Volume 40, Number 4 Convention 2021
A magazine for parents and teachers of blind children published by
the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults in partnership
with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
Deborah Kent Stein, Editor
Copyright © 2021 American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
For more information
about blindness and children contact:
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
200 East Wells Street at Jernigan Place, Baltimore, MD 21230 • 410-659-9314
https://nfb.org/nopbc • [email protected] • [email protected]
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
by Deborah Kent Stein
by Mark Riccobono
Empowering Our Children: Maximizing Skills, Opportunities, and Dreams
by Carlton Anne Cook Walker
Living the Life I Want Because of Parental Empowerment
by Ronza Othman
It's Not Just You: Growth and Resilience in Pandemic Times
by Carla Keirns
Reading to Learn the Code: The Natural Order of Contractions
by Casey West Robertson
Unraveling Dyslexia: Helping Braille Readers Who Have Reading Challenges
by Carlton Anne Cook Walker
Learning Shades: Helping Parents Learn and Teach Nonvisual Skills
by Michelle Albrecht
The Truth about Perfection: A Conversation with Jackie Anderson, Jean Fultz, and Sarah Erb
NOPBC BOARD MEETING
Empowering or Disqualifying: Which Are We Doing?
by Jordana Engelbretsen, 2021 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children
A Panel Moderated by Carol Castellano
Interview with Senator Tammy Duckworth
by Mark Riccobono
Innovating Mapping Technology: A Mission Built on the Experience of the Blind
by José Gaztambide
The Strength of a Champion: Transforming Federation Spirit into Personal Progress
by Randi Strunk
The 2021 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards
Presented by Everette Bacon
2021 National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Awards
Presented by Cayte Mendez
Support Braille Readers Becoming Leaders
What One Determined, Motivated, and Caring Woman Can Achieve: The Life of Doris Willoughby
by Ramona Walhof
Are you the parent of a blind/low-vision child? Don’t know where to turn? Have you ever wondered what your child will be capable of when he or she grows up? Are you concerned that your child’s future will be limited by blindness or low vision? Do you have questions about how to parent a blind child? We are here for you.
Founded in 1983, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), is a membership organization of families, friends, and educators of blind children. We have thousands of members in all fifty states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.
We have a very inclusive definition of blindness which includes children who have some usable vision. Instead of focusing on what the child can or cannot see, we focus on the child and what she or he wants to be.
NOPBC is for families, educators, and friends of blind children, including those who have some usable vision. We welcome all families of blind children, and many of our children have both blindness and other disabilities.
We help families and blind children themselves maximize the child’s abilities and opportunities; we hold high expectations for all of our children, regardless of any additional disabilities they may have.
As a division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest and most influential organization of blind people in the world, the NOPBC is well informed about the societal, legislative, and technological issues that affect blind people. We enjoy the resources, support, and expertise of fifty thousand blind people who can serve as mentors and role models for us and our children. When we as parents join the NOPBC, our children belong to the Federation family.
Most states have an NOPBC affiliate chapter. You can find your state chapter at http://www.nopbc.org. If your state does not have a chapter and you would like to start one, please contact us. We may be able to offer training and other assistance to start a state NOPBC chapter.
We have been where you are, and we want to support you and your blind child. We know that blindness does not define your child's future. We can connect you with other families and blind adults who can serve as positive mentors and role models. They can teach you the attitudes and techniques that will enable your child to become independent and to succeed in life.
The NOPBC offers hope, encouragement, information, and resources for parents, families, and educators of blind children. NOPBC provides:
We offer a wide variety of programs, activities, and training to families, children, and youth. One of our most exciting activities is our annual conference. Every year since it was established, the NOPBC has conducted an annual conference for parents and teachers of blind children as part of the national convention of the NFB. This conference has grown to include five exciting days of workshops, training sessions, activities for all family members, including sighted siblings, and countless opportunities to meet blind adults and other families and children from around the country.
by Deborah Kent Stein
When I think of the annual NFB Convention, what comes to mind are crowds in the Exhibit Hall, standing ovations in General Sessions, packed elevators, late-night talks with friends, and everywhere the energetic tapping of long white canes. In the spring of 2020, however, it became clear that a face-to-face convention was impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With only a few weeks’ notice, Federation leaders organized our first-ever virtual convention. Connected on the Zoom platform, more than ten thousand blind people from all over the world listened to dynamic speakers and gathered for workshops and discussions. Convention 2020 proved to be the largest gathering of blind people in history.
As the Delta variant of COVID-19 swept the country in 2021, plans for a face-to-face convention had to be set aside for the second year in a row. Once again Federationists rallied to meet the challenge. Held virtually over Zoom, the 2021 NFB National Convention was packed with information and inspiration. For parents and teachers of blind children, this convention brought a wealth of presentations, workshops, and chances for families to meet and have fun together.
The annual National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) Division Conference interspersed talks by parent leaders with interactive workshops on education, travel, and opportunities for the rising generation. Families discovered new technologies and other products in the virtual Exhibit Hall, and tweens and teens enjoyed games and conversation in a series of Youth Track activities. General sessions at this year's convention included information about promising new technologies, presentations by allies in our national government, and stories of personal triumph. At the annual banquet NFB President Mark Riccobono delivered a stirring address that highlighted some little-known aspects of our collective history. You can read his speech, "Reflection, Revolution, and Race: A Growing Understanding within the Organized Blind Movement," at https://nfb.org//images/nfb/publications/bm/bm21/bm2108/bm210808.htm. This issue of Future Reflections offers a selection of articles that give some idea of the scope of Convention 2021.
"Stronger Together" was the theme of the 2021 convention. Despite the pandemic, Federationists rallied our forces and created another jam-packed convention with something for everyone. Convention 2021 is proof positive of the strength and power of our movement. There is no stopping us when we pool our resources and work side by side, even if we have to meet in cyberspace.
Already plans are afoot for our 2022 NFB National Convention. We will meet face-to-face in New Orleans. At last we will be together in person. At long last we will hear the tapping of the canes of thousands of Federationists on the move together.
by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: By longstanding tradition the NFB President meets and talks with children at the opening of the NOPBC conference. When convention takes place face-to-face, the children form a circle around the president, with everyone seated on the floor at the front of the room. The NOPBC conference was virtual in 2021, but the tradition continued. This year President Mark Riccobono met with the children on Zoom.
Mark Riccobono: It's a pleasure to be with the Federation family this afternoon. The National Federation of the Blind is truly a family, and we take that very seriously. Yesterday one of our sponsors, who has been coming to Federation conventions for well over two decades, related the story of bringing his own children to convention in the late 1990s. He talked about the transformational experience of having his sighted children take part in NFB Camp and the difference it made in their understanding of the world and the barriers that people face.
Family is especially important in these times when we're still distant. We're coming out of social isolation, but it's going to take time for us all to reintegrate. I just booked a plane ticket for August. I haven't flown since February of last year! Hard to believe! Convention is one of the times we bring people together.
I'd love to take questions from any kids who might be listening. Are there any kiddos tuned in who would like to ask questions?
Raise your hand and one of our hosts will call on you.
Donna: Are there any fun educational ways to learn Braille?
Mark Riccobono: Sure. Do you know about our Bell® Academy? Some spots are still open in our Bell Academy In-Home Edition, which is a virtual program. Through our partnership with the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, we make lots of Braille books available for free. Visit actionfund.org to find these resources.
Another great way to work on Braille skills is by playing games. I'm partial to Uno; it's the only Braille game I myself helped to bring to the store shelves. Lots of games can be Brailled. In our household, if we want to play a game, we figure out how to Braille it.
Harley: Are there Braille books in public libraries?
Mark Riccobono: Great question! There aren't many yet. I'd encourage you to sign up at your local public library and tell them you want Braille books. They'll probably send you to the state library for the blind, and that's a great place to connect with. But libraries respond to the demands they get. I think we should tell our public libraries we want them to have Braille books.
The National Library Service (NLS) is starting to distribute refreshable Braille displays. You could use that device connected to an iPad to access electronic books from your public library and read them in refreshable Braille. A really cool thing about refreshable Braille displays is that we can now get content from public libraries, assuming they use one of the ebook providers that is accessible. The more you ask libraries about Braille books, the more they'll know there's a demand for them.
Donna: Are there any fun educational apps that can help kids learn Braille?
Mark Riccobono: I don't know that there are any kid-oriented Braille apps yet. We have certainly encouraged some to be made. There are some apps for teachers, but unfortunately they're visually based. We definitely need fun, kid-friendly apps to promote Braille.
Eric: Is there a link for getting the Braille display?
Mark Riccobono: It depends on your state. If you ask your state NLS library about the refreshable Braille display, you can find out whether your state is part of the pilot program. Even if your state isn't in the program yet, ask anyway. Tell your library that you've heard the government has these refreshable Braille devices and you really, really want one. Say you want them to create a waiting list. Tell them you're going to call every week about it. We want the libraries at the local level to tell the National Library Service that people want these devices.
Thank you for your questions. We've all lived through an interesting time with the pandemic. Experiences like what we've all lived through create opportunities to innovate. I encourage all blind youth to adopt that mindset. I'm sure that many or maybe all of you out there found opportunities to create new things out of the situation we faced. In difficult times those who thrive are those who adapt, create, and innovate out of the circumstances they're given.
I was used to traveling several times a month. Now that I can't do that, I've notched up making sure I get in my ten thousand steps a day. I've discovered new things in my back yard in South Baltimore because I decided to adapt and not be controlled by my circumstances. That's an important life lesson we all need to take to heart, and it's something every successful blind person will tell you. The power is within you to determine what your future is. No matter what circumstances you face, the power is within you to overcome them—and the National Federation of the Blind has your back.
I look forward to the time when we can get together in person again, sit on the floor and chat. Know we continue to work for all of our families of blind children to raise expectations, to change what it means to be blind, to fight the artificial barriers in our education system, and to make sure that all of us can move forward together. Thank you, Carlton, and to our parents, for the opportunity to be here with you!
by Carlton Anne Cook Walker
From the Editor: As president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), Carlton Walker brings rich personal experience and many levels of expertise. In addition to being the parent of a blind daughter, she is an attorney and a teacher of the visually impaired. Here is the address she delivered to launch the NOPBC Conference at the 2021 NFB National Convention.
Hello! I am Carlton—Carlton Anne Cook Walker, but "Carlton" is fine. I am privileged to serve as president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Each year since 1983, the NOPBC has held our annual conference within the annual NFB Convention, and this is the great strength of our conference. As the Parents' Division of the NFB, we have access to the real experts in blindness—blind individuals who marry their formal education and training with their lived experiences. I am a parent of a blind young adult and a certified teacher of blind students, and I have learned and continue to learn so much from blind individuals. I am also greatly enriched by the wisdom and support I get from other parents of blind children. Truly, all of us are smarter than any of us!
In the NOPBC we welcome everyone: parents, families, educators, and allies of blind children. All of us are united in our mission:
We welcome you to our conference and to the NFB Convention. Please know that you are welcome to participate in all facets of the convention, including the general sessions and the banquet on Saturday night. We encourage you to avail yourself of the many and varied opportunities this week, both in the NOPBC Conference and in the rest of the NFB Convention.
We've had quite an interesting ride since the spring of 2020. When health concerns closed schools, the impact on students varied greatly. Blind and low-vision students who were receiving the instruction, materials, technology, and support they needed in the regular classroom had a fairly easy transition to distance instruction. They had the skills to function fully at or above grade level academically, their materials were fully accessible and available before needed in class, and they had twenty-four-hour access to the technology necessary for online instruction (and all of the software used by the school was fully accessible). Unfortunately, this easy transition was rare for our students, highlighting the fact that, even before the pandemic, few were receiving the free appropriate public education to which they are entitled. Far too many of our families struggled through education in the pandemic. With at-home instruction, parents could monitor what was—and what was not—being provided to their children.
During the past year the NOPBC and the NFB supported families through programs such as the Early Childhood Initiative and our Third Thursday Webinars. In addition, students received instruction in Braille and nonvisual techniques via the NFB BELL® Academy and exposure to science concepts through the NFB STEM programs. Families were offered resources and advocacy through NFB Distance Learning Resources, and recordings of sessions at our 2020 conference, including two dedicated to IEP advocacy.
Now we are more than halfway through 2021. This NFB convention is our eighty-first, and 2021 marks my sixteenth year in the NFB and the NOPBC. Eighty-one and sixteen are pretty special numbers - they highlight our power of exponential growth. Sixteen is the product when we take the number two to the fourth power—two times two times two times two. If we had chosen linear growth (by simply adding two, four times), we get only eight—half as much. Now let's look at three. In the linear growth model, four threes add up to twelve, a respectable number. But when we create the environment for exponential growth, raising three to the fourth power, we get eighty-one—an increase of 675 percent!
It's no coincidence that exponents are verbalized with the words "to the power of." Whether in terms of medicine or science, exponential growth describes spectacular increases that keep getting larger and more powerful over time. I've always been a math nerd, and I've always loved science. Later in life I became an attorney, a wife, and the parent of a blind child. Later still I became a certified teacher of blind/low-vision students and an advocate for the educational and civil rights of individuals with disabilities. But the math nerd and science fan in me remain.
Parenting is hard. Your child comes into your life without an instruction book or customer support services. There are no warranties and no returns. And parenting, alone, is the easy part. Add in differences such as adoption, family structures, or one or more disabilities, and the job gets even harder. Throw in a low-incidence disability such as blindness, and parenting can seem overwhelming. I know it was for me.
Before Anna was born, I had held a baby only once—for about half a minute. In the first year, Anna Catherine had many health issues, with surgeries and hospitalizations. We were told more than once that she would not live long enough to become a toddler—the memory of that time still haunts me! Those experts were so sure, but we knew something was missing. After we got to a new hospital where the doctors made their own assessments, Anna recovered and began to thrive. Just after Anna's second birthday, we learned that those early medical issues prevented Anna's macula from developing and caused retinal scarring. We found out that our child was "legally blind." She had no central vision in either eye, and she had peripheral vision with blind spots.
At that time Stephen and I actually were not too overwhelmed by this news. After all, Anna Catherine seemed to be "managing" well. We had been through much, much worse.
As time wore on, however, things changed. While the vision did not seem to be changing, Anna's ability to "manage" did. We quickly realized that this was very logical—children want to do more as they get older, so "manageable" vision for a two-year-old was insufficient for a preschooler. We found the National Federation of the Blind, and we asked the school to provide Braille and cane travel instruction for our legally blind child.
This is the part of the story where flowers should bloom, birds sing, and Anna Catherine lives happily ever after. But this was real life, not a fairy tale.
Never had I faced such resistance when making a request! These professionals belittled the value of both Braille and cane use. They told us that Anna Catherine was not "blind enough" for either. We were not offended by these rebuffs. We started to document the struggles Anna Catherine faced with doing schoolwork visually (even with enlargement) and with age-appropriate independent travel—and this was in pre-kindergarten. We shared our concerns that vision, alone, was not working for Anna Catherine and that focusing on residual vision hurt her now and left our child unprepared for the future. We were told that children, including those who are legally blind, need to "maximize" their vision. Wait what?
After many months and an independent educational evaluation (IEE) that found "dual media" (print and Braille) instruction to be appropriate, Anna Catherine finally got some Braille instruction and a few worksheets in Braille each month. However, consistent access to Braille materials, quality Braille instruction, and competent cane travel instruction remained elusive for years.
Why did this happen? Federal law actually requires both Braille use and Braille instruction for all children who have been determined as eligible for an individualized education program (IEP) under the disability classified as "visual impairment, including blindness" unless the IEP team determines (based on specific data) that Braille use and instruction are inappropriate for the child. In other words, blind/low-vision children with IEPs are presumed to need and be entitled to instruction in Braille.
Why are so few blind and low-vision children receiving instruction in this critical skill? Why aren't our children receiving cane travel instruction? Why aren't they receiving instruction in the use of assistive technology at home and at school? To a great extent, it's because educators want to maximize vision. When they maximize vision, they minimize instruction in the critical skills our children need to engage in age-appropriate activities in school, at home, and in their communities - skills such as Braille, cane travel, and accessible assistive technology. And the children are the ones who suffer.
Over the years I have seen this happen again and again and again. I joined the NFB and the NOPBC, and I met many parents and blind adults who served, and continue to serve, as mentors for me and our family. I learned that children like mine (having some level of functional vision) benefit from blindness skills; with blindness skills, they can choose when to use their vision and when to use nonvisual skills. When children learn blindness skills, we empower them to maximize themselves.
During my time teaching in the schools of south-central Pennsylvania, I found—much to my disappointment—that the ill-conceived pressure to "maximize vision" was only the tip of the iceberg. I discovered that skills aren't the only things being minimized. Time and time again I encountered individuals unwilling to provide our children equitable opportunities—because when we maximize vision, we minimize all services to children, including students who are completely blind. In my first year of teaching, one of my students had a teacher who refused to provide "pop quiz" materials in time for Brailling, so the student was forced to take those assessments orally. She was the only student who did not have the opportunity to read and re-read her quiz and to write (and rewrite) her answers. After many weeks of complaints, the principal finally stepped in and told the teacher that all materials needed to be provided for me to Braille for our student. The next day, yet another "pop quiz" was unavailable for Brailling. I alerted the principal, and he ordered that all the students in the class take the quiz orally. My student beamed—and scored more than twenty points higher than any of her peers! That day all of us, including the regular education teacher, learned a good lesson about the importance of accessibility and advocacy.
Another time, a science teacher came to me fussing about a student who had lost a worksheet. I thanked her for the information and then asked whether her other seventh-grade students ever lost worksheets. She paused and then had an "aha" moment. She pointed to shelves along the wall in her room where extra print copies of the worksheets were always available for her typically sighted students.
As a parent, as a teacher, and as an advocate, I have seen many, many instances in which our children are not provided the accessible assistive technology or instruction they need. While sighted children have access to iPads in preschool, many Braille readers must wait years until they are allowed to use refreshable Braille displays—the equivalent of a screen for sighted children. And while sighted children use touch screens and computer mice to navigate devices, years pass before our children have access to and instruction in using screen readers and touch typing. Without these tools our children are denied the opportunity to use and become proficient in the technology they need, both now and in the future.
Without a doubt, though, the absolute worst effect of maximizing vision is the resulting minimization of children's dreams. Regularly, blind/low-vision children as young as three and four are told that they need to be realistic in their dreams. While their sighted peers are encouraged to dream of becoming scientists, law enforcement officers, famous actors, sports stars, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and presidents, our blind/low-vision children are told these goals are "not realistic" for them. Never mind that they are not realistic for most children, blind or sighted. Never mind that there are blind individuals who hold PhDs in science and who work in STEM fields, blind individuals who work for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, blind individuals who are professional actors and who are professional athletes. Blind individuals are doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Blind people have served as US Supreme Court law clerks, state governors, and state supreme court justices. Many of these individuals are totally blind. They are not maximizing vision; they are maximizing their lives. These great role models for our children prove that typical vision is not needed for success, but self-confidence is. Self-confidence begins with dreams—dreams of what one can experience, of what one can do, of what one can be.
When we stop focusing on visual function, we can focus on children. We can focus on the skills that allow our children to read, write, do math, surf the internet, participate in P.E., study art and music, dance, walk, run, and play. They can live their lives as independently as their sighted peers do.
Here's an example of a way to maximize dreams: ask your child, "What if you had a magic lamp?" Begin the conversation without limits (disabilities, finances, etc.). Probe into their interests and their skills. It may be difficult for you and for your child. But try. This and other conversations are vital. In these conversations, we get to know our children in new ways. We will help counter the negative messages our children may have received, and we'll create room for more positive messages. Exercises like this create an environment in which our children can better shape and realize their dreams.
When we maximize vision, the best we can hope for is linear growth. When we maximize skills, opportunities, and dreams, exponential growth is possible. But this is not enough. Exponential growth is most powerful when we start with a bigger number. One raised to any power is just one. But when we seek out blindness experts and blindness education professionals, our starting number increases to 2, 3, 4, and even higher. Now we can shoot past one and reach 16, 81, 256, even more!
Please let us in the NOPBC and the NFB join you and your child on this journey. Together we will work to teach our children alternative techniques to help them maximize their abilities. We will advocate for the equitable access and opportunities they deserve and to which they are legally entitled. We will listen to their dreams and work together to help them become reality. In other words, we will empower our children by maximizing their skills, opportunities, and dreams.
