The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  May 2005

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The Gift
by Mariyam Cementwala

Mariyam Cementwala
Mariyam Cementwala

From the Editor: When Dr. Jernigan first began teaching me how to edit a magazine, he instructed me on the value of seed corn, tucking away several articles to hold in readiness in case they are suddenly needed in a pinch. I adopted his practice and try always to have a few pieces that I can drop into an issue if necessary.

In a week or two I am scheduled to upgrade my computer, which means sorting through files and deleting the things that are just sitting around, taking up cyberspace. This morning I found the following bit of seed corn and decided that it is still as valuable as it was when I first read it. Mariyam Cementwala is now a student at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. She is still benefiting from the decision she describes making in the following story. It first appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of the Student Slate, the publication of the National Association of Blind Students. This is what she says about her experience:

The first time I heard about adult training centers was at the 1997 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. At that time I met Joanne Wilson, director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I had thought that perhaps someday I would go, but right then I did not think I needed to be at a center. I was on my way to the University of California at Berkeley. I believed that I had enough skills in living and travelling independently to survive on my own without first going to a center. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind and left it in cold storage. I was a long way from believing that I needed training in the alternative techniques of blindness.

Four months after convention I was sitting at Giovanni's Italian Restaurant in downtown Berkeley with a friend who is a graduate of an NFB training center. It was here that the initial realization came that I needed to go to a training center. Sure, I was using a cane, but it was a short, heavy aluminum folding cane. I was not as comfortable with my blindness as I could have and should have been--as I am now.

The restaurant was dimly lit, and at that time I thought I needed light to do everything. The struggle came when it was time to order and I dismissed the idea of letting the waitress read the menu for us. Even though it took me minutes to decode each menu item, I wanted to read it myself. My hungry dinner companion finally asked the waitress to read us the menu. Then he remarked, "You need to go to an NFB training center, and quickly!" I may have been living alone, but in many ways I wasn't living independently. That's when the first bells rang in my head. Perhaps I shouldn't put off going to a center until I reached some landmark time such as after finishing my undergraduate degree and before law school.

Then, later in that same school year, I was sitting at a board meeting of the California Association of Blind Students. Because the lighting was really dim, I could not read my fifteen-point bold capitalized notes, which my duties as the secretary required me to use. At that point I decided I would learn Braille, and quickly. However, I wasn't even sure how to begin. In college I used readers, took my own notes when I could, and went to the occasional study group. In short, I skated by well enough. But from associating more and more with people in the NFB, I was realizing that life is not about getting by but about living well and to the fullest.

By this time I was becoming much more open to the idea of going to a center sooner than I had planned. The fact that my two best friends were at a center and raving about the experience certainly helped. Yet I still thought that I would have to wait because I simply could not take a break from college. I finally became convinced to make the time for training after hearing from many training-center graduates who regretted that they had not gone sooner because their undergraduate years would have been so much easier.

That summer I decided to visit the Louisiana Center for a week. By my third day at the center I knew that I was going to come that year and do so by the end of the summer if I could manage it. The rest of my life could wait. We often impose artificial limitations upon ourselves like thinking we can go to a center only after getting a degree or completing this or that project.

There is never a convenient time to go to a training center, because something is always going on in the rest of our lives--school, family, a job, or something else. Sometimes we just have to push those other priorities aside for the real priority: becoming independent. So, after making the arrangements with my vocational rehabilitation counselor, I entered the adult program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind at the end of the summer.

Where do I begin in describing the center experience? I could write a book. It would include the bowling nights, the baby shower, the cramped vanloads of anxious, excited, tired, and just plain loud blind people heading off to Mardi Gras or rock climbing or whatever other adventure was in store for the group.

The center taught me survival in a big way. It taught me what it means to compete on terms of equality, to hold my ground, to keep my control, and to look directly at an employer and say with confidence, "I can do this job." The center taught me skills such as cane travel and Braille. I also learned punctuality, openness, diplomacy, discipline, confidence, and giving. It taught me that I have a lot more to learn and that this learning is never-ending. The center challenged me and taught me that I must challenge myself. It is difficult to sum it up in words except to say that the months in Ruston were some of the most difficult and wonderful times I have ever experienced. The center taught me how to learn--how to go full circle.

The center experience was very rich, almost as rich as the chocolate raspberry cheesecake I had at Giovanni's last Friday night. It was an autumn evening almost two years before when I had walked into Giovanni's Italian Restaurant in great trepidation with my friend; I hadn't dared to return since that night. Now, on a fall Friday just as before, I walked in again--this time without the trepidation and with a new friend. Using my long white cane, I followed the waitress to a dim table towards the back. This time I asked her to read us what was on the dessert menu for the night. My friend was comfortable with my blindness because I was comfortable with it.

The National Federation of the Blind, through its positive philosophy and excellent training centers, gave me a new, better quality of life. Each day at an NFB training center is like the slow process of unwrapping a great gift. The only constant is that there are lots of surprises. Each day following center graduation is better because you get to enjoy the gift you were given and get to share it with others.

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