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 3, Spring 2003


Table of Contents

Les Affaires

Some People Just Get It

She Shares Unique View of the World

Check Your Oil? Service Your Cane?

My Triple Life As Worker, Student, and Federationist

Giving Directions

From One World into Another

A New Beginning

Convention Alert!

Les Affaires

By Joyce Scanlan, President

Blind? Me? Heaven forbid. Never. How many of us have emphatically denied our blindness when directly confronted by the question, "Are you blind?" If we're honest, all of us at some time or other have denied the truth in an effort to hide from blindness. Why have we done this? Speaking for myself, you can think privately as you wish, I grew up in an environment that said you have value in direct proportion to the amount of eyesight you have. Those with the most vision had the assignments requiring moving around, doing heavy work, serving as sighted guide to a person with little or no eyesight; the general attitude was that blindness was shameful and embarrassing. That is why when I graduated from high school and became a rehabilitation client/customer/whatever the acceptable label of the day might be, I wanted nothing to do with a consumer organization. For many years the rehab system reinforced my negative feelings toward blindness and joining an organization of blind people by such comments as "Consumer organizations believe in social activities only; they have dances and card parties; the image of a blind man is someone sitting in a rocking chair with his stereo on one side and his talking book player on the other; besides, consumer organizations condone begging (this in reference to white cane drives). Maybe I'm dating myself. All that was enough to turn me off. And when the day came when I could no longer deny my blindness and had no support group to measure myself, I stood alone in those dark days until the day I met the National Federation of the Blind at a national convention in my home town. My outlook has changed one hundred percent since then.

As the executive director of a residential training center serving blind people and as a member of a consumer organization, I have had occasion to give careful thought to the role the Federation plays in the rehab process our students are going through. With the Federation as our guide, we have determined to address attitudes toward blindness as well as skills in using alternative techniques, building up confidence and dealing with public attitudes toward blindness and empowering blind people to take charge of their lives. We have chosen a direction that promotes the idea that it is respectable to be blind. We encourage our students to identify with the blind community, while participating fully with the sighted in the broader community. We hire carefully-selected, competent blind people to serve as role models for our students; sighted role models are hired and trained to create a positive real-world environment with high expectations for students. The Federation serves as a ready resource for program participants as they work toward resolving blindness-related issues. Thus, our program presents a different approach from that of other programs in our geographical area and a definite choice for blind people searching for a program to meet their particular preference.

Three of the four state agency directors I have dealt with since joining the Federation thirty-two years ago have openly supported the organized blind movement in their public statements, in their personal membership in the organization(s), or in their calling upon the Federation and other consumer organizations when financial problems arose and support in the state legislature was needed. Only one, the current director, refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Federation and other consumer organizations as viable partners in the operation of the rehab agency serving blind people. I can also tell you that because of her attitude, the agency has lost much state funding, its services to children, a greatly-reduced program for serving seniors, a store, and several direct-service staff. She believes consumers are an interference, a barrier, and a bother; they slow down the rehab process or the work of the professional. She has chosen to go it alone with the legislature, and blind people of the state have lost considerably in the services available to them. Some professionals in the field of blindness may agree totally with her. They are convinced that consumer organizations have absolutely no place at all in work with the blind; some professionals refuse to discuss the matter at all. Still others of us contend that the Federation can and should play a significant role in making rehabilitation successful. It seems that there really is a controversy about the matter, and with the limited time available, I will consider only some of the cons with an emphasis on the positive benefits my experience has demonstrated to me the Federation brings to students in our program.

When people who are blind come to a residential training center to learn about blindness, they are filled with fear and insecurity about their prospects for a meaningful and productive life. Those of us who give tours or meet with new students can make all kinds of positive statements to give hope that every dream the new student might have can be realized with proper use of alternative techniques and building up of self confidence. But it doesn't take a student long to figure out that this center is a fairly unique environment; everyone is positive about blindness; the program emphasizes a "can-do" perspective. There must be something more that is needed to demonstrate that blind people are successful out there in the big wide world with good jobs and successful academic careers. They soon begin to ask about employed blind people, and we have access to hundreds of blind people locally and across the country who can attest to the fact that blind people are employed and living happy and constructive lives out in the community. In the Federation, we can call upon blind people who are teachers at all levels from childcare workers to college professors, social service workers in direct case service work to upper-level managers of entire programs, customer service workers, computer database administrators to upper-level computer managers, legislators, lawyers, accountants, musicians, farmers, mechanics, any job to which a student may aspire. This vast resource of blind people can attest to the need for basic skills required to do their particular job. A teacher who is blind must be mobile, literate, resourceful, independent, and capable of taking charge of all teaching responsibilities. Most people who are employed must be able to do the same tasks expected of any other employee in a particular field--make coffee, operate a copy machine or computer, bring treats in turn, entertain the boss--anything necessary to fit in with other workers in the business. Encountering blind role models from throughout the employment spectrum goes a long way in persuading center students that the skills they are learning do indeed have great relevance and must be taken seriously, if students are to achieve success in their chosen careers. They can realize the value of their current training as a step toward that longed-for job. Meeting successful blind people gives rehab center students a means of measuring their own skill levels and setting ultimate goals for achieving individual success. Role models and a means by which students can measure themselves are two basic reasons for involving consumer organizations in the rehab process.

