Braille Monitor               December 2023

(back) (contents) (next)

My Experiences as a Deafblind Participant in our 2023 National Convention

by Maurice Mines

Maurice MinesFrom the Editor: Most of us who attend convention know that it takes planning, perseverance, and dealing with the unexpected. Maurice shows us that this is a daily challenge that is a bit more difficult when one must coordinate with several others and some flawed technology to get the information most of us get so easily. Here is a good part of his convention week in Houston at our 2023 National Convention:

These are my 2023 National Convention experiences. For the first time, I found myself having to cope with going to convention with hearing aids that weren’t up to the task. Thank goodness for tactile sign language interpreters. This year’s convention would’ve been much more difficult to attend and participate in without them.

Before things started, I of course had to deal with convention headquarters hotel staff. A brief comment: They did a great job considering the circumstances. When it became apparent that I couldn’t hear, one of the hotel staff members took it upon themselves to text me questions that I was able to answer. We had a texting conversation about the things that any other guest has after checking in.

Getting my caffeine

The next morning there was the experience of trying to find the lobby Starbucks. This was a particular challenge because of how difficult it is to hear anything in the lobby. It was an extreme challenge, but fortunately I found two guests who were quite willing to assist. Apparently one of them knew some sign language, so that person was able to ask me what I wanted from Starbucks. After getting what I needed, I ask for some minor assistance to be pointed towards the elevators. They insisted upon accompanying me to my room. Of course I knew exactly where my room was located, so this wasn’t a big issue.

My roommate for convention had arrived, and it was time to figure out what we were going to have for dinner. Luckily I found a local pizza company. In ordering, using my hearing aid seemed to go well. We did get exactly what we ordered, but of course there’s the challenge of getting to the lobby. By this time the hotel staff figured out that I really can’t hear. Luckily I was able to get some assistance to find the pizza delivery driver.

The first day of convention

The first major hurdle was meeting up with the interpreters who were going to be helping me make sense of convention activities. Somehow our wires got crossed. I wound up on the first floor while they were waiting on the third floor. After some texting, it all got worked out. Attending meetings for the most part worked, more or less.

What to do for lunch on the first day

We decided that it was probably a good idea for me to visit the hotel restaurant, but I soon discovered it served absolutely huge tacos. I asked my interpreter why such large tacos, and the first reply I hear was one I’d get for the rest of the week: “You are in Texas,” meaning everything is much larger in Texas.

The afternoon seemed to go much smoother. I went to the multiple disabilities meeting and was still trying to get used to being signed to pretty much full-time. Needless to say, I had to remember my college sign language classes. I felt like I was in the world’s longest final exam. I really had to figure out whether I was ready to spend a week sinking as I asked, “Can you please repeat that again?” Or was I going to swim. So I stopped and tried to remember what I did when many moons ago attending an NFB center. Then, of course, there was my time at Helen Keller National Center for Deaf and Blind Youth and Adults. My conclusion was that I needed to problem solve in this situation. I decided that trying to swim made the most sense. Like any language, if you don’t use it, you tend to lose it. So I eventually began to pick out words and put them together in context. This eventually allowed me to figure out what was going on over the course of convention, though not always as rapidly as I wanted.

An unexpected crisis turns into a victory

Evening came, and one issue suddenly made itself quite clear: I suddenly realized that I did not purchase a new belt before convention. It was time to find a belt before mine gave up. Fortunately, the gift shop in the Hilton just so happened to have a suitable belt.

Managing the workload for my interpreters

In working with these interpreters, I had to figure out what interpreting they should be doing and when they could take a needed break. We eventually worked this out. In fact, when I had a brief conversation in the presidential suite with Pam Allen about needing to schedule a meeting with President Riccobono, she asked me something like “Why don’t we just call you and leave you a voicemail?” Unfortunately, due to the fact that I am deafblind, anyone who wishes to leave me a voicemail might want to think twice about attempting this. Long story short: I can’t hear traditional voicemail at all. This is true even with hearing aids. My suggestion was that I be sent a text message, and this accommodation worked beautifully. When we met, my interpreters were very impressed with our national President. Together we had a good meeting.

Day two

If this were a gymnastics competition, the degree of difficulty would’ve increased significantly. The first stop was to pick up my convention materials. My interpreters were surprised that I picked a Braille agenda, meaning hardcopy Braille. They were also impressed that the person handing it to me thanked me for reading Braille. I then explained to my interpreters that, sad though it is, too few blind people let alone deafblind people actually read Braille.

