Future Reflections Spring 1999, Vol. 18 No. 1


 NFB Blind Mentors


From the Editor: The word “mentor” is derived from the ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey. In preparation for his long journey Odysseus chooses his friend and advisor, Mentor, to be the guardian and tutor of his son during his absence. In modern usage a mentor, according to the American Heritage Dictionary is “a wise and trusted counselor or friend.”

Allison HillikerMentoring, as we know it today can take several forms. It can be formal, for example, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Or it can be unplanned, as when a neighbor, teacher, coach, a religious leader, or someone else takes a special interest in a young person and becomes his/her trusted advisor and friend. Formal or unplanned, the term implies commitment. Erwin Flaxman, a leading researcher on mentoring wrote: “Throughout the country, mentoring has come to be considered a powerful way to provide adult contacts for youth who are isolated from adults in their schools, homes, communities, and workplaces.”

In the case of blind children and youth, the adults from whom they are most often isolated are blind adults. It is not unusual for a blind child never to meet another blind adult—or in some cases, even another blind child—until long after he/she starts school. But with the founding of the NFB parents’ division—the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children—more and more parents discovered that the NFB is a natural resource that includes, among other things, potential mentors for them and their children. With affiliates in every state plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, the NFB is the most widely accessible means for blind youth to come into contact with a variety of blind adults of all ages, skills, occupations, and interests.

Mentoring in the NFB most often takes the “unplanned” course. When a parent, a blind child or youth, or a newly blinded adult attends an NFB function—such as a National Convention, a state convention, a local chapter meeting, a seminar, a picnic, etc.—he/she meets someone they like, and who takes a special interest in them. Without any formal structure or guidance, just the willingness on both parties to make a commitment of time and energy, the mentoring relationship grows and flourishes.  

As the mentee grows in confidence and no longer needs an active mentor, he/she often becomes an informal mentor to someone else in the organization.

Formal mentoring programs require more deliberate planning and coordination as well as a commitment of time and resources from all parties involved—parents, adults, and youth. These programs are not easy to start, or to keep going, especially on an all-volunteer basis. But some NFB affiliates—including Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, and New Jersey—have developed some very exciting, rewarding mentoring programs, which are truly changing the lives of blind children.

Here are two reports, one from Michigan and one from Illinois, which demonstrate something of what these mentoring programs can mean to the blind youth involved:   

A Chance to Teach, A Chance to Learn
by Debbie Kent Stein

Reprinted from Parents Helping Parents, the Newsletter of the Illinois Parents of Blind Children, a Division of the NFB of Illinois, May/June, 1998.

In the Federation, people often talk about the need for blind people to learn alternative techniques from one another. Over the past several months, Patti Chang and I, both of us blind Federationists, have had the chance to put this ideal into practice by mentoring two blind teens. We meet with the girls every few weeks, sometimes at Patti’s home, sometimes at mine. Often we prepare a meal together. We give the girls pointers, but they do everything on their own, from grating breadcrumbs to frying bacon. Patti has also taught child-care techniques, with her 18-month-old daughter, Julia, as a demonstration model. We’ve done some work on mobility, and last week the girls planted bushes and tulip bulbs in my garden.

The girls were eager to learn, and there is a great deal they want to know beyond gardening and cooking. We talk as we work. We share experiences, some frustrating and some rewarding. In their quest for knowledge about living as blind women, the girls raise a host of challenging questions. Not every question has a ready answer. But for all of us, this time together is a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow.  

Interview with Shanetta Winston, age 15

When I first went to Patti’s house, I wanted to learn how to do laundry. That day we cooked meatloaf, and I made mashed potatoes. Debbie Stein’s daughter Janna was there, too. We washed dishes together, and it was fun having a partner.

One time we went downtown with Patti and saw where she works as a lawyer. I liked the way she works with her clients. It was really cool. We went out to lunch, and I went up to the counter by myself and asked them for what I wanted. That really felt good!

I didn’t think I would like gardening, but I loved it. Planting the tulip bulbs was easy. But I hated the part where we had to spread manure. I just hated the whole idea of that!