Who can argue with success? At Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), we have tracked our students after graduation and have found that within one year of completing adjustment-to-blindness training, eighty-four percent have found employment and thirteen percent have been accepted into post- secondary education programs for a total success rate of ninety-seven percent. This is in a population with a nationwide unemployment rate of seventy-four percent. This is the result brought about by our partnership with the Federation.

When students begin their training program, they are usually very self-absorbed; they think only of themselves and their personal needs. The Federation has provided a means by which students can reach beyond themselves to give support, assistance, or encouragement to others who are blind. They can identify with a community to which they can give back. They can enjoy a continual contact with blind people for mutual support, networking, advocacy and ongoing capacity to make self-measurements and assessments.

This is where the real meaning of empowerment becomes worthwhile. Another significant fact we have discovered is that of the graduates of BLIND who maintain contact with the Federation following completion of training, ninety-seven percent are successful with employment and pursuing academic goals. We are convinced that our ongoing contact with the Federation is a major factor in the success our students enjoy as they move forward in their lives.

When I asked our students what value they saw in having a contact with a consumer organization such as the Federation during their training, they said, "It gave me tangible evidence that there is a clear and obvious difference between those blind people who need training and those who are moving on with their lives after a good training program." "The Federation allowed me to see the philosophy we talk about being lived. It was living proof that the philosophy does work." "I used to think I was the only one who had problems because of blindness; now I know that my problems are typical of the problems everyone who is blind experiences." "The mentoring is invaluable." "The Federation helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel." "Why would you deprive someone of the benefits they can derive from a consumer organization?" So, you see, students seem to appreciate having access to the Federation as they experience training at our center.

Cooperative working relationships between professionals and consumers can exist, and such relationships can be of extreme benefit in times of political or financial troubles. With a strong group of vocal consumers out there, the rehab system need not worry about funding being cut or viable services being withheld. The political wrangling between consumers and professionals is harmful and unproductive. If we as professionals in the field of blindness truly are sincere in our stated goal of empowering blind people, we must acknowledge the common bond that blind people have with one another in an organized blind movement, as well as the many benefits available through a cooperative relationship with a well- organized, philosophically-sound group of people ready and willing to act collectively on their behalf. We at BLIND have found our relationship with the Federation to be helpful and positive, empowering for our students, and a very worthwhile factor in our

success as a training program.


Some People Just Get It

By Jennifer Dunnam

Sometimes, in the course of the mundane acts of my day--walking down the street, finding a seat on the bus, using stairs, opening doors--I feel the constancy and magnitude of the need to educate the public about the capabilities of blind people. Long ago I came to accept the ever-present possibility that some ordinary, everyday movement of mine might prompt an anxious passerby to try to protect me or make something easier for me. I know that the vast majority of such instances involve people who want to do something good, and I do my best to deal with them kindly while maintaining my dignity. But sometimes I wonder inside if blind people's efforts to educate the larger society are having any effect at all. Will sighted people ever come to understand any of the reasons why it might be preferable to let a blind stranger go her way without extra interference? Not long ago, I got an answer.

One day, as I was walking down a hallway in the building where I work, a man I didn't know said, "excuse me," as if he wanted to tell me something. For a moment I thought to hurry on, but he didn't seem anxious, so I was curious and stopped.

"I know you don't know me, but I've been hoping I'd see you again."

Before I had time to wonder if he was some kind of stalker, he continued: "About two weeks ago, I saw you walking down this same hall. I thought you might be about to bump into something, so I grabbed your arm. That obviously startled you, because you jumped and jerked your arm away. As I thought about it later, I realized that I had invaded your space, and I hoped I'd get a chance to apologize to you sometime."

I had forgotten the incident, but when he recounted it, it came back to me: I'd been in a hurry to deliver something to an upstairs office, and he seemed to come out of nowhere and firmly took hold of my upper arm. Usually, when things like that happen, I remove my arm from the person's grasp and politely say something like, "thanks, I'm okay," but in this case, he had startled me so much that I just yanked my arm out of his hand and scurried on my way without saying anything at all. I knew he hadn't meant it this way, but I had indeed felt intruded upon. Would he have done that to a sighted woman?

But here he was now, weeks later, having thought this through. Many times I had wished someone would just "get it" without my having to explain it every time. Now that it had really happened, I hardly knew how to react, but I did manage to express to him how much I appreciated his thoughtfulness and that I hoped he wouldn't worry about it anymore.

The exchange lifted my spirits for the rest of the day. It also helped me remember that, relatively speaking, sighted people try to assist blind people unnecessarily far less often than they just go their way and allow blind people to do the same. Even in airports, where the sight of someone walking independently with a white cane tends to cause great anxiety, the people who accost us are outnumbered by the people who just go on about their own business. This proportion is not a naturally occurring phenomenon; it is the result of the concerted effort of thousands of blind people--both individually and collectively--blanketing the country with good information and teaching people one at a time. My awareness of all my fellow Federationists working along with me is one of the most comforting things in my life.

A few days after the apology from the man in the hall, I was boarding a bus on which there was standing room only. A few people kept offering me their seats, which I refused with a smile and a "thanks." But they kept insisting, and after a while, the bus driver said, "She's already said she'd rather stand, now leave her alone." What a contrast to the times when the bus driver is the one insisting that someone give up their seat for me. It felt great to have such an ally!

