Future Reflections

The National Federation of the Blind Magazine for Parents and Teachers of Blind Children

Vol. 23, No. 3                                                                                        Fall 2004

Barbara Cheadle, Editor

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Rocket On! students, staff, and mentors pose for a group shot at the wrap-up ceremony held in the auditorium of the newly opened NFB Jernigan Institute. In the front row, from left to right, are the students: David Abrahams, Justin Harford, Tiffani Clements, Amy Herstein, Justin Hodge, Alysha Jeans, Daniel Ramirez, Meghan Joost, Nikki Singh, Ryan Thomas, Hoby Wedler, and Lindsay Yazzolino. In the back row, from left to right, is: Chaz Cheadle (NFB), Mary Jo Thorpe (NFB), Bernhard Beck-Winchatz (St. Paul University), Phil Eberspeaker (NASA), Mark Riccobono (NFB), Nathanael Wales (NFB), Robert Shelton (NASA); Marc Maurer (NFB), and Robin House (NFB).]

ISSN 0883-3419

Future Reflections

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Vol. 23, No. 3                                                                                        Fall 2004

From the Editor

This IS Rocket Science

by Bernhard Beck-Winchatz           

The Kid Who Named Pluto

by Marc McCutcheon, Book reviewed by Deborah Kent Stein

Turning Dreams into Reality: The 2004 NFB Science Academy

by Mark A. Riccobono

Taking Matters Into Their own Hands:

Blind Students’ Perspectives on Teaching, Trust, and Telescopes

by Michaela R. Winchatz

Technology and Keyboarding:

A Parent Wants to Know, What Comes First?

Using Readers

by Carol Castellano

When the Light’s Not Right

Online Education Program

New Initiative from the NFB Jernigan Institute

The California School for the Blind and the Unique Joy of Braille Literacy

by Dr. Stuart Wittenstein & Mary Willows

2003-2004 Braille Readers Are Leaders Winners

Christmas Crafts For Blind Children

by Heather Field

Good Toys for Blind Kids

Fall 2004

Massage: A Feel-Good Treat That Works Wonders Resources and Tips for Blind and Multiply Disabled Children

by Linda Zani Thomas

What You “Auto” Know: Blind Teens and the Mechanics of Myth-Busting

by Anna Cheadle

Blind Mechanic Had Magic Touch

by Bryan Corbin

Choosing a College

by Eric Duffy

Making Friends, Meeting Strangers

by Barbara Pierce

Catalogs from the Editor’s Bookshelf

Compiled by Barbara Cheadle

North American Active Learning Convention

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Barbara Cheadle]

From the Editor

I am a science fiction fan. For those scoffers and eyebrow-lifters out there, I point out that Dr. Kenneth Jernigan—the great NFB leader and visionary who designed the newly opened NFB Jernigan Institute—was a science fiction fan, too. I rest easy in my fan status knowing that I am in good company. However, some years ago, I noticed a disturbing trend: I would check the spines of new books in the library, look for the SF designation, and pull out a book only to discover, to my dismay, that it wasn’t science fiction at all—it was a fantasy book! It still annoys me that there is no separate designation for fantasy, but I live with it. I even read an occasional fantasy book and enjoy it. But, personal taste aside, I still insist that science fiction and fantasy do not belong in the same category. Science fiction is based on scientific principles of the known world. Indeed, some of the far-out speculations of early science fiction stories actually exist today; for example, clones, space ships, and cell phones—just to name a few.

Fantasy, however, is just that—fantasy. It is about magic—the unexplained, the mysterious, the unbelievable, the scientifically impossible. Sure, the author of a fantasy novel may make up certain rules under which his or her fantasy world operates, but those have no connection to the scientific rules of the world and universe in which we live. Fantasy is escape from reality. On the other hand, science fiction strives to stretch the limits of the human imagination about what is possible. Sir William Bragg, the renowned British physicist, once said: “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” That’s what the “science” part in science fiction is about: new ways of thinking about existing facts.

And that’s what the National Federation of the Blind is about: new ways of thinking about blindness and stretching our imaginations about what is possible. In this issue we talk about blind people doing things that, even today, many members of the public scoff at as pure fantasy: blind people using telescopes, driving a car, fixing a car, launching a rocket, going to college, mixing and socializing at parties, and putting on blindfolds (sleepshades) and shutting out the little vision they have in order to learn how to be more independent. It isn’t fantasy, but only because those who dreamed of these possibilities took steps to turn them into realities.

It takes hard work, perseverance, and many false starts and failures before a blind woman can achieve her dream of becoming a rocket scientist, or a blind student with additional disabilities can read and write his own name in Braille. There are no short cuts. Blind students can launch a rocket, but not if they can’t read or do calculus. Blind students can succeed in college, but getting and keeping a job requires more than good grades; it requires skills—like knowing how to use, hire, and fire readers. Blind students may aspire to travel the world, but must first learn how to give the cabbie directions to the airport. Fantasies do not require such effort; possibilities do. As parents and teachers, your children and students look to you for guidance in distinguishing fantasy from possibility. We hope this issue helps you in this oh-so-important task.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Bernhard Beck-Winchatz speaks to the students at the Rocket On! closing ceremony held in the auditorium of the NFB Jernigan Institute.]

