American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2019      NOPBC CONFERENCE

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Tools for Success

by Alyssa Mendez, Anna Walker, and Vejas Vasiliauskas

Introduction by Carlton Ann Cook Walker: We have a fabulous student panel with us this year. We have Alyssa Mendez, who is a seventeen-year-old rising senior in high school. Alyssa has had more than her fair share of issues—not with her vision, but with people not providing her with the accommodations she needs. She has proven that she can succeed when she has those accommodations. Next is Anna Walker—yes, we are related! [Laughter] She is eighteen, and she recently graduated from high school. For her last two years of high school she moved from a brick-and-mortar building to a cyberschool, and she augmented that with classes at the local community college. Then we have Vejas Vasiliauskas from California, who is a college student. We're going to hear from each of them about the tools that have helped them succeed.

(Left to right): Vejas Vasiliauskas, Anna Walker, and Alyssa Mendez

VEJAS VASILIAUSKAS: Good morning! I hope you're having an awesome first day at convention! I would sincerely like to thank NOPBC President Carlton Anne Cook Walker and the rest of the NOPBC board for their dedication and for their willingness to include me on the panel. I would also like to thank my parents, Rasa and Eric Vasiliauskas, without whom I would not be the person I am today.

My name is Vejas Vasiliauskas, and I am a rising college senior English major at Marymount University. I'm interning this summer at the law school associated with my college, where I am working on disability innovation. I'm thrilled to be able to speak to you today. Whether this is your first time attending convention, or if you have been attending for quite a while, you are going to find some great activities and make awesome connections.

My younger brother, Petras, and I both have Norrie disease, a condition that causes us to be blind and gradually to lose our hearing as we grow older. We haven't let it stop us from doing what we would like to do!

My parents always wanted me and my brother to be given equal opportunities with our sighted peers. As the parent of a blind child, most of your concerns will probably take the form of three questions: Will my child be able to read? Will my child be able to lead an independent life? Will my child get a guide dog? The answers are yes, yes, and possibly.

The NFB will provide you with some wonderful mentors, not only in the form of fellow parents and blind adults, but also in historical figures such as Jacobus tenBroek and Kenneth Jernigan. Their legacies live on in the NFB. From listening to President Walker you already know that blind individuals are faced daily with low expectations, and they must prove their capability. The thought of having your child attend a training center may seem too distant in the future, but it's something to think about now. Talking to successful graduates of training centers and their parents will consistently reiterate the fact that, as corny as it may sound, everything will be okay!

There are lots of training centers aimed at helping the blind, so choosing one can be daunting. Expectations vary greatly among training programs. The higher the expectations a training center holds, the greater the likelihood that your child's quality of life will benefit.

The National Federation of the Blind operates three training centers that are very highly regarded. The NFB training centers are the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, Louisiana; BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, Colorado. While each program has a slightly different focus, all of them offer classes in Braille, technology, cane travel, home management, and wood shop. Each center allows students to work at their own pace. In each program students have the opportunity to go on field trips, to experience a variety of settings, and to learn to travel in crowds.

When I was at LCB (the Louisiana Center for the Blind), students were eligible to travel to a ranch in Arkansas. At the ranch we experienced hiking, rock climbing, zip-lining, and horseback riding. Later during my time at LCB we experienced the wild culture that is Mardi Gras, with jazz, traditional Cajun food, and more beads than you'll ever know what to do with! [Laughter]

I would like to stress the importance of children learning Braille and technology. Sadly, when students have some limited vision, many schools and TVIs insist they become proficient in large print, claiming that Braille is unnecessary. I never had enough vision for this to happen to me. However, I have talked with many large-print users. Often their eyes are tired by the middle of the day, and the fonts on their computer screens continue to increase every year. If your school is resistant to your child learning Braille, please don't give up the fight!

As far as technology is concerned, a blind student must learn to use multiple platforms. A site that is not accessible on an iPhone may actually work perfectly with a computer using JAWS or NVDA.

Currently my primary device is a BrailleNote Apex connected with my iPhone. I also use a PC running JAWS and a second, slightly lower tech Braille display, the Vario Ultra 40, for backup. I wish I had spent more time in middle and high school on the computer rather than relying so much on the BrailleNote's browser. With ever increasing changes in technology, the BrailleNote is still running Internet Explorer 6! [Laughter] It's always critical to have independent backup strategies. Life doesn't stop when your notetaker dies!

