by Julie Deden
From the Editor: We who are members of the National Federation of the Blind have been called dreamers. We were thought to be half crazy when we said that we should organize and speak for ourselves, a bit more crazy when we began defining the most significant problem of blindness as the social reaction to it, and thought to have gone completely around the bend when we boldly stated that, with the proper training and opportunity, blind people can do almost anything we want to make our way in the world. When we were small and disorganized, people weren’t very interested in or threatened by what we thought. If we wanted to meet periodically and discuss our little fantasies, what would it hurt except to create false expectations for the gullible? But, when we began to say that our dreams and expectations must go beyond our meetings and that they should be reflected in programs of education, rehabilitation, and employment policies, the agencies who saw their role being to take care of us reacted bitterly against the criticisms we leveled at their programs. Some were outright hostile and forbade their patients/clients/students/consumers from associating with us. Others were less extreme but proclaimed that, when the day came for us actually to try educating and rehabilitating blind people, we’d sing a different tune, one more in keeping with what their experience taught them to expect.
So it is that the National Federation of the Blind had to become more than just a consumer organization, urging funding for and critiquing the programs of others. The challenge was to put up or shut up, so, through a few state programs and later centers of our own, we have taken our dreams, have molded them into strategies, and have actively undertaken the work of providing direct service to blind men and women who want to be normal, capable, contributing members of society.
One of the centers we started was the Colorado Center for the Blind in 1988. The center has been changing lives for a quarter of a century, and here to commemorate this special anniversary is an article written by our executive director of the center, who daily soldiers on with the rest of her dedicated staff to see that blind people come to think of themselves as normal and not as damaged and broken sighted people:
On a cold and snowy Sunday evening in January of 1988, I had the honor and the privilege to attend a Thanksgiving meal complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing to welcome the first five students at the Colorado Center for the Blind. We gave thanks for the National Federation of the Blind, for without the NFB we would not be opening up a center filled with promise for the future of blind people. Diane McGeorge and her husband Ray, along with several of us from the Colorado affiliate, had a dream: a dream to take control of our own destiny. For many years we had attempted to work with the state rehabilitation center to see if we could shape it into one where blind students would be challenged and where they would have high expectations placed upon them in order to excel. We came to the conclusion that this was not possible. So, at age fifty-five, Diane McGeorge made the commitment to direct the Colorado Center for the Blind. She, along with Tom Anderson and Duncan Larsen, started it all.
I was a rehabilitation counselor for the state of Colorado at the time and the president of the NFB of Denver. I will never forget how I felt that evening as we talked to our five students, letting them know that we believed in them, that we expected them to succeed, and that we would be there with them every step of the way! I felt proud, elated, excited, and appreciative and could not wait to see what would happen.
Twenty-five years later I am now the director of the Colorado Center for the Blind. I still feel honored and privileged every day to be a part of this magical adventure. Our three NFB centers [in Colorado, Minnesota, and Louisiana] have provided training to hundreds of blind people in these years. The training has been guided by the beliefs and the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. We have truly revolutionized training for blind people of this country.
Today Diane McGeorge chairs the board of the Colorado Center for the Blind. She volunteers every week with our seniors, but her first love is working with all of our students to instill belief in blindness in each of them. At this writing we have twenty-nine students enrolled in our full-time program from all over the country. Our students expect to be challenged each day, whether it is crossing a busy intersection, skiing, or meeting an employer for the first time. The center has programs for blind youth of all ages and also programs for seniors. We most recently began providing intensive training to blind college students.
On Friday, September 13, and Saturday, September 14, we all gathered together to celebrate twenty-five years of progress at the Colorado Center for the Blind.
As some of you may know, Colorado had the worst flood in a century in September, and the Littleton area was in the thick of it. The rain stopped and the sky cleared for a few hours on Friday, September 13, 2013. The calm lasted just long enough for the opening ceremony of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, along with tours of the center and rides in the National Federation of the Blind’s Blind Driver Challenge® car. Guests also enjoyed bratwursts grilled by current center students.
Distinguished guests at the morning ceremony included Littleton’s mayor, Debbie Brinkman; National Federation of the Blind first vice president, Frederick K. Schroeder; NFB of Colorado president, Scott LaBarre; and founder and long-time director at the center, Diane McGeorge. The ceremony also included the unveiling of Colorado artist Ann Cunningham’s remarkable stone bas relief of the Front Range, the rivers that flow out onto the Great Plains from the mountains, and the cities that stretch from the southern border with New Mexico to the northern boundary with Wyoming.
Later in the morning center graduate Mark A. Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore, took advantage of the short stretch of good weather to give nearly sixty attendees a short ride around the block in the National Federation of the Blind’s Blind Driver Challenge car. The BDC is the perfect symbol of the Colorado Center for the Blind’s twenty-five years of success—our training puts blind people into the driver’s seat of their own lives.
On Saturday evening the crowd reconvened with many more friends and alums at the Denver Renaissance Hotel for a gala evening of food, more memories, and dancing. NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer addressed the nearly 160 in attendance. He said the purpose in starting the three NFB training centers in 1987 and 1988 was to put into practice the NFB’s philosophy of self-determination: to raise the bar for training centers in general; and, through these changes, to raise the expectations of and for the blind. But, on a more practical level, establishing our centers was to start “turning a lot of confident, capable blind people loose,” people who would begin to make things happen for themselves and for the blind in general. Thus one of the purposes was to start a revolution in the blindness world. That revolution continues to this day.
Recognizing that our students are central to what we do, we heard from a number of them. “Without the training I received at the center,” said Jim Barber of the call he received to take a job on the West Coast a dozen years ago, “I wouldn’t have had the confidence to pick up and move to a new city in a different state so far from family and friends.” Jim was one of the original five students at the center, and his résumé includes Google, Yahoo, and Qualcomm.
At every student graduation, when the bell of freedom is rung, I have a feeling of pride and exhilaration right along with the graduating student and everyone else in the room. Together we are “changing what it means to be blind.” Think about what the next twenty-five years will bring!