This IS Rocket Science

by Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, DePaul University

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

— Albert Einstein

“Give me a state! Ready?”


“It’s up to you, Alysha!”

“5 — 4 — 3 — 2 — 1 — FIRE!”

“Hold it! Hold it! There she goes! There she goes!”

“We have Lift-Off!”

The cheering that erupted in the blast-proof blockhouse near the launch pad at

Wallops Flight Facility is impossible to describe in words. It was 8:34 a.m. on August 19, 2004, and Alysha Jeans, a high school junior from Wichita, Kansas, had just pressed the launch-button that sent the first-ever sounding rocket launched by blind high school students soaring into the sky. I have been following National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) mission launches since I was a kid and always wondered what it would feel like to be part of a team of scientists and engineers that is watching their rocket blast off into space. Now I know! No offense to the folks who launched the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Exploration Rovers and other great NASA missions, but this mission, developed and launched by our team of twelve blind students from across the country, blind NFB facilitators, and NASA scientists (blind and sighted) from Goddard Space Flight

Center and the Wallops Flight Facility, was definitely the best ever!

The inventor of the astronomical telescope Galileo Galilei once said that you cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself. (A modern-day emancipated Galileo would probably replaced “man” by “person” and “himself” by “himself or herself.”) There is an important lesson in Galileo’s quote for parents and teachers of blind youths. It is easy to say: “Blind people can do everything sighted people can do if they put their minds to it,” and it was obvious that most of the twelve students at the camp had heard this statement from well-meaning sighted and blind adults many times. They all had strong academic backgrounds and seemed prepared for college and beyond. But did they really believe in their hearts that they could overcome all obstacles blind people encounter in their education and careers?

Such an attitude is not something you can teach students. You have to provide opportunities for them to discover it within themselves. Failure is as much part of this journey of discovery as success. It requires the willingness to go out on a ledge, take risks, try out new and difficult things, and most importantly, be willing to fail, learn from your mistakes, and try over and over again. As a college professor, I know that most students struggle with this. How much harder is it for young people to overcome their fear of failure if the notion that the true reason may be blindness always lingers in the back of their minds? When I was invited to be a Rocket On! Facilitator, my hope was that the camp would be an opportunity for the students not just to learn about rocket science, but also to find it within themselves.

The days at the NFB’s Jernigan Institute leading up to the Thursday-morning launch were long and intense. Launching a sounding rocket with a scientific payload is a complex task, and students were involved in most aspects of the launch. The days at the NFB’s Jernigan Institute leading up to the Thursday-morning launch were long and intense. Launching a sounding rocket with a scientific payload is a complex task, and students were involved in most aspects of the launch. Assisting them was a group of blind facilitators from the NFB: Robin House, Mary Jo Thorpe, Nathanael Wales, and Chaz Cheadle. The mentorship and role-modeling provided by blind instructors and scientists throughout the week was a key part of the camp experience.

On Monday and Tuesday the students worked with lead teacher Robin House, chief of the Wallops sounding rocket program Phil Eberspeaker, and blind electrical engineer Dr. Michael Grosse to learn about the history of rocketry, Newton’s laws, basic rocket physics, and basic electronics. Then they split into three groups, each responsible for one major aspect of the launch. The Circuiteers team, comprised of Justin Hodge, Meghan Joost, Nikki Singh, Hoby Wedler, and facilitator Nathanael Wales, built and tested the scientific payload of the mission, consisting of four sensors that measured temperature, pressure, acceleration, and light intensity during the flight. These sensors were connected to the telemetry system aboard the rocket, which radioed the measurements back to Wallops in real time. Justin Harford, Alysha Jeans, Ryan Thomas, and Lindsay Yazzolino (with me as the facilitator) formed the Ego Squad team, which conducted a detailed analysis of the rocket trajectory to predict maximum altitude and range, and to verify that the correct rocket motor was chosen. They used a new software tool called the Math Description Engine (MDE) Graphing Calculator, which was developed by blind NASA mathematician Dr. Robert Shelton, who also helped the team with their calculations. Finally, the Action-Reaction team, comprised of David Abraham, Tiffani Clements, Amy Herstein, Daniel Ramirez, and facilitator Mary Jo Thorpe, was responsible for launch pad operations, such as moving the rocket to the launch pad, fueling, and the count-down.

For me, being the only sighted facilitator at the camp was a very interesting learning experience in itself.  Suddenly the term accessible took on a completely new meaning! It was often impossible for me to teach the students anything without learning from them at the same time. For example, I was scheduled to give a lesson on telescopes on Tuesday afternoon, and then lead an evening remote observing session during which the students were to operate a telescope at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin over the Internet. I had prepared a set of tactile diagrams to illustrate how telescopes work, and what can be learned by analyzing images and spectra of stars and galaxies. Sara Gallagher from the NFB had embossed my diagrams on thermal image paper and made self-adhesive Braille labels, but I soon realized that it would take me days to figure out where to attach which label, since I cannot read contracted Braille. Fortunately,

I was able to enlist the help of one of the students, Justin Harford. Working with Justin made labeling the diagrams a breeze. It didn’t only save a lot of time, but in the process he taught me a lot about how to make better tactile diagrams. In turn, he learned a few things from me about astronomy and telescopes.

