Quarterly Publication of the
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Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404
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Tom Scanlan, Editor
Volume 75, Number 1, Winter 2009
WE ARE CHANGING
WHAT IT MEANS
TO BE BLIND
Table of Contents
By Jennifer Dunnam, President
The changing of the New Year is an excellent time for renewal, and this particular new year has certainly started out busy and full of promise. A new president of the United States has just been inaugurated, from an election in which, because of the work of the Federation, many of us for the first time cast a completely private and independent vote for a president.
I’ve started this year thinking a great deal about what it is that makes us so unique and important as an organization. Of course, we are an organization about getting things done. The myriad of activities going on at all levels are a great testament to our belief in action. Federationists know, however, that our hallmark is that our actions are infused with our positive philosophy and attitudes about blindness. Our work over many decades has improved attitudes immensely, but there is still a great deal to do, and we are the ones in the best position to do it. Misconceptions and destructive attitudes about blindness can, unfortunately, be found in all aspects of life. Our job is to recognize and respond effectively to them so that wherever they exist, there also exists evidence of what is true and not just what is falsely believed.
Of course, literacy is one area where misinformation and wrong attitudes have held too many blind people back. Views of braille as “slower than print”, “difficult”, or “the last resort” have kept too many people from becoming fluent readers and having more independence. We in the Federation know better, and we have worked hard to set those wrongs to right, but there is much to do yet. Toward that end, all around the country this month and throughout the year, affiliates and chapters will be participating in the Braille Readers are Leaders campaign, placing special emphasis on raising awareness about the importance of braille. One goal of the Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign is to double the number of braille-reading school-age children by the year 2015. Here in Minnesota, events were held in Rochester and in the Twin Cities at libraries and bookstores to honor Louis Braille’s 200th birthday and raise awareness about braille. The Louis Braille Commemorative coin, which will generate funding for braille literacy programs, will be released in late March. Check www.braille.org to follow the progress of the campaign and to see what you can do to help. Dick Davis is the coordinator for Minnesota's Braille Readers are Leaders activities.
Our St. Cloud chapter held its annual spaghetti dinner/fund raiser in mid January. The crowds turned out this year just as always, and the food was as delicious as ever. That event is always an excellent opportunity for educating the public about blindness, both through the publicity generated by the chapter to promote the event, and through attendees having the chance to observe blind people independently navigating the lines and crowds, carrying plates, and generally engaging in normal everyday activities. Every chance like that helps.
We held our Minnesota Day at the Capitol on January 21, and it was well attended and successful. We focused on two primary issues. First, we want to improve the training and qualifications requirements for rehabilitation counselors for the blind working at SSB. Currently, very little background in blindness is required for counselors beginning work at SSB, and the blindness-specific training they receive is minimal. Counselors working with blind people in the rehabilitation process must be well versed in all aspects of blindness, including positive attitudes about blindness, in order to be truly effective in their powerful roles. Second, Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library is increasingly severely understaffed even though some of the positions are federally funded. This has an impact on library services to blind people of all ages. We have much work to do to move forward on these issues, but an excellent foundation has been laid by members all over the state personally meeting with legislators and conveying the importance of these issues.
Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) Inc., our own “attitude factory” here in Minnesota, is going strong, with many students and lots of activity. In addition to the comprehensive program, there continue to be classes for senior citizens as well as for English language learners. We hope everyone will check out the February 2009 Braille Monitor, which features extensively BLIND Inc. and its nationally recognized programs.
As always, a delegation of Minnesotans attended the Washington Seminar February 8-11. This year we talked to our legislators about three issues. First, we are urging legislation that ultimately would create a minimum sound standard to apply to all vehicles manufactured or sold in the United States, so that blind pedestrians and others can get enough information to make safe travel judgments as we did before the advent of "quiet cars". Next, we are advocating the removal of disincentives for blind social security beneficiaries to go to work. Finally, we are urging instatement of a “Technology Bill of Rights” for the Blind that mandates consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment to be usable by nonvisual means. The full information is on the NFB website at www.nfb.org/nfb/Washington_Seminar.asp?SnID=23166200.
Our 2009 Possibilities Fair for seniors will take place May 4 in Bloomington, and promises to be bigger and better than ever. It will be a place where seniors can find resources and solutions for dealing with losing vision, and where they can find hope that they can still lead a productive life after losing vision.
Of course, we will hold our semiannual convention in a couple of months, as well as attend the national convention in Detroit. More information on these is at the end of this issue.