Since I’ve been going to Patti’s and Debbie’s, I use the stove more at home, and I cut things like tomatoes. At school, I’ve been helping the parents of some of the younger blind kids. I take them (the parents) on cane walks under sleepshades so they can find out what using the cane is like. I want to tell parents that if you have a child that’s blind, be sure to let them do things, because they really can. And I still want to learn how to do laundry.

Tutoring Class
by Allison Hilliker

Editor’s note: The National Federation of the Blind of Michigan has operated an all-volunteer bi-monthly tutoring class for blind children for a number of years. Blind adults, blind teen-agers, and sighted members of the affiliate volunteer as instructors/mentors for this program. Allison Hilliker wrote the following essay for a school assignment. In it, she describes her experience as a mentor/tutor in the NFB of Michigan program.  Allison is an honor roll student, and will be a high school senior this fall. Here is what Allison has to say:

At first I was unsure of whether or not I really wanted to go. Did I actually want to crawl out of my nice, warm bed in the middle of winter to spend my Saturday mornings watching a bunch of little kids learn to read? Then again, the idea mildly intrigued me that someone just might need my help.

When I got to the tutoring class, I was surrounded by a dozen or so kids ranging in age from four to fourteen. There were a few adults around, but it didn’t take me long to see that they needed all the help they could get. Although I wasn’t quite sure what I should share with them, the kids quickly pulled me into their cluster and bombarded me with all sorts of different questions. I was so caught up in their enthusiasm to learn that what I thought would be difficult for me to share with them became natural and easy. You see, what I was sharing with them was Braille—literacy for the blind.

In all of these kids, I saw a part of myself. They were hungry to learn to read or write or do math. Unfortunately, like me, these things were supposed to have been learned in school like other kids learn them. But because of low quality programs or poorly trained teachers, all of these blind kids were behind their sighted peers in their skills. Some had partial vision, like me, and even though they struggled with print, their teachers didn’t feel they needed to learn Braille. The totally blind kids also had slow skills because they, too, weren’t getting adequate training or instruction. Very sad facts considering they were all intelligent children!

That’s why I felt this tutoring class was so important. I, too, have experienced the same frustrations that all of them were going through, and I wanted to do what little I could to help them improve their skills. Growing up, I could see print rather well, but as the print grew smaller, it became apparent that unless I learned Braille, I would never keep up. Like these children, I trusted educators to teach me what I would need in order to be literate. Unfortunately, in our state, there is no law that requires blind kids to be taught Braille, even though there is one that says you should teach all children to read.

At the tutoring classes, I saw a fourteen-year-old who was partially sighted who could hardly read Braille. Like me, she was becoming frustrated with print, but had hardly any Braille skills to help her read in school. Another child, who was totally blind, read Braille relatively well, but when her fifth grade class worked on geometry, she was told she wouldn’t be able to do angles because she had never been taught Braille math (Nemeth code). She was more than smart enough, and upset because she really wanted to be able to do the things the rest of her class were doing. Still another child could write on a Braille writer, but was never taught to use a slate and stylus (which is equivalent to pencil or pen). Her teacher thought she would never have a need for it. These are all simple, basic requirements to achieving literacy.

Working in this class made me determined to make a change so that, in the future, blind kids can get what should be taught them in school like the rest of their classmates. This shouldn’t have to be done on Saturday mornings. It should be something they are entitled to receive right along with the sighted child sitting in the desk next to them.

In the past few years, the NFB in our state has been trying to do something to improve this problem. A proposed Braille literacy bill, if passed, would ensure blind kids in Michigan the right to be taught to read and write Braille. Up until this time, I hadn’t realized that I could really make a difference. Now suddenly, seeing how badly these kids wanted to learn to read, I was inspired to help change their future. I didn’t want them to have to go through the same struggles that I have. I wanted to make it easier for them and maybe even inspire them, too.

Although I have never been a crusader, this lack of basic human rights is cause enough for me to persevere and keep on fighting. Just one pair of hands running across a sentence, being able to read it, is definitely worth every bit of my effort.

If you are interested in organizing a more formal mentoring program for blind children and their families in your state or community, please contact Barbara Cheadle, President, National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230 (410) 659-9314, <[email protected]>.