American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2021      NOPBC BOARD MEETING

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Empowering or Disqualifying: Which Are We Doing?

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.

Jordana Engelbretsen stands in front of a class of children.

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!

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