Then it was off to the exhibit hall, where the noise level was off the charts. I don’t think it would’ve made a difference in terms of which pair of hearing aids I wore. I brought two pairs, one that works great for conversations when there’s no background noise at all, and one more that works better to filter out background noise. The second pair is slightly better, but the amount of noise in the exhibit hall made either pair useless. Again it was time to sink or swim. The strategy I employed this time was to work out with my interpreters which tables I would visit and which I would bypass. This strategy seemed to work well.

My first stop was to the table that represented the state that I grew up in, Washington State. I think the person who sold me the two bags of chocolate covered espresso beans might have been a bit taken aback to have an interpreter talking to them. But, given the noise level, it was the only way to complete the purchase.

The next place I went was the HumanWare table. Trying to figure out the cost of a Braille embosser I was checking out was a little bit stressful. Remember that my understanding of ASL is a challenge because I haven’t used it much. I certainly felt like I was being tested. I did eventually figure out the price. The embosser certainly made me think about the cost of assistive technology.

The National Resolutions Committee Meeting

The next task for our little group was figuring out how to handle the Resolutions Committee meeting. One of the interpreter said, “Let’s see if you can hear the chair. If you can, we won’t step in. But if you really can’t, we’ll just stay in here and start signing as needed. Long story short: I was able to understand the chair’s questions but only because of the interpreters. I’m happy to report that the resolution I was the proponent for received a do pass recommendation. It was eventually passed by the entire convention later in the week.

The morning of the third day at national convention

It was time to go to the national Board of Directors meeting. The day before, the interpreters began to comment on just how many people they were seeing at meetings. I mentioned to them that the week would definitely grow in terms of the number of people attending meetings. I then explained how national Board of Directors meetings go so that they could get an idea of what I think might be important and what detail I thought might be okay to leave out. The first thing that the interpreters asked me was during the presentation from New Mexico. They asked me whether people generally leave that kind of money to the organization? I said yes and that some years the presentations involved larger amounts of money than others.

The lunch surprise

We decided that it might be a good idea to grab something outside the hotel. Again, I found myself asking my interpreters why the servings were so large once my lunch order arrived. I told them that there was no way I could eat all of this in one sitting. Their answer once again was that “You are in Texas.” The challenge was how to put all that food away so that I could have it for dinner. This involved dealing with elevators that during convention sometimes work and more often don’t. Let’s just say my interpreters and I plotted how we would make good use of the stairs during the course of convention week.

Off to the National Federation of the Blind Deafblind Division Reorganization Meeting

Remember when I mentioned earlier that I had to sink or swim? Again I was being put to the test. I had to concentrate on what was going on at the meeting and put what was being signed into context. This also involved keeping track of the pro-tactile cues being offered by the interpreters. The first part of the meeting going through the constitution went well, but only because I read it through several times to the meeting so everyone would know exactly what they would be approving. Once the draft constitution underwent a few changes, it was approved.

I worked so hard at figuring out what was being said and not being said that I almost missed the fact that I had been elected president of the division. So for the rest of the meeting, I did my best to read the sign language and make certain that I understood when other interpreters walked by and congratulated me. One minute you are feeling the signs from the person you’re working with, and the next minute there’s a different hand there to greet and sign.

Attending the Black Blind Leaders Meeting

This meeting turned out to be very interesting and inspiring, not only because of what was said but how it was said. Let’s just say that that meeting was one of the highlights of my convention experiences this year.

Some definitions

I think at this point I should explain some differences such as the difference between American Sign Language which is visual in nature, and tactile sign, which is of course done by touch. The next difference I want to explain is the difference between what the interpreters do and how they do it to assist deafblind persons at convention and other large NFB gatherings. I also want to address what they don’t do. Interpreters either repeat the proceedings through a personalized communication system, such as a wireless microphone, or sign the proceedings, which was the case for me this year. I will say that I did use a personal communication system at times.

A separate task from interpreting is performed by a special services support person. This person often assists with communication styles, such as talking to the hotel front desk, ordering food, interacting with hotel staff that don’t work at the front desk, or stopping off to just say hi to another state affiliate that you haven’t seen in three years. I mention the difference between interpreters and service providers because there is the need for us as a movement to discuss how and in what manner we hire and use special service support providers both at conventions and other Federation gatherings.

The first day of general session

My interpreters again were shocked with the amount of people. It really is true when we talk about ours being the largest annual gathering of the disabled held anywhere in the country. People who assist us at our conventions become overwhelmed just like first-time conventioneers do.