Is this easy? No. Then again, nothing worthwhile ever is. Let's go!
by Ronza Othman
Introduction by Carlton Walker: Ronza Othman has many wonderful credentials. She works for the US Department of Health and Human Services, and she serves as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. She is brilliant, and she is so much more. She is kind, she is thoughtful, and she is giving. She does not hesitate to give to our children, to parents, and to blind adults. We are honored to have Ronza give our keynote address this year.
Good afternoon, everyone! I'm grateful and honored to have been asked to talk with you today. In preparing for this meeting, I wondered what possible words of wisdom I could share with you. Then I realized that I should share what I wished my parents knew when they learned that their child was blind and as they raised me. First I'd like to tell you a bit about myself. Understanding my story might help you contextualize some of the things I will share with you.
I'm the sixth of seven children, and I was born within a few weeks of my parents emigrating to the United States from a third world country. We are Palestinian refugees. Our family was displaced twice between 1945 and 1981, with a possible third displacement looming when my parents' and siblings' visas came through. Had I been born just a bit earlier, or had the visas been approved just a bit later, I would not be here with you today. I would have had to stay in war-torn Palestine, and there's no life for a blind woman in war-torn anywhere, let alone Palestine!
Anyway, I was born on the steps of the county hospital in Chicago. Since then I've never been on time, let alone early!
My parents were happy they had a healthy baby, though they had hoped for a second boy instead of a fifth girl. They got over it pretty quickly, and I became my dad's favorite toy. My older brother decided to pretend I was a boy, and things were right again in his nine-year-old heart. I walked and talked and got into trouble just as all toddlers do. But when I was fourteen months old, my uncle, who was in medical school, noticed that my eyes danced. He did that thing adults do with kids to try to get them to track fingers and shapes. I didn't track. He told my mother she needed to take me to the doctor, but she resisted, as any mom of six kids under the age of ten probably would. He insisted, and finally she took me to the pediatrician. Thus began a life of invasive, often painful tests, procedures, and other medical experiences.
Pretty quickly the doctors realized I was legally blind, but they couldn't figure out how much usable vision I had. I made eye contact, I didn't bump into things, and I recognized faces from a reasonable distance.
The discovery that I was blind changed my relationship with both of my parents. My father had no idea how to deal with a disabled kid. He became awkward around me, and ultimately, he didn't include me in things. I remember an incident when I was five or six, and he took my older sister and my younger brother out for ice cream, but he refused to take me. He told me it would be too dangerous. We had a strained relationship for most of my life. It wasn't until I was an adult that I came to understand that his lack of interest in me came from fear, guilt, and grief, and not from lack of love. We worked hard to establish a relationship when I was in my thirties, and we are now very close.
So my first piece of advice is not to fear your child or their blindness or to feel guilty about it. Your child will think you are burdened by them, ashamed of them, and don't love them.
My mother made me her project. She took me with her everywhere. The other kids took turns going with her on errands and visiting friends, but every trip was my turn. She spoiled me rotten. While my siblings loved me, they sometimes felt they didn't get enough of her attention. Kids don't care if adults feel sorry for kids with disabilities, or if adults think that kids with disabilities need a little more attention. They feel hurt and neglected because they don't view disability in the same way. My mother figured out that kids who feel neglected rebel, so she was able to balance better with time.
So my next piece of advice is to treat your blind kid the same way you treat the others. It's instinct to protect and pay more attention to the one you think is most vulnerable. Resist that temptation! Blindness does not inherently make a kid more vulnerable! Don't justify paying more attention to the blind kid by asking the sighted siblings to have compassion or to feel lucky they don't have the same need. Kids just want to be loved, blind and sighted alike. You can do real harm to the sighted siblings as well as to the relationships between the kids if you play favorites.
It wasn't until I was four that I got a diagnosis: Leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA. I wore very thick glasses from the time I was a toddler, and eventually they became bifocals. We were poor as dirt, so I wore the plastic public-aid glasses. Every year I'd get to pick out a new pair, the same frames in a different color. There were four color options, so I cycled from red to blue to brown to purple and back again. Because my mom worried so much that I'd lose those precious glasses, I had to wear glasses chains, which of course made me the most popular girl in school! [Hashtag, sarcasm!]
When I was four I started preschool at the local public school, and I failed. I literally failed preschool! At the end of the year, they gave me a test. I was supposed to recognize an apple, an umbrella, and a house. I recognized them just fine, but I didn't have the language skills to communicate their names in English. Arabic was my first language. I did not have the English vocabulary for that simple test. The school staff thought my vision deficit caused the problem, but really it was my lack of English comprehension. I failed preschool at age four because people thought I was too blind to succeed, while in reality I failed because I didn't speak the language.
Off I went to a resource school for the blind. I repeated preschool, and I was a year older than everyone else in my class. I learned to do some things nonvisually, but mostly I learned to use the vision I did have to get along. I remember watching kids in my class use canes and learn Braille. Instead I used large-print books that the teacher's aide manually colored for me, because when you blow up textbooks there are just black and white outlines. I asked if I could learn Braille, and they told me I didn't need it because I could see.
I asked my mom to get the school to teach me Braille. The school district told her I didn't need Braille because I had enough vision to read print. Granted it was font size 24, but they said print would always be better and easier. They also told my mom that if I learned Braille, I would stick out among my peers. My mother believed them. She thought they were experts on teaching blind kids.
My next piece of advice is to make sure your kid gets Braille and cane instruction, no matter how much usable vision they have. My life would have been so much easier had I learned Braille and cane travel as a kid instead of learning on my own as a law student! The school district is going to recommend whatever is easiest for the school district, which is not necessarily what is best for your child. It was pretty obvious that I was a blind kid when I read with my nose an inch away from a huge textbook in 24-point font. My blindness was probably much more obvious than it would have been if I sat upright with my hands on a Braille page.
Don't get me wrong. I learned important and necessary skills at the resource school. Because we were largely in the mainstream classroom, I learned to socialize with a variety of kids. I learned to read. I learned English. I learned to ice skate because the resource school didn't hesitate to take blind kids along with sighted kids on field trips. I went camping and boating and did all kinds of fun things. Many kids who go to residential schools or who are fully mainstreamed don't get the chance to do these things. Through those activities I gained self-confidence. I learned I could do anything a sighted kid could do.
I marvel now that the very school district that had such positive attitudes about what blind kids could do also didn't teach me Braille or cane travel. Their philosophy on helping students gain confidence through activities that are not ordinarily open to the blind is so much like the way of thinking at our NFB training centers. We gain confidence by doing things.
My next piece of advice is to create as many opportunities for doing as possible. Don't think about whether you can take a vacation that includes a particular activity. Think about what adaptations you might make to that activity so that your blind child can fully participate.
After second grade I returned to my neighborhood school through sixth grade. I had good times and bad times, but I didn't have a lot of friends because I was so different. I was very small for my age, despite being a year older than my classmates. I was the really little blind girl with the public-aid glasses on a chain. I had pigtails and home-sewn clothes, and I didn't speak a lot of English. I was the image of an outcast, and we all know that kids can be quite cruel.
I loved learning at school, though, and I loved to sing. I had playmates among my siblings and in the Middle Eastern community where we lived. I found plenty to do, and I turned out okay, despite not having friends at school.
The most important skill I learned at school was touch typing. I remember spending hours with my vision itinerant (I think now we call them teachers of the visually impaired or teachers of blind students), sitting at an old-school typewriter, learning the home row. After a while I was tested on speed and accuracy. I can now type more than eighty words a minute. Typing is probably the most important skill I learned as a kid.
My next piece of advice is to teach your blind and sighted kids to touch type when they are young. Typing will be an invaluable skill.
Meanwhile, my mom kept taking me to every doctor she could find in search of a cure. We heard about experimental therapies and retinal transplants and genetic interventions and all kinds of things that weren't available then but might be someday. Each time my mom heard about a possible cure at some point in the future, I wondered why the way God made me wasn't good enough. I went along with her to the appointments because she had set so much hope for my future upon a cure. I didn't want to disappoint her, but I didn't feel broken, so I didn't want to be fixed.
My next piece of advice is to focus on what your child can do, which is virtually everything, instead of finding a cure to restore their sight. When parents focus on medical cures, kids feel like they're broken. Blindness is not an illness. It's not fatal, and it doesn't need to be cured in order for your child to have a great life.
Don't get me wrong—if there were a cure for LCA, I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. But most of us will never see a cure (no pun intended!) in our lifetime. Focusing on cures rather than on reality is dangerous and damaging.
My mom was my champion, and she still is. She still hopes in her heart for a cure. It's natural for a parent to want their child to have the easiest life possible. But my mom also pushed me hard to be productive. She herself did not finish middle school, but she knew that education would be my sword and my insurance. It wasn't a question of whether I'd go to college, but where I would go. My mom also pushed my siblings academically, though that wasn't part of our culture. She figured out that in order for me to want to pursue education, I'd have to have good role models. She set a standard for all of my siblings in the hope that their successes would drive and motivate my own. Today among the seven of us we carry nine bachelors degrees, ten masters degrees, and three doctorates.
My next piece of advice is to have high expectations for your blind child and equally high expectations for your sighted children. Education can be an equalizer for those with disabilities. If your child is so inclined, encourage them to pursue a degree.
I attended a religious parochial school for middle school and high school, and I had a great time. I made friends who shared my lived experience, but I didn't learn blindness skills other than how to order off a menu using a monocular at Taco Bell. That's a great skill, but not super useful in the scheme of things!
I had been traumatized by being left behind in preschool, so I accelerated my learning and finished high school in three years. My high school administration did not think a blind student should do this, but my mom supported me. By now she had learned that schools did not always make decisions based on what the student needed. They sometimes made decisions that were in the best interest of the school itself.
I attended college and maneuvered things so I could live on campus. That was an amazing experience! I had to learn to be an adult, to be independent. Before college my mom ironed my clothes, made my meals, and did anything that she assumed was remotely visual. In college I learned to do for myself.
My next piece of advice is to let your blind child take care of themselves. Sure, I burned shirts with the iron sometimes. Once I turned all my socks pink because I didn't sort them properly. My first attempts at cooking were dismal. But I survived, and, hey, pink is the new black!
Give your kids the space to adult. You won't always be there to take care of them.
I did not get the opportunity to attend an adjustment-to-blindness training center, and that is one of my greatest regrets. I come from a culture where children move out of their parents' house into their marital house. I broke the mold by dorming. Even that was so unheard of that my family received a ton of community criticism. I was lucky to learn blindness skills from other blind people, but my skills are not where they would have been had I attended an NFB training center.
My next advice is to send your child to all the adjustment-to-blindness training programs you can. NFB does it best. Send your kids to the tween programs; send them to the transition programs; and when the time comes, send them to an adult transition training program. I believe the NFB training programs and the structured discovery model are critical to blind individuals for gaining independence and a positive attitude on blindness.
As a parent myself (I raised my three nephews), I understand that a parent's greatest struggle is to protect their child and to ensure that that child becomes an independent, functioning adult. Sometimes we get it right, and often we get it wrong. We hold on too tightly; we don't let them try things because we're scared; we do things for them instead of expecting them to do for themselves. The world can be a scary place, and we want to shield our children from the scary. That's our job as parents! But it's also our job to give our children the skills they need to live, to join the workforce, and to move about in the world.
My next piece of advice is to hold tight when it's appropriate and to let go when it's appropriate to let go. I didn't get to go to a training center due to cultural expectations around protection. My parents couldn't imagine that I'd be safe out of their line of sight. That hurt me as an adult because I had to learn things by being in the world instead of in a nurturing training environment.
Finally, I suggest that when choosing a training center, don't let a newspaper article or gossip and innuendo keep your kid from having an incredible life-changing experience. Talk to people who went to those training centers. Talk to parents who sent their kids there. Visit to experience the place for yourself. Suspend judgment while you do the research. Wait until all the facts are in. If we, as parents, act on incomplete or inaccurate information, we do our children an incredible disservice.
I went on to graduate school and law school. At that point either my mom was tired after raising seven kids or she realized that I was an adult and had to have space to live my life. I met the NFB and learned Braille and how to use a long white cane. Heck, I learned that I should use a long white cane! Of course my mom struggled with wanting to protect me, but she was thrilled that I had people I could talk to who'd been through what I was going through, so I didn't have to reinvent the wheel every day.
My next piece of advice is to find other blind kids for your child to socialize with. As parents you should find blind adults to learn from. Your blind child will learn invaluable things from other kids. You will learn all of the great things your child can do and become as an adult.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and I had an allergic reaction to the radiation treatments. As a result, I lost much of my remaining vision. I'll be cancer free for four years this September, God willing. I was able to adapt to the loss of most of my usable vision because I had peer support, good blindness skills, and a positive outlook. Of course I mourned, and my parents did, too. But we realized that in the end I had what I needed in order to be productive. I gained those skills and attitudes from the NFB, and it made all the difference!
I've raised my three nephews, and thankfully, as of last year, they're all off the payroll. Two of them have significant disabilities, though not blindness. I made all of the mistakes my parents made. Parents are human, and they do their best for their children. My next piece of advice is to give yourself grace when you get it wrong. Kids are resilient, and they'll get over our mistakes. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. It's going to be okay.
For my doctoral dissertation I studied the impact of parental involvement in the IEP process for blind students. It's been seventeen years now, but the data was clear. Kids whose parents are involved in the IEP process do more than four times as well in school and at meeting their IEP goals as students whose parents are not actively involved.
My next piece of advice is get involved in the IEP process. Be more than involved! Be the helicopter parent! Be the barracuda parent! Your child will benefit.
Today I manage an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment program for a federal agency. I have a staff of thirty-five. I am a civil-rights and employment attorney. I live across the country from my family, and I live on my own. I travel all over the world for fun and for work. I cook, I host parties, and I have a great life. I owe it all to God first, and then to my parents, both of them.
My mom did the heavy lifting, but my dad was critical to the financial support so that I could get my education. My parents gave me the greatest gift, their love.
My last piece of advice is to just love your kids. Tell them and show them you love them. You can't mess up parenting a blind child if you just love that child! You'll figure out the rest, and when you struggle, we in the National Federation of the Blind are here to help you. Thank you very much!
by Carla Keirns
From the Editor: Carla Keirns is an eloquent advocate for blind children and their families. She is a member of the Missouri affiliate of the NFB, and she serves on the board of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). She is a physician in Kansas City, Kansas. She is the mother of an eight-year-old blind son.
My family just celebrated my second pandemic birthday, our second pandemic wedding anniversary, and soon we will celebrate my son's second pandemic birthday. We have had our first anniversary of my father-in-law's death from COVID in April 2020, and we've experienced more Zoom funerals for other family members than I can bear to count.
I have started forgetting what I used to do on weekends, and I am not alone. You are not imagining it!
My patients and their families are forgetting, too. We were not made for this kind of stress, for weeks and months on end of fearing for our lives; upending our routines; going for long periods without seeing other people's faces in person; or, for those who live alone in communities facing high rates of viral transmission, going months without human touch.
Alongside the viral pandemic, we are facing waves of forgetting, of stress, of disturbed sleep, of bizarre behavior. We are exhausted, run down. We find that things we used to do take more effort than before. Those who were best at social distancing are finding our muscles have atrophied, and our physical endurance needs to be built up again.
Our bodies were made for fight-or-flight, adrenaline surges in response to being chased by a lion or tiger or bear. Oh my! Chronic stress takes a different toll on our bodies. It ages us prematurely. We know this from soldiers and medical trainees. Presidents go gray much faster when they hold the nuclear codes. Our skin becomes more frail. Our blood vessels stiffen. Chronically elevated cortisol and other stress hormones, as well as sleep deprivation, lead to insulin resistance and premature diabetes.
As your friend the doctor, I am asking you to do what so many of us have been putting off. Be gentle with yourself. Take that extra nap. But also go to the gym or take a walk. But not all at once—hospitals are starting to see people with muscle damage from overdoing it.
Go to your doctor if you're due. We are finding a lot of folks who have not had COVID-19 but have had worsening of their diabetes and high blood pressure. They've had heart attacks and missed cancer screenings while they were in isolation. My colleagues in mental health have noticed sleeplessness, stress, increased alcohol consumption, and family conflict when everyone has been stuck together in homes that were never intended to be occupied 24/7 for months on end. You don't need to leave home—the doctor will see you on Zoom, too. Social contact is critical, even if it's by phone or on Zoom or socially distanced outside.
Three months into isolation in the United States, on June 4, 2020, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon by Emily Flake showing "What happens to all the un-hugged hugs?" The cartoonist wrote, "I ran into a friend on the street. After chatting for a few minutes, we wanted to hug goodbye, but, of course, that's no longer possible. The hug we couldn't hug seemed to manifest as an almost visible thing between us and float away, unsatisfied and disconsolate. Where are they going, all these un-hugged hugs?" The accompanying images showed hugs as wisps, cloud-like, that floated into the sky like lost balloons, but giving us all hope for a time when hugs will be possible again.
This stress is even more true for our kids. My almost eight-year-old didn't see any children his age for nearly a full year, except in pictures and on Zoom. His ability to carry on a conversation with a peer withered with the months, and it is only now recovering after a few months of in-person school and camp.
But this is not a counsel of despair. I see hope. I see hope in the ways that the community rallied together to fight this virus, from food banks to hospitals to government support. I see hope in renewed social contacts, and I see hope in creativity.
I see loving and skilled teachers who rallied to make sure our kids had access to Braille and tactile materials in the early days of the pandemic, when schools closed suddenly. The school in my community and the school in my city brought card tables and teachers to the sidewalks outside kids' homes to ensure that poor kids kept learning.
I see agencies that put up webinar series to bring instruction and community to both kids and adults. NFB Bell® Academy, APH, Perkins, Camp Abilities, Cal State Excel, and so many other organizations took their existing programs and developed online versions. They thought about how to make these programs multisensory and accessible, and they made it possible for individuals across the United States and around the world to participate in ways that none of us imagined eighteen months ago.
Parents got to see into their kids' classrooms. They didn't always love what they saw, but they learned what needs were and were not being met and how to meet some of these needs themselves. Teachers brought creativity and new skills to remote instruction - skills that will serve kids who are geographically remote or otherwise were not well served in person before. Orientation and mobility instructors developed community curricula, often meeting the needs of their students better than they did before. And parents became true partners because there was no other choice.
We cannot and should not unlearn what we learned.
We all have new skills in virtual instruction, making materials accessible, and holding service providers accountable. We also have old friends and new friends.
All pandemics end. This one will end, too. And with it we will find that we are stronger, braver, and kinder than we thought.
Stay safe, friends. Get vaccinated if you can. Wear a mask. We are so close!
by Casey West Robertson
Introduction by Melissa Riccobono: Casey West Robertson is a teacher and a parent. She works at Louisiana Tech. Her passion for teaching Braille is incredibly strong, and I'm so excited that she is here to share her knowledge and her talent with us. Casey, welcome!
Braille is my passion. I love teaching kids, and I love teaching Braille. More important than teaching Braille per se is teaching the reading process to the Braille reader. We're going to talk about the natural order of contractions. This may be a new concept to you as parents of children who are learning to read the Braille code.
Some teachers may have heard of the natural order of contractions, or "teaching it as it comes." It is not a method that is typically taught in university programs. When you become a teacher of the visually impaired or teacher of blind students, you're not typically taught the reading process. You're taught the Braille code. You have to use your previous knowledge as a teacher to know how to teach the reading process.
At Louisiana Tech we started to teach students in an outreach program, and I was also teaching my own students as an itinerant teacher. We built on the philosophy that Dr. Ruby Ryles developed when she was teaching blind students.
The natural order of contractions follows the natural order of reading. You teach the Braille contractions as they come, in the context of the child's reading material. This method focuses on the general classroom curriculum. It moves through the Braille code quickly, so the child can master reading on grade level.
As parents and teachers, many of you may be concerned that your Braille reader is not at the same reading level as their sighted peers. There's a myth that Braille is slow, and that it's supposed to be taught more slowly than print. We accept the idea that our students are likely to be behind. Through this presentation I hope that you will learn that these ideas are myths.