After the Wednesday morning trip from Baltimore to the Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia, followed by final last-minute launch preparations in the afternoon, the team got up at 3:00 a.m. on launch day and reported for duty in the blockhouse on Wallops Island at 4:00 a.m.. The launch window was 6:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.. Tensions in the blockhouse were high. The team had done everything they could to prepare for the launch, but several uncontrollable factors that could potentially jeopardize the launch remained. The 10.5-foot experimental rocket had a hybrid motor never before used at the Wallops Flight Facility. Several of these motors had exploded during tests on a static test firing stand prior to the launch. The solid fuel tank of the rocket motor had been reinforced, but there was still a significant risk that the motor on the rocket would blow up during the launch. The United States Coast Guard had been contacted to keep boats away, but a stray boat entering the launch range at the wrong time could still thwart our plans. Wind was also a concern. While usually mild in the early morning, high winds can and often do delay rocket launches.

In the end almost everything worked out perfectly. By 8:15 a.m. the wind had died down to an acceptable level. A fishing boat headed for the launch area had turned around even before the Coast Guard had to intervene. And the rocket motor did not blow up and worked beautifully. The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 5,450 feet 20 seconds after launch. All four sensors worked and sent back data throughout the flight via telemetry. The mission did hit an unexpected snag when the main chute that was supposed to slow down the rocket for a gentle water landing did not deploy, causing the rocket to break up when it hit the water at high speed.

The minor parachute mishap could not dampen our team’s enthusiasm about the successful mission. During the post-launch briefing, word got around that the Coast Guard had recovered the nose cone and tail section of the rocket drifting in the Atlantic. This happened on their way back to base, after they had already given up and assumed the rocket had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. They did not find the middle section of the rocket containing the scientific payload and telemetry package. The fragments arrived back at Wallops just before the team headed back to Baltimore, giving the students the chance to examine the damage that the high-speed splash-down had caused.

Back at the Jernigan Institute NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer was already waiting for our return to congratulate the students on the success of their mission. He and other NFB staff had been watching the launch via a Web-cast from the Wallops Web site. But there was not much time for celebration. The successful launch had already been announced to the press, and a press conference was scheduled at Goddard Space Flight Center for 9:30 a.m. the next morning. The students worked late into the night to prepare their presentations and handouts.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

— Sir Isaac Newton

Working with a capable group of people who share common ideals and goals makes it easy to forget that reality is often still far from ideal. During the camp the reminder came in form of an electronics company that sells talking multimeters. Multimeters are used to measure voltage, electric current, and resistance. The students needed them to test and calibrate the electronic sensors they built for the rocket. When a NASA engineer on our team called in an order, the company refused to sell them to him because the talking multimeters were not designed for use by blind people. The company sales person was probably well-meaning and only wanted to protect blind people from electric shock and his company from a lawsuit. Nevertheless, his refusal to sell the instrument is offensive and disparaging to highly capable high school students. It is one of those walls Sir Isaac

Newton is talking about, one that needs to be replaced by a bridge.

The Friday-morning press conference was flawless. In his opening remarks Dr. Ed Weiler, Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, congratulated the students on a job well-done, and encouraged them to continue their work with NASA though internships and careers in science and engineering. He reminded them that they are privileged to be part of a generation that will likely answer some of the deepest scientific question humans have been wondering about for thousands of years, such as “Are there earth-like planets orbiting other stars?” and “Are we alone in the universe?” After Dr. Weiler’s introductions, the Ego Squad, Circuiteers, and Action-Reaction teams each discussed the mission from their perspectives and presented initial results. Each presentation was followed by a question and answer period.

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

— Robert H. Goddard

As Rocket On! drew to a close, our focus shifted toward the future. The students had worked hard and proven that they have what it takes to succeed in science. They had literally become rocket scientists! Twelve mentors, some blind and some sighted, from the Goddard and Johnson Space Flight Centers and from NASA Headquarters had been selected to continue to work with the students on an ongoing basis. Many students had expressed their interest in opportunities to work at NASA, for example, through internships and even careers after college. Phil Eberspeaker, Chief of the Wallops Sounding Rocket Program and one of the Rocket On! “dreamers” of yesterday, expressed our shared hope of today when he told the students: “I hope that one day when I am sick, one of you will be the doctor who saves my life.”  Together we can make it the reality of tomorrow!

