by Karen Anderson
From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind is deeply committed to building opportunities for blind children. One of our longstanding youth programs is BELL® Academy. The program launched in Maryland in 2008, and it quickly spread nationwide. In this article BELL coordinator Karen Anderson shares her passion for the program and explains what it can mean for blind children and their families.
"Every day we work to raise the expectations for blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams."
I have committed these words to my memory and to my heart. When someone asks me what the National Federation of the Blind is, and, specifically, what I do within the organization, these are some of the first words off my tongue. I keep them in mind as I work with our members to develop our education programs. High expectations for blind people are at the center of everything we build. Our NFB BELL® Academy has been running for more than a decade now, raising expectations for blind kids across the country. We have changed a tremendous number of lives, and that number is growing all the time.
The National Federation of the Blind Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Academy was started by members of the Federation in Maryland. They realized that blind and low-vision children were being held back by low expectations and weren't getting access to nearly enough Braille instruction. For two weeks in the summer of 2008, kids came to the Jernigan Institute for learning and fun. They made edible Braille dots, cooked using Braille recipes, and listened to blind mentors read Braille stories. They didn't have to learn Braille; they got to learn Braille alongside their peers in a space where they were encouraged and challenged. These kids learned that Braille wasn't just about boring worksheets; they discovered that literacy could be fun. Equally as important, they learned a host of skills that helped them become independent. These students learned to carry their own trays while they used their canes in the lunch line. They learned to pour their own drinks, to open their own snacks, and to clean up after themselves. All of these skills were modeled by blind adults who used these skills every day and who had high expectations for the BELL students.
Over the following decade NFB BELL® Academy spread across the country. Blind adults volunteered to show blind kids what is possible, and in many cases those blind kids grew up and came back to the program as BELL volunteers. Each summer we raised expectations for blind kids and their families.
When COVID-19 hit the world, we took NFB BELL® Academy to Zoom. From the extensive BELL curriculum we chose lessons that we thought would work well in a virtual setting. We sent boxes of materials for those lessons to hundreds of families across the country. While the structure of the NFB BELL® Academy In-Home Edition looked different, the core message was the same. The program promoted high expectations for blind children, supported by blind mentors and role models.
In the summer of 2023 bells will be ringing across the country once again. As we have since 2020, we again will hold our NFB BELL® Academy In-Home Edition. This year's virtual BELL Academy will run for three weeks, from July 24 through August 11, and it will be very similar to the programs of the past two summers. Students will be placed in the beginner, intermediate, or advanced track, based on their current Braille skills. Each participant will be sent a box containing materials specifically geared for their track. Each track will meet on Zoom for an hour every weekday, doing various lessons together along with a teacher and blind mentors. In addition, because we know how important it is for blind kids to have a chance to talk with one another, we will hold a social hour on Zoom every weekday. This social hour is a space where students can talk with each other and with blind mentors. They can discuss those things that are unique to the experience of blind students—what do you do with your cane on the playground? How do you find a spot where you want to sit in the lunchroom at school? During social hour we also learn things that many sighted kids learn simply by observing, such as how to do popular dances. I love hearing from former BELL participants that they were able to dance with their peers at a birthday party or family wedding because of what they learned in BELL.
I am also delighted to share that several states are planning to hold in-person NFB BELL® Academies this coming summer. Nothing is more powerful for a blind child than being in the same room with other blind children and blind adults. I look forward to hearing about all of the activities our BELL students participate in with their blind mentors. I want to hear about their new ways of decorating their canes and learning shades. I look forward to hearing about the community-based instruction (or field trips, for those of us who don't speak Educationese) that each BELL Academy goes on. I especially look forward to hearing about the mentoring relationships and connections that will last far beyond the summer of 2023.
I know that what we do makes a difference. I know that our programs stand apart from other programs offered to blind children. Still, talking with the parents and students from previous NFB BELL® Academies impresses upon me just how much of a difference we actually make.
In January of 2022 I got a call from a parent who was trying to figure out how to help her daughter, Lynn. This twelve-year-old had spent her life struggling to read and process visual information. Only recently had she been diagnosed with cortical visual impairment, or CVI. The parent had started teaching Lynn Braille and it was going well, but the family wasn't sure Lynn was eligible for BELL Academy. I beamed when I told Lynn's mother that yes, absolutely, we would love to have Lynn join us for the 2022 NFB BELL® Academy In-Home Edition. The family was actively working on Braille throughout the winter and spring, so I agreed to touch base with them closer to the start of BELL. At that point we could figure out which track Lynn should be placed in so she could be challenged but not overwhelmed. By May this young lady, who had struggled with reading for her entire life, had learned the entire Braille code and was placed in the advanced track. She attended our social hour nearly every day, and she was always eager to ask questions and give suggestions to her peers and to the younger students. Almost every day she came back with a story about how she had tried a new nonvisual technique she had learned in BELL Academy. I saw her confidence grow throughout the three weeks of the program. This young lady was realizing she was not a broken sighted person, but a blind person who could use alternative techniques to live a full and happy life.
Recently I talked with Lynn's mom again, and we discussed what Lynn was going to do for the 2023 summer. She expressed surprise that so few programs she had found throughout the past year demonstrated the high expectations her family had become accustomed to during BELL. One program Lynn attended told students that, if they learned to do their chores well at home, they could someday get a job doing piecework. Lynn's mom knows that Lynn is capable of more. I am so glad that Lynn's family has connected with the National Federation of the Blind and become surrounded by a group of people who know that Lynn is capable of more as well.If you want to register for the NFB BELL® Academy In-Home Edition or see whether your state or a state near you is hosting an in-person BELL Academy, visit nfb.org/bell. I look forward to hearing more from Lynn and our other BELL participants about how their expectations have been raised by participating in NFB BELL!