Last November, during the course of a conference I attended out-of-state, I visited a center that held programs for blind youth. The room was full of bright, articulate teens, many of whom were excellent braille readers. However, when the time came for lunch to be served, a few sighted people scurried around passing out the boxed lunches, re-filling drinks, and otherwise serving. I lamented the missed opportunity for conveying normal expectations for blind teens and for letting them apply some basic skills that other teenagers generally have—standing in line and picking up a boxed lunch. At the end of the lunch, I helped a young lady of about sixteen find the trash and it was clear that, although she’d been to this center many times, disposing of trash was not a comfortable experience for her. I observed another young gentleman stand up and attempt to take his own trash to the garbage can, but someone near him said, “I see you’re carrying your cane and your BrailleNote—I’ll take your trash for you.” This was an environment where those involved had good intentions, but these "little things" add up in a big way in shaping the attitudes of young people toward their blindness and determining their prospects for the future.
Here in Minnesota, teens and younger children have the fortunate opportunity to be exposed to an environment with higher expectations for them, such as our Saturday school and teen night each month. The Buddy Program at BLIND, Inc. will happen this summer as always, and more teens than ever will be part of the summer Life 101 program. These programs provide the chance of a lifetime for these young people to work with blind role models and focus on learning new skills and good attitudes, and to have fun while doing it.
Not only that, but the 2009 Youth Slam will be here before we know it. Two hundred blind students from all across the country will gather in Baltimore, MD for this five-day academy that will engage, inspire, and encourage the next generation of blind youth to consider science, technology, engineering and math careers sometimes believed to be impossible for the blind. Kallie Decker is Minnesota’s Youth Slam coordinator. Also, see www.blindscience.org/ncbys/Youth_Slam.asp for more information.
The NFB is working to improve life for blind people in many, many more ways than listed here. We do it every day in countless ways as individual Federationists too—going about our daily lives with skills and confidence, doing our part, taking responsibility for ourselves, doing all those "little things" that make a big difference. When we observe or experience misguided good intentions or just plain ignorance, we recognize the effect they have, but we don't let them get us down. We work to change them, and do our best to respond in a way that promotes greater understanding and better action in the future, rather than being judgmental or turning people away. This work is not easy, but we are the only ones who can do it, and we must do it, because the status quo is not good enough.
Attitudes about blindness affect all of us, whether positive or negative. To stay connected with our organization and the people in it, to read our literature on a regular basis, to participate in our efforts—these things help us individually and collectively. While we work hard to improve opportunities and to beat back the real and growing threats to the independence we have already achieved, may we always remember our basics.
We in the NFB have created a vast body of literature based on our many years of collective thinking and experience. Much of it is available online, either in text or sound files; much of it is timeless even though written a long time ago. There is so much good information available that it is sometimes hard to know where to start! I have three reading suggestions for this month. First, if you have not yet had a chance to read Jim Omvig's book Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment, then I highly recommend it, even for those not working in the rehabilitation field.
Second, check out the NFB’s Access Technology blog at www.nfb.org/nfb/Access_Technology_Blog.asp for the latest developments in assistive technology, reviews of products, tips on using the technology, and much more.
Finally, I recently ran across an article written by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan at the time when the Americans with Disabilities Act was first being considered as legislation. The article is not light reading, but it explains the positions and concerns of the National Federation of the Blind in a clear and compelling manner, and the discussion is just as relevant today as then. The article is "Reflections on the Americans with Disabilities Act" and was printed in the February 1990 issue of the Braille Monitor.
By Chuk Hamilton, Director, Minnesota State Services for the Blind
(Editor’s Note: This presentation was given at the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota annual convention on October 4, 2008.)
Thanks so very much to President Dunnam for inviting me to speak to you today. Before I begin, I want to extend a special greeting and warm welcome to Dr. Marc Maurer, national president of the National Federation of the Blind. We are honored to have you here again in Minnesota.
I would first like to take a few minutes to look back and bring you up-to-date on a few matters.
We have just ended the federal year earlier this week, that period of time upon which our statistics are based. I am pleased to report that the number of successful closures in employment has surpassed last year and we will meet the federal standard for that measure. It looks like 94 individuals achieved an employment outcome.
It is too early to calculate other important measures of customer activity within the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program. It is safe to say that we will have served over 3000 persons in our Older Blind Program. I don’t know yet if it was a record number of seniors. I will say a bit more regarding numbers of customers in both programs in a few minutes.