The Kid Who Named Pluto

and the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science

by Marc McCutcheon

Reviewed by Deborah Kent Stein

As author Marc McCutcheon explains in his introduction, this is a book about “boys and girls who had great ideas and worked hard to make something happen with them.” McCutcheon gathers brief biographies of nine people who made major discoveries or inventions while they were under eighteen years old. They include Robert Goddard, who at fifteen designed his first rocket; Mary Anning, who discovered some of the first known dinosaur skeletons while she was in her teens; sixteen-year-old Sarah Flannery, a mathematical genius who devised a remarkable encryptment program; and nine-year-old Emily Rosa, who debunked a medical myth with an experiment she designed as a science fair project. Each story is lively and readable, focusing on the subject’s youth and summarizing his or her later accomplishments.

The final chapter in the book, “The Blind Boy Who Developed a New Way to See,” tells the story of Louis Braille. McCutcheon begins with the accident in which Louis was blinded at the age of three. He explains that blind people had few opportunities at that time and place (early nineteenth-century France), and that Louis’s parents encouraged him to be curious and independent. Braille’s story provides some basic information about blindness. The author explains, for example, that young Louis used a cane to find obstacles when he walked in the village by himself, and that he listened for echoes to determine how close he was to a wall. For a few years Louis Braille attended the local school in his village, but his studies were severely limited because he had no means to read and write. At ten he was sent to a school for blind boys in Paris. There, at the age of twelve, he began to work on a tactile reading system based on a cell of six raised dots.

 Braille’s story is told in clear, unsentimental prose, the same tone the author employs in the other biographies. It is refreshing to see Braille placed within the context of Robert Goddard, Sarah Flannery, and the others we meet in this book. All of them showed genius and astonishing creativity at an early age. The stories in this volume are all inspiring,

Louis Braille’s among them. “Beyond their intelligence and imagination,” McCutcheon reminds us, “these kids had two things in common above all others: they believed in themselves and they worked hard.”

Editor’s Note: This hardcover book (ISBN: 0-8118-3770-X) is beautifully illustrated by Jon Cannell. The list price for the print copy is $15.95. For more information about the book and other books published by Chronicle Books, go to their Web site at <www.chroniclekids.com>. Also, the National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped selected the book for its collection so it will soon be available in audio format for loan throughout the Regional Library for the Blind system. The NLS book collection number is RC 58645.

Turning Dreams into Reality: The 2004 NFB Science Academy

by Mark A. Riccobono, Manager, Education Programs—NFB Jernigan Institute

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

                        — Robert H. Goddard

In the February 2004 issue of the Braille Monitor, I detailed the road that led to the establishment of the 2004 NFB Science Academy, a series of summer science camps designed to change the prospects for blind youth in science education and careers.

Readers of the Braille Monitor will recall that we had a number of ambitious goals for our science camps, including:

• to spark the interest of blind youth in science and inspire more of these youth to pursue careers in science;

•  to allow blind youth to build confidence through opportunities to perform challenging science activities from which they are generally excluded in public schools; and

• to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Federation’s approach through the development of a centralized collection of resources related to blind youth in science that can be accessed by regular educators, blind youth, their parents, special educators, and others.

The camps—and our high expectations of them—began as a dream of Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Maurer presented this dream to the NFB 2003 National Convention assembled in Louisville, Kentucky. Then, at the Grand Opening of the NFB Jernigan Institute in January 2004, young Courtney Despeaux spoke on behalf of America’s blind youth about the brighter future the Institute represents. She said, “This Research and Training Institute, a dream turned into reality, now allows blind youth like me to have even bigger dreams.”

Now, just one year after Dr. Maurer announced the establishment of these camps and slightly more than half a year after the opening of the Jernigan Institute, the first stage of this dream has been realized. By summer’s end, 2004, twenty-four blind middle school and high school youths had successfully completed the first-ever, consumer-conceived, -planned, and -executed summer science camps: the Circle of Life Camp (July 18 - 24) and the Rocket On! Camp (August 15 - 21). There is no doubt that we (with the assistance of our new partners at NASA) are well on our way to the establishment of a rigorous summer science program; one that inspires blind youth and those working with them to imagine a future full of opportunities in the sciences.

This assessment is not based on subjective opinion alone. In keeping with accepted professional practice, we employed an experienced program evaluator. Federationists will be familiar with the work of Dr. C. Edwin Vaughan, a blind sociologist, professor, and author whose work has often appeared in the pages of the Braille Monitor. In order to examine the effectiveness of the 2004 NFB Science camp sessions, students completed pre- and post-surveys developed by Dr. Vaughan. His evaluation report displayed overwhelming positive results based on the student responses to the surveys. In fact, the one major problem expressed by participants in both camp sessions, was that the camps were too short. Many of the students said we should add one or two days to each camp.

We clearly achieved the goals outlined above. We inspired youth, gave them confidence in their capacity to do science, and—through that process—we demonstrated that our unique approach works. The purpose of this report is to begin disseminating what we know to others—science teachers, schools, parents, science museums, universities, and any and all other science programs for youth. Only then will we achieve our ultimate goal of the complete integration of blind youth into scientific studies and careers. As we reviewed our success, seven key ingredients emerged. However, before we look at the essential elements of this program of the NFB Jernigan Institute, let’s review the two camp sessions briefly.

