Education: More Than Academics


Braille Monitor

July, 2004

From the Editor: At the National Association of Blind Students midwinter conference on January 31, 2004, the final panel presentation of the morning focused on the educational value of various kinds of nonacademic student activities. The opportunities open to today's students and the stories these three told about their personal experiences were fascinating and inspiring. Anyone looking for proof of the impact that the National Federation of the Blind and its positive philosophy of blindness are having on a generation of young people need look no further than the following article, taken from the presentations made. Here they are:

Stacy Cervenka, University of Minnesota: I walked into my judo class full of trepidation. My stomach was tied in knots, and I could barely breathe. All the nightmares I had had for the last few months were now a few seconds away from coming true. I just knew what was going to happen right after I walked in. I would be in a room filled with big, bad, ripped guys, who ate tiny little girls like me for breakfast. They'd take one look at me, and after a long, awkward silence someone would finally pipe up saying in an uncertain voice, "Are you lost?" But I continued anyway, thinking of the long months I had spent wanting to take judo and all the semesters I had put it off. I walked in, put my cane down near the wall, and sat down on the mat. The teacher began talking to us. He said, "Please stand up," obviously speaking to one member of the class. I didn't realize it, but he was talking to me. You would have thought after this incident that he would have recognized that I couldn't see. After all, he gestured at me, and I didn't stand up. So someone nudged me, and I stood up. He said, "Come over here." He put his arm around me and walked me to the front of the class.

I thought, "Surely he knows I'm blind. It's probably just his crazy way of sighted-guiding me."

Then he said, "I'm going to give you an application and a marker and I want you to take down everybody's judo size and whether they need a book or not." So in front of the entire class I had to explain--what a wonderful way to tell the instructor that you can't see. He just started walking away. I said "Ah, sir, could somebody else please do it; I can't see."

Screech, halt, he turned around, "You can't see? You mean like you forgot your glasses?" (This is dead truth, ya'll.) Then he walked back to me. I was expecting macho gym teacher posturing: "Well this is not adaptive phys-ed." But what he said was, "Wow, that is so cool. I used to be the coach of Jim Mastro, who was a blind world champion." I can't tell you how relieved I was.

That semester began a wonderful time in my life. I have gotten to meet many, many awesome people. People who take martial arts are often some of the most dedicated, interesting, and intelligent people you will ever meet. I cannot imagine now what my life would have been like had I truly been afraid and let my fears stop me from taking judo. I can honestly say it would be much less rich than it is now. In contrast I have another story to tell you. This last semester I decided to take a horseback-riding class. I knew that a blind student had tried to take it before and had dropped the class because the instructor was uncomfortable with her blindness. I confess to having a bit of arrogance sometimes. I told myself, "Yes, but I have skills. The other student was not as skilled as I am. Surely the teacher and everyone else will like me." So I went to the first class, and we were grooming our horses. Just in passing I mentioned that the next week I wanted to ride Buddy. "That will never happen," said a voice behind me.

In surprise I said, "It won't?"

"There is no way I will ever put you on that horse." I was flabbergasted. Finally I suggested, "How about you get to know me, then we can decide that later in the semester."

His response was, "Absolutely not."

Thus began probably the worse ten minutes of my life. We were in front of the class, and I had never before experienced such a horrible verbal tirade filled with discrimination. I never expected to have such an experience. Part of me assumed I was safe because of all the public education the NFB has done since 1940, and, if I am honest with myself, part of me really thought I was too good to have it happen.

We have all sometimes thought that way. Discrimination, we half believe, happens to those who deserve it at least a little more than we do. Maybe they are not as motivated or as ambitious as we are. Actually, I am almost glad that he did it in front of the class. Otherwise I would probably have let go a scream of expletives. His behavior actually kind of kept me clean. He said, "I have been teaching horseback riding for twenty years, and I have never seen a sight-impaired rider." I said, "Sir, do you know how a blind person crosses a street?" He did not. I said, "I cross streets every day. Just because you don't know how a blind person does it doesn't mean that blind people don't do it."

