Braille Monitor                          February 2019

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Spaghetti with Chopsticks

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: Justin is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Hawaii, and he also works at the Ho’onopono Center for the Blind teaching cane travel. He is young enough to remember what it was like before he embraced the philosophy of the Federation, and he is articulate enough to explain how he felt before, the way he felt during the transition, and how much he wants others to share in what he has found.

Indeed much separates real freedom from route travel and the knowledge that one can learn from other blind people or even learn on his or her own. The difference has something to do with skill training, but attitude often determines whether or not one is willing to try. Here is Justin’s latest perspective on coming to know the liberation training has provided to him:

Back in 2011, when I was a student division president in North Carolina for the first time, one of my contributions to the student division was the idea that our student seminar could include an exhibit hall filled with vendors from across the country. I did not understand the philosophy of our movement as well as I could have, but I understood the importance of connecting students with resources that could help them. At the last minute, somebody had the idea that we ought to invite the three training centers run by the National Federation of the Blind. I was only barely aware of the existence of these, and I had previously fixated on inviting guide dog schools to come represent. We had plenty of guide dog schools, but why not float out a last-minute email to Pam Allen, Julie Deden, and Shawn Mayo? I remember my own embarrassment when talking to Pam Allen about it on the phone; I could not understand why she was so interested in sending someone last-minute to a seminar hosted by a little student division in North Carolina that nobody outside the state would know.

BLIND Inc. sent George Wurtzel, an industrial arts instructor, who had previously lived in North Carolina. He told me that he had worked in a mattress factory in Winston-Salem, which sounded to me like an interesting deal. I did not really understand the sheltered workshop concept, but I understood that this was a blind guy who had worked a variety of jobs. I understood that he was there to represent a training center, and I assumed that what he was offering was largely irrelevant to me because I had already been to training.

During my high school years, I attended some summer programs at a privately-run training center operating under what I now know as the “vision-centered approach.” I love how specific and accurate this term is, and we owe President Riccobono for introducing this term to the world in his 2017 banquet address. In that training center, I was taught how lucky I was that I could still see somewhat, and I was taught how to maximize the use of my vision. I was taught that it was not important for me to learn nonvisual techniques if I could use visual ones. If I ever lost more vision, I could always come back to the training center for more training. They told me that some people who were still hanging on to their vision for as long as they could would come back to the training center every few years when they could no longer see well enough to manage with the visual techniques they had been given in their prior stay. It sounded like a fun thing while I was still young and without a family, especially since they made us so comfortable there, and they always told us that we were good enough just the way we were. For those with more adult commitments, I figured it must have been hard to keep a job if they had to keep leaving. Then again, these guys were the professionals, so I figured they must have known what was best for blind people. Plus, it’s hard to disagree with people who keep you well-fed, comfortable, and entertained with all the group leisure activities.

At the student seminar our vice president Preston Johnson had taken care of the catering. He had done some great work getting food donated for breakfast and lunch. He and his team of student volunteers had set up a nice buffet area where students could indulge in whatever they needed. When it came time for the lunch line, I continued taking care of simple event details and finally joined the end of the line, as I have always been taught that it would be proper for me to eat last in such a setting. In front of me was George Wurtzel. As we waited, he commented on how, if I ever came to visit BLIND Inc. I should do it when a student was serving a meal for forty people. Students cooked and served everybody else, not the other way around.

Suddenly, in that moment, I understood that the training at BLIND Inc. was an entirely different kind of training than what I had received previously. At my previous training center, we would wait in line to enter the cafeteria, where we would deposit our canes in a docking station by the door, pick up a prepared lunch tray from the window, and walk carefully to find a seat. We had to walk in a counterclockwise direction to help avoid collisions with other students, and there would be a sighted person or blind person with some residual vision available to monitor our movement. That monitor would call out to us if we ever got too close to one another, subsequently telling us how to get out of a jam, or if we violated the counterclockwise walking rule. Instead, this guy was telling me that students at BLIND Inc. cooked a meal for everybody, and students handled their own affairs as they went through the entire dining process. The differences in the expectations of blind people were stunning, and I have never forgotten that moment that got my attention so clearly.

When I was first meeting Arlene Hill, my cane travel instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, we talked about my previous experience with using a cane. I told her about what I called “orientation and mobility.” She gently told me that she was going to teach me cane travel. She figured she could assume that I was already mobile but just needed to learn how to use a cane and to do it without my vision. I voiced my frustrations about how limited I felt still trying to use my vision and how my vision-centered instructors had spent all this time getting me to optimize using something that still was not good enough. Ms. Arlene said that she did not need to teach me how to use my vision because I came to her already knowing how to use it as well as possible, just like every other student does. Society teaches people how to use their vision, but LCB was going to teach me how to do things the nonvisual way. That was part of what society had not taught me.

