American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2017       FEATURE

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2016 NFB BELL Academy Highlights

by Carlton Walker

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 59, Number 11, December 2016

Carlton WalkerFrom the Editor: In the summer of 2016 thirty NFB affiliates hosted forty-five BELL Academies for blind children. BELL stands for Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning. The BELL Academies offer an exciting array of enrichment activities that teach Braille and encourage independence and exploration. Carlton Walker, who manages Braille programs at the NFB Jernigan Institute, serves as BELL coordinator. Carlton is an attorney, a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), and a past president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). In this article she provides an overview of the BELL Academies that were held from California to New Jersey in 2016.

Throughout this country, there are blind children who cannot read or write efficiently, who do not enjoy independent mobility, and who cannot engage in age-appropriate activities of daily living, such as making a sandwich. Over a three-month period last summer, hundreds of NFB members gave their time and energy to provide much-needed blindness skills to more than three hundred and twenty blind students. Through the NFB BELL (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) Academy, thirty affiliates hosted forty-five sites at which students learned nonvisual skills in a supportive atmosphere of high expectations. NFB BELL Academy targets students ages four through twelve. Nevertheless, affiliates welcomed older students who had not yet had quality instruction in Braille, cane travel, or other nonvisual skills.

Learning Braille

Not surprisingly, one finds Braille at an NFB BELL Academy—a lot of Braille. On the first day, students learn about Louis Braille and his invention, which gives blind people of all ages the ability to read efficiently and independently, the ability to write and edit documents, and the freedom to read and write music. It also serves as the basis for Abraham Nemeth's Math and Science Code.

Liz uses a Braillewriter under sleepshades at Nebraska BELL.NFB BELL Academy students celebrate Louis Braille by throwing a birthday party, during which they make Braille goodies (cupcakes or cookies topped with icing on which the students and adults create Braille letters with candies). Louisiana students celebrated in style with a water slide, a bounce house, a snow cone maker, a popcorn machine, a piñata, and much more. Students at other sites Brailled birthday cards to Mr. Braille, and some, including the rookie NFB BELL Academy in Indiana, used birthday balloons to spell out "Happy Birthday"—in Braille, of course.

Other Braille initiatives included Delaware's Braille Bucks program, where students earned Braille Bucks for reading Braille books at home. The students then spent their Braille Bucks for desired items.

Braille reading and writing classes tailored instruction to students, from complete novices to excellent Braille readers. With support from caring and knowledgeable NFB members, students grew in their Braille skills. Each NFB BELL Academy student also received a free slate and stylus to keep.

Technology is also important to students at NFB BELL Academy. In addition to many opportunities to read and write paper Braille, our students enjoyed varied engagement with and instruction in technology that can provide even more Braille for them to read. In Oklahoma a representative from ABLE Tech, an agency that provides demonstrations and short-term loans of accessible technology to Oklahomans, spent a day at NFB BELL Academy, giving one-on-one demonstrations of several devices, including Braille displays, iPads, money readers, digital personal assistants (note takers), and a talking Perkins Brailler.

Students at the NFB BELL Academy in Nebraska had the opportunity to meet and speak with a published author, Travis Bossard. Travis co-authors the Oskar and Klaus books, which recount the adventures of a blind cat, Oskar, and his much less adventurous sighted brother, Klaus. Travis shared with the students how the books came about as well as his role in writing the books and producing audio versions of them.

NFB BELL Academy students gave back as well. New Jersey students taught a group of sighted preschoolers the basics of Braille and provided each of the preschoolers with a card bearing his/her name in Braille.

The Power of Canes

NFB members shared with NFB BELL Academy students the freedom cane travel provides. Several sites hosted cane scavenger hunts in various places, including malls, grocery stores, and parks. The NFB BELL Academy in South Carolina implemented a program called "Anywhere and Everywhere," geared to the purpose of increasing awareness of travel. Students learned about multiple modes of travel, including white cane travel, car travel, and bus, train, and plane travel on the local, regional, and national levels. Students used chairs and their imaginations to take train and airplane trips. Students also used tactile maps and cardinal directions in the classroom on a daily basis.