Within the Communication Center, the 21st Century Plan continues to make progress. While all phases of this wonderful project have taken much longer than we ever anticipated, the fruits of the labor are now upon us. We have trained 100 volunteers to record in the DAISY format in our studios, and 40 who record at home. We are producing CD’s with the DAISY format. There are still some bugs in the software, and we are working with the contractor to correct them. Additionally, we have received the pre-production model of the new Radio Talking Book digital radio, and secured temporary storage space available upon their arrival. Staff is also working on other services provided through the Communication Center, such as getting the Rochester newspaper up on NFB-NEWSLINE®, and the Brainerd paper on Dial-In News.
Some other work you may not have heard about includes a project to improve the preparation for employment by persons who are DeafBlind. Over the last several years, SSB has taken a number of steps in this direction, and the most recent holds great promise. There is a common curriculum available in the Workforce Centers called “Creative Job Search,” or CJS. Creative Job Search is a progressive curriculum that teaches the skills needed to conduct a successful job search. It is available through a local workshop or online. The Communication Center has brailled the material for many of our customer’s use. However, for those persons who are culturally deaf and are blind, this has not met their needs. Their learning methods and language have not allowed them to fully participate in traditional programs. Therefore, SSB has contracted with a company who has experience and success with the employment of DeafBlind persons and interpreters and SSB staff to make sure the concepts necessary to fully understand the world of work and the expectations of workers and employers are properly communicated, discussed and understood. SSB has improved our services for DeafBlind persons over the last several years, and this is yet another step in that direction.
Recently SSB was awarded a small grant by the STAR Program (System To Achieve Results) which will add to our collaboration with local teachers of the blind and visually impaired and the Resource Center for the Blind in Faribault. The grant was $3,750. The Minnesota STAR Program is federally funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration in accordance with the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, as amended (P.L. 108-364). STAR had some grant money which was intended for projects that reused or repurposed technology for the benefit of persons with a disability. For a number of years SSB has worked with education to develop both a lending library of common assistive technology devices and provide reused and updates computers for student use in addition to what they were provided in school. It has been a success in terms of convincing local school officials to purchase equipment for the students own use on a long-term basis as well as developing and maintaining basic computer skills.
In addition to this STAR grant, SSB recently purchased ten Victor Streams to be added to the lending library.
Now and into the Future
In July it was brought to our attention that the numbers of tours to adjustment to blindness training centers was alarmingly low, and we were requested to provide specific data in that regard. You may recall that we want customers who are considering half-time or more adjustment to blindness training to tour community rehabilitation programs as part of making an informed choice. Other information such as surveys of customer satisfaction with services is also helpful. We did provide the specific data requested. We found that the number of tours was indeed low, and the impact was across the board for all CRP’s and counselors. Activity picked up but by the end of the year, but there were fewer tours when compared with the last several years.
During this same time period a few leaders of the NFB expressed concern that we were closing cases prematurely, which had other consequences.
I have been holding meetings with the leadership of our Workforce Development Unit and others going over other data for this past year, and previous years. While there is more work to do and data to examine, we see a few trends.
First, the numbers of individuals we work with is decreasing, in spite of an aggressive outreach effort. For example, in 2002 the Workforce Development Unit worked with over 1500 people. This number has dropped regularly since then to less than a thousand in 2007. We are currently looking at other data to understand this trend. Second, we know that Minnesota has a lower rate of successful employment outcomes than a number of other states. While some of this might be due to our preference to do homemaker rehabilitation in our independent living or older blind program, and that we use the category of “post employment services” for some people after they are closed successfully rather than opening a new case, we still need to examine other aspects of our processes. For example, from now on supervisors will be reviewing every case that is closed “failure to cooperate,” or “refused services,” two reasons a number of people are closed unsuccessfully each year.
In broader terms, we will start in the near future adding a question to our ongoing case review process that will look at the depth to which we counseled customers to consider comprehensive adjustment to blindness training.
Moving to the Older Blind program, we know a bit about those demographics too. The statistics are clear. The demographics of vision loss have always been skewed towards the aged, and are becoming more so. In 2005, the number of Minnesotans over the age of 65 with a vision loss is estimated at 110,701. By 2020, that number is expected to increase to 160,775, a 45 % increase. By 2030 it’s projected to rise to a staggering 225,739, a 104% increase over the 2005 figure. We are already experiencing the increases in demand for services.
As I have reported to the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind before, we have developed an initiative that I hope will be considered during the next legislative session. The initiative, if approved completely, would allow us to serve an additional 1000 seniors per year.
