Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1993, Vol. 12 No. 2


Report on the NFB of New Jersey Parents Seminar
by Carol Castellano

Editor's Note: The following report is an edited and shortened version of the seminar report which appeared in a recent issue of the newsletter put out by our NFB Parents Division in New Jersey. As you can see, parents in the NFB in New Jersey are really on the move!

"We share something in common-having a blind or visually impaired child and wanting to do the best for that child. As I talk with parents from around the state, I realize that we're fighting the same battles, but we're fighting them alone. But instead of working alone and isolated, we can use each other as a source of strength and be strong together. We can share our experiences, our challenges, our fears and our failures, our hopes and our triumphs. We can work for change and for a better future for our children."

With those words of greeting POBC-NJ's first Parents Seminar on November 7, 1992, was underway. After my welcoming remarks, Dorothy Cofone, President of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey, greeted parents and told us that the blind adults of New Jersey are committed to helping us. Dorothy said she holds our cause dear especially because she is the mother of two visually impaired children, now grown, and she, too, faced the problems and challenges we face.

Sharon Maneki, President of the NFB of Maryland and a writer and editor at the U.S. Department of Defense, was the keynote speaker on the issue of Braille literacy. After discussing the history and problems which led to a whole generation of illiterate blind adults and youngsters, Sharon gave us an update on the Braille literacy rights and education bills being promoted around the country by the National Federation of the Blind. The goal of these bills is to give the child the right to be taught Braille and also to ensure the competency of teachers of the blind. In some areas, a course in Braille is only an elective, not a requirement, for certification as a teacher of the blind! The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is developing a competency test in which Braille teachers must exhibit their knowledge of reading and writing Braille and of the rules of Braille. Mrs. Maneki ended her address by talking about the role of blind adults in the education and life of blind youngsters and their families. NFB members, for example, will accompany parents to an IEP meeting to serve as an advocate and a support. Blind adults also serve as role models, letting children know that they are not alone, that there are many people out there who read Braille, and that it is not a disgrace to be blind.

Our next speaker was Joe Cutter, early childhood orientation and mobility specialist, who has done pioneering work with very young blind children in his twenty years' experience in O & M. Joe showed a series of slides which illustrated the progression toward independence which begins in infancy. We saw babies playing and exercising on early intervention equipment; toddlers exploring space by pushing carts and playing in a barrel and toddling around with their first canes; preschoolers jumping on a trampoline and using a cane to check out the high bar of some monkey bars before climbing on; grade schoolers moving along a balance beam and using a cane to locate the ground, negotiating stairs in the school building, crossing streets, and skiing. (The complete text of Joe's talk is reprinted on page 32 of this issue.)

Our third speaker was Margaret F. Mignogna, a lawyer and former special educator, who gave an enormous amount of information in a forty-five minute talk! Ms. Mignogna recommended that we parents know our rights and the rights of our child under IDEA (the new name of the federal special education law) and under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The main difference between these two laws is that IDEA is an education rights law, and section 504 is civil rights legislation. IDEA covers children up to 21 who receive special education services through the IEP. The legal remedy it provides is the due process procedure.

Section 504 covers all disabled students and adults, and prohibits discrimination against them within certain programs and institutions. Section 504 pertains whether or not a disabled child is eligible for special education or receives services through an IEP. Under 504, a disabled student has the right to appropriate accommodations so he or she may benefit from an educational program. The legal remedy for discrimination is through the filing of a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.

Ms. Mignogna strongly supported parent information groups such as ours, and said our attendance at the parent seminar was providing us with “cutting edge information” from people like Joe Cutter and Sharon Maneki which is not available through other channels.

Karen Messick, Children's Librarian at the New Jersey Library for the Blind and Handicapped, spoke next about library services. She told us that the library served approximately 2,000 children in the state from age five up with large print, Braille, and talking books (books on tape or disk). Although the library officially only serves children five or older, Mrs. Messick said she would be happy to help any child under five who would benefit from library services. (This is important to blind children since early exposure to books leads to literacy!)

Two special events are sponsored each year: the Summer Reading Program and the Fall Festival. The summer program has a theme- this year's will be “Have Books, Will Travel”-and includes small gifts as incentives and prizes. Mrs. Messick tries to use themes that will interest library users and broaden their horizons. Mrs. Messick closed her presentation by saying, “When you read a book you can go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone you want to be.”

David Goldfield, technical support specialist at Blazie Engineering, spoke next on the latest innovations in computers. He described products such as the Braille Blazer, an affordably priced Braille printer (it can be attached to any computer, and it “talks”) and a new version of the Braille `n Speak which has a typewriter keyboard instead of Braille keys. He and Delores Gigee brought samples of many products which we then tried out during the afternoon workshops.

During and after lunch, our WHAT'S AVAILABLE display was visited by the parents, teachers, therapists, and speakers in attendance. This display of educational materials and equipment, books, informational catalogs, and toys and games was so large that we had to request another table from the hotel staff! Company names and addresses for all of the items we showed are on our resource list. For a copy of the list, send a self-addressed, business-sized envelope along with $1.50 for postage and handling to: Carol Castellano, 23 Alexander Avenue, Madison, New Jersey 07940.

The balance of our busy afternoon was spent at a series of workshops. Sharon Maneki offered a hands-on introduction to Braille. Most of the participants purchased Braille slates to take home! The consensus was that Braille was easy and fun to learn. Dorothy Cofone, Jerilyn Higgins, Joe Ruffalo, and Sharon Maneki, all blind adults, held question-and-answer sessions on activities of daily living. Joe Cutter talked to parents about movement and cane travel for visually impaired children. David Goldfield and Dolores Gigee showed us how to use the Braille `n Speak and other computer equipment. I held sessions on “Helping Your Young Blind Child Develop.”

Part of the fun and excitement of the day was meeting new people and the flush of taking in so much information at one time! Our biggest problem was getting people to leave their workshop sessions!

The day was closed with a call-to-action regarding the many issues facing families with blind children in New Jersey -the shrinking budget, reductions in education and other services, a need for more instruction in Braille and cane travel, and others. Parents were invited to join a POBC initiative-the Braille Literacy Task Force, improving services to babies, and the training of classroom aides.
I closed the meeting with these words:

POBC is dedicated to working toward the elimination of discrimination, equality for blind people, and opportunity for our children in the home, in school, and in the community. As part of a national organization [the National Federation of the Blind] POBC enjoys the support, resources, and insight of 50,000 blind people. Join us in our work and we will make the world a better place for our children.