My First National Blind Convention and a Change in Plans

Detroit HotelIt’s after midnight and I can’t sleep so I’m up, pouring over some reading material, distracting myself and thinking things over, and I thought it might be a good time to (finally) post.

At the beginning of this month, I went to a convention for the National Federation of the Blind. It was almost an accident – I hadn’t really given much thought to attending. Years ago, I went to a state meeting with a local friend, and had a kind of hard time at the meeting and hadn’t gone back. This year, I applied to their scholarship program (and every other scholarship program I could think of or find) before I left for India. Then, about a month before the national convention, I got a call from the president of my state affiliate. He told me I hadn’t gotten a scholarship, but offered for me to go to the convention. They were doing this College Leadership Program, for a handful of students who didn’t get a scholarship, trying to get more young people involved in the organization, and so they would cover everything – airfare, hotel, registration, even a food stipend. Did I want to go?

At the time, I had been back for barely a month, and already ready for another adventure, so I said sure, I’d go. The conference was in Detroit, and I learned I’d be rooming with a few other people in the program. Sounded cool.

And for the most part, it was really cool. It was also incredibly overwhelming. There were almost 3,000 people there, which is a lot of people to be around for a week-long conference. Plus the hotel didn’t have a lot of elevators, so anytime a session was about to start or just let out, or at mealtimes, the wait time, and the crowding at the elevators was intense. The hotel was set up in concentric circles, so you can just imagine a whole bunch of blind people trying to find their way around. There were guide dogs everywhere, and there was a lot of “caning” as we came to call it, especially at the beginning, from people navigating with long white canes.

One of the things I most took away from the whole experience was a feeling of inspiration, seeing so many blind people in so many walks of life and jobs and roles. There were blind lawyers, parents, teachers, workers at state agencies, computer people, scientists and on and on and on. There were blind people working and interning for NASA, which as a former astronomy major, just warmed my heart. I mean, wow, that’s so freakin’ awesome.

My favorite part of the convention was when I “test drove” a guide dog. I want one so bad, but am still having doubts if I am really ready to take on the responsibility of a dog again. I mean, they sort of tie you down, and I am a free, adventurous girl who likes to go on wild rides, so, I don’t know. I talked to the people there about it, like, what about when I want to go on road trips to go to music festivals? What about the next time I go overseas, what about when I go back to the third world? The answers? Well if you are going to a concert, leave the dog home. If you are going on a road trip, you can either take with you or have someone watch. If you are going overseas you can probably take it as long as it is safe for the dog, and if it’s not you can board the dog at the school and they will keep up its training. Someone said to me, “Well, if you get a job in Kabul you probably can’t take the dog with you, but most places are fine.” So I’m thinking about it. My “test drive” was only ten or fifteen minutes and it was a total joy of my time there. And the school I would go through to get one, should I decide to do it, is right outside Portland, so, very convenient.

I don’t know though if I really need a guide dog. I kinda just want a dog.

Another interesting thing I learned about while at the convention is that the NFB has training centers where they teach blindness skills. There are so many classes, like Braille and cane travel (both of which I have zero experience with), home management stuff, cooking, shop (you use power tools in this class – which is COOL – and really learn how to fix and build things, and for a final project you have to build something, complete a project from start to finish, and the examples I heard sound incredible. There’s also an adaptive tech class where you learn to use screen readers (also have no experience with that either), and there is a job skills class, that addresses job hunting, career stuff, job shadowing and how to address the disability issue with jobs. And then there is my favorite class, which is called the college prep class, where they teach you alternative skills to deal with highly visual classes like anatomy and statistics. Well I want to double major in English and Bio, so in the Bio realm, I’d probably be taking both of those. I just get all tickled thinking of the possibility to learn skills to fully participate in those kinds of classes. Oh and then the other best part about the program is that you do all kinds of outdoor adventure stuff – river rafting, rock climbing, hiking, skydiving, ropes course stuff with belaying. That just totally rocks my world. This adventurous girl is up for ALL of that.

I kept putting off the thought of that center for two reasons, but both reasons didn’t last all that long. The first is that I feel a bit ambivalent about whether I need the Braille and cane travel (which is blasphemy to say around the NFB it seems). I read print and I read it fast, even compared with fully sighted folks. I feel almost guilty saying that b/c it seems that is not at all a universal experience with others who were there, but that’s what’s true for me. I have to look really, really close, which can be a bit socially awkward, but has never been difficult. What I did notice though, is that most of the speakers at the convention used Braille for their presentations, and that was a pretty amazing thing to see – they were making eye contact with the audience, looking very professional, and that struck me as one reason I would want to learn it, so that in the future I’m doing a spoken word performance or going to an open mic or doing any sort of presentation, that would be a great tool to have, instead of having the paper in front of my face. It certainly could be an asset, and wouldn’t hurt to have the skills.

