American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2019      NOPBC CONFERENCE

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To Become a Blindness Skills Ninja

by Lisamaria Martinez

Lisamaria Martinez addresses the NOBPC conference.Introduction by Carlton Ann Cook Walker: Lisamaria Martinez has a wealth of experience in blindness skills training for adults and children. Recently she left the safety of a full-time job to strike out on her own. She started a business called Be Confident, Be You! Here is Lisamaria.

Come to the edge!
We might fall.
Come to the edge!
It's too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came,
And he pushed,
And they flew.

That's one of my favorite poems. I love to share it with audiences like this one. I learned it from Teresa Postello, who received an award from the National Federation of the Blind two short years ago and since then has passed away. She was a wonderful teacher of the visually impaired in the San Francisco Bay area, and she shared this poem with a bunch of educators of blind folks. I think it is a brilliant summation of what we do here in the Federation. We ask our students to come to the edge. Then we push them off, and they fly. But first we give them the skills they need.

I love Carlton's theme that blindness skills are the only sure bet in Vegas! If you've got the proper blindness skills, you're not going to go wrong. You are going to win. It's going to happen.

The more skills you have, the better equipped you are to handle whatever comes in life. I like to tell students that the more tools you have in your toolbox, the more you'll succeed. If you have some vision and use a gigantic Sharpie pen, what can you do if you can't read your own handwriting? Then you learn Braille. Instead of using the Sharpie that you can't read, you use your slate and stylus to take down phone numbers.

Speaking of phone numbers, take out your phones. We're going to do something kind of crazy. Open up your text app, and I'm going to give you a number to text. You're going to be texting me. I want your name and where you're from. If you have a question, ask it in the text. Now you have my number, and I can be a resource for you. So text 510-289-2577. I will shortly be getting text buzzes on my Apple Watch.

I'm going to tell you a little about my growing up and how I became a blindness skills ninja. That's the phrase I like to use, but I also like the idea of an eight-armed octopus being able to reach out and read eight Braille books at once! A lot of people don't know my story of growing up as a blind kid. I lost my vision when I was five. I had only light perception. I spent a couple of years going to eye doctors, because everyone wanted to fix me. They thought that if I had some vision my life would be better. That's the gut reaction most parents have when their child first loses vision or they find out that their child is blind. You want the best for your child! So they took me to lots of eye doctors, and when I was twelve I had two eye surgeries. Eventually I got some vision restored. It was only in one eye, and I could only see colors. The doctors were very disappointed. It wasn't a big success to them. But I was happy! I could see colors!

When I was a teenager I started to notice some things visually. I noticed that the page that was just handed to me was blank on one side, but when I flipped it over, I could see print. Then my friends started to notice that I could see the headlines on magazines and newspapers. Over the years I started to regain some of my vision. But this is not the typical story of a blind person! Most blind people lose vision as their eye conditions progress.

I share this story with you because I was lucky. I was lucky to lose all of my vision in the beginning! There was no question about how to proceed in my education. There was no doubt that I was going to learn Braille. There was no doubt that I was going to use this awesome cane that is currently decorated with rainbow-colored hair-bands. There was no doubt that I was going to learn alternative skills to do everything. There was no choice—it was what was going to happen. I feel very lucky, because it was easy.

I was homeschooled in kindergarten and then mainstreamed in first grade, and I became a very fluent Braille reader. My introduction to the National Federation of the Blind was as a second grader, when I won in my Braille Readers Are Leaders grade category. It was exciting back in 1988 to read 2,081 pages. Of course, nowadays we have seven-year-olds reading far more pages than that! That's exciting to me, because it means there is much more access to Braille nowadays. There wasn't much Braille available back in the 1980s. You got books from the National Library Service for the Blind, or else the Braillist in your school district transcribed books for you—if you were lucky enough to have a Braillist in your school district.

Despite being a fluent Braille reader, despite learning to use my cane to get around, I still wasn't confident as a blind person. I wanted to walk human guide with my parents. They would tell me to bring my cane, and I would argue with them. I'd say, "I don't need my cane. I have you!" My parents would say, "What if we get hurt?" I'd say, "Then I'll just ask for help." "What if there's no one around?" "I'll scream really loud!" I had an answer for everything. I just didn't want to use my cane. I thought I didn't need it. I could get around in school just fine.

