by Alyssa Shock
From the Editor: This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Sounding Board, the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey. Here is the way it was introduced:
As a psychology major I've been asked: Isn't psychology just common sense? The fact is, no, psychology is not just common sense. One thing a psychology major quickly learns is that he or she will be looking at a lot of scientific research in the course of his or her education. Psychology majors also learn basic skills to design and answer research questions. I applied for the NFB scholarship because I had a sort of "research question" of my own: Can someone with my qualifications and experience win a scholarship and a great opportunity to attend a convention from the biggest scholarship program for the blind in the United States? I proceeded to submit my application.
I was out to dinner on a Sunday when I got a call from an unknown number. I usually don't pick up calls from unknown numbers because of all the sales and scam calls promising things such as discounts on my electric bill. If it was important, I thought, the caller would leave a voicemail, and this caller did. Because I volunteer for a sexual violence resource center, I was worried that an emergency had come up, and someone from there was trying to contact me. So, in the middle of dinner, I proceeded to listen to my message. When I discovered the call was from a member of the NFB Scholarship Committee, I couldn't help but call back immediately.
I spent the rest of that meal celebrating the fact that I had won an NFB scholarship—and wondering how in the world I would manage to make it through the convention by myself. I had been to convention once before with my mother and an aunt, but I knew this time I would be on my own. The thought of that was a bit scary.
Before I knew it, I was inside the hotel on the first day of convention. Since I am easily overstimulated, I did find it overwhelming. One of the first things I learned was that to keep calm I was going to have to break everything down into small steps and focus on the action I was taking at the moment. For example: if I wanted to get to a meeting from my room, first I would have to get to the first floor, then find my way around the rotunda, and so on. I would need to focus on each step and try to keep everything else out of my mind.
Once I figured out how to cope with the environment, I was able to gain a lot of information from the meetings. I learned about forms of discrimination and access barriers that blind people have faced and how the NFB helps overcome these issues. For example, I learned that the NFB has fought for blind people who have faced low expectations from teachers and how these students lacked necessary accommodations to gain the same knowledge as their sighted counterparts.
To be honest, I have personally faced little discrimination and few access barriers thus far in my life. I was shocked to hear about the terrible ways in which blind people have been slighted and times when they have been cheated out of opportunities and experiences. I believe that continuing the fight to overcome discrimination and access barriers is extremely important. With all of this in mind, I want to take a moment to thank those who have been extremely accommodating and given me wonderful experiences throughout my life, including, especially, my family, the Dumont (NJ) School District, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the YWCA of Bergen County.
At convention I also learned about technologies intended to help overcome access barriers, such as the awesome development of a Braille display that makes images tactile. I also learned about Aira, a new technology that helps blind people have easier access to information. I would be lying if I said that I have come home from convention without the desire to invest in some new technologies for myself.
Probably the most important thing I learned is that blind people all over the nation and the world are overcoming barriers and getting the degrees, finding the jobs, and having the experiences they want. In other words, they are living the lives they want.
My mentors during convention were people I will never forget. They affirmed my belief that I can obtain my career goal of becoming a mental health counselor. Even more significantly, they affirmed that I can do anything I put my mind to and truly want, even if doing so does require me to overcome discrimination and access barriers. Speaking of that, I learned that the NFB will do everything they can to help blind people with these kinds of struggles.
Of course, I did not spend all of my time in convention activities. I used my spare time meeting new friends and visiting with old ones. When things became too overwhelming, my friends helped me relax and find some peace. Learning did not stop when I was outside the convention. I learned and shared perspectives even in my spare time. All of this learning was fun and certainly did not feel like work.
With all of this in mind, I would definitely recommend that everyone who is blind or visually impaired try to go to an NFB convention. There is so much to experience and so many great people to meet. However, I do have one word of caution regarding convention: sleep may be hard to come by. There is so much to do that getting the normal six to eight hours per night may not be possible.
Looking back from home, I cannot believe that one small "research question" could lead to such awesome results. A final thanks is due to the NFB Scholarship Committee for making possible the awesome experience I had at convention.