Circle of Life—July 18-24, 2004

In this session, twelve blind middle school students representing eleven different states participated in a week full of exploration and investigation into the world in which we live. The participants ranged in age from eleven to fourteen, and included entering seventh graders to entering high school freshmen or ninth graders. Although a few of the students had some partial sight, all were Braille readers. Following are photos of each student taken at the camp. In addition to the student’s name, the caption gives the student’s age at the time he or she completed the camp, and the grade he or she will be entering in the fall of 2004 - 2005 school year:



Karl Martin Adam, Southfield, Michigan: age 14, grade 8.


Rachel Becker, Frederick, Maryland: age 14, grade 9.


Bryce Gitzen, Cle Elum, Washington: age 12, grade 7.


Amelia King, Madison, Wisconsin: age 12, grade 7.


Aaron Linson, Louisville, Kentucky: age 14, grade 8.


Steven Maxfaults, Brooklyn, New York: age 13, grade 9.


John Pastorius, Smithfield, Virginia: age 13, grade 8.


Tanya Perkins, Thorton, Colorado: age 13, grade 8.


Jordan Richardson, Blaine, Minnesota: age 13, grade 8.


Daisy Soto, Thousand Oaks, California: age 11, grade 7.


Andrew Wai, Harleysville, Pennsylvania: age 12, grade 8.


Matthew Wallace, Springfield, Pennsylvania: age 13, grade 8.

The intent of the activities in this session was to spark the “Wow!” of science in the students, challenge them to do things blind students are typically not expected to do, and to introduce them to blind mentors, blind scientists, and the blindness techniques critical to the pursuit of “doing” science. The session especially emphasized the hands-on, fieldwork nature of how “real” science is conducted. This was a revelation to most of the students whose primary exposure to science is in the restricted, highly text-based or vision-based methods of the classroom or school lab.

Rocket On!—August 15-21, 2004

In this session, twelve blind high school students representing nine different states participated in a one-week mission to launch a half-sized Patriot rocket with a payload. The captions of the following photos, which show each student participating in some aspect of the camp, includes the students name, state, age, and 2004-2005 school year grade:


David Abrahams, Albuquerque, New Mexico: age 16, grade 11.


Tiffani Clements, Ramona, California: age 14, grade 9.


Justin Harford, Chico, California: age 16, grade 11.


Amy Herstein, Ellicott City, Maryland: age 16, grade 12.


Justin Hodge, Bunker Hill, Indiana: age 16, grade 11.


Alysha Jeans, Wichita, Kansas: age 16, grade 11.


Meghan Joost, Chicago, Illinois: age 17, grade 12.


Daniel Ramirez, Brooklyn, New York: age 19, grade 12.


Nandini (Nikki) Singh, Ellicott City, Maryland: age 14, grade 9.


Ryan Thomas, Tucson, Arizona: age 16, grade 11.


Henry (Hoby) Wedler, Petaluma, California: age 17, grade 11.


Lindsay, Yazzolino, Issaquah, Washington: age 15, grade 10.

The mission consisted of learning key scientific concepts, examining the history of rocketry, working together in teams, managing time, doing complex calculations and making predictions based on these calculations, reporting information to colleagues, building and testing sensors for the payload, preparing and testing rocket components, performing the countdown sequence (including fueling and firing the rocket), and analyzing and reporting on data gathered from the mission. This session presented blind students with a challenging experience under the direction of blind mentors and partners from NASA. The session also taught the students about the non-scientific elements of successful missions. That is, team work, project management, problem solving, information sharing, and other important aspects of working with colleagues. The program exposed the students to the invaluable network available to them through participation in the National Federation of the Blind and helped them understand the importance of the NFB/NASA partnership.

That’s the overview. Now, let’s examine each of the seven key ingredients that made the NFB Science Academy so successful:

1. Blind Mentors: The core of this program is the same critical ingredient that the NFB brings to any program for children or youth: successful blind role models. The instruction for each of the two camp sessions was headed by Robin House, a blind teacher and guidance counselor from St. Louis, Missouri. Miss House was assisted by a faculty of blind facilitators who served as mentors along with their duties as instructors and camp counselors. These facilitators for the Circle of Life session included Paul Howard, a teacher of blind students from Gary, Indiana; Alicia Richards, a guidance counselor from Des Moines, Iowa; Caroline Rounds, a teacher of blind students from Apple Valley, California; and Mary Jo Thorpe, a graduate student at Louisiana Tech and a recent recipient of National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB). At the Rocket On! camp, Robin House and Mary Jo Thorpe were joined by facilitators Nathanael Wales, a blind civil engineer from California; Chaz Cheadle, a blind college graduate from Maryland; and one sighted facilitator: Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an Associate Professor of Astronomy from DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Beck-Winchatz brought his own unique skills to the program as a sighted person who understands and promotes the NFB philosophy of high expectations and positive attitudes about blindness. Dr. B, as he was known during the Rocket session, fully participated in all aspects of the program including doing some activities under sleep shades along with the students. In addition, a number of other blind individuals participated as guest instructors during the program. These instructors were Dr. Geerat Vermeij, Dr. Robert Shelton, Kent Cullers, and from the NFB headquarters, Dr. Marc Maurer, Dr. Michael Gosse, and various staff members (including myself).

