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President's Column

By: Jennifer Dunnam

A few weeks ago, 99 Minnesotans attended another inspiring and refreshing national convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando. Amid all of the many exciting activities that served to build and strengthen our Federation and move forward our agenda of action, one of the highlights of the convention was the banquet address delivered by our national president, Mark Riccobono (text available at The topic is particularly timely as we observe the fast-increasing innovations in technological tools that we as blind people can use to increase our independence as we go about our lives. In the speech, President Riccobono discussed the many considerations that go into our approach to such innovations, to ensure that we are the ones shaping our lives and our technology, as opposed to the technology driving things for us. In talking with Federationists since the convention, I gather that many have found this speech especially helpful, which is certainly the case for me personally. The past six months have caused me to think quite a bit about the relationship of technology and raising expectations.

The passing of my father back in February, after his five-year battle with cancer, has brought about a good deal of opportunity for reflection about how incredibly fortunate it is for a blind child to have parents who refused to accept excuses or half-measures when it comes to education, and who hold the blind child to the same standards as their other children who are sighted. Although I was born totally blind, no one knew it until I was about six months old. The day my parents learned I could not see was one of the few times I have ever heard of my father crying. But it was not long before both of my parents recovered from the shock and decided their approach. Thank goodness, they did not listen to the doctor, who conveyed the attitude that since I was blind, there was no hope, and I should simply be protected. Instead, they determined that it made more sense to continue to treat me as they had when they assumed I was sighted, so that I would be equipped to live in the real world. Their attitude stayed that way always, and they did their best with what they knew to put it into practice. I had the same chores, the same opportunities, and the same punishments as my sisters.

Both my parents' formal education ended at high school graduation, which was common in their time and place. For their three daughters, they insisted on attention to education, and plans for college were a given. When I was a toddler, They gave me wooden blocks shaped like print letters, and spent time making sure I knew the shapes of those letters—long before I learned braille. They taught me to spell before I could read. That may have started out accidentally, though. To try to avoid my knowing what they were talking about when it came time for feeding, they sometimes spelled the words; before long, I am told that they soon began hearing from me a request for my "b-o-t-t-l-e"! From then on, spelling became an important tool for me. In games of hide-and-seek, when I got frustrated at not being able to find my younger sisters for a long time, (and only after I had given a good try to find them), my father would spell out where they were, so that they would not understand that he was helping: "u-n-d-e-r, t-h-e, t-a-b--l-e."

As soon as I was big enough to wield a little wooden hammer, Dad bought me a tool bench and tools all made of wood, teaching me all about screwdrivers, wrenches, nails and hammers. Of course, I hammered on one of my little fingers once, and I am sure that this upset him more than it upset me. But the next day, there was the tool bench, and no restrictions on my using it, other than my own memory, which did a fine job of keeping my fingers well out from under that hammer.

As a little girl of four, I can remember us driving around to different places to find a school for me. After one of these trips, I recall overhearing my father say in absolute disgust, "we're not sending her to that baby-sitting service!" Why not, I wondered—all the baby-sitters I knew were wonderful! But thank goodness, I was not in charge back then. My first three years of school were in New Orleans—a public school but with a self-contained program where I could learn braille and other necessary skills on my way to being mainstreamed into classes with my sighted peers. The school was an hour drive each way from our house, so my mother took a job at a bank near the school. She also began to learn braille and ultimately became a Library of Congress-certified braille transcriber, thus allowing me, beginning in third grade, to attend a completely mainstream school nearer our home. My mother's new career also gave an opportunity for other blind students to attend nearby public schools as well.

My dad taught me how to ride my first tricycle, then took the training wheels off my first miniature-sized bike. He was there a few years later the first day I finally got the larger-sized bike I had been coveting from my cousin who finally outgrew it. On my very first foray down the driveway on that bike, because the brakes worked differently from what I was used to, I could not stop quickly enough upon realizing I was off-course, so I flipped over a culvert into a ditch, chipping one of my teeth. That was traumatic for us all, but as soon as I was able, I was encouraged to be out on that bike again, and operation of the new brakes was second nature in no time. For years afterward I rode that bike all over the property on which we lived. 

