Abby Cochran: Good morning. I was invited to talk about blindness and how it affects me. I'm currently attending the Life 101 Program at BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis. I am diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity. I'm originally from Minnesota, and I have been in mainstream classes throughout my life. I've been reading Braille since I was three. I love to read books. I am constantly reading in my spare time. All my school books are in Braille. I complete all my written assignments on my BrailleLite. I use my BrailleLite because of the refreshable Braille display. It allows me to interact more easily with my work. I use my display to assist with my proofreading. Braille is important to me because it enables me to compete on the same level with my sighted peers.
I am attending the Life 101 Program because I would like to learn more nonvisual techniques to accomplish the things I want to do. My lifelong goal is to be an adaptive technology specialist. For me blindness is not the end of the world because I have learned alternative techniques to help me be successful. I have learned nonvisual skills while under sleepshades. The sleepshade training has not only made me a better student, but a better blind person. I feel very confident in what I do because of my positive blind role models. These role models have also given me courage and strength.
Orientation and mobility skills are very important for blind children. Get a cane for your child if he or she doesn't have one, and get an orientation and mobility instructor. When I'm at home I cook, wash dishes, and clean my room. The foods that I cook are goat cheese and eggs. I do these things to contribute to my family, and because I know that they will help me in the future. I learned such things from many summers at BLIND, Inc.'s Buddy Program and from Life 101. This is going to make me a better contributor to society and to my family.
Parents of blind children should have good attitudes about blindness and should show respect and confidence to their blind kids. The Life 101 Program goes along with the NFB philosophy. This philosophy calls for equality, dignity, and opportunity. Thank you for listening.
Kate Colton: Some people are condemned unwillingly to something they didn't choose, forced into submission by what the public thinks. But perceptions are changing. I don't want to be condemned to a life of mediocrity. Things that are out there are unlimited and unbound, like shooting for the stars and beyond. Most people assume that because of my blindness I am unable to do what others do. I will prove them wrong.
Some of you may know that I have been studying American Sign Language during the past school year. I have excelled in the class. Yes, I had to learn it a little bit differently, but I've turned out to be one of the best signers in the class.
Why shoot for the sky when you can go so much further than that? The sky is just the starting point for me and hopefully for other blind children. Even though I have no clue what the future holds, I will write it my way, not the way others tell me to write it. I may be a little shy, but I am very hardworking and determined to achieve my dreams. If you give me time and space I will grow into something more than you would have expected. I will defy expectations, and nobody can bring me down. When I set goals I would rather set them higher than lower. If I fail to achieve the higher goals, at least I know I put my best foot forward and gave it my best effort. Goals that are set too low can be achieved, but how much do you really gain?
I plan to do many things, and I am going to challenge myself to be a better person and an inspiration to others. I believe that everyone deserves a chance to fly, and if it means flying solo, at least I'll do it free.
Riley Robinson: Good morning. My name is Riley Robinson, and I'm soon to be a senior at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. How can we, as blind students, insure that the future is ours? I am here today as a blind individual and as a student to answer that question to the best of my ability, based on my experiences growing up blind.
I have been blind since birth. I was diagnosed with a condition known as LCA, or Leber's congenital amaurosis. This genetic disorder is rare, and there are only a few thousand known cases in the world today. My brother, who is three-and-a-half years older than I am, was also born with this condition. When my brother was born and my parents found out that he was to be blind for the rest of his life, they were more than devastated. In tears my mother tried to voice the many questions going through her mind at that moment. How would he go to school? How would he interact with others? There were even questions as simple as how would he walk? Before they had my brother, blindness was not important to my parents. They had never in their entire lives figured that they would have to worry about something like that.
Eventually, however, my parents began to understand that my brother needed to be treated the same way they would treat any child. That is exactly what was done. He was taught like any sighted child, with only a few alterations. For example, since he was totally blind, he relied on his hearing and sense of touch. Instead of playing games such as tag or drawing in a coloring book, he would play games like Marco Polo or tactile tic-tac-toe. He absolutely loved music. My mother bought him a toy drum set, which was extremely annoying, and a miniature keyboard, which he loved immensely. He loved listening to the radio, especially to country music. His big dream was to be a DJ when he grew up.
When my mother became pregnant with her second child, me, the doctor told her right away that the child had a one in four chance of being blind. My mother obviously took the chance, and I came into the world as the second blind child in our family. My parents were prepared this time, and they began to teach me and believe in me the way any parents would. I was also a huge music lover, and by the age of seven I was playing the piano and singing. My mother told me once that when I was about fifteen months old I would stand on the floor on my wobbly legs. I would simply stand there and not move, no matter what. Finally, after many hours of patiently waiting, I took my first step into the unknown. I must have been extremely relieved to find firm and reassuring ground underfoot and not a chasm of doom! I began to walk everywhere, getting into almost everything. That first step of mine turned into ten, which turned into twenty, which turned into the many steps of my life that I have taken up to now.