The great value of having successful blind adults at the heart of the instruction team cannot be over-emphasized. How many blind students have the opportunity for exposure to blind mentors who can challenge them to reach higher expectations in the sciences through role modeling, and who can engage them in honest and open discussions about life as a blind person? The consistent presence and guidance of the blind facilitators provided the camp students with a level of mentoring and understanding about their own capabilities as a blind person that most of them had never before experienced.

This was demonstrated in Dr. Vaughan’s evaluation report as noted in this passage:

“Students valued the intensive involvement with successful blind adults. This was shown in such comments as ‘I liked working with such high-skilled blind people’ and ‘It was good to be exposed to more blind people and just how much blind people can do.’”

2. Independence and Self-Sufficiency: While the focus of the program was science not blindness skills, it is difficult to separate the two. In order to master complex scientific tasks and carry out a career in a scientific field, one must have a certain set of core skills to work effectively and gain respect amongst colleagues. Thus, students in both camp sessions were expected to travel using the long white cane, to take usable notes independently (21 of the 24 students were Braille users), bus their own tables at meals, be responsible for themselves and their property, and otherwise function at an age-appropriate level. While instruction and support was provided when needed, the expectation was that the students would do for themselves.

While this approach receives lip service in most summer programs for blind youth, it is often not carried out in practice to the extent necessary to be effective. In the NFB Science Academy, as in our other youth programs, independence and an expectation of independence underpinned all activities from day one through to the closing ceremonies. Of course, in just a week, no program can hope to provide students with a complete set of skills or the deep understanding of blindness and confidence in their own abilities that is desirable for blind people to lead full productive lives. However, by the end of the two sessions, evidence of changes was already emerging. The evaluations showed that most students moved from simply “saying” that they were capable of doing something to actually building a collection of experiences in “doing” the things they had claimed were possible to do.

3. Hands-on learning: Science is often taught using pictures and words to describe complex concepts. However, science lends itself very well to models and hands-on learning experiences that are beneficial for all students, not just the blind. Thus, this program emphasized hands-on learning in all of its activities. The opportunity to experience science through personal observation and structured discovery was clearly invaluable and, as demonstrated by comments from students, something that does not happen in their typical science classroom. Consider these statements from three of the students:

“Now I actually know I can do dissections, make conclusions, collect and record data, share and communicate information with others.”

            —Andrew Wai, Pennsylvania

“It made me experience science a lot more. In school it’s boring, but because this was hands-on, it was interesting.”

                        —Daisy Soto, California

“There is a lot of hands-on science that I didn’t know about. I learned that you can study soils & sea shells by touch.”

                        — Amelia King, Wisconsin

While many of the students coming into the camp sessions said that blind people could compete in scientific endeavors, they could not say how it would be done. They lacked a range of experiences in “doing” science as a blind person. Although all of them had taken science classes in school, it was clear that they spent considerable time sitting on the sidelines. The actual hands-on “doing” of activities makes a tremendous difference in the learning and interest gained in a subject like science.

4. Braille and Tactile Models: Through a combination of Braille materials, tactile graphics and maps, and three-dimensional models, complex concepts can be conveyed. This was emphasized in the program and proved to be highly effective. However, these materials are only effective if they are presented in a way that makes sense and if the students have the appropriate background with tactile materials to fully utilize the rich information provided. We observed the need, particularly among the middle school age group, for blind youth to be fully encouraged to put their hands on things and use their tactile sense. Often, when the camp students were handed an object, they were not skilled in thoroughly examining it using both hands in a systematic pattern, and then describing its details. This problem was not simply limited to students with or without residual vision but seemed to be a problem across the board. It seems that our “look but don’t touch” and “hurry, hurry” culture has a serious dampening effect even upon those children whose parents and/or teachers have tried to counteract it. Part of the function of the blind mentors was to demonstrate and model effective tactile exploration methods. This, of course, took time and on a number of occasions we modified our Circle of Life camp schedule to accommodate the need for more complete tactile observations.

5. Challenging Experiences: All too often blind youth are surrounded with an environment of low expectations. Even completing the most basic of tasks receives high praise. However, the NFB Science Academy presented challenging opportunities in an environment of confidence to the students. The students were treated equally in all aspects. Because both students and facilitators were blind, everyone faced the same level of high expectations to complete a task.

Secondly, the students were presented with experiences that stretched them. For example, none of the students in the Circle of Life camp had previously actively participated in a dissection. That is, one or two had been a part of a dissection team but had not actually done any of the work. All of the students were expected to do a dissection of a dogfish shark and each of them did it under sleep shades (blindfolds) to emphasize the effectiveness of non-visual techniques. While we called our Science Academy sessions “camps,” do not let the semantics fool you. Many of the students in both program sessions made comments much like the following sentiment expressed by a student in the Rocket On! Camp:

“I’ve never been this challenged in other academics/ programs I’ve attended.”