Without replying, he walked away, and I continued grooming my horse. He returned and said, "Yeah, you know what? Maybe I should put you on a race horse. Is that what you want? Do you want me to put you on--a race horse? I know some girls who do that." I tried to explain that I didn't want to race because I was just learning to ride. I just wanted to learn what everyone else in the class was going to learn. He just got madder and madder. Finally he said, "Well, you know what I am going to do? I am going to call disability services and have them send someone down to lead your horse around."

By this time I was frustrated at his threats, so I said, "Actually, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, I have the right to refuse an accommodation, and that is an accommodation I want to refuse." Throughout this conversation I kept pleading with him, "Please just open your mind."

He responded, "My mind is open. Otherwise do you think you would be in this class?" I pointed out that I had the right to be in the class. He said, "Yeah, you have the right to be here, but you don't have the right for me to put you on a horse." It was awful. I tried to tell him about Diane Starin, president of the NFB's agriculture and equestrian division. I explained that she is a rancher and has dealt with horses for longer than I have been alive. His response was, "Why don't you take classes at her stable then?"

I said, "Because she lives in California." Later that day I got on a horse, and he came up to me and asked if I was going to stay in the class. I told him I was. Then the tears that I had been trying to hold back spilled over, and I was mortified. I did not want this man to see me cry, but I just couldn't help it. His reaction was completely beyond my experience. I said, "Sir, honestly I am not this way. I get along well with my professors. You're an expert on horses. I'm an expert on blindness. If we pool our knowledge, surely we can come up with a workable way for me to take this class."

He said, "Well, we're in class, so I'll be nice, but I will be honest. I don't want you here."

I was still crying and feeling pretty desperate. I suggested that we talk about the impasse after class. I offered to give him some resources and names of people to contact."

He said, "I can tell you're a real hothead."

I said, "I can tell you're stubborn too, but why don't we channel our stubbornness in a positive direction? We could find a way to make this work." He just walked away. He did go to the head of the department of kinesiology and told him that he wanted me out of the class. Luckily the department head had a friend who was a blind professor in Japan. The department head, who is plainspoken himself, told him in no uncertain terms to fudge off. And I understand that he didn't use the word "fudge."

Though these two experiences were markedly different, they both shared a common denominator: a blind person had gone before me and had blazed a trail so that things were easier for me because of the things that had been done.

Now I want to ask you guys in this room a question. How many of you can honestly say that you think you have been such a blind person? One thing we like to talk about in the NFB is overcoming the fear that we're not able to do things because of blindness, fear that we don't have the skills or that something is not feasible for us to do as a blind person.

I am here to talk to you about a different kind of fear. It's the kind of fear that even Federationists have to deal with. Those of us who do have skills know other blind people who are doing challenging things, but sometimes we are still afraid. One of my favorite quotes is from Mark Twain, who once wrote, "One who can read great books and doesn't is no better off than the man who cannot read at all." I would say for us that means the blind person who does have skills and is capable of going out and blazing new trails for other people but doesn't do it is no better off than the person who doesn't have good skills at all.

This conference today and the Washington Seminar are a wonderful shot in the arm, but in the outside world being a blind person can be scary when you are the only one. I happen to be a theater major, and often, when I go to auditions, the director has never even spoken to a blind person before. The situation is often somewhat uncomfortable, and I need to be the one to put the director at ease. That is very scary for me. I am not always the most confident person. I mean, God didn't give me all the confidence in the world, but if you're going to be successful as a blind person, you really have to step outside your comfort zone.

Wayne Gretsky once said that 100 percent of the shots you don't make don't go in. That is very true. If I had not taken judo class, I would have failed. I would not know judo now. My life would just not be as good as it is now. But because I did, my life is very much better. Because I completed that horseback-riding class and was able to do every single thing the other students did in that class, including jumping, I can only hope that the next blind person who comes along will have it just a little bit easier than I did.

