American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention Issue 2015 NOPBC CONFERENCE
by Carlton Anne Cook Walker
From the Editor: At the NOPBC Conference on the opening day of the 2015 NFB national convention, Carlton Anne Cook Walker delivered the following keynote address.
Good morning, and welcome. As president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), I am eager to share with you over this next week all that the Federation, including the NOPBC, has to offer. First, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Carlton Anne Cook Walker, and I am the mother of a blind fourteen-year-old, Anna Catherine. In addition to serving as president of the NOPBC, I am a teacher of blind and visually impaired students in southwestern Pennsylvania, and I am an attorney with my own solo law practice. Of all my roles, being a parent is and will always be the most important. However, after faith and family, the most important passion in my life is the National Federation of the Blind.
Without the NFB and the parents' division, I would not have the information I need to be an effective parent for Anna Catherine. Indeed, it is the education from and support of my Federation family, in the parents' division and the membership at large, that has taught me how to provide my Anna Catherine with the tools and skills she needs to become the blind adult she has the right to be.
You may have heard that the NFB is celebrating its diamond anniversary, seventy-five years of the blind advocating for and serving the blind, seventy-five years and still going strong. On a personal level, this year's convention is the tenth for my daughter Anna Catherine and me. You might know that the traditional gift for a seventy-fifth anniversary is the diamond. We will encounter many of those this week. But guess what! The tenth anniversary gift is also a diamond! Coincidence? I think not.
When my husband, Steven, and I went to our first convention in Dallas, Texas, we thought that our "low-vision" five-year-old would probably be okay because she had some remaining sight. After just one week of learning from parents and blind adults, listening to new ideas that made sense, and seeing confident, successful blind people with varying levels of vision, we left Dallas with the knowledge that it would be our daughter's level of blindness skills and not her residual vision that would determine her chances for future success.
Diamonds are created from a common element, carbon, which has been subjected to uncommon external pressure. Most natural diamonds were created in the high-pressure environment of the mantle of the earth, about ninety miles deep, at temperatures of around 2,000 degrees Celsius, and were brought up toward the surface of the earth by deep-source volcanic eruptions. Other tiny diamonds have been found where asteroids have hit the earth. The necessity of high temperature and extremely high pressure render the natural diamond a rare gem. As parents of blind children, we know how rare blindness is. There is good reason it is called a low-incidence disability.
Diamonds also come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, like our children. Many people in the community at large have an image of what a diamond or a blind child should look like. While there will be many examples that fit the stereotype, there are many, many more that do not. The outside world often places a value on diamonds unrelated to their actual utility and functionality. But despite the external differences highlighted by society, every diamond has a core strength unmatched by any other gemstone.
I know that our children, blind or sighted, are the most precious gemstones we will ever encounter. Like diamonds they are strong and resilient. And like diamonds, they are often judged on factors that are not related to their actual potential.
When shopping for diamonds, buyers are taught to focus on the four Cs of diamond buying: cut, carat, color, and clarity. With our precious diamonds, our children, I submit that the four Cs of raising a successful blind child are competence, confidence, creativity, and community.
Like turning the cut of a diamond, the first step in rearing a successful blind child is to ensure that child's competence. In what areas should your blind child be competent? In all areas! As I mentioned, my blind daughter, Anna Catherine, has some functional vision. For some tasks her vision is somewhat useful. For others it is not. Under some circumstances--perfect ambient lighting, familiarity with the area--her vision is more functional than it is under other circumstances. Like Anna Catherine, blind children must be skilled in all situations in which they find themselves. The key to this is blindness skills. For children with blindness and visual impairment, vision is not their strong suit, and never will be. We hear terms used--visually impaired, low vision, partially sighted--to describe children with still-functional vision. But when we ask the low vision, partially sighted child to rely solely on that impaired, low, partial vision, we ensure that that child's progress and success will be impaired, low, and partial.
As a teacher of blind students, I am tasked with performing assessments. Part of the assessment involves interviewing teachers about my students in their classrooms. Far too often I hear, "She's doing great, for a low-vision student," or, "He's doing well, considering his eye issue." I know these teachers mean well, but I cringe whenever I hear them describe my students qualified by words such as for a or considering. My students need to perform at their optimal level, not considering their visual impairment or for a blind child, but at their optimal level, period. It is my job to teach them the skills that will help them accomplish this--blindness skills.
Blindness skills provide our children with the tools they need to be defined as individuals, not by their disabilities. Blindness skills include Braille--all forms of Braille--literary, math, science, music; orientation and mobility skills, including the use of a long white cane, and mobility in all areas--on escalators, crossing streets, buying food at a snackbar; technology skills, including nonvisual software, refreshable Braille displays, and audio output; and nonvisual skills that help our children maximize their independence, no matter if they are blind with or without additional disabilities.
This week you will experience an immersion in many different blindness skills. You will witness efficient, competent mobility with long white canes. You will hear brilliant, well researched sessions and speeches that were created and will be presented using Braille and accessible technology. You will watch blind adults performing everyday tasks without regard to their visual abilities and living their lives just as you do and as you want your children to do. Most importantly, you and your child will be enriched by learning the secrets of the blindness skills you will experience here this week.
