by a BELL Parent
From the Editor: What greater gift can we give someone than the ability to read and to write, those beautifully complimentary skills that allow people to learn and then to contribute to that learning through sharing. This is what we do with the BELL Program, and sometimes we are blessed to receive a note of thanks. In this issue you will find two, both deeply rooted in the heart and shared with passion and conviction. Enjoy this thank you from a parent in Maryland:
My son attended the Baltimore BELL Academy this summer. It was his second experience with BELL Academy, having attended in Arlington last summer. We are so thankful for this opportunity, and we appreciate everything that the NFB has done for our son and for our family.
Our relationship with the NFB began four years ago when our spunky now-kindergartener was still a baby. We lucked into attending the parents’ day of the NFB national conference in Orlando, which was within close driving distance of our home at the time. Before he had learned to walk, we met teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, all of whom were professional, successful, and blind. At one session, a fellow parent leaned forward and whispered to me, “Have you considered Braille?” When I shrugged (we had barely considered potty training at that age), she persisted, “How will he read his valedictorian speech if the spotlights are in his eyes?” We left the conference with a sense of peace about the future and a new understanding of what it means to be blind or visually impaired.
When we got home, we told our son’s TVI about our experience, and she was skeptical. We were told that the NFB was “radical.” My family and I are not the radical type, so we watched closely, ready to bail at the first mention of anything over the top. Four years later, and I can say with conviction that we have yet to hear anything “radical” from the National Federation of the Blind. Indeed, the only thing controversial about them seems to be their unwavering confidence in the abilities of the blind and the commitment to high expectations. This confidence is backed by achievement and success, and we are so grateful that our family has had the opportunity to immerse our son in this confidence, firsthand.
When our son began preschool, we started to better understand eye fatigue and other factors that make dual-media the most appropriate learning media for him. Unfortunately, our local public school district, which was failing and in the process of being taken over by the state, did not agree. Without assessments or data, the TVI in Montgomery, Alabama, told us that he would not teach our son Braille, that he “did not even like to teach Braille to anyone before the third grade,” and that he “could not believe we would even ask for that when our son has so much vision.” They would not listen to our experiences with eye fatigue and insisted that no child with low vision should be taught Braille. Unsure of where to turn, we contacted the NFB. They listened. Our NFB rep attended our next IEP meeting, advocated for our son, and advised us to request a functional vision assessment and learning media assessment. The TVI immediately contracted this assessment out to the state school for the blind (Which makes us wonder if he knew how to do this basic assessment himself, and if not, how much Braille did he know himself?). A professional came to our son’s school, conducted a thorough evaluation, and when the report came back, it recommended dual media instruction in both print and Braille. Armed with real data, we were able to get Braille instruction written into our son’s IEP, and though we have since moved from that district, he continues to get Braille instruction that will help him in the future. NFB reps have been there for us in our new district too, attending IEP meetings in person and via cross-country phone call in order to ensure that he gets the equal education that he deserves.
Dual media is not an easy road though, and our son is beginning to learn that Braille is hard work. Luckily, he has been able to start his school career with two summers of BELL Academy. At school, he is the only kid in his grade who is learning Braille. BELL Academy immersed him in an environment where Braille is normal, and it has taught him that he should be proud of himself and his abilities. At BELL, he has been surrounded by blind professionals who are confident and capable. This confidence is contagious. We have seen our son’s confidence soar as a result of BELL. This happens through planned activities like rock climbing at Arlington BELL or nonvisual challenges at Baltimore BELL, but more than that, it happens through all of the intangible little moments that are infused throughout the camp. I had a chance to overhear a few conversations that my son never told me about, conversations like “What do you say when someone asks you about your vision” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the impact is inspiring. BELL gives our son something that we as fully sighted parents cannot give him: the opportunity to be led by and surrounded by blind individuals who are confident, capable role models. Achievement is not wished for at BELL; it is expected, and we have seen him rise to the occasion. Following BELL Academy, my son now orders his own food at restaurants, speaking in a loud, clear, confident voice. While many parents spent the night before kindergarten worrying about the future, we spent the evening at a ropes course challenge, watching our son take reasonable risks at an activity we once imagined might be impossible for him.
To get to BELL Academy this year, we put our preschooler and toddler in the car in their pajamas at 6:00 AM. We drove from Virginia to Baltimore, a cross-DC trek that several times took three hours one way in the rain. “That’s nuts,” our family said.
“That’s necessary,” we said, because we knew it was well worth it, and it was. Nowhere else can our son get this lifelong gift of confidence and skills. During his first two weeks at BELL last year, he blew through three of his annual IEP goals, and we had to have a new IEP meeting to raise expectations for the year. Before BELL, he got frustrated when pouring water. Now he does it with ease using the nonvisual skills he learned at BELL. Before BELL, he wasn’t sure what to say when someone asked him about his vision. Last week, his swim coach told me that he had confidently and nonchalantly given the class a mini lesson about his diagnosis. This kind of confidence comes straight from the NFB. We have always tried to instill confidence in our son, but as fully sighted parents, we lack both the words and the experience necessary to really teach him the strategies he needs to be independent.
Thank you for giving our family this gift. Thank you for the passion, hard work, and professionalism that goes into all of your efforts.We may not be the best at timely thank yous, but we appreciate all of you at the National Federation of the Blind on a daily basis. We are so grateful for your help and look forward to working with you for many years to come.