Also looking towards next year, I want to inform you that there are likely to be several leadership changes at SSB. This will provide great opportunities for change and growth.
In closing, you might like to know that Curtis Chong is coming back to town and will be a keynote speaker at SSB’s all-staff meeting on October 21. Most of you know Curtis, but some don’t. Curtis and his family lived here for many years. He was successfully employed locally, a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, and the Chair of our State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind. He moved to Baltimore to become the Director of the National Federation of the Blind’s International Braille and Technology Center. Currently, he serves as the Program Administrator of Field Operations and Access Technology for the Iowa Department for the Blind.
Curtis will be speaking on, “The Future of Rehabilitation for Individuals Who are Blind and Visually Impaired.” In addition to anything else he’s planned to share with us, we have asked him to touch on the following:
· His perspective from “both sides of the desk”—reflections on working with the NFB and now in the public VR program
· Employment challenges and technological difficulties that he sees now and future challenges
· Today’s challenges of making jobs accessible for blind people, especially when computer systems change and are no longer accessible
· The future of services for the blind
Our staff-training day will end with the film "Farther Than the Eye Can See," a story about Eric Weihenmayer's climb to the top of Mt. Everest that was filmed and funded by Allegra and the NFB.
Thank you again for this opportunity to speak with you. Have a wonderful convention!
(Editor’s Note: Steve is vice president of the NFB of Minnesota, vice president of the NFB computer science division, and is employed as a Lead Computer Analyst at 3M Company.)
Perhaps every human being who ever lived thought that his or her time was the most complex of times. It certainly seems that we face many complexities today. I'd like to discuss a recent event here in Minnesota, that being our legal action regarding the accessibility of Target's website, and some related issues of philosophy and priorities. The intent is to explore thoughtfully some of the complexities of these times.
Most of you know that there was recently a settlement between a number of people, the National Federation of the Blind and the Target Corporation that commits Target to make and keep its website accessible to blind persons using screen readers. Since the Target Corporation is located in Minneapolis, the media was very interested in this case over the past years, and I was honored to present our side in several interviews. Probably because of the press contact, Target also was interested in talking to me. Twice target’s lawyers deposed me.
A deposition is somewhat like testifying in court but without a judge being present. What one says is considered to be evidence much like testimony, and one does promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Each session lasted several hours, and they often asked me the same question in a number of different ways to see if my answer was consistent. They also asked for a list of all the websites I visited for the previous year. It is fortunate that I make uninteresting stops along the information super highway. I was also present when our lawyers deposed Target personnel, and that was a very interesting experience.
Another of my activities is to be one of those who help Dave Andrews with our many NFBNET internet mailing lists, which are electronic discussion groups. These lists are made up of NFB members, non-members, some sighted persons interested in issues of the blind, students, senior citizens and probably just about any type of person you can name. Part of my role is to try to answer questions that come up, along with others, of course. In that capacity, I have seen and have tried to answer many questions, including some about Target. Some questions were easy, but some required a lot of thought. There were a few that required self-control, such as those that began “Why are you jerks for web accessibility but against . . .” whatever the questioner's favorite issue happened to be. However even questions such as those caused me to stop and think about priorities, philosophy, and our future. All right, I admit it; maybe I did mutter a few words of frustration before philosophy came to mind. There were questions I could not easily answer while proceedings were underway, but are worth answering now. Other questions may not have answers but are worth exploring nevertheless.
Why are you guys suing Target when their site is pretty easy to use? This one came up often. There are two answers to that question. The site was very difficult to use when the legal action was begun. There were times when you simply could not check out after making purchases with a screen reader. Even at that, some claimed that this was not the case, they could check out just fine. It was claimed that we just didn't know how to use the site. Such comments often came from people who tend to believe that being a member of the Federation made you wrong all by itself, regardless of your computer skills. However, sometimes it turned out that one could check out without encountering the roadblock to accessibility, depending upon factors I could never determine. Target could have helped us determine how to avoid the roadblock to checking out easily, though, had we been able to talk to them. Still, the fact that the results were not consistent, caused some to be unjustifiably critical of us. In addition, we began to notice that while Target was arguing with us, they were, in fact quietly working on their site. Therefore, some of the problems over which the legal action was launched were actually not apparent later on. That did not change the fact that there had been serious barriers to our using their site, nor did it change the fact that there were many smaller barriers to our on-line shopping experience. It also did not change their public position that they didn't need to do anything.
