American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2016       NOPBC CONFERENCE

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Building a Bridge

by Sheila Koenig

Sheila KoenigIntroduction by Kim Cunningham: Sheila Koenig is a transitions coordinator for the Minnesota State Services for the Blind. The NOPBC had the opportunity to have her on one of our FIRE podcasts several months ago. It is posted on our website.

Thank you so much for having me! Not only do I get to share with you some of my experiences with teenagers and how to help them into employment, but I get to hear great family stories about friends of mine! I remember Kayleigh Joiner coming to the educators' meeting many years ago. Seeing her now as a college graduate who has completed student teaching is really exciting!

Speaking of transitions, I consider I'm in a bit of a transition myself. I taught ninth-grade English for fifteen years before I made a pretty dramatic career change last July. I moved from teaching English to working as a transitions coordinator at the Minnesota Services for the Blind. I have all of the joys of working with teenagers and helping them grow, minus the essay grading and lesson planning.

One of the things our program focuses on is the idea of a bridge. If we think about a bridge, it really is a connection between two distinct parts. For the purpose of this presentation, I'd like to think of it as the transition between being a teenager and being an adult. Because of my background as an English teacher, I prefer to think of a bridge as a metaphor. Other people in my state agency prefer to think of it as an acronym. It works both ways. You can decide what works for you.

The bridge between being a teenager and being an adult can often be shaky. There are a lot of cracks where kids can fall through. Our goal today is to help you build solid bridges for your children as they move from that tenuous time of being teenagers to become someone who is successful and happy. Each letter in our bridge acronym is meant to be a support that you can use to help your kids. The bridge, as an acronym, stands for:

The hope is that by building all of those components, your child will be ready for whatever life brings after high school, whether it's college or career.

Basic Skills

When I taught high school, we focused on twenty-first century competencies, things like digital literacy, collaboration, communication, self-awareness, and global responsibility. Those are all skills that employers today are looking for in young people. I would say the most important thing is to make sure your children are required to complete the same assignments as their sighted peers. If their peers are working on maps and geography, your child should be working on maps and geography, too. Several speakers today talked about the importance of high expectations. We need to have the same expectations for our kids who are blind that teachers and parents have for kids who are sighted.

In addition to the basic skikls I just mentioned, there are basic skills that all kids who are blind really need in order to be successful. They need nonvisual access to print. Braille is of course very critical. I didn't learn Braille until just before I began student teaching. I was one of those kids who had some residual vision, and I was encouraged to labor over large print. My parents always knew when I was up too late reading because of the little black ink marks on my face. If I had been taught Braille, I would have been able to read much more fluently. I wouldn't have had to memorize all of the presentations I gave, and I could have had a much more poised and professional image.

Nonvisual literacy, orientation and mobility, use of access technology, and independent living skills are blindness-specific skills that can be learned at various summer programs such as BLIND, Inc., the Colorado Center for the Blind, and the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I really encourage you to investigate those programs. They can learn and strengthen those skills before they go off to college.

Role Models

The "R" in bridge stands for role models. For me this is the most critical piece of the bridge. I'm thrilled that you're all here today, because you could not be in a better place than the convention of the National Federation of the Blind to connect your children with role models. When I think about myself back when I was a teenager, I remember struggling with the concept of being blind. I used the term visually impaired back then. I didn't use a cane, and I didn't know Braille. I knew I wanted to be a successful, competent person, but because of the stereotypes I believed about blindness, I didn't think I could be both blind and competent. I struggled to bring together those two images.

Then I saw a video created by the National Federation of the Blind, showing various blind people going to work. My whole life shifted when I saw that video. There was a woman who is a lawyer, and she was stepping off a city bus. She was well-dressed, and she had a cane in one hand and a briefcase in the other. In that moment I thought, I really can be both of these things! I can be blind, and I can be successful!

