MINNESOTA BULLETIN

Quarterly Publication of the
National Federation of the Blind
of Minnesota, Inc.
100 East 22nd Street
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404
Voice: (612) 872-9363
Web site: www.nfbmn.org

Tom Scanlan, Editor

Volume LXVII, Number 1, Summer 2002

WE ARE CHANGING
WHAT IT MEANS
TO BE BLIND

Table of Contents

Les Affaires

Cuts In Services To The Blind Are Protested

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Why I'm Not A Basketball Star

Leaving The Nest

Convention Alert!

Les Affaires

Budget Cuts to State Services for the Blind

By Joyce Scanlan, President

For more than three years, blind citizens of Minnesota have watched with great concern the gradual but steady dismantling of services provided by State Services for the Blind (SSB) under the current political administration. Earl Wilson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic Security (DES), clearly expressed his personal feelings in opposition to SSB as an identifiable entity within his department in his letter dated August 31, 2000 (see "DES Commissioner Wilson Reveals His True Feelings About SSB" in the Fall 2000 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin). In the same letter, the Commissioner also demonstrated his unfriendly attitude toward the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, the state's oldest and largest consumer organization of blind people. With this apparent declaration of war, Federationists suspected that the future did not bode well for blind Minnesotans under this governor, DES Commissioner Wilson, Deputy Commissioner Al St. Martin, Associate Commissioner Mick Coleman and Assistant Commissioner of SSB Bonnie Elsey. They do not support SSB as a separate entity in state government.

THE CUTS: When the 2002 budget cuts came about, SSB was faced with a $416,000 budget reduction - 45.564% of the DES departmental cut of $913,000 - an exorbitant figure considering the fact that SSB is only 5% of the DES total budget. We have learned that Rehabilitation Services, another division of DES serving people with disabilities, sustained an additional $244,000 of the DES cuts, making the total DES cuts borne by units serving people with disabilities 72.289% of the DES cuts.

"WE HAD TO DO IT," a myth: DES officials claim that when the budget cutbacks of 2002 were called for, they "had no choice but to target SSB, because SSB was the unit with more state funding." While on the surface, this may seem credible, it takes only minor checking to discover that there were other options than cutting the services-to-blind-people aspects of SSB. The cuts to SSB were unfair and disproportionate to its budget within DES.

During the past three years, SSB Assistant Commissioner Bonnie Elsey, while steadily cutting entire programs serving blind people, has promoted a vigorous administrative buildup at SSB. She has created the following positions: a statistician, a webmaster, a business services manager, a chief technology officer, a central office administrator, and a manager for the self-sufficiency unit (besides the supervisor it already had) - six additional high-paid administrative positions.

Furthermore, Ms. Elsey retained two high-paid "researchers," whose annual salaries are reputed to be $60 thousand. They are paid with Social Security reimbursement funds, the use of which Ms. Elsey has broad discretion. In other words, she could have used those reimbursement funds for providing services to customers. Thirteen SSB service-delivery staff were laid off and five additional staff positions were held vacant, while the administration and "researchers" remained on board. All of the thirteen layoffs, except the two blind employees, found jobs elsewhere in state government. No staff layoffs occurred in DES outside SSB.

In summary, cuts to SSB programs and services made by Ms. Elsey during her time in office include:

1. Services to children were completely wiped out.

2. The SSB Store, the only place blind Minnesotans could purchase blindness-related items available nowhere else, was closed as of July 31, 2002. Catalogs from other distributors of products for the blind are in print, which is not accessible to most blind people, and the Internet requires a computer, which the majority of blind people still do not possess.

3. Thirteen staff positions in service-delivery areas were cut.

4. Five additional staff positions were held vacant.

5. A statewide program of independent living skills training for blind seniors has been wiped out. Training for older blind people is being dumped on the welfare system.

6. Staff training in blindness has been eliminated. Thus, newly hired staff at SSB have little or no knowledge or understanding of blindness.

7. SSB rehabilitation counselors no longer have authority to purchase services for their customers without seeking prior approval of a supervisor for every dollar spent. All services are micromanaged by upper-level administrators.

8. The Communication Center lost business when Ms. Elsey attempted to transfer responsibility for transcription of cassette tape and Brailled college textbooks to the colleges and universities without holding required public hearings when the State Plan was altered. Any hearings she holds now will be after-the-fact. Now, due to budget cuts and layoffs, the Communication Center staff has been greatly reduced, and the Dial-in News program will be automated.

9. On March 20, 2002, Ms. Elsey sent out a memo informing self- sufficiency staff that as of July 1, 2002, they would no longer be permitted to visit customers in their homes, except by a "written protocol" to be announced later.

10. Ms. Elsey made all decisions without consulting either consumer organizations or the Rehab Council for the Blind. None of the three previous Assistant Commissioners of SSB would have allowed these budget and program cuts to occur without coming to the consumer organizations and the Rehab Council for the Blind for assistance. No such effort was made by Ms. Elsey or any of her superiors in DES.

SSB has been very poorly managed by the current administration. The primary interest is Workforce Centers, which have little or no service relevant to blind people. Ms. Elsey knows nothing about blindness or the services blind people need in order to become independent and employable, and she has given no indication that she is willing to learn. SSB has become a job-service model with very little resemblance to the relevant service-providing agency blind people want and need. Ms. Elsey has absolutely no interest in blind people or improving their opportunities for better lives. Her sole interest is redirecting SSB funds to the Workforce Center system.