That same thing goes for parents. When a parent first finds out that his or her child is blind or visually impaired, that parent begins to panic. Most sighted people are rather ignorant, and they believe that some part of that child is going to be ruined due to the blindness. When that child is born the parents need to take that first step into the unknown. They will realize that there is nothing to be afraid of. A blind child is not incompetent and not unable. The child is simply blind. There is only a vision loss, a minor inconvenience. A blind child needs his or her expectations to be set high, and he or she needs to have new and engaging challenges. Parents should not treat a blind child as though that child is different from the rest of his or her peers, because that child will learn to feel different. My parents believed in my brother and me, and because of their belief I do not feel different or inferior to the rest of the world.
My parents realized that we needed the right kind of teaching. They were put in contact with the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It is a residential school that teaches not only the academic classes needed to get an education, but also other skills such as Braille, daily living, O&M, and assistive technology. These skills are extremely important in a blind person's education. When I first arrived at the school for the blind I was very excited, mostly due to the fact that my older brother had been going there for a few years before me. I knew that it was okay for me to go and live at a school an hour away from home - an hour drive was quite far for a preschooler! I began to attend the school at the age of four and I've been there ever since. The teachers have all been wonderful, and they have taught me all the academic and nonacademic classes that I need for a successful future.
I began to learn Braille and O&M straight away. Daily living skills and technology came later, and I have had a good education in both. My Braille skills are definitely up to par or better. I use many assistive technology devices such as the screen-reading program JAWS for Windows, a BrailleNote, and a Kurzweil scanner. I can travel most routes independently due to my O&M training. I have learned that the best way for an O&M instructor to teach his or her students is through the Structured Discovery Method. A student should definitely learn to plan routes, but sometimes people are put into unexpected situations. Most people need to know how to deal with this. A student should be able to travel in unexpected situations independently.
The academic skills are of great importance as well. I have one year left at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and I'll be graduating with an honors diploma. Academics are important for any student to become a successful person. Teachers should teach their students to work, travel, and live as independently as possible.
Once I graduate from the school for the blind I plan to embark on the next step of my journey - college. This is where vocational rehabilitation comes in. Rehab counselors are there to help students make a smooth transition from high school to college or from high school to the work environment. It is not too early to get in contact with the VR counselor! Waiting until a student's senior year is almost too late for all the necessary work that has to be done. At the end of my sophomore year, with funding and help from Voc Rehab, I was able to enter the Student Training for Employment Program (STEP) run by the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired with Bossert Enterprises. This program taught me to apply for a job, and I was given a temporary job opportunity. This was a wonderful experience, showing me what a work experience might be like. I would not have been able to do this without the help of Vocational Rehabilitation. Voc Rehab has many ways to help students in their pursuits of success.
The National Federation of the Blind has helped me greatly as a blind student. For the past four years I have traveled with staff and students from the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to attend NFB conventions in Atlanta, Louisville, Dallas, and now here in Detroit. I had just finished sixth grade when I attended my first national convention in Atlanta. I had no idea what to expect. I had never heard of blindness organizations before. I was in for an absolutely wonderful surprise! The people here at the National Federation of the Blind are empowering, supportive, and helpful in any matter you may have pertaining to blindness. When I heard President Maurer give his address during my first convention, I felt more confident than I ever had before. I thought to myself, I'm so glad that this is only my sixth-grade year and I'm already getting involved. I recommend that students get involved in these organizations as early as possible. Who better to talk to and mentor blind students than blind people themselves? Blind advocacy organizations such as this one have the resources and the support for any student who is looking for a successful future. Parents, teachers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, NFB members, students - the future of blindness is in our hands! Students, we are the next generation of blind people. Let us all work together as a team and raise the expectations for us as blind individuals. Let's make better what it means to be blind!
Corbb O'Connor: My name is Corbb. I'm a senior at George Washington University. On the plane out here I started thinking about an experience I had at that university, an experience that isn't too different from the way I grew up. This past spring I decided it was time for me to go out and meet some new people. My friends are nice, but, you know, they get boring. My birthday was coming up, and my parents weren't going to be able to make it out to celebrate with me, so I thought maybe they could help me pay for a whitewater rafting trip through my university. My parents did what most parents of blind children would do - they said, "Yes, sounds good! Go for it!"
I was the only blind person on the trip (and one of the few males, too). And I realized that what the guides on those whitewater rafts do is a lot like what my parents did very well for me. There are three components of what parents of blind children and rafting guides do. They do training, they use technology, and they have a mindset of teamwork.