As for cane use, I still resist it. I get around okay. I’ve been so fiercely independent in my life. I went to school in two unfamiliar places, moved across country to Seattle not knowing anyone, never having lived in a city before. I ride buses all over the country by myself, ride the NYC subway (and get my friend Leo and I on the wrong one, winding up in Brooklyn and then figure out how to get us back where we want to go), navigate unfamiliar places, walk around cities at night, fly frequently. I do stuff that some of my fully sighted friends get nervous and uneasy about. And sure, I miss steps, trip over shit sometimes, misjudge edges (my depth perception is off), fall down sometimes (I’m suddenly reminded of our last group meeting in India where we did this thing where we had to say stuff about other members in the group and Willa, starting to feel the effect of her bhang lassi, was hilariously trying to describe how I fall over rocks). So part of me feels like I don’t need it. I mastered those concentric circles of that hotel. On the other hand, I really struggled in India, where streets were uneven. I seriously could have used a cane in that situation, and it can never hurt to have additional skills. Also, at the guide dog skills they all say that before you get a dog you should be up on your cane skills. So, again, it definitely couldn’t hurt.

The other reason I kept dismissing thoughts of going to a training center is that I am so eager to start college this fall. But then I got my finalized financial aid package and it’s awful and after talking to the school it seems there is no way for that to change. And then I didn’t get housing either. Both things were delayed (in different ways because I was away in India. So now it’s looking a lot less exciting to go to school in a few months – if I do I will be in mounds of debt, and yeah that is going to happen anyway with school, but the amount scares me. I have lived a pretty debt-free life so far, and I’d like to keep it as minimal as possible.

What I’m thinking now is that what I’ll do is go to the training center – the Colorado Center for the Blind (there are two others; I chose this one because it’s in a more urban environment that most resembles what it’ll be like when I go to school in Portland and also because they have the most outdoor adventure stuff and they are the one that seems to have the most geared towards alternative techniques for science classes). It’s a six to nine month program, so I’ll do it during this school year, and I seriously think of it as a long-term investment in my life, my school career and future career prospects. And while I’m there I’ll be able to get my financial aid and housing applications in super early for the next school year. It’s still disappointing to have to push that back by a year, and it’s hard for me to let go of that, but like I said, I think going to the center is a long-term investment and will ultimately make school a better experience for me.

So that’s my plan for now. Ooooh and there may possibly be an addition to this plan, but it’s still so in the works and so uncertain that I’m not going to say anything yet. Just keep reading and if it happens I’ll post about it. It’s adventurous. Would you expect anything less?

There is a part of me that is sad that I didn’t do this sooner. I mean, I get by all right, but in some ways my world is kinda limited and I’d like to do more than just “get by.” The way I understand it, all the classes at the center are geared towards very high functionality. In the cooking class, for a final exam, you have to make a meal for 40-80ish people, and I keep thinking that I wish I had been trained in these skills earlier. I spent the last six years working in a kitchen, and I just think how I might have been able to be a lot more efficient, and because of that, able to do more and assigned more leadership roles at work. I know I am pretty slow at cooking stuff, b/c I don’t know the alternative techniques and I rely on the eyesight I have, which is limited. And the outdoor adventure stuff, belaying, all of that, if I had known how to do that it could have greatly enhanced my time working as an outdoor environmental education instructor, because part of that job was facilitating high ropes challenge classes for kids. Another part was teaching ecology classes, and I was always so on edge, b/c I wasn’t sure what to do about my eyesight, how to work around it when teaching those classes. My eyesight is also a major reason why I haven’t applied for other jobs, because it complicates things, it makes things hard, and when I was job hunting in Seattle several years ago, it was so freakin’ hard and I never know what exactly to say or how to deal with it in job interview situations.

My disability definitely keeps me stunted in some ways, or rather my fears about it. A lot of things scare me, like applying for jobs, meeting new people, being in crowded social situations. Anytime I am meeting new people, not only in the situation of a job interviewer, but also say, whenever the new staff arrives at camp each season, or I’m being introduced to new people, or meeting someone for the first time, or last year when a friend wanted to set me up on a (pretty ill-conceived) blind date, or on that job as an env. ed instructor, whenever I was getting a new group of students (which was typically at least once or twice a week), I get so nervous and panicky about what they’re going to think about my low vision, my pale appearance, and I don’t exactly try to hide my blindness, but don’t address it, hope they don’t really notice until after they get to know me and just generally feel extremely insecure about it. I want that to change. It has a pretty big impact on my life, this insecurity. I am told that at the center you learn how to deal with all kinds of different social situations (I seriously wonder if dating is included in that, hope so, of course b/c I am a boy crazy girl who needs to get her freak on and I know that this insecurity has a huge impact on my dating life as well). One thing that I heard universally said at the convention by anyone who went to one of the three centers was that what they gained most from their experience was self-confidence, and even a little of that, would I’m sure, go a really long way.