However, it doesn't make sense to look back any more than I have already done. My point is not to spotlight a rough road, but to make the point that when undertaking such a venture, the facts can change as we go making things complex. We succeeded though in gaining what I feel is a very good settlement with Target. In addition, as I observed their staff, I got the distinct feeling that they were anxious to get this behind them as well, and they put forth many good ideas. Even at that, what makes this case or web accessibility important? How does it fit into our general philosophy that we try not to expect the world to change for us? As one unfriendly list participant put it, "Why do you jerks work for web access but oppose accessible currency?"
First, let's set the record straight. One neat way to try to impress people with one's own argument is to restate the opposing argument in a way that strengthens one's own. This questioner ignored the fact that the National Federation of the Blind passed a resolution in support of accessible currency as part of a redesign of our currency in 1994. What we did not support was making our currency accessible by claiming we have not been able to use it for the past two hundred plus years, thus playing upon the image of the poor helpless blind person. We can't read our currency, but we have worked out methods to use it. Being able to identify currency would be convenient, but frankly, it won't change most of our lives substantially. As I have said, though, we did not oppose the idea of making currency accessible as other changes are made.
We all use money, but how many of our lives are impacted by Target's website? In the words of a reader offering comment on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, "Why don't they (they being us) just go to another website?" That really is a question worth exploring even if it does feel a little like a punch in the stomach. Why not just find another place to shop? Isn't our philosophy that the world should not have to change for us? Aren't we asking Target to change for us?
One of the things I have always loved about this organization is that we have a philosophy. We try to look at the many issues we face to see what impact they will have in the end. We place a lot of faith in our ability to help one another as blind people and to help ourselves. Whether we use a white cane or a guide dog, we strive to travel independently. We have learned to determine when to cross streets by listening to traffic patterns. While perhaps not the first, our organization has established training centers that do the best job that has ever been done to inspire confidence and teach practical ways of successfully living meaningful and productive lives. We developed NFB-NEWSLINE® and the KNFB Reader and better canes. All of these accomplishments not only help us, but also make a positive impact on society by empowering us to contribute.
Nevertheless, we have also recognized over time that there are those things that we need to ask of society. For example, until recently the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was our only real source of reading materials. We gratefully receive the assistance of thousands of volunteers who help prepare textbooks so that we can get an education. We now have some guarantees in law, but this was not always the case. While we benefit greatly from these programs and services, a good case can be made that society also benefits. Increasing our ability to get an education makes it more likely that we'll get the kinds of jobs we need to get to support ourselves and to pay taxes.
Let's look back six hundred years or so. Much of the literature of the day was hand copied line by line not unlike the way braille transcribers hand copied print textbooks into braille not many years ago. Then, Johann Gutenberg invented the first moveable-type printing press in 1439. While not the first system to print documents quickly, it caught on and its use spread throughout Europe and eventually the world. What if there had been a Renaissance Federation of the Blind, and what if there had been a device that, when connected to the printing press, would have made all documents printed also readable by blind persons?
It is my position that over the past twenty years or so, we have seen a change in how we handle information that is on the scale of the printing press. I do not claim that this change has as large an impact, because in many ways the changes simply mean that we handle information differently. However, the opportunity for us is not unlike the hypothetical device attached to the printing press. We are seeing an entire new infrastructure of information distribution. In ideal circumstances, a blind person with a computer and a screen reader can access much of the same information as can a sighted person, and we can do it independently. The challenge is that this technology is still new and it is rapidly changing. New ways of accessing and displaying information are constantly being developed. Changing technology is placing more power into the hands of people. Banking, registering for classes, shopping for groceries, and even ordering a Whopper at Burger King can be done with keyboards and displays. It also means, generally, that there are fewer people with whom to interact if one cannot use those technologies.
The rapid development of technology is proceeding almost like a very large ocean wave. Those of us in its vicinity have, for all practical purposes, two choices. With skill and luck, we can learn to ride the wave and let its energy carry us to places we have never been. However, we can also be swept under if we don't have the right skills and the right surf board, and be left behind. These two choices are there for all of society, but I maintain the choice is even a bigger one for those of us who are blind. In the best of all worlds, technology doesn't care that much if the product is displayed in print or braille, or spoken through a speech synthesizer. Many of us have already taken advantage of this with great success.