THE SOLUTION: It is clear from what has happened during the past three years that neither the Ventura administration, nor the Legislature has been willing or able to protect SSB from the severe reduction in services, staff and funding it has undergone. The hand-wringing claims by DES officials that they were powerless to do anything, and the inability of the Legislature to enforce its own Chapter 220, 2002 Session Laws, compel us to conclude that the only solution for blind citizens of Minnesota is to work for the establishment of a free-standing agency to serve blind people of the state. By doing so, we will have better assurance of having more friendly and supportive administration of SSB, and the Legislature will be better informed on decisions which impact SSB. The current system has failed everyone, especially blind people. Minnesota can do much, much better.

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Cuts In Services To The Blind Are Protested

(Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the August 2, 2002 Star Tribune.)

Advocates for the blind charged Thursday that the state's Department of Economic Security is balancing its budget on the backs of blind Minnesotans.

State Services for the Blind, which accounts for about 5 percent of the department budget, is absorbing 45 percent of the department's budget cuts, said the National Federation of the Blind in Minnesota.

Some casualties of the cuts are a store that sells merchandise for blind Minnesotans, the Dial In News telephone service and 13 staff positions.

"Yes, everybody has to share the cuts," said Joyce Scanlan, president of the federation, which held a protest in St. Paul. "But the percentage we got is way beyond reason."

The Department of Economic Security, like all state agencies, is implementing the budget cuts required by the Legislature this year. It must cut $913,000, and $416,000 of that will come from services for the blind.

The department argues that even though it is a large agency, with about a $300 million annual budget, most of its funding is federal and is exempt from the budget cuts. Programs for the blind was one of the few areas that could be cut, said Bonnie Elsey, an assistant commissioner who oversees State Services for the Blind.

"That's the only place we could look at," she said. "Those were the rules."

But Rep. Dan McElroy, R-Burnsville, chairman of the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee, which oversees the department, said he wants to know if the department "looked under every other rock" for possible cuts.

"I'm concerned that, in an agency with 1,700 employees and a wide array of programs, is this an example of protecting a bureaucracy at the expense of direct services?" he said.

"What about the fairly substantial departments for accounting, human resources, building management, technology -- how much of those functions are allocated between state and federal funds?" he asked. "Is federal funding a reason for what's been done or an excuse for what's been done?"

That said, McElroy said he doesn't think the $416,000 cut to Services for the Blind is excessive, considering that it has a $15 million budget. He also said he is not overly concerned about the closing of the blind store, because most of those items are available in catalogs or on the Internet, he said.

Meanwhile Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the Senate budget division covering economic security, said he plans to hold hearings on the cuts later this summer.

About 50 people protested the cuts outside the offices for State Services for the Blind in St. Paul on Thursday. They are among an estimated 40,000 Minnesotans who are blind, Scanlan said. Some brought their guide dogs. Most held white canes. And nearly all carried signs with slogans such as "Cut administration, not services" and "We need service, not consultants." The elimination of three services counselors for young children and their parents is particularly troubling, said Jennifer Dunnam, 31, a University of Minnesota Braille transcriber. She said her parents tell her to this day how important it was for a counselor to come to their home, when she was young, and to teach them what to expect from a blind child.

"She helped us have a vision for what our life could be," Dunnam said.

The group had several other complaints.

The federation was not consulted or informed about the cuts, although previous administrations did.

The budget bill encouraged agencies to cut administration, not services. Those who were laid off were service providers.

The store for blind people, which offers some items not available elsewhere in Minnesota, was closed July 31 with less than two weeks' notice.

Elsey said the department had no choice. It had directed agencies not to cut any state programs that leveraged matching funds or program money that was transferred to other community agencies, she said.

"Basically what you had left was $3.1 million of state operation money," she said. "And State Services for the Blind had $2.3 million [of it]."

Elsey said she is trying to replace some of the lost services. She hopes to replace the state store with a private vendor, and the Dial In News program with a less-expensive digital service that doesn't use human voices. She also said she is contacting philanthropic foundations for help.

"It's a temporary setback, but I hope in the long run some of the services can be restored," she said.

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Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

By Andy Virden

It was in March, 1951 that I came to Minneapolis for adjustment-to-blindness training - at that time called "pre-vocational training." The Minneapolis Society for the Blind (now called Vision Loss Resources) had an excellent instructor named Paul Preddy (later he got fired for believing in blind people). In fact there were a bunch of instructors that were too good to the blind so they were kind of eased out of their jobs.

While in training, I heard about an organization called the Minnesota Organization of the Blind (MOB) - but it was in whispers. One time I asked someone about the group, and the response was, "Well, maybe ... maybe ..." But then one Saturday, the last Saturday before Memorial day, a fellow by the name of Chuck Linchin and I didn't know what to do with ourselves. Chuck was already a member of the old MOB, which is today the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. Chuck said, "let's go over to this place on Eustis-- you've never seen it, Andy," which I hadn't. We went there, and you know what I saw? These same people, but with life, and debating issues. Listening to the talk at the 2001 state convention, I thought I was back fifty-one years ago on these same issues with Services for the Blind - but much worse. At least Mr. Potter and crew had an interest in blind people, and they wanted to learn more about the subject. That was in our favor. [C. Stanley Potter was a longtime director of State Services for the Blind].