Many blind students attend the University of Minnesota, and it's very common for me to walk into a class and talk to a professor and for him or her to say, "Oh, I had so-and-so in my class last semester. He was amazing. He could tie his shoes; I saw him do it once." This happens often in biology classes and in many other classes, but it almost never happens in phys-ed classes. I wonder why. Surely I cannot be the only blind person in this room who likes sports. I cannot believe that. Am I the only blind person in this room who likes theater? I think not. But how many of you have taken a phys-ed class through your university? What about drama? How many have taken a drama class? [noticeable response] Awesome. College is one of the few times in our lives when we have so many opportunities. So many things are just laid at our feet.

We have the opportunity to learn how to fence. As a twenty-three-year-old person I am learning how to play the piano for the first time, and I am proud that I can play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with both hands. It is awesome. Before, I have always contradicted the stereotype that all blind people are musical, because all I could play was a pot and a spoon, and even that was kind of lame.

I want to leave you today with the idea that many of us have the skills, and we know that things are possible, but we let fear stop us from doing the extracurricular things that are an important part of the college experience. College is about academics--that's a very important part. No one is arguing with that. But life is not just about getting by. Academics, of course, are the foundation, but college is about expanding your world and making the most of your opportunities. Honestly, sighted people aren't as scary as we think they are. Often they are just as afraid of us as we are of them. I hope to inspire you all today to go back to your campuses and to try something new because we want to be the next generation of blind people to go beyond all the frontiers that have stopped everyone else before. We want to be the giants whose shoulders the next generation can stand on. We want to be their mentors. How can we do that if we are just getting by? That's not what the NFB is about.

I hope you will remember what you learn at this seminar. You can do things as a blind person, and though you may have the skills and you may worry about awkward silences and uncertain glances, honestly it's not going to be as bad as you think. It will be as bad as you think, despite your skills, if you don't try. Regret is a lot worse than embarrassment. We've all done stupid things. Does anyone in this room not have a dumb blind story they could share? What's worse, that or regret, saying, "I could have done this, but I chose not to. I wonder what would have happened if I had taken this class?"

Enjoy the rest of the Washington Seminar, and when you get back to your colleges, I hope you're able to use what you have learned here and not just use the skills, but also the confidence. Remember, the people who have gone before us and who have done great things have had to deal with the same challenges we do--the same fear, the same anxiety, the same social blinders, and they have made it. So can we.

Arielle Silverman, University of Arizona: How many of you have filled out a scholarship application some time in the past year? How many of you have applied to college or a graduate school program in the past year? These are just two examples of situations where inevitably you are asked to demonstrate community service experience. Am I right? There are many other examples, different organizations on campus, different job opportunities in which community service is definitely a benefit, if not a requirement for acceptance.

As your sighted peers are applying for those programs and are required to demonstrate their community service, we are being held to the same standard. That is just one reason to become involved in community service, but I believe that the most beneficial service is one that is not performed directly to satisfy a requirement.

Today I'm going to talk about three main reasons that you may not have thought of for performing community service, and I'm going to give two very different examples of my experiences with community service. The three reasons I can think of for blind people to be doing community service are to give back to the community; to educate the agencies we're serving about the capabilities of blind people; and to educate other volunteers about blindness.

After my junior year of high school I decided to go through an extensive training program to become a peer counselor for a teen crisis hotline. In order to do this work, obviously I had to interact with telephone callers, so my blindness was not even a factor. In fact, I wasn't allowed to tell them who I was or anything about myself. They didn't even know that I was blind. I did run into a bit of anxiety and doubt within the organization. I remember when I first indicated that I wanted to train with them, I called to ask about something else, and they happened to learn that I was visually impaired. I was happy because the first question I got was whether I was going to be able to do everything? That was really cool.