In no way do I believe that our education work is done. There are still too many blind people without jobs because of employers' misconceptions ... too many movies that are informed by and that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, depicting helpless blind people. But more and more, blind people are gaining and demonstrating the skills and confidence they need to live freely in the world. And, in turn, society is beginning to understand that people who are blind have the same kinds of dreams and hopes, and deserve the same respect and freedom as everyone else.


She Shares Unique View of the World

By Erin Rodgers

(Editor's note: Ecolab observed Disability Awareness Month in October 2002 with several events and activities to help educate and spread awareness among its employees at the company's headquarters in St. Paul. This article was published in the company newsletter. A version also ran on the company's intranet site, Ecolab Express, and was published in its nationwide magazine. AnnaLisa Anderson is an active member of the NFB of Minnesota Metro Chapter.)

AnnaLisa Anderson is an Ecolab customer service representative. She's a college graduate, belongs to a singing group, enjoys reading and is a "Star Trek" fan. AnnaLisa is also blind. If you were to ask her to describe herself, AnnaLisa would probably first tell you that she is blind. It's part of her identity, just like all the other traits listed here. But only part of it.

"People make assumptions, but just because I'm blind doesn't mean I'm helpless," AnnaLisa says. "That's the biggest message blind people want to get across."

AnnaLisa was born in Grantsburg, Wis., a small town about 75 miles from St. Paul, where her parents still live. She was born blind, as a result of an infection called toxoplasmosis that her mother contracted while she was pregnant with AnnaLisa. The organism was likely transmitted while her mother was cleaning their cat's litter box or from gardening. "When the infection attacks, it affects whatever is developing in the fetus at the time," AnnaLisa explains. "I have a lot of scarring on my retinas. But I was really lucky - it could have been anything."

AnnaLisa has some light perception, although she explains that it doesn't mean much. She can see the brightness of light, but she can't see colors or shadows.

Music is an important part of AnnaLisa's life. She graduated from Northwestern College in Roseville, Minn., with a degree in music performance with a vocal emphasis. She's a member of VocalEssence, a choral group that performs around the Twin Cities. "I learn my music by ear," she says. "I take a tape recorder with me to rehearsal and record the more difficult stuff. I also have perfect pitch, which helps a lot with learning by ear."

A common misconception is that the other senses are somehow "better" for people who are blind. "A lot of people think that because I can't see, my other senses are a lot sharper, but that's not really it. I use them in different ways and I hear things most other people don't notice, but only because that's how I navigate - through hearing, touch and smell - more so than others do." AnnaLisa began working at Ecolab in 1997, through a referral from a friend. As a customer service representative, she takes up to 200 calls a day from Ecolab customer and sales reps. A screen reader with a speech synthesizer called JAWS for Windows can speak to her, although she usually uses it to operate the Navigator Braille display that is connected to her computer. Otherwise, AnnaLisa performs her duties much the same way any customer service representative would - by interacting with customers.

Certain parts of her day are unique. Each day at lunch, she takes her guide dog Megan, a people-oriented chocolate Lab, outside for a walk. Megan has been guiding for AnnaLisa for 11 years, an exceptional length of time for a guide dog. "She gets very distracted when other people are around," AnnaLisa says of Megan. "When she's working you can talk to her, but don't get close enough to pet her.

"Another thing I run into a lot is people see Megan and I together and think, 'That dog is taking such good care of her.' That is the biggest misconception. I have to know what I'm doing. She simply helps me avoid objects in my way. It's not her job to tell me when it's OK to cross the street."

Instead, AnnaLisa listens to the traffic to determine when lights change, and moves when the traffic is moving parallel to her. "It's really easy," she says.

Other daily activities pose more difficulty, though. "Finding people to help with things like reading my mail and getting a ride to the grocery store is sometimes a challenge," AnnaLisa says. "I can't just jump in my car and go, and that's probably the biggest frustration for me."

Yet she's independent, and lives with her two cats, Tips and Schatzi, as well as Megan, in her St. Paul condominium.

"If I were to give advice to people if they were to run into a blind person on the street - more often than not, they're doing fine and don't need help. There are times when I get lost and feel like an idiot, just like anyone would if they got lost. What I really like is when people ask me for directions. That means that they're more accepting of me and they know I am a competent person."

(Editor's Note: Several photographs were included with the article.)

PHOTO 1: (AnnaLisa at her computer) AnnaLisa spends the majority of her day in Ecolab's Customer Service department fielding calls. On busy days, representatives can take close to 200 calls in one shift.

PHOTO 2: The Navigator is a box that plugs into AnnaLisa's computer and outputs the information on the screen to the Braille display. Although it only reads a half a line at a time, AnnaLisa's proficiency allows her to move across the screen quickly.

PHOTO 3: Megan, AnnaLisa's guide dog, sniffs her custom-painted ceramic dog dish, which she received as a gift from the Customer Service team during last year's celebration of Customer Service Week.


Check Your Oil? Service Your Cane?

By Patrick A. Barrett

I really enjoy living in an area where you experience the change of seasons, for better or worse. I was born in Kansas, lived several years in Idaho, a couple of years in Missoura (the way the natives pronounce the state name), and almost nine years in Minneso-o-o-dah (our native dialect).