The way they debated this stuff, it was really interesting. Chuck and I didn't stay for the dinner because we were paying by the month over at the old Field Hotel, the Minneapolis Home for the Blind, and so we had to collect our dinner. But I believe the banquet at that time was $2.75.

But we went back. On the steps between the first floor and the basement landing at the old home on Eustis, I gave my first dollar to Phil Houghtelin [treasurer at that time] - and so I'm here today.

Like many of you, I was a little afraid of things. One night we had a dance; we had many good blind musicians that played, and one of them is here today, Mr. Bill Laack. Many people have been in the organization much longer and are still here: Maxine Schrader, Marie Whiteker, Nellie Ask, Georgia Bredessen, and others. We've come a long way in fifty years.

We were told in our class long ago that we were the class that would set the blind world afire. Well, we did our part, but there were a lot of things that happened before - going back to 1920 and even before that. Even when the state established the residential school for the blind, that was a step forward, and it grew. When we started the organization in 1920, there were the same issues. They were fighting with the Society for the Blind. The MOB built a home, since at that time you couldn't just walk in and get an apartment as a blind person. So a home for the blind was a desirable and necessary thing at that time, and it did the job for a good forty years. But times changed, and we came up to a time when a blind person could go any place and live, and we were part of society. Once in a while somebody gets turned down yet, or they want extra rent because we're blind, but we fight them through such organizations as the NFB.

How many of you remember Mr. Joe Debeer? How many of you were able to march around the Capitol with Joe? In 1939, the newly elected Governor Stassen wanted to cut the aid to the blind program from $21 to $10 per month; he thought the blind were getting too much money. Of course those were depression figures, but they were there. Joe got the League of Women Voters and many blind people, and they marched around the Capitol for three days. Governor Stassen was a pretty good politician actually, and when he knew something was wrong, he changed it. No eleven-dollar cut: eleven-dollar increase! That's what Joe contributed. How many today would have the courage to get up and march with him and the League of Women Voters? How many of you, if you were working for the state government at the time, would have marched with him? Would you stand, or would you fear. I can understand if you would fear for your jobs.

Those things happened before our time. In our time we started to fight for such things as tax breaks on real estate. Many blind people found out it was important to have their own homes, but they needed a break to be able to stay in their house or afford to buy it, because wages were low. Ingwald Gunderson, a member of ours, fought hard for this legislation. Some of you are benefiting from this today. We worked for such things as better Social Security, better incentives for learning, and opportunities in the Civil Service program. I and several other people once took a test for a job at Services for the Blind, and we all got a score of 76.3; it was a good way to get rid of us.

When I came into the vending program, there were 24 stands; today there are 63. The income is about five times what it was in 1951. The average in the vending stand program today in Minnesota is $36,000 a year. Those are just some of the things we accomplished.

We fought NAC (the National Accreditation Council for the Blind and Visually Handicapped) all the way, and we won. That's why last summer when they came to the National Convention, I supported our administration on the resolution. NAC wanted to meet with us, and they did have a meeting. Some people wanted to amend the resolution, and that would have put us in a much weaker position. I know a labor union organizer who started young; he was negotiating with a company that was going to give a quarter raise. The union was asking for 40 cents; they should have gotten at least 35 cents from bargaining, but instead, they only got 15 cents because the company saw that the employees were not unified. That's why I voted to support Marc Maurer and Peggy Elliott on that resolution on the resolutions committee, because I wanted to bargain from strength. We are a strong organization with many accomplishments. The Society for the Blind matter, we changed attitudes in the country by fighting that with people like Joyce Scanlan, Jim Brennan, Larry Kettner, the Schraders, and my own brother the late Joe Virden. At that time Joe was an employee of the Society.

We have many accomplishments today. Does it end here? No! It was a cloudy, gloomy day in 1951; today the sun is shining. Our goals should be many; we know who we are, and we will never go back.

We have other problems ahead of us. The new leadership - this will happen in St. Cloud, too. I'm a seventy-four-year-old man, and do not desire ending my involvement but nature will dictate the end. But let us look ahead. What I would like to see for the future: That we get a free-standing services for the blind. If we have to be under some bureau, at least that it's on our terms and something friendly to us, identifiable, and all programs concerning blind people be kept together. We must continue to fight for that cause, or else all this new technology will be stifled or maybe even go down the drain.

We need to do more for seniors. In my apartment house, in the last four years, we've gotten twenty people who are legally blind. That's a house of seventy- four apartments. It is a lot, but they tell me it's quite common in our area of the state. And here's what we have to think about. I didn't know about this at the time, but one day a blind person with macular degeneration in my building fell down the steps. She wouldn't use a walking cane or a regular cane, or else that would have been prevented. She fell because she wouldn't take elevators going down; going down on elevators scared her, but she never told anybody. She fell down the steps, and for three days she didn't know who she was. Is that what we want for our seniors - any seniors? I don't think so.

