Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006


NFB Highlighted on NBC’s Three Wishes

by Rebekah Jakeman

Left to right, Nick Schmittroth (wearing hat), Karl Smith, Brandon and Nicole Rasmussen, Rebekah Jakeman, and Ron Gardner
Left to right, Nick Schmittroth (wearing hat), Karl Smith, Brandon and Nicole Rasmussen, Rebekah Jakeman, and Ron Gardner

On Friday, November 4, 2005, NBC aired its primetime television show Three Wishes, featuring a story about a young blind mother, Nicole Rasmussen, from Cedar City, Utah. In June of this year Brandon Rasmussen attended the show’s live audition in Cedar City
and recounted his wife’s touching history. He and Nicole were married in September 1999. Subsequently bacteria multiplied in Nicole’s brain, and this affected the optic nerve, eventually leaving her blind. With only two months of rehabilitation training after her blindness, Nicole felt helpless.

NBC was intrigued by Nicole’s struggle and selected her as one of the people whose wishes they would highlight during a program. Interestingly, Brandon did not specifically ask for anything, but simply stated the facts, so it was up to NBC to develop a storyline outlining wishes to grant the young blind mother. They launched a search to learn more about blindness and the way they could assist Nicole, which led to contacting leaders of the National Federation of the Blind.

Utah Affiliate President Ron Gardner recalls, “Robert McLeod, NBC’s associate producer, gave me a call telling me that NBC was doing a show involving someone who was blind.

He gave very little detail about the matter but wanted answers to questions about blindness in general. I basically explained the NFB’s philosophy. A few days later he called again. This happened several times. The more we talked, the more information we exchanged. Then one day he called and invited the NFB to assist a blind woman in Cedar City.”

It’s noteworthy that NBC was making dozens of contacts across the nation, yet they chose the National Federation of the Blind to lend a hand with the project. Betsy Zaborowski, executive director of the Jernigan Institute, was one of those with whom they spoke repeatedly. She finally told them in so many words that they needed to assemble a team of competent blind folks to take on the job of training Nicole. They bought Dr. Zaborowski’s concept completely and settled on the NFB to do the job. Karl Smith, an access technology consultant in Utah, explains his notion of the reasoning behind NBC’s choice: “I think it was our willingness to work with them and our readiness to take the project on. They were impressed with those they talked to and saw our commitment. We never told them who they should or should not speak with, and we were open to their ideas.”

The Federation does not just sit back and wait for things to be handed to us, so it wasn’t long before Dr. Joanne Wilson and Dr. Betsy Zaborowski of the NFB Jernigan Institute were on the phone with Ron Gardner, discussing possible strategies for granting Nicole’s wish. They came up with the NFB team of blind people to help train and educate Nicole on adaptive techniques and a positive philosophy about blindness. Gardner proposed the team to NBC, and they loved it. We were in business.

When I first heard of the project, I was on vacation visiting my parents. Ron Gardner called to ask if I would be willing to be a part of the team. He explained that Nicole was a blind mother about my age who had a one-year-old daughter. Since I am a mother of two small children, Ron concluded that I could offer expertise and support to Nicole. I readily accepted the invitation.

Besides me there were three other team members. Ron Gardner led the group and was instrumental in educating NBC producers and the Rasmussen family concerning the truth about blindness. Nick Schmittroth, an orientation and mobility specialist working at Utah’s Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DSBVI), joined the group to do long-white-cane training under sleepshades. Karl Smith came aboard as the technology specialist who would not only train Nicole on accessible technology, but provide some of the equipment as well.

As a group we were very excited about the whole project, but our enthusiasm was tempered with anxiety about the details. Many of us had seen previous media coverage of blindness. Such coverage often demonstrates a lack of knowledge and thrives on throwing a pity party for the blind. More than anything we wanted to give Nicole quality training and confidence, but we also wanted to help NBC portray blindness in a positive light.

Early in the planning a proposal came up which would have been detrimental to a healthy approach to blindness. NBC originally planned to construct a park with special fencing and specific textured surfaces so that Nicole would be able to maneuver her way through the park and not wander off into the street. The production company feared that unless it put up special fencing it would have a liability case on its hands if Nicole got lost in the street with her daughter Peyton. Ron dispelled these worries, explaining that with proper training Nicole could use traffic sounds and common sense to maneuver through the park and stay out of the road.

“It was important for NBC and the producers to realize that Nicole was capable of keeping herself safe. Sighted people often assume that they have a responsibility to keep blind people out of danger when traveling, but they don’t; the blind are responsible for their own safety,” Gardner said.

