by Jordyn Castor
From the Editor: One of the most moving presentations at the National Convention came from a person who was a student in our Youth Slam programs. In this presentation she manages to discuss the triumphs and heartbreaks found in traveling through the education system, the encouragement that can come from meeting blind people who believe she had talent, and the joy one feels when graduating from college and landing a job in a company as prestigious as Apple. Here is what Jordan said:
Good morning, Federation family! It is such an honor and a privilege to be speaking with you today. I’ve been dreaming of this day ever since I attended my first NFB convention in 2009 in Detroit. The first time I heard Dr. Maurer speak at the March for Independence I became so empowered and excited about joining the Federation that I was in tears. I knew from that moment forward that I would be a Federationist for life [applause].
Being a member of the Federation has shaped and molded me into the person I am today, and I’d like to share a bit of my journey with you. I was born in the lovely state of Michigan, fifteen weeks early, weighing only one pound, nine ounces. The doctors told my mother that I had a slim chance of survival. They said if I survived I would have many disabilities and my quality of life would be poor. I was so small my grandfather could hold me in the palm of his hands; his wedding ring could fit around my arm and slide all the way up to my shoulder. But my family believed in me from the start. They knew I would overcome any challenges I faced. When they asked my mother what she wanted to do, her answer came without any hesitation: save this child [applause]. And with that statement, my mother gave me my first opportunity: the opportunity of life.
Now I was the first child, and my mom was determined to treat me as she would any other child without a disability. My parents were always pushing me to learn new skills and had really high expectations for me. I had a lovely and fun childhood, participating in many activities such as goalball, bike riding, and rollerblading. I was always very curious, wanting to touch and play with anything I could get my hands on. I loved reading, and before I learned Braille or had any experience with technology, I would memorize my books page by page. When I entered elementary school, I loved it. I had amazing teachers and many friends.
From the beginning my teacher for the blind emphasized the importance of learning Braille [applause]. She helped me to understand that Braille is the key to literacy and employment for the blind and would not allow me to use any technology in the classroom until I was proficient in grade 2 and Nemeth Braille [applause].
Although I didn’t use technology heavily in the classroom until about the fifth or sixth grade, my love of technology started in the second grade when my family purchased our first desktop computer. I was fascinated with what the computer could do for me and others like me and had dreams of inventing a computer that could produce Braille someday. My teachers would hand me a piece of technology and they’d say, “Here, play with this. Figure it out, and then show us how to use it.” I would spend hours playing with applications on the computer, looking at my email, and IMing [instant messaging] my friends. Little did I know the enormous role technology would play for me in the coming years.
One of my most treasured experiences in elementary school was participating in the Buddy Program. My friend and I would play with children on the autism spectrum at recess, and I realized then that these children wanted what every other little kid wanted—a friend; someone to share cookies and chips with at lunch; someone to slide down the twisty slide with while it was covered in snow, because, well, that made you slide down faster. Through those three amazing years, I watched my friends’ lives change and transform. And with that my teachers gave me the opportunity to learn that giving back and helping others with disabilities was what I wanted to do as a career for the rest of my life.
But my childhood wasn’t always a plethora of treasured memories and experiences. Around the age of thirteen I began to experience a feeling of isolation and loneliness I’m sure many of us know very well. When I attended middle school, I started to realize something was different about me. My elementary school friends no longer thought it was the cool and popular thing to do to hang out with the blind kid. Teachers and others treated me differently. I found myself alone at the lunch table, excluded from groups at school, and with no one to talk to in class. I was the only blind student mainstreamed into my particular elementary and middle schools, so most students and teachers had never seen or worked with a blind person before. My knowledge of other blind students and adults in the area was extremely limited, and I felt as though I was the only blind person in the entire world—it was so tough.
However, my life, my views, and my attitudes towards blindness began to change in the summer of 2006 when I attended a games and technology camp at Camp Tuhsmeheta, affectionately known as “Camp T.” This is a camp specifically for blind students run by blind staff. Camp T was where I first encountered the NFB philosophy and where I was influenced by successful blind adults like J. J. Meddaugh and George Wurtzel, who showed me that everything would be just fine and that blindness did not have to hold me back from pursuing my dreams [applause]. Having blind friends and mentors is crucial to success. The individuals that I met at camp that summer are still great friends and mentors to this day, and I’m so grateful for everyone that I met that summer because they helped pull me out of the darkest place I’ve ever been. When I went back to school that year my confidence was completely restored, and I knew that everything would be all right, no matter what battles lay ahead.
In the summer of 2007 my perceptions and expectations of what a blind person could achieve as a career were absolutely shattered as I attended a STEM academy known as the NFB Youth Slam! [applause] I participated in the computer science track, where I wrote my very first computer program. I wrote a chatbot that could look up weather, news, dictionary definitions, and even play fun games such as Simon Says. Having instructors such as Jeff Bingham, and successful blind independent mentors such as Lindsay Yazzolino who believed in us and our ability to program was so empowering because it showed me that computer science was a possible career for me. I absolutely loved programming and was hooked. I was very emotional when I had to leave because I felt that the opportunity to program a piece of software was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I might never have again.
