Braille Monitor                          May 2020

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The NFB of Colorado Takes the Distancing Out of Social Distancing

by Jessica Beecham

Jessica BeechamFrom the Editor: Some people have it all: brains, talent, physical attractiveness, and the ability to make a room light up whenever they enter. All of this could be said about Jessica, but the thing I admire most is that none of this makes any difference in the way that she approaches each and every person she meets. She is not falsely modest, but neither is she full of herself. She is a winner, and for those of us who get the opportunity to be around her, she makes us feel like winners as well.

Her most recent assignment is taking charge of coordinating the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado to take the distance out of social distancing and replace isolation with stimulation. Here is the article she has written about the efforts her affiliate has made, and let us all be thankful for what they are doing and for what other affiliates around the country are doing as well.

In March, COVID-19, which had been rearing its ugly head in the media for weeks, suddenly struck society hard and fast. Many states began seeing their first positive COVID-19 cases. Within the span of just over a week, the sizes of recommended group gatherings went from fifty, to ten, to five, to shelter in place and see only those who live in your home. Many of us were deemed “non-essential” and were not allowed to attend work or had to switch gears and adopt a work-from-home model. Others, we who were deemed “essential” went to work in fear that we would contract this deadly virus or potentially carry it home to our vulnerable family members. Students and teachers alike scrambled to switch to virtual learning platforms. Medical professionals scurried to secure testing supplies, ventilators, and protective gear. Maybe most notably, stores across the nation hustled to keep up with the mysteriously increasing demand for toilet paper.
While the whole country was taken by storm, members of the National Federation of the Blind quickly began to realize that this crisis would affect our members in unique ways. Grocery stores began to refuse to provide shopping assistants due to lack of staff. Taking public transit made adhering to social distancing guidance increasingly more difficult. Medication and grocery deliveries were significantly delayed. People who did get grocery deliveries were only receiving a portion of the items they actually asked for. Students struggled with inaccessible learning platforms. Blind people had to be concerned with whether we could get tested for COVID-19 at drive-up facilities. Even more concerning was the idea that if we fell ill and ended up hospitalized, would our medical needs be deprioritized because of our blindness. In true Federation fashion, the National Federation of the Blind stepped up and swiftly began addressing these issues. While we do not claim to have most or all of the answers, the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado has been working hard to do our part.

Starting with the goal of continuing to serve blind people throughout the state to the best of our ability, we developed a two-pronged strategy. The first prong was to build a network to assist blind Coloradoans with meeting essential needs like getting groceries, picking up prescriptions, and finding rides to critical destinations. We recruited volunteers through social media, leadership groups, and Lions across the state. We then began matching blind people with volunteers through our hotline 303-778-1130, extension 219 and email address [email protected]. We used volunteers from affiliate, chapter, and division leadership to call members as well as people on the free white cane and slate and stylus lists just to check in and make sure that their needs were being met. So far, we have gotten tremendous feedback all around.

When asked to pick up groceries for an individual with type II diabetes who felt unsafe going to the store, one volunteer responded, “Thank you so much for thinking of me.” Another volunteer wrote a letter to his leadership group after giving one of our members a ride to dialysis to say how rewarding it was to get out and help others during this time. He urged other members of the group to register as volunteers.

One of our members said, “I was so stressed out about how I was going to get my groceries. I did not know what to do. I almost cried with relief when I was matched with a volunteer.” Another individual shared that when she had to move suddenly and unexpectedly that it would have been way too overwhelming for her to manage without the assistance of one of our volunteers.
Maureen Nietfeld, who spearheaded the hotline said that “It has been a win-win situation. We have been able to assist blind people in getting the critical help that they need, and our volunteers have felt more centered through serving others during this time when we all feel so helpless and vulnerable.”

Our second goal was to unite our members around educational workshops to decrease the feelings of isolation, help blind people live the lives we want, and to seize this unique and unprecedented opportunity to build the National Federation of the Blind. Each evening at 5 p.m. mountain time, we host an educational workshop. Topics have run the gamut from weekly staples like “Workout Wednesday” and “Philosophy Friday” to other items of interest including accessible gaming; guide dogs; tech toys: the good, the bad, and the ugly; essential oils 101; and much more.

In one of our “Philosophy Friday” calls, President Mark Riccobono shared his thoughts on what it means to live the life you want. When one individual shared that he tried and tried and never was able to get his foot in the door to find a job and expressed that for him living the life he wants would be financial freedom, President Riccobono very eloquently explained that in part, our message is aspirational. Even if things are not perfect now, we work hard to make them better for the next generation of blind people.

In another call we discussed sighted privilege. Long-time Federationists and non-members alike discussed “sighted privilege” and how this impacts our movement. Long-time Federationist Jim Gashel says he is “violently opposed” to the use of this terminology. He feels that it takes away from the idea of blindness as a characteristic. At the same time, others shared that the idea of “sighted privilege” was powerful in helping them express something they have felt and experienced but had not worded quite the same way.

We invited people from across the country to join us for these calls. Before each workshop begins, all participants are unmuted, and we have a lot of fun getting to know one another. Scott LaBarre, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, said “While we are practicing physical distancing in Colorado, we are certainly not practicing social distancing. The Colorado affiliate is using this opportunity to grow closer than ever; our efforts are allowing us to find new blind people, and the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado is grateful for this opportunity to serve.”

To explore their online offering, send your request and your email address to [email protected].

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