Working with President Gardner and others, Glassman Productions came up with a plan for a beautiful park just like any other. In the television program the host pointed out that they had installed a water fountain and had incorporated variously textured surfaces so that Nicole could find her way around the park. But the textures and layout were nothing new to parks—sand, grass, and cement, coupled with a few shaded benches and some slides. The final product was a tremendous improvement on the first proposal.

Giving a person the tools to live independently again cannot be carried out easily by one person or even a few people. It is the sum of many people’s industry and generosity. NBC depended on our resources to provide Nicole with state-of-the-art adaptive materials. President Gardner made several trips to the National Center to buy Brailled games that Nicole could play with her family, aids and
appliances for the kitchen, a talking thermometer, writing and labeling equipment, etc. When NBC mentioned that Nicole wanted to read to her daughter and asked if we had any Braille children’s books, Ron was able to come up with a whole library of books with the help of Barbara Cheadle, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), who kindly provided some of her favorite books from the NOPBC collection. We also supplemented the library with some Seedlings Brailled board books.

After much thinking, planning, and phoning back and forth, the team traveled to Cedar City in a van packed with everything we needed, including maroon NFB team shirts displaying the Whozit logo, provided by President Maurer. We were excited by the prospect of meeting and working with Nicole. But during the trip we exchanged our hopes and worries about the project. We felt some anxiety at the uncertainties. We didn’t know when we would meet Nicole or how many hours would be available for training off
camera. We had no idea whether NBC’s expectations for Nicole’s training would match our own. We didn’t even know how long they wanted us in town. One thing was certain: we wanted to help Nicole and let her know that we were there to be a resource and a
support for her for the rest of her life.

The producers lost no time in meeting with us, reviewing the schedule, and appraising the adaptive equipment we had brought. Next came the filming. The first time we met Nicole a camera was rolling. We came to her door and introduced ourselves. Of course, since it was all staged, we had to repeat the scene several times. Each time Nicole had to act surprised, as if she were meeting us for the first time. This was typical of all the shoots. The producers did not have a set script for us to follow, but they often had us repeat scenes or conversations so they could film it from a different angle or with different lighting. Each time we were expected to be natural and spontaneous.

Between shoots we took time to train Nicole. The very first day she wore sleepshades and walked along the sidewalk in front of her house. We were all pleased at her complete willingness and confidence in the idea of sleepshades.

Nick Schmittroth says, “My first meeting with Nicole was recorded on film. I don’t think she understood what this group of Federationists was all about, but she was willing to learn. Seeing all of us with our long white canes did something for her self-confidence. Before we showed up, Nicole was convinced that there was nothing else for her. Now she knows about the National Federation of the Blind.”

One of the biggest challenges the NFB team faced was producing media-worthy interactions with Nicole while at the same time providing substantive training. Truly effective rehabilitation takes six to nine months. From the beginning we made it clear to NBC that the training we were providing could not be fully understood, much less mastered, in a week. But the production company had its own objectives for the show, and we did our best to help satisfy them while still providing as much quality training as possible.

One of the main focuses was travel with a long white cane. Schmittroth was able to pack about three weeks of travel training into just a few days. On camera he explained the purpose of wearing sleepshades; then he and Nicole practiced walking around her neighborhood. Nicole even did a short independent route within the first few days.

Nicole commented, “I was kind of scared. It was intimidating since it was the first time in four years that I had gone anywhere completely alone, but I just knew I would be able to do it. Getting back on my own gave me confidence.”

Another aspect of training we addressed was adaptive technology. Karl Smith founded his own company, Axis, eleven years ago. He provides accessible technology and training to blind people. NBC wanted the adaptive technology part of the story to be a
big secret. They made over the Rasmussens’ home office and bought Nicole state-of-the-art equipment: a PAC Mate, Braille embosser, scanner and accompanying software, JAWS, and a state-of-the-art computer. Karl was responsible for setting up the equipment and ensuring that it worked. Then after the host Diane Mizota revealed the room and all the adaptive technology to Nicole, Karl had a chance to sit down and train her.

Despite Nicole’s information overload, she exhibited a real desire to try everything. According to Smith, “Nicole is quite a bright young lady. She is not content to sit around and do nothing. She is proactive and has a positive view of what the blind can do when they work together.”

I was responsible for training Nicole in basic home economics and advising her on parenting skills. The very first day we were there, NBC filmed Nicole and me as I showed her how to label food packaging, Braille directions for food preparation, and give her a Braille recipe book printed on Thermaform paper. Kara Campbell, a member of the NFB of Utah, assisted me in putting the recipe book together. Nicole seemed very excited to have the recipes in Braille. “Before, if I wanted to cook a meal, Brandon had to lay out all the food for me and read the directions. Now for the most part I can do it on my own,” explains Nicole.