If blindness is their only disability, your child should be on the same reading level as their sighted peers. Blindness is not a cognitive disability. Cognitive disorders sometimes go hand-in-hand with certain conditions that cause blindness, but if we are looking at blindness on its own, we should teach the Braille code in a way similar to the way sighted kids are taught to read print.
At the Professional Development Research Institute on Blindness (PDRIB) at Louisiana Tech University, we investigated more effective ways to provide Braille instruction. We discovered that traditional Braille instruction is conducted in a way that draws out the learning time for several years beyond the time it takes sighted children to learn to read print. As a result, many of our Braille readers fall behind academically before they have mastered the code. We set our Braille readers up for failure from the start, because we move through the code so slowly. By the time their sighted peers are focusing on comprehension and fluency, we're still teaching the Braille code to our blind students.
At PDRIB we wanted to find a better way. We now have published several peer-reviewed articles showing that the natural order of contractions is a better method of teaching blind students the Braille code.
In the pre-K classroom, print readers learn the alphabet. They learn sight words and high frequency words. In kindergarten and first grade they move to comprehension and fluency.
The experience is quite different for our blind children. First of all, we go through the process of deciding whether they should read Braille or print or become dual media readers. We lose a lot of time during that assessment process. When we finally start Braille instruction, we teach dot location, and then we teach the alphabet. Then we teach the alphabet words (words such as but, can, and do that are represented by a single letter of the alphabet). Next we teach the short-form words such as and, for, of, the, and with. Next come the contractions for groups of letters such as ar, ou, ch, and sh. Students spend many months on each piece of this Braille curriculum, and they study it in isolation. The child has to know all the alphabet words before moving on to short-form words. The child has to learn all the short-form words before moving on to the contractions. Meanwhile the blind student is falling farther and farther behind their sighted peers.
Because it's being taught in isolation, the Braille code has no meaning to the blind student. There is no correlation between learning Braille and meaningful reading and writing. We're teaching children the Braille code the way adults in college courses are taught, adults who already know how to read. This teaching method creates the myth that Braille is slow and difficult, and that it takes many years to learn the code.
When I teach college courses I warn my students never to tell children that Braille is hard to learn! Even if it was difficult for the future teacher to learn Braille in a college class, we should never convey that idea to the child. If the teacher says, "I know this is going to be hard, but I think you can do it!" the child is set up to think, This is going to be hard. I don't think I can do it. I've even seen teachers use the college textbook they learned Braille from when they try to teach Braille to a blind child!
Literacy involves teaching children to decode in all disciplines. This approach has been used with sighted students for many years. Sighted students use reading in math, in history, in science—in every part of the curriculum. We know this is a good, research-based way to teach reading. Yet when it comes to our Braille readers, we teach them Braille in isolation. We need to shift the focus. The reader needs to engage in the reading process and become a critical thinker. Research shows that when blind students see a purpose in learning to read, they're ready to crack the code.
We know that relevance plays a huge part in motivating children to read. The National Reading Association did a national study in 2000 and produced a hundred-page report on building the best reading programs. Students were most motivated in reading programs that had relevance, programs where students knew there was a reason to learn. This report showed that motivation is more important in the reading process than many other things we had put in place. Even students who previously were unsuccessful at reading can become motivated if you use high-interest reading materials with low-readability words.
The teacher of the blind must create meaningful, authentic activities across the curriculum, motivating the student to interact with the curriculum while learning Braille. Relevance and motivation are the keys to helping students become successful.
Traditionally Braille teachers use flashcards to drill students on the alphabet words. We go through the alphabet words over and over and over. We put little balls in muffin tins to make the alphabet words. There's not a lot of motivation or relevance, because students see this activity in isolation. They don't know how they're going to use any of it for their literacy purposes.
The natural order of contractions is a process. If you have a blind child, you want your TVI or TBS to use a program called Mangold. The Mangold program is a basic continuum of instruction for beginning Braille readers. It goes through letter recognition and the alphabet words. It also works on tracking. Those are the basics of Mangold for literary Braille. There is also a Mangold program for Nemeth instruction, and I highly recommend that as well. I recommend using it alongside Mangold for Literary Braille.
Mangold is very valuable, but I need to point out that there is a problem. It's not a problem with Mangold per se. It's a problem with how teachers are using Mangold.
I have seen teachers spread Mangold out for an entire year. For a year's curriculum, all the student will master is Mangold. That's not how Mangold was meant to work! It was meant to work very quickly, in six or eight weeks. If your child is getting an hour to ninety minutes of instruction in Braille every day five days a week, your child should master the alphabet and the alphabet words and have a good sense of tracking within six to eight weeks' time. At that point your child can start using the alphabet words in sentences. The child can start to understand that Braille will serve their literacy needs.
As a teacher, you should spend two to three weeks on alphabet words after introducing them in the Mangold program. When the child learns the letter b in Mangold, explain that pretty soon they'll be using that b to read the word but. Don't make a big issue of it. Just explain and move on.
After you've taught the alphabet words, teach the strong contraction words: and, for, of, the, and with. Don't tell the child, "That's the and sign," or "That's the for sign." Teach them that it's the a n d sign or the f o r sign. Name the letters within it. This will help the child with spelling. When they come to the word sand they'll say s a n d.
Then we move to high-frequency words. There is a difference between sight words and high-frequency words. Sight words are words that children learn by sight. They can repeat these words rapidly when they see them. High-frequency words are words on a list of words most commonly used. One study found that these words make up 50 percent of the words in children's textbooks. Another study found that the two hundred most high-frequency words, known as the Dolch list or the Fry list, make up 80 percent of all written material in children's books and 50 percent of the material in books for adults. Children see these words over and over in grade-level print, and this is why teachers of print readers teach high-frequency words.
In kindergarten children get little packets of high-frequency words, and they master those two hundred words right off the bat. It's important to teach those high-frequency words to our blind students.
Going by this method we've taught our blind students the alphabet, the alphabet words, and the strong contractions. Now if we teach the two hundred most frequently used words, we will have taught them enough words to create 80 percent of children's written language. This gives children a huge head start. You can make all kinds of sentences and little storybooks using these words. Reading becomes important and enjoyable. Children find that it's relevant to their literacy needs.
We need high-interest, low-readability passages. We're going to use the same materials with our Braille readers that sighted children are using. If you buy boxed programs such as Building on Patterns or Braille Fundamentals, they move at a much slower pace. They are a totally separate curriculum from the curriculum the child's sighted peers get in the classroom. Your blind child will be isolated in reading and language arts instruction if they're being taught through one of those programs.
We pick materials that are of interest to the student, and we teach the contractions as they appear in the text. We teach the Dolch words that the sighted students are learning. We use the classroom curriculum. We use the same incentives that other kids are given in pre-K through first grade, the incentives that teachers use to reinforce learning. We put Braille on objects in learning areas of the classroom and let the students have access to those learning centers.
One of my favorite resources is a website called learningatoz.com. You can get a home subscription for $99 a year. The first A to Z reading book I pulled up is called We Are. Students might use this book when they're learning high-frequency words. It covers the words am, are, and an. Students review a, at, I, me, and we, and there also will be some story words, which are usually nouns.
When I use these books with Braille readers, I work on multiple contractions with each book. Our goal is to have our Braille readers read the same book side by side with their sighted classmates.
If I'm teaching the ar sign, I write it repeatedly across the top of the page. I might create it with ping-pong balls in a muffin tin. Then I pick words from the story that have ar in them. We read them together: park, are, dark, far.
On the next line I take those four words and mix up the order: dark, park, are, far. On the third line I write far, are, park, dark. By the second or third line, most children start to feel very confident. Generally by the fourth line they realize they can read these words on their own.
Then I go to a fresh page and introduce the st sign. I explain that when it stands by itself it means still, but when it's inside a word it means the letters st. Again we learn the sign, then learn words with st in them: store, star, fast, cast, and st by itself, still.
I go through the same process with the sh sign. Our end goal is for the child to be able to read the story We Are. It begins, "I am at the lake. We are in a wagon. I am at the park. We are in a car. I am at the store. We are at the fair. I am in a spaceship." The students know all the contractions they need to read that passage except for the in sign. If I tell them what it is in Sentence 2 and Sentence 4, nearly every child can identify it in Sentence 7.
This is how we set up the natural order of contractions. We teach children the contractions they need to achieve a goal. Now they can sit next to their classmates and read the same textbook the rest of the class is reading. The sighted student will read it in print, and the blind student will read it in Braille.
We can use the natural order of contractions in the same way with older readers who are just starting to learn Braille. Again we use high-interest stories with low reading level. I choose stories that will interest the child.
You can find our research at https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir21/jbir110104.html.
by Carlton Anne Cook Walker
From the Editor: Dyslexia is widely recognized as a learning disability that affects print readers. However, many parents and educators do not realize that Braille readers may be dyslexic as well. In this workshop Carlton Walker shares basic information about dyslexia and suggests resources to help struggling Braille readers.
Reading is receptive written communication, communication that you receive. Writing is expressive written communication. Both reading and writing are based on oral language. Oral language came first, and reading and writing are entirely based on oral communication.
Learning to read is extremely difficult for people who are deaf or deafblind. If you don't have a basis in oral language, it's hard to learn language in its written form. Written language is abstract, and oral language is a more concrete construct.
It's important to remember that reading and writing are not easy for everyone to master. I'm dyslexic, and I have struggled with reading and writing all my life. I have pretty mild dyslexia compared to other people in my family. My child has profound dyslexia.
It was very hard for my father to understand that I struggled with reading and writing. Reading was very easy for him. When something comes easily to you, it's hard to understand that it's difficult for others. I'm like that with math. Math comes easily to me, but I have to remember that it's hard for many other people.
Reading and writing are not natural activities for human beings. They are very beneficial in modern life, but they are not essential for basic survival. Outside of structured society, reading and writing offer very limited benefit. They don't help us obtain food and shelter. They don't protect us from predators. It's important to note that most of the world's languages still do not have written codes. Only 5 to 10 percent of all languages have a written form.
Because reading and writing were not essential for survival throughout most of human experience, it's not surprising that today a high percentage of people have difficulty with these activities. According to some studies, dyslexia occurs in about 20 percent of the population.
Both print and Braille are codes used for reading and writing. Like print, Braille is used for receptive and expressive language. Both Braille and print are forms of text. One form of text uses lines and curves, and one uses dots.
Print is a code in which the shapes of letters represent sounds. It's hard for people to think of print as a code because we're so used to seeing it. It's a code in which lines and curves form letters, and combinations of letters represent words.
Think about the uppercase print letter A. A long line slants up from left to right at about a 70-degree angle. From the top of that line a long line slants down to the right at the same angle. About halfway up a horizontal line starts at the left slanted line and proceeds until it reaches the right slanted line. That description makes writing a capital A sound pretty complicated!
To create a capital A in Braille you need two cells. The first cell has Dot 6 to indicate the capitalization, and the second cell contains Dot 1 for the a.
Why does print seem so much easier than Braille? Print is familiar. Sighted people are far more familiar with print than they are with Braille. We're so familiar with print that we can read it in a variety of forms. We can read cursive. We can read all kinds of computer fonts. We can read individual styles of handwriting. We are immersed in print.
From birth to the age of six months most babies can only see things about ten inches in front of them, but they can see print. They see letters on baby food jars and cereal boxes. By six months they can see print from a much greater distance. They see it in board books and on screens. Print is everywhere.
When toddlers have access to print letters, they begin to understand that letters form words. Blind children seldom have access to Braille early in life. Even if they have early exposure, it is relatively limited. Without access to Braille, they do not have the chance to connect Braille with meaningful language.
Braille requires a closer interaction than print does. We can't read Braille from ten feet away. Because it has to be touched, we must be quite intentional about the interaction.
Written communication is the marriage of sound to graphics. Symbols in print or Braille are known as graphemes. Graphemes are symbols that represent sound. Phonemes are the sounds of vowels, long and short. In English phonemes are not consistently correlated to the sounds they represent. To make things even more complicated, we have combinations of consonants such as gh, ph, and th. Even the spelling of words is inconsistent. Look at one, bone, gone, and done! And let's not even go down the road of homonyms: to, two, and too, just for starters! They're all pronounced the same, but the graphing components are different.
It's important to note that difficulty with auditory processing can impede reading and writing. Because of my southern background, I pronounce the words pin and pen the same. I hear them the same, but other people hear and pronounce them quite differently. If you hear two words as the same, you have to work to figure out how to write them differently. Auditory processing is key to reading and writing.
Another issue involved in reading problems is short-term memory. A child with profound dyslexia may be able to handle small written segments, maybe two or three letters at a time. When the child encounters longer strings of letters, they don't have the working memory to process it all.
We can't make the auditory processing issues go away, and we probably won't be able to improve working memory. However, we can build other skills to make up for those deficits. We can teach alternative techniques to struggling readers, just as we teach alternative techniques such as orientation and mobility to blind and low-vision students.
As I have said, reading and writing involve the coded representation of words. In this regard print and Braille are equal. Neither system is superior to the other. All too often reading and writing delays in blind children are blamed on Braille. I hear people say, "That child is a poor speller because of Braille. Braille readers can't learn to spell because of all those contractions." Actually, research suggests that children who learn Braille contractions early are better spellers than those who use uncontracted Braille for a long time. Findings are clear that early Braille readers have better reading fluency and comprehension than those who start later on.
Print is taken in by the eyes, and Braille is taken in by the fingers. For a long time people assumed that dyslexia is exclusively related to print reading. This idea was reinforced because children who were dyslexic print readers sometimes excelled at math and music. Some people thought that this had to do with the fact that numbers, math symbols, and music notation are different from literary print. There was a time when Braille instruction was encouraged as a remediation for children with severe dyslexia.
Luckily science came along with the functional MRI, allowing us to see which parts of the brain are involved during particular activities. We learned that when a person reads text, either with their fingers or with their eyes, the information goes to the same place in the brain. It doesn't matter whether they read print or Braille. The route for math and music is quite different. Music and math go to different places in the brain. I've known Braille readers who struggle with text, yet have no trouble reading numbers and music notation. Some students can read Nemeth Code until they come to a word-based problem. Then they don't understand it. They can read Braille music, but not the lyrics.
This phenomenon is startling, because in print letters, numbers, and music notation look quite different from each other. In Braille they all use the same combinations of the six dots. Somehow there are signals that tell Braille readers, "This is a number," and it goes to the mathematical part of the brain. Music Braille has indicators that announce, "This is music," and it goes to the part of the brain that processes music. Literary code goes to the part of the brain that is not effective and efficient for that kind of reading.
Research shows that dyslexia is a language-based disability. Braille readers can have dyslexia just as print readers do. They show the same pattern of difficulties that print readers with dyslexia show.
It's important to note that language disabilities do not preclude reading and writing. They can be overcome or mitigated. Even the most severely affected students can learn to read and write. Dyslexia is not an excuse for not reading, but teaching has to be done differently.
A widely used approach to reading instruction is whole language, but it does not support the needs of students with written language-based disabilities. The old phonics approach does a better job. Phonics is not a cure-all, however. There are vital skills that need to come into play before phonics is introduced. But phonics is an important tool. If a student is struggling in a whole-language environment, consider asking for a more phonics-based form of instruction.
A useful tool for some Braille readers is the I-M-Able literacy program. It focuses on whole-word contractions from the beginning, and it is very effective for functional readers. Functional readers are those with intellectual disabilities as well as blindness. They can learn to read contracted Braille. The more letters the student has to read, the more the working memory is challenged. Contractions make words shorter and easier to grasp.
Multisensory instruction is strongly recommended for students with dyslexia. It doesn't cure the issues with short-term working memory, but it can help the brain learn to overcome these difficulties.
One program that takes the multisensory approach is called the Wilson Reading System. The Wilson system directly and systematically teaches the structure of the English language. Students develop skills that enable them to decode and encode fluently. This tool is available in Braille from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) at https://www.aph.org/product/wilson-reading-system-iii-student-reader-one-braille-kit. Schools can purchase it using federal Quota Funds. Only the first three levels of the program are available from APH, and the Wilson system includes twelve levels. If you can get your school to buy the first three levels, it becomes easier to work with the higher levels later on. If the school has the print version of the system, the higher levels can be Brailled.
Wilson is not the only system for teaching students with dyslexia, but it is a very good one. It tends to be a little bit dry, but it works. The instructions need to be followed very carefully. Wilson generally recommends forty-five-minute sessions. If schools provide thirty-minute sessions, they're not implementing the program effectively. Also, Wilson is supposed to be implemented by Wilson-certified instructors. Just picking up the curriculum and trying to implement it yourself is not recommended! Schools need to provide everything the publisher says is necessary.
Orthographics is an important part of multisensory programs. The term orthographics refers to how the hands form letters. I've had battles with some proponents of this system who reject Braille readers, claiming they can't be taught unless they're forming print letters by hand. I contend that Braille is orthographic. When we write Braille on a Perkins or with a slate and stylus, we use finger positions and hand movements. When we form letters in print we follow a set of directions. We go through an orthographic process to form a print letter, and there's also an orthographic process for letters in Braille.
To determine whether a blind student is dyslexic, we can use the same tests that are used with sighted children. A good screening tool is called Rapid Automatic Naming, or RAN. Some RAN tools may not be accessible, but many parts are quite useful. Automatic Naming can show deficits in working memory that can be red flags. RAN is a great screening tool, and it's inexpensive.
Pseudo-word decoding, or nonsense word decoding, can help show whether the child is hearing things correctly. Alphabet writing fluency is writing down letters as quickly as possible.
The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) also has an adult version. It is not normed for blindness or low vision, but Braille and large-print versions are available. Wechsler looks at early reading skills, and most of the test is oral. It's very valuable for the detection of auditory processing disabilities.
For dyslexia testing you should see a psychologist who is familiar with dyslexia and other learning issues. The psychologist might not know a thing about Braille and blindness, but if they're willing to collaborate with blindness professionals they can work effectively. The blindness professional needs to have some understanding of reading issues, they don’t have to be an expert. A few people have certifications in both areas. If you can find someone skilled in the psycho-educational aspects and someone else who understands how Braille reading and writing work, you've got the perfect combination!
Reading struggles can be demoralizing. They make you feel that you don't belong. Whether the reading method is print or Braille, effective tools exist to help people with dyslexia improve their reading fluency and gain confidence along the way.
by Michelle Albrecht
From the Editor: Learning shades (sometimes called sleepshades) are a helpful tool for teaching cane travel, daily living skills, and Braille to blind children and adults. In this presentation Michelle Albrecht, the sighted parent of two blind children, explains how learning shades can help parents gain a deeper understanding of how blind children use nonvisual techniques.
This is my first time speaking at an NOPBC conference, and I'm honored to be here. My name is Michelle Albrecht. I have two blind children. Both of my children are adopted. My daughter was adopted eight years ago, when she was almost four. When we brought her home I started to explore resources to make sure she could access everything she needed. I got connected with the NFB community, and that's where I first found out about learning shades.
I've used learning shades for teaching tasks and just to observe how my children do things. I am fully sighted. Both of my children were born blind; they didn't lose vision over time.
I realize that everyone's situation is unique, and everything I say may be interpreted differently, depending on your circumstances. I'm not an expert; I'm a parent, the same as you are.
My daughter and my son are very different, even though they are both blind. My daughter is very much into touching things, and she wants to do everything. My son is pretty hesitant about touching and exploring. It's been quite a learning curve with each of them!
I started using learning shades with my daughter because I wanted to understand how she was doing things and moving around. I wanted to learn more about how she lived without sight. I had noticed that often she would figure out how to do something if we sat back for a while and let her figure it out with her hands. When I say "a while," I don't mean a couple of seconds; I mean a few minutes!
When I tried using learning shades myself, I found that I used my hands very differently from the ways I was used to. I used the shades more and more often. Sometimes my daughter asks me how to do a thing, and I try to figure it out so I can show her.
One area where learning shades have taught me a lot is understanding how my kids pour liquids. I used to watch them and feel anxious, afraid they were going to spill. It might look that way visually, but they've got it! They don't spill liquids any more than I do when I'm looking visually. Their technique is not the same as mine. Learning shades gave me an appreciation for how they do it. When I have that understanding I'm less likely to jump in and try to help.