I'm glad Senator Ellen Anderson (D--St. Paul) sent an aid to our state convention. I think to be really influential in the legislature, we need to establish chapters in all parts of the state. We need to reactivate Duluth; we need a chapter in the Marshall and Redwood Falls area, in the Crookston area, in all the corners of the state. And a very controversial idea is that I think we need a St. Paul chapter. You know why? Because the culture of St. Paul is so different. We need to be able to work with the St. Paul government more effectively, to be in their programs for the disabled, to have those contacts. There is no reason two chapters can't work together. I know it's a "pipe dream by Andy Virden", but I hope you guys take it seriously.

I feel like Moses when the Lord said, "you can look at the Promised Land, but you're not going to enter it." With all the technical things that are coming along, I don't know how many I will learn. The future is ours if we want to commit ourselves to our life. We know who we are and we will never go back.

You may wonder why I'm looking at the future. An old professor friend of mine from St. Cloud State University told me, "A person is really civilized if he's willing to plant seeds for oak trees of which he will never see the shade."

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Why I'm Not A Basketball Star

By Emily Wharton

During those few brief months when Minnesota isn't entirely covered by snow, I like to wake up on a Saturday morning, throw on a pair of sweat pants, and head over to my neighborhood park to shoot some hoops. It's good exercise, a great stress reliever, and a lot of fun.

However, to put it mildly, there are no WNBA scouts beating down my door to offer me a million-dollar contract. To put it bluntly, I stink. On a good day, I shoot twenty-five percent from the point and my dribbling and rebounding are pretty comical. At least once an outing I will dribble the ball on my foot and have to run after it in order to prevent it from rolling into Lyndale Avenue.

One morning when I was shooting particularly poorly, it occurred to me that I might be a better basketball player if I had good vision. I don't have much in the way of depth perception and I reckoned that this could be the reason that many of my shots fell short of the hoop.

This thought disturbed me, so I pondered it for a while. It was true, there was no use in denying it. If a magical fairy suddenly appeared and waved her magical wand and gave me 20/20 vision, my performance on the basketball court would most likely improve.

However, this one magical stroke would not transform me into Sheryl Swoops or Rebecca Lobo. For starters, I am five feet three inches tall - which is not an optimal height for a basketball player. When I play against my baby sister, she consistently throttles me 20 to 4 because she is five foot eight and can knock my shots right out of the air. Secondly, I have two left feet and when I am not dribbling on them, I am tripping over them. This lack of coordination definitely diminishes both my offensive and my defensive effectiveness. But the most important reason why I will never be a superstar is that I don't practice. I play for an hour two or three times a month and as with every other endeavor in life, if you want to excel, you have to work. There is little doubt that if I weren't blind, my life would be easier in certain situations. Earlier this evening I could have thrown my groceries in the trunk of my car rather than hauling them on my back. But if I could have done this, I wouldn't have burnt off some of the calories that I was about to consume. When I was in Atlanta for the NFB national convention, I could have read a map rather than asking passers-by which street I was on. But if I didn't have to ask people for information, I would have missed the opportunity to meet several very interesting Atlantans. In fact, I wouldn't have been in Atlanta at all. When I was in college, I possessed none of the skills of blindness, had never met another blind person, and couldn't utter the word "blind" without choking. One night, I was riding around town with my best friend smoking cigarettes and talking about life and the future and all those deep subjects college students tend to dwell upon. I confessed that I was really depressed because I had realized the inherent unfairness of my life. I had to deal with all the usual problems that everyone must deal with in the course of living - love, loss, money, career, death and taxes - but I also had to deal with the "eye problem" that put me at an intrinsic disadvantage. I had an added, abnormal, unrelenting burden of frustration, fear, and isolation to bare which made all my "ordinary" troubles much more difficult.

It took me a long time to figure out that blindness doesn't have to be a giant cloud that casts a cold shadow over the whole surface of my life; that it doesn't have to control my daily activities or taint my experiences. Two things had to occur in order for me to change my perception. First, I had to meet, observe, and really get to know active, productive, happy blind people. I needed to see blind folks who worked, did their shopping, and went to meetings and parties. I needed to understand that they didn't wait around for a sighted person to accompany them or stay home because it was too dark outside. I needed to have concrete, living examples of the notion that blindness can be just an ordinary part of an ordinary life.

Secondly, I needed to make blindness an ordinary part of my ordinary life. I needed to get the skills that would enable me to efficiently complete the tasks that presently seemed so arduous like reading and getting around. I needed to learn Braille, how to use a screen reader, and how to use a long fiberglass cane.

So now that I have seen that it is possible and been taught how to make it happen, I have been able to put blindness in perspective and see it for what it really is. It may be irritating or inconvenient at times, but it doesn't rule my life or ruin my basketball game. I think Kenneth Jernigan said it best in his speech Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic: "if blindness is a limitation (and, indeed, it is), it is so in quite the same way as innumerable other characteristics to which human flesh is heir. I believe that blindness has no more importance than any of a hundred other characteristics."

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Leaving The Nest

By Emily Fuselier

It was a hot spring day at the beginning of May, and as my mother drove me to the Greyhound station with my suitcases piled in the trunk of the car, I silently said goodbye to Lafayette, Louisiana. It had been nice growing up here, but it was time for a change. I needed to be free, and I just didn't think that my chances of doing that here were very good. I needed to be somewhere else so that I could be happier and more independent.