Dad grew up in poverty and had a strong sense that people underestimated him because of it. I believe this gave him a particular ability to understand my struggles with people's low expectations of me because of blindness. If I vented to him about times when people talked to me as if I were two years old instead of twenty-two or thirty-two, he discouraged self-pity but understood the frustration. He and my mother also instilled in me that I needed to do my part to raise the expectations, by not asking others to do things for me that I could perfectly well do or could perfectly well learn to do for myself.

I have immense gratitude for my parents' efforts, and for those of the many parents of blind children everywhere who are also working so hard to fight against the low expectations their children face. For example, Jean and Allan Bening, whose daughter Megan also unexpectedly passed away six months ago, fought and worked creatively to make sure that she was empowered to live a full life and to help many others. For another example, the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota has just met the family of a little boy who lost his sight a few months ago. His parents found us while researching to make sure that their son could get all the opportunities and education possible, so that he, too, can grow up and live the life that he wants and not be held back by the low expectations that he may find at his school or elsewhere.

We have the recently-released documentary "Do You Dream In Color", which chronicles the barriers faced by four blind teenagers in getting their education (hint: the fact that they cannot see does not rank when compared to the low expectations that they face). If you have not seen the film yet, I recommend it; it is available from all the usual places where digital versions of movies can be bought, and it is available with descriptions of the visuals when purchased from iTunes. The trailer is here: One important feature of the depiction is the role of parents. All of the kids had parents who were very supportive; Not all of the parents had the same level of resources to put behind that support, but all encouraged and did their very best for those kids. That is a big reason why their blindness itself was not their real problem.

All of this leads back to the discussion of the role of the technological innovations. Along with several other Minnesota Federationists, I have over the past few months been part of experimenting with the new Aira service. Aira is a platform that allows a blind person to wear a glass and connect to a sighted person remotely who can see through the glass and provide descriptions of visual information. As a person who has spent decades successfully finding ways to get the necessary information to live independently and efficiently without the need of vision, and working to help convince our society that vision is not a requirement for success, this innovation has caused quite a bit of internal conflict for me and others. Surely we do not want to move in a direction that would seem to put sight as the perceived key ingredient in independence, when we have worked so hard to teach ourselves and others otherwise. However, I recognize the potential value in this new tool when added to our existing excellent nonvisual techniques, and so I am testing it out to help sort out where it can be beneficial. I will likely have more to say about this later, but for now I have two basic findings. 

First, and perhaps quite obvious, using Aira is not like becoming fully sighted. In fact, it strikes me as somewhat analogous to what it might be like to have partial vision. The vision can provide useful access to information, but it also has limitations: the field of view is more limited, there is a lack of depth perception, and the fact of the information needing to be spoken (as well as any latency in the video and audio connection) mean that the information is more slowly gleaned than if it were seen directly, and it may also be incomplete. This is not to say that this way of getting information is useless—quite the contrary. It simply has limitations that need to be understood and sorted out, and those limitations need not determine the limits of what a person can know and do, if that person has good alternative skills. For example, being able to spot an empty seat independently in a crowded cafeteria using Aira can be handy. However, unless I have the skills to carry my tray with my cane and navigate the path to the seat without bumping into people along the way or tripping down the steps leading to the seating area, knowing the location of the empty seat will not have much benefit for me. An Aira agent can tell me what temperature my oven is set at, but if I use Aira to place tactile markings on the oven knobs at the various temperature settings, then I will not need to take the time to call an agent to help me every time I want to cook.

All of this leads me to my second and very much related point about Aira (or any of these types of technological tools). I would submit that innovations such as these make it even more imperative that the education system for blind children be improved, and that blind people of any age get access to quality training toward blindness-specific skills and positive attitudes. If these technologies do remove more barriers and thereby help raise expectations, then we must have the foundation and preparation we need in order to clear the higher bar.

I look forward to the work we will do together in the Federation, to build the lives we want, and to bring a future full of promise.

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