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The Braille Monitor – December, 2000 Edition


My First NFB Experience and Awakening

by Nicole Ditzler

From the Editor: Nicole Ditzler is a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota; the winner of a 2000 NFB scholarship; an active member of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students; and a student last summer at BLIND, Inc., before returning to college in September. During the fall semester of 1999 she heard about the Washington Seminar and the winter conference conducted by the National Association of Blind Students. Even though she knew little about the NFB, she decided that she wanted to go to Washington for what her college friend Stacey Cervenka assured her would be a memorable experience. This is her description of what happened. It first appeared in the Summer, 2000, issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota. Here it is:                                

Nicole Ditzler
Nicole Ditzler

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

Our arrival that night sent out a clear message without a single word being uttered. As we approached the front desk of the hotel and got our keys, I knew I was entering a different world when the woman behind the desk handed me a Braille card for a free dessert. Right off the bat I had to abandon pride and allow someone else to help me, something I wasn't used to doing, but an event that would happen frequently in the coming days.

That night and the next day were completely overwhelming to me. I met person after person Friday night and Saturday throughout the day and felt as if a few of the speakers' words were directed solely at me. I encountered people who were challenging me to be independent, to stand up for myself and my abilities, and to realize that the way I was living--in fear of crossing the street, in fear of the things I could not read, in fear of living--itself was a way of life I could live without.

Even more challenging than the messages of the speakers was my first experience traveling on the subway to lunch accompanied by or, more appropriately, being led by four people with less vision than I had. But in one trip 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. Second I needed to accept myself when I could not see, let go of my pride, and trust my cane because at that point I had no sighted person to rely on, and the last thing I wanted to do was allow more fear than was already apparent to show through. Last I learned I could do it. I watched these people and saw that they were amazingly capable of living and that they were taking advantage of all the experiences this life offered without fear, without holding back because of their blindness; and their example showed me that I could do the same.

I promise you that all of this learning and self-realization did not come without a price. The second night of the conference I sat talking with Joanne Wilson, bawling my eyes out, and pouring out my heart with all its fear. It seemed that everything had become clear, but I felt I had no way of working with the things I'd learned. Talking that night offered me a new understanding of living as a blind person. I saw that my feelings were valid and that I wasn't crazy (believe me, I had been wondering). But more than that, I came to understand what it would take for me to gain the independence that I saw exemplified in the people I'd met that weekend. I realized that I would have to take on a new attitude, one that was surfacing on its own as the weekend went on. I found myself planning for the next steps to take to become what I was meant to be--an independent and strong woman, living life to the fullest without fear.

The rest of the Washington Seminar took the experience of the first two days and strengthened my desire to attain the life I was seeing. It also took the drastic steps of the first two days and gave me the time to begin putting them into action while allowing myself to have an awesome time.

My desire to be an active part of the NFB and the National Association of Blind Students leapt from a simple curiosity to the desire to experience and be an integral part of more activities. As I sat next to Thomas Philip on the flight home, the importance of a blind community came into clear perspective.

On the flight home I thought about the things I wanted to do when I arrived. I confronted the issues of discussing my blindness with my fiancée and introducing my blindness to the college community I had hidden it from for over a year. But I also sat thinking about the impact of that weekend's experiences and the people I had met.

In truth I didn't fully understand the importance of this new community 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 cry when I faced issues for the first time, friends who sent me e-mails of support as I faced the changes in my college community, and friends who will be with me as I accomplish goals throughout my life.

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. This community gives us encouragement to face situations that are undoubtedly more difficult for us than for others; the wisdom to realize that, while some things are more difficult, they are never impossible; and the strength to pursue the passions we hold.

The strongest memory I have of the Washington Seminar was meeting a young boy, no more than six years old, attending the conference with his father. As a twenty-year-old woman finally coming to terms with my own blindness, seeing that young boy 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 those things, and that he will thrive throughout life in a community providing examples, wisdom, and support.

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 many things into motion and pushing me to a greater freedom and quality of life.

My ability was amplified that weekend by the mere change in attitude that occurred while I was in Washington. I must admit that this community 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 is increasing daily with the help of those who have shared their thoughts, goals, and accomplishments with me.

Before the weekend began, Stacey told me that in that short time I would gain a family I never knew I had, and she was right. As I arrived in Fargo and jumped into college life again, I realized that I have a new home and a new family full of support, love, and encouragement and, as with every good family, every once in a while 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.

Now before someone tries to take me up on that whipping-into-shape part, the folding cane I used at the Washington Seminar has been retired, and I have been faithfully using the rigid cane I purchased that weekend.

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