by Mariyam Cementwala
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mariyam Cementwala is the First Vice President of the California Association of Blind Students.
Last August, I enrolled as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. No previous educational circumstances or life events could have prepared me for the center experience. It was literally overwhelming at first because what I expected to learn was not quite what I was learning at all. The difference between any other center and an NFB center is the whole approach to teaching blindness skills.
The NFB centers do not teach just blindness skills--they also teach life skills. Learning at a center is not confined to an hour here of Braille and an hour there of computers and a couple hours here and there of travel. It's going bowling under sleep shades at 6:30 in the evening with your fellow peers and staff members after you've had a full day of instruction at the center. It's about sitting cramped in a van full of people who are fretful, or excited, or just plain loud about going to Mardi Gras, or rock climbing, or white water rafting.
Those center days and experiences are just as, or more, meaningful than the eight‑to‑five daily instruction. You learn more than just Braille and cane travel at the centers, and you learn more than cooking and other daily living skills --you get to "live" daily living skills. You have to get along with people, work with people you don't like, give to others in big and small ways—whether that means giving a gift at a fellow blind student's baby shower or convincing that quieter person that rock climbing really will be okay. The centers teach you how to live the philosophy by encouraging and almost forcing you to participate in activities you otherwise would not have been a part of. You just jump right into everything. No hours of formal instruction can teach you that.
When I first started the program, I planned to stay for about four months. I hoped to finish everything and do everything in that time. But the NFB training center program is like no other school or training program or educational institution. You can't go expecting to set targets and accomplish them all in your fixed time schedule because the centers represent, in truth, the best of discovery learning any place has to offer. In discovery learning, there is not a set pace that you can expect to follow. Discovery learning means that you have to problem‑solve and work through situations. You cannot rush through things for the sake of finishing. Worst, or perhaps most challenging of all, you have to be patient with yourself--which means allowing yourself the right to fail.
There have been countless times I walked into the wood shop thinking that today, I would achieve this or that. Then I would start to work on my grid block or Braille block and would make it almost to the last step before completion, and alas, I would make that one fatal mistake which ruined my project. So what did that mean? I had to start all over from step one. But, I always learned something, whether it was about technique or about myself, in the process. One lesson that has always stuck is that blindness is no excuse for imperfection. We're expected to be as accurate in our work as one/thirty‑second of an inch. The worst thing that happened is that I lost a day, but the lesson learned was much greater than the day lost. It's this kind of instruction which is available nowhere else. Sometimes it takes more than the time you allotted for it to obtain this instruction.
Well, after a couple of months, I came to this startling realization that I could not get everything I wanted out of the program in the allotted four months. I came to the conclusion that I was simply wrong. This was not an academic program that I could shorten or the lessons of which I could cram into my head by four months. I decided to go for the whole nine yards and extend my training time for as long as I needed. Now I'm fighting constantly with my rehabilitation agency to see it my way and to extend my training.
I have gotten so much out of training in such a short time. No blind person should be deprived of training. Whether it's at home or at a training center is up to you. I can personally say that the training center experience, which is by no means over, has been unbelievably transforming. Since starting at the center, I have come a long way in my attitudes, in my self‑perception, and in dealing with my hesitations about blindness.
I realized this a few months ago when I was on a travel lesson. I had gone to the library at Louisiana Tech University to work with a reader on an assignment for the College Readiness class here. Since we finished early, my travel instructor decided that we had time to go to the soda machines and get something to drink. He asked me if I wanted something, and I said that I wouldn't mind a bottle of Strawberry Crush if the machine carried it.
We got to the machines, and for a while I stood there wondering what to do next. I was wearing sleep shades and wasn't planning on taking them off even though I knew that if I did, I would be able to read the machines to know if they carried Strawberry Crush. I then asked my instructor if the machines were Brailled, and he jokingly replied, "What do you think?" I replied, "Probably not."
After waiting awhile and wondering what to do, I finally asked a lady if the machines carried any strawberry soda. She took a quick glance and answered, "No, only grape and orange." I was relieved. Now I wouldn't have to use the machine and ask for any further help from her in finding the button for Strawberry Crush!
