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The Impact of My First Washington Seminar

By Nicole Ditzler

Editor's introduction: Nicole Ditzler is a member of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students and has a powerful story to tell about her first experience with the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what she has to say:

It was a Friday afternoon. My classes were over. My bags were packed. And I had made certain to bring along with me the folding cane, which had been stuffed, in my closet for nearly six months. I was about to fly to Washington D.C., the farthest distance I had ever been from home, with Stacey Cervenka, a girl I had met at the beginning of the school year. I had not thought much about where I was going, or what I would encounter there for that matter. I had not taken the time to think about this trip. But as we headed to the massive two gated airport in Fargo, North Dakota, her confidence in traveling made me realize that I was in for something I had never imagined when I decided to go on this trip.

It was obvious to me that my first experience with other blind people would make a tremendous difference in my life. Our arrival that night sent out a clear message without a single word being uttered. As we approached the front desk and obtained our keys, I knew I was entering into a different world when the woman behind the desk handed mea Brailled card for a free dessert. My lack of experience with blindness turned my world upside down. Immediately I had to swallow my pride and allow someone to assist me-something I did not feel comfortable accepting. Throughout my trip to Washington, I found myself accepting assistance for the first time in my life. That night and the next day were completely overwhelming for me. I met many blind people who had competence in the alternative techniques of blindness. They impressed me with their ability to use Braille and travel confidently.

During the student seminar I had the opportunity to hear how they had successfully adjusted to their blindness and it seemed that they were speaking directly to me. I encountered people who were challenging me to be independent, to stand up for my abilities and myself. I realized that the way I was living: lacking travel skills; needing to learn Braille; and living fearfully every day were things I needed to change. The speakers messages challenged me, but much more challenging was the subway trip I took with my blind friends who had to lead me most of the way, even though they had less sight than I. As a result of this new experience with blindness, I realized some important things about myself. First, I was scared to go with my friends and enjoy myself, not because I didn't trust them, but because I didn't trust myself and my own skills as a blind person. Secondly, I needed to accept myself as a blind person and accept the fact that I could not see. Once accepting this limitation, I realized that I needed to use my cane and trust my own ability to travel without assistance since I hated relying on others. Lastly I learned I could do it. I watched these blind people functioning independently and I wanted to be like them, and their examples showed me that it was possible.

All of this learning and self realization did not come without a price. The second night of the conference I talked with Joanne Wilson, bawling my eyes out and pouring my heart out telling her my frustrations. Talking that night offered me a new understanding of how to live as an independent blind person. I was able to see that my feelings were valid and that I was not alone. After sharing my feelings with her, I was able to come to an understanding of what it would take for me to gain the independence that I witnessed in the people I had met that weekend. As the weekend continued, I realized I would need to adopt a more positive attitude, one that seemed to be surfacing on its own as the weekend progressed. Furthermore, I began planning for the next steps to take in order to become what I was meant to be - a fully independent and strong woman, living life to her fullest without fear.

By the third day, I was gaining more confidence and learning to relax because I realized that I was moving in the right direction. Through this continuing experience with independent blind people, my spirits lifted and I started to have fun. I knew I had found a home, and I resolved within myself to become more active In the NFB and the National Association of Blind Students. I realized what I had been missing for so many years, and I strongly desired a more active social life. These feelings were confirmed when I sat next to Thomas Philip on the flight home, and he talked with me at length about the Federation philosophy and how it had changed his life.

After talking with Thomas On the flight home, I decided to talk with my fiancé about my new perspective of blindness and begin to teach my college friends the real message of blindness. In addition to these decisions, I also thought about the impact of the weekend's experiences and the dynamic people I had met. In truth, I did not fully understand the importance of affiliating with the NFB while I was attending the conference. After I returned home and put the things I had learned into action, or even now, I believe that understanding and fully recognizing the importance of this community of people is a lifelong task. In one weekend I made friends who allowed me to express my frustrations and offer sound advice that would change my life for many years to come. Since leaving the conference, I have communicated with these newfound friends who continue to mentor me and give me the strength I need to achieve my goals. What I do understand is that having a community of fellow blind people around me has given and will continue to give me, a strong base with which to face and embrace life as a blind person. It gives me encouragement to face hardships, which undoubtedly may be more difficult for us than for others, wisdom to realize that while those things are more difficult, they are never impossible, and the strength to pursue the passions we hold.

The most powerful memory I have of the Washington Seminar was meeting a young boy, no more than six years old, attending the conference with his father. Seeing that young boy, as a twenty year old woman finally coming to terms with my own blindness, in one moment summed up the importance of involvement in a blind community. That boy will grow up with the knowledge that he is capable of everything his peers are, that he has the right to, and that he will thrive throughout life with a community of blind people who are role models. I am thankful to have found that same community and to have been accepted as a part of it. The impact it had on my life was priceless, setting so many things into motion, and pushing me to a greater freedom and quality of life.

My ability was augmented that weekend, by the mere change in attitude that occurred while I was there. A few weeks later, I was forced to admit that The NFB has in part given me the strength to change the way I live. While I do not have all the skills I need, and while I am still scared of many things, I am facing them one at a time. My ability to discern the things I need to do and the wisdom to recognize how to do them increases daily with the help of those who have shared their thoughts, goals, and accomplishments with me. Before Washington Seminar, my friend Stacy told me that in a short time I would gain a family I never knew I had, and she was right. As I returned to Fargo and jumped into college life again, I realized that I have a new home, a new family full of support, love, and encouragement. And as with every good family, every once in a while I now have someone to whip me back into shape when I'm getting out of line or allowing myself to settle for less than I am capable of doing. Now, before someone tries to take me up on that whipping into shape part, the folding cane I used in Washington Seminar has been retired and I have been faithfully using the rigid cane I purchased that weekend.

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