I have always wanted to visit Hawaii with its tropical climate, delicious fruits, warm beaches, and active volcanoes. Two weeks visit to escape a harsh Minnesota winter in February would be paradise. I would not like living there year round. The weather forecasters must only get their excitement from predicting eruptions or hurricanes.

The winter of 1996 in Minneapolis produced an abundance of snow. The snow plowers do a fantastic job of clearing the streets. That year, you could walk down the sidewalk and see barriers of white and brown three-feet high on both sides. It was January, and the temperature was in the teens (fortunately above zero) as I went to catch a bus to work.

My commute took 45 minutes with three buses. I thought that was pretty good, and there was little waiting between each transfer. I have lived in major cities with fair bus service and a small town with very limited service: Minneapolis has a great bus system in comparison. After my first transfer, I ran into Burger King to pick up a hot breakfast on the go. After I got it, I went down the drive-thru to return to the sidewalk due to the snow wall. I was walking up to the bus stop about 100 feet away, when it happened. My cane got caught in the deep snow on my right. It was wedged in, and I tried to pull it out. Then, SNAP, the handle came off in my hand.

This was a carbon-fiber cane, and I had only bought it a couple of years ago at our National Federation of the Blind (NFB) convention in Detroit. I am impressed with the sensitivity and lightweight aspects of the carbon-fiber as opposed to the fiberglass model. The down side, though, is that carbon-fiber does not have as much flex as fiberglass. All I could do at this point (not expecting to need a spare) was to make the best of it until I got to work and found some strong tape.

I did not have any walking between the next transfers, and only a half a block to work after the last bus. At that time, my company, Diversified Pharmaceutical Services (now Express Scripts, Inc.) was located at 77th and France Avenue South. As I was walking down the icy sidewalk with my cane limping along, an idea came to me. Across from work was Bobby & Steve's Auto World. Sometimes I would go in and pick up a sandwich and snacks for lunch there. Maybe they would have some strong tape I could buy.

I checked with one of the employees there who had come from the back service bay. I had asked him to please show me where the duct tape was located. I explained to him what had happened, and showed him the broken cane handle. He thought for a moment, then said, "let me take it into the back and see what I've got."

He disappeared into the back. I couldn't walk too far without my cane, or 'good eye', as I sometimes call it. I busied myself looking at the variety of candy bars and nuts as possibilities for a treat with lunch. Five minutes later he came back.

"Let's see how this works for you," he said.

He had wrapped the handle with part of a radiator hose at the point where it had been separated from the shaft of my cane. There were two plastic silver screws that held the tubing. I tried it, and it was a good hold, just with more flexibility. "This should work for now until I get another cane," I said. "Thank you so much! How much do I owe you?" (At the time, I had imagined paying as much for the repair as I would have paid for a new cane.) He smiled, waved his hand, and said, "That's OK--no charge." I thanked him again, smiled back, and hurried off to work. I made it a point to at least buy lunch there the next day at Bobby and Steve's Auto World. And maybe this free endorsement for Bobby and Steve's Auto World, located at 78th & France in Bloomington, MN, helps return the favor of their kindness. I still have that cane. When I got my replacement cane, there were a couple of state conventions where I took my cane with the radiator-hose handle. It sure didn't get mixed up with others' canes at the convention. The drawback for travel with this cane, though, was that its flexing too far in the cane arc from shoulder to shoulder gave it a mind of its own. It threw off my cane travel speed a bit. I still keep it around as a nice and unique souvenir, though.


My Triple Life As Worker, Student, and Federationist

By Angela Howard

One of the things I like most about our organization, the National Federation of the Blind, is that we're a very "take-charge" kind of people. We're always looking for ways to improve ourselves as an organization as well as in our individual lives.

I currently work in the human resources department for a student loan company in St. Paul. Last spring, after some soul-searching, I decided that this isn't the job I want to have for the rest of my life, and in order to get where I really want to be in my life, I need to further my education. I signed up for a class at the Hubert Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota--with some fear, but also with a lot of excitement. On my first day of class, my teacher walked in and said, "Raise your hand if you want to change the world and make the world a better place." He said, "If you raised your hand, then you're in the right class." Immediately I knew that I was making the right decision in my life.

Going back to school has been very challenging but also very rewarding for me. There are three very important lessons that I've learned in my months as a full- time employee and a part-time student.

First is the importance of preparation. This is important for everyone, but I think it's even more important for blind people. One of the things I did to prepare for being a successful student and employee was to meet with my professor about a month in advance. I wouldn't suggest meeting quite so far in advance for most people, but I was very nervous, so it worked out well for me. I do, however, recommend trying to meet with your professors and establishing the fact that you are the advocate for yourself--they don't need to call the Disability Services office to find out what to do with you and they should ask you about it. Make them feel welcome to ask you.

I educated my professor a little bit about blindness; he had never had a blind student before in his class. I showed him my slate and stylus and my BrailleNote, and I told him that these were how I would do a lot of my reading and writing for class. I also told him I would be typing my papers and turning them in at the same time as everyone else. We discussed ways for me to complete my final exam at the end of the semester. He also gave me a packet of papers that he knew he would be using during the class for this semester. I had the ability to scan those and have them ready before the class even started, which has helped me tremendously. I found out the name of the book and found out that I could get it through Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB & D), so I made sure to order that and have it ready before the class started.