"Em," my mother said after a series of sniffles, "You're always welcome back home if it doesn't work out in Minnesota."

I stepped onto the bus knowing that I had made the right decision. It had taken lots of courage and independence and inspiration from others for me to decide to take such a big step, but I knew that I could no longer live the way I had lived while growing up anymore. I had thought I was happy with this isolated life, but after my brief visit to Minnesota over the Christmas break, I started to realize how much I had been missing. I was introduced to how much more independently I would be able to live if I would decide to move there permanently.

My life as a blind person growing up had seemed pretty normal up until my last two years of high school. I had taken summer training courses at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, and after being introduced to the NFB I realized that there were so many opportunities out there for me that I had never even explored. After my training, I realized that there were things I could be doing to make myself stand out more in school and in social groups. But like every other challenge, this wasn't always easy. Lafayette (the city where I went to school) was half an hour away from the small town I lived in, and the only transportation I had was the school bus. I took it to school every morning and took it back home every afternoon. But the major problem was the lack of transportation at night and on weekends. My mother went out with her boyfriend most Friday nights and sometimes didn't come home from his apartment until Sunday night, and my sister was becoming old enough to obtain a driver's license and go out with her friends, too. So that left me at home alone most weekends. What fun! I was always afraid to ask my mother or sister to drive me to parties, or to meet a group of girls to go shopping at the mall, or to join people for dinner, because I knew it would interfere with their own plans. In fact, I was even hesitant about asking them to bring me to chorus practice, Beta club meetings, or cheerleading practice at night during the week. I knew that it wasn't always easy for them to find things to do while they waited for me to get finished. I surely didn't expect them to drop me off and drive back home, only to have to drive right back into the city to pick me up. In St. Martinville, the small town I had pretty much grown up in, there were no movie theaters, skating rinks, major shopping malls, taxicabs, or city buses. There were very few fast-food restaurants. But the town was so small that I could walk to the store if I needed anything. Since I had gotten some training in Ruston, I had no problem feeling comfortable crossing the streets; the problem was trying to find a way to travel long distances, especially to Lafayette, where there were actually fun things to do. Friends from my school occasionally invited me places, but when I told them that my mother and sister were out most weekends and that I needed a ride, none of them wanted to go thirty miles out of their way to pick me up, come back into town, go see the movie or shop for two hours, and then go thirty miles back out of the way to drop me off, and then come back. The one time someone did it for me, I could tell they felt obligated and felt sorry for me, and that made it less fun and enjoyable for me.

One Friday night when I was alone at the house, a girl who had been friends with me when we were five or six years old showed up with a group of her friends, and I could tell that they felt sorry for me, because I was all alone while everyone else was out with their friends and dates. After lots of encouragement, they took me bowling with them, but again, I knew they were doing it just for me. I knew what these girls did on weekends, and it wasn't exactly bowling. Truthfully, I wanted to hang out with them at the drive- through daiquiri hut until one in the morning. I wanted my mother to yell at me because I had once again broken my curfew. I wanted all of it because that was what most of the other girls my age were doing. But two hours later, they dropped me back off at home and went on their merry way. After a while, I just kind of faded into everyone's background, saying that I would be fine and hold down the fort while the rest of the family went out. I would have done whatever it took to make it easier for my mother, so if it was easier that I stayed home while she went out, I was satisfied, knowing that she didn't have to worry about me going out all the time. My sister was more than enough for her to worry about.

But despite this problem, I never failed to make my mother and soon-to-be stepfather very proud of my accomplishments. I was always the obedient daughter who stayed home and out of trouble, and I never liked to burden them by treating them like a taxicab, so I never asked for rides anywhere, much less for anything else. My sister was always asking my mother for money to go shopping while I hardly needed much money in the first place, because I couldn't go anywhere. Before I knew it, I was a senior in high school, making the honor roll most of the time, and had gotten a music scholarship at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), and that's all they expected of me. As long as I made everyone else happy, I figured I was happy. Every time I walked past my mother's fiancée, Donnie, he proudly called out, "Emily Jude, the scholarship winner. How's your studying going, sweetheart?" Or he would say, "Boy, Em, I'm so proud of you; you won another scholarship. Your voice sounds so angelic, and everyone just loves to hear you sing. One day you'll become a music professor." But was that really what I wanted to do? Did I really need to decide what career I wanted to pursue once I graduated? My life was probably just beginning. I was always looked upon as the "serious scholarly girl," and I wanted to spend some time having carefree fun. I was tired of studying hours and hours a night so that I could make good grades just to satisfy my parents. But there would come a time when I would decide how I was going to lead my life, and it wouldn't involve guarding the door at home all the time. I was serving my time now, but when I graduated, things were going to change.

During the summer after I graduated from high school, Donnie was such an inspiration to me. He kept telling me how proud he was that I had chosen to go to college, and that I was such a smart girl. He wanted me to know how happy I made my mother, and that he hoped I would continue singing and doing well in school. But I had my doubts about attending that particular college. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to major in music and psychology. But I knew that my mother and Donnie only wanted what they thought was best for me, so I was going to go to college and try to make the best of it. As the summer went on, I continued being the one home alone. Sometimes my friend Jenny, who I had met in the buddy program in 1991, came over for the weekend since she lived so close to me, but when we wanted to go skating or to a movie, we didn't always have a ride. I was lucky when my mother and sister did give us rides, but I didn't want to cause any trouble or interfere with their own lives.