The only thing that got in my way and was a little frustrating was that in the course of the training, when I was doing role playing with phone calls, the supervisors had to pass notes to indicate if they wanted the peer counselor to do something differently or if they wanted to ask a question. If I had questions, I was supposed to write notes to them. I didn't think it was a problem. I just figured that I would type the notes on the computer, and if they had something they wanted to say to me, they could just whisper it in my ear. It took them a long time to get used to that method. I was in training for longer than most of the other peer counselors, but once I got on, I was really happy.

The point I am making is that this was a service project that I was doing for no particular requirement, and my blindness was not a factor at all in talking with the callers. I believe that while I was on the teen crisis hotline, I must have educated everyone who was working there so that if they ever have to deal with blind callers or similar situations, perhaps they will be more constructive because they have had this first-hand experience. I would encourage all of you to do something like this just for the benefit of teaching other people that you are volunteering with about blindness.

If you are doing community service and look at a list of charities or agencies, you have probably noticed at least one agency for the blind on the list of social service agencies. The blind have historically been considered appropriate recipients of community service. That brings me to my second point. By doing community service--even if it takes time, even if you don't want to get up early on Saturday morning to pick up trash or do something else boring, even if you are not getting paid or getting any direct benefits from it--doing community service will help turn around that image of the blind collectively as a group deserving and requiring charity.

Earlier Dr. Maurer was talking about the fact that some people take the attitude that society owes them something and it better pay up. But our goal in the future is to reduce that attitude. Inevitably we must depend on other people sometimes; we depend on drivers and public transportation, and we seek out special services like the National Library Service that require funding from other people. That's another reason why it's our responsibility to pay back society by doing community service.

The project I just talked about was a service that did not involve other blind people. But I think there is also great benefit to getting a bunch of blind people together and going out to do a community service project.

Last year I started an organization that's not part of the Arizona Association of Blind Students. It's a different organization of blind students in high school and college who do a variety of things, including community service. I spend a lot of time calling different agencies around the Phoenix, Arizona, area asking them if they have any service projects they would like us to do for them.

Last October I contacted the Ronald McDonald House in Phoenix, which is part of a national organization. It serves families of children who are getting out-patient or in-patient medical treatment at hospitals. It provides food and lodging for parents so that they don't have to drive back and forth from their homes every day to be with their children. It also supports the children if they are getting out-patient treatment. I know of this organization because I was in the Key Club in high school, where I learned about it.

So I called and told them about my student organization. The members range in age from sixteen to twenty-four--basically all young adults. The woman I talked to agreed that she wanted us to cook dinner for them. About five of us went out and spent probably about $150 on food. We were making tacos, so we had to buy ground beef. One guy bought twenty pounds of ground beef. At first I thought he was crazy, but we ended up using all of it. We had to buy vegetables and cheese and everything else. We had a driver drop us off at the door, and we went in and did our thing.

I didn't think there was any problem. A guy from the Ronald McDonald House insisted on staying in the room with us the whole time, showing us around, getting things out, and turning on the stove. He didn't complain about it, so we didn't think this was a big deal. That was Saturday. I got a phone call on Monday from the manager, with whom I had made the arrangements and whom I had never met. She said, "Our weekend manager was very upset because you guys came in without any supervision, and you put us in a bind."

 I admit that one of my first impulses was to get mad and demand that they reimburse us the $150 we had spent on the food. In the course of our conversation about what had happened, I explained that only one volunteer was under eighteen; everybody else was an adult. At one point she said something like, "Well, this is really naive, but I kind of figured that, because you were setting this up, you were going to be the sighted supervision for everybody else." I explained that I was blind and that, yes, I was still the president of the organization. I was making the arrangements, but I was blind. God forbid that those two should be the same person.

By the end of the conversation I think I actually changed her attitude. I don't know if it will be permanent, but I think by the end of the conversation she had learned something. At the beginning she was going on about its being a liability for us to be in the kitchen--you know, if we burned or cut ourselves. I said that I didn't think there was anything in the law about that.