When we attended NFB conventions in person, I found that the Cane Walk was a very helpful experience. It helped me understand how the cane user picks up information. It's very different from how I gather information by sight. It also helped me understand how tactual and auditory cues can help a person get where they want to go. If you ever attend a face-to-face convention, I highly recommend the Cane Walk. It really helped me get past some fear!
My family also uses the learning shades when we play games. We use them with board games and outdoor games.
When I first put the shades on, it was a big adjustment for me. It was scary to go from being fully sighted to suddenly having no vision. It was great to know that I could take the shades off! Over time using the shades helped me become comfortable developing nonvisual skills. Eventually I was able to wear the shades in the kitchen as I helped my daughter learn to cook, or out in the yard playing games.
My daughter can always tell when I have the shades on. She'll say, "You have your shades on, right?" When I say yes, she might say, "That's why you're doing this more slowly."
Wearing shades helped me organize my daughter's crafts area. I realized that she organized her materials differently from the way I would do it. When I wore learning shades as we did crafts together, I had trouble finding things. I knew where they were, but the clutter in the area was confusing.
I homeschool my daughter, so it falls on me to teach her a lot of skills. We have orientation and mobility (O&M) support, which is very helpful. But when it comes to reading and ADLs (activities of daily living), it's up to me. I use learning shades a lot as I teach her.
Initially I used learning shades for all of the ADLs—folding laundry, organizing drawers, washing dishes. Learning shades helped me respect how she was doing things, and kept me from jumping in when we did things together.
Now that she's eleven, my daughter wants to start using the oven. The stove top and the oven were anxiety producers for me as a mom. When I put on the shades I was able to problem solve. I worked out strategies for moving around the kitchen and knowing where to find utensils. My daughter has been successful with her most recent cooking projects, putting things in and out of the oven and cooking on the stove top.
My husband, who is sighted, sometimes gets nervous when he watches me do things under learning shades. He'll grab my arm and try to intervene. I learned firsthand how startling that can be. I have noticed that my daughter is startled when someone rushes in and grabs her while she's doing something. It can be very disorienting! Even now, though, I don't always remember to stand back when I watch my daughter work. That's the truth of the matter. But wearing the learning shades has given me the knowledge that so much more is possible than I might have thought. The way my daughter does things may look different, but she's just as successful as I am with sight.
I learned to read Braille tactually. As my daughter started reading books with Braille on both sides of the page, it was hard for me to read with her visually. Once I learned tactual reading, I would read the problem word with my fingers. It actually made my daughter more willing to read at a time when she was struggling with some letter reversals. I'm not urging parents to learn to read Braille tactually, but this is how it worked for us.
Just my knowing the Braille code in general was very important to my daughter. She knew I had learned it, and she knew my husband had not. Braille was very intimidating for him, almost overwhelming in the beginning. Recently he has learned, and he now can read Braille visually.
I learned to read tactually by wearing learning shades. I'm very much a visual learner, and it was hard for me not to use my vision. I had to eliminate that option.
My daughter is entering sixth grade, and she's very interested in math. I use learning shades as I figure out how to create charts and geometric figures. It's easy to put a lot of clutter into a picture. It's hard to distinguish which elements are important when there's too much stuff on the page. I found that when the picture was simpler, it was easier for me to understand tactually what was there. That understanding helped me develop pictures for my daughter. It also helped me advocate for my son when he brought materials home from school. Sometimes the whole page was covered with raised lines. It was much too complex for him to understand! So learning shades helped me from an advocacy perspective as well.
NFB highly supports the use of learning shades, and so do I. But when my son first put them on, he became panicky. My son only has light perception in one eye. He doesn't have any usable vision for reading or travel. Nonetheless, putting on the shades produced a lot of anxiety in him. My own anxiety when I put on the shades gave me an idea what he was experiencing.
When my son went to BELL® Academy, they highly encouraged him to use learning shades. Over time, in that setting, he became more comfortable. Now he's more open to wearing them when he plays sports such as goalball and beep baseball. But taking that light away was very panic-inducing!
We have a large yard. When we play with a ball out there under learning shades, I feel safe moving around. But when you throw a ball and you have acres of land, it can be hard to locate it! Sometimes the ball sounds close when it's beeping, but it's really farther away. One day my son got mad when we were playing. He said, "You can see! It's not fair!" Then he came over and found that I had the learning shades on, and he said, "Okay, you're not cheating."
For my son wearing learning shades produced a lot of anxiety. He refused to wear them at home, and we did not make it an issue. He was adopted at an older age, and we had plenty of other struggles. After a while he adjusted to the shades, and he learned to use them with his TVI and his O&M instructor. Using the shades definitely has benefited him.
For a sighted person there's a major difference between wearing learning shades and simply keeping your eyes closed. When the learning shades are on, you can blink your eyes and have any facial posture very naturally. When I helped out in the kitchen at BELL, I'd let the kids know I had learning shades on. They'd touch my face and see that it was true. The shades were on whenever I wasn't driving!
If you're a parent and you're willing to try wearing learning shades, start with an activity where you're comfortable. It doesn't have to be cooking or traveling outside the house. You might play a game or organize your kitchen cupboards. When we play games at our house, even my husband wears learning shades. That's the only time he wears them! He realizes that moving around the game board is different when he's wearing the shades.
Recently my parents came to visit. We played a board game, and my dad wore shades. Later he said, "I don't have to help them as much as I think!" That was a nice realization for Grandpa. Sometimes the best way to help our kids is by not helping.
When my son struggled with tying his shoelaces, I had to understand what he was experiencing. Both of my children became independent shoe-tiers after about a month of trying. The experience with learning shades gave me more words to describe what I was doing step by step.
I had my kids feel my hands as I tied my shoes. I have professional training as a physical therapist, and I work in pediatrics. I work alongside a lot of occupational therapists, so I've seen how they work. I broke the task of tying shoes into steps, and I had my kids follow me as I went through the process. At first I just had them cross the laces, tuck one end under, and pull it through to make the knot. As they became successful with that step, I added making the loop. They learned "around the loop, around the tree, and tuck through." We allowed plenty of time. If we were leaving the house at one-thirty, we started with shoes at one o'clock. If we were done early, they could play before we went out. If they were not successful right away, it was important that I not jump in and do it for them. I'd say, "Okay, let's see where you got stuck."
Our O&M teacher lent me a cane for a while. I found there is a major difference between moving around with learning shades on, and moving around with a cane and learning shades on! It was great to understand how the cane works when I'm wearing learning shades. I told our O&M instructor I wanted to try using a cane. It really helped me understand that when my kids are walking the cane will detect poles before their body does. It will detect steps! It will help them detect the obstacles in their path. That was very helpful in making me comfortable with them moving around. The cane helped me see obstacles without panicking.
Introduction by Tabitha Mitchell: This session consists of the confessions of NOPBC board members. Jackie Anderson, Jean Fultz, and Sarah Erb are going to share some of their experiences. These three ladies all are members of the NOPBC board, and Jackie is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI).
Jackie Anderson: Thank you, Tabby. I am a certified teacher for blind and visually-impaired students, and more importantly, I am a mom. I'm a mom to five children, three girls and two boys. Three of them are an inheritance from my brother. After he passed away, my husband and I assumed the responsibility of caring for them. Three of the five kids have been served with IEPs. My daughter Aunya, who is seventeen, is the only one who is blind.
I have messed up quite a bit along the way. Our keynote speaker said it well: As parents we do mess up, but kids are resilient, and they bounce back.
Jean Fultz: As mentioned, I'm a member of the NOPBC board. I'm a grandparent who is parenting a blind child. My girl is ten years old (ten and a half, she'll tell you). I was the first to volunteer to serve on this panel, because I sure have made some mistakes along the way! Fortunately I'm not the only parent of this child, nor am I the only parent of a blind child. I look forward to speaking with all of you and sharing the things we learn together and some of the things I wish I had done differently. I'll tell you about some of the effects of my choices on Harley and how we've overcome them.
Sarah Erb: It's been a pleasure working with these two ladies over the past few years! I am the parent of a child who's seven. She was born blind with optic nerve hypoplasia, which means she was born with underdeveloped optic nerves. We didn't know she was blind until she was five to six months old. That's when we got an official diagnosis. I'd been a nanny for about twenty years, and my husband's attitude was, "I'm not worried, I'll just do what you say. You know how to take care of kids." But when we had our child, I realized I didn't have the tools I needed. We had great intervention services when our child was little through our state's early intervention program. They were my go-to's. They helped me with everything, and we learned as we went along. Not much of the applicable information from my history in child development and working with other families seemed applicable. Learning as we went, we made mistakes, but we learned and grew together. We've been privileged to be part of the NFB and to have access to this network of parents who've been there and done that. They've given us all sorts of ideas to try, and we learn a lot through trial and error. As the sighted parent of a child who's blind, or even as the blind parent of a child who's blind, you have to work through it as you go.
Tabitha Mitchell: I'm sorry. I didn't really introduce myself when we started. I'm a little out of kilter; I'm calling from sunny Hawaii this morning, so it's pretty early here. I am the mom of five kids, and like Sarah, I thought I had it all whipped. Then we had my youngest, who is blind, and it was kind of like starting over.
Jackie: Maybe each of us can share one confession of something that we've done while raising our kids. They say hindsight is 20/20, and we know we're among friends. Jean, would you like to go first?
Jean: You put my feet right to the fire, and that's okay. I have a bag full of stories! I think one of the most important mistakes I've made, and which I'd like to share, is that early in Harley's life I didn't know when to use my voice.
I raised my own three typical kids, and Harley has an older sister who is typical. I'm comfortable raising kids. One of the things was not knowing when to use my voice and how strongly to use my voice. I really had to get over speaking up in the moment. In particular, I had to tell people to keep their hands off Harley, and specifically to keep their hands off her cane. I had to tell people please not to take hold of her cane and not to take hold of her! Mostly that occurred when I was handing her off, to get on the bus to go to pre-K or school, or if I was handing her off to a school official or to her teacher of the visually impaired. There was a lot of my discomfort and Harley struggling to get somewhere because a sighted grownup didn't know better and was grabbing onto her body or grabbing onto her cane to pull her along. People would try to guide her by grabbing her cane hand, which of course is not helpful. Allowing too much of that was a mistake! I had to overcome my unwillingness to speak up.
Since then I've encouraged Harley to speak up for herself. After a couple of years of struggles, I learned to be comfortable speaking up and how much of a voice to use, how patient to be with people. It's a balancing act! It's hard to be patient with everyone all day long! sometimes it's exhausting!
We've spent years teaching Harley to speak up for herself, and she's done a great job. By the way, everybody, she's fine, even though some bus monitors literally picked her up and carried her up the bus steps during her first couple of years!
We're still wearing masks here in central New York. This year the bus monitor keeps trying to put Harley's mask on her. Recently Harley said, "I don't need you to do that. Just hand me the mask, and I'll put it on."
Sarah: I'm joining here today from Utah. When our child was little it was easy for me to let her be a regular kid, doing her thing, exploring her world. Now that she's older it's a little harder to do that. Sometimes I have to rein myself in and say, "Would I let a sighted child do this?" Would I let a sighted child climb a tree? Yes, I would. Would I let a sighted seven-year-old eat with their fingers? No, I wouldn't. I have to look at things that way and reframe what I'm asking.
I've got many stories I can share, but I don't have a specific one. Mostly it's about keeping myself in check. I don't always catch myself making the mistake, doing something that's not helpful until I say it or do it. Then, as soon as I hear a comment come out of my mouth, I realize it's not going to fly with this kid!
We had an experience a couple of weeks ago with our child. I told her, "You can't touch this," and she told me, "You can't tell me that! You can't say I can't touch things! That's how I see!" I said, "You're right. I taught you to say that, didn't I?" Give parameters such as "You're welcome to touch this gently," if it's something that's breakable. Learning the balance between letting them be a regular kid and also letting them touch everything because that's how they see the world has been interesting.
In the last couple of years, I went back to work, and my husband is now doing school full-time. We've switched gears from me being at home full-time to him being at home full-time. He's been going to school and managing COVID schooling at home as well. He's not always comfortable with things I would typically allow. Again, we've had to work out a balance. Sometimes that means letting our child take the lead, asking her, "What are you comfortable with?" Then we have to figure out how to meet her where she is.
When Harley was four she broke her arm when she fell out of a tree. My husband was spotting her, but she fell on the other side. It happens. It happens to kids who are sighted and kids who are blind. Sometimes kids get hurt. We're not attributing what happened to the fact that she's blind, but to her being a kid. She was exploring and having fun.
I found it hard to let someone else babysit Harley. I had parameters such as, "Don't touch her without asking first," "Don't do things for her that she can do by herself." I was turning myself into Mama Bear and never getting a break. I had to advocate for myself and get some self-care by letting other people watch her. When we had sleepovers with her cousins it was a bit more open-ended. I didn't have to set so many guidelines. The family knew what she needed and didn't need. That gave me the chance to do things on my own and not have to be a parent for a while.
Jackie: In listening to your stories, I realize I've also had to learn to use my voice. People might assume that since I grew up blind, I should have it down pat. The truth of the matter is, I didn't. That's one of the reasons I went back to obtain my master's degree in teaching blind students. I was scared to death when Aunya was born! I knew what it was to be a blind adult, but I didn't know what it is to raise a blind child. After fighting with our local school district to get services for her, I realized I needed to learn how to do these things so I could make sure she would get the skills she needed.
Aunya has had her share of bumps and bruises. At one point we had three emergency room visits in a span of ten days! The third time I said to my husband, "We're going to keep driving north, because we're not stopping at this hospital! Child welfare will be at our house!" Aunya was a rambunctious child, and within parameters we allowed her to explore—and explore she did!
Over the years I've had to recognize that Aunya is more than her disability. Now that she is seventeen, she's a bit more open with expressing feelings and thoughts. It's been important for us to recognize that she is a seventeen-year-old going about her life. She was born with cataracts, and she has glaucoma. She will tell everyone that her vision loss is not her greatest obstacle. She also has an autoimmune condition, and that's something she has to battle with every day, dealing with fatigue and pain. THAT'S what she struggles with! Mostly people see her with her cane and whatever other blindness tools she's using, and they automatically say, "Oh, you poor thing! You can't see!" Her attitude is, "That's the least of my worries!"
I tell everyone, "I'm the Braille Nazi." I fight for Braille whenever I can. But when she was in third or fourth grade, I had a discussion with Aunya's IEP team about removing Braille from her services. She has a condition called scleroderma. She was diagnosed with Raynaud's syndrome first, and that condition affects her ability to regulate the temperature in her extremities. It's very difficult for her to read Braille during extreme temperatures, in cold times as well as hot times. She struggled with Braille in elementary school, and I asked about removing Braille from her IEP.
Thank goodness her teacher disagreed with me! He said, "Let her go at her own pace. She doesn't have to be the fastest Braille reader." We made some modifications. We learned that a Braille display works better for her than paper Braille. She has learned to warm her fingers before she does any long reading during cold times. Now that she has found her voice, she leads her own IEP meetings, and she tells everyone that she uses Braille. She's found that Braille is the best way for her to edit her writing. It's the best way for her to go through a document and see her mistakes and make corrections. It works much better for her than trying to use synthesized speech. I think that was one of my biggest failings, considering taking Braille away from my own child!
Tabitha: My Emmy is now fourteen. She has LCA (Leber congenital amaurosis), and she was three when she was diagnosed. One of the most difficult things for me was that her four older siblings were in the school system ahead of her. We had relationships with the administration and the school based on those four kids. It was very interesting to sort out the nuances of balancing those established relationships yet having to be a fighter to get the things my youngest child needed. That was really hard, and it continues to be hard. We've moved school systems and now we're in a different state. We've literally started at ground zero, and we don't have to deal with those preconceived notions and established relationships. In some ways that's made it easier for us.
Jackie: One thing I tell parents and teachers is that we all know what we can see, but we don't know what we cannot see. If we treat our kids as if they are sighted, they will interact with the world as though the world is perfect, because it's perfect the way they see it. It's important for us to give them multiple ways to learn and interact with the world. For a lot of our kids, vision fluctuates throughout the day. The way they see in the morning is not the way they see in the afternoon. For our low-vision kids it becomes a struggle. When I talk about using Braille with low-vision kids, it's not just important for the future. Braille is important to help our low-vision kids access the world right now. When we make Braille relevant, our kids are more likely to see it as relevant to themselves. That's true for all of us. When we see that something is relevant, we're much more likely to participate in our learning.
Jean: It's okay to trailblaze, to start fresh and learn as you go. We're experiencing that right now at a new charter school, and we're having an amazing experience! Initially I thought it would be scary to hop out of the blind school system, but the charter has been super supportive. Still, you don't know till you get there. Learning as we go has been amazing with our current team.
Our child was in preschool about fifteen minutes from where we live. Our child had an amazing teacher who was like a third parent. We had no issues letting her go to school at three and sending her on the bus because we knew she was being well cared for. We told the teacher we didn't care if she learned all her Braille letters. We just wanted to be sure she got plenty of exposure to Braille. The teacher incorporated Braille into lots of games and activities. She was in his class for two years, and by kindergarten she knew about half of her letters. We were okay with that. We knew we could follow her learning, building the Braille onto things that interested her. We set high goals, but we didn't stress if she wasn't performing perfectly.
We have so many people working for our child's success that sometimes there's a lot of pressure for them to perform perfectly. They're not always going to do that; no child is going to do that! It's okay to give your child permission to be a kid and be like the other kids who don't have IEPs, who aren't given goals every three months. That's something Jean and Jackie and I want to stress. It's okay for our children to learn in whatever way works for them, and we can support that learning.
Tabitha: This is all very important. Thank you all for being here today.
by Jordana Engelbretsen
2021 Distinguished Educator of Blind Students
From the Editor: The Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award is presented each year at the national board meeting during the National Federation of the Blind Convention. This year Carla McQuillan, who chairs the award committee, announced that the 2021 award winner is Jordana Engelbretsen of Idaho, originally from Ecuador. "Over the past year she has been teaching Braille to blind and low-vision students all over the world in both English and in Spanish," Carla explained. "She has coordinated efforts to get blind students from all across the country together to understand each other's communities and lives a little bit better." Jordana Engelbretsen was presented with a plaque and a check for $1,000.
Later, Ms. Engelbretsen had the opportunity to address the board meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Here is the speech she delivered.
Thank you for having me here today! I'm very excited to share a bit of my passion about what I do as a TVI [teacher of the visually impaired]. The title of my speech is Empowering or Disqualifying, Which Are We Doing?
To empower is a transitive verb. That means when I empower something or someone, I expect that that something or someone is going to act. Empowering is investing. When you invest in something you believe it is going to be a success. You believe that when you put your time or money into something it is going to bear fruit.
Empowering is very important for us. We need to be careful, because sometimes our words and our actions, instead of empowering, can actually disqualify our students.
I empower my students in different ways. First I empower them by giving them the right tools, the tools they need to be successful. Of course, just providing the tools is not enough. You need to teach students how to use those tools efficiently. Being blind or having a visual impairment is not easy, but we can work through it together.
Finally, I want to empower my students by giving them opportunities to serve. I give them the chance to be givers—givers to our communities, givers to our schools, givers to the people around us. We can do it.
Let me share a little bit about my journey to become a TVI. When I was twenty-one years old, I became totally blind and mobility impaired due to a chronic disease called lupus. I use a walker, and I use a wheelchair for long distances.
I had the opportunity to come to the United States when I was twenty-three years old, just two years after I became blind. When I came here, let me tell you, I didn't know anything about blindness! I didn't have any of the tools that would help me function. During my first year in college, I was given the opportunity to go to a training program for blind young adults. It changed my life completely. I learned Braille, technology, leisure education, social interaction, and independent living skills. I learned all those areas of the Expanded Cord Curriculum [ECC]. The ECC is a set of skills that a student with visual impairment needs in order to be successful in their education and in life.
After I earned a bachelor's degree in Christian education, I got the opportunity to go to Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota, which was colder than anywhere I had ever been before! There I did my master's in special education. My plan was to go back to Ecuador and dedicate my life to working with children and youth with disabilities.
While I was at Bemidji State, I started a ministry for disabled children and youth called Cristo Vive International. This ministry worked with camps for children, and I couldn't wait to do this in Ecuador! The ministry runs camps in the United States and all over the world. I loved it with a passion!
