Future Reflections         Winter 2010

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Training in the Skills of Blindness: From Cradle to Career

by Julie Deden

Julie DedenIntroduction by Edward Bell: Our next speaker is going to talk a little bit about training. We're very fortunate to have a handful of excellent training programs around the country. As we were putting this agenda together, we thought about the nature of training. If we do training right, it's not just for adults. We should give kids these opportunities very early on so that when they reach adulthood the necessity for training is lessened. Our next speaker is the executive director of the Colorado Center for the Blind. Please give a warm welcome to Julie Deden.

I want to congratulate all of those parents who are in this room. I am the parent of a fifteen-year-old who is not blind. I've got to tell you that being a parent is one of the most rewarding and one of the hardest jobs we will ever have. Life is a journey. We're always learning. We're moving through things, stage after stage after stage. I want you all to remember this: you need to jump in there and go for it, and there's never just one right way to do things.

I remember when my child was at the stage of potty training, and all of the parents around me with kids that age were very upset. I heard, "My child isn't potty trained yet," and "Yours is and mine isn't," and this is happening and that's happening. Everyone seemed so terribly anxious about getting it right with their child, but there's never just one right way!

When I was eighteen months old I was having my picture taken with my family. They threw a ball and they wanted me to catch it. They wanted me to look at the camera, and of course they wanted me to smile. Well, I didn't look at the camera. I didn't look at it at all, and I didn't catch the ball. For a while people had been saying to my mom and dad, "You know, she doesn't seem to see very well. You might want to get her eyes checked." But my parents didn't, not until I was eighteen months old, until that day when we had our family picture taken and they thought, This isn't right! Our daughter isn't trying to grab that ball.

At that point they took me to the doctor, and the doctor said, "Your daughter is blind. She is blind, and there's really nothing that we can do about it." My parents were devastated! They didn't know anybody who was blind. They thought that blind people probably didn't do much in their lives. Maybe they lived on the street. Maybe most of them sat at home. Maybe they worked in sheltered workshops, or else they didn't work at all. Certainly they didn't have regular, normal lives.

My family didn't know about the National Federation of the Blind. I'm so happy that all of you are here today, and that you know about the NFB! I'm so pleased because you can spread the National Federation of the Blind everywhere you go, and you can find those parents who don't know about us, who are not quite sure, who are asking themselves, What should I do since my child is blind?

My parents worked really hard. They talked to a lot of people. They met some other parents who had blind kids, and they heard good things. They heard, "You need to have your daughter doing what other kids her age are doing. If kids are cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the floors, you should have her do those things, too." I learned to plug in a vacuum cleaner, and I shocked myself a couple of times pulling the plug. But my mom didn't let that stop her. She knew that I could plug in that vacuum cleaner, and I did, and I'm still plugging them in today! [Laughter.]

It's all about what's age appropriate. You need to take a step back and think about that. At our National Federation of the Blind training centers we think about that all the time when we run our youth programs. We have kids of all ages at the centers in the summer. We teach them how to travel independently. Shawn, Pam, and I, we get a little worried about having these kids out on the streets doing all kinds of things. We ask ourselves, What is age appropriate? If your child is sixteen and sighted, she or he is probably driving a car. Certainly blind teenagers should be out learning to take the bus!

As I was growing up I was really pushed, I was really challenged by my parents. But I didn't have the National Federation of the Blind and I didn't meet positive blind role models. I didn't think of myself as blind. I learned Braille, but I didn't use a cane. I didn't feel comfortable with who I was, with my identity.

Let's take a look at a young lady I know - Brad and Jill, are you here? I want to talk about your daughter Hannah for a moment. A few years ago, when Hannah was ten, I was talking with Jill, her mother. Jill said to me, "Do you have a program for really young kids?" I said, "We don't have a residential program, but I would be happy to have Hannah stay at my home for a few days. I'll take her to the center each day and she can learn from me." Jill and Brad, having full confidence in blind people and the National Federation of the Blind, said, "We would love to do this! What a great opportunity!" Then I got nervous. I thought, Oh no! What if something happens here? Jill and Brad brought Hannah over from Montana, and I thought, Julie, you're the director of the Colorado Center for the Blind, you can do this. It'll be okay.

Well, we were walking to the center on her very first day, and I was showing Hannah how to use her cane on a busy street. The traffic was really loud, and she was way ahead of me, and she zoomed right past the bus stop where we were supposed to wait. I was yelling, "Hannah! Hannah!" I have to tell you all that my heart fell all the way down to my feet. There was no Hannah. She was lost! I'd lost Hannah the very first day that she was with me!

Well, I found her of course. I went up and down a couple of streets past the bus stop, and I found Hannah. Everything was fine, and we went to the center. But I will always remember that morning. What I remember is the fact that Brad and Jill have grown up with Hannah through the NFB, and they have full confidence in blind people. They trusted me. Hannah had a wonderful time the rest of the summer, and it worked out great. But I will never forget losing Hannah the first day as we were walking to the center!

Getting people started early with training is one of the keys to success. It is not training alone that makes a difference. It's not just sitting in a chair and studying Braille, learning the "ar" contraction. It's getting out in the world, it's learning from positive blind role models! The earlier you can get going with your students, your kids, people that you're working with, the better it is.

At our training centers we have a wide variety of students. We notice a big difference with students who have been using canes since they were very young, students who have a positive philosophy about blindness. Unfortunately that doesn't always happen. Recently we had one student who had no belief in himself whatsoever. He was about twenty years old. When he came to the center he was always saying, "I can't do this. I can't do this!" We would say, "You can do this! You can do this!" One day he came through the front doors with a giant glass of Coke, and he spilled it everywhere. He beat himself up about spilling it. Anybody can spill a Coke, but he said, "I'll never amount to anything! I'm worthless, I'm no good, I'm a terrible, terrible person!" One of our computer instructors, a guy who is totally blind, went over to him and said, "It's okay. This can happen to any of us. I'm going to show you how to clean this up." They cleaned it up together.

Before our students graduate from the center they have to travel what we call a monster route, all over the countryside and the world. This young man had to go to all sorts of locations. It was pouring rain that day. He climbed through ditches - he was dirty when he made it back to our final dinner. But know what? He was so proud, and he's done so well since that time! That's what it's all about - having that belief, that positive philosophy.

All of you can have a strong influence on the teachers your kids have in school. We are here in the National Federation of the Blind to advocate for all of you. I find as a parent that sometimes it's hard to advocate for my son. I could advocate for any of you out in this audience so easily! I could think clearly and take control. But when you're talking about my son, who has a learning disability, I don't think quite so clearly. I don't know what happens. There's some change in my mind. We're here to make sure that your kids get the training they need, and get it on time, and that they're getting all the services that they need. At our training centers all of our staff are role models. We focus on that more than anything else. At our NFB training centers we have full belief in blind people. You'll see that from the minute you walk through the door. Pam and Shawn and I will be happy to talk to any of you who are interested in looking into training for your students or kids. We'd love to talk to you about it.

On the journey that all of us take through life we're working together. We're all here to help each other, to empower each other, and to make a difference. My mom said something to me that's so true. She said, "Life is what we all make it." Let's remember that!

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