Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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A Place Where We Belong

by Frances Benally

Arianna Benally admires her dress in the mirror.From the Editor: Frances Benally is the mother of four children, the oldest of whom is legally blind. In her free time, she is a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico.

When my daughter, Arianna, and I had the opportunity to attend the annual NFB convention, we had a lot of questions. Ari was diagnosed with optic nerve hypoplasia at six months old, began using a white cane at age three, and started learning Braille when she was five. Now Ari is seven. She has low vision and is in first grade. So far, we had heard almost nothing about the NFB. The only blind people we knew were a few of Ari's teachers and peers.

One day, Ari brought home a flier about a scholarship to the NFB national convention, offered by our state's NFB affiliate. Luckily, we applied and won, but we still did not know much about the Federation. We had never attended any meetings, and we knew only two members.

We had no idea what to expect at the convention. Would Ari feel comfortable in an environment with so many other blind people? How would I, her sighted mom, fit in? How would we converse with or be acknowledged by people who had less eyesight than Ari has? What would the meetings be about? The questions went on and on as we anxiously awaited our trip to Dallas.

I was glad that Ari's father, Aaron, was able to attend the convention with us. When we arrived at the Hilton Anatole Hotel, we instantly were surprised at how many white canes we saw. There was tapping everywhere as blind adults navigated the vast lobby. "Look at all the blind people!" Ari exclaimed. She is the only blind person in our family. She had just finished her first year in public school, where sighted kids taunted her and called her "blind girl." Ari had never known that kind of ridicule before. It hurt her to think that her blindness was seen as something bad. Simply being in that hotel lobby with so many other blind people made her more comfortable with herself. It gave her more than anything our family or her teachers could provide by telling her that being blind is okay.

Frances Benally of New Mexico with her husband and children Our first full day of convention began with the opening meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). We were welcomed by everyone there, and Ari began to meet other blind children. During the meeting NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer said a few words and answered questions from the children. Then Parnell Diggs spoke about his trials and tribulations as a blind person. My husband and I were overwhelmed as we heard how blind people are discriminated against and find ways to enlighten others about blindness. We were overjoyed to know that there are blind role models for our daughter to look up to, role models that we, as sighted people, cannot always be for her. She could now see for herself that blind people are in no way inferior to sighted people.

The NOPBC kept us busy over the next couple of days with workshops on Braille, the Nemeth Code, reading tactics, and tactile instruction. We started to think that the convention was a series of workshops for small groups. Yet we found out that the general sessions are the heart of the convention.

During this time we had the great fortune to meet a fellow New Mexican, Veronica Smith, who is a chapter president. She quickly took us under her wing and became our companion for the duration of convention. She is now our very good friend.

The general meetings were absolutely life-changing. I had never imagined such a concentration of blind people, representing all fifty states, all wanting equality and independence. It was truly inspiring to hear Dr. Maurer, Anil Lewis, and others speak so eloquently and passionately about causes close to their hearts and, though I had not known it before, so close to mine. I had not understood how the issues they discussed affect my daughter, directly and indirectly. I realized that the NFB is absolutely the best place for Ari and our family to be.

For years I thought there were so few people affected by blindness that we were practically alone. Finally my family and I have found a place where we belong, a place where we can ask questions about things that trouble us, a place where being blind is more than acceptable. It is a place where we can relate to the stories other parents tell, a place where Ari can learn to accept being called the blind girl without fear of being subordinate to sighted people. The NFB is a place where Ari is accepted as an intelligent, spirited, kind, beautiful, outgoing person who can do anything she sets her mind to do. Ari had such a great time at convention that she has already made us promise we will attend again next year.

Sometimes people can look back on an experience or event and know that it changed the course of their lives for the better. The NFB convention was a turning-point in my family's life. We found enlightenment and support for all of us, especially for our daughter. Since the convention, we have joined our local NFB chapter, and we will continue sharing the positive NFB philosophy of attaining equality, self-confidence, and self-respect for blind people. We will work to spread acceptance and understanding of blindness by supporting each other, sharing in our successes, and finding solutions.

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