When I finished my master's in special education and got ready to go back to Ecuador, life changed. I got married and started to look for a job in Minnesota. I'll tell you something interesting that happened. My first job interview was for a job in an after-school program for special-needs students. I was really excited. I was going to pay taxes! I wanted to pay taxes, because I wanted to pay back what the state of Minnesota had done for me. The State of Minnesota helped me with my blindness training when I was twenty-four. It helped me with my master's in special education. I was so grateful for that!
During my first interview my interviewer changed directions. He said, "May I ask you two questions?" I said, "Okay." He said, "Do you know Braille?" I said, "Yes, I do." "Do you know technology for the blind?" I said, "Yes, I do." He said, "We need you desperately! We need a TVI in a school district in Minnesota." I said, "I am not a TVI. I don't even have a teaching license." He said, "Don't worry about it. We will pay for your training, but we need you to be here with us."
So my first year as a TVI was an accident. I didn't plan it, but I'm so glad that I did it! I love my job with a passion! It took me several years to get my full license, but I really enjoy what I do.
Let's talk about empowering through the right tools, providing the students the right tools. How do we know we're providing the right tools?
I grew up in a Hispanic culture, as you can tell by my accent. I'm very petite, very small. I don't look like an Engelbretsen, but I am one of them. In my culture, women don't learn about many mechanical tasks. When I grew up I learned to take care of the house, to cook, to look pretty, but not to do any mechanical tasks. When I came to this country at twenty-three, it was kind of embarrassing for me. I didn't know how to change the batteries in my tape recorder. I didn't know what a hammer was. I realized that I needed to learn about tools. I needed to know how to use them.
A tool should be functional, and it should be a quality tool. A functional tool is going to do what it was designed for. A quality tool is one that is not going to break after you use it the first or second time.
A carpenter's toolbox is not the same as a plumber's toolbox. An essential tool in a carpenter's toolbox is a tape measure. An essential tool in a plumber's toolbox is a pipe cutter. Blind students need to have the right tools in their toolbox.
How do we choose tools for our students? This process needs to be based on data. You cannot just choose a tool because you want it. You need to know through data which tools your student needs and how they're going to use the tool. This data should come from the Functional Vision Assessment (FVA) and from the Learning Media Assessment (LMA). The FVA will assess the vision that the student has and how they use it in daily tasks. The LMA is a process that will help us decide which literacy medium the student will use.
These assessments are very important. Think about my student who can read a print size of 40. He needs black letters with a yellow background or vice versa. He will not use all the same tools as another student who has light perception.
As a teacher I need to know how to use the tools that my student will be using. The tools that my students used ten years ago might not be useful anymore. They're obsolete. As a teacher I need to keep up with changes in technology. I need to know what is going on with the tools so I can teach them efficiently. The right tools will empower our students to be successful.
I would like to empower my students to go through challenges and difficulties. I lost my sight very quickly. It happened within a few hours because the lupus attacked the cells of my retinas. At the same time, it attacked my spinal cord with transverse myelitis. Going through these difficulties helped me understand what I could do. A positive attitude will really help you. I always tell this to my students, and believe me, it doesn't make me the most popular teacher! As you go through things in life, 10 percent is your circumstance, and 90 percent is your attitude. A positive attitude will help you overcome the situation. There are a lot of studies about the link between positive attitude and your health. We need to go through challenges, but we need to do it with the idea that it will help us.
Finally, I empower my students by giving them opportunities to serve. Our students in the school districts are always the ones who receive help. People say they need help to take a test, they need help in the cafeteria, they need help to find the bathroom. They're always receiving help. I really, really work hard to explain to my students that hey, you can be the one to show other students how to get to the bathroom! You are the one who's going to give to other people! You don't have to receive all the time! You will learn that giving is better than receiving.
I have learned this from my own experience. Working in camps for disabled children fills me up. I am blind, I use a walker, I have a chronic illness, but I am giving to others. Giving is very, very important!
Sometimes my students volunteer in a food pantry. Sometimes I take them to perform in a nursing home. I have them read Braille books to elementary kids. Giving will help them understand their own powers.
Empower is a transitive verb. If I empower something or someone, I want that something or someone to take action. My students need to be empowered. I empower them by providing the right tools, teaching them to use those tools efficiently, working with them through their challenges, and giving them opportunities to serve.
The opposite of empowering is disqualifying. When you disqualify you make someone ineligible to succeed. As teachers, as parents, as friends we must not disqualify our students! They have the right and the desire to succeed. Empowerment will make you more confident, and you will feel that you have control over your life.
Let me finish by giving you a proverb that will summarize everything I have said today. Here it is. When you give a man a fish, you will feed him for the day. But when you teach him how to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime. Think about it! We need to teach our students to do things that will help them be successful for a lifetime. Thank you!
A Panel Moderated by Carol Castellano
Introduction by Carlton Walker: No matter what obstacles we face, the trip is always better when we travel with friends. Now we will learn how parent leaders in Arizona and Virginia are tackling obstacles and planning for the future. Carol Castellano, who serves as secretary of the NOPBC board, will facilitate the discussion with Ashleigh Moon, president of the Arizona Parents of Blind Children; Beth Sellers, president of the Virginia Parents of Blind Children; and Donna, a Virginia parent.
Carol Castellano:I always love the Parent Power panel! We started it many years ago to help give inspiration and share ideas about what we're doing in our states. Beth, would you start us out, please? Tell us about what's happening in Virginia.
Beth Sellers: I am president of our parents' division. I am the parent of three children, and two of them are blind. I have a fourteen-year-old blind daughter and an almost twelve-year-old blind daughter as well.
Here in Virginia we are working very hard to provide access for all of our kids. I'm sure we're all fighting similar battles across all of the states! We're trying to get our kids more access to Braille. We're very fortunate that my oldest daughter has had Jordana Engelbretsen, this year's Distinguished Educator of Blind Children, as one of her Braille teachers during the pandemic. That has been a huge blessing. In one year she made leaps and bounds in her progress, and we saw what an awesome teacher can do.
Our goal is to provide everybody with equal access to Braille, to assistive technology, and to the Expanded Core Curriculum. We want it not to be a fight, but to be a given. When we go to an IEP meeting, we shouldn't have to argue that a child should have equal access. It should be an absolute given! We shouldn't have to rally the forces to get things done! We shouldn't have to fight for our kids to get more than thirty minutes a week with a TVI, while sighted children get literacy instruction daily.
Carol: Thank you, Beth. What sorts of activities do you hope to have, now and in the future?
Beth: Even though our parents' chapter is small, our families have children of a wide range of ages. We have babies, and we have kids who are out of school. Some of the older kids have multiple disabilities, so their parents relate to us even though the kids aren't in school at this point.
We try to incorporate all ages into our trainings. We're trying to do trainings on IEP development, and we're trying to do trainings on COVID recoupment services. We're trying to bring people into the NFB family as a whole and help families participate in all NFB offerings. We're trying to have social get-togethers to help families network.
Virginia is a large and diverse state. A lot of families, like mine, find that we are the only family with blind children in a geographic region. My kids don't see other blind people unless we go to an NFB convention. To network virtually or to drive an hour to get together with another family of a blind child is really important to us. Our focus right now is on school services and social gatherings.
Carol: A lot of people don't realize that blindness in children is the lowest incidence disability except for deafblindness. There really are not a lot of us around! We might feel like there are because we know each other, but in reality, in our town or our school district we're usually the only one. Thanks for the work that you're doing!
Donna, we'd like to hear your thoughts about what's going on in your state.
Donna: First of all, I want to say thank you for the chance to participate in our NOPBC Third Thursday Webinars. They're a lot of fun! We meet on the third Thursday of each month at 7:00 p.m. eastern. Last month we had a great session with Barbara Cheadle, Carol Castellano, and Briley O'Connor, discussing how to choose children's books with positive blind characters and how to incorporate them into the classroom and at home. We hope to have that recording out on our website soon. You can find out about our seminars on our NOPBC webpage.
I've switched my personal efforts from the local school level to the district level. It's been really enlightening to learn how things at the district level really work. Our district, in Fairfax County, has a special education PTA called SEPTA. I recognize a few names from Fairfax County here among the attendees. If you're in Fairfax County I'd like to encourage you to join SEPTA. We need your voice at the table! I've learned a lot through working with them.
A lot of important early literacy initiatives are taking place around the country right now, and it's very important for parents of blind and low-vision students to take their seats at PTA tables. We need to speak up about accessibility at the design level as these new early literacy programs are adopted. If they're accessible, they can benefit our kids greatly. Whether you do public school, private school, or home school, whatever type of schooling you do, you can join your district's PTA. You can attend meetings, serve on committees, and advocate with the district administration. This can be a very effective way to make the powers that be aware of what's needed. Sometimes there are people who know what's happening and don't want to admit it. There are many, many more who really don't know. Because blindness is a low-incidence disability, as Carol said, it's likely that people just don't know how to help.
Finally, we're making a fresh push for the teaching of Nemeth Braille Code in Virginia. Our amazing Carlton Walker has authored a series of wonderful resources on this topic. Forty-three of the fifty states teach Nemeth Braille Code for mathematics. Virginia is one of only seven states that adopted UEB (United English Braille) for math.
Nemeth Code is the only system that gives our kids robust access to higher-level math and access to the mathematical portions of achievement tests such as the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams. Some kids in Virginia are being told not to take the AP exam that they've worked so hard to prepare for, simply because they've not been provided with the Nemeth instruction that would let them access the test. We have military kids in Virginia who learned Nemeth Code in other states. In Virginia they have to start over and learn the UEB Math Code.
My family is preparing to move to another state, where they teach Nemeth to blind students. We asked for Nemeth instruction in Virginia to help us prepare. We were told no, even after we made the district aware of the responsibilities defined in the Military Interstate Compact.
We definitely need the voices of parents in Virginia! And if you're in Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island, or Utah, please consider advocating for the teaching of Nemeth Code in place of UEB in your state! Thank you!
Carol: Thank you very much, Donna! It sounds like between you two and the other parents in your chapter, Virginia's going to be in good shape. Keep up the good work!
The third person on our panel is Ashleigh Moon of Arizona. What's happening in Arizona, and what are your hopes and dreams?
Ashleigh Moon: Thank you so much for having me! I feel like we have a long way to go when I hear about all the things you're doing in Virginia! Arizona's chapter has had a lot of fluctuations over the past few years.
I'm the parent of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and last year I ran for president of our Arizona parents' chapter. I decided to run for president, and I was happy to be elected to that position. This past year we've been trying to build up the chapter again. We've been working virtually and trying to build our membership. We've done virtual events with some success. We're trying to build more of a network.
Our long-term goals are the same as everyone's, to benefit our children through education and planning for their futures. Right now our short-term goal is to build a network for families in Arizona. We have a lot of families who don't know other parents of blind children. Some are working with agencies or groups that have philosophies very different from ours in the Federation. We're trying to pull those families in and show them our Federation philosophy at work. We want to show them the potential that their children really have.
We've held several virtual events. We had an open house for people to get to know each other. We held an event where we read an article from the Braille Monitor and had a discussion about it. Recently we ran a Braille workshop for parents who are interested in learning Braille. A couple of parents in that workshop are interested in starting a study group so they can learn Braille together. That's what we've been up to in Arizona.
Carol: I think that among the three of you, you hit on the hopes, the dreams, and the challenges that we face, especially in this virtual age. But you also point out that the virtual age gives us a way to bridge the geographic distance between families. Thank you for speaking to us today! You are all part of our Parent Leadership Program. I invite any parent who is with us today to get more involved with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and help with the important work we do. Thank you!
by Mark Riccobono
Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 8, August/September 2021
From the Editor: Senator Tammy Duckworth is the junior senator from Illinois. She is a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and she sustained life-altering injuries in the line of duty. This interview with NFB President Mark Riccobono was prerecorded.
President Riccobono: Well Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for joining the National Federation of the Blind convention.
Senator Duckworth: It's so good to be here; thank you.
President Riccobono: I appreciate the opportunity to ask you some questions. I know your time is limited, so I'm going to jump right in. You have many important characteristics that you bring to the table in your capacity as a member of the United States Senate. Yet you are the only United States Senator with a visible physical disability. Can you talk to us a little bit about how that informs your work and how it impacts the way that your colleagues perceive you as a member of the Senate?
Senator Duckworth: Well, thank you. Yes, because I am a wheelchair user, it's very clear that there is one of these senators who is not like the others. I'm the one senator that's visibly not like the other ninety-nine. I don't think it has changed how my colleagues perceive me in the Senate, but once you make it into the Senate, everybody knows the tough road it took to get here. But it is interesting in that I've had to spend a lot of time, ever since I was elected to the House of Representatives, educating my colleagues, because they do so many things here just because that's how we've always done them. I remember the first day that I was in the House of Representatives, and we had the freshman members' orientation. They picked the restaurant, and they picked a restaurant with a second floor, and they held it in the private room because that's where they've always held the freshman orientation. But there's no elevator to get there. So, once I got there, it's like, okay, how do I get in there? Nobody had ever even thought about it, which is crazy, because we spent a lot of time educating everybody that, hey, I'm going to have these needs. They would hold things in townhouses. Washington, DC, has lots of townhouses where you have to walk up stairs to get to them. So a lot of it is just a process of educating people and saying that, if you invite me to go someplace and I get there and it's not accessible, I'm leaving; I'm not crawling upstairs for you, even though I could do it. I have figured out that actually gives me a bigger voice on issues of disability, because I can demonstrate that I know the issues, and this isn't just anecdotal. I think it actually gives me more weight in many ways in my arguments and in my conversations with my colleagues. In some ways it's actually an advantage.
But I tell you that they're often astonished by the challenges I face just to come to work every single day. One of the things that we do that is an important part of our job is we senators represent the United States overseas. Recently I was going on a trip to South Korea, and one of my Republican colleagues was going with us. "Why don't we just go in mil-air? It's so much easier, Tammy; you don't have to go through all of the other immigration and all of that. You can just go from one military base to another."
I looked at him and said, "It's because mil-air is not wheelchair accessible," and it never occurred to him. "I can't use the bathroom on the mil-air, so if you want to put me on a flight for nine hours, and I can't use the bathroom, I'm not going."
President Riccobono: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Senator Duckworth: People don't even understand the challenges that someone who has a disability faces just to get up and get out the door of your house to go to work.
President Riccobono: It's so powerful that you're there to do that, and it's even more powerful that you have to do the same thing that, well, all of us have to do on a daily basis as people with disabilities. So thank you for being there to do that extra lift there in the Senate.
Speaking to your authenticity on issues, we noticed that on March 2nd you introduced a resolution along with Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton to make the Prologue Room at the FDR memorial accessible, including proper tactile Braille there. This is certainly a work of yours that we very much appreciate. Can you tell us a little bit more about your work to make sure that the memorial is fully accessible?
Senator Duckworth: Oh, absolutely. Well, first of all, the FDR Memorial is a good start, but we can't stop there, right? The national parks belong to all of the American people. Whether or not you walk, use a wheelchair, read Braille, or listen, or you know it doesn't matter they belong to all of us, so they must be accessible to all of us. Our national parks need to be accessible to everyone.
But I did think it was important to acknowledge the important role that the disability community played in ensuring that future generations knew about FDR and that he led the United States during the Great Depression and World War II while dealing with his own disability. There's still a lot of issues with that memorial, including the lack of legible Braille, and I will continue to press every administration, including the current one, on how they are addressing this issue, because they know it's a problem. The National Park Service knows this is a problem. I also plan on working with the National Park Service on making all of its monuments and all of its parks accessible. This includes its websites, for crying out loud! I mean, this is 2021! It's not like we just invented the web. By the way, it's thirty years since the passage of the ADA; come on, people!
President Riccobono: Yeah, well, we agree with you 100 percent in the National Federation of the Blind and on websites and mobile applications. Of course, they're needed in so many areas, not just national parks, but education, employment, travel, healthcare, and in so many other areas, as you pointed out. We already know that the vast majority of these sites include accessibility barriers, certainly for people who are blind. As you've already demonstrated, this is an issue that you take seriously and that you've been working on pushing improvements in. Can you talk to us a little bit about your interest and work to promote increased web accessibility?
Senator Duckworth: Oh, absolutely. Well, part of this is because of my own experience. When I was first wounded and recovering at Walter Reed, I couldn't use my arms. I had to go through a lot of therapy in order to use my left hand, and we weren't sure that I was going to get to save my right arm.
Eventually we did. I was in limb salvage for a number of years, and I'm always under threat of losing my arm due to infection, persistent infection. I say that because early on at Walter Reed I had to learn to use assistive devices to use web pages. I had to learn to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and I just found that, even as someone with sight but not able to type and use my hands at the time, I found webpages incredibly difficult to navigate. You know it's been eleven years since the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking came out regarding web accessibility under Title II and Title III of the ADA, and there's still no regulation. I know government can move slowly, but this is ridiculous! Given how much Americans rely on the internet and on mobile apps, addressing this issue now is critical to ensuring equal access under the law for people with disabilities. It's that simple!
I will tell you that before her confirmation I did meet with Kristen Clarke, who now heads up the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, and at that meeting I asked her for her commitment not only to hire a deputy assistant attorney general focused on disability rights but also her commitment that DOJ will prioritize its efforts to issue these very important regulations. We can legislate this as well; we can write the laws and pass them here, but it also makes sense to lean on the administration to do the right thing, because they can do it; they just have to push to do it.
President Riccobono: Yeah, absolutely. We agree with you completely. What can blind Americans do to help with this problem and make this change move in government?
Senator Duckworth: Well, several things: just making sure your voices are heard, talking to your legislators, and you know even those who are friendly like myself I would love to get your letters, your phone calls on my answering machine—we still even accept faxes, emails, all of that—we need to hear from you. Everyone needs to hear from you so that your congress people, your senators know that, Oh my gosh, this is a really important issue! You can go to the White House and start a White House petition. If you get enough signatures on that, they have to deal with it; they have to respond to it. I'll have to check, but I think it's 100,000 signatures? But you need to make your voices heard, because then I can go onto the floor and say "You know what? I've heard from five thousand people in this last month alone on the fact that we still need to have a rulemaking on accessibility for web pages." Keep exercising your rights as an American and holding those of us who are elected accountable. Reach out to us, talk to us, even the ones who are friendly, because then I can go and say, "Hey, I've got five thousand letters on this, and I'm going to continue to push this, because this is important to my constituents."
President Riccobono: I love the contrast of getting five thousand faxes about web accessibility. So let's flood the Duckworth fax machine on web accessibility, but, of course, all the other members of Congress as well.
Switching gears, both the National Council on Disability and the United States Commission for Civil Rights have recommended that subminimum wages for people with disabilities be phased out of law in the United States. Obviously, we in the National Federation of the Blind believe that low expectations are one of the biggest problems we face. You've already talked a little bit about how you have been conquering low expectations in your political career. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that, and then tell us if you support the phase-out and elimination of Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act?
Senator Duckworth: Yes, I do. In short, the subminimum wage has got to go. Especially in 2021 it is outdated, and it is unjust, plain and simple. There are lots of examples where people with disabilities, working in competitive and integrated employment settings, are doing so in a successful way and in a profitable way for those companies; so it can be done.
I'll give you an example. Chicago Lighthouse Industries, which is an associated agency of the National Industries for the Blind—they pay fair wages. There are no problems there. We must guarantee that people with disabilities can access employment opportunities that will provide them full and fair compensation for their hard work. We don't need to create a second class of citizens! That's why I did cosponsor Senator Casey's Transformation to Competitive Employment Act last Congress, and I am a proud cosponsor of the current Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage for individuals with disabilities in early phases and help 14(c) participating employers and employees transition out of the subminimum wage program. It's wrong, we need to get rid of it, and it's long past time that we did so.
President Riccobono: Thank you very much! We of course agree with you. I think your stance on this is one that sings with the blind of America, and we appreciate your leadership in pushing these bills forward.
I know we have only a little bit of time left before you have to go and do some of the other important work that you need to do. I just want to ask you two more questions. Our convention is the largest gathering of blind people anywhere in the world on an annual basis. If you have one thing to say to blind Americans at our gathering here today, what would that be?