The point I am trying to make is that, when I thought about the particular agency and what it does, probably it serves a lot of children with medical problems; probably some of them are blind, deaf, or mentally retarded. Those disability groups somehow get blurred together in people's minds. And I believe that unfortunately a lot of the agencies that we serve have low expectations of the blind because they are serving blind people whom they consider very disadvantaged.

That brings me to my third point. We really need to educate those agencies. If they see us do service projects, help them out with necessary maintenance, if they see us give them money or give them food or give them anything else, eventually, if we do it enough times, they are going to realize that blind people can be capable and successful; and hopefully they will start transmitting that attitude to their patients or clients. Maybe if the patients and clients at those places can watch what we are doing, they will learn independence and confidence directly from us.

So I implore you guys to go out. If you see an ad for a community service club in one of your student newspapers or online, if you hear of an opportunity to volunteer and it fits into your schedule, please go ahead and do it. In the process you will be giving back to your community and doing something that your peers are doing. You will be educating those around you about blindness just by doing the same positive things that they are doing or might do. And you will be educating those agencies you serve so that they can in turn pass on this positive view of blindness to their clients and other people for the future. Only if we get involved in the community and start volunteering is our future going to be bright with promise.

Brian Quintana, University of New Mexico: I just got a bachelor's degree in political science. A couple of years ago I thought it was appropriate, a necessity, to get some job experience in my field of study. The high percentage of unemployed blind people is no secret. It is crucial to get experience before graduating from college. I hate to break it to you--I am sure a lot of you already know--everybody and his grandmother these days have a bachelor's degree. So if you go to get work after you graduate and all you have is a degree and no experience, you are going to have an even harder time getting a job than blind people already do.

 I first went to the congresswoman in my district in Albuquerque and interned for her for three months. It went real well; just a few accommodations had to be made. I installed JAWS on my computer. I had to do a lot of letter writing, phone calls, mailings, just very boring stuff, but still work experience, and important at that. There was also some fun. The congresswoman's office sent me to represent the office at a grand opening of a new theater downtown. A couple of months later, close to Christmas, I was asked to be in a public service announcement. It was just a holiday greeting with the congresswoman. Anyway, after that summer internship I decided to try to get an internship in D.C. I had already had the Republican congresswoman's district office experience, so I wanted the Democratic senator experience in Washington. I applied and, lo and behold, I got the position. It was a five-week internship here in D.C., where I lived on the George Washington University campus. It was great. I really had a good time. They had a lot of fun activities planned for the interns. If any of you are political science majors. ... Actually a couple of interns had random majors like biology, so you don't have to have a political science major to get internship experience.

But since we are here in Washington, D.C., and will all be meeting with our congresspeople next week, I encourage you to inquire about an internship if you are interested. Get an application. Most of these are summer experiences for college students, but they have semester experiences as well.

I had a great time. Everybody learned a lot, of course, about government and about blindness since I was an intern working in the office. Giving tours was really fun. I was asked to go on all the tours because I had all the information on the architecture, who did this, and what year the first elevator was installed. I had a great time.

When I got home, they sent a certificate of completion for the internship. The intern coordinator attached a note saying that they had gotten compliments from constituents who had been there earlier this summer. It made me really happy that I could shine, so to speak.

In 2002 I got a call from the governor's office in New Mexico. They said that they had a vacant seat on the Board of Regents for the New Mexico school for the blind. They had gotten my name and asked if I was interested. I told them that I was definitely interested but that I was going to be leaving during the 2002-2003 school year for the University of Massachusetts on a domestic exchange. They said that they could work something out. I thought that was fine. Then they told me that I had to have an interview with the governor. I was really nervous. I got my résumé together and met with him. He said, "Yes, I will definitely appoint you; just keep your grades up." I said that I would, and I was appointed.

I can tell you that, if I had gone in there with just my résumé and no work experience, I doubt he would have appointed me. It is crucial to get work experience before you get out of college, and your career will be much better for it.