I'd like to think those stereotypes have changed since I saw that video twenty years ago. But recently I read an article by Matthew King, a blind engineer at Facebook who created the video description app. One of the things he said in the interview was, "I didn't know you could be both blind and successful." When you introduce your children to role models, blind people who are happy and successful, your children can see that blindness really isn't a big deal. It might change how we do some things; I might use Braille, I might use a screen reader on my computer, but blindness really doesn't define me.

Initiative

The "I" in bridge stands for initiative. When I think about initiative I think of things such as confidence, problem solving, and growth mindset. During my last few years in teaching, we spent a lot of time learning about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. It's a philosophy that was developed by Carol Dweck at Stanford. She said that people can have two different mindsets in life. The fixed mindset believes that all of your abilities and talents are fixed, no matter what you do. I had students come into my English class and say, "I'm not a good writer," or "I'm not a good reader." That's a very fixed mindset.

In contrast to the fixed mindset is the growth mindset. The growth mindset believes that, with effort and practice, abilities can change. It may take a while, but you can develop abilities and talents.

Part of initiative is encouraging children to take risks and encouraging them to fail. That's really hard for a parent, and it can be difficult for kids, too, but it is an important part of growing. Some of what employers are looking for is that initiative, that ability to step out and solve a problem before the employer even knows that a problem exists.

Discovery

The "D" stands for discovery. The discovery part of the bridge includes things such as career exploration, job shadowing, and college visits. Again, here is a wonderful opportunity to connect students with adult role models. Can they do an informational interview? Find out how that blind person does his or her job. When I taught, people wanted to know how I took attendance, how I managed fire drills, how I planned lessons, how I graded papers. Brainstorming those questions with your child or student and connecting the child with an adult can help him or her get that information.

College visits allow the student to imagine what it is like to be on campus, not only in the classroom, but also in the dorm. Your child probably won't have the finances to order pizza every night, so he'll need to know how to do some cooking on his own. He'll need to learn how to do laundry. A lot of students don't realize that when they get to college there won't be a sighted person accompanying them everywhere. They need that sense of discovery, the willingness to try new things and to make mistakes sometimes.

Goal Setting

The "G" in bridge is goal setting. We've talked about the IEP and how important it is that you and your students be the leaders in that process. By the time a student is in high school, he or she can lead the IEP meeting. The student should be in charge of her goals. [Applause] She should be in charge of setting those goals and of the steps she must take to achieve them. She should be arranging to get her textbooks in alternative formats.

In the state rehabilitation agency where I work, we don't use IEPs; we use IPEs. IPE stands for Individualized Plan for Employment. Again, the student should be in charge of the IPE. He is setting his own goals, setting the direction for his life. The most important element of goal setting is that the child or student is at the center.

Experiences

The "E" in bridge stands for experiences. I like to think of this as extracurricular experiences and employment experiences. The growth mindset enters in here. It is absolutely okay for kids to try something and realize they don't like it. Then they can figure out something else they might like to try.

A lot of times at the beginning of the school year, high schools have a welcome fair. All of the clubs and organizations set up in the cafeteria or common area so students can walk around and find out about them. I strongly encourage you to go with your child or student or to have her go with a friend and check out those organizations and maybe pick two or three to try. When I was teaching, we took all of our ninth-grade students, who were still at the middle school, over to the high school for the organization fair. They would come back so excited! I remember one girl who was thrilled to find out that there was a Harry Potter Club.

In addition to extracurricular activities, it's important to get employment experience. That includes internships, volunteer opportunities, and paid work experiences. Your state agency for the blind can help with these things. Also, through the connections that you're building this week, you can get some ideas that will help as well. Any kind of work experience on a résumé gives a person a leg up in employment after high school. Building those experiences early is critical.

So that's the bridge we're building together: basic skills, role models, initiative, discovery, goal setting, and experiences. All of these elements will build a solid bridge as kids move from high school to the next stage. I think of a quote I read not long ago: "There are two gifts that parents can give their children--one is roots, and the other is wings."

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