Another way that I've prepared in advance is managing what I need to do and when I need to do it. For example, I had a ten-page paper due the day after our state annual convention; but I wanted to be at the convention all weekend. So I knew that I would have to get this paper done several weeks before everyone else. Everyone in the class I spoke with was surprised that I was somewhat ahead of them, but I wanted to be there so I had to get it done.

Let me tell you a little about the paper. The assignment was to interview someone who is making change at the state legislature on the issue of education. There are several issues in education that I was interested in; however, I decided to interview Judy Sanders for my paper. I decided this because we had to give a four-minute presentation on the paper, and turn in a two-page summary of our ten-page paper that he puts into a booklet and uses to teach next year's class. So I thought of this as a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about the Federation and our work for four minutes during our class, and also to teach students whom I won't even meet in next year's class. I thank Judy for her help with the paper, and I'm sure she got sick of me calling her saying "I have one more question," which usually ended up being about fifty more questions. The second thing I've learned during my months of trying to juggle school and work is the importance of maximizing time. When I coordinated volunteers through AmeriCorps in my previous position, I attended several workshops on effective management of volunteers. People said over and over again that the busier people make the better and more reliable volunteers. This seems counter- intuitive, but if you think about it, busier people have to learn to maximize their time. For example, I have a two-hour commute on the bus every day to get to and from work. I used to sit there and do nothing during those two hours, but I'm way too busy to do nothing now. I spend several lunch hours a week scanning my materials; I don't have a scanner working at home, so I take advantage of my lunch hour to scan materials. I save them on a disk and put them on my BrailleNote, which allows me to read my schoolwork on the bus, saving me a couple of hours of having to do work at home. I do have one book on tape, so during my weekly attempts to clean my apartment, I play those tapes so I can get two things done at once.

I'm also studying for the Graduate Record Examination, which is a standardized test one takes when applying for graduate school. I make out flash cards of words and math terminology that I've forgotten, so I can take advantage of free time that I have before my class or during my fifteen-minute breaks or when I'm eating lunch with my co-workers.

The third important key to being a successful full-time employee and student is to keep focused on your goal. Sometimes it is harder as a blind person to get the things done that one needs to do to be a successful student and employee. I've had some frustrating moments. Sometimes I've thought, "It's not fair that I have to spend a lunch hour or two a week scanning materials that other people can just read." I had a very frustrating evening one night when we had a field trip over to St. Paul, and it took me an hour and forty-five minutes to get home on the bus. On my way home, I wondered if this was really worth it. After a while I decided that, yes, it is. Even though it is a little harder sometimes to manage getting our work done as a blind person, what other option do we have? Are we just going to sit on the sidelines and let other people pass us by as they chase their goals-- sighted people and blind people who have a little more gumption than we do? Will we look back and say, "Well, I didn't get to meet my goals and I'm not doing what could really make me happy in life because it was a little bit harder for me sometimes and sometimes the bus took longer ..."? Of course we're not going to do that; Federationists don't do that.

I thank all of you for the work that you have done. Without you, and without your work, and without the fact that you decided to raise your hand and say that you wanted to change the world, I wouldn't be where I am today, and we wouldn't be working toward our goals in our lives. Let's not stop our work until every blind person in this country has the opportunity to follow their dreams and meet their goals.


Giving Directions

By Kasondra L. Payne

"Kasondra, how do you know what direction you are going?" My friend Jenny always has some new question about blindness for me, but this one startled me. We were socializing with several other women before a church meeting, and I had just given our friend, Sheila, directions to a store across town.

"I have many techniques I use. For example, on a sunny day, I use the position of the sun as a cue to tell me what direction I am walking in. I also use landmarks, and I pay attention to where buses are going. I was trained when I went through Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc." Jenny accepted my answer because I had told her about BLIND, Inc. before. She had seen me give directions before, and she knew that I was usually very accurate. Another friend, Ann, pressed me further. "How do you know the freeways?"

"Well, I just had to learn where the freeways go and how to get from one to another. Did you know that I directed Shawn around town when he moved here before we got married?"

Ann seemed a little surprised, but she listened as I explained the techniques I used to teach my sighted husband, Shawn, where things were in the Twin Cities.

Shawn came from a small town in Idaho where everything is pretty close together. He had lived in a big city before, but Minneapolis, Minnesota, was a whole new ball of wax. Minneapolis and St. Paul are two fairly good-sized cities situated just across the river from each other. That wasn't difficult for Shawn, but the freeway system in Minnesota can get quite confusing. There are so many freeways, and they often change direction. Shawn had a map, but he couldn't read it while he was driving. That's why he relied on me to give him accurate directions.

Shawn never thought it was weird to be getting directions from a blind person. He expected me to know where I was going and how to get there. I had given directions to sighted people before, but most of them were at least familiar with the area. Shawn had never been to Minnesota, and he had no clue where he was going. I promised him that I would teach him how to get around town. This turned out to be a learning experience for both of us.