Throughout my portion of the training Nicole and I had a lot of time to chat as we read Braille books to our children, played with our kids at the city park, and walked down the street pulling her daughter Peyton in a stroller. It was a unique opportunity for me because I saw so much of myself in Nicole. She and I are the same age—only one month difference. We both lost our sight four years ago, and our daughters are four months apart. I could really connect with Nicole because I had been where she is now. Sometimes I would fold up my rehab cane and throw it in the corner. I vividly remember my overwhelming anxiety about how to care for my first baby. But I also recall the glorious moments when I discovered the NFB and what it had to offer.

Last but not least, Ron conducted philosophy training with Nicole, her husband, and the NBC producers. He took time to explain to them that blind individuals are normal people who do regular things using adaptive techniques. When a blind person receives inadequate rehabilitation training, it is imperative to share the truth about blindness, restore hope, and promote personal dignity. Both NBC and the Rasmussen family were very receptive to these ideas.

“I was profoundly impressed with the way NBC gravitated to what we were doing with the training,” President Gardner said. The producers were not the only ones to see the wisdom of our approach. Gardner describes a highlight of the trip for him. He was discussing blindness philosophy with Brandon in the living room. Suddenly Brandon rose from the couch and went to the window. “Oh my gosh, Nicole is walking down the street by herself. That is the first time I have seen her do that in four years.”

Ron Gardner also reviewed Braille with Nicole. Nicole had taught herself Braille, which is no small feat. One of Gardner’s responsibilities was to be sure Nicole felt comfortable reading such things as her last name, her daughter’s name, and other simple words in Braille. NBC had planned a dramatic climax for the story. They wanted Nicole to take her daughter to the brand new park a few blocks away by herself. There she would read the Braille sign, which revealed the name of the location, “Peyton Park.”

The last day of training arrived, and it was time for Nicole to be out on her own. She had never walked to the park before, but she followed Schmittroth’s directions and did it all by herself, pulling her daughter behind her in a stroller. NBC captured it on camera. She didn’t know that the entire neighborhood, along with her extended family, was waiting to congratulate her when she arrived. Note that this plan was proof of how much confidence Nicole and others had. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she could take her daughter to the park in a stroller just like every other mother. NBC placed a few obstacles in Nicole’s path, including a bicycle and other children’s toys, and had a car peel around the corner where Nicole had to cross. They even added sound effects to the shoot for the televised show, but other than that they did not interfere with her travel route. Nicole did a beautiful job in her street crossing despite the profoundly rounded curb. After she arrived at the park and read the Braille sign, we all cheered with enthusiasm. It was a momentous climax to the week and another witness of NFB philosophy in action.

We concluded the week by attending Amy Grant’s concert, where we were featured in the middle of the front row. We sang along and danced, but, most important, we applauded the Rasmussen family for a job well done. Nicole really had come a long way in a few days. Schmittroth said, “I saw a lot of self-confidence in Nicole. Her life is not yet totally changed, but we gave her some skills, and I saw a lot of improvement.”

Nicole felt the boost as well and acknowledged what the team had done for her. “Until now I’ve had only sighted instructors. It was so nice to have instructors who were actually in the same situation as me. The NFB can really offer a lot.”

This was a wonderful experience for everyone involved. Not only did we assist Nicole in gaining confidence and acquiring skills, but we developed a great working relationship with NBC and Glassman Productions. We all agreed that they were splendid to work with and treated us like the professionals we were.

Gardner gives more detail: “They recognized us as a group of professionals. They immediately grasped what we were trying to do. We did not try to run the cameras, and they did not interrupt our training. The NFB and NBC working together went a long way to raise the expectations of the blind in America.”

When the show aired on November 4, we were all pleased with the outcome despite the fact that Nicole’s story received less than twelve minutes of air time. NBC chose what they felt was most important. They began with Erik Weihenmeyer rock climbing with Nicole. Then they turned to the NFB training, placing special emphasis on travel training. Out of the hours and hours of film footage for this story, they selected sleepshade training and the multiple times Nicole used her long white cane on the streets of Cedar City. Karl Smith explains, “No matter how much they said they understood and believed our philosophy, we felt that we and the NFB message of hope and possibility we wanted to deliver to viewers were at their mercy. They were the ones who edited the footage without any input from us. In the end I was impressed that they did not resort to evoking pity. I think they really did understand. After all, they showed so much travel and emphasized independence.”

As Karl says, developing Nicole’s independence was an important goal for us. We realize that developing it takes longer than a week, so since the television shoot in August we have each made repeated contacts with Nicole. Karl Smith and DSBVI rehabilitation teacher Ray Martin continue to give Nicole notetaker training. She and I have also maintained telephone contact. Now that the glitz of the camera lights is history, the real rewards for Nicole are the doors of opportunity that have been opened, the lifetime friendships that were established, and the Rasmussens’ connection with the NFB.