But once I turned eighteen that summer, my sister caused so much trouble, especially when my mother wasn't home. I was asked to be responsible for my sister and her friends, and to make sure that they came home at curfew and didn't drink alcohol in the house when she wasn't around to watch them. I felt like I was being taken advantage of and used. I wanted to go out and have my own fun, and instead, I was up until two or three in the morning, trying to control my sister and her friends as they came in and out, sometimes drunk and obnoxious. On more than one occasion, I had to act as the responsible adult when the cops came to the house. Most of the time, I spent hours washing my sister and her friends' dishes, cleaning up after them if they got sick on booze, and washing endless loads of bath towels after ten girls took baths in our house before going out. In order to avoid yelling and screaming when my mother returned on Sunday nights (which happened anyway once she found out what my sister was up to), I had to keep the house in halfway decent conditions. I couldn't count on my sister to do it. One time my sister even tried to sneak her boyfriend into her room. I had had enough of all of it by the time I started college. This was surely the life I didn't want to lead. I was tired of being the good girl, the peacemaker in the family who stayed home every weekend to keep the place intact. I wanted to have my fun, too.

My first semester of college was pretty good. I was motivated and enjoyed most of my classes, even though I found out that psychology wouldn't be my major anymore. If anything, it would have to be music. But even though there was some transportation in Lafayette, buses only ran until about six o'clock at night. Taxicabs were sparse and not very cheap, and sometimes I waited almost two hours for them to arrive. I simply went to classes during the week, and as Donnie had promised weeks before I had started school, he "rescued me every Friday afternoon" and took me back home to St. Martinville. During this time, they stayed home more often on weekends, because that was the only time they really got to visit with me. Besides, I had laid down the law to my mother that I would no longer baby-sit my sister and her friends, because if the cops showed up again, I wasn't getting involved. I didn't want to have to be the responsible one that made excuses for my sister's reckless behavior anymore.

Then one week in the middle of October, a friend I had met at an NFB convention who was from Minnesota came to visit me in Lafayette and encouraged me to visit the big city of Minneapolis during my Christmas break. When he saw how much transportation was lacking for blind people in the area, he promised me that once I spent a week in the Twin Cities area with all the city buses, being back in Louisiana would never be the same. But time would only tell. As the time drew near, I got more and more excited about visiting a different part of the country. I had been to NFB conventions in Charlotte, Dallas, Detroit, and Chicago, but I had never gone to another state alone. Before I even got to Minnesota, I had a feeling that new doors would be opening for my future and me.

When I got there, this guy showed me how to get from the airport into the city of Minneapolis using bus transportation only. We did all kinds of things on our own: went to a football game, two basketball games, went to a movie and a concert, visited the Mall of America, went to the casino for the day, visited some of his friends, attended a huge New Year's Eve party and were able to get home from the bar on the bus after one o'clock A.M., and were able to enjoy ourselves without having to worry about how we were going to get home. For once, I trusted that the bus system would be pretty reliable, even if I had chosen to go to the next city in the middle of the night. I had met so many people who strongly suggested that I consider moving there. The only problem with that, of course, was how I was going to handle the cold weather. Despite my minor worry, I knew my mother would have lots of major ones if I decided to move. I knew she wouldn't be a happy camper. During my phone calls to her during my vacation there, she was already hinting that she hoped I wouldn't decide to move there.

When I got back from Minnesota a few days after New Year's Day, I was stunned to realize that I had two weeks before the next semester of college started, and I had nothing to do. As the guy from Minnesota had warned me, nothing was the same anymore, and all it took was a ten-day visit to make things change. Suddenly, I wanted to make myself happy; I was tired of making my mother, my sister, Donnie, and all these other people who were close to me happy.

The fun and loving atmosphere around them suddenly started to change into an unhappy one. For one thing, I didn't feel like the honor student/scholarship winner, the way I felt before my trip. My grades from last semester came in the mail, and when I found out that I had made a D in psychology, being that my mother had never accepted D's and F's when I was in high school, I couldn't tell her I had made the D. I just hid my grades and was always nervous every time she asked, "Em, did you ever get your grades? I never saw them come in the mail." I was afraid that if she found out about the D by either seeing the transcript or by my telling her about it myself, she would tell me how disappointed she was in me and that she always thought I could do better than that. After all, it was only one D, and who said I had to major in psychology? But at the time, all I could feel was a sense of failure. I hadn't met my mother and Donnie's standards, and they would think I was a disappointment for it. They had always been judgmental against my sister's partying, friends, schoolwork, and her other bad habits, so I had a feeling that if I wasn't the smart college girl they thought I was, they would start pointing the finger at me. I had always felt as though my mother had more expectations of me than my sister to begin with. It was a good thing that she actually had high expectations of me as her blind daughter, and not the kinds of expectations a lot of uneducated parents might have about their blind child compared to their sighted child. I just didn't want to let her down after all those years of doing well in school and "always doing the right things." But then I just couldn't ignore the letdown feeling after leaving Minnesota and all the new friends I had made, all the freedom, and all the new doors that had been open to me.