One of the key phrases at Youth Slam was “Slam that!” Every time people said that blind people couldn’t participate in STEM-related activities we’d say, “Slam that!” Throughout the week, whether it was dissecting sharks, programming chatbots, or launching rockets, we realized that no dream was too big for us to achieve. Blindness did not define us [applause]. With the right tools, technology, resources, and support from our friends and family in the NFB, we could go anywhere and do anything we set our minds to.
Throughout the remainder of high school, I participated in other NFB programs, including a second Youth Slam and multiple leadership academies. At the 2009 Youth Slam, I participated in the astronomy track, where we touched space equipment in Shuttle Discovery in 2011 and felt tactile graphics of images taken from space telescopes—I still actually have my tactile graphic of Jupiter. At the NFB leadership academies, we learned about NFB philosophy and were empowered by blind mentors. At one particular leadership academy we had the choice of doing a variety of evening activities such as: learning to play goalball, taking apart a computer, and applying makeup. Now the class that I chose was not the class for applying makeup, but the one for learning how to operate a chainsaw. My instructor was Mark Riccobono [applause], and we all wore sleepshades as we sawed logs and broke down the barriers of blindness. Participating in NFB activities has shattered even my own perceptions of what a blind person can achieve, and my NFB family continues to challenge, push, and inspire me beyond what I even thought was possible.
After graduating from high school, I attended Michigan State University [cheers] where I chose to receive my degree in computer science, but I faced many challenges along the way. Professors would say things like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And I’d think to myself, “Slam that!” They’d say, “Isn’t there a field that’s more suited to you?” And again the only thing running through my mind was, “Slam that!” I had to develop strategies with my professors to make seemingly-visual projects accessible to me. For example, we had to create an aquarium and software to animate cartoon characters, and the tools that we used to write our software were not always the most accessible. So I found myself memorizing my code files and the locations of my various functions and classes, just like I would memorize every page of my books when I was younger. Even though there were some individuals who did not believe that I could achieve my dream of becoming a software engineer, many people did. The Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities at Michigan State was instrumental to my success in college as they helped by providing Braille math and science textbooks as well as 3-D printed models for calculus and physics. I leaned on my NFB family and friends when the challenges seemed to be greater than I could handle. Being a part of the NFB has allowed me to connect with members all over the world, to share tips, tricks, and advice for navigating the world of college—and not only that, but life as a professional as well. And this, coupled with my desire to help others with disabilities, got me to keep going, even though sometimes I wanted to give up.
I had internships helping to make software accessible at USAA in San Antonio, Goldman Sachs in New York City, and Apple in Cupertino [applause]. Last December I became the first totally blind undergraduate student to receive my degree in computer science from Michigan State [applause]. After graduation I moved to San Francisco to start my career as a software engineer. I now work at Apple full-time on the Accessibility Team [applause, cheers]. My job is incredible. I work with a passionate team of individuals dedicated to ensuring the accessibility of all of our products and features for everyone. Through my work enhancing the quality of features such as VoiceOver, I am able to give back to the blindness community that has given so much to me, as well as to make technology more accessible than ever for the future generations of blind people. I am so blessed and grateful for this opportunity.The author Tasha Hoggatt says, “You must never doubt your ability to achieve anything, become anything, overcome anything, and inspire everything.” I would not be where I am today without the encouragement and support of my family, friends, and NFB family pushing me to strive for greatness and never to give up. Thank you to my mom for believing that I had a fighting chance and that I would overcome any obstacles placed before me even though the doctors felt otherwise; to my instructor Mrs. Curtis for her steadfast commitment to teaching me Braille as I now use a Braille display every time I write a piece of code [applause]; to my teachers, friends, and playground buddies for showing me that giving back and helping others is one of the greatest feelings in the world and that it’s okay to get a little snow in your snow pants every once in a while; to Jeff and Lindsey for empowering me and showing me that I could achieve my dreams of becoming a software engineer; to this guy right here, Mark Riccobono, for helping me to step outside my comfort zone and try dangerous things I never knew were possible [applause]; and to everyone else who has inspired me to never give up, strive for greatness, and let nothing stand in the way of where I want to go in life. The future of the NFB is so bright, and I look forward to all we will accomplish together as we continue to shatter the misconceptions and perceptions of blindness, while providing the opportunities, resources, and support to show the future generations of blind people that they, too, can turn their dreams into reality. Blindness does not define us and will never hold us back [applause, cheers]. When times get tough, when people say you can’t do something because you’re blind, and when it seems like everything is falling apart, remember the phrase, “Slam that!” And rise up, rise up unafraid. You can live the life you want. Thank you so much.