A moment later, in her heavy southern drawl, she said, "Oh wait. There is a strawberry drink, but it costs a dollar." I thought to myself, "Oh, darn! Well, wait! There's still hope! I probably don't have a dollar with me, so I still won't have to get it."
After awhile, my instructor asked, "So did you get your soda?" I casually replied, "No. I'll get it at the shop. We have strawberry soda there. Besides, I don't think I have a dollar with me now."
To my horror, he said, "You can borrow a dollar from me if you want." I responded, "No. It's okay. Then I may not remember to pay you back, and I can wait. I don't really want it right now anyway." He, who had played the same blindness games himself, told me not to worry and that he would remind me to pay him back. I stood there wondering for a moment what to do. Then I decided that enough was enough.
It was time to stop playing these blindness games. I didn't want to ask the lady for help in reading me the machines because my pride wouldn't let me. I had never explicitly denied my blindness, but letting go of one's insecurity about asking questions is an indispensable part of really with one's blindness. So after thinking about my behavior and resolving that it was time for change, I told my instructor that I would take him up on his offer and would borrow that dollar after all.
So now I had the dollar, but still didn't know where the button for the strawberry soda was. I asked my instructor if he knew the location of the button. He replied, "That's up to you to figure out." I then asked whether I was going to wait for someone sighted to come along who could read me the machine or whether I would do the previously unthinkable deed of walking up to someone and asking him or her to read me the correct button on the machine.
Well, patience has never been my forte, so I decided that now was the best time to let my impatient nature prevail. I gritted my teeth and did what was perhaps the most difficult thing in my life. While my cane travel instructor stood somewhat baffled, wondering exactly why I was taking so long to obtain one simple bottle of Strawberry Crush, I gathered my bearings and walked determinedly up to an office door and asked a lady somewhat with trepidation, "Ma'am, can you please tell me which button on the last soda machine is for the Strawberry Crush?" She casually replied that if I had asked her for Diet Dr. Pepper, she would have known off‑hand, but since she had no idea, she would walk up there and read me the button herself. She told me that it was the second to the last button and walked away. I inserted my dollar bill, and out came a bottle of soda, which, upon tasting, proved to be Strawberry Crush.
I've kept that bottle of Strawberry Crush as a memento of this valuable lesson. I still owe my travel instructor a dollar, but I owe him much more than that.
As I was debating whether or not to get that bottle of Strawberry Crush, one thought went through my mind, "If I don't face up to accepting my blindness here, I may never do it." We all know that blindness should not stop us from doing things. In doing many of the big things like going across the country alone, my blindness hasn't stopped me, but subtly and sometimes subconsciously, we let it stop us from so many little things in life—like getting a bottle of Strawberry Crush when and where we want one!
One of the best excuses that we sometimes come up with for not doing things is that they really don't want to do them. "It can wait" or "I really don't want to go out tonight" or "I just don't feel like it" are common phrases we use to avoid doing things we are uncomfortable with because we aren't sure of the lighting conditions or because we don't know how to do something because we've never done it before.
I decided that I was going to stop playing the "I really don't want to anyway" game. I had played that too long, and there comes a point when you get tired of fooling yourself. You may successfully fool the rest of the world for a lifetime, but you can only fool yourself for so long, and you cheat yourself out of so many opportunities when you take the comfortable way out of situations.
I had sought out some stranger and asked her to read me the labels on the machine! It was the first significant step to fearlessly and unashamedly asking for help as a blind person--a part of accepting every aspect of blindness. We all deal with blindness at different levels, but being at a center forces one to confront it right then and there. It pushes you into new and challenging situations. I thought I came to the center to acquire blindness skills. I thought I had confronted my blindness and had "dealt with it" and its place in my life. I thought I had accepted myself for who I am. I was wrong.
The graduates of the center told me that the experience would change me. I didn't realize just how much and how quickly until my adventure with the Strawberry Crush. I've got more changing and growing yet to do. My cane travel instructor once told me he enjoyed his job because he loved watching "discovery learning" happen. "It's exciting," he'd told me. Self‑discovery is indeed exciting. It's a process that, although often starting at an NFB center, continues for a lifetime.
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