Braille Monitor               January 2024

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When College is Not Right for Your Child: Preparing for Independence and Success

by David DeNotaris

From the Editor: David DeNotaris has a long history in blindness rehabilitation, leading agencies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Through his work and his personal experience, he has gained insight into the issues faced by blind people when they finish school and seek to enter the workforce. Here is what he had to say at a meeting of parents of blind children on a critical subject for those of us looking to find employment for all blind people:

When I was twelve years old, I asked my resource room teacher, Mr. Watson, "What kind of jobs do people like me do?" He said, "I don't really know. If you can figure it out, you'll help yourself and a lot of other people." It occurred to me back then that even some professionals didn't know. You're in the right place—that's why we're here today!

As advocates we tell a lot of stories. We look at the past as a way to build for the future. I was born in October, so I started school in September, before I turned five. I remember in August of 1974 my dad took me to meet the principal at Public School 10 in Belleville, New Jersey. I was able to see a little bit. I didn't use a cane—I probably should have! The principal started sharing with my dad all the reasons why a blind student couldn't attend that school. He said, "We've never had a blind student. Our teachers don't know Braille. And there are a lot of stairs." When he said, "There are a lot of stairs!" I said, "I walked up the stairs to get here."

My father said, "Please give my son a chance. If it doesn't work, we'll try something else." The principal said, "Are you sure you don't want to send him to that school in Philadelphia?" My dad said, "No, sir. It's two hours away."

That night my father's sister and her husband came over. They were people who loved to debate. My Aunt Rosie said to my father, "Why did you take him with you to go meet that principal?" My dad said, "Because I'm not always going to be here, and he's going to have to learn to stand up for himself."

I graduated from public school and attended Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. I got my first job in a community organization helping people with disabilities find jobs and use assistive technology. I served as a job coach and a job developer. I served as the coordinator of assistive technology for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind. I was director of the Bureau of Blindness of Pennsylvania and the executive director of the Office of Rehabilitation.

I have done this for a while, right? And these are some of the things I've learned. The secret sauce is involved parents, involved families. I know—I'm preaching to the choir! But as my dad would say, "That's how the choir gets to be good." It's very important for parents to be great advocates. It's also important to remember what my dad said when I was four years old, "I'm not always going to be here." There's a fine balance between being involved, being a good encourager and listener, and letting kids learn that they have to stand up for themselves. Maybe they're going to have to advocate for themselves in an IEP (individualized education program) meeting or an IPE (individualized plan for employment) meeting. They're going to have to advocate for themselves. We have to help them recognize that they can do that.

In New Jersey we had a program through a university. It was a twenty-eight-day program that prepared students for college. But you and I know that not everyone is going to college, nor should they. We developed another track at the College of New Jersey. We called it the Work Skill Program, WSP. It taught many of the same skills that were taught in the college-bound program, but it also provided work experiences right there on the college campus. Students did jobs that ranged from emptying the wastebaskets and doing maintenance to working in the IT department. For three weeks we worked on soft skills in the mornings, and in the afternoons we worked on job skills. Then at night we would debrief about what we all had learned.

College isn't for everyone. Vocational school isn't for everyone, either. Technical school isn't for everyone. Everybody has different abilities, skills, and talents. It's a matter of figuring out what a student likes and is good at. Do they like to do math? Do they like to create things? Do they like to write?

In closing I want to share one strategy with you. While I was working for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, I was asked to speak to the Lions Club State Convention. It was going to take place in Atlantic City, with about fifteen hundred people attending. King Lion came into the room and announced, "And now, from the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, David DeNotaris will speak on what we can do to remove this horrible scourge called blindness."

I thought, gee whiz! Honestly, I didn't know what he was talking about! I wanted to come up with a way to help people understand that blindness is not a tragedy, that blindness can be overcome with the proper skills and techniques. So I thought of some ABCs.

A is for access. Access equals success. Access to what? Access to positive role models, access to information, access to inspiration, access to transportation. Access equals success.

B is for Braille literacy. We must be able to write things down! We can't just think we'll remember. When I've run summer programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, I'd ask the students, "How do you take notes?" I'd hear, "My teacher, she gives me the notes," "My classmate, she takes notes for me!" or "I just memorize things." If you can't write things down, you can't organize your day. If you can't organize your day, you can't organize your week. If you can't organize your week, you can't organize your month. And if you can't organize your month, you can't organize your life! You need a way to write things down. Do you use your iPhone or your Android? Do you use your BrailleNote Touch? Do you use your slate and stylus? I don't care what you use, but you've got to use something! You need to be able to get information down and retrieve it later.

C is for can you travel independently from where you are to where you want to go? There's not always going to be an elbow around! I use a white cane. I don't care if you use a cane or a dog, but you've got to use something! You've got to be able to travel independently.

I often hear kids say, "I travel with my mom," or "I travel with my paraprofessional." And I also hear kids say, "No one wants to sit with me at lunch because they don't want to hang out with my paraprofessional."

When I travel with an assistant, I let them know it's their job to help me show up, to help me set up, and then to shut up! Shut up and let me do the work!

I just had a good interview with some people from disability services at a good university. I asked them, "Why do some blind students succeed while some others fail? What have you found?" When I ask about this, I hear that some blind students don't know how to travel, they don't know how to take notes, and they don't know how to get along with other people. They may have the hard skills, the academic strength, but if they don't have the soft skills of travel and notetaking and getting along with people, they're at a great disadvantage.

In our community it's very important to network in places like this. It's important to see that if someone else can do it, maybe you can do it, too. When I was young and met people through the NFB, I thought, Wow, I want to learn to travel! I want to be able to present in front of people! I want to use technology! When I'm around blind people who are doing things, it raises my expectations.

So here you are. Listen and ask questions and learn. You're in the right place!

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