The first night Shawn was in town, we planned to go to a restaurant near my home. I was used to getting there by bus, but I didn't always pay attention when I went there by car. I knew where the restaurant was, but I was sketchy on some of the details. I asked Shawn to read the street signs to me, so I could figure out where we were. It is a lot like a bus driver calling stops and transfer points. We got a little lost, but we eventually found the restaurant. I realized that some of the same techniques I used when traveling by bus also worked in a car.

Shawn had a month to learn how to get around town. I was going out of town for a week, and he needed to know where things were--like church, his new job and shopping areas. This wasn't too difficult, but I wanted him to feel confident about where he was going. We drove around finding the best routes to get to all these places. Of course, we got lost, but we always found our way out. I wasn't perfect either. Sometimes I would tell him to make a wrong turn, but we always got ourselves out of it. Sometimes I forgot that cars can't always go where buses go, or that some streets are one-way only. We ended up in a few bus lanes and turned around on a few dead-end roads, but we always made it out. This helped me learn how to give better directions, and Shawn learned everything he needed to know to get around while I was gone.

This story may seem backwards, but it is true. Usually, sighted people are giving us the directions, and they don't often expect us to know where we are going. Some sighted people don't believe that blind people can give them directions to go anywhere. We are helpless and weak to these people. They believe they must take care of us and help us get on our way. That is why I am thankful for my training at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND). While I was there, I learned the travel skills I needed to get around independently. I learned how to use sound cues, the sun, and landmarks to find my way around. I also learned to pay attention to where I was going when I was on a bus. More importantly, I learned that I could travel confidently, and I was able to give good directions.

My friends may have been amazed that a blind person could give a sighted person accurate directions. I was able to explain how I give directions, and they saw that a blind person could do something so normal. As we do things like this, we change people's perceptions of what blind people can do. That's what we're good at in the National Federation of the Blind. As we learn the skills of blindness, we have the power to change attitudes about blindness. Being able to give directions is just part of this. So I can say to my friends, "Yes, I do know what direction I am going, and I can help you as well!"


From One World into Another

By Ahmed Chaing with Debbie Kent Stein

(Editor's Note: Many of us know Ahmed Chaing as an active member of the NFB of Minnesota Metro Chapter. We know he speaks with a foreign accent, and seems a shy, quiet man. We may even know he is from Sudan, but most of us don't know much about what he went through to get here and his determination to succeed. Here is his story as published in the February 2003 Braille Monitor.)

Mal was a tiny Sudanese village of mud-and-straw huts surrounded by patios of hardened mud. In our hot climate children didn't wear clothes. In Mal we knew nothing of money, nothing of the government, nothing of schools or hospitals. If we wanted something, we bartered for it. We could trade food, goats, knives, or pots, but we didn't have government currency.

From the time I was small I explored my surroundings freely. I learned my way over the entire village. I knew all the rocks and trees, dips and rises as landmarks. There were no cars, no machines of any kind. No one even had a gun. The men hunted using spears. I remember the sounds of animals in the bush--the chatter of monkeys, the grunts of hippos, even the roaring of lions. Sometimes the other boys teased me, throwing stones at me and dashing away. I would take my time and hunt them down. When I caught them, I pounded them mercilessly. I won the boys' respect, and we spent many happy hours playing hide-and-seek or making figures with the clay we gathered on the banks of the Nile.

Because my mother couldn't walk, she sent me on a lot of errands. She would often send me to bring water from the river, either on foot or on a donkey. When I was nine or ten, I started going with the other boys my age to herd the cattle, goats, and sheep. I recognized my family's animals by the sound of the bells they wore. If one of our animals wandered away, the other boys chased it back for me. At harvest time I used a sharp blade to cut the stalks and helped the other boys separate the grain from the chaff.

I did my best to make myself useful, but my father was bitter about my blindness. Sometimes he got drunk and beat me, shouting that I was a burden to the family. When I was about eight, my father went away with one of his other wives, leaving me and my mother alone. To keep the two of us alive, my mother made pottery, which she traded for food. Mostly we lived on manakala, a grain resembling rice.

One day, when I was ten or eleven, my mother got into a dispute with a neighbor. They argued over a goat which my mother wanted to give to her brother as a wedding present. The next morning, when I got up, I called my mother as usual, but she didn't answer. I searched the hut and found her lying cold and dead, a cord pulled tight around her neck. Some of the villagers thought the neighbor murdered her, but to this day I don't know for sure how my mother died.

After my mother's death I went to live with my aunt, my mother's sister. This aunt was also one of my father's wives. Little by little the outside world was reaching toward our village. One of my older half brothers, Luanj, took a boat north to the city. A year later he came back with amazing stories of paved streets, cars, and shops. He brought the first money we had ever seen. He showed me the laway he was wearing, a long, flowing garment that hung from his shoulders, and I was very impressed. Luanj urged the whole family to move to the city, where life wouldn't be so hard.

The world finally crashed in upon the village of Mal when Sudan erupted into civil war. Soldiers stole our cattle, and gunfire rumbled across the hills night and day. My father decided to move the household north to safety. He wanted to leave me behind to die; convinced I would slow them down in their flight. But my aunt insisted on bringing me along. At last we set out on foot with everything we could carry, heading north. Nobody guided me, and of course I had no cane. I had to keep up with the others as best I could. I didn't dare ask for help, even when I tripped over rocks or cracked my head on branches. After a day's journey on foot, we came to a larger village where we all crammed into an automobile for a jouncing three-day ride along dirt roads to the city of Rank. Rank stands on the west side of the Nile, and we crossed the river on a raft.

