by Chelsey Duranleau
From the Editor: Following graduation from college, Chelsey Duranleau attended the adjustment to blindness program at BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis. She decided to stay in Minneapolis upon completion of the program. She plans to obtain a graduate degree in social work and to work with Spanish-speaking clients. Chelsey is active with the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota and was recently elected secretary of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students. This article originally appeared in the winter 2013 issue of the Student Slate. Here is what Chelsey has to say:
On a cold, snowy night in January 2009, I fastened my seatbelt as instructed. The captain came over the loudspeaker, announcing in a pleasant English accent that all electronic devices needed to be powered down. After the last few cell phones had chimed and last-minute seatbelts had been clicked into place, we slowly pulled back down the runway. “It's really happening,” I thought. “I'm really going to a country that I have wanted to visit since I was in the sixth grade!” But this would be more than just a visit as a tourist—I would be living there, living and breathing the Spanish culture and lifestyle for almost four months.
As the runway disappeared beneath us, my mind became flooded with questions. How will I access my textbooks? Will I be able to get worksheets and assignments in the appropriate formats? How will I learn to navigate a strange city? What happens if I get lost?
Admittedly, the answers to the first three questions were still unclear. However, thanks to a fellow Federationist I met at the 2008 national convention, I knew the answer to question four. What if I get lost? He said, "It's okay to get lost, and you will get lost; it has happened to everyone. The trick is to take a step back, acknowledge that you are lost and that you need help, and then ask for it."
“Of course!” I thought. It really is that simple. That is self-advocacy. As blind people we want to be as independent as possible. We want to have the power to make decisions about our lives and about what is best for us. Part of this power is having the confidence to ask for assistance when necessary and to follow through with our commitment in order to get what we desire or to achieve a goal.
These concepts never rang so true for me as when I studied abroad in Seville, Spain. To sum it up in one phrase, Seville is the perfect city to get lost in—not to mention testing your mobility skills if you are a cane user. The streets are narrow and seem to flow into one another. There are plenty of parked cars, mopeds, and motorcycles lining side streets and sometimes blocking the Spanish equivalent of a sidewalk. My entire experience in Spain was a test of my self-advocacy skills.
I informed all of my professors at my school that I would need my textbooks and assignments in Microsoft Word so I could read them independently using JAWS. Since it was a small school and I was the only blind student, my professors and other faculty members were easily able to scan materials into a computer and convert them to Word so I could access them. It is much easier for me to read Spanish in Braille, so I contacted ONCE, a national organization made up of blind and sighted volunteers, to obtain a Braille copy of a novel I needed to read for a Spanish literature class. I contacted ONCE before I arrived in Spain, asking them if they would assist me. After signing some forms and providing copies of my passport and other necessary documents to the ONCE office, I was shown landmarks that I could use while navigating the central section of the city. If I wanted to go somewhere new, I asked my host family for directions if it was within walking distance. When I got lost, I remembered the advice I had received the previous summer. I stopped, calmed down, and asked someone for directions.
My curiosity seemed to have no bounds. Almost every time I walked anywhere I would get lost, but that didn't stop me. I was determined to go where I wanted to go and do what I needed and wanted to do.
When going into a store, I asked for assistance finding what I needed. The more I spoke up, the more comfortable I became speaking and thinking in Spanish. As my confidence and commitment to advocating for myself grew, so did my curiosity.
In April, during a week off from school, I decided to take a trip to Morocco with Discover Sevilla, a local travel agency for tourists that organizes group excursions. I was nervous, because at the time I didn't know anyone who was going, but I knew this would be the chance of a lifetime. For six days we drove across Morocco, stopping in Rabat, Fez, and other cities to explore and spend the day. The culmination of this trip was a ride by camel through the Sahara; we would sleep under the stars in an oasis.
I was more than a little excited, but one of our guides had some reservations about my riding a camel because of my blindness. "We'll just have you ride in the car," he said. "I think that would be easier and safer for you."
I laughed to myself and thought, “Have you ever met me? This girl doesn't limit herself because of society's misconceptions or because another option might be easier.” I insisted that I would be fine, and that something could happen to any other member of our group as well. Part of the reason I wanted to go on this trip was to ride a camel through the desert, and that was what I planned on doing. Eventually, the guide gave in, and I spent the next two hours getting pelted by sand as our caravans made their way to where we would spend the night.
After we arrived at the oasis, a bunch of us decided that it would be fun to climb a giant sand dune and do some sand boarding. After all, what else is there to do in the desert? It was a hard climb, but with a little determination and encouragement from a new friend, eventually I made it to the top. It felt incredible! At that moment, as I looked over the edge, covered in sand and sweat, I realized just how far I had come since leaving the US.
This was far from the end of my travels abroad. During the 2011-2012 school year, I returned to Spain to work as an assistant English teacher in an elementary school in Palma de Mallorca. Although working with fully-sighted children was challenging and frustrating at times, it allowed me to exercise my creativity. I tried to complement and reinforce what they were learning from their classroom teachers with fun and engaging activities such as playing games or incorporating popular songs into their lessons. Not only was I helping children improve their English, but I was also serving a very different and perhaps more significant purpose: that of a role model and a representative of the National Federation of the Blind, an organization that has helped me overcome my own negative attitudes and misconceptions surrounding blindness. I would not have had the courage to study abroad or return to Spain two years later if it hadn't been for the valuable encouragement and support I received from my NFB family. The most important lesson I have learned from my involvement with the NFB has been that my blindness is a small part of who I am, just like my eye or hair color; it does not define me or limit my dreams of an independent, happy, and fulfilling life.
As blind people we must be our own advocates and work together to break down negative attitudes and assumptions imposed on us by the sighted society in which we live. Remember, you are the best and most important advocate you have. You know yourself better than anyone else does. There will be obstacles as you walk through the narrow streets of life. There will be giant sand dunes, and you may fall on your way up. But keep going, keep climbing, and you will reach the top.