Then school started again. There was no excitement about my new classes, no motivation whatsoever. All I longed for was Minnesota and freedom. I had been told by many blind students who were in the Federation--ones from both Louisiana and Minnesota--that one step to my independence was that I needed to stop going home every weekend. So the first change I made that semester was that I hardly went home at all anymore. But my desire to gain independence wasn't the only reason I stayed away from home. The other reason was because I wanted to avoid my mother. I had decided that when that semester was over, I was going to move to Minnesota, where I could truly start my journey to freedom. How was I going to bring it up to her? I knew that she had suspected it, but I just wasn't ready to tell her yet. I needed to make one more visit there, just to be sure of myself.

The semester went on gloomily for me. I became isolated on weekends, I wasn't motivated to study and do homework, and I even started skipping classes, because I just felt too tired and unhappy to go. Somehow, coming back after the trip North had made things change--everything was different. The sense of feeling trapped and the constant loneliness were more overwhelming than I could fathom, so much that I became depressed. I slept all the time, was sick a lot, and had a hard time eating healthily. The only time I felt happy was when someone from Minnesota came to visit, or when I was visiting there myself. Every time I wanted to do something on weekends at the University, I had to rely on a taxicab, unless a friend gave me a ride somewhere. If the cab didn't show up, I just sat in my dorm room, or fell asleep and had the recurring nightmare that my mother held me hostage and trapped me in a small prison cell just to make sure that I didn't move to Minnesota. When I visited my mother and Donnie, all they did was interrogate me about how school was going, which I had no desire to reveal to them. I couldn't stand the way my sister purposely bragged about how good she was doing in school, and about how proud my mother and Donnie were of her (the way they used to feel about me). Furthermore, my mother was always yelling at my sister, if she wasn't already mad at her husband (they were married at the beginning of that semester). There were no more compliments from Donnie and my mother about being proud of my accomplishments. Every single time I visited them during the semester, I got back to my dormitory very upset about something. After the fourth or fifth time I left there after being involved in yet another scene with my family, I knew that this was only going to get worse. I just needed to get away from all of it and start a new life. It was time. I had done my share for them, and now they wondered why I was becoming Miss Independent.

Then in the middle of March, I decided to announce that I was moving to Minnesota in May. Inevitably, my mother was not happy about this announcement. When she told Donnie about it, they "invited" me to the house, sat me down, and spent two hours trying to talk me out of it. They threw all these what-ifs at me: "What if you don't get a good education? What if you break your leg or arm? Who'll be there for you if you're broke and need money?" Sure, I had all these things to think about, but as I had reassured my parents, I was levelheaded and had always made pretty good judgments. In order to learn to live on my own, I was going to have to figure these things out myself. If it didn't work out, I promised both of them that I would come back home. But in my heart of hearts, I knew that it would work out. Like a bird that was being pushed from the nest, I would be on the ground not knowing what to do at first. But in a short while, I would take off and learn how to fly in the real world with all the other birds, and I would no longer need my mother and Donnie to "rescue me on Friday afternoons."

The next month and a half was quite tough. The nagging and what-ifs got considerably worse. My mother even yelled and screamed at me, telling me that no one would support me and be on my side to encourage me if I moved. She tried to get people to call and talk me out of moving, or get other family members to try to make me feel guilty about it. She even convinced my sister to call and make me feel guilty about moving two days before she made her confirmation. My mother and sister did everything they possibly could to stop me from moving. But it was amazing how many people had encouraged me and told me how much they believed in me and supported me 110 percent. There were very few people like my mother and stepfather, who doubted that things would work out for me, but it was those people who believed in me that gave me inspiration and motivation. So what if I had a bad semester in college? I was going to go to a better place, where I could be free and do things totally on my own.

Two weeks before I left for Minnesota, my mother called me up and insisted that I let her come to visit me in my dormitory. I knew something was wrong when she walked in the door. She set a whole stack of papers on my desk, and then the terrifying thought crossed my mind: she had gotten into my school records without my permission. She told me that she found out about the D, and that she knew that I was flunking almost every class I was taking that semester. She used that as an excuse to try to keep me in Louisiana; it was a last resort for her, which still wasn't going to work. It was only pushing me farther away. Now I really didn't want to live close by. The mother I had once trusted seemed to be betraying me, probably using Donnie and his private investigating skills to nose into my business.

"You know," my mother explained calmly, "I don't think you should move. Your grades are not good, and you need to concentrate on school before you do anything. We would like to see you come home more often." She went on and on about why I should stay, and finally, I looked at her with my beet-red face and vented all my frustrations out about why I needed to get away from there, why I needed to be free. In a quavering voice, I said, "Mom, I'm moving because I'm just not happy here anymore. Coming home to you guys every weekend instead of being on my own isn't going to get me anywhere as far as becoming independent. Staying home while everyone else went out on weekends was okay for a while, but now it's not. It's suddenly gotten old. I just can't do it anymore, Mom, and the least you can do is try to accept my decision to move and understand where I'm coming from. I need to do what makes me happy, not you or Errin (my sister) or Donnie, or anyone else. I'm tired of having to rely on someone else to get me around. And I know that going to Minnesota won't always be hunky-dory, but I think that the only way for me to maintain my independence is to give it a try and start learning how to live on my own."

