Braille Monitor                                                    July 2009

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Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, chats with Amber Evans, a parent attending the Beginnings and Blueprints Early Childhood Conference. Amber is holding her daughter Makynna.

(Left to right) Rick Trimble, an unidentified participant, Patricia Chichester, and Robert Palermo sit together at a parents breakout session during the conference. In the background the conference name is visible on a video screen.Through work with early intervention specialists; educators of the blind; and, most important, parents of blind children, the National Federation of the Blind aims to identify and address the most critical issues affecting young blind people and to develop priorities for the NFB Jernigan Institute. A theme that emerges over and over in this area is the lack of positive, appropriate early education for families with blind children. This is especially disturbing because research in early childhood education shows that the family has the greatest impact on child development. Parents are frequently told that their children are incapable of developing age-appropriately because of blindness, encouraging parents to lower their expectations and creating a vicious circle of learned helplessness. Because this circle can be overcome with effective early education, the Institute has made early childhood education a primary education initiative.

Karen Zakhnini, education project manager with the NFB Jernigan Institute, talks with one of the children attending the Beginnings and Blueprints Early Childhood Conference over lunch in the dining room at the National Center for the Blind. Dinah Little, Institute director of education, kneels beside their table to join the conversation.In order for parents to help their children become the best adults they can, they need a clear blueprint for success. This blueprint and many of the tools needed for its construction were presented in May to a group of parents of young blind children at the 2009 NFB Beginnings and Blueprints Early Childhood Conference held at the NFB Jernigan Institute, which jointly sponsored the conference with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. It included a number of early childhood resources and served more than thirty parents of blind children.

Amy Phelps, director of rehabilitation at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, and Marc Fass, a parent attending the conference on a cane walk with Marc's son Andy.Families from several states filled their tool boxes as they attended a number of panels and breakout sessions. Such topics as play and exploration, early Braille and orientation and mobility instruction, and developing Individualized Family Service Plans filled the agenda. Attendees agreed that the panel of blind adults was one of the highlights of the conference. “What I Wish My Parents Had Known about Blindness” helped answer a lot of parents’ questions and provided an example of what they would like their children to grow up to be. The conference also included visits to the Independence Market, tours of the National Center, a cane walk, and an exhibit hall. It provided something for everyone as blind children and their sighted siblings participated in exciting child-care activities led by positive blind role-models. These included a rousing game of goal ball, hands-on art projects, and a visit to the Jacobus tenBroek Library. Having the children on site also allowed great interaction between families and presenters as well as lots of one-on-one instruction for parents with their children in orientation and mobility and active explorative play. It was a great sight to see toddlers getting their hands on a cane for the first time.

This was the second such conference the NFB Jernigan Institute has conducted. As is the goal with most of the Institute’s projects, this program aims to be a model for other states and regions interested in providing similar conferences. The education team at the NFB Jernigan Institute hopes later this fall to make many of the sessions and PowerPoints from this conference available online through its early childhood initiative page. The team also hopes to be a resource to states interested in facilitating their own conferences. To learn more, view pictures, or read comments from participants, visit <>.

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