American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention 2017 NOPBC CONFERENCE
by Hank Miller, Julia Gebert, and Lindsay Adair
From the Editor: Each year during the NOPBC conference, blind students share their experiences with the parents of blind children. This year parents heard from three teens: Hank Miller from New Jersey, Julia Gebert of Alaska, and Lindsay Adair from Louisiana.
Hank Miller: Good morning, everyone! I know some of you know my story and how I became a part of the Federation, but some of you don't. So allow me to tell my tale of denial, discovery, and determination.
It started when I was in elementary school. My parents realized that I was not doing as well as the other students. At the time I was reading large print. That's what I was doing up until second grade. My mother realized that my reading comprehension was plummeting. After long periods of reading, my eyes would get very strained. It was hard for me to focus on what I was reading.
My mother spoke to the school and asked for Braille instruction. Let's just say the school was less than eager to oblige. Fortunately, my mother was not going to go down without a fight. At that time she knew about the Federation, but she was apprehensive about asking for help. She didn't think the NFB would help a child who wasn't totally blind. She was happily proven wrong!
My mother finally got in contact with Carol Castellano. The next thing I knew, my mother was taking the school to court because they would not give me Braille instruction. This all started when I was in fourth grade, and the court case lasted for a year. Finally the judge ruled in our favor. I ended up getting an hour and a half of Braille instruction every day of the week.
I'm sixteen now, and I'm a sophomore in high school. I'm glad to say that I can read contracted Braille, which is how I'm reading this speech.
A couple months ago my mother asked me, "Do you want to give a speech at the NOPBC conference?" I said, "Sure," before asking what it was going to be about. When I did ask, she said it was to be directed toward new parents who might be apprehensive about the Federation, to show them by example how awesome the Federation is. My mother said I shouldn't just talk about the things I have done in my life as a success story.
I don't think success is a very good way to show how wonderful the Federation is. I'd rather talk about the hardships I've gone through. I've had my share of mental breakdowns. There have been times when I have been in complete self-pity and self-loathing because of my visual impairment. But there were always two things that kept me going. One is my amazing mother, who, with the help of the Federation and the NOPBC, knew exactly what I needed to hear as a blind child. Without her wise words, I honestly don't think I would be in the state of mind that I have right now.
The other thing that has kept me going is the family that I found through the Federation. No matter how much I might pity myself at certain times, there are always people who believe in me and everything that I do. I can't think of a single way my life would be better if my mother had not discovered the Federation and if I was not a part of this family.
Julia Gebert: Like everybody, sighted or blind, I have challenges, but blindness truly is not one of them. I am not going to deny that there are some negatives to being blind, but there are also many positive and neutral aspects. I see my blindness as simply a part of who I am.
I am a high school student who happens to be blind and a little bit short—well, a lot short! I prefer to think of myself as a high school student who happens to read Braille and use a long white cane.
One of the biggest helps to being okay with my blindness has been the ties I have with the blind community. Being a member of the NFB and attending its youth programs has allowed me to build relationships with some wonderful people. My NFB experiences have introduced me to some of my closest friends.
I've also gotten to know some of the NFB leadership during the three weeks I spent at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in the Buddy Program. Eric Guillory and Pam Allen challenged me to be better and to aspire to more than I believed I was capable of achieving. Their kindness and understanding were amazing.
Realizing my enjoyment of good food, Eric Guillory once asked me if I would be content living on a diet of boiled hot dogs and rolls. I quickly understood what he meant. He gave me more appreciation of the challenging, and sometimes intimidating, questions before me.
That said, I'm going to be completely honest. I still feel vulnerable and unsure of my abilities at times. Why am I insecure? Here are some of the things that happen in my life. Sometimes teachers excuse me from assignments, pair me with sighted partners, worry about me getting hurt on the playground, and basically water down their expectations because of their misunderstanding of blindness. Do you see why it is a challenge for blind kids to believe that they are equal and capable? It has been a never-ending struggle to convince people that, even though I am blind and small, I can do it.
After years of fighting for appropriate assistive technology training, this year I finally began overdue training with the PC and JAWS. With a tremendous amount of support from my technology instructors, Nate Kyle and Dr. Denise Robinson, both of whom are in the room today, I'm working to remove the words "I can't" from my vocabulary. This past year I have created data with Excel spreadsheets, written documents with properly formatted citations and footnotes, prepared PowerPoint presentations that include photographs with alt text, and more. To both of my instructors, I give my heartfelt thanks. I know you can attest that I often feel overwhelmed with worry, apprehension, frustration, and doubt. Please know that I am grateful that you both hold a fundamental belief in my abilities. Time and time again Denise and Nate have translated that belief into action. Even when I feel overwhelmed, they believe in me and continue to teach me the skills I need to make their belief a reality.
It is important for blind children and their parents to know blind people. I think that in a lot of ways blind kids are much better off than kids in a lot of other groups, because they have a network. Because we knew capable blind people my mother and I fought for appropriate technology training. It's not my blindness that has me feeling insecure at times, but rather, what others think about my blindness. Challenges are many, but my blindness is not one of them.
Lindsay Adair: It is a great pleasure to speak to you all today. I wish to share with you the idea that blindness is nothing more than a nuisance. As a blind person you can still be independent, despite your disability.
I myself am a blind student, and I am treated the same as any sighted one. Teachers give me the same assignments as any other student. I receive all of my materials in Braille, whether it be hard or electronic copy. I would like to thank my Braille teacher, Mrs. Crystal Guillory, and my para, Ms. Treva Olivero.
Cane travel instructors have taught me to walk independently with a long white cane. The cane is used in front of a person. I use mine to detect different surfaces, to keep from running into objects, and locate a building by its echo. When using my cane, combined with my senses of hearing and touch, I can detect streets, sidewalks, and parking lots. Once a week I receive a lesson in cane travel to help me better my skills. I recommend the long white cane for all blind people. It will ultimately lead to a life of independent travel.
We blind people can obtain cooking and independent living skills and learn to care for ourselves. I receive cooking lessons twice a month during the school year. I can use my other senses to help me. I can tell when a pot is boiling like a bubbling fountain, and I can smell a package to identify its contents. I can memorize where utensils are located and feel them to determine what they are.
I have also been training in other living skills. I can use certain apps on my phone such as my color identifier to match my clothes. I use my money reader to identify paper bills. The KNFB Reader, another application, can scan printed documents and read them to blind people. These apps have been a blessing to me. They benefit blind people in several ways. I can recommend these applications for you or your child.
Now that we have reviewed the ways blind people can be independent, I will explain ways that I entertain myself. I have often used my other senses to view a landscape or explore my surroundings. For example, the sound of the waves on the beach tells me I am getting close to the water. My imagination also plays a role in my entertainment. I often make up stories and write them on my Braille notetaker. There are also games blind people can play that can be downloaded onto a phone.
I understand that many people have apprehensions about blindness. But as Federationists say, it is not the characteristic that defines you or your life. Of course we have problems, but that is the case for everybody. I have ninety-nine problems, but blindness ain't one of them!
If you or your child or your student are blind, understand that blindness is only a nuisance and nothing more. Anyone can live with it and also be independent. Never put limitations on yourself or any blind person you may know.
Now I will conclude by saying, "Live the life you want!"