After a short stay in Rank I moved with my family to Joda. Rank and Joda were full-scale towns with roads, cars, stores, and an economy based on money instead of barter. Most of the people spoke Arabic, a language we didn't know. Town children taunted me and pelted me with stones because I was blind and didn't wear clothes. Finally some of the adults intervened and told the children to be kind. I discovered I could earn a few coins by singing in the streets, and this was a new way for me to be useful. I gave the money to my aunt to help her buy food.

My life was transformed in Joda when I met Babker, a Muslim, who ran a local shop. Babker spoke some Shuluk and took a real interest in me. He taught me the principles of Islam and encouraged me to convert from my tribal religion. I became a Muslim and changed my name from Omad to Ahmed. My family was shocked at first, but as time passed they accepted the change. My new Muslim friends treated me very well, even giving me my first set of clothes. Soldiers at the nearby military outpost made me into a sort of unofficial mascot. They were astonished when I recognized their voices and gave me coins whenever I performed this feat. I got to know everyone at the post, from the officers to the lowliest privates.

I was visiting my friend Babker at the shop one day when a customer described a program he had seen recently on television. According to this stranger there were blind people in Khartoum, the capital city, who knew how to read. I got very excited. I plied him with questions, but the man's information was extremely sketchy. To find out more, I would have to go to Khartoum myself. For the next year I moved from town to town, selling candy, mangoes, and cigarettes in the streets. Wherever I went, I was dreaming of Khartoum, the magical city, where blind people learned to read. Finally a friend from Joda, a man called Mousa, told me that he had a house in the capital. If I could get there, I would have a place to stay. I memorized the address and the directions. But when I tried to take a bus, I found I didn't have enough money for the fare. Besides, some drivers didn't want to take a blind passenger traveling alone, afraid I would get hurt. At last, however, a bus driver let me ride on the floor, and I was off.

With Mousa's house as home base, I made inquiries about training for blind people in Khartoum. Eventually I learned of a school for blind children in the neighboring town of Bhari. I hurried to the school, eager to enroll, only to be told that I was too old. The school only accepted children between the ages of seven and ten, and by this time I was about thirteen. The teachers referred me to another program, the Blind Union, also in Bhari. The Blind Union was a training center run by the Dutch. There I learned daily living skills and some Arabic Braille. I really wanted a more academic program. One of the teachers told me about a scholarship that enabled blind students to study in the Mideastern nation of Bahrain. I applied and was accepted into the program. After what seemed an endless series of delays and complications, including turmoil caused by the Gulf War, I finally enrolled as a fourth-grader at the school for the blind in Bahrain in September 1990.

For the next six years I studied in Bahrain, returning to Sudan when the school closed for its long summer vacations. In 1996 I completed ninth grade--as far as I could go in that program. Back in Khartoum I entered a regular high school, where I was the only blind student. None of my books were in Braille. I was lucky to have good friends who read to me and put some of my material onto tapes, but it was a constant struggle. One of my friends from the Blind Union had studied at a school for the blind in Egypt and told me it had a strong high school program. In 1998 I scraped together money for a ticket to Alexandria and tried to enroll at the school. To my dismay the director refused to accept me because I was not an Egyptian citizen.

For months I negotiated with the Department of Immigration in Egypt, filling out forms, pleading my case before officials, waiting, hoping, and meeting one disappointment after another. At last I learned of a United Nations-sponsored resettlement program for refugees from southern Sudan. The application process stretched over six months. In April of 1999 I received the thrilling news that I had been accepted. In December I made the long journey from Cairo to South Dakota, from one world into another. In South Dakota I joined a community of resettled refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia and enrolled in a state-run rehabilitation program for the blind. Two of my friends from the Blind Union in Bhari were now living in the U.S., and I managed to get in touch with them. One of these old friends, now settled in Rochester, Minnesota, spoke glowingly about BLIND (Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions), Inc. When I heard about the training offered by this program, I knew this was what I wanted. I moved to Minnesota and stayed with a Sudanese friend until I could establish residence. Then I entered BLIND, Inc., to learn new skills and a whole new philosophy about blindness. The NFB philosophy really made sense to me. All my life I had heard other people telling blind people what they couldn't do, controlling and excluding them. Now for the first time I met blind people who felt good about their lives and wanted to help others.

After spending a year at BLIND, Inc., I am in a GED program to earn a high school diploma. I work part-time for the Bureau of Collections, and I am second vice president of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students. In September of 2002 I had the honor of attending a national leadership seminar at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. I'm still not sure what I want to do with my life. I might like to be an Arabic-English interpreter. And I would like to find a way to help blind people in Sudan. Whatever I do, I know my NFB philosophy will make it possible.


A New Beginning

By Al Spooner

I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for the last three years. Over this time, I have had numerous friends and individuals question why I would dedicate so much of my time to a non-profit organization such as this, after all, you don't get paid for your efforts. My hopes are that this article can serve as an example, only one of many reasons, for being an active participant in this organization.

