by Chris Nusbaum
From the Editor: Chris Nusbaum is finishing his freshman year at Francis Scott Key High School in Taneytown, Maryland. He was recently featured by Nick News on the Nickelodeon television network, and his was by far the most positive and articulate portrayal of blindness on the show. Chris will be entering STEP, the Summer Training and Employment Project at the Louisiana Center for the Blind this summer. Here is what he has to say about an earlier summer program and how it almost kept him from becoming a contributing member of the NFB.
Not long ago I participated in a lengthy and thought-provoking thread on one of our listservs. This thread began as a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of our NFB model of training over the traditional methodology used by other adjustment-to-blindness training programs. But the topic soon changed to the value of the National Federation of the Blind itself and the choice that blind people must make: to join or not to join. This change in the conversation was caused by one contributor’s to the list’s expressing reservations about joining the Federation, let alone attending one of our centers. When I asked him to elaborate, he told me his doubts were mostly due to what he saw as a closed-minded approach to issues affecting blind people. I wrote back and told him that, although this is true of a few of us, my experience tells me that a majority of Federationists (including most of our leaders) do not subscribe to this my-way-or-the-highway philosophy about blindness. I certainly don't.
As the discussion went on, I found myself reflecting on my own journey in the Federation. The posts from various contributors, members and nonmembers alike, called up in my mind memories of all the experiences which have taken me from wanting no part of the organized blind movement to being an active participant in it. If sharing my story here serves any purpose other than to satisfy my own desire to open my mouth, I hope it demonstrates the effect the Federation can have on one blind person's life and why I am so active in the movement today. In short, I hope it demonstrates why I am a Federationist.
On paper I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since I was a baby. When my parents were first dealing with the reality of their son's blindness and were looking for resources, our family was fortunate enough to find the NFB and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) through a wonderful teacher who has always been active in the Federation. The teacher was Ray Peloquin, a man who spent some time as a valued employee of the National Federation of the Blind. My family attended our first state convention in 2000, when I was two years old and our first national convention in 2001. My parents often tell the story of an incident that happened at an NFB of Maryland convention when I was about five years old. I had gone with them to a few sessions presented by the Maryland parents division. In our room that night my mother asked me what I had learned. Without hesitation I replied, "Mommy, I learned that it's okay to be blind." Looking back, I count it as one of my many blessings that my family found the Federation so early in my life.
When I was six years old, I went to a camp sponsored by Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM). It was the first time I had been away from home for any extended period of time, aside from occasional sleepovers at my grandparents' house. As you can imagine, the thought of going to this camp for a week with people I didn't know was an alien and somewhat nerve-wracking prospect. Unfortunately, the experience I had there did not help to calm my nerves. Let me just say that I did not have a good experience there at all. More specifically, I didn't like the style of teaching used at that program, nor did I learn much from it. To me they expected us to know what we were doing rather than actually teaching us. I know now that they were trying to introduce us to the guided-discovery [normally referred to as structured-discovery] training method. The problem, however, was that there was no guidance, only discovery.
Let me give you a few examples that I remember especially clearly. On the first day of the program, as we walked into the building and registered, a BISM employee was standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the dorm rooms, quite literally shooing our parents away. I remember my parents’ trying to help me heft my bag up the stairs, and this BISM employee calling back, "Let that boy carry his own bag! He's got to learn how to do this on his own." Now I have no problem with independence or with learning how to do things on my own—quite the contrary. Anyone who knows me knows this to be true. I have traveled many times since, and I handle my own bag. However, there was one problem my parents and I saw with what this camp counselor was doing: I was six years old. The suitcase weighed more than I did! How could she expect a six year old, even using all the strength someone of that age can muster, to carry more than his body weight, especially up a flight of stairs?
Another example of the no-guidance, only discovery style used by the instructors at BISM's Kids Camp happened on the last night of the program. We had a campfire that night which included a visit from the children's librarian at the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH), who came to tell stories. The camp counselors must have realized by that point that cane travel was one of my weaknesses. The camp director decided to try remedying this. When we were in our dorms getting ready to go to the campfire, she told me that she was going to give me a little challenge: she and the other counselors would go out to the campfire, and I would meet them there. She told me she wanted to see if I could make it by myself without any information from anybody. I was definitely nervous, but she encouraged me, and I accepted her challenge. What else was there to do?
Now the dorm building at this camp was an old one with many staircases, winding corridors, and other nooks and crannies. Since I was a first grader with very little training in orientation and mobility, I had no idea what I was doing. I used my cane as best I could, but I didn't know which staircases to climb and which hallways to enter. It didn't take long for me to realize that I was completely and totally lost. Even scarier, I realized that I was utterly alone in that building. These were not comforting realizations for someone of my age and experience. I remember being relieved and grateful when I finally heard the familiar voice of a friend: Kit Bloom, the librarian from the state library for the blind. Noticing I was not out at the campfire, she had gone into the building looking for me. When she found me, I was terrified. I will never forget how much solace one voice brought me that night, and I am very grateful to Kit for going out of her way (and perhaps breaking a camp rule) to search for me.
You might wonder what all this has to do with the Federation. To answer that question, I would like to point to the philosophy classes which were held each day during the camp. You see, throughout these classes we were told that the program they were conducting was being guided by the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. We were also introduced to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who we thought was some dead blind guy who gave a lot of speeches. They told us that it was he, not BISM, who developed the teaching practices used at the camp. After all that I had experienced at BISM Kids' Camp, I returned home determined that I would never support an organization or a philosophy which promoted that kind of so-called teaching. In short, I resolved never to join or be active in the National Federation of the Blind.