Every child deserves to have the skills to achieve all that she or he can achieve. Anna Catherine's success, like that of your child, will be determined by what she can do, not by what she can see. This basic competence is the first C necessary in preparing a blind child for lifelong success. You will find a full range of opportunities to gain information about and practice blindness skills at the NOPBC conference as well as the NFB convention for the entire week.
The next vital C for all children is confidence. While confidence is important for sighted children, it is probably even more important to blind children. Blindness is a low-incidence disability, so blind children may have few same-age peers in their home communities. This can be isolating, and it can make it difficult for blind children to gauge their level of accomplishment accurately. For example, many blind children are bombarded by people telling them what they can't do because they are blind. Alternatively, they might hear how amazing they are for performing mundane tasks that come to them easily. Both of these scenarios can erode the self-confidence of a blind child. In either case, the child may lose the opportunity to try, fail, and try again, the very experiences that build learning and self-confidence. A child who is prevented from attempting "risky" activities may never be permitted to stretch into new areas, and a child who receives unfounded praise will never feel the need to do so. In both cases, these children's wings are clipped. They may never walk to and from school, cook a meal, or gain other skills of independent living, no matter how much they achieve academically.
Confidence is not something that can be taught or given. Confidence comes from within. Our children deserve to have the confidence to know that they can do or figure out how to do anything they need. Our children deserve to have quality instruction in Braille, long white cane skills, technology, and independent living skills. As parents we must support our children in the acquisition of blindness skills.
Intuitively I knew this ten years ago, but as a sighted adult with the first blind child I had ever met, how could I do this? Didn't I have to rely on the school? Aren't the professionals the experts? No. You as a parent are the expert on your child. Blind adults who have learned and are proficient in blindness skills every single day are experts. School officials have a great deal to share, and they may be experts in their fields, but they are not the experts on your blind child.
Instruction in skills leads to confidence. Confidence grows with the opportunity to use and master these skills.
Please do not hesitate to take advantage of the competent, caring blind adults you will encounter every day while you are here, and connect with Federationists from your own state. A strong network of experts in the home community and at school, along with the high level of expectations they will bring, will provide your child with a fertile field in which confidence may grow every single day.
The third C of diamond buying is color, and my third C is creativity. Like color, creativity is both unimportant and vitally important. In diamonds the color is irrelevant to actual industrial utility. However, the color of a diamond can significantly impact its value as a gemstone. Many people have strong opinions about diamond color, hating or loving colored versus clear diamonds, for instance.
In the lives of blind children, creativity is too often pushed aside in favor of academics. Many blind children are pulled from art and music and other classes for special time. Can you believe it? Art and music! These subjects are vital to the development of a well-rounded person. The lessons learned in creative arts start innovative thought processes that will help children overcome academic and real-life challenges.
Another obstacle to creativity is the pursuit of perfection. Anybody have a perfectionist in your house? I sure do! Too often children, especially blind children, are not allowed to fail. They're not allowed to have the experience of their ideas not working out. This robs them of the opportunity to problem solve and determine what they might do to achieve a different result. I encourage you and your children, too, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, to do one thing every day that scares you. Today during our concurrent sessions, ask a question, no matter how scary it might seem at first. Tomorrow morning, you might try a cane walk under sleepshades with your child. This week go to the exhibit hall and experiment with some of the high-tech and low-tech devices, even if you don't know what they do. Explore the device with your child and guess at what it does, without asking--at least at first.
Once you encourage imagination, make it okay to be wrong. You may be quite surprised by the ideas your child comes up with. This is the beauty of creativity in action. Creativity cannot be measured on a standardized test, but its value outweighs that of any test score.
First your blind child gains competence and confidence through blindness skills. Then you help him nurture creativity that will serve him for a lifetime. These three Cs--competence, confidence, and creativity--are great, and we're almost there, but not quite. The fourth C in crafting your diamond is community. Wonderful blindness skills and terrific academic achievement are of little consequence if a blind adult merely goes to work, goes home, and repeats the cycle day after day. An important part of all of our lives is our interaction with others. Many blind children are always on the receiving end, and may not have the opportunity to serve others at all. Each of us needs to be needed, and each of us needs to have something to give back. No matter what your child's age, he or she can give to other people. Have your child make a "Thinking of You" card for someone in a nursing home or a soldier overseas. Maybe your child can volunteer to read, in Braille, to other children or to older adults. Maybe your child can make lunch for others at a local soup kitchen. It doesn't matter how your child uses blindness skills to give back to the community. It matters that your child does it.
Indeed, this last C, community, completes the circle.
Speaking of community, please know that you are a close, welcome part of our community. As a member of the NOPBC, you are a partner of the community that is the National Federation of the Blind, which is, to me, actually a family. Tonight please come to our Family Hospitality Night and talk to someone you don't know yet. This week go up to a blind adult and introduce yourself. Here in the National Federation of the Blind, you will not find any strangers, just friends you have not yet met.