Voice over music: Welcome to the Nation's Blind Podcast, presented by the National Federation of the Blind, the transformative membership and advocacy organization of blind Americans. Live the Life You Want.
Melissa Riccobono: Hello and welcome to the Nation's Blind Podcast. I'm Melissa Riccobono, and I'm here with?
Anil Lewis: Anil Lewis, and I'm here with Melissa Riccobono.
Melissa: Hi, how are you, Anil?
Anil: I'm doing great. Welcome to the Nation's Blind Podcast.
Melissa: Welcome, fall is here.
Anil: Yes, it is. And winter is coming.
Melissa: Yeah, that that is true. That is true. How is the weather in Atlanta?
Anil: It's nice. We're actually having a fall. We got some 70 degree weather here. When I was up in Baltimore just last week, I think we went from eighties in Baltimore to 60.
Melissa: We did. And it was 48 this morning. Oh, my poor children going to school were all saying, oh, it's so cold. (Anil laughs) But anyway, it's supposed to be, I think, seventies by the end of the week up here too.
Anil: So your kids are going to school?
Melissa: Kids are going to school.
Anil: Real nice segue there, Melissa.
Melissa: Yeah, well, thank you. You know, I'm a professional. (Laughs)
Anil: Yeah. Don’t try this at home, kids. Yeah. Yes. We're going to be talking about education today. Kids going to school. Yeah.
Melissa: Yeah, but but not just kids going to school, but their teachers more more broadly. And what we do in the National Federation of the Blind to help with the education of blind students in all sorts of ways.
And we've talked a lot about our NFB Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy and how that helps kids very directly, either with the in-home edition or with in-person NFB BELL.
Anil: So many of our programs really work directly with the students, and that's really good. You know, you can get that one- on-one impact. It's a lot like that starfish story, right? And the guy keeps throwing starfish in. It makes a difference to that one. But I think the program we're going to be discussing today is one of those exponential-impact programs.
Melissa: Yeah, and I think we have to look to those exponential-impact programs so that our impact can be broader and broader and broader because it is great to make a difference one kid at a time. And it's especially rewarding when you're in those programs and you see those specific kids.
Melissa: But then we want more. What is it that we would need in order not to have to have an NFB BELL or maybe to have it, but to have it be...
Anil: A complement?
Melissa: Yeah. I think that this program that we're going to talk about talks a lot about those types of questions. And we have a special guest here with us. Do you want to introduce her, Anil? Because I can never remember her title.
Anil: Sure, because the suspense is killing me. What is this program they speak of?
Melissa: Absolutely. Yes.
Anil: We’re joined by the Coordinator of Education Programs for the National Federation of the Blind,
Miss Karen Anderson. Hi, Karen.
Karen Anderson: Hey, everybody. How's it going?
Melissa: Going well, how are you doing?
Anil: I’m doing great. Have you recovered?
Karen: Ah, no!
Anil: Just for our listeners' sake, we just finished a weekend of working with our, dot da ta da... Teachers of Tomorrow. Tell us a little bit about Teacher of Tomorrow.
Karen: Teachers of Tomorrow is a program aimed at connecting early-career teachers of blind students with the lived experiences of blind people. So what we hear a lot, and what we know, is that often these teachers who get their certifications in teaching blind students have no real connection with blind adults. The first connection they ever make with blind people is with their students. And so there's no real understanding of how a blind person might truly accomplish certain things, but they also don't have the opportunity to see blind people truly being successful and living the lives that they want to live. And so we want to make sure that teachers of blind students have the opportunity to get connected with blind people and, more importantly, with the organized blind movement, so that when they have a student who says, "I want to march in the marching band" or "I want to be a hairdresser," or "I want to be an auto mechanic," they have a group of blind people they can reach out to to say: All right, is this possible? And how is this possible? And can you connect me with somebody who's doing it?
Anil: And as we say, as an organization, so much of what we do is about shifting those expectations. And if you have a person who's been trained to work with blind students, right, And give them a desire to reach their full potential, how do you do that when you don't really understand the full capacity of blind individuals? I mean, it's something to be said around how the teachers we work with shift a paradigm of expectation for their students based on what you just said, being in touch with them, being around successful blind adults.
Melissa: Yeah, and it's so true. And I was just thinking back, you know, as as far as just my experiences as a blind kid, I remember, number one, my teacher of blind students told me I just could never be an artist because nobody could really understand or tell what I was trying to draw. And that was it. You know, I was in first or second grade and it wasn't like, let's try to get you into sculpture. Let's give you some tactile drawing tools. No, no. It was just. No, no. As a blind person, you just can't do this.