At the age of 40, and after 20 years of being a productive, tax-paying citizen, I became blind. This seemed like an almost insurmountable loss at the time, but with a positive attitude, I felt life wasn't over quite yet, but rather, it had just changed course, so I tried to remain optimistic. I enrolled in the Idaho Commission for the Blind school in Boise, Idaho to learn about alternative techniques that blind people use. I was told that I should be able to perform at a new job by using these new blindness skills.

One month after completing my training, I met the National Federation of the Blind. I attended a state convention in Pocatello, Idaho. I told them my dream of becoming a teacher. You see, over most of my previous career I sold computers, and developed and taught computer classes to many of my customers. It was during that time that I discovered how much I enjoyed teaching. In fact, I remember telling many of my customers that, if I could ever get a chance to start over, I would be a teacher. As I have already mentioned, I told this to those at this state convention.

The people I met at this convention not only encouraged me with their positive spirit, but also backed it up with money, in the form of a scholarship. It was exciting for me to find other blind people that shared the same positive philosophy as I had before my blindness. I truly wanted to believe them. That summer I attended my first national convention of the National Federation of the Blind, in Atlanta, Georgia. Words cannot describe the variety of emotions I felt as I met the people at this convention. I was greatly encouraged, yet overwhelmed. I found blind individuals from all walks of life, successful in a multitude of careers, individuals with goals and a purpose.

I met people just like me, or at least the same age and in similar circumstances, and receiving scholarships and moving ahead with their lives in a positive way. I was told that my blindness was not a limitation and that if I applied myself, and worked hard, I too could be like these individuals. I entered college that fall with new hope, and much higher expectations.

The National Federation of the Blind put its money where its mouth was, so to speak, by awarding me a second state scholarship the next year, and selecting me as a recipient for a national scholarship, which I received at the NFB national convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This convention totally changed my life.

I should point out that by this time, I had helped organize a local chapter in which I served as president, and that I had recently been elected as 2nd vice president to the NFB of Idaho. In other words, I was not merely a member but an active member; there is a difference.

During this national convention, I had the opportunity to meet many of the most successful blind people of this nation. I discovered that these were ordinary individuals like me, but with one unique difference: their attitude. An entire book could probably be written about what this attitude entails, but suffice it to say, they live a life of success and true independence that we all strive for as blind individuals. Most importantly, however, these were people who's opinions and advice I knew I could trust. They seemed to believe in me, more than I believed in myself.

Now let us fast forward through the last year of fund-raising, chapter meetings, state board meetings, college classes, lobbying Congress in Washington D.C., hosting the NFB of Idaho state convention in my home town, and other NFB activities too numerous to mention, to the NFB national convention held in Louisville, Kentucky.

Just like the previous two national conventions I had attended, new and exciting experiences were aplenty. It seems obvious now that each national convention that one attends is very unique, and in my case I come away from them with new ideas, attitudes, friendships, and a better understanding about our cause and about myself. At this convention, however, I came away with something even greater: a job offer. I was approached by Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which offered me a position as the Technology Instructor at their training center for the blind. In other words, teaching computers! For me, this position is a dream come true, as computers are my forte, and teaching was a career objective of mine.

Now, why do I tell you all of this? Well, I feel that it was my own active participation with the National Federation of the Blind that created this opportunity. I had a choice when I joined the Federation, to sit on the sidelines and shout the hurrahs, or to become actively involved. I chose the latter. By doing such, I met and created friendships with others that are pro-active in "Changing What it Means to be Blind". These people, in turn, learned about me and my strengths and experience. More importantly, however, they encouraged and motivated me by their own attitudes and abilities.

Some might say at this point that, well, you just got that lucky break, or you just knew the right people at the right time, or something like that. To this I would respond, yes, I did know the right people at the right time, but it wasn't luck. I simply played an active role, as any member of the NFB can and should. I sought out opportunities within the organization that might be able to utilize the skills that I possess.

Others might say, well, you had an advantage because you were a national scholarship winner. This is also somewhat true as I met a lot of people this way. However, I discovered at my very first convention that if I simply introduced myself to any of the state presidents or other leadership within this organization, they were warm, friendly, and excited to meet new people. What I am trying to say is this: it takes more than words; it takes action.

So where am I going with all of this? Simply put, by becoming actively involved within the NFB, seek out opportunities that can utilize your own God-given talents and abilities and you will create your own "lucky breaks" in life. These "breaks" may come from within the NFB or they may not, but active involvement will give you more confidence and a greater attitude about your own abilities. This change in yourself WILL be noticed by others, including future employers. For me, these changes have created "A New Beginning" in my life. I state it that way because I don't look at my opportunity as a destination, but as a success in my life that will only create greater opportunities for me to grow and develop as an individual.

As my good friend, and president of the NFB of Idaho, Larry Streeter, once told me, "The NFB is not just a philosophy, it is a way of life." I believe this to be true, and the sooner that every blind person understands this and believes this, the sooner we can all raise to the level of success each of us desire. By living this philosophy we can, and will, "Change What it Means to be Blind."


Convention Alert!

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

The National NFB Convention will be held at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky from June 28, 2003 through July 4. 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 are in the Braille Monitor.

The Annual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be held in October in the Metro area. 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 2004 in Greater Minnesota. Members will receive a letter with details about a month before the convention.