Senator Duckworth: That you're equal to everyone! You were talking about low expectations; don't accept those low expectations. Sometimes we get normalized into how we are treated, and that is not the fault of the person with the visual impairment; that is the fault of society, and we have to push back. I know it can be tiring, but I will tell you that it is important to push back. Sometimes you think, I just don't want to cause a scene; I don't want to be a problem; I just want to do my job and keep on going. Sometimes you have to cause a scene! That's how things happen; that's how we founded this country. We caused a scene by throwing some tea into the harbor, so I think that, please, you know, speak up and know that you have allies everywhere. You have an ally in me. You're not doing it on your own, even if you are dealing with one very particular situation. Know that there are allies all over this great nation that will stand with you.
Frankly, you are fighting not just for yourselves, but for others within the disability community and even for people who have yet to develop a disability. You know it was the disability community that fought for my rights as a person with a disability when I was perfectly fit and flying helicopters. I did not know that I was going to need the ADA's protection for most of my life, and yet, here I am. Thank God there were members of the disability community, like Marca Bristow and all those wonderful folks who fought for my rights before I even needed them. There are a lot of Americans right now who may even be opposing the work that you're doing who will develop a disability one day, and they will be thanking God that you were there to fight for these rights even when they were opposing them. So keep it up because you are doing incredibly important work that makes our nation better. It moves us toward that more perfect union that we all strive for but have yet to achieve. So thank you for doing the work.
President Riccobono: And thank you. Cause some good trouble! We like to say that you should hope you live long enough to be a blind person, because if you live long enough you will be a blind person.
So last question: There's a lot of blind people out there, and they may be inspired by you to help make it more than just one out of one hundred members of Congress. What would you say to blind people who are interested in serving in public office but maybe they're a little hesitant about getting in the mix?
Senator Duckworth: Do it, do it, jump in and do it! You don't have to start with running for the US Senate. You can actually start off by running for smaller, local, more manageable offices. There are things like your local library board of trustees. Who decides what books kids read? The local library board of trustees. So you could actually affect the availability of Braille, the availability of audiobooks, the availability of services in local public libraries for kids, for adults who have vision impairment. You can run for your local town trusteeship; you can run for the PTA. You don't have to run for US Congress or the US Senate, but if you do and you're interested, call me, I'll help. But start somewhere, because the change has to start not just from the top down but from the local up. You can make a difference in the world, even at your local level. Do it!
President Riccobono: Great! Thank you very much. Do it, do it and cause good trouble! Yeah, I like it.
So Senator, I know that you have to get to the business of the United States Senate. We appreciate you taking the time to be with us and the organized blind movement here. I want to say on behalf of our Illinois affiliate, and really all of our affiliates across the nation, that we appreciate your authentic leadership in the United States Congress. I suggest you remind your staff to refill the fax machine, because I think you're going to hear from our folks, and mostly what you're going to hear is appreciation for your leadership on issues that impact our lives as blind Americans. So thank you for your time!
Senator Duckworth: Thank you. We have an answering machine too, so you can also just leave a message on that as well.
President Riccobono: We agree with you about web accessibility. Eleven years is a century in terms of the internet, so thank you for that.
Senator Duckworth: Thank you. Thank you, take care!
by José Gaztambide
From the Editor: From the manual typewriter to OCR scanning, many innovations that we take for granted originated as developments for blind users. Some exciting new mapping technologies were first conceived as innovations to help blind travelers, but they can benefit the public at large. Like all of the presenters at the NFB National Convention, José Gaztambide was introduced with music. His song was "I'm the Map."
Thank you so much, President Riccobono. I had heard stories of the intro music, but I had no idea what to expect. But oh, what an entrance!
Thank you so much for having me. This is my first time addressing the convention, and it's a real honor and a real thrill to be here with you guys.
This is likely your first time hearing about GoodMaps and hearing my name. I'm going to start today off by giving you a brief introduction about us and what we do in our work day to day. I then want to tell you a little bit about our beliefs, the way those beliefs guide our work, and the way we're building our company and partnering with companies throughout the world. Finally, I want to give you a sense of what to expect over the next year between this convention and next convention.
What can you expect out of GoodMaps? I'm excited to let you know what the future holds.
Here's a brief introduction to GoodMaps. We were born out of the American Printing House for the Blind [APH], and we are really the spiritual successor to the indoor navigation work that APH pioneered for so many years. APH decided to carve that work out of the technology product research team and make it a truly dedicated effort as an external organization.
One of the very first things we realized, both as part of APH's experience and the feedback that we heard from other friends in the field, was that the real bottleneck to accessible navigation and to making it possible for you to navigate with confidence and independence any venue you enter is not any particular application. It is actually the existence of indoor mapping data. Your navigation journey ends when you get to the door of the building you're attempting to enter. That is because, even though we have mapped the outdoor world many times over, we've barely begun the process of mapping the indoor world. That's where our mission statement begins: we are out to map the indoors and to make that mapping data available to anybody who needs it.
Whether you're entering your local grocery store, your shopping mall, your airport, or your place of work, we believe that everyone should have the tools to navigate with independence and confidence. We are using today's technology, which includes LiDAR (light detection and ranging), augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and particle filtering to drastically increase the number of mapped buildings in this country and throughout the world. In addition, we're providing an unmatched accuracy that does not burden the building and does not burden the end user with any incremental hardware. There are no beacons or extra devices to purchase. This system works on your smartphone, whether you're an iOS user or an Android user. We think that's a critical component to equity and to making sure that everybody has access to what we're building.
Let me get down to some of our beliefs, because I think these are really important in terms of what you can expect from us and the kind of company that we're trying to build. The very first belief is that this technology should be free to users. There's no reason you should be paying for data that everybody else gets for free. Our commitment to our users is that we will never charge the end user for access to this technology. We don't think that's ethical or right.
The second belief that's really core to the way we operate is that a rising tide lifts all boats. If you remember the genesis of GoodMaps and how we started to focus on mapping the indoors, we came to the realization that the indoors has effectively not been mapped, so we set about solving that issue. How do we map the indoors?
If we're successful in mapping the indoors, then it is irresponsible and in fact immoral for us not to share that data with all of the other accessible navigation apps and providers that are out there. We have developed a particular experience that we are proud of and that is data driven, but we know there is a range of preferences among users. Perhaps you would prefer to navigate with BlindSquare or Right Hear instead of GoodMaps. We think that's okay.
One of our commitments and one of our priorities is to make our mapping data available to any accessible navigation company free of charge. We think that's an important part of making sure that this technology can find its way into your hands in whatever way it is that you choose to engage in it.
Finally, we think it is important to offer services beyond accessibility that embed accessibility. What does that mean? When we think about the core technology that we offer, it is the mapping data. It is the ability to help someone identify where a person or an object is within that map, and then to help them navigate from A to B or make them aware of what's around them. That core technology and those abilities can be used by a multitude of people in a multitude of ways.
This concept allows us to get a yes from a venue that might not have the accessibility budget to invest in making its space more accessible but does have a safety budget or a facilities budget we can use. To make that really concrete, we're working with the University of Massachusetts/Boston, which is going to be the very first user of what we are calling GoodMaps Response. GoodMaps Response is a mapping service that is specifically focused on first responders and emergency personnel so that as they enter emergency situations, they can be made aware of all of the things that are around them that can help inform the way they respond to that situation.
When we first approached UMass/Boston, there was no accessibility budget, despite the fact that they really wanted to incorporate this kind of technology on their campus. By offering a value proposition that went beyond accessibility and allowed campus safety and allowed facilities to partake in and support the project, we were able to bring accessibility along. That's core to our belief in the way we are building this company. We think of ourselves as a universal navigation provider, enabling safety within spaces.
What can you expect from GoodMaps in the year to come? More and more buildings are coming online every week, including the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, which we're extremely proud of and which will be online in the coming weeks. We also have a range of really exciting partnerships that we'll be able to announce over the coming weeks and months. These include the large tech giants that you know and tolerate and the small ones as well, including a lot of the accessibility companies you probably use in your day-to-day life. As I mentioned before, we are a "rising tide lifts all boats" kind of company. We're eager to partner and eager to pool resources to work on our collective missions.
Our navigation app is called GoodMaps Explorer. We continue to develop and roll out new features every week and every month to make navigation easier, more intuitive, and more accessible for everybody.
Please give us a follow on social media. Join us at GoodMaps.com, and join our mailing list so you can stay up-to-date. I want to thank all of you for your time. Thank you to NFB for the invitation to address the convention and to President Riccobono for all of his support over the past couple of years. Thank you so much!
by Randi Strunk
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 8, August/September 2021
From the Editor: Randi Strunk is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, and she is active in the NFBs Sports and Recreation Division. In this presentation she shares her discovery that vision loss cannot stop her from competing in athletics.
I've always loved sports. I may have been one of the few girls who asked for a football helmet for Christmas; thanks, Mom and Dad! At six years old, I was lying on the living room floor, listening to Nebraska football games for three hours at a time.
I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. I was always outside, either riding bikes or playing sports in the yard with my brother: football, baseball, basketball, whatever was in season. I didn't ever think about not playing because of blindness. Sports was just what you did.
I did have some understanding that it was a bit more difficult for me with my limited vision and lack of depth perception, but there were moments that stuck out. For example, I remember playing baseball with my brother. You wouldn't believe what a good hitter I was, crushing homers off of a seven-year-old! But one afternoon he hit a ball, and I reached up and to my left, and pop, the perfect ball meets glove sound. It is so vivid in my mind, even today! I thought, that's what it's supposed to feel like!
The first time I played organized sports was in junior high. I went out for volleyball and basketball, and I ran track. Now for perspective, my graduating class had thirty-six kids in it, so everyone made the team. There were no tryouts, and there were no cuts. Sports were among the few extracurriculars that were offered. I wanted to play, and, like most kids, I wanted to fit in. But I always felt an undertone of anxiety that I would lose the white volleyball against the white gym ceiling or walls, or that I wouldn't be able to keep track of the basketball along with the other nine players running around the court. I practiced every day and put in the work, but there was a stark difference between the real thing and the front yard with my little brother.
I ended up in volleyball on the C team. That's right: not the A team or the B team, but the C team. It was such a small school that we're not talking a lot of depth here. I began to think that I just wasn't a good athlete.
Then I played basketball my freshman year, and I quickly started to dread it. With each step up in age and grade, the speed of the game gets much faster. As a result, I increasingly had trouble. I worried about keeping track of the ball and everyone moving around me really quickly.
I remember a particular drill in practice one day that did me in. It involved four lines of players, lining up at each corner of the square. You were to start running diagonally; then you would catch a ball coming at you from your right; and then you would turn and pass the ball to the person at the front of the line, in the direction you were running. It was very fast and super chaotic, with multiple balls being passed. I remember walking up to my coach and telling her that I just couldn't do the drill. At that point I felt pretty defeated.
I finished out the season—you know that whole "If you start something, you can't quit it" situation—but I hated it. It wasn't all bad, though. There was one highlight. I was put in at the end of a couple of freshman games, and I remember dribbling down the court, pulling up at the top of the key on the left-hand side, and sinking a shot—my one entry into the scoring column. I thought to myself, So that's what it's supposed to feel like.
After basketball I quit sports. I didn't feel like it was worth the work or the stress. After all, I told myself, I just wasn't an athlete. The only sports that I played for the next ten years were in video games. I could do those on my own terms.
But a chance conversation changed my view on sports forever. I was at a chapter meeting in Minneapolis, the Shadow Metro Chapter. I was talking to Michelle Gittens, and she mentioned to me that she was working out with a trainer who taught "Learn to Run" classes. I had no idea how blind people could run, and she told me about guides and tethers. I never thought about sports being adapted for blind people. Maybe more accurately I never had considered using alternative techniques for sports.
We contacted the trainer, and she agreed to do a Learn to Run class for a few Federationists. For our first lesson we met at a park near the headquarters of BLIND, Incorporated. After a few drills, teaching us techniques such as where your foot was supposed to land when you run, we each took a turn running around the park with Jenny, the trainer who was guiding us. As I finished my loop she looked toward Ryan and Emily, and she said that I looked like a natural athlete.
Now those are not words that I expected to hear, and frankly, I didn't believe them. Nothing in my experience with sports up to this point made me believe that I was athletic. But I did enjoy running. We got a treadmill, and I started running a few times a week. I even ran a couple of races over the next few years.
One day I was working out with Jenny, and she mentioned a sport called triathlon. I had no idea what a triathlon was, let alone how a blind person could do one. I Googled it, and I saw blind people doing triathlons with their guides. This was going to be a giant experiment, with me as a first-time triathlete and Jenny as a first-time guide.
I signed up for my first triathlon in 2015. This was an Olympic distance triathlon, consisting of a one-mile swim, a twenty-five-mile bike ride, and a 6.2-mile run. First I had to learn how to swim - no big deal, right? The only experience I really had was wading around the edge of a lake. I'd gone water skiing, but you wore a life jacket for that.
So yeah, that was a big deal. We also borrowed a tandem bike so we could start training.
Race day came around. We had trained for about six months, and I wasn't sure if I would be one and done or if I would like the whole triathlon thing. After a good swim and bike ride, we embarked on the run. It was a very hot day, so I took Gatorade at one of the aid stations, and this didn't go well. There is a saying in triathlon; they say, "Nothing new on race day." I didn't listen to those wise words, so we ended up having to walk four of the 6.2 miles as I was dealing with terrible stomach cramps.
Despite that, I finished, and I was proud. I was exhausted. But I also thought, I want to do this again. I can get more fit. I can get faster. I can do this on my own terms with adaptive techniques such as a guide or a tandem bike or a run tether. I'm in control of this. I'm in control of what I put into it, and it has nothing to do with blindness.
The National Federation of the Blind taught me never to be satisfied with the status quo. We in the Federation are always striving for more, whether that be more access or more equality. Through my involvement with the Federation, I also learned to embrace the idea of doing something that scares you just a little. It could be running for a position on the chapter board, organizing a fundraiser, maybe giving a speech at General Session at a national convention. It could mean signing up for a race that's a little longer than you're used to or going for a swim in a lake instead of the pool. It could be as simple as going somewhere new, cooking something new, or applying for that job you're just a little bit nervous about.
The Federation taught me that I should reach a little farther than I thought possible, and that I should want to do that. And it's possible to achieve your goals, even if you have to walk instead of run. There's a whole community here to support you in that.
Community is also a great part of triathlon. People come to volunteer at race check-ins or aid stations, and people come out just to watch other people race. They come out and brave wind, rain, heat, and standing on their feet for hours simply to encourage other people. I see great parallels with the community we have here in the National Federation of the Blind. We build each other up. We volunteer to mentor new and prospective members, and we volunteer to do all of the work that needs to be done for us to achieve our dreams.
I'm up here today because we believe it's important to highlight our own; because when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. And it is important to share our stories.
Let's flash forward in my triathlon journey to April 28, 2018. As I zipped up my wetsuit on a calm, clear morning, overlooking the Lake of the Woodlands in Houston, Texas, I was nervous but confident. I was about to embark on an Ironman Triathlon.
Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. And you have to do it within seventeen hours. I knew it would be a long day. I knew I would have to be flexible. But I knew also that I had a community behind me.
We got into the cool water, and I would be wishing for that for the rest of the day because it was Texas, after all. Now in Ironman races, the disabled athletes get to start with the professional women, which means we get a cannon start, which is pretty awesome. When the cannon roared, we started swimming. Now, you can't think of the 140.6 miles that are ahead of you, otherwise you'll get discouraged. I told myself, "Stay calm, stay strong," and I repeated that mantra.
Since we started with the professionals, we had ten minutes of glorious clear water around us before the rest of the racers started. Each time I turned my head to breathe, I heard things like the singing of the National Anthem or the announcer getting the other racers fired up to begin their day. With each stroke I felt the water.
I listened to the other swimmers come up around us, and, as Dorie said, I just kept swimming. It's my guide's job, on the other hand, to make sure we're swimming straight and to tell me when we need to turn around the buoys that mark the course. She also makes sure that no one swims over the tether that connects us in the water. I'm happy to report that my guide Caroline's foot only had to connect with one person's face on purpose to encourage them to change their course.
After the 2.4 miles were complete, we got on our tandem bike and headed out for two loops on the Hardy Toll Road. The advantage of being a blind triathlete: you get someone to talk to the whole time. The bike course was flat and fast. It was also straight and kind of boring. But we affectionately called the bike ride a rolling buffet because you just swam 2.4 miles, so you're starving, and it's easier to digest food while you're riding than it is while you're running. You try to replace a lot of calories on the ride and get ready for the run. Let me tell you that an uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwich has never tasted so good along with the salt and vinegar chips I got halfway through the ride. They were a welcome distraction from the chocolate energy bars and quickly warming Gatorade that I had been consuming. Side note: I actually practiced with Gatorade before this one, so I learned one lesson at least.
We finished the bike ride in good time, and we headed out on a three-loop run course. We run holding a tether about eighteen inches long, and my guide calls out turns and changes in the road surface. The great part about a three-loop course is that each loop seems manageable. The bad part is seeing the sign for Mile Twenty right next to the sign for Mile Three, especially when you're on Mile Three!
The first eight miles went pretty well. After that, the eighty-five-degree heat, humidity, and lack of shade in Texas caught up with me. After all, I had been training inside in the Minnesota winter, and we had gotten snow a couple of weeks before, so my body was not loving Texas so much.
The run turned into a brisk walk, but that gave us a bit more time to enjoy all the spectators, many of whom showed up in costume or holding signs with encouraging phrases such as "You think you're tired? My arms are killing me," or, "Worst parade ever!" One of my personal favorites was, "This seems like a lot of work for free Gatorade." Finally, "Don't worry, you won't feel your feet at all tomorrow."
As we looped around the final lap, we could hear the music from the finish line, and we could hear Mike Riley, known as "The Voice of Ironman" calling the finishers home across the line. Athletes on the course cheered each other on and encouraged each other because we were all so close to accomplishing our goal.
At last, after over fifteen hours of swimming, biking, and running, we made the final turn onto the red carpet. We were under the lights, with the music blaring and crowds on each side of the road screaming. Caroline and I raised our arms as we crossed the finish line. And I heard the words that many triathletes dream of hearing: "Randi Strunk, you are an Ironman!"
I hugged my guide, and we got our finisher medals; by the way, mine is hanging up behind my left shoulder right now. I was really proud! And I thought, Now this, this is what it's supposed to feel like!
Presented by Everette Bacon
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 8, August/September 2021
From the Editor: Each year the National Federation of the Blind honors a group of pioneers and innovators who are recognized for their work to make the world better for blind people. The 2021 Jacob Bolotin Awards were presented by Everette Bacon.
Everette Bacon: I'm here to present the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. For those of you who don't know who Dr. Jacob Bolotin is, you're really missing out. An anonymous person said that those who create or build walls that create obstacles around others in turn create those same obstacles around their own personal freedoms. Jacob Bolotin was a man who faced many, many obstacles from his own family, his friends, religious leaders, supervisors, medical professionals, and teachers. Yet despite all of these obstacles, he was able to achieve his dream of becoming the first ever blind doctor in the great state of Illinois.
There's a wonderful book called The Blind Doctor that you can download on BARD, or you can find it in many other places where books are available. I urge all of you to read it. If you're a student out there, this is a man who faced great adversity through accommodations and through so many different levels. Yet he overcame all of this, and it's an inspirational story to everyone out there who has dreams of achieving their goals. I hope you go read it and learn about Dr. Jacob Bolotin. It's an honor to be able to present these awards in his name.
Now we're going to play a video. We have six recipients to whom we are going to be presenting these awards. We had over fifty applications. If you didn't make it this year, please apply again, because we read through some outstanding applications, and it was a very hard choice. Here is our video:
Narrator: Federationists and guests, the National Federation of the Blind is proud to introduce the 2021 recipients of our Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards, made possible in part by the generous support of the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust and the Santa Barbara Foundation. These individuals and organizations have broken down barriers faced by blind people in innovative ways, changed negative perceptions of blindness and blind people, and pushed past existing boundaries to inspire blind people to achieve new heights. The first of the three individual winners is Darnell Booker, coach and general manager of the four-time World Champion beep baseball team, the Indianapolis Thunder.
Darnell Booker: Baseball has been very good to me, so I wanted to return the favor and be good to it and also make a difference in my community and make sure blind youth and adults have the experience of playing sports and also the socialization and camaraderie skills. It's about changing lives and making a difference in someone's life. Myself, I am blind, visually impaired in my right eye from an accident as a little kid. I also belong to the National Federation of the Blind state of Indiana, and I also would like to just thank you guys for this prestigious honor and award because I'm all about changing lives and making it better for blind and visually-impaired youth and adults in the field of sports and recreation.
