The Gift

by Mariyam Cementwala, Board Member, National Association of Blind Students

The first time I heard about training centers was at the 1997 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. At that time I met Joanne Wilson, director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind.  I had thought that perhaps someday I would go, but right then I did not think that I needed to be at a center. I was on my way to the University of California at Berkeley.   I felt that I had enough skills in living and travelling independently to survive on my own without first going to a center.  The thought was pushed to the back of my head in cold storage. I was a long way off from believing that I needed training in alternative techniques of blindness.

Four months following convention, I was sitting at Giovanni's Italian Restaurant in downtown Berkeley with a friend who is a graduate of an NFB training center.  It was here that the initial impact was made that I needed to go to a training center.  Sure, I was using a cane, but it was a short, heavy aluminum, folding cane. I was not as comfortable with my blindness as I could have and should have been—as I am now.

The restaurant was dimly lit, and at that time, I thought I needed light to do anything. The struggle came when it was time to order and I refused the idea of letting the waitress read the menu for us. Even though it was taking me five minutes to read each menu item, I wanted to read it myself.  My hungry dinner companion asked the waitress to read us the menu.  Then he remarked, "You need to go to a NFB training center, and quickly!"  I may have been living alone, but in many ways, I wasn't living independently. That's when the first bells rang in my head.  Perhaps I shouldn't put off going to a center until some later time, such as after finishing my undergraduate degree and before law school.

Then later in that same school year, I was sitting at a board meeting of the California Association of Blind Students.  I could not read my 15-point, bold, capitalized notes, which my duties as the secretary required, because the lighting was really dim. At that point I decided I would learn Braille and quickly.  However, I wasn't even sure how.  In college I used readers, took my own notes when I could and went to the occasional study group.  I skated by well enough. But from associating more and more with people in the NFB, I was realizing that life is not about getting by but about living well and to the fullest. 

By this time, I was becoming much more open to the idea of going to a center sooner than I had planned. The fact that my two best friends were at a center and raving about the experience certainly helped.  Yet, I still thought that I would wait because I simply could not take a break from college. I finally became convinced after hearing from many graduates who wished they had gone sooner because their undergraduate years would have been so much easier.

That summer I decided to visit the Louisiana Center for a week.  By my third day at the center, I knew that I was going to come that year, and by the end of the summer if I could help it.  The rest of my life could wait.  We often impose barriers upon ourselves such as thinking we can only go to a center after getting a degree or after doing this or that.

There is no right time to go to a training center because there is always something going on in the rest of our lives.   It might be school, family, a job or something else that interferes.  Sometimes we just have to push those other priorities aside for the real priority—oneself.  So, after making the arrangements with my vocational rehabilitation counselor, I entered the adult program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind at the end of the summer.

Where do I begin to describe the center experience? I could write a book. It would include the bowling nights, the baby shower, the cramped vanloads of anxious, excited, tired, and just plain loud blind people heading off to Mardi Gras or rock climbing or whatever other adventure was in store for the group. The center taught me survival in a big way.  It taught me what it means to compete on terms of equality, to hold my ground, to keep my control, and to look directly at an employer and say with confidence, "I can do this job."  The center taught me skills such as cane travel and Braille.  I also learned punctuality, openness, diplomacy, discipline, confidence, and giving.  It taught me that I have a lot more to learn and that this learning is never-ending.  The center challenged me and taught me that I must challenge myself.  It is difficult to sum it up in words except to say that it was some of the most difficult and wonderful of times I have ever experienced.  The center taught me how to learn—how to go full circle.

The center experience was so rich, almost as rich as the chocolate raspberry cheesecake I had at Giovanni's last Friday night.  It was an autumn evening almost two years ago when I had walked into Giovanni's Italian Restaurant with great trepidation with my friend; I hadn't dared to go there since then. Now, on a fall Friday just as before, I walked in again—this time without the trepidation, and with a new friend. Using my long, white cane, I followed the waitress to a dim table towards the back. This time, I asked her to read us what was on the dessert menu for the night.  My friend was comfortable with my blindness because I was comfortable with it.

The National Federation of the Blind, through its positive philosophy and excellent training centers, gave me a new, better quality of life.  Each day at the center is like a slow process of unwrapping a great gift.  The only constant is that there are lots of surprises. Each day after the center is better because you get to enjoy the gift you were given, and get to share it with others.

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