Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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I Am a Recovering Rehabilitation Professional

by Amy C. Phelps

Two women under sleepshades are crossing a street using long white canes.
Amy Phelps (left) works with Louisiana Center for the Blind student Bandi Bryant on street crossing.

From the Editor: One of the highlights of the 2004 convention was the final item on the morning agenda on banquet day. Most delegates had never heard of the speaker, and we were intrigued by her title. The speech was delightful, both funny and inspiring. Amy Phelps earned a master's degree from Mississippi State University and became a certified rehabilitation counselor in 1999. As she relates in the following address, she was directing a small adult rehabilitation center (the Reach Center) in Tupelo, Mississippi, when she concluded that, if her students were ever to become more effectively rehabilitated, she had to make some changes in her own attitudes about blindness and approach to rehabilitation. On August 19, 2004, she passed her examination to receive National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC). She will officially receive that certification when she graduates in November from the Louisiana Tech master's degree program in which she is now enrolled. This is what she says about her amazing journey of self-discovery and revelation about blindness:

Hi, My name is Amy, and I am a recovering rehab professional.

When I was asked to give a speech to the National Federation of the Blind, my first thought was to wonder what in the world I, as a sighted professional, could tell you that you don't already know. When I received the invitation to speak, I thought to myself, "What do I have to offer? How can I impact the blind of America?"

Then I began to reflect on the experiences which led me to pursue a master's degree in orientation and mobility through the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, and this is where, I hope, what I have to offer begins. So join me on the journey of becoming a recovering rehabilitation professional.

Before coming to Louisiana, I was lost. Lost, in that I knew something wasn't right in the services I was providing the blind. I had worked for a state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agency for fifteen years, the last eight of which I worked as a rehabilitation counselor for the blind and as the director of a small orientation center. Let me assure you, I thought I knew all there was to know about blindness. I had the degrees and certificates to prove it, or so I thought. I had completed the requirements as a certified rehabilitation counselor and a vision specialist in vocational rehabilitation. I also had special training in deaf-blindness--I was knowledgeable; I had papers!

Then, as time passed, I began to realize something wasn't quite right. I wasn't certain what it was, but I knew something was wrong with services for the blind. Consumers in our state were receiving adjustment-to-blindness training, but some of our consumers rotated through the training centers so many times we considered replacing the entrance with revolving doors. As a service provider I would often question what we were doing wrong. Our blind consumers were receiving training, sometimes going to college, sometimes not, but either way a high percentage of the blind didn't seem to be taking career paths. Could it be we weren't doing something right? Did we need to reconsider our services and attitudes? Did we need to examine our expectations? Of course as a good rehab professional I immediately assumed that it couldn't possibly be me. Remember, I had papers. Besides, this was the way we had always done it, so it had to be right.

Now fast forward with me on a flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 2002. I am on my way to a conference for residential training centers for the blind. While in flight to Albuquerque, I notice a woman on the plane with a long white cane. I automatically assume this woman is also going to the conference because I never imagined a blind person would actually fly somewhere that wasn't work related. A blind person going on a vacation, alone? Unheard of!

At this point I am clueless about the conference, assuming it is going to be another one of those conferences where they tell you what else you as a professional must do to help your consumer become independent--modify this, change that, do more for the consumer, allow him or her to pick and choose the entire program, keep everything safe and comfortable because, you know, the consumer is blind. I am prepared to hear the same old same old--accommodate, accommodate, accommodate.

I am pretty unemotional about the conference. Walking through the airport, I again notice this same woman, whom I had seen on the plane. Wait, she is actually going through the airport by herself, but where is her sighted guide? No blind person can really go through the airport alone. And then I think, "Ahhhh, so that is what superblind looks like." I had heard about it, and now I have seen her.

