day the doctor had removed the bandages from my eyes and I couldn't see anything.
After a week we left Dallas, and both my wife and I had changed. She didn't want me clutching her elbow anymore, and she wanted me to try doing more things by myself. Rather than my questioning how other blind people did things, I thought to myself—if they can do it, I can do it as well.
In 1999 we brought the kids with us to the convention in Atlanta, and in 2000 I attended the national convention by myself. I've been to conventions in Philadelphia, Louisville, and back to Atlanta again. With each convention I meet new people, make more friends, and come home reenergized to make a difference in the world.