                        —Justin Harford, California

6. Partnerships: The NFB Jernigan Institute collaborated with a number of partners to provide the NFB Science Academy. Most important among these partnerships was the collaboration between the NFB and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In particular, the Rocket On! Session was a true reflection of the great value in the NFB/NASA partnership. Instructors and supporting contributors to this camp came from both organizations and were an important part of its success. Individuals from NASA who were not familiar with blindness and working with blind youth went through a training offered by NFB staff. It is clear by their work in the camp that all of the NASA staff took this training to heart and believe in the capacity of blind people to contribute to the community as a whole. At all times NFB students and facilitators were treated like any other group working with NASA employees. While it would be difficult to name all of the NASA employees who had an impact on the 2004 NFB Science Academy, special recognition should go to Phil Eberspeaker who designed the NFB rocket mission and provided much of the instruction to the students in collaboration with NFB instructors. In addition, blind NASA employees worked as mentors with students from both camp sessions.

In addition to NASA, a number of other organizations participated in the program. These include the Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also in Baltimore; and the Smithsonian Institution Naturalist Center, Leesburg, Virginia. Each organization worked with the NFB Jernigan Institute staff in advance of the event to prepare their staff and facility to maximize the learning experience for the camp participants.

7. Follow Up: The NFB Science Academy was not intended to be an event in isolation. Students in each session will stay connected through mentoring and ongoing connections to the NFB. For example, the Rocket On! Session was not simply a program but a commitment to inspire and challenge the next generation of blind youth to accept the scientific and technological challenges facing our world. Each student was matched with a mentor from NASA in order to have a one-on-one relationship that can help them build an understanding of the steps necessary to build a career within an organization like NASA. Additionally, a listserv has been established so that all the students, facilitators, and mentors can communicate and share information. This on-going relationship will hopefully lead to students securing internships and other opportunities with NASA.


The 2004 NFB Science Academy program met its goals and in many cases exceeded them. Most importantly, it demonstrated to the students the type of future they can have if they work hard and apply their imagination. The blind role models set a higher level of expectation than the students typically get in the classroom and challenged the students to reach those expectations. The NFB/NASA partnership clearly proved its effectiveness as coordinators and instructors from both organizations worked collaboratively to develop a rich mission experience unlike any other mission ever attempted by NASA.

Twenty-four students have been influenced and inspired by this program, but what about the great lack of resources and information regarding the tools to empower thousands of blind youth throughout the country to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math classes and careers? The NFB Science Academy is just one component of a broader vision for the NFB Jernigan Institute. The Jernigan Institute plans to establish a National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS) as part of the Institute. This center of excellence will continue to find new horizons for blind youth in the sciences, provide a national centralized clearinghouse for information and resources, and establish the body of knowledge related to science instruction and nonvisual techniques that is desperately needed in order to improve opportunities for blind youth across the country. The NFB Science Academy will continue to be an important part of the NCBYS. Plans are already under way for the 2005 sessions. The high school program, Rocket On!, is scheduled for July 15-23, 2005. The middle school session will take place July 30-August 6, 2005. Both will be located at our headquarters (site of the NFB Jernigan Institute) in Baltimore, Maryland.

An advisory work group has been established to assist with the plans for the NCBYS at the Jernigan Institute. Parents, students, educators, and others who have or know of valuable resources related to teaching science to blind youth, innovative methods/materials for conveying scientific concepts, Web sites with valuable information related to the blind and science, or other materials to be included in the NCBYS should contact me, Mark Riccobono, Manager of Education Programs, NFB Jernigan Institute, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; email: <mriccobono@nfb.org>; or call (410) 659-9314 extension 2368. The NCBYS is not intended to be a manufacturer of products but rather a clearinghouse of information and resources to emphasize the good work being done in this area, to eliminate duplication of effort, and build a body of knowledge so that the constant reinventing of the wheel can end and the imaginative building of a bright future full of opportunities can begin.

Taking Matters Into Their own Hands: Blind Students’ Perspectives on Teaching, Trust, and Telescopes

by Michaela R. Winchatz, DePaul University

When I first arrived at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, I was rather nervous. I was invited to go there by a group of individuals who were leading an astronomy camp for blind students. The camp was part of the Space Exploration Experience (SEE) Project for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which had been funded by a NASA IDEAS grant (Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science). As the evaluator for the SEE Project, I had come to interview the students and staff about their experiences at this three-day camp.¹

As a communication researcher and educator, conducting interviews is part of what I do. I ask people questions and pay close attention to how they talk. Ultimately, if I do my job well, I can find out how individuals understand and experience their world, and most importantly, I can discover what is meaningful to them. So, the interviews were the least of my worries. What made me nervous were the list of unknowns I was facing. I had never been to an observatory, I knew little about astronomy and science, and I had never before worked with blind and visually-impaired children. Clearly, this was going to be an adventure.