Melissa: In my sophomore year, I really wanted to be a music therapist. And to her credit, my teacher of blind students did find a musical therapist that I could job shadow for a part of a day at a nursing home, which wasn't exactly the population that I wanted to work with, but at least I sort of got a feeling for what she did. And at the end of that, the teacher said, You know, I just really didn't think you could be a music therapist. But, you know, now maybe, maybe you could. And I mean, that changed her mind. But I just thought, what made you think I couldn't? And so I just think that there's so many things that happen like that every day to the adults that really do want what's best for blind kids and yet have been conditioned by society, by their own experiences, by maybe possibly their training in some ways to have kind of those low expectations and not really to understand what blind people truly can do or how they can do that. Karen, is that kind of why we need this program, do you think?
Karen: I think that's a big part of it. It was really interesting this weekend to hear the teachers talk about what they didn't feel they were provided in some of their training programs. They really didn't have the opportunity to connect with blind people. So even if they have that ingrained understanding, like gut-level understanding of the capabilities of blind people, it's so much harder to express that to your students and to keep living that with your students when you don't have the opportunity to see blind people living the lives that they want. And when you are surrounded by, I guess, a structure that really doesn't believe in blind people, the education system is not really set up for blind students to succeed in a lot of ways.
Anil: Yeah, I found it very interesting hearing some of the struggles of the teachers. But really quickly, to go back to what Melissa was saying by her story, I find it very interesting that you hear the stories of how, you know, these blind students that are doing something excellent. Right. And unfortunately, they're deemed to be the exception of the group. But that's just a manifestation of what happens when you put an appropriate educational environment together that allows them to tap into their talents just like any other student. I think more and more blind people can really aspire to higher goals, and I think that that was really obvious. Here. Let's start down this path. As we work with our Teachers of Tomorrow, this new cohort that we just brought in, it was very telling very early on in the introductions that many of them had already kind of recognized the shortcomings of the preparation that they've had in order to do this job. And I think that that speaks, you know, first and foremost to the disconnect, right, of blind people being involved and being engaged with that work. So I think that that kicked the meeting off to me with, oh, wow, we're going to be in for a really interesting ride this weekend.
Karen: Yeah, it's definitely something that I noticed when we were doing introductions, how many people recognized what they had not gotten in their teacher preparation programs and had really come seeking that. And I will say, Anil, a lot of that came out in their interviews, which is why they were chosen to be a part of this cohort, because they really were seeking that lived understanding. They really were seeking that community and they were seeking to be a part of something bigger than themselves. I think that's really, really powerful.
Anil: That's rewarding. And I know in previous podcasts we've had, Melissa's actually interviewed some of the teachers of blind students that have worked with her children. And I think that just in her example, right, of at least taking advantage of the opportunity to do some music therapy for seniors, if you can take some of these teachers — and in her case, a lot of them were just mainstream teachers — But you can kind of educate them about the tools and also kind of alter their expectations. A lot of what we need to happen happens organically. I don't want to make it sound like it's that simple because the program had a lot more components this weekend that I think were invaluable, and that was demonstrated in the survey results we received.
Melissa: Well, just one more quick thing about the teachers. I think it's also really important and I think really where the education system fails most often is for those kids that have some residual vision.
Melissa: Because society just wants those kids to use that vision they have. And these teachers really understand that it's not what a child can see, it's what they can do. And they need to be able to use all of their tools to be able to do all different things. And sometimes it's that you have to plant those seeds and make them realize that those tools really can be helpful. And we did have some discussions about that in the very short time that I was able to be with the teachers, things like, you know, making sure that a child has a Braille display to hook up to a computer and see that doing code for cybersecurity might be made a lot easier if they use Braille to check for errors than trying to listen to everything with a screen reader, you know, a very practical way to use Braille. And maybe they're not reading novels in Braille, but at least they're using it in that part of their job to be efficient. And I think that's really important. So I just kind of wanted to get Karen's thoughts on that a little bit, and then I think we should definitely go into the survey results because I'm really interested in what the teachers had to say as well.
Karen: I think one thing that stood out to me was that some of our teachers really do get that on a gut level, Melissa, what you were saying about vision not being the most effective sense for these kids and them already feeling discouraged or like they're the odd man out or the odd teacher out because they are pushing for some of these things and being pushed back against, you know, hearing other teachers, other people in the learning environment saying, oh, no, no, this child should be using their vision. This child should be learning visually. And I felt a lot of hope from them hearing us say, we will come in and help you. We will come in and help advocate with you and for this child. We will come in as blind people. No, we're not like those paid advocates where we have a vested interest in getting paid. We will come in and help you advocate for the best interests of the child.
