Future Reflections       Convention Issue 2014      NOPBC CONFERENCE

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Stepping In, Stepping Up, Stepping Back

by Carlton Anne Walker

Carlton WalkerFrom the Editor: Drawing upon her experience as a parent, a teacher, and an attorney, NOPBC President Carlton Anne Walker delivered the following address at the opening session of the 2014 NOPBC Conference.

Lao-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and the father of Taoism, famously said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Within this short sentence lie great insight and great wisdom. The decision to take that first step can be paralyzing. Yet we must be willing to take that step, to move forward.

I vividly remember the day in May 2005 when then president of the NOPBC, Barbara Cheadle, told me about something called the "NFB convention" and an "NOPBC conference" that would be held in Louisville, Kentucky, from July 2-8. These events were about six weeks away, but that didn't worry me. Just the week before, I had attended an amazing conference run by these same folks, the Beginnings and Blueprints Early Childhood Education Conference in Baltimore. I knew that the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and its parent organization, the National Federation of the Blind, had a lot of great information. I had heard from and even gotten to talk with some blind adults, and what they said made a lot of sense. They were open, kind, and welcoming--I was confident that this convention in Louisville would be more of the same.

What was even better was that I had been to Louisville once before. I had enjoyed the city very much, and I looked forward to returning. In July 2000, I attended a week-long Presbyterian Women's Convention in Louisville just a few days after I found out that, after two long years of waiting, I was pregnant. It seemed almost meant to be that I would attend another convention, this time with that baby, Anna Catherine. This time I would learn how to be the parent she needed me to be.

It was all falling into place. None of my legal clients had pressing matters, my husband was supportive, and I had printed out the route from our home to Louisville from MapQuest. There was no reason to stay home--but that's exactly what we did.

Why? Why was I afraid to step in? I'm still not sure. Fortunately, Barbara Cheadle and other remarkable, caring, and patient members of the National Federation of the Blind allowed me the time and space I needed to make certain that this step was the one I needed to take. Thanks to their patience and support, I attended the convention in Dallas in 2006. Anna Catherine and I have not missed one since then! Each of you here has taken that first step in, and--no matter your path to this point--I heartily welcome you on this journey.

Now that we are here, we can step up. We can ensure that our children are prepared to step up to the challenges and rewards this world has to offer. We need to keep moving forward on our journey of a thousand miles, and stepping up is needed to conquer the obstacles that will inevitably litter our path.

This morning, we have heard from leaders in the National Federation of the Blind. You have heard that your child does not need to be defined by his or her level of vision. Early on I, too, heard the core NFB philosophy, "The real problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness is only a physical nuisance." I heard the message, but I didn't believe it. I thought, isn't it obvious that Anna Catherine's remaining vision is her best asset?

With my fellow NOPBC travelers on this thousand-mile journey, I learned a lot more about what I thought I knew. I already knew that unemployment for adults who are legally blind is very high--70 to 80 percent. I learned that, of the 20 to 30 percent who are employed, 90 percent use Braille. I knew that my child relied predominantly on her vision to get around. I learned that she travels far more efficiently, independently, and confidently when she uses her long white cane. I knew that technology provides more and more avenues for auditory access to information. I learned that there is no substitute for literacy--an independent system of reading and writing--and that Braille is the only efficient literacy option for my child. With the help of fellow Federationists, I discovered that I must step away from reliance on Anna Catherine's remaining vision--my reliance on that remaining vision hindered my child's development.

Join with me as we step up to embrace the nonvisual skills and techniques we will learn about today and all week long. In doing so, we arm ourselves with the knowledge necessary to equip our children with the tools of success. With proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. As a teacher of students with blindness/visual impairment, I tell you that this is true. As a licensed attorney, I verify to you that this is true. As a parent, I promise that this is true.

For me, stepping in was hard, and it took many months. Once I did step in, I found stepping up to be a bit easier, though more time-consuming. I pared down my growing legal practice and enrolled in classes to become a teacher of blind students. In August 2009, I embarked on my teaching career. As president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind, I also have the pleasure of joining other parents at different points on their thousand-mile journeys. It is indeed a blessing to be able to share even a fraction of the wealth of knowledge that I have received over the years.

After stepping in and stepping up, I have discovered that the most difficult part of the equation can be to step back. Like any parent, I want the best for my daughter. It is really easy to fall into the trap of doing too much, even when I know she won't do something well--especially when I know it. These are the golden opportunities of learning. She certainly needs proper training and opportunity, but she also needs the chance to put them into action. If I hover too much, if I step up every time, I end up standing in the way of her growth. Stepping back allows the child a chance to test out those tools and exercise those new skills. Stepping back allows the child to experience success--a feeling that is never available if failure is never an option. As pointed out by author Nelson Boswell, "The first and most important step toward success is the feeling that we can succeed." Stepping back and allowing our children to test their newfound skills allows them to step into their futures.

Stepping back also can be important for adults in your child's life--you, family members, educators, and members of your community. I am certain that, if Barbara Cheadle had not been willing to step back and let me proceed at my own pace, my involvement with the Federation and the NOPBC would likely have ended in 2005. I was close, but I wasn't there yet. There may be folks like this in your life and in the life of your child. That's okay. Instead of stepping on their toes, try stepping back, but keep stepping up for your child. So long as your child is on the path to success, roadblocks will not deter the progress--success is just too much fun!

It's hard to step back. It's really hard! But along with stepping in and stepping up, stepping back is a vital component in our thousand-mile journey. The journey can be arduous, and the path is not always clear, but with the support of parents of blind children and successful blind adults, the journey is not only easier and less fraught with danger--it's also a lot more fun! No matter where you are on this journey, we are with you, and we always will be. Throughout the journey and with every step you take, whether it be in, up, or back, please remember and know for their truth the words of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."

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