The Braille Monitor                                                                                         July, 2002

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Ruston Calling

Soon Everyone Will Be Listening

by Amit Ahuja

From the Editor: Amit Ahuja is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He holds an undergraduate degree in economics from St. Stephen's College at the University of Delhi and a master's in development economics from the University of London.

 His enthusiasm about the kind of rehabilitation for blind adults that he discovered at the Louisiana Center for the Blind is echoed by students at both the Colorado Center for the Blind and BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis. No wonder blind people across the country who learn about these programs are clamoring to attend them. This is what he says:

Far from the land of shivering spring flowers, espresso highs, and car-city blues, I found myself in quiet, humid, and lovely Ruston, Louisiana, a few weeks ago. A phone inquiry about some data on blindness-related issues brought me into contact with Dr. Ron Ferguson. He was interested in my research ideas, and I wanted to visit the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I had heard about what is happening in Ruston from Christine Brown, who is a graduate of the Louisiana Tech master's program in orientation and mobility and now works in the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at the University of Michigan.

Two weeks later I was the Fergusons' guest in Ruston. I definitely felt a quiet sense of anticipation and much curiosity about the center and its activity; however, what I found in Ruston was nothing short of a revolution in rehabilitation.

I spent one day of my visit as a serious student at the center, and I spent three days with those involved with the Professional Development Research Institute on Blindness (PDRIB, as the Rustonites refer to it). My visit to Ruston left me in no doubt that the blind rights movement has well and truly arrived. This model of blindness rehabilitation needs to be replicated in the future, not only in this country but across the world, to bring dignity, pride, and ambition into the lives of blind people. The emphasis in the program is on creating self-confident, productive, and independent individuals who will join the national mainstream as successful taxpaying citizens.

The Awakening Under Sleep Shades

Even though I spent only one day in the center as a student, it was obvious to me that the regimen is demanding. No one among the diverse body of students and the very talented teachers takes this lightly. Jan Ferguson's mischievous smiles had warned me that my experience under sleep shades was going to be interesting. Nevertheless, the first few minutes of moving under the dreaded shades took me dangerously close to freaking out. Working under them may be tough in the beginning, but having spent limited time under them, I understand and appreciate the rationale for their use. I was suddenly more attentive to my environment as perceived by my other senses.

Blind people should be trained to use these senses effectively for maximum advantage in building skills in cane travel. Given that disorientation can occur very easily while relying on minimal sight, these skills go a long way in keeping one in charge of one's actions and also send a signal to the onlooker that one is in control.

I spent the first couple of hours at the center in the kitchen area trying to cook a simple omelet. Two hours later what stared at me from the pan could be defined in many ways, but calling it an omelet would have been stretching it. Next on my schedule was the philosophy seminar. That day Dr. Jernigan's article "Don't Throw the Nickel" was the piece under discussion. After Pam Allen finished reading the piece in Braille, we had a discussion about how best to react to the assistance extended to blind people in everyday life. We talked about the importance of becoming independent and developing confidence in our abilities. I found the discussion especially refreshing because I had wondered about some of these issues for a long time but had never been in a forum devoted to discussing them.

 The next sessions I visited develop very different skills, but they are run with the same objective: that of becoming self-reliant. JD [Jerry Darnell] offers a course in Industrial Arts, and John Fritz and Jewel Lightfoot make sure that the blind students who come to the center are not on the wrong side of the digital divide in a class that brings students up to the mark in most of the computing skills one needs to work efficiently in today's world. I experienced Jerry Whittle's contagious enthusiasm for training his students in Braille and instilling confidence in them. I also attended Roland Allen's legendary course in cane travel. I was fortunate to get glimpses of all these classes. Glimpses they may have been, but they left me convinced that I had to return to be part of this experience.

The Movers and Shakers

My interactions with the various forces that have generated this miracle were both delightful and inspiring. Each one of these people brings to this project enthusiasm and belief in the idea that the blind are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and leading successful lives; what is needed is proper training and a positive mindset. All of them actively practice this mindset, and they are successful individuals who have chosen to dedicate their precious expertise to bringing this dream to fruition.

 The warmth I experienced in Ruston was not just climatic. It was the real human warmth that keeps this team moving. In people like Dr. Fred Schroeder, Dr. Ron Ferguson, Jim Omvig, Pam Allen, and too many others to name here, this movement has found guardians for the revolution and visionaries who have tried to instill in the blind the value of dreaming big.

There is nothing remarkable about blind people realizing their potential to accomplish whatever they wish for themselves. The Louisiana Center students are stars in their own right because of their talents, abilities, and basic human desire to lead productive lives. The center is the embodiment of the NFB's philosophy preparing blind people to take complete control of their lives in every possible way. With every student who graduates from this center, a living message is being reiterated: the blind can be independent and successful. These students have found role models at the center, and, as they step back into the world, they will be role models to others.


Pooled Income Gifts

In this plan money donated to the National Federation of the Blind by a number of individuals is invested by the NFB. Each donor and the NFB sign an agreement that income from the funds will be paid to the donor quarterly or annually. Each donor receives a tax deduction for the gift, the NFB receives a useful donation, and the donor receives income of a specified amount for the rest of his or her life. For more information about the NFB pooled income fund, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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