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Note from Matt: I wrote the following article during the summer following my sophomore year in college - summer of 1986. It is interesting to reflect on both the enthusiasm and the naivete of those years that my writing reveals. Nonetheless, many of the lessons I learned through the experiences the article details are important lessons to learn about blindness.



Impressions of a National Convention

Recreation or Rehabilitation

By Matt King  



Editor’s Note:       Matt King is a resident of Centralia, Washington. He attends college at the University of Notre Dame where he has a double major in electrical engineering and music. Matt was a 1985 National Federation of the Blind (NFB) scholarship winner and also attended the 1986 Convention in Kansas City. In order to receive intensive training in both NFB philosophy and alternative techniques, Matt was a resident student at the Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults in Anchorage, Alaska during the summer of 1986. He wrote the following article for the Louise Rude Center’s newsletter.

We all know the value of teamwork. It is often said that two people can do as much work as one in one-third of the time. Now, after having attended just two National Conventions of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), I know this concept can be extended to a much larger scale: 2,000 people, in eight days, can do what may take rehabilitation teachers eight months to accomplish. Eight months of rehabilitation in eight days? Yes, almost, if one considers the purposes – as opposed to purpose – of a training program for the blind to be not only the acquisition of skills of independent living but also the development of a positive attitude toward blindness and the building of self-confidence. With their surprising influence, every year during the week of the Fourth of July, the NFB conventions provide an amazing boost in the development of these latter essential aspects of rehabilitation. These conventions can and have turned around the lives of many blind people, giving them previously undreamed-of fortitude, vigor, and hope to help battle the challenges of life.

Before my first convention, I was not blind, or at least I did not think so. I was partially sighted, visually impaired, partially blind, or (when necessary) legally blind – anything but blind. Blind people, except for those exceptional few, were those helpless, strange, out-of-touch types who awkwardly got about by tip-tapping their white canes. Little did I know.

As a legally blind person, I took advantage of the services that I felt I needed such as talking books and rehabilitation funding for school. But, I would not have been caught dead with one of those white canes – someone might think I was “blind” (inferior). I felt I was handling my “visual impairment” quite nobly, always operating on the premise that I would not let it keep me from reaching my goals. There was much I did not realize.

To that point in my life, the words “National Federation of the Blind” were Greek to me. I had only found them at the top of a scholarship application, which I had decided to fill out in the spring of 1985. That was one of the wisest decisions I ever made. I was awarded a scholarship, and as part of it, the NFB paid my way to the 1985 Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

I arrived in the Louisville Airport on the morning of Saturday, June 29 and followed my usual procedure of asking for someone to assist me in getting my luggage and a cab. As I waited for an assistant, I wondered if I would be this dependent on others for the rest of my life – the image of a fifty-year-old businessman in a three piece suit being led around like a child did not appeal to me.

At the main entrance to the hotel I was greeted by Peggy Pinder, NFB Scholarship Committee Chairman, who advised me to check into my room and find the Parents Seminar, which was in progress. I looked for the desk. Immediately, fear and nervousness replaced my excitement and anticipation – the place was too dark for me to get around well. I eventually fumbled my way to the seminar, all the time wondering if the whole week would be this rough. At the lunch break, I was relieved when I met some Federationists who eventually helped me through the rest of the day.

As a scholarship winner, I was assigned a mentor for each day of the week – usually a member of the Scholarship Committee who was to get to know me, introduce me to others, and help me understand the week’s activities. On Sunday, I met Joyce and Tom Scanlan of Minnesota, who were my mentors for that day. We went to the Resolutions Committee meeting, which always takes place on the first Sunday afternoon of the Convention. There, I began to see what the NFB is all about as Federation policy was being debated. I never imagined there were so many political and social problems facing the blind. Shocked, I learned of discrimination of the blind that went on in the job market, in sheltered workshops, on the airlines, in public transportation systems, and so on and on. That evening in the Student Division meeting, I learned of some of the issues facing blind students. A comprehension of the purposes and philosophy of the NFB began seeping into my brain.

Monday my mentor was Steve Benson, a totally blind Chicagoan who is a member of the Federation’s National Board of Directors. We arranged to meet in the elevator lobby and go to breakfast. And, meet we did. I nearly ran him over, prompting him to ask me where my cane was. I nervously responded, “I do not have one…yet.” He remarked that something should be done about that, and we headed for the hotel restaurant.

The waitress asked if we wanted Braille or print menus, and not being able to read either, I declined both. Steve asked if I knew Braille. After learning that I had Braille skills only sufficient to make and read labels in Grade One Braille, he offered to read the menu to me. I made a selection in short order. I had no desire to prolong the agony of being read to by a totally blind person.

Over breakfast, we discussed the order of the next two days. The Monday morning session would consist of an open meeting of the National Board of Directors. The Tuesday afternoon session would be most noted for the Presidential Report (analogous to the U.S. President’s State of the Union Address).

After breakfast, it was a fairly long walk through the hotel to the meeting room where all the Convention sessions were to be held. Steve is an excellent cane traveler and moved quickly. Initially, I was walking beside him, but I soon discovered it was not safe for me to move that rapidly in such dim lighting. So, I fell into step behind him. At one point I knew we were approaching some stairs so I slowed down to make sure I would not stumble, whereas he did not slow down at all. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, I asked him to slow up a bit; he did. When it struck me that I, a person who thought he could see, was finding my way about by following a totally blind person, I was squarely put in my place.