In some adjustment to blindness training programs, students learn how to perform one task or another using a preordained set of scripted and sequential techniques. Whether the techniques are visual or nonvisual is often varied based on how much a person can see. This idea is discussed quite often. What is less often discussed, but in my opinion is at least equally important, is the notion that teachers are basically attempting to teach students how to follow a rigid script for every little thing they want to do. It is almost like they believe teaching a blind person is like programming a computer: setting forth every instruction and allowing for no variation in its execution. If the blind person wants to learn how to do something else, they can just call up the vocational rehabilitation agency and ask for an instructor to be sent to teach them whatever new thing they need to know. That’s where I was at the beginning of college. By the end of college, I was calling upon local Federationists to come show me how to do things, and I did not care whether they could see. I still needed to be shown because I lacked the confidence and problem-solving skills to go out and try new things on my own.

At the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I learned how to take risks—not dangerous ones—but the right kinds of risks. I learned to experiment, and I stopped doubting myself every time I had to do something involving a new skill set. This is a major part of the emotional adjustment to blindness that a blind person must have in order to function at full capacity. Before training, I could have made all the clear and convincing arguments of how capable I was, but I did not feel it in my heart. I knew theoretically that vision was not a requirement, that low expectations (including those which I had internalized) were the real problem, but theoretical knowledge and emotional adjustment are two different things. Fast forward a few years; I ended up graduating from LCB, attending a PhD program in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and leaving that to earn a master’s degree through the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. I hung around Ruston contract teaching at LCB until I had accepted a full-time job.

Since I had attended a high school on the campus of a large university, I had learned a little bit about chopsticks by this time. When I arrived in Hawaii, I really had no idea how Asian it was going to be. I did not look up any data on race and ethnicity, and I doubt that this would have been meaningful to me. In Hawaii it is common for people to try to argue that there is no racial or ethnic majority because the different Asian and Pacific Islander groups are separated: i.e., Japanese from Chinese from Korean, etc., which creates artificially smaller percentages. Someone who belongs to multiple Asian groups, Filipino and Chinese for example, is classified as multi-ethnic, which makes another category. Then, these numbers are compared to entire races, and no group appears to dominate the data set. The Asian and Pacific Islander cultures dominate the culture of Hawaii, meaning that the prevailing customs and trends of the local culture are derived from their ways. If someone “looks local,” that frequently means that they appear to be substantially Asian or Pacific Islander by descent. Local cuisine is dominated by these cultures, as well, so chopsticks are everywhere. Since I moved to Hawaii, I have gotten into the habit of using chopsticks so frequently that I don’t even think about the fact that I’m doing it most of the time. This was not the case when I lived on the mainland.

One of our students recently served her large meal, and I did my duty to eat this feast. It is not only a free lunch; it is an opportunity to participate in the community celebration of a student’s progress in training. Everyone has the experience of going through the buffet line, finding a seat, and eating the meal under sleepshades. Newer students can go through the process with a more advanced student who can role model the skills and confidence, too. After her dining experience, one of my colleagues re-entered our auditorium, where I was still eating, and she asked me in a loud and surprised voice, commanding attention, “Justin, you’re using chopsticks to eat your spaghetti?” I told her that it was now more natural for me to eat pasta with chopsticks than with a fork. Another staff member said, “You’re officially kama‘aina now.” That word basically means local. When we get local discounts, for example, they are called “kama‘aina discounts.” It is used the way that the word local is used in many places on the mainland.

For a long time, before training, people had told me that Braille was slow and that I did not benefit much from using a cane. In a way, they were right, but it was only because I had not polished those skills enough to reap the benefits of what they could offer. I had also never really used a screen reader, unless you count the AppReader functions on ZoomText. Society was telling me that I was more successful using magnification instead of Braille, and I kept hearing how amazing I was as a traveler. I could not fathom using a computer without looking at the screen, but LCB’s Josh Boudreaux and Jack Mendez made me figure it out. The problem before training was not that those techniques were ineffective, but I had not been immersed in a setting where I was pushed to develop those techniques and skills myself. Now that I have developed those skills, I have new preferences. If I need to use a sighted person’s computer to show them a website or something, I can do it without a screen reader, but it feels so slow compared to what I can do with JAWS. With the chopsticks, I’d never really developed proficiency before moving to Hawaii, and I’m sure I have plenty of skill development left ahead of me. For example, the same coworker who called me kama‘aina can hold a piece of fried chicken in her chopsticks while she eats it so that she never gets any grease on her fingers. I don’t have to get to that level for chopsticks to be useful, just like not every blind person needs to be as good a traveler as Roland Allen in order to benefit from using a cane and be confident while doing it. I had to develop my skills for using a screen reader in order to have a meaningful comparison to my skills with using a computer visually. I could not imagine writing this article without a screen reader; I bet it would take forever and half a bottle of painkillers. Whether I am going to eat pasta, read an email, or testify in a public hearing, I am going to use the skills and techniques which work best for me. The only way that I can truly compare the nonvisual techniques to the visual techniques is if I invest my time and energy into developing those nonvisual skills because society has already taught me how to maximize the visual ones. For any blind person who has not yet had it, I want to encourage them to consider training at one of our centers so that they exercise truly informed choices to make the most of their potential.

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