Narrator: Dr. Natalie Shaheen, assistant professor of low-vision and blindness, Illinois State University.
Dr. Natalie Shaheen: I see my work as an academic, as a professor, as really an extension of work that the Federation has been doing for decades and that I did when I worked for the NFB. My work as an academic Federationist, as I'll call myself, is to reimagine twenty-first century K-12 education as a place that's equitable and accessible to blind youth and really fosters development of the beliefs in the skills that our blind students need to live the lives they want. That's really what my work is focused on in all aspects of what I'm doing as a professor.
From the teaching perspective, my ultimate aim is to create another teacher preparation program for teachers of blind students that's rooted in a positive philosophy of blindness and kind of extending the work that the Federation has already done at Louisiana Tech University, for example. On the research side of things, my ultimate aim is to establish a blind-led research center that's focused on digital accessibility in K-12 specifically.
Narrator: Krishna Washburn, founder and artistic director of Dark Room Ballet.
Krishna Washburn: The dance field is ableist, and it was very, very difficult for me to find choreographers and collaborators who were taking me seriously as an artist. In terms of my own professional studies, it was very challenging to find teachers who were willing to really work with me to help me develop, because they had stereotypes that were really not true about my learning capacities. With my own background in education, I knew that a lot of the assumptions my teachers had about me were not true, and it was really almost from the outset of my performance career that I wanted to start developing a curriculum specifically for blind and visually-impaired dancers. It took a very long time to get that class off the ground, mostly because I was fighting against stereotypes of what a teacher was supposed to be and what a dance class for blind and visually-impaired people was supposed to be like.
Narrator: The first of our three organizational winners is: Davis Technical College of Kaysville, Utah, for its program to train blind aerospace machinists. Here is college president Darin Brush:
Darin Brush: What we did is we piloted a program with our schools for the deaf and blind with our division of services for the blind and visually impaired and had our first three students, all of whom were blind, complete that initial program, and in the process of doing that, developed aerospace-grade machining skills. But more than that, more than becoming skilled machinists and very employable as a result, they showed their instructors what was possible. They overcame their own predispositions about what someone who is blind can accomplish, and they'll tell you that. They'll go on and on about the personal and professional impact that had on our instructors. But it also inspired this entire college community, because what we could point to was, if we can teach students who are blind to become aerospace-grade machinists, this campus, across all of its thirty-five technical education programs, can do just about anything in terms of individuals who are blind and individuals with other disabilities. That's what this award means to us.
Narrator: Eye Learn, for providing technology and blindness skills training to blind and low-vision people in the Detroit area. Here is founder Sabrina Simmons:
Sabrina Simmons: I've been doing this for about four years now. I got started because, upon facing blindness myself nine years ago, I tried to integrate myself back into corporate America. Here in Michigan, I kept getting shut out after the first interview or the second interview. I would get that far, and then I would get a face-to-face interview and realize that the tone and the energy of the people that I was interviewing with changed.
So I thought, let me use my degree and let me use my brain and come up with something that can not only help me but help other blind individuals become adjusted so that they can go back to work. Hence, Eye Learn was formed; I became a certified vendor with the state of Michigan and am now in the process of putting together many different programs to supplement what the agency in Michigan is already doing.
Narrator: Independence Science, for innovative products that make the STEM fields accessible to blind students and professionals. Here is spokesman Michael Hingson:
Michael Hingson: Part of the problem with blind people being in the science environment in the STEM world is that we don't get to do experiments along with everyone else because most of the laboratory instruments and the technologies are inaccessible. So some twelve years ago, Cary Supalo, who has a PhD in chemistry, founded Independence Science with the idea of finding ways to make laboratory equipment accessible. He partnered with another company, Vernier Software and Technologies, and made its product, the LabQuest, available in a talking version now called the Talking LabQuest. We're up to Version Two and looking at where we go from here.
The LabQuest is a box that can have a number of different kinds of probes connect to it to make different kinds of measurements, anything from temperature to current to voltage to wind speed to gas pressure - literally any kind of test that you might imagine you would do in a laboratory. Especially is that true in an educational environment, because Independence Science has mostly been education oriented.
In any case, the Talking LabQuest has been a very popular product and has been the flagship of Independence Science. Other products have been developed: a completely talking periodic table which you can see at independencescience.com.
But in the COVID era, the question has arisen, how do we deal with taking those same laboratory measurements for students in a remote environment? Using another of Vernier's products with help from Independence Science, the Talking Logger Pro was developed that allows a teacher and students to interact, using a LabQuest to take measurements and allows it to be remotely controlled from computers elsewhere. As a result, students are able to participate in laboratory experiments and see the same kinds of things that their sighted colleagues would see and interact in the same way that their sighted colleagues could interact.
Narrator: These winners will each receive a trophy and a monetary prize to advance their work to help blind people live the lives we want. Now, the National Federation of the Blind proudly presents them with their 2021 Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards.
Everette Bacon: Wow! I don't know about all of you, but I am truly excited about all of these winners. Now, before I get to their amounts, and I know all of them are listening and waiting patiently to know them, I want to thank the members of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee. I want to thank Mr. Ron Brown, Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan, Mr. James Gashel, and Dr. Marc Maurer. All of these individuals have been outstanding members of this committee, and all of them are outstanding mentors to me. And I am certainly extremely lucky and honored to follow in the footsteps of great chairmen of this committee in Gary Wunder and Jim Gashel. So thank you, and thank you to the members of the committee.
Let's get to the amounts. We are giving away a total of $60,000 this year. Three tiers.
Five thousand dollars will be going to Darnell Booker. Congratulations! Five thousand dollars will be going to Miss Washburn of the Darkroom Ballet. Ten thousand dollars will be going to Dr. Natalie Shaheen. Thank you, Natalie! Ten thousand dollars will go to Davis Technical College of Utah. Ten thousand dollars goes to Independence Science. And our top tier award this year of twenty thousand dollars goes to Eye Learn. I believe Sabrina Simmons is with us tonight. Are you out there?
Sabrina Simmons: Yes, I'm here!
Everette Bacon: Congratulations, Sabrina! We are so excited and proud of the innovations you are doing in Detroit, Michigan. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is during the pandemic I learned you did some outstanding innovations to continue to help blind individuals in Detroit. Can you please talk about that for a minute?
Sabrina Simmons: Yes. We stayed in business and continued to do virtual training and in-person training through the pandemic. There's a nonprofit organization which closed down, and there just weren't services available here in Detroit. So we committed to staying open and meeting in small groups and continuing the training that is so much needed here in the city.
Everette Bacon: I was really moved to read on your application about how all of your members went out to different homes—all of your employees—and worked with people in their homes during the pandemic. They were able to maintain social distancing, they were able to follow the guidelines of Michigan, and they were still able to create and provide those services.
Sabrina Simmons: Yes. Thank you so much.
Everette Bacon: Well, congratulations, Sabrina, and Eye Learn. We are so proud of you and your staff.
That's it, folks. That's the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award ceremony for this year. Again, over fifty applicants. We had some really tough times looking through all of these, so please apply again. We will be giving this award out next year. Hopefully, you'll get your opportunity. Thank you so much to all of our award winners for the innovations that they are doing to help build the hope, love, and determination of blind individuals across our nation and helping us live the life we want.
Presented by Cayte Mendez
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 8, August/September 2021
From the Editor: Each year the National Federation of the Blind awards thirty academic scholarships to blind students pursuing postsecondary education. Cayte Mendez chairs the NFB Scholarship Committee. At the annual board meeting of the NFB Board of Directors, Cayte Mendez presented this year's scholarship finalists.
Cayte Mendez: Good afternoon. It's one of the great privileges of my membership to introduce the scholarship finalists to the convention each year. The committee receives hundreds of applications every spring, and we have the honor and great responsibility to select our thirty finalists from this outstanding pool.
This year's class represents twenty-three states in all and the District of Columbia. They represent a wide range of backgrounds and academic fields, but they all have two attributes in common. First, they've demonstrated outstanding academic aptitude. Second, they've served and continue to serve in various communities as leaders and role models. Two of this year's class are tenBroek Fellows. They are Lizzy Muhammad-Park and Syed Rizvi. I'll explain what it means to be a tenBroek Fellow in more detail as I present the class.
Ordinarily these presentations would be live. But due to the vagaries and quirks of Zoom and the challenges of muting and unmuting thirty people, the decision was made to prerecord these remarks in advance of the board meeting just as we did last year. As a result of this, I already know what these folks are going to say, and I'm incredibly pleased to invite all of you to be as impressed as I am by the scholarship class of 2021.
Maryam Abdul Sattar, California, California, social work and advocacy: Hi, everyone. I am a passionate social worker who has a strong desire for an equitable society. My mission is to empower individuals to education, advocacy, and service. I have engaged in community service since high school. From educating refugees on available resources to serving as a student leader and mentor during the pandemic, I have had the pleasure to make a positive impact on the lives of different individuals. After getting my master's degree in social work, my plan is to pursue a career in law and serve as an advocate to become a voice for the oppressed. Thank you.
Christopher Abel, Georgia, Georgia, financial planner: This year I was chosen as the most positive athlete in wrestling in the state of Georgia and was described as "a high-character, team-oriented leader who has experienced winning and losing and has shown a heart for their school and their community." I have played with an elite jazz orchestra and was selected to compete against the world's Blitz Chess champion. My county recognized me for being a scholar athlete. I was a dual enrollment student at Kennesaw State University, where I will attend in the fall to pursue a degree in finance. My goal is to work for a Fortune 500 company and give back to my community. Thank you.
Kaleigh Brendle, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, disability rights attorney: I serve as the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Association of Blind Students. I'm the founder and director of the Sing for Serenity Choir, an international online choir for the blind composed of more than 120 members hailing from fifteen countries; and, as of a few hours ago, I'm officially a high school graduate headed to Villanova University. I discovered my desire to become a disability rights attorney last May while fighting the college board alongside the National Federation of the Blind to secure Braille for blind and deafblind AP test takers worldwide. Thank you so much to the NFB and the scholarship committee for this amazing honor.
Samantha Chase, Montana, Montana, behavioral health: Hi, everyone; thank you. Currently I'm working on finishing my degree after a very long ten-year break due to progressive vision loss and needing to learn how to be blind and to be successful at being blind. In the meantime, I had my two beautiful daughters, and after my little one went to kindergarten I decided that it was time for me to go back to school. Ironically enough that happened to be spring of 2020. We ended up all being back home, but we adapted, and we made it work. Currently I work at an independent living center as a peer advocate for individuals with disabilities. I mentor those who are blind and low vision, and I also participate in transition groups. That's where my passion is right now, and I'm pursuing my master's in this field. Thank you.
Tashara Cooper, Florida, Florida, modeling and simulation training and research: Akin to a line in Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken" I often take the "path less traveled by," and at times such paths often choose me. Beyond the academic and professional me, I believe it was my humanness heard through conversation that led to me being a finalist. I lead and co-lead various projects in the academic, professional, volunteer, and professional space. As a member directly and indirectly of multiple communities, I support a variety of nonprofit organizations and associations, secondary and postsecondary mentoring initiatives, and an employer's STEM outreach program. Following the completion of my master's in modeling and simulation, I plan to pursue an interdisciplinary doctoral degree. Thank you, Federation, for this opportunity.
Shannon Donahue, Washington, Washington, pediatric health counselor: Hello, my fellow Federationists. Our society responds to difference by reacting negatively. As a person with two visible disabilities, blindness and achondroplasia dwarfism, I'm acutely aware of this. As a result I have chosen to help those voices who are discounted so that they can reclaim their rightful place as equal members of society. My first step was to take control of my own destiny at transforming my disabilities from stumbling blocks into stepping stones. To do this, I gained proficiency with the blindness skills necessary to succeed in college and my future career. Now that I am a student at Seattle Central College studying in the bachelor's program of applied behavioral science, I have the opportunity to pay it forward. Using these hard-won skills at school, my future work, and within the NFB, I continue to advocate for accessibility. I plan to use this scholarship as a springboard for the next step of my journey into pediatric mental health. My professional goal is to guide and support young people with mental health issues who are struggling to obtain the power, freedom, and opportunities to which they are entitled. Today I want to thank my fellow Federationists for bestowing upon me this scholarship, the ultimate expression of your trust and confidence. Thank you very much.
Lizzie Dunn, Michigan, Michigan, social work: I have been a member of the NFB for many years and have participated in many events involving advocacy for people with disabilities, especially blind people. In 2012 I won the Braille Readers are Leaders Community Service Award and helped the NFB of Michigan protest at the capital in Lansing to overturn the governor's decision to abolish the Michigan Commission for the Blind. Since then, I've done many other volunteer experiences, community service work advocating for the positive representation of people with disabilities, and I plan to continue advocating for all people in helping people work toward well-being in their individual lives and in the world through my career as a social worker. Thank you.
Christina Ebersohl, Illinois, Colorado. Christina will be pursuing a career as a musician and music education advocate: I'm a classical violist, not to be confused with a violinist, and as I complete my master's in viola performance and begin auditions for my doctoral program this fall, I will have been the first blind music student at both my undergraduate and graduate institutions. Because of this unique challenge and experience in educating my schools in modern accommodations for musicians, I have developed an advocacy course for accessibility in music education and regularly lecture and teach my course to schools and performance institutions in the United States, Australia, and Canada so far. In addition to my active performance schedule and advocacy work, I'm a teaching artist for El Sistema of Colorado, which brings music lessons to underprivileged communities. I'm the first-ever visually-impaired ABME certified instructor, and I'm also the editor for the Journal of the American Viola Society. Thank you so much for this amazing honor.
Our next finalist is one of five finalists the first alphabetically—who has a birthday in February. Apparently if you wanted an NFB scholarship in 2021, having a birthday in February was a really good place to start. She also would like me to include in her introduction that she grew up in Kuwait and is currently living in New York. It's my privilege to introduce Maya El Cheikh, New York, New York. She is going into law and advocacy: I did not grow up in the United States. I grew up in a society that believes someone like me, a legally blind albino woman, is incapable of getting an education, a job, let alone going to law school. Despite graduating from high school without any accommodations and getting a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in special education, prospective employers refused to see past my physical appearance. So I sought asylum in the United States in 2014. During my short time here, I have done more than I ever thought I could. I interned at the dean's office as an advocate for the special victims crimes unit. In 2015 I volunteered at Human Rights First, an organization that provides pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers like myself. Because of that, my passion for the law grew. After a year I was hired and promoted within months. Despite general hesitancy by my superiors that nonlawyers should not represent clients, I became the first fully accredited representative amongst four of our offices, and from there, I represented about forty indigent asylum seekers before the United States Immigration Services office and immigration court. During the pandemic I advocated for my clients who were being unlawfully denied access to languages they understood, housing benefits, and employment. As an asylum seeker myself in the United States, I learned that, unlike in my country where there is no assistance to protect people like me who are oppressed, over here my goal is to go to law school, where I can be fully equipped to advocate as a lawyer and be an advocate for change. Thank you.
Lucien Gandarias, Washington, California, physics research: Growth is struggle. Growth is a willingness to sacrifice comfort for that which you desire to achieve. This is what my ten years being active in the Federation has taught me. It's impossible to reap the fruits of which you do not sow, and thus each day I strive to sow more than I did the last. I run cross-country to break down the artificial barriers set for me by others and to grow my strength and fortitude. I study physics to deepen my understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe. Growth is living the life you want. Thank you.
Joel Gomez, California, Indiana, industrial engineer: Good afternoon, board members. I'm honored to be here today. Throughout my life I've never let my visual impairment hold me back. In fact I've always tried to be an inspiration to others with disabilities or to people who are just having difficulty achieving their goals in general. Two days ago, I'm honored to say, I was nominated to the US Paralympic Team, and I'll be representing Team USA at the Tokyo Paralympics this summer. In the fall I'll be attending Purdue University to achieve my other dream of becoming an industrial engineer.
Maxine Gretchokoff, Mississippi, Mississippi, emergency services dispatcher: I'm a totally blind United States Air Force auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol officer and a suicide attempt survivor. Throughout my time at Tines Community College, I made the dean's list, I've been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, and I do not let my lack of sight prevent me from serving in uniform in some capacity to serve my local community, my state, and my nation.
The next finalist will actually be attending my alma mater in the fall, Cornell, so I'm pleased to introduce Manahil Jafri, New York, New York. She is going into public policy and disability rights advocacy: Hey, everyone. Disability discrimination has been one of the biggest issues that I view in today's society, and I really hope that I can help mitigate it through my work. Whether that be through helping increase resources for blind individuals in Latin America or helping amplify people with disability's voices through the New York City participatory budgeting process, I really want to show that people with disabilities are capable of doing more than what society holds for them. I want to say a huge thank you to the NFB for offering me this opportunity, as it really helps me fund my education at Cornell and helps me achieve my future goals.
This next applicant has a really fun birthday, and I always love to drop in tidbits about the class. I'm going to share this one with all of you; Peter Jansen, Michigan, Ohio, is going into biomedical engineering, and his birthday is Pi Day, March 14, 3-14. That's an awesome day: Hi, everyone. I received two bachelor's degrees from Michigan State University and was the project leader for 3D Printing of Accessible Media Center for people with disabilities. I also established the first blind soccer program at MSU. In the fall I will be attending Ohio State University to get my PhD in bioengineering with a specific interest in ocular tissues. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Jeanette Jones, California, California, child and family therapist: Hello. I currently serve as the Parents of Blind Children president for the state of California, as well as serving as vice president for my local chapter. I also have a blind son, and I'm passionate about education and children getting the services and supports they need through the IEP process. This is an area I spend a lot of my time advocating for. I'm also pursuing a degree in child family therapy to become a therapist working with children and adults with disabilities to overcome trauma. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Adi Lemmon, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania. Adi will be pursuing a career as an elementary teacher: Hello. Throughout my high school career, I dedicated myself to school work so I could keep my goal of graduating a year early. Even though I only attended three years of high school, I participated in many leadership roles and had many honors and awards such as being president of Aevidum, president of the National Honor Society, and won a community service award as well as served in many other organizations. I make sure I dedicate myself to volunteering within my home community and my blind community. I've developed many big goals in my future, such as changing the education system for all students. Bringing special education students into the mainstream classroom can be done. Teachers need to learn to accept all of their students. I hope to make a big difference in my classroom and to educate future teachers about these overlooked problems. Thank you for this opportunity.
Eric Mandell, California, California, physics researcher: I first came across the NFB over a year ago. I had decided to go back to school and get my degree in physics, so I was looking for other blind STEM students like myself. Growing up I had loved math and science, but the challenge of accessibility and just adapting to vision loss led me to get a degree in business instead. That's why last summer when I attended the NFB Science and Engineering Division meeting I was blown away by the number of other blind STEM students and professionals. So now I'm thrilled to be doing exactly what I want to be doing in joining my amazing cohort of fellow scholarship finalists. Thank you.
Haylee Mota, Rhode Island, California, mechanical engineering: Hello. I'd like to start by thanking the NFB for providing me with this opportunity. I've known I wanted to be an engineer since sixth grade, when I joined my first robotics team. Since then I have interned for an engineering professor and led a team in designing Habitat for Humanity houses. My goal is to someday work for an aerospace company while increasing access to STEM for blind and visually-impaired individuals. Thank you.
Lizzy Muhammad-Park, Maryland, District of Columbia. Lizzy will be pursuing a career as a Foreign Service officer, and before she gives her introduction, I just want to say that Lizzy is one of our two tenBroek Fellows this year. A tenBroek Fellow is someone who has won a previous National Federation of the Blind scholarship. The title of tenBroek comes from the name of the founding President of our movement, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. So being a tenBroek Fellow is an honor. It's my privilege to introduce Lizzy to you now: I was discouraged from learning Chinese as a blind student, but I took the classes anyway and then went to China as a blind teacher to sighted students. Now I will use those language and culture skills not only in my Johns Hopkins master's program but also with an internship with the United States State Department. Thank you to the scholarship committee and the entire Federation for giving me the tools, support, and opportunity to break barriers around the world.