She burst into tears and told me that she would try a little harder to gain my trust back and let me be independent, as long as I stayed, but I was firm with her and told her that the decision had already been made. In fact, I had already shipped a few boxes up there, and I think my mother noticed the bare shelves in my closet. There was nothing here for me anymore. Errin had her friends, my mother and Donnie had each other, but I had started to feel like a circle trying to fit into a square hole, or like a frozen pie in the midst of the produce section at the grocery store--I just didn't belong there. The more I thought about it, the easier it was for me to understand that I probably never had been. The second time I had visited Minnesota was even better than the first, and I felt like I had fit in. Everyone else in my family had gone their separate ways, and now it was time for me to start my own life.

After that day, my self-esteem had risen a little, knowing that I had stood up to my mother and told her for once how I was feeling, but I still had that thick cloud of gloom following me wherever I went. It was always my mother's voice, "Em, I just don't think you're doing the right thing. You're failing school, and you won't be eligible for classes in Minnesota. I don't think you're going to get an education. It was very selfish of that guy to encourage you to move to Minnesota." But I had to stop worrying about what she said. I was going to try to prove to her that I would make it. It wasn't always going to be easy, but life had lots of challenges, and I was willing to overcome them. So what if I had a bad day? As Donnie had said to me before I had started college, tomorrow is a brand-new day, and you can always make improvements.

So on that hot day in May of 1996, I officially left the nest. On the thirty-one- hour bus ride all the way to Minnesota, I had lots of time to think about what I had left and what I was coming into. I had bittersweet memories of the past, but now I had to focus on how much better life was going to be in the future. As the bus moved closer and closer to my new life, my new destination, I imagined putting my whole past, the bad semester, and my mother's discouraging words into a box. I imagined throwing the box with all the bad things backward, opposite from where the bus was going, and that made me feel better and better.

I got to Minnesota and slowly got settled in. I rented an apartment that was reasonably priced, registered for some college classes, and made more and more friends as time passed. Just like the real world, times haven't always been easy. At first, I had culture shock and found myself missing my family more than expected, but I slowly adapted to my new surroundings. There were times when I felt lost in the city, or times when I had financial hardships, but I realized quickly that my mother wasn't just a few blocks down the road to help me out of my problems. I learned to cope on my own, because this is what I had asked for by moving North. I had felt the freedom I had never felt in Louisiana. It was the freedom to make decisions for myself, go wherever I needed or wanted to go, and be who I wanted to be. At first, my mother called almost all the time, and still had hopes that I would figure out that what I had done was a mistake and then come home, but over time, she got less and less worried about me. I have chosen to let her see that I can manage on my own.

Now, I have a decent job working as the receptionist at BLIND, Inc. I answer phones and take messages, I am the Braille embosser, I teach the buddies Braille in the summertime, I schedule all the classes for the BLIND, Inc. students all year round, I order supplies for the center, and I assist the secretary in doing office duties such as copying, faxing, editing using the word processor, and much more. I am not taking any classes this semester, but whenever I am ready, I will go back to school. That doesn't mean that I have given up on it, but there isn't anything wrong with taking a break and doing something different in life. I no longer feel pressured by my mother to go to college. For the first time ever, I get to choose what I want to do in my own life. After all, I had been attending school since I was a very young girl, and now I am choosing to get some work experience for a while. I enjoy the job I have and making my own living right now. It allows me to be able to do the things I never had a chance to do growing up, and it also allows me to buy nice things for myself and for others during their birthdays and Christmas that I wouldn't have been able to buy if I was only going to school full-time. I just bought a house last December, and that in itself makes me feel like I've made something of myself. When I called my mother and told her I wouldn't be able to visit last Christmas because I would be closing on the house a couple days later, I could tell that she was thinking that I had proven her wrong. She told me for the first time in years how proud she was of my accomplishments, and she said that she trusted that I was making the right choices in life.

Things are not the same for me down in Louisiana. First of all, the relationship between my mother and I just isn't the same anymore. I no longer feel comfortable talking freely with her, and I can tell that she still resents the fact that I moved so far away from her. But I couldn't worry about her or anyone else anymore. I had done what made me happy. Secondly, staying there for just a week at a time is way too long, because there is simply not enough to do. I feel trapped, not being free to go wherever I wish. All my relatives and friends in Louisiana have their own friends and their own things to do, and I hardly even know anyone there anymore. I keep asking myself how I could have endured this kind of entrapment all my life, but that was all I had known before going out further into the real world to find my freedom. Working at an NFB training center has given me many opportunities to show other people what it is like to leave the nest and be free. Minnesota is truly my home now, and I think that moving here, despite the brutal winters, was the best thing I have ever done for myself.

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Convention Alert!

Exciting times are coming in NFB conventions. Keep these in mind as you plan your activities throughout the coming year.

The Annual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be held on November 1-3 at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester. Allen Harris will be the National Representative. Members will receive a letter with details about a month before the convention.

The Semiannual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be held in April or May 2003 in Greater Minnesota. Members will receive a letter with details about a month before the convention.

The National NFB Convention will be held at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky during the first week of July, 2003. This is a whole week of friends, fun, and serious business. It is a chance to be part of the largest gathering of blind people in the world. Full details will be in the Braille Monitor.

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