I arrive at the conference center, and low and behold there are superblind everywhere. People are getting in and out of taxis by themselves, going through the hotel, walking on the sidewalks by themselves. Someone must have emptied the superblind barrel right here in the middle of Albuquerque. There are hundreds of blind people with long white canes, doing exactly the same things I am doing. For the first time in my life I actually see blind people going through a buffet line independently, walking through the hotel, and going to different breakout sessions, and they don't have sighted guides. Heck, they are even able to pour salad dressing on their salads. So, I think to myself, there can't be that many superblind people. I soon learn they weren't superblind at all--just properly trained. They were Pam Allen, Carlos Serv�n, Roland Allen, Jerry Whittle, Jim Omvig, Joanne Wilson, Eric Woods, Allen Harris, and Jeff Altman. And, oh, by the way, the competent blind woman at the airport was Christine Boone.

So I return to my job; I have seen the light; I am going to start making changes. If the blind in our state can learn to be as independent as the people I saw in Albuquerque, then we won't need to replace that front door. If the right changes are made, once students complete training in a center, they will be empowered to go to work and live truly independent lives, but how in the world will I make this happen? I have a vague idea and a list of names and telephone numbers of people who presented at the conference and this book which soon became my Bible for rehabilitation for the blind. It is called Freedom for the Blind. After reading the introduction, I know I have to call the author. So I pull out the phone numbers from the conference and look up the number for James H. Omvig, and so begins the rest of the story.

At this point I start making phone calls to Pam Allen and Fatos Floyd almost daily; Sam Gleese, president of the NFB of Mississippi, weekly; and sometimes Mr. Omvig hourly, asking questions. Now mind you, prior to this conference I knew almost nothing about the National Federation of the Blind. The only thing I had been told was that the NFB was sue-happy, confrontational, and a group you wanted to avoid at all cost. Here I am, a rehabilitation professional actually calling the organized blind for solutions in providing training to the blind. I am a radical.

So it is official: we are going to make changes in our center�-changes in how we provide adjustment training to the blind. But again I am not certain how to do it. I have an idea of what needs to be done, but I also realize I have much to learn.

Early in the summer of 2003 I went through two very short weeks of immersion training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind; I was beginning to see what needed to take place. I thought I believed in the blind. I thought blind people could do what they wanted without inconvenience to themselves or others. I thought I had the right attitude, until one day during a meal for forty. At that meal, as a student wearing sleepshades, I had to examine what I really believed. While I was sitting at the table, someone asked me if I was going to get dessert. I had made the big mistake earlier of saying it was one of my favorite desserts, and Ron Gardner overheard me. When asked the question again, I declined. Mr. Gardner asked me a soul-searching question. He said, "So, Amy, are you not getting dessert because you don't want it or because you are afraid to go get it--because you are blind?" At that moment I really began to question my beliefs.

Needless to say, I had dessert, but this incident really stuck in my mind. What did I really believe about blind people? I knew all around me blind people were doing whatever they wanted to, but could I? Did I believe that I could do what they were doing as a blind student, or was I talking the talk but not walking the walk? Tough question for someone who has papers!

Now I was back at work, talking daily with staff and students about their attitudes about blindness. Armed with just a couple of weeks of blindness training under my belt I answered what questions I could, leaning on my new NFB family to answer questions I was uncertain about. But still I knew I needed more. Then one day I was talking with a student about blind travel instructors, telling her about Roland Allen, who was coming to work with our O&M instructor. This student, who had been blind since birth, informed me that she would never want a blind travel instructor. She said and I quote, "I don't want a blind travel instructor because who will keep me from walking into the street and getting hit by a car? Blind people have to understand their limitations. Having a blind travel instructor makes about as much sense as blind people cutting their own meat in a restaurant." This, my friends, really brought home to me the fact that as a rehabilitation professional I had missed the mark in the services we were providing.

The days passed. I was receiving great support from the state agency and my new friends in the NFB--daily words of encouragement for trying to make changes, but still I was uncertain. I often talked with my friends and colleagues about what I had seen and been a part of in Louisiana. Both sighted and blind, some were supportive; some were skeptical.

Then one day the home-ec instructor was out sick, and I had to fill in. I was going to go grocery shopping with a student. This student had been through the training program several times, but still she returned unable to do anything independently. This student and I were going to learn to use customer service. I put on my sleepshades, grabbed my cane, and off we went. The whole time this student was complaining about going grocery shopping alone. She would never do her own grocery shopping; she had friends who shopped for her. She didn't know anything about shopping and had no desire to learn. Needless to say, she was a bit cranky during the entire trip.