Anil: And the whole disconnect between, you know, the students with low vision, you know, who have some residual sight and the necessary tools they need to be competitive in the education environment really came out in our discussion of the terminology and the use of the word blind. You know, I thought that that was just going to be kind of a simple little presentation around getting them to understand what we meant. But it turned to such a rich discussion, you know, around the use of language and how it impacts the blind students that they work with.
Karen: Yeah. It was powerful. It was powerful to have them sort of start to unpack their feelings about the word blind. And again, this is the start of a yearlong program. They're going to be participating in events. This was the kick off event this last weekend of September or first weekend of October, depending on how you want to read the calendar. But then they're going to have monthly virtual sessions where they talk with us and with other blind people and members of the Federation. They're going to have three more in-person sessions. They're going to come to our Washington Seminar. They're going to get to go to Ruston, Louisiana to visit one of the best training centers for blind people in the world, as well as the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness. And they're also going to get to go to our 2023 National Convention in Houston, Texas.
Anil: Wow, I want to, I want to participate.
Karen: I know. We're not even done Anil, because they're also going to get paired with mentors, mentor teachers of blind students who have been doing this for a little while. Some of our mentors were members of the 2021 Teachers of Tomorrow cohort. So they're coming back around and now being mentors. I think that's really cool. But they're going to be mentored by teachers who now understand the value of being connected to the blind movement. Our movement of blind people. And I think all of those pieces together, I really can't wait to see where these teachers are in a year and I can't wait to continue to have them be involved in so many of our other programs.
Anil: Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: And what might they help us create in the future? I mean, you know, it's one thing to keep the programs we already have going, but these teachers could have the next really big idea that will help us jump on to something else.
Anil: I believe that.
Melissa: Maybe more early childhood programs or maybe more, I don't know what, but that's exciting to me as well.
Anil: Yeah. One of the other things that kind of stood out was we only had them for those two days and we were able to share, you know, some personal stories. That also kind of came out in the survey as something that they felt was really beneficial. Hearing the lived experiences of blind people, that validates kind of really kind of our catalyst for even starting this particular program. So I really like that. But what was really telling for me and I'm looking at the agenda and we have these experiences, we're going to teach them how to pour you know, going to teach them how to chop and we're going to teach them, you know, how to carry a tray.
Karen: And use a cane.
Anil: And you're thinking, okay, the cane I knew, you know, because that's, you know, orientation mobility is a certification, the whole deal. You think, okay, that's really something substantive. But I'm like, really, I'm going to teach them how to pour, we're going to try to chop and we're going to teach you how to carry a tray. And man! They came back from that experience so enlightened and it was really kind of interesting with respect to what we kind of deem as fairly simple day-to-day things and I think this is what was really helpful for me, that we take for granted, really helped them understand not the quote/unquote challenges that blind people face to do those things, but the real true alternative ways of using other information through our other senses to get those fundamental things done. And if we can get them to understand that, then hopefully we can get to where Melissa was just talking about, get them inspired to help us figure out what is that next innovative program.
Karen: And I just want to point out, they did all these things under learning shades.
Karen: Because we know that using learning shades is the best way to teach nonvisual techniques and to truly make them feel like they are effective. We know that they're effective. But if you're still trying to use that residual vision that you have, it's a lot harder to feel confident in those techniques. And I thought it was really powerful and telling that on the surveys we had a couple of teachers say, "You could have had us move between stations with our learning shades on. We wouldn't have minded."
Anil: Yeah, that's one of them. Wonder if that would’ve been a consensus for the whole group. (Laughs)
Karen: Yeah. But I thought it was really cool to see how much they really did take that experience wholeheartedly committing to that and recognizing why it's important. I'm looking forward to doing more of those non visual skills experiences with these teachers over the next three in-person sessions, because I think having more experiences like that will help them recognize how powerful it can be for their students to have those non visual skills.
Melissa: And I mean the ones that you chose are so practical, you know, obviously the cane, I mean that just speaks for itself. But pouring, I mean, students do need to know how to pour. Chopping. I mean, a lot of students don't get that chance to work in the kitchen at all. And so giving them that confidence. And carrying a tray? There is so much to be said for a kid being able to go through the lunch line on their own, carry their own tray. That's a rite of passage. That is something that's so important. You know, going to the mall, to a food court with your friends, being able to carry that tray, going to a college dining hall, being able to carry your tray, all of those times that that's just such a practical skill. And those are so often the skills, especially right now schools, which are just so focused on so often teaching for the test, and that's it. The things that people just say, well, that's just too hard, you know, we'll have somebody go through the line for you or whatever else. I mean, I think those things are what can make the most difference when you're actually expecting the student to do something like everybody else. Like my experience in biology in college when we were dissecting and I was just sure that my TA was just going to want me to have my partner cut the rat open and the TA’s like, nope, here's your scissors. I’m like, but ...I can't see! Nope, you're just going to break the ribs like everybody else. And that was, that is one of my best experience. I mean, it was gross …
Anil: Good for you.