However, what if technology changes in ways that make it impossible for us to participate? We are seeing that occur as well. We are seeing jobs that can, for all practical purposes, not be performed by blind persons. This is not because the job can't be performed without sight, but because the software used won't work even though other software to do the same thing might work well. Usually, that which makes technology not accessible to us doesn't really make anything work better. Generally, it just makes the information look prettier, and it may make a product stand out and perhaps more likely to be purchased. In some cases, we do find we are placed at a disadvantage because of something that truly is new and improved. In those cases, we must use our minds and enlist the help of those producing adaptive equipment to bridge the gap, but we need help from those creating new technologies as well. Unfortunately, not to move ahead means moving backward with respect to the rest of society.
So what's the answer? The answer is education in many forms. We must show the public that while we need to be remembered when new technology is developed, we are also trying to meet them in the middle.
Our screen readers, speech synthesizers and braille displays do a great deal of the work. We are trying to do our part in other ways as well. Our organization has worked hard to influence the development of the KNFB Reader that holds the promise of bridging the gap as well in many areas. We are talking with willing partners to help them make their software and their websites easier for us to use, and if they plan for us from the start, it simply is not that expensive.
Some have chosen to ignore us along the way. Perhaps there will never be a time when all websites are accessible, and we must never forget how to manage readers and improvise when something does not work. Still, we can't afford just to go somewhere else to shop, because if we're ignored, that great ocean wave of technology will wash over us and leave us behind. Target did not stand alone, it is a part of a larger picture. By first challenging them and now working with them, we are changing a pattern of exclusion into one of inclusion.
Therefore, education sometimes means that the classroom is also the courtroom. It means doing what we can to limit purchases of inaccessible technology by some of the largest customers out there, our state and federal governments. It means sitting down and settling out of court once the realization is achieved that programmers are usually cheaper than lawyers are. It means that to stay on top of this wave, we must try to make our position known by picking those situations where there are fairly simple answers and where the benefits are great, and then being able to work with those we may have been obliged to challenge, something we have done many times now.
Our settlement with Target is just one more step in the right direction, but there have been many steps in which we have played an instrumental role. Over the years, we have achieved success with Microsoft, America Online, Adobe, Amazon, Target, and very recently, Apple. We have had a major impact on the development of voting machines and talking ATM machines, and the list could go on and on.
However, it is always important to think about what we ask society to do for us, and I am proud of our ability to do that too. We don't work to make Target's website accessible just because it wasn't; we do it because it is the second largest retailer in the country, and for them to publicly imply that they don't need to do it would have sent a huge message that we simply could not allow to stand. As proud as I am of all that the National Federation of the Blind has accomplished, I am most proud of our philosophy that says we need to do as much as we can for ourselves, while also looking at important issues and what they will mean to our blind kids and those who come after. If we are able to get people to think of us as part of the process of developing new technology, it won't cost much at all and it will result in other benefits, too. It will be like attaching that miracle device I mentioned earlier to the printing press, and I believe we are well on our way.
As I said at the outset, these times are complex. We are seeing changes that we cannot ignore while we try to maintain a strong belief in what we can do for ourselves. Maybe we'll make a mistake or two along the way, but if we always think about why we need to ask for a service or modification rather than simply demanding what we don't have, we will succeed in the end. In other words, philosophy is our target. It may be a difficult road to follow at times with necessary detours, but I believe it is the only road to equality.
By Mike Klimisch
It’s hard to believe that our NFB center in Minnesota, Blindness Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Incorporated, has been around for 20 years and is very much alive and thriving. I was a student there from February through October 1989, so I was one of the first 10 students to meet all the program requirements and successfully complete the program. I first became aware of the center at our 1988 convention of the NFB of South Dakota in Pierre where Joyce Scanlan was one of our speakers. At first I didn’t give any thought about going there and probably wouldn’t at the time, but my job seeking was going basically nowhere since I just graduated from college with a degree in social science with a psychology emphasis, sociology minor, and a music minor in May of 1988. I don’t regret having made the decision in January of 1989 to go to BLIND, Inc. I had been teaching myself some braille before I had decided to go there and was taught some cane travel at our rehabilitation center here in Sioux Falls with barely a 3-week time learning it. It was decided at the time that I would only need to use a cane more for identification since I had quite a bit of useful vision and was thus taught the diagonal technique. I received this training in January 1984 before I started college that following August. I was given a batch of psychological tests I felt were useless. Things happen for a reason and my waiting to get very good top-notch training was meant to be. You have to remember that I graduated from college and wanted a job, not to be a student because I was tired of being a student and wanted to contribute something to society and make something of myself, in a good way.
