Future Reflections        Convention Issue 2013

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Opening Our Eyes in Orlando

by Amy Roberts Darlington

From the Editor: Amy Darlington holds master's degrees in English literature and library science. She has worked as a technical writer and archivist/research librarian. Currently she is working at home and homeschooling.

Chloe Darlington in a sandbox, leaning on R2D2 from Star WarsFor the past couple of years I have read about the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I knew that the convention would be a great place for us to learn more about education, technology, and other blindness-related topics. In particular I wanted to learn about blindness skills and how we could help our daughter, Chloe. Since the 2013 convention would be held in Orlando, Florida, we decided to piggyback the convention with a trip to Disney World. So it was that we found ourselves bound from New Jersey to Orlando in July—me, my husband, our eleven-year-old son, and our then five-year-old blind daughter, Chloe.

Because of the low hotel rates, we decided to arrive well in advance to take advantage of all the pre-convention activities. The agenda is so packed that a lot of events actually take place before the convention officially opens. Many of the NFB divisions hold their annual meetings during this time. The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) hosts an annual pre-convention conference, which we attended. 

The theme of the NOPBC conference this year was "No Limits!" We attended sessions on topics such as inclusive classrooms, Apple products, the ABCs of Braille, and how to support Braille at home. Developers of the new research-based National Reading Media Assessment explained the development of this non-biased tool. And there were smaller workshops on everything from IEP strategies to homeschooling a blind child. In fact, there was so much information that my husband and I had to split up in order to attend all the sessions we wanted. At one point, when a particularly good session ran over-time, I asked him to stay and film the end of the meeting while I went to attend a concurrent session. "Just a few minutes left," I assured him. I didn't guess the presenter would continue for forty-five more minutes, until almost ten that night! I think my husband's arms got tired from holding the iPad up in order to video.

Both of our children attended the NFB Kids Camp and other children's activities so we could participate in meetings. They had a lot of free time to play with other children, and they took part in many special activities. They learned to make tactile art, took a fun trip to Monkey Joe's Inflatable Arcade, and even heard a presentation called "NASA at Your Fingertips" given by a NASA scientist. And of course both kids enjoyed hanging out at the pool.

Because this was our first convention, we felt that our daughter would be more comfortable having her big brother in some of the activities with her. Next time we attend, our son will attend the Youth Track. He can be with older children and can learn more about the Federation.

Chloe Darlington plays with Marbleworks®As parents, we found that the convention encouraged us to take a positive view of blindness. Our daughter has albinism, with low vision and other associated visual impairments. We often find ourselves explaining to people that she has low vision, as it is not always obvious. Frequently people do not realize she is blind until she bumps into something or someone, or until she leans inches from a screen or book to see the pictures. She is learning to read print, but print will need to be very large, at least 24 point.

At the convention we realized that we want Chloe to develop the blindness skills to allow her to do anything she wants, to go into any profession she chooses as an adult. If she learns Braille, she doesn't have to settle for the slow reading speed some professionals tell us she will have because of her low vision. If she has the right tools, she will have the confidence and education she needs to make her own opportunities. 

It was interesting for us to see the effect the convention had upon our daughter. No one else in her school is blind, and she hasn't met many blind people. At convention she saw countless people like herself, both children and positive adult role models. We fully realized the impact of the convention when we returned home. Now Chloe regularly has blind individuals figure in her make-believe stories and drawings. "Oh, they're blind," she says, "and here are their canes." She says it casually, the same way she might say that the dolls have blond hair or that they're good swimmers.

One of the most rewarding experiences for us as a family was to take the NOPBC Cane Walk together. It was a great experience to wear sleepshades and have blind individuals guide us while we learned to use our canes. My husband and our son said it helped them understand a little of what it might be like to be blind and need to navigate in an unfamiliar area. My son said it was a little hard for him to keep his sense of direction.

My daughter and I went with a different guide on the Cane Walk. Chloe, ever curious and talkative, kept pushing her sleepshades up and engaging people in conversation, asking, "How blind are you?" Even when I fell behind our guide, I could follow the sound of her constant chatter. Without it I would have had a lot more difficulty!

As I walked along the skyway, confident in following my daughter's voice, I was startled to feel someone grab my arm. A man's voice identified itself as Security and asked if I needed help. That was probably one of the most enlightening moments for me during convention. I realized that many times people make assumptions about blind people when they see a cane. We need to change those assumptions.

And about that cane.  Although Chloe had been introduced to a cane several years earlier, she had grown out of it without ever using it consistently. She wasn't encouraged to do so since, as people told us, "she gets around so well." Yes, she gets around well, except when she's in unfamiliar areas, or places that are crowded, or when she's outside on a bright, sunny day. At the Cane Walk, although she kept peeking, she really took to the cane. She decided proudly that the new cane she was given was hers, and afterward she took it with her everywhere. She loved being like the blind adults she met. We purchased a folding cane, and it came in handy later at Disney World. The cane made it much easier for Chloe to navigate in the bright light and through the crowds. We had never realized how much easier the cane could make traveling for her. We continue to work with her on correct cane techniques.

Once the convention officially opened, we were amazed at the number of attendees and the range of reports and topics covered in the General Sessions. If you don't have the chance to attend the convention in person, it is possible to listen via live streaming.

There are so many other aspects of the convention to write about! The exhibit hall was huge, and visiting the booths was a wonderful way to explore different technologies. It also gave us the opportunity to pick out many blindness-related books and publications. And the Braille Book Fair! Oh! We had so much fun finding some Twin Vision books to introduce our daughter to Braille.

The highlight of the convention came on Saturday morning as we were preparing to leave the hotel. Because we were pressed for time, we listened to the live convention stream as we packed. We caught the speech given by Raveena Alli, a second grader from Atlanta, who talked about the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) program. As we listened in via the stream, we could tell she made a powerful impression on those in the convention hall. Her speech was particularly meaningful to us, as our daughter was preparing to attend her first BELL program in Pennsylvania later in July. We were glad to know that the program could open doors for our daughter and make a real difference to her as she learns to read both Braille and print.

What would I recommend for others planning to go to the NFB convention for the first time next year? Try to get to the conference as early as possible.  Attend as many pre-convention meetings as you can. Take technology (or old-fashioned slate or pen) so you can take lots of notes—you'll need to! And don't forget to pack your child's medical records, evaluations, and other documentation. Many professionals were kind enough to take a look at our daughter's records and provide their perspectives. Don't be afraid to ask other attendees for help, whether it's finding a meeting room or choosing a good restaurant. Remember that it's not just a convention, it's an opportunity to make friends and learn. At Disney World after the conference, several Federationists came up and introduced themselves when they heard our daughter's cane.

There is no way we can thank all of the people who helped make our first convention such a positive experience. So many people offered their help with our daughter's situation and took the time to explain new technology and blindness skills. Attending the convention opened many doors for our daughter, and for us as well. We feel we have much more information to draw upon, and we know new people whom we can call on for help. The convention was truly an eye-opening experience for us. We are excited to keep the momentum going and will continue to participate in NFB activities in the years ahead.

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