After the morning session, Steve introduced me to Sharon Duffy who is the cane travel teacher at the Chicago Guild for the Blind, which Steve directs. He announced that she would take me over to the exhibit hall where the NFB was selling canes and help me select one. By this time, I was all for it. I had heard of these new NFB “telescoping” canes that I thought would be ideal for me; it would give me the chance to pack up my cane and hide it whenever I felt I did not need it. Once in the exhibit hall, Sharon asked my height and handed me a 59-inch “straight” cane. Thinking of how conspicuous this big white thing would be when I returned home, I asked to see one of those new telescoping canes – without voicing my true reasons, of course. She went round and round with me for about fifteen minutes trying to convince me that I should buy a straight cane. It was not until she persuaded me that a telescoping cane stood very little chance of surviving the week, especially in the hands of a neophyte like myself, that I decided to purchase both. (At least during the convention I would not be conspicuous since there were probably over a thousand others using them and, when I returned home, I could simply put this bit white thing in my closet and carry the telescoping one, I thought to myself.) After a three-minute explanation of the basic technique of using a cane, I was off and immediately feeling my new freedom.

By Wednesday I had gained a fair amount of confidence and more than regained all of my original excitement and enthusiasm. I was becoming more and more impressed with the Federation; its size, its power to make change, its consistent philosophy, and its spirit. Equally impressive was the Convention itself: over 2,000 people were registered; all fifty states and the District of Columbia were represented; there were Congressmen and federal officials there to speak and listen; it was extremely well organized; and it ran very smoothly. Every direction I turned, there were competent blind people to be had as role models. Of course, there were also many untrained blind persons, many whom were feeling aspirations as I.

The most inspiring blind person was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the leader of the blind of America and then NFB president. Seeing him at work running the Convention, hearing him rattle off brailled announcements as fast as I have every heard anyone read print, listening to his eloquent and forceful speech – it all made one realize the truth and sincerity of the Federation’s philosophy.

On Wednesday noon I was to meet my mentor, Dr. Norman Gardner of Idaho, for lunch. Like Steve Benson, he was also a member of the National Board of Directors. Also like Steve Benson, he was blind. Unlike Steve Benson, he had some usable vision – probably more than I had. Because of this, when he had learned that I had been using a cane for only three days, he apparently knew what many of my inner thoughts were, having had many of the same feelings himself when he first learned to deal with his blindness. He asked me to tell him honestly what I thought I would do with my cane when I returned home. I told him what I had been thinking – hide it whenever I could. He asked what would be wrong with continuing to use my straight cane when I was at home. I made up excuses to try to justify my desire to use the telescoping cane. He asked if the real reason I did not want to carry my straight cane was because I could never hide it and because I was afraid of being thought of as blind. No answer! Would it be demeaning to be thought of as blind? Did I think partially sighted people were more fortunate than all blind people? Did I think I was better than a totally blind person? The agony of embarrassment that I had felt earlier in the week flooded my thoughts. He was right, and I knew it. The proof of it was all around me. I had questions and doubts that yet remained to be conquered. However, that was the first day I was ever able to say to myself, with comfort and ease, “I am blind. There is nothing wrong with being blind. It is respectable.”

Besides being a time of meetings, business, policy making, and philosophy, the Convention is a time of friendship and sharing. It has a very warm atmosphere. Throughout the week, there is a myriad of social activity teeming with opportunities to meet people. Through the Student Division, I met several friends with whom I have spent some very memorable moments. Friday night, several of us left a party together and spent the night talking, remembering, wondering, and laughing. Six of us remained in the cool morning air near the fountain. As the water rose and fell, we looked to the east for something else that also rose and fell – it was the sign of a new beginning, the dawn of a new life, a sunrise which cannot be forgotten.

Now at the Louise Rude Center for Blind Athletes in Anchorage, Alaska, I am learning the skills necessary for me to reduce my blindness from a handicap to a mere physical nuisance so that I may live as an equal with my sighted peers. Of course, we spend time not only learning skills but also discussing how one should think about his or her blindness and how one should deal with the only true handicapping force that every competent blind person must face – poor social attitudes based on the very same misconceptions I held myself before the 1985 NFB Convention. And, thanks to the efforts of Jim Omvig, I had the opportunity to reinforce my training with a trip to the 1986 NFB National Convention. This time, however, I went with a year’s experience in cane travel, a year’s experience in dealing with the public as a blind person, and a fairly solid background in NFB philosophy. Consequently, the Convention was even more helpful and inspiring. I was better able to draw on the enormous wealth of information and opportunity to learn. There were both old friends to see again and new ones to meet. Most important of all, one leaves the Convention with new knowledge, new energy, new motivation and new hope – all of it unattainable elsewhere –ready to forge through the new challenges of another year. A successful rehabilitation program in only eight days? You bet!


Team King
Telephone: 719.339.1557

updated 08/23/2004
Copyright © 2000 Team King All Rights Reserved

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