So I’m going to do my absolute best to make this happen. I meet with my state counselor on Thursday and we’re going to talk about it. I’m psyched. I think going to the center will drastically improve my quality of life. And then I can go to school and kick some ass!

~EJ

Currently listening:
“Rattlesnakes” – Tori Amos – Lovin’ it.

jodie wears a hat although it hasn’t rained for six days
she says a girl needs a gun these days
hey, on account of those rattlesnakes
on account of those rattlesnakes

she looks like eva marie saint
in on the waterfront
she reads simone de beauvoir
in her american circumstance
hey..

she’s less than sure if her heart has come to stay in san jose
and her neverborn child haunts her now
as she speeds down the freeway
as she tries her luck with the traffic police
out of boredom more than spite
she never finds no trouble, she tries too hard
she’s oblivious despite herself
hey..

she looks like eva marie saint
in on the waterfront, she says
all she needs is therapy
all you need is love is all you need
ah-ahh

jodie never sleeps ’cause there are always needles in the hay, hey
she says a girl needs a gun these days
hey, on account of the rattlesnakes
hey, on account of the rattlesnakes

she looks like eva marie saint
in on the waterfront
she reads simone de beauvoir
in her american circumstance
her heart’s like crazy paving
upside down and back to front, she says
ooh, it’s so hard to love when
love was your great disappointment

oooo
on account of those rattlesnakes
she says a girl needs a gun these days, hey
uh..uh..hhmmmmm
she says a girl needs a gun these days
hey, on account of the rattlesnakes
hey, on account of those rattlesnakes

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5 thoughts on “My First National Blind Convention and a Change in Plans

  1. Wow, Chrys, this is huge. We should talk soon…I had a partially sighted friend with RP who attended the NFB's Colorado school years ago, and it's probably worth passing along her comments to you to keep in the back of your mind.By the way, The Seeing Eye — one of the leading guide dog schools & providers in the world — is about a 10-minute drive from our house. ;-) I'm so sorry to hear that your financial aid package and housing didn't pan out. I can imagine you must have been hugely disappointed. Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise, though…sounds like this convention has really opened up a whole new realm for you — one that, as you know, is quite familiar to me as well. I look forward to reading your future posts on this topic.

  2. Hey Chrys — just reading this now. That center sounds like it really would be amazing. It's so interesting, because I always thought you made such an effort to "be normal", a lot of times when I hang out with you I'd sort of forget you had a vision problem until a situation arose where it became obvious you needed some help. I found that especially true when we were in Seattle last year — and maybe it's because I'm hanging out with sighted people now instead of you and Rachel all the time — but I guess sometimes I did feel a little sheepishly insensitive. You never want to make a big issue or draw attention to it, but sometimes ignoring it is just as bad, I guess.Anyway, it's also interesting to hear you talk specifically about some of your problems — like obviously I knew about them, but to hear you specifically address what you actually were limited doing was definitely a bit of an eye-opener. (And seriously — no pun intended!) It's a blow to anyone's pride to say "I can't" do something, but I guess it must be especially frustrating when the reasons are so beyond your control. And like, it's also funny because I always kind of got the impression that the Federation was a bit of a joke sometimes — Rachel was laughing for months after she was required to take lessons in crossing the street one time — that it helped some people, but it sort of "babied" people like you who could see a little bit, since you could do things sighted people could do like read a book or watch TV (or oggle over hot men). I think there's a lot to be said, it's a huge mature step, for admitting that maybe you do need these aids that you previously just assumed you could get along without. And in a way, it is definitely a blessing in disguise that the financial aid didn't come through, because it made your decision that much easier.Oh yeah, and Re: The Seeing Eye, my friend Stephanie works at their breeding facility in New Jersey. So if you do get a dog, you may be getting one she personally delivered. :)

  3. Oh also, there's apparently a girl in my law school class with a dog. (We got an e-mail about it saying not to pet/feed the dog, because it was learning it's way around the building.) She's not in my section, but it piqued my attention, nonetheless. A blind lawyer? Now I want to go watch Arrested Development.;)

  4. Hey Tara – just seeing this, funny how I ignore my own blog huh? Been moving around too much I guess. Anyway, the NFB is definitely not a joke. I mean there are points where I don't necessarily agree with them, but they are very serious and committed, honestly a bit too much so for my tastes sometimes! And I will get to that in my blogging about blindness stuff too.There actually is a huge division of blind lawyers, real ones (re: Arrested Development and Elaine being the fake blind lawyer), for some reason it seems to be a popular profession in the blind community.And I would probably go through Guide Dogs for the Blind as opposed to Seeing Eye, b/c SE is in NJ, and GDB is right outside Portland, so, geographically, yeah. I want a dog soooooooo bad, but mostly b/c I just want a dog and I want a protector, too.

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