Some of you may be wondering when your child should attend a training center. I suggest that students attend at the end of high school, before the first year of college. Your child can apply for college with his or her peers and then defer entering school. Training before college will allow students to freshen up their skills, and it will give them less academic stress and more social freedom when the real academic rigor begins.

Of course, all of these skills will have to be reinforced from time to time. One example is cooking. Many students who live in college dorms may not be able to utilize their cooking skills very often. Once they have mastered cane skills, blind adults have the choice to receive a guide dog and go through the necessary training.

You don't have to wait until your children are out of high school for them to step their toes into the training environment, as they say. Each of the three NFB training centers has summer camps called Buddy Programs for children ranging in age from nine to fourteen. The Buddy Programs usually run for three weeks. They allow children to learn basic blindness skills and take outings to exciting places. When I was a Buddy at BLIND, Inc., my favorite outing was a trip to Wild Mountain Water Park. You can learn more about the NFB training centers throughout this convention. 

Thank you, and have an amazing convention experience! Remember, everything will be okay. [Applause]

ANNA WALKER: Hello, I'm Anna Walker. As you heard, I have been going to classes through an online high school and also attending a community college. On the whole, the community college was more accessible than any other school I have ever attended. When I went to college and started taking Chemistry One, I talked to the professor, and within a few weeks I had LabQuest with accessible programs. I became one of the most efficient people in the chemistry lab. My chemistry professor even asked the school to get more LabQuests so the other students could use them! I recently completed that class with an A.

I have multiple disabilities. I have severe dyslexia and probably some ADHD. When I was in middle school I was told many times that my slow reading speed was due to the fact that I was using Braille. That is one time I was grateful that I can, under certain circumstances, read some print! They were able to determine that I am just as dyslexic in print as I am in Braille! However, because of my issues with Braille, the school was unwilling to let me get a BrailleSense. I had used one from third to fifth grade. They finally got me a BrailleNote, which I did not like because I already had learned the operating system with the BrailleSense. Now I finally have an emotional support BrailleSense Polaris! [Applause]

ALYSSA MENDEZ: Hi, I'm Alyssa Mendez: I'm from Florida. President Walker mentioned that I have had some problems getting services and accessible materials from my school district. I went to school in Georgia through seventh grade, and I was getting Braille materials and other services. When I was in ninth grade in Florida, they didn't want to set up an IEP for me, and they didn't want to use my old IEP from Georgia, either. Once we did get an IEP, they wanted to take a lot of things out. Braille was one of them. Not having Braille was a problem, because I can't read large print or regular print for more than ten minutes without getting a migraine, and then I can't read for the rest of the day.

It was hard for me to get material, and we fought for a long time with the school district. My mom would sometimes read my work to me. Sometimes I would take pictures and scan them in, and that way I was able to have VoiceOver read to me. I would ask my teachers to email things to me, and sometimes they would, but other times they wouldn't.

In the middle of tenth grade I got a BrailleNote Touch from the school district. They didn't teach me to use it, so I didn't get much use out of it that year. Then I went to LCB (Louisiana Center for the Blind) over the summer before my junior year. I learned a lot of skills there. I learned to use the BrailleNote Touch, and I learned to use a screen reader, JAWS. JAWS was very helpful.

During my junior year I started taking virtual classes at home because they were more accessible than my classes in school. When I started, I didn't have the best skills with JAWS. I would get really close to my computer screen to read it, and I wasn't finishing work efficiently. Sometimes I would just click random answers to be done. I had to continue working on my JAWS skills.

This year I finished all my classes online, using JAWS. [Applause] 

I don't know how fast I have JAWS set, but it's pretty fast; my mom can't understand it! I finished my classes early, and I started late, so that was really nice.

Also I wasn't getting O&M from my school district, and I wasn't competent at crossing streets. Sometimes I didn't even use my cane, I was just carrying it. I was embarrassed; I didn't want to be the only kid using a cane. Then I got really good O&M instruction at LCB over the summer, and now I continue to use my cane. I'm confident in crossing streets for the most part now. I think the summer training centers are really important. I've gotten a lot of great help there, and I really recommend them.

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