On February 13, 1989, I came to the center and was given a tour and that afternoon I started my training with Russell Anderson on the use of my new cane. He gave me a 57-inch fiberglass NFB cane that I quickly took a liking to because it was so light and I liked the idea of having a longer cane for when I would cross streets and stuff. At first, it seemed scary knowing that I would walk the streets of Minneapolis, a city I was not familiar with at all, with the cane and using sleep shades. Nevertheless, I quickly figured that if totally blind people can do it, so could I. I would learn braille from Nadine Jacobson and home management with Claudia Hammerstrum and Betty Bishman. I would be one of Betty’s first students. Through activities and going to the Metro Chapter meetings, I would meet others like Curt and Peggy Chong, Steve Jacobson, Tim Aune, and Tom Scanlan, and still others. While there at BLIND, Inc., I decided I was going to learn everything I could from this program and learned grade-3 braille.
We all had some good times in those days, but I have to say that I’m not sure I would want to go back to those days because I wanted to get a job and be another person in the workforce and not a student or collecting some government check when I knew I was capable of working. I grew up in a family where my folks said that I would grow up, get a job, and be out on my own and that my folks would not support me. They would help from time to time, but in the end I would be self-supporting and would have to be self-supporting because I would need to be independent as I could be because there will be times where someone isn’t going to be able to help me.
The two things that really strike me even to this day is that the staff invite students into their homes and do things on nights and weekends with them. This serves as role modeling and gives the students something to look forward to and a tangible goal of what the future holds. The other thing is that at BLIND, as soon as the students are taught skills, they are encouraged to use their newly taught skills in the real world, even if they don’t have good mastery of it yet. Sometimes programs will not allow a student to use skills until they have full mastery of it.
When I was growing up, I never learned how to figure out street addresses and didn’t think that blind people needed to know how to do so. I knew it was important to know the address, but not how to find it. I figured that was the job of the sighted person driving. I was never really told, that I can remember, that I should learn braille because I could read print fairly fast when I was a student. I grew up with an idea that if you read print, you shouldn’t learn braille. That’s really too bad that idea still exists today. It is so nice to be fluent in braille and use it as I need to just as I use print when it works best for me. It’s nice having the skills of both using vision but also nonvisual techniques because when one fails, the other can take up where the one fails, or in some cases, used together and compliment each other.
I grew up on a farm and my brother and I were equally expected to do chores. Though neither my folks nor I would learn about the Federation until I was in college, they still had high expectations for me and tried not to treat me any differently than my brother when it came to getting things done and done right. There were things I couldn’t do and part of that was because none of us, including myself, had met a blind person until I was in high school, when I attended the school for the blind. I attended one of the last one-room country schools in South Dakota for the first seven years of elementary school. The teacher was strict and had high expectations for all of her students, and I was certainly no exception. When I first started school, my folks thought she was hard on me but she told my folks that she wanted me to have a good education and that I would someday be expected to enter the mainstream world of work and needed to learn early on that society would expect things of me. So, I guess it was a good thing I grew up in a good family where I would learn that at an early age and not use a vision problem for excuses. I guess I grew up just as normal as any other kid could grow up and got into trouble just as all kids do from time to time. Sometimes blind kids are very sheltered and this creates problems in later years and even into adulthood where there are low expectations.
On October 28, 2008, BLIND, Inc. celebrated 20 years of service. I think I was the only one from out of state there. I think I was also the first out-of-state student at BLIND as well. On the evening of my arrival, I first explored the downtown area where BLIND used to be and realized how different things are now. It sure brought back many memories walking downtown on my first travel routes and other things we did there. There were about 90 of us there for the daytime activities and about 80 for the nice banquet we had. I met new students and old friends. It is hard to believe that I’ve known some of the Minnesotans for 20 years now. While at the reunion, I was so glad to meet new students, congratulate them and thank them for choosing to come to BLIND. While there, I got to see the new building that I heard so much about. While I was there, it never gave me the impression that this is an institution of learning, but a very warm friendly atmosphere. Such a nice place. There was one guy at the reunion that was farther back in the program than I was, and that was Jim Purtle. He graduated after I had been at BLIND for about a month. I still told everyone that I was “old school.” I spoke before the assembly about the times I had at BLIND and my experiences. How things have changed so much from those days in the Skyway News building on Fifth and Hennepin. This is much nicer and it is ours.