Touching History

For too long, the "no-touch" policy at many museums has kept blind individuals from truly experiencing the exhibits on display. At several NFB BELL Academy sites, students and mentors broke down those "no-touch" barriers and had the opportunity to interact with museum exhibits in meaningful ways.

The NFB BELL Academy in Kentucky was held at the American Printing House for the Blind, and there was a field trip to the museum there. Other museum visits included the Museum of Idaho (where students touched Revolutionary War relics); the Jewish Museum of Maryland; the College Park Aviation Museum; the Leonardo Museum in Utah; the Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC; the American Whistle Corporation factory in Columbus, Ohio; and many others.

Students in Northern California investigated the Turtle Bay Exploration Park, and those in Southern California learned about their local history at the San Bernardino County Museum. Students in Iowa also had the opportunity to tactually explore a 3-D printer in the Iowa Library for the Blind, while Tennessee NFB BELL Academy students dissected dogfish sharks.

Recreational Activities

Adison, Jazmin, and Meridian examine a tactile map under sleepshades at the Pittsburgh BELL Academy.Our NFB BELL Academy students enjoyed many different recreational opportunities. Colorado students enjoyed exploring the Cave of the Winds and engaging in a rock climbing activity. Georgia students engaged in accessible physical activities: playing beep kickball, riding tandem bicycles, and enjoying adapted soccer at the Coan Recreation Center.

Several sites engaged in the Paralympic sport of beep baseball, and the students at the NFB BELL Academy in Indiana had the privilege of working with National Beep Baseball Association Hall of Famer Ron Brown, who later served as the head coach for the 2016 World Series Champion team, the Indy Thunder.

Bounce houses proved popular at many sites. Texas students enjoyed a trip to a trampoline park, students in North Carolina went bowling, and Mississippi students had the opportunity to go horseback riding. Students at the NFB BELL Academy in New York traveled to a movie theater to watch Pete's Dragon and learned how to use descriptive video technology.

At NFB BELL Academy, recreational fun does not require a field trip. Among many other activities, the students in Arizona had fun with life-sized games of Hungry Hungry Hippos. In this game students pair into teams of two, and each team has a scooter and a basket. One student lies on the scooter, belly down, and holds a lightweight laundry basket in front with outstretched arms. The other student holds the legs of the one on the scooter. Several teams gather around in a large circle, and all students wear learning shades (sleepshades) throughout the game. Next, an adult drops a bucket full of small, ball-pit balls into the center of the floor. Each team works to get as many balls in the basket as possible by pushing the student with the basket (the "hungry hippo") into the circle, capturing the balls with the basket, and pulling them back to the team's area before time runs out. In subsequent games partners take turns being the hungry hippo.

Gifts of Love

Every student at each NFB BELL Academy site receives a free slate and stylus to keep and, through the NFB Free White Cane Program, each student also receives a long white cane. This year students also received a water bottle bearing the NFB BELL Academy logo. These water bottles are BPA-free and dishwasher safe, and we hope our students use them all year long and remember the great fun they had and the skills they gained at NFB BELL Academy.

While the gifts noted above are important, they pale in comparison to the gift of NFB BELL Academy itself. NFB members raise money year-round to provide support for one or more NFB BELL Academy sites in their affiliate. NFB members also devote countless hours in preparation for NFB BELL Academy, including site selection, preparation of materials, planning field trips, etc. This summer, hundreds of NFB members gave freely of their time, their knowledge, and themselves during NFB BELL Academy instruction. Hundreds of students received instruction, grew in self-confidence, and built relationships that can last a lifetime.

Each of us supports NFB BELL Academy, either directly at our affiliate's NFB BELL Academy, or indirectly through support of our Free White Cane Program, our Free Slate and Stylus Program, and our promise to each blind person we meet: together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality.

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