When I was thirteen I went to the summer program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, Louisiana. That's where I met some pretty cool people who are movers and shakers in the blindness world. They were much younger back then. My goals in the Buddy Program were to learn to make grilled cheese and to learn how to iron. I was into ironing back then. (That stopped in college!) Those were my two goals. I came away with a peace within me that I discovered through the freedom that my cane gave me. I learned in one month that my cane truly was the tool that gave me freedom. It gave me the freedom to go to the park. It gave me the freedom to go to an ice cream shop. It gave me the freedom to go grocery shopping. It gave me the freedom to get up and go wherever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go there. I didn't have to wait for someone to take me.

What I didn't know until I came back from Louisiana was that my friends were tired of taking me around. They didn't want to tell me, because they didn't want to hurt my feelings. They were my friends, and they loved me. These are people who are still my friends today. Twenty-five years ago they didn't want to say, "Hey, LM, I don't want to take you around! It's not fun for me. It's not cool in junior high to be taking you from class to class!" They were thrilled that I was using my cane!

That was the beginning of the rest of my life. I learned that being a blindness-skills ninja was really important. What was key—and this is something I only learned by hanging out with other blind people—was what it meant to be confident. I like to give people the acronym BAANG! I spell "baang" differently; it has two A's.

B is for blindness skills. Be a blindness-skills ninja!

A is for advocacy. As blind people we need to advocate for ourselves in many, many situations.

The other A in BAANG is for academics. It is really important as parents that you push your children to do the best that they possibly can in school. I absolutely understand that we are all individuals, and we have many different circumstances. But if you are blind only, there is no excuse for you not to do all your homework every day. If you're assigned twenty math problems, you should do twenty. When you grow up, your employer is not going to pay you a full salary to do half the job. It's important to learn to be efficient and effective.

The N in BAANG is for networking. Networking is going to happen a lot this week. Find blind people who you and your children can talk to. Learn from them. I'm now part of your network. Feel free to text me any time of the day.

The G in BAANG is for getting involved. Nothing is going to happen if you lie in bed with the covers over your head. Volunteer! Go out in the community and do things that make you excited and happy. As a blind child growing up in this world, the more experiences you get under your fingertips, the better equipped you are for success. There are some things we miss out on because we don't see them. So how do we know they're there? We have to explore the world!

These are all necessary tools to being a blindness-skills ninja. As Carlton Walker has said, blindness skills are the only sure bet in Vegas! I promise you, they're the only sure bet outside Vegas, too.

I was in my mid-twenties when I used a magnifier for the first time. I got it because I was terrified that I was going to flunk statistics in graduate school. I had had math under my fingertips from the time I was six. In grad school, at the age of twenty-five, for the first time in my life I could not get my book in Braille. I received it on a CD from the organization that was originally called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, and which is now known as Learning Ally. How do you do math using an audio CD? I did it, and I passed with an A, but I was terrified, so I supplemented by putting the print book under my CCTV. It was stressful, because it caused a lot of eyestrain.

Here's one reason I want to focus on blindness skills rather than maximizing vision. When I was in college I liked to go to the movies to de-stress. After finals my friends and I would get five-dollar tickets, we'd get popcorn, and we'd sit in the theater and chill. One day I went with a friend, and I was told that the movie was at Door Three on the left. As we walked down the hall, I was using my eyes to count the doors. I went up to what I thought was Door Three, but I really wasn't sure. There was a dark spot on the wall that could have been a door. Maybe it was Door Four. I really didn't know.

Someone was standing next to what I thought was the door, so I walked up to the person and said, "Hey, is this Door Three?" The person didn't say anything. I said, "Hello! Is this Door Three?" The person still didn't say a thing. I thought, I hate it when sighted people pretend they don't see me! I turned around and stomped off, annoyed. Then someone walked by and said, "Ma'am, that was a cardboard cutout of a person." [Laughter]

Now, if I had used my cane, I could have tapped the doors and counted. I would have known for sure that I was at Door Three on my left. And if I had tapped the cardboard person, it might have fallen over—and then I would have panicked that they had fainted! [Laughter] But I think that from the lack of a boom, I would have figured out pretty quickly that it wasn't a real human being.

That story is about me trying to maximize the crummy vision I have. I like to tell people, please think about it this way: Would you rather be a competent blind person or an incompetent sighted person?

I'm going to leave you with the poem I opened with, so it will stay in your memory.

Come to the edge.
We might fall!
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came
And we pushed,
And they flew.

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