What have I done with myself since I left BLIND? I now own a house in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which I have had for over 11 years now. I continue to work for Avera McKennan Hospital where I have done medical transcription for the past 13-1/2 years, after a 5-year job at the former Sears Payment Systems where I worked as a credit analyst on the phone in the new-accounts department. I still use my cane when I travel and out on the streets, even though my vision has improved through some new contacts in recent years. I still read braille to keep it up and still like reading braille. Often times, whenever there is an opportunity to have a braille or print agenda, I take the braille agenda.
I value what I have learned at BLIND, and I would really hate to let these tools dissolve and go away. Sometimes they still come in handy. I have to thank the instructors I had and my state for allowing me to be at BLIND to learn things and have excellent training. It sure would be all in vain if I let these gifts go away after the many hours I spent learning them and the hours my instructors spent teaching them to me.
There are many wonderful memories of my days at BLIND. I’m glad I now know how to figure out addresses and do that on a frequent basis. I used to be a nervous traveler alone but now those fears are gone. I still may have the “universal fears” like about the plane being okay, and other things we all worry about, but I sure don’t have many of the fears of travel that many people think blind people do, and there are some blind people who still do. I still have my first cane from BLIND, but I don’t use it anymore. Instead, I went to a 59-inch carbon fiber one that comes up to my eyebrows. I still have, and use on occasion, my original slate and stylus I received too, as well as my braille instruction book. I think about those olden days at BLIND. I have to thank Karen Mayry, our state president at the time, for suggesting that I go. She was right. For those of you who don’t know, she was a former Minnesotan. I guess there must be something about folks from Minnesota.
What a wonderful 20 years it has been, being at BLIND, and all the friends I have made along the way. I have learned a lot from them, not just in blindness tools, but just friendship and other things in general. I hope that they have learned something from me a time or two as well. It is always nice to meet up with former students wherever possible or meet other new people who have been students at BLIND and know that we share something so great. It’s interesting to listen to the times other students had when they were students and may share another commonality. I think there is a special friendship or bonding of the students at BLIND, knowing that we had some of the best training in the country. I still recommend the program to people, even if they think they have enough sight that they don’t think they need it, and use myself as an example. I tell them that there is no shame in using a cane or braille and there should not be. I also tell them that it is okay to be blind. I also tell them it’s okay to make mistakes, but the most important thing is to know how to fix a mistake if it can be fixed. Sighted people make mistakes too, so I think it should be okay for a blind person to make a mistake or two. I think we will do well the next 20 years and hope to be at the 40th reunion and beyond.
Exciting times are coming in NFB conventions. Keep these in mind as you plan your activities throughout the coming year.
The Semiannual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be April 18, 2009 at the NFB of Minnesota building in Minneapolis. Members will receive a letter with details about a month before the convention, and the letter will be on our website at www.nfbmn.org.
The National NFB Convention is July 3-8, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. This is nearly a week of friends, fun, and serious business. It is a chance to be part of the largest gathering of blind people in the world. The full convention bulletin is in the Braille Monitor, and in the Upcoming Events section of the www.nfb.org website.
The Annual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be in October or November 2009 in the Metro area. Members will receive a letter with details about a month before the convention, and the letter will be on our website at www.nfbmn.org.
Chapter Meeting Dates to Remember
Metro Chapter — Twin Cities area; meets at 2:00 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month at NFB of MN Headquarters, 100 East 22nd Street in Minneapolis
Riverbend Chapter — New Ulm area; meets at 9:00 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month in New Ulm; contact Charlene Guggisberg at 507-354-2250 for meeting location
Rochester Chapter — Rochester area; meets at 7:00 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month at Peace Church in Rochester
Central Minnesota Chapter — St. Cloud area; meets at 12:30 on the second Saturday of every month at Old Chicago Restaurant in St. Cloud
Runestone Chapter — Alexandria area; meets at 1:30 on the third Saturday of every month at First Congregational Church in Alexandria
Many people are involved in getting this issue to you. The writers can write and the editor can edit, but until the material is printed, brailled, recorded, and distributed, it is just a computer file. Therefore, we owe great thanks to the following people for the work they do in producing this publication.
Tim Aune duplicates the cassette tape edition.
Jennifer Dunnam transcribes the braille edition.
Art Hadley reads the audio edition for cassette tape and Compact Disc.
Judy Sanders proofreads and provides corrections for both the print and braille editions.
Tom Scanlan marks up the website edition.
Emily Zitek runs the copies for the braille edition, deals with the printer for the print edition, and mails all editions.