I stuck to this decision for another seven years. Through all of elementary school and most of middle school, I remained an outsider to the organized blind movement—and that's how I wanted it. I attended state conventions with my parents, but mostly I stayed in the hotel room with my dad while Mom went to her parent sessions. The only time I attended a general session was when Sharon Maneki asked me to sing the National Anthem before the meeting started. Even then I walked in, sang, and walked out. Introducing me that morning, Sharon called me "a future leader in the NFB." I wondered then, as I do now, how she figured this, considering my lack of activity and interest in the organization as a rank-and-file member. I suppose she saw something in me that I didn't see in myself.
All this changed in four days in April of 2011. It was my seventh grade year, and I was attending the Jernigan Institute's Leadership and Advocacy in Washington (LAW) Program. The LAW Program was my first Jernigan Institute education event. In fact, this was my first NFB-related program since Kids' Camp. I was a little nervous about how this would go but excited at the same time because I would be able to participate in the politics I enjoy following so much. The program exceeded my greatest expectations. I know this phrase has become an overused cliché, but I think it is adequate to say that the LAW Program changed my life. In those four days I honed my blindness skills, met successful blind role models, discovered the value of the Federation, and returned with renewed motivation to learn the skills of blindness and to increase my activity in the organized blind movement. Here is how I described it in a speech I gave about the LAW Program at the 2011 NFB of Maryland convention: "Another thing our mentors did which has changed my life for the better was to introduce me and the other participants to the National Federation of the Blind, a strong and influential organization working every day to better the quality of life for the blind and a big family which is here to help each and every one of its members. The Federation has always been a part of my life from as far back as I can remember, ever since my first TVI introduced the NFB to my parents. But I was never really that involved in it and didn't really become interested in being an active member until the LAW Program. Since the program I have discovered the true value of the Federation and the network of resources it provides."
I remember this change becoming especially apparent to me while we were on Capitol Hill, meeting with our representatives in Congress. The thought hit me suddenly as I walked out of then-Congressman Roscoe Bartlett's office. I had just finished leading a meeting in which our group was advocating for the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind with one of Congressman Bartlett's legislative assistants. At that moment I thought, "I want to be a part of this!" Here was an organization in which I could help to fight discrimination and increase opportunity for all the blind. Although I was only a middle school student, I could participate actively in this movement for civil rights and equal opportunity. Wait a minute, I thought: this is the NFB, the same organization I had been so adamant about not supporting for so long. Now here I was feeling this longing to be a part of it. It was at that point that I realized that the BISM Camp counselors had been wrong. Their teaching was based on their own philosophy, not the Federation's. In reality, what had steered me away from the movement for so long had nothing to do with the organization; it had to do with some members of it who represent the opinions of the minority.
Armed with this newfound information, I returned home wanting to learn more. I spent most of the next weekend scouring the NFB website, reading and listening to all I could find: banquet speeches, presidential releases, Monitor articles, Kernel Books, etc. For some reason a speech delivered in 1993 called "The Nature of Independence" caught my attention. This speech remains my favorite national convention address to this day. [<https://nfb.org/banquet-speeches>] In it I found a definition of independence I wholeheartedly agree with. Incidentally, this definition was eloquently articulated by Dr. Jernigan, the same man who was credited by the counselors at Kids' Camp for inventing the teaching methods used there. I was also encouraged by the very positive reaction to Dr. Jernigan's remarks from an audience filled with Federationists, indicating that his views are shared by most of us. If you have not read or listened to this remarkable speech, I strongly encourage you to do so.
During the two years since the LAW Program, my activity in the Federation has steadily increased. About a week after I returned from Baltimore, I subscribed to several listservs on NFB-Net. I have since become an omnipresent (perhaps even annoying) contributor to these lists. My activity in the national organization and our Maryland affiliate has also greatly increased. At state conventions I now attend general sessions and state affiliate board meetings. During last year's convention I was elected to serve on the board of directors of the Maryland Association of Blind Students (MDABS). I am still honored to serve now as a board member and the co-chair of the public relations committee. Last year I also attended an NFB training center for the first time when I went to the Louisiana Center for the Blind's Buddy Program. This was a very rewarding experience for me and one which has allowed me to start really living my Federationism. It is probably accurate to divide my work in the Federation into two time periods: before the LAW Program and after it. And what a rewarding experience the after phase has been and continues to be!
Although there are ups and downs to the story I have related to you, I have learned much from the good times as well as the bad. More than anything I have learned the true philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. It is not about one specific technique for travel, nor is it that all true Federationists must think identically or even similarly on every issue that affects blind people. It is not that our model of training is the only way, nor is it that our leaders are always perfect. The true philosophy of the Federation is exactly what we say it is; given the proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance. I have also come to understand the value of this philosophy on a personal level. It can truly change one's life; indeed, it has changed mine. Our philosophy is a freeing one. If put into practice, it can open innumerable doors for blind people and give them hope for the future; it has done these things for me. I believe that each Federationist has his or her own personal story which explains why he or she is passionate about the Federation and its work, and this is mine. For me it all lies in a change in attitude about the Federation. Once I was doubtful, now I am dedicated.