Finding my delegation

Now it’s time to figure out where the California affiliate is sitting in what is described to me as an absolutely huge room. While weaving in and out of state delegations, my interpreters introduce me to someone who, of course, I knew to be one of the California affiliate’s parent division board members.

The opening ceremonies began. One interpreter signed “older person.” I supplied the name of who I thought it was. Then they signed, “Oh, the person who spoke yesterday.” Again I supplied the name of our post affiliate president. The best description of the week of how things were proceeding was when the interpreters signed, “Person from your delegation dancing in the aisles.” I later told them that conventions are like that. You never know when the spirit is going to move you. I’m leaving out the person’s name, but she knows who she is.

In making it through the rollcall of states, I decided that the name of the state, the state president, and the delegate was enough. In a few cases, the state president was not the delegate, so this information was important to me.

The afternoon session went well. The interpreters traded off during the Presidential Report. They commented it was long but very detailed. I told them our Presidential Reports are like that.

After the session, I had a discussion with an old friend from Colorado. I ordered dinner to go because I had to get to the California caucus. In our conversation, my friend was astonished at how much hearing I’d lost. We both were able to communicate well because my interpreter was standing next to me to make sure that communications occurred appropriately. The friend and I reminisced about the friends who were most assuredly being missed but will never be forgotten.

The next day began with our financial report. Thank goodness there’s a Starbucks in the headquarters hotel. Receiving lots and lots of signed numbers can certainly put one to sleep just as if one could hear them. Needless to say, sitting through a signed financial report one needs lots of coffee.

For elections we decided that it was best to follow the same pattern that had been established the previous day by signing the state and candidate’s name. Sometimes my interpreters got the names correctly, and at other times I had to supply the name and have them confirm that I was right. It is worth saying that again my interpreters were surprised and impressed with how smoothly things went during the elections.

I had to have a chat with my chapter president, but, because of the noise, hearing each other was more than a challenge; it was impossible. For this reason, we used my interpreter. My chapter president was impressed because I don’t think she’d ever seen me work with interpreters before. By this point people were thinking I was a pro at this. Yes and no. It really does depend on the situation.

In the afternoon, of course, it was time to sit through approving the resolutions that have been sent to the floor of the convention by the Resolutions Committee. A combination of sign and pro-tactile sign was used to make certain I understood the progress of each resolution. The interpreters didn’t sign the entire resolution because they’d already done that during the Resolutions Committee. Besides that, I had a pretty good idea of what was being presented. I told them it was probably okay to leave minor details out unless they were critical to what was being presented. Luckily the resolution I sponsored passed.

The final day

At this time our little group was working smoothly. The interpreters were doing well with finding, and/or speaking the proceedings. That is until our international guest, Jonathan Mosen, delivered his speech. The interpreters were astounded by the way in which mean technology companies are discriminating. I said, “Yes, you haven’t seen me interact much with technology. What you don’t understand is that, when one is at home, it means pretty much making use of the technology to do whatever you need to do.” The examples offered by Mr. Mosen highlighted these frustrations.

The presentation that garnered most comments for the week was the one regarding service animals. My interpreters were astounded. But the most exciting information signed to me for the week was in the meeting where someone said, “Presenter vanished.” That pretty much told me that the person presented and ran. I explained to the interpreters this also sometimes happens at convention.

Wrapping it up

The final event was the 2023 banquet. One of the interpreters looked a little strange showing up to a black tie banquet in tennis shoes. I signed the word “unbelievable,” and the interpreter showed me that yes, she was indeed wearing tennis shoes.

Getting through the banquet and getting all the names right took teamwork, with my reading them and helping the interpreters get them right. The hardest part came when it got to the tenBroek award. My interpreters signed that the winner was “a Dell movie.” I explained to them that I knew who the person was and repeated the name. This highlighted something that occurred all week but was unavoidable—figuring out proper names. At times the agenda helped, but at times it was just their best guess. Fortunately I had been coming to conventions off and on for quite some time and could figure it out.

At the conclusion of the convention, one of my interpreters named Benedict expressed surprise at how well things had gone and said it was a pleasure working with me all week. He described what he called his transformation from wondering how we could begin to do all of these things and then figuring out that indeed we already had it figured out. I told him that it had been a great week and that now I must really think about the trip home. I also found myself thinking about the future in Orlando next year, and coming up with a way to fund the trip and perhaps the special service provider I will need.

I invite any comments and/or suggestions anyone might wish to make after reading this article. You can find my contact information under the division’s page on our national website.

(back) (contents) (next)

Media Share