Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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One Email at a Time

by Stacey Hildenbrand

Layla Hildenbrand and her parents gather pumpkins From the Editor: After teaching computer technology to middle schoolers for fifteen years, Stacey Hildenbrand trained to become a teacher of blind and visually impaired students. She was a member of the 2011-2012 Teacher of Tomorrow Program, an experience that changed her life. She lives with her family in Florence, Kentucky, and is a member of the Kentucky affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind.

I am the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old child named Layla. Layla is intelligent and funny, and she just happens to be blind.

When Layla was only two months old, my husband, Jason, and I discovered that she could not see. After many trips to doctors and a lot of tests, we learned that she has an eye condition called Leber's congenital amaurosis, or LCA. At first we were devastated after we received the diagnosis. Neither of us had ever met a blind person before. We panicked when we tried to imagine how we would raise a blind child. However, our devastation turned to curiosity, and we began to research every resource on blindness that we could find.

I have been a teacher for fifteen years. It occurred to me to seek out a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) in my school district. A TVI responded almost immediately to my email, and I met her a few days later. She spoke about her blind students with great respect and gave me many valuable resources. She impressed me with her knowledge and inspired me with her passion. I went home that night and informed my husband that I was going back to school to become a TVI.

I enrolled at the University of Louisville and set my goal to graduate with a master's in teaching the blind and visually impaired. Around the same time, some friends and I attended a gathering of blind people in Cincinnati, where we met Richie Flores of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. When he found out that we were teachers, Richie told us about the Teacher of Tomorrow Program sponsored by the NFB. He spoke highly of the program and encouraged us to apply.

I applied to the Teacher of Tomorrow Program, along with a friend of mine from the TVI program at the U. of Louisville. Both of us were accepted. As members of the program, we visited the Jernigan Institute at the NFB headquarters in Baltimore. I learned many valuable lessons and met some amazing people. Unfortunately, I also discovered some disturbing facts about society's views of blindness. I found out that blind people are not always treated as equals with the sighted. I envisioned my daughter's future and was moved to help change society's perceptions. But what could I really do?

Through the Teacher of Tomorrow Program, I was introduced to the Kernel Books, a series of small books containing short personal essays by blind people. I took a couple of Kernel Books home from Baltimore and read them carefully. I was intrigued by the stories these authors wrote about their lives and the lessons they offered.

Thanks to the Teacher of Tomorrow Program, I attended many more National Federation of the Blind meetings and met many more successful blind people. I was thrilled to meet the authors of some of the Kernel Book articles. Eventually I collected the entire set of Kernel Books, about thirty in all. I continued to enjoy and learn from the stories I read. My attitude about blindness began to change, and I felt more hopeful about Layla's future. I learned that blindness is nothing more than a characteristic, and that, with training and skills, blind people can do nearly anything on equal terms with sighted people.

I began to realize that society's negative opinions about blindness are not due to ill feelings toward blind people; instead, the problem is the lack of experience with or knowledge about blindness. I decided to try to help our family and friends understand what blindness means. Most of our friends and relatives had never met a blind person until Layla came into our lives. Though they had the best of intentions, I am sure some of our relatives viewed her as different because she is blind. Probably they set limits on what they thought she was capable of doing, based on their stereotyped ideas. They had no exposure to successful blind people. They had never experienced the NFB meetings that I was so lucky to attend. As Layla's parent, I could not accept this situation as inevitable. I wanted to do something to change their opinions.

Suddenly I had an idea. What would happen if I could share the Kernel Book stories? My husband and I truly enjoyed reading the Kernel Books, and we were enlightened by the many people who wrote so eloquently about their blindness. Those stories made blindness seem so minor! If, in only one year, Jason and I could realize that blindness is nothing more than a characteristic, then perhaps our family and friends could start to believe it, too.

At the start of 2012 I made a New Year's resolution. I resolved to spread the word about blindness. If our family and friends could not interact with other blind people, perhaps they could learn from the Kernel Book stories. I began to email a Kernel Book story to a few people every other week. Usually I added personal stories about people I had met through the National Federation of the Blind. Sometimes I described events in Layla's life as she was growing up.

I got many positive responses from the recipients of my emails. More and more people requested to be added to my list. As the months passed, my list kept growing.

When I sent off my usual story at the end of 2012, I commented that I was debating whether it would be the last of my Kernel Book emails. I received many replies. I recall one in particular, sent to me by my uncle. "Thank you so much for taking the time to send the stories," he wrote. "I can tell you they have been very enlightening, and I strongly agree with you regarding blindness being a characteristic."

Layla is the only blind person my uncle knows, and his words meant a lot to me. Maybe, in my own little way, by sending a few simple emails, I am slowly changing the perceptions of others.

Only by experiencing the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind and by witnessing or hearing about competent, capable blind people will society's view shift to one of acceptance and opportunity. This philosophy has changed the lives of Jason, Layla, and me, and the lives of my family and friends--one email at a time.

(To read all 30 books online and begin collecting stories, go to <https://nfb.org/kernel-books>.)

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