The first component is training. Some of you have heard about the importance of Braille. When I was in middle school in Illinois a state law was passed that said Braille should be considered for everybody who was going through the IEP process - that long paperwork, the contract that says what services the school is going to provide in terms of Braille and orientation and mobility. The law says you have to consider Braille at every IEP meeting. It doesn't say that you have to provide it, but at least it says that it has to be discussed. It came up, and I had some very smart support staff who said, "We think Braille training would be good in case you lose more of your vision. We would like to start you on Braille." Well, I resisted and fought and resisted. I learned it anyway, but I wish I had kept it up. These other three students today showed what happens when you are proficient in Braille. How much better could I have been reading if I had actually taken that training seriously! So, kids, you can close your ears on this one; parents, force Braille down their throats! Make them like it!
The second component is technology. When I was in high school I mostly used large print. I found it hard to focus when I was listening to something read by a computer-generated voice or even by a live reader. My itinerant teacher of blind children will tell you I even fell asleep taking tests when she was reading to me! It was not pleasant! It wasn't until college that I started to use a program called Kurzweil. A lot of you may be familiar with that. For those who aren't, you can take something as simple as a magazine article or your credit card statement, scan it in, and your computer will read it back to you. It makes things a lot easier in terms of not having to find somebody to retype that paper or read that letter to you. I found that there is a bigger lesson to be learned through the use of different technology. Yes, it's a lot easier to use Kurzweil, to listen to a book instead of trying to squint and read it in the car. It's a lot easier to use a cell phone that reads print. But really what that's teaching your children is that it's okay to do things a little bit differently.
This summer I'm working at "Marketplace," the public radio show. Everybody's got headphones on in the office. We're a radio show. Everybody else is listening to NPR or listening to TV. I'm listening to my email as well as to radio and all those other things. It's one of the first places where it's been okay - I haven't felt any stigma at all about putting the headphones on and listening to a morning memo instead of trying to read it. Technology makes things a lot easier. It's expensive, too. The bigger lesson to be learned is not from what Kurzweil has done for a lot of people. It's not from what that reading machine in your pocket can do. It's about the idea that you can do the same things everybody else is doing, just a little bit differently.
The third component that has been so important for me is the mindset of teamwork that my parents used. While I wish they had pushed Braille down my throat, one of the things they did really well was this teamwork. Whenever we went out my dad would say, "Oh Corbb, did you bring your cane?" Eventually I decided that if I told him yes initially but forgot it, then I could hold onto his arm and things were a lot easier for me. He didn't make me walk alone. But he caught onto that. He started checking before we walked up the driveway.
There were some times when he'd let me hold onto his arm. I held his arm when we were walking down a busy street in Chicago, or when we toured Europe and I was trying to look at all the sights while we walked and it was difficult to do two things at once. But when we took the dog for a walk (my pet, before I had my guide dog), he would say, "Bring your cane." I would be holding his elbow and using my cane in my normal way, and at one point he would say, "Okay, time for you to walk on your own now." "No,no!" I'd say. "That's too difficult! We're just out for a walk! We're not on an O&M lesson!" Dad would say, "Well, this is an O&M lesson for us."
It's a constant matter of teamwork that has worked really well. Riley talked about taking her first step. That first step really is the key, because once you take the first step, the next one and the next fifty are a lot easier. I saw a movie the other day called The Secret. One of the lines was, "You just have to take the first step. Nothing says you have to see the whole staircase." As parents and educators these are the things you're doing well for the children you work with. You are helping them have the confidence to take and celebrate that first step, knowing what's coming up ahead.
I worked with an orientation and mobility teacher who is here at this conference. Ginger Irwin is her name. We went to the mall a lot on our orientation and mobility lessons. One of the nice things about going to the mall was that I entered an environment that I knew nothing about, and I was able to learn how to get around. You may think, okay, great. My kid just got around the mall on his own. But how is he going to get to Detroit? This time when I came from DC to Detroit I had to go through a new terminal at the airport. I had to go through the terminal here, and through this hotel. Every time I go to new places I think about that trip to the mall with Ginger. I'll think, oh, this is a lot like a plus-sign intersection. It's south on Main Street and I'm going to turn right onto Darke Street. It's really helpful.
So it's really those three key components: training, technology, and teamwork. Whitewater rafting was possible for me. Maybe it's not something your kid's going to want to do. Maybe your kid is not going to want to go to a big university in Washington, DC. But what is possible when you start training, technology, and teamwork? I'm not sure there's a whole lot that blind kids can't do if they want to do it.
About the Authors: These speeches were presented at the annual conference of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) by four NOPBC youth members: Abby Cochran from Minnesota who is going into ninth grade; Kate Colton, who is seventeen and will be a junior at Park City High School in Utah; Riley Robinson, who is seventeen and will be a senior at the Indiana School for the Blind; and Corbb O'Connor, who is twenty-one and a senior at George Washington University.
Originally published in Future Reflections, Winter 2010, this article may have been edited, retitled, or reformatted for inclusion on the NOPBC Website.