Melissa: But it was, she expected no different of me than any other students in the class. And she's like, you know, if you make a mistake and you cut into something you shouldn't, then we'll get somebody else's and we'll show you what you need. Like somebody else might cut into the wrong thing too. But if you do this and this, you're not going to cut into the wrong things. And more and more, if teachers can give students those high expectations and those messages, even if they seem really small growing up, they just turn into huge, huge things.
Anil: Yeah. And whether these teachers were actually prohibiting students from doing those things because of well, I'll say it, a bit of fear. But their lack of knowledge about that, this can be done. They left with the, oh yeah, I'm going to go back, and yeah, they're going to carry the tray and oh yeah, I'm going to, you know, so really kind of whether they were prohibitive in the past, they're definitely going to be proactive in the future to really, you know, creating more of those opportunities. And even beyond that, holding their blind students accountable for doing those fundamental things, which I think is important.
Melissa: Anything else, Karen, that stood out to you in the survey? I know we need to wrap up soon, but, you know, I just, I think we could talk all day about this.
Karen: I just, I think I knew we'd hit on some really powerful skills and really important things when after the second meal that we had together, which was breakfast, two teachers were walking back to the conference room with me and asked me like, how can I teach my students how to carry a tray? How can I teach my students how to do this? You know, I really wasn't sure that this was age appropriate, but you know, they're in middle school and, you know, it seems like you do it really well. And it was awesome to be able to say, well, actually we're going to spend a whole bunch of time on that. So that was really cool. And I think just the opportunity to have that social time, some meals and some time to just conversate with blind adults was really powerful and time to hear from some blind students. They got to hear from a high school student and then a recent college graduate about the things that worked for them and about the things that they really wish their teachers had done. And that was really powerful for them also.
Anil: Yeah. And you're right, Melissa, we could talk about this all day, but I feel we would be remiss if we didn't focus on something that Karen mentioned in her initial description of the program. We actually had some time where we explained to them how we could help them be their best advocate for their students because it was obvious that they had the heart, right, and they wanted the best. But sometimes, you know, they're in positions that prohibit them from really being kind of the more assertive advocates. So I think having that discussion with them around how we can collaborate and be partners and kind of share that responsibility together toward the best interest of the student was also extremely powerful. They in my opinion, seemed very pleased that that potential existed.
Melissa: Yeah, pleased and surprised. Do you charge? You don't, you don't charge anything? (Laughs) Nope, we do it out of the goodness of our heart.
Anil: Yeah, I didn’t think NFB played nice with others!
Karen: Yeah. And hopefully that will help them look at things differently when advocates do come into the IEP meetings. Because I think it's really important for blind students and families of blind students to have advocates, other blind people with them in their IEP meetings, even if you know all of the things, even if you feel like you have all of the philosophy and all of that, I feel like it's really important and powerful to have another blind person at that table with you, somebody who is able to look at things and give some reminders of, hey, this is age-appropriate and someone who is a little bit more able to say some of the things that might be hard for the parents to say because they have to work with the teachers on an ongoing basis. And hard for the teachers to say because they have that connection with the school system and because this is their livelihood. So hopefully the conversation that we had about being advocates will help them feel more comfortable and at ease when there are advocates in the IEP room and in other spaces.
Melissa: Absolutely. And that's what we said. We're not here to you know, we're here to praise you if you're doing good stuff. So don't feel like we're just going to jump down your throat and talk about all the stuff that's going wrong by any means. You know, we're here for you and we're here for that child, and we're one more person on that team.
Anil: Yeah. President Riccobono did a great job of the intro. He kind of laid it down, really, you know, admitted that, you know, the education system is failing our blind kids, but we're not blaming them for it. We're trying to help them become part of the solution with us. And I think that's powerful. I also think it's important to state that this program is possible due to a gracious gift from the Pfeiffer Foundation. They originally funded the first cohort that Karen mentioned, and because it was mostly virtual, they gave us an extension to use the rest of the funding to actually host this second cohort. So we're hoping that we can continue to find support or sponsorship like that, to continue this program in the future.
Karen: Very much so.
Anil: So thanks Karen for sharing.
Karen: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, everybody.
Anil: Thanks for all the hard work.
Karen: I'm looking forward to seeing how this program develops over the course of the year.
Anil: So there's another one in the books for the Nation's Blind podcast, more of the phenomenal work that the National Federation of the Blind is doing to make sure that blind people can live the lives we want.
And you know what, Melissa?
Melissa: What, Anil?
Anil: You can live the life you want.
Melissa: Blindness is not what holds you back.
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