Reprinted from the Spring 2003 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota.
Busy as she is, Angela Howard always finds time for the NFB. Here, she assists a child with an art project at an NFB event for families of blind children. One of the things I like most about our organization, the National Federation of the Blind, is that we are a very take-charge kind of people. We’re always looking for ways to improve ourselves as an organization as well as in our individual lives.
I currently work in the human resources department for a student loan company in St. Paul. Last spring, after some soul-searching, I decided that this isn’t the job I want to have for the rest of my life, and in order to get where I really want to be in my life, I needed to further my education. I signed up for a class at the Hubert Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota--with some fear, but also with a lot of excitement. On my first day of class, my teacher walked in and said, “Raise your hand if you want to change the world and make the world a better place.” He said, “If you raised your hand, then you’re in the right class.” Immediately I knew that I was making the right decision in my life.
Going back to school has been very challenging but also very rewarding for me. There are three very important lessons that I’ve learned in my months as a full-time employee and a part-time student.
First is the importance of preparation. This is important for everyone, but I think it’s even more important for blind people. One of the things I did to prepare for being a successful student and employee was to meet with my professor about a month in advance. I wouldn’t suggest meeting quite so far in advance for most people, but I was very nervous, so it worked out well for me. I do, however, recommend trying to meet with your professors and establishing the fact that you are the advocate for yourself--they don’t need to call the disability services office to find out what to do with you; they should ask you about it. Make them feel welcome to ask you.
I educated my professor a little bit about blindness; he had never had a blind student before in his class. I showed him my slate and stylus and my BrailleNote, and I told him that these were how I would do a lot of my reading and writing for class. I also told him I would be typing my papers and turning them in at the same time as everyone else. We discussed ways for me to complete my final exam at the end of the semester. He also gave me a packet of papers that he knew he would be using during the class for this semester. I had the ability and equipment to scan those and have them ready before the class even started, which has helped me tremendously. I found out the title of the book and discovered that I could get it through Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), so I made sure I was registered with RFB&D and ordered it and had it ready before the class started.
Another way that I’ve prepared in advance is managing what I need to do and when I need to do it. For example, I had a ten-page paper due the day after our state NFB annual convention; but I wanted to be at the convention all weekend. So I knew that I would have to get this paper done several weeks before everyone else. Everyone in the class I spoke with was surprised that I was somewhat ahead of them, but I wanted to be at the convention so I had to get it done.
Let me tell you a little about the paper. The assignment was to interview someone who is making change at the state legislature on the issue of education. There are several issues in education that I was interested in; however, I decided to interview Judy Sanders for my paper. [Sanders is blind and works on legislative issues for the NFB of Minnesota.] I decided this because we had to give a four-minute presentation on the paper, and turn in a two-page summary of our ten-page paper that our professor then puts into a booklet and uses to teach next year’s class. So I thought of this as a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about the Federation and our work for four minutes to my fellow classmates, as well as teach students whom I won’t even meet in next year’s class. I thank Judy for her help with the paper, and I’m sure she got sick of me calling her saying “I have one more question,” which usually ended up being about fifty more questions.
The second thing I’ve learned during my months of trying to juggle school and work is the importance of maximizing time. When I coordinated volunteers through AmeriCorps in my previous position, I attended several workshops on effective management of volunteers. People said over and over again that the busier people make the better and more reliable volunteers. This seems counter-intuitive, but if you think about it, busier people have learned to maximize their time. For example, I have a two-hour commute on the bus every day to get to and from work. I used to sit there and do nothing during those two hours, but I’m way too busy to do nothing now. I spend several lunch hours a week scanning my materials; I don’t have a scanner working at home, so I take advantage of my lunch hour to scan materials. I save them on a disk and put them on my BrailleNote, which allows me to read my schoolwork on the bus, saving me a couple of hours of having to do work at home. I do have one textbook on tape, so during my weekly attempts to clean my apartment, I play those tapes so I can get two things done at once.
I’m also studying for the Graduate Record Examination, which is a standardized test one takes when applying for graduate school. I make out flash cards of words and math terminology that I’ve forgotten, so I can take advantage of free time that I have before my class or during my fifteen-minute breaks or when I’m eating lunch with my co-workers.
The third important key to being a successful full-time employee and student is to keep focused on your goal. Sometimes it is harder as a blind person to get the things done that one needs to do to be a successful student and employee. I’ve had some frustrating moments. Sometimes I’ve thought, “It’s not fair that I have to spend a lunch hour or two a week scanning materials that other people can just read.” I had a very frustrating evening one night when we had a field trip over to St. Paul, and it took me an hour and forty-five minutes to get home on the bus. On my way home, I wondered if this was really worth it. After a while I decided that, yes, it is.
Even though it is a little harder sometimes to manage getting our work done as a blind people, what other option do we have? Are we just going to sit on the sidelines and let other people pass us by as they chase their goals--sighted people and blind people who have a little more gumption than we do? Will we look back and say, “Well, I didn’t get to meet my goals and I’m not doing what could really make me happy in life because it was a little bit harder for me sometimes and sometimes the bus took longer…” Of course we’re not going to do that; Federationists don’t do that.
I thank all of you for the work that you have done. Without you, and without your work, and without the fact that you decided to raise your hand and say that you wanted to change the world, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and we wouldn’t be working toward our goals in our lives. Let’s not stop our work until every blind person in this country has the opportunity to follow their dreams and meet their goals.