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.
of a National Convention
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
Copyright © 2000 Team King All Rights Reserved