Demetria Ober, Texas, Texas, social work and medical interpretation: I'm a social work major at Texas Women's University. During these times of uncertainty caused by the seemingly never-ending pandemic, I've had time to reflect on the goals and values that are most important to me. During this time I have found a passion for diversity and inclusion, and I have worked on advocacy work as the president of Pathways to Accessibility as well as joining the NFB of Texas Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am honored to be a participant in this amazing opportunity, and I am looking forward to my future in a fulfilling and successful career as a social worker. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Treasa Marie Praino, New York, New York, policy and human rights advocacy: Hi, everyone. I'm a first-year PhD student at Syracuse University, where I'm focusing on critical disability studies in the global context. I'm also a recent Fulbright grantee to South Africa, where I worked in the capacity of disability unit access coordinator at Nelson Mandela University. My ultimate goals include advising government officials, NGOs, and international human rights organizations on implementing ability-based inclusion policies and strategies that reify social-model ideologies. I plan to conduct my work in regions experiencing unrest and economic hardships within the global south and more specifically within sub-Saharan Africa. I also aim to research the intersectionality between disability, poverty, violence, and war. Thank you.
Stephen Proski, Missouri, Massachusetts, artist and disability rights advocate: As a visually disabled person, art allows me to create and understand a world I'm unable to see. I am part of a normal, living framework that treats my disability as an obstacle rather than an asset to my identity. I've worked the past five years at a nonprofit art studio supporting artists with visual and mental disabilities. Working alongside these artists has shown me just how underrepresented disabled people are in the art world, and they are my motivation to reverse that trend. I am determined to continue advocating and creating a platform for all disabled artists throughout my career. Thank you.
Tina Reisner, Utah, Louisiana, cane travel instructor: We all know that building our personal community is essential to growth, opportunity, and success. Through this organization, I have been able to build my personal community through mentors who have taught me the philosophy of independence, freedom, and the power that I can live the life I want. Blindness is not what holds me back, which is why I am choosing to give back and help others build their personal community, by being an orientation and mobility instructor. I have gained my independence, and I hope to aid individuals in this empowering journey. Thank you for your belief in my future and the future of our nation's blind. Let's go build the Federation.
Our scholarship class of 2021 has thirteen graduate students, and one is this next finalist. Syed Rizvi, Massachusetts, Massachusetts. Syed is going into civil rights law: What does it mean to be named a tenBroek Fellow? Jacobus tenBroek, the founder of our movement, exemplified that education is the strongest foundation on which to advance civil rights. A titan in academia, his writings on the Fourteenth Amendment were used by Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education. His work not only advanced disability rights but also race rights. This past year I founded the American Muslim Bar Association, now including over one hundred fearless minority leaders working to advance civil rights here in the United States. I hope Harvard Law School can be my foundation on which I can pursue and advance disability and civil rights with the support of the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you.
Megan Swanson, California, Utah, instructional designer: My field of instructional psychology and technology occurs at the intersection of education, psychology, and technology. I love this field so much because I get to work with subject matter experts in various areas, and it makes me feel a little bit less guilty about this "oo shiny" mentality when I get to learn something new. Over the last year I've been able to do projects in various areas like research, teaching, design, and development. It's been incredible, and I've also been able to serve on a couple of boards for different organizations. I just want to thank you for this opportunity and say that I will continue to do those things as I learn and grow over the next year or three, until graduation and beyond. Thank you.
Kinshuk Tella, Ohio, Ohio, environmental science: I have always been fascinated by the natural sciences from creating microecosystems to regulating air pollutants for one of the largest United States defense contractors. Those around me saw my blindness as a suppressor, a disadvantage to my success in STEM. I take this assumption not as reality but as a challenge, paving the path for future generations of diverse scientists. With the earth sciences being the least diverse amongst all fields of science, it is crucial that we have blind role models within it. This is why I dedicate my future work to the environmental issues we face today for the betterment of tomorrow. Thank you.
Sam Theoharis, New York, Rhode Island, civil rights law: Hello. I'm a first-year undergrad at Brown University, and I'm very passionate about social justice and civil rights. In middle and high school I founded and took part in many different clubs, working on local advocacy and education around many different topics regarding civil rights. Over the past year in the pandemic, I haven't yet been able to engage in my local community around these issues, but luckily I've been able to be on the policy team as an intern at the Cairo Center for Religious Rights and Social Justice. This organization is an anchor organization for the Poor People's Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival. Thank you.
Zachary Thibodeaux, Texas, Connecticut, public policy: Thank you, Ms. Mendez, and thank you to the NFB for giving me this opportunity. My accomplishments include speaking at Guide Dogs for the Blind Fundraisers, being recognized as a national Hispanic scholar, and as the first undergraduate at Yale to receive Braille textbooks, I helped pave the way for future blind Yale undergraduates. I want to eventually hold a high-ranking position in a national government because I want to show society that blind people can hold elected positions. Thank you.
Mirranda Williams, Georgia, Maryland, geriatric behavioral and mental health: 2004, 2015, and 2021 are years that emphasized scholastic milestones for my life. These major accomplishments are my cornerstones to what I consider to be my greatest success thus far. I am the first to receive a high school diploma, as well as higher education degrees within my family. This educational background has afforded me the opportunity, along with other life experiences, to recognize that I am a humanitarian, thus the ideal profession of social work. I enthusiastically took on the role as a change agent for my family, my communities, and my culture, and I plan to help others do the same who will reflect me after completing my master's in the advanced standing program in gerontology at Morgan State University in 2022.
Chantale Zuzi, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, diplomacy: I'm specifically attracted to the area of human rights with an interest in international relations. My personal experience led to my deep desire to become involved with human rights and justice. I myself was denied basic human rights. I was born an albino, and in my community albinos were viewed as outcasts and their bodies good only for sacrificial purposes. The only reason I survived was because my parents believed that I had a right to live. I would love to bring justice back in my country and around the world. I wish to acquire the skills and knowledge and training that will enable me to make a difference and a change in my home country and around the world. I was resettled to the United States in 2018 and wouldn't believe that today I will be here. I just completed high school and now am heading into college!
Cayte: Mr. President, this concludes the presentation of the 2021 scholarship finalists.
Mark Riccobono: Thank you, Cayte, and what an outstanding group of individuals. We appreciate the work of the committee, and congratulations to our finalists.
Following is a complete list of the 2021 scholarship finalists and the awards they received:
$3,000 NFB Scholarships (17): Maryam Abdul Sattar, Samantha Chase, Lizzie Dunn, Shannon Donahue, Maya El Cheikh, Joel Gomez, Manahil Jafri, Peter Jansen, Jeanette Jones, Adi Lemmon, Haylee Mota, Stephen Proski, Megan Swanson, Sam Theoharis, Zachary Thibodeaux, Mirranda Williams, Chantale Zuzi
$3,000 E.U. and Gene Parker Scholarship: Christopher Abel
$3,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Scholarship: Lucien Gandarias
$3,000 Dr. Adrienne Asch Memorial Scholarship: Demetria Ober
$3,000 Charles and Betty Allen Scholarship: Tina Reisner
$5,000 Edith R. and Alvin J. Domroe Foundation Scholarship: Treasa Marie Praino
$5,000 NFB STEM Scholarship: Eric Mendell
$5,000 Mimi and Marvin Sandler Scholarship: Maxine Gretchokoff
$5,000 Pearson Scholarship: Christina Ebersohl
$7,000 JAWS for Windows Scholarship: Kaleigh Brendle
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in a STEM Field: Kinshuk Tella
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in Computer Science: Tashara Cooper
$10,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Memorial Scholarship: Syed Rizvi
$12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship: Lizzy Muhammad-Park
As the winner of the $12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship, Lizzy Muhammad-Park was invited to address the banquet. Following are her remarks.
Lizzy Muhammad-Park: Thank you, Madam Chair.
Hello, my Federation family. This honor represents your belief in me as a Federation leader and as a future successful blind professional. I would like to give a huge thank-you to the scholarship committee; to the National Federation of the Blind as a whole; to Dr. Ray Kurzweil; to my husband; to my parents, especially my mom; and to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I heard a quote earlier this week which said, "Don't worry about how you can get out of a situation, but instead think of why you were put in it." With that, I need to share a little story with you.
After four surgeries, a five-year-old girl had a conversation with her mother that went something like this.
"I can't take it anymore."
"You have to, baby. You're strong."
"No, really, Mom, I can't do this again."
"Are you sure?" The mother wondered what her child's future might hold. "If you don't, you won't be able to see anymore."
"I don't really care about that. Can I still go to school?"
"Can I still play with my friends?"
"Can I still watch TV?"
"Yes," her mom said.
"Okay, then, I'm fine with it. As long as I don't have to get another surgery."
I was that little girl. And after this conversation, my mom told my family about our decision.
"You can't listen to a child! She doesn't know what it means to be blind!"
"Hmm, what did they know?”
"No," my mom said firmly. "If she's okay with it, then we're okay with it. You don't know. She might be part of a change for blind people. I believe that she was chosen for this. God has a plan for her life, so instead of praying for her sight, let's pray for His will to be done."
Since everyone doesn't have my mom on speed dial, I will leave you with this: What the world views as weakness can be used for strength. It is in this way that the least become the greatest. People may underestimate you, and they will doubt you. But don't let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are! Better yet, show them. You are not a victim of blindness. You were chosen for this. You are in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people, the members of the National Federation of the Blind showing people who we are—I've got to start that part again because it's like the best part. The members of the National Federation of the Blind: showing people who we are with everything we do since 1940; Live the life you want and build the Federation!
Thank you a million times over for awarding me this honor. I will do my best to make you proud.
The American Action Fund (AAF) provides Braille books each month to thousands of families across the United States to empower blind people. From our Braille Book Fair to our Free Slate and Stylus Program, AAF has always strived to promote reading for pleasure and having pride in Braille as a viable literacy medium equal to print.
Every year the American Action Fund hosts a Braille reading contest called Braille Readers Are Leaders (BRAL). The contest aims to demonstrate the importance of independent reading in the development of Braille literacy skills and to inspire a love of reading for fun.
The mother of a BRAL participant from Maine had this to say about their child's experience with the competition: "Last year Thomas was so proud of himself for reading as much as he did. He was very excited to receive the prizes. He especially loved the map of his neighborhood. When I told him that we could participate again he couldn't wait to start logging his books."
An educator from Pennsylvania shared this about her student: "My student is very competitive and was motivated to read more during the time of this contest."
The work we do to encourage independent travel, excellence in education, and Braille literacy nationwide must be done. If you are in a position to do so, you can make a difference with a contribution. These programs are made possible through your support. Please help by giving a tax-deductible gift to the American Action Fund.
You can donate online by visiting our new webpage actionfund.org, or you can make a donation over the phone by calling 410-659-9315. You also may send a check made out to "American Action Fund" to 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.
This year's contest will begin on December 1, 2021, and run through January 21, 2022. For more information about our Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest, visit us at https://www.actionfund.org/programs/braille-readers-are-leaders.
To learn more about how to receive Braille books in the mail or how to donate a Braille book of your own, visit ShareBraille.org. When you donate your gently used books to ShareBraille, they can remain in circulation for years to come.
There is another way you can help the American Action Fund.
Often the simplest and most significant way to make a charitable donation is to plan a legacy gift. It is easier than you might think. You can plan to give all or part of a bank account, insurance proceeds, investment assets, real estate, or a retirement account. You can even give a required minimum distribution from your IRA directly to charity and avoid taxes on the distribution. After taking care of your loved ones, you can bequeath a specific dollar amount or percentage of your estate to an organization whose mission is important to you. Your bequest carries with it the values and ideals that have been important to you throughout your lifetime and supports an organization whose mission you hold dear. In addition, planning for a legacy gift may reduce the total amount of your taxable estate, which can have a positive impact on any funds you have designated for your heirs.
The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults Legacy Society honors and recognizes the generosity and the vision of special friends of the Action Fund who have chosen to leave a legacy through a will or other planned giving option.
If you wish to give part or all of an account, simply fill out a P.O.D. (payable on death) or T.O.D. (transfer on death) form. For pensions and insurance assets, simply designate a charity as a beneficiary. If you would like to leave a legacy to the Action Fund in your will, please include the following language:
"I give, devise, and bequeath unto the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, 1800 Johnson Street, Suite 100, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, a Maryland nonprofit corporation, the sum of $______________ (or) _________ percent of my net estate" or "the following stocks and bonds: ____________________, to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."
If you have questions or would like more information, please reach out to Patti Chang at 410-659-9315. If you have included the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults in your will or have made some other provision for a future gift to us and would like to tell us about it, please contact Patti Chang so we can recognize you as a member of our Legacy Society.
Legacy gifts provide for generations of blind children and adults. Please consider the American Action Fund in your future plans.
by Ramona Walhof
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 10, November 2021
From the Editor: On September 8, 2021, the NFB and the blind community lost a dedicated and innovative supporter, Doris Willoughby. In this article Ramona Walhof pays tribute to a friend, colleague, and longtime Federationist.
What can one woman accomplish without ever holding office in the NFB? Doris Willoughby graduated valedictorian from Boulder High School in Colorado and attended Grinnell College in Iowa. She taught second grade for eleven years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Doris met Curtis Willoughby in 1966, and they were married in June of 1967. The newspaper reported that the couple honeymooned in Clear Lake, Iowa; Los Angeles, California; and in the state of Hawaii. The reason for the stop in LA was the 1967 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
Blindness never bothered Doris. Curtis was blind, and she began driving and reading for him immediately. Soon other blind people were included.
Judy Young was a blind student in elementary education at the State University of Iowa, but the university said it could not find an appropriate place for her to student teach. This was not a problem for Doris, who got her principal's agreement that Judy could student teach in Cedar Rapids under Doris's supervision. It did not hurt that the principal was a member of the same Lions Club as Doris's husband. Judy became an excellent teacher, and she got a job in Urbandale near Des Moines the following year. The Urbandale newspaper wrote a wonderful feature story about her. It quoted parents of her students saying what a good year their fourth graders were having in Judy's class.
Doris Willoughby began studying to teach blind children on her weekends and evenings. She received the necessary credential in 1969 from the University of Minnesota. Doris began teaching blind children the following year. When Curtis took a job in Des Moines, Doris taught blind children there.
I believe it was in 1974 that Doris came to me, speculating about whether it would be appropriate to give a blind four-year-old a white cane. The child was unwilling to move around her preschool classroom without being led. I thought Doris should give it a try. At that time, child-sized canes did not exist. Doris decided to use the lower, small end of an adult cane. She arranged to have a special one made with a small handle for the child's hand. When I next thought about it several months later, she reported that the cane was working "perfectly." This may have been the first time, but many others soon began to provide white canes for very young blind children.
Doris continued to teach blind children in central Iowa until the Willoughbys moved to Colorado in 1993. Then she taught near Denver. After her first retirement, she taught blind adults at the NFB's Colorado Center for the Blind for several years. She taught those who were preparing for US citizenship and for their high school equivalency exams. Her expectations of her students and her willingness to provide extra assistance were always noticed by her fellow teachers.
Doris believed that if classroom teachers had more knowledge about blind children, blind students would have a better experience in public school. So she wrote her first book, Your School Includes a Blind Student. Two editions were published, one in 1974 and the second in 1981. Both books were supported and published by the National Federation of the Blind.
Doris soon realized that parents and teachers of blind children often did not know what were reasonable goals and expectations. So she wrote her second book, published in 1979, A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children. Although this book is not up-to-date, it is still being used, and a few used copies are available on the internet. Carol Castellano said of this book, "It saved our lives!" She explained: "We were in a hospital room far from home, awaiting our infant daughter's return from eye surgery, when a social worker came in and offered us some pamphlets and a small book to read. Feeling sick inside from the words I was reading about blindness, I read it all. When I got to the book, A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children, I felt myself lifted up. Not only could my child survive as a blind person, but she could thrive! The author of the book was Doris Willoughby, and right then and there, Doris became a profoundly important person in my family's life.
"When the social worker returned, I told him I really liked that book. He said it was from the National Federation of the Blind. He told me they had some pretty good literature, but I should stay away from them. They were radical and militant.
"So Doris was also my introduction to the NFB. The first phone call I made when I got home was to the NFB. Five years later, at my first NFB convention, I met Doris, Curtis, and others who graciously gave their time to comfort, model, and teach this new parent."
Over the years, Doris wrote other books on the education of blind children. All have the same fundamental optimism, practicality, and positive attitude that have given parents and teachers through the decades not only hope but commonsense guidance on how to raise and educate their blind children successfully.
Barbara Cheadle was the founder of Future Reflections, the magazine for parents of blind children. She also served as president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the NFB for twenty-five years. She writes, "It was Doris who systematically and successfully applied the Federation philosophy to the education of blind children in the integrated public school setting. It would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to have launched Future Reflections and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children without the foundation Doris laid with her NFB books and articles. She was integral to the success of all the Federation's outreach efforts to parents of blind children. Our workshops, seminars, articles in Future Reflections, educational videos, Braille Readers are Leaders Contest, and the campaign to get white canes into the hands of blind kids as early as possible all contain her imprint. For years, out of her home, she coordinated the distribution of videos promoting the use of white canes for blind kids."
The third book, coauthored by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Duffy, was entitled A Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. It was published in 1989. The book is a detailed guide with lesson plans and approaches. Although somewhat out of date, it is still being used by the University of Northern Colorado teacher of blind children training program, and it is available in limited numbers from used book sources on the internet.
Doris's last book was published in 1998, and it was also co-authored by Sharon Monthei (formerly Sharon Duffy). It is still available from the Independence Market and is entitled Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind and Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School. Sharon says that Doris convinced her that she could write. Sharon has written three additional books that have been beneficial to blind people.
Doris's mother, sisters, and husband were all ham radio operators, so she also became licensed in 1990. As a ham she worked with Curtis on emergency preparedness within the NFB and in projects with other groups. For many years Curtis and Doris together distributed and kept track of special devices for the hearing impaired and Spanish speakers needing translation during NFB conventions.
Doris was active in her church, first in Cedar Rapids, then in Des Moines, and in the cities where she lived in Colorado. She and Curtis attended at least fifty NFB conventions, and she was most disappointed when her health prevented their attendance in 2019.
For her work Doris received numerous awards. She was the Distinguished Teacher of Blind Children at the Fiftieth Anniversary Convention in 1990. The NFB of Colorado awarded Doris and Curtis the Ray McGeorge Award. The Parents of Blind Children Division presented her with two awards, one in 2008 at its twenty-fifth convention and one in 2010.
I cannot begin to mention all those who commented on Facebook and in other ways about how Doris Willoughby influenced and helped them. She was a builder and leader in changing opportunities for blind children and in giving hope and guidance to parents and teachers. Her written work is still influential. Her determination, creativity, generosity, and accumulated knowledge and skill made her a model for all to remember and emulate. We owe her a huge debt. The repayment will be to continue to build on the foundation stones she laid.
The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children hosts a webinar on the third Thursday of each month. Topics have included raising blind children with additional disabilities, choosing children's books that present positive blind characters, Blind Equality Achievement Month, and Consent and Boundaries throughout the Lifespan. Recordings of past webinars are available.
Braille Readers Are Leaders 2021-2022
December 1, 2021 through January 21, 2022
Registration is now open for the 2021-2022 Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. The contest is sponsored by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults in conjunction with the National Federation of the Blind. This year participants will count the minutes they have read instead of logging the number of pages they have completed. Participants will be able to log their minutes day by day on the Beanstack platform. The contest is open to Braille readers in grades K-12, and there is also a category for adults. For more information and to register for the contest, visit the webpage listed above.
Spanish Interest Form for Braille Books
The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults provides free Braille books to thousands of blind children each year. The Action Fund is exploring interest in providing Braille books in Spanish. If you or someone you know could benefit from receiving Spanish Braille books, please visit the webpage listed above.
The Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation recognizes entrepreneurs, educators, or inventors whose work promotes Braille and tactile literacy for blind and deafblind people worldwide. The prize can be granted for innovative and accessible computer software applications, tactile hardware, or curriculum that promotes Braille and/or tactile literacy. National Braille Press (NBP), the sponsor of the award, encourages applicants to think outside the box about ways to help improve the lives of blind people. Even if you have applied in previous years, you are encouraged to apply again! The winner of this prize will receive up to $10,000, which will help them to continue to innovate in the fields of technology and education for blind people.