Once we returned to the center after shopping, I asked her about going shopping and how she felt about it. She again reiterated that she would never go shopping alone and that I was exceptional if I could. I was astonished. This attitude was the product of low expectations in the education system, society, and rehabilitation; and it had to stop.

What had I done as a so-called professional? If I-�after only a couple of weeks of training under sleepshades�-was exceptional, there were huge problems. I had to do something. I realized as a result of the Albuquerque conference, my brief visit at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and the support of the National Federation of the Blind that it was time for me to take action. I no longer wanted to be a mere professional with papers; I had to make a difference.

The time had come for me not only to push my students out of their comfort zone and become independent but also for me to do what I was asking my students to do. I as a professional had to come to know emotionally as well as intellectually that I could be independent and self-sufficient. I as a professional sighted or blind person had to be able to serve as a role model for my consumers. No longer could I sit back and talk the talk; I had to learn to walk the walk. I must be able to grab my sleepshades and long white cane and just do it.

At this point I decided I would no longer live a life of low expectations for consumers; I would raise the bar so that consumers could learn to travel independently without inconvenience to themselves or others. This, my friends, is what led me to leave my job of fifteen years to pursue a master's degree in orientation and mobility through the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. I chose this program, not because I wanted more papers or a string of letters behind my name, but because this program is the best, with a foundation developed for the blind by the blind, grounded in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. I chose to pursue a master's degree in O&M because I knew the training I would receive through the Institute on Blindness would have high expectations for me as a student, therefore equipping me to be a blindness professional who could really make a difference. I had to prove to myself that I could travel independently as a blind person. I realized having papers was not enough.

So I challenge you today to choose to make a real difference. Whether you are a professional in the field of blindness wanting to become a recovering rehab professional or a college student looking for an exciting career, choose, as I did, to make a real difference. Consider a master's degree program at Louisiana Tech University; contact our director Ron Gardner, or visit with staff and students at the Institute on Blindness table in the exhibit hall. Oh, yes, let me warn you. Be prepared for high, and I do mean high, expectations.

To sum everything up that I have learned since Albuquerque, blind people are nothing more than normal people who cannot see. Blind people can go where they want to go when they want to, without inconvenience to themselves or others. But, most important, it is respectable to be blind. This is why I am proud to say I am a recovering rehab professional, and I am very proud to say I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind, and as a rehabilitation professional it is my privilege and responsibility to help change what it means to be blind.



Charitable Remainder Trusts

A trust is a plan established to accomplish goals for the individual making the trust and for the beneficiary. The donor creates the trust, appoints a trustee (the donor, a family member, a bank trust officer, etc.), and designates a beneficiary. In the case of a charitable remainder trust, money or property is transferred by the donor to a charitable trust. This trust pays income for life. After the donor's death the funds remaining in the trust go to the National Federation of the Blind.

There are two kinds of charitable trusts. The first, a charitable remainder annuity trust, is set up to pay income to the donor based on a fixed percentage of the original gift. The second is a charitable remainder unitrust. The income from this trust is based on the annual assessed value of the gift. Both types of charitable remainder trust are common and relatively easy to set up. Appreciable tax deductions are available, depending on which type of trust is selected.

The following examples demonstrate how trusts work, but the figures are illustrative, not exact:

Michael Brown, age sixty-five, decides to set up a charitable remainder annuity trust with $100,000. He asks his brother John to manage the trust for him. During Michael's lifetime John will see to it that Michael is paid $5,000 each year (5 percent of $100,000). In addition, Michael can claim a tax deduction of $59,207 in the year the trust is established.

Mary Ellen Davis, age sixty-five, sets up a charitable remainder unitrust with $100,000. She asks her attorney to act as trustee. During Mary Ellen's life her attorney will pay her an amount, 5 percent, equal to the annual assessed value of her gift. If the $100,000 unitrust grows to $110,000, Mary Ellen will be paid $5,500. If it grows again to $120,000, she will be paid $6,000 in that year, and so on. Also Mary Ellen can claim a tax deduction of $48,935 in the year she establishes the unitrust.

For more information on charitable remainder trusts, 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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