It was a beautiful May evening, and the two-hour drive from Chicago to Williams Bay went without a hitch until the final stretch. As large as I had imagined an observatory to be, I never thought it could be hidden so well. After passing the entrance countless times, I finally found the small, unlit sign that marked the winding drive up to the building. The night was clear, and the silhouettes of the three domes against the evening sky were a lovely sight. The large, wooden doors of the planetarium opened, and I was greeted by Geoff Holt, the director of the Madison, Wisconsin, planetarium and member of the astronomy camp team. He escorted me through corridors and downstairs to a small room where the others were waiting.

When I entered, I found a group of young people seated around two wooden tables, laughing and eating cookies. The six students in the astronomy camp were all females ranging in age from twelve to twenty years. They were accompanied by two teachers of the blind, Beverly Helland and Diana Brower, as well as Vivian Hoette, a former teacher who now conducts education programs for students and teachers at the Observatory. I introduced myself to the group and felt immediately welcome. As we sipped hot chocolate from styrofoam cups, I listened to the young women rave about the day’s events. They were full of energy, despite the late hour, and I soon found out why. They still had a midnight date with a 24-inch telescope for some late-night observing, and this snack break was the last pit stop before heading up to the dome to start their work.

Once the group navigated its way up the narrow, spiral staircase, we entered a large dome 30 feet in diameter. The students got themselves into position in order to complete the number of tasks needed to make observing possible. The dome had to be opened, making the work area quite cold and forcing us all to put on our jackets. The floor under our feet was raised and lowered, in order to give students access to the instruments on the back of the telescope. As the students aimed the instrument toward the planets, stars, and galaxies they wished to observe, the high-pitched squealing of the telescope’s gears filled the air.

Once they located the astronomical object they were interested in, they worked with the computer to take an image of the object as seen through the telescope. These images were then embossed on thermal image paper, which allowed the young astronomer trainees to see, in detail, what these objects in space actually look like. For some, it was their first real look at outer space.

Just how complicated this process really is came across quite clearly to the camp participants. Olivia Smithmier-Bohn, a seventh grader from Jefferson Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, told me, “What I thought was really interesting was that—to get a really good image with the telescope, there were so many things that you had to do. Someone is adjusting the floor on the telescope, or someone is checking the dome, or someone else is checking the coordinates to make sure they’re correct. But it’s just amazing to me that it all works so well because there are so many things that have to be just right, and there are so many things that could go wrong.”

Amelia King, a sixth grader at Jefferson Middle School, added, “You have to do so many things to just get one picture. It takes a lot of teamwork, and it takes a lot of patience, but once it works, it feels really, really cool.”

The responsibility that came along with this unique opportunity to work at Yerkes Observatory was not lost on Angelica Hope, a seventh grader from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “My favorite part was working with the telescope because not many twelve-year olds get to use one of those big telescopes.”

Because astronomy is usually understood as a science for which vision plays such an integral role, it was highly rewarding for me to watch these six young women navigate the complex technical equipment involved in making astronomical observations. Grace King, who was finishing her senior year at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said, “My favorite part of the experience was working with the computers and learning how the actual observing is done. Blind people could almost do it on their own! Just with a little tweaking of the program, it could be done.”

The program Grace speaks of is the screen reader JAWS. One of its limitations, when applied to the software used to operate the camera on the telescope, is that it does not allow a blind user to find and read the floating window on the screen without guidance. This appears to be one of the few smaller, though important, details that need to be worked out in order for blind individuals to conduct telescopic observing on their own. Luckily, Grace promptly emailed the technology group responsible for JAWS, Freedom Scientific, and informed them about the difficulties she encountered with the program during her work at the camp. She is about to start her college education at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, pursuing a degree in assistive technology. With her newly acquired experience applying JAWS to astronomy observations, she appears to be the perfect candidate to promote the kind of change needed to fully open up the world of astronomy to the blind.

When the students weren’t observing with the telescope, the camp provided many opportunities to discover more about our home planet. Earth is the only planet, as far as we know, that has an atmosphere that can sustain life. On the days before my arrival, the group participated in a guided nature walk to learn about the plant life growing in the region. They enjoyed a pontoon boat ride on Lake Geneva to experience one of Earth’s most precious resources—water. And I had the opportunity to go with them to a local airport, where all of the students explored the details of ultralights on the ground and then were taken into the air in a small Cessna plane to explore the atmosphere.

The pinnacle of the camp came on the afternoon of day three, when each student chose one of the tactile images created during the evening observing sessions to write about. The ultimate goal was to create a tactile book containing astronomical images taken by the students during the nightly observing sessions, supplemented with the students’ own Braille descriptions of these objects and of their experiences while conducting the observations.

Amelia found this part of the camp one of the most exciting. “When we got the pictures, that was rewarding. I also liked feeling the pictures after they were done because it was like, ‘Yeah, I was there. I was taking that picture.’ It’s not like when you’re looking at someone else’s book.”

For fourteen-year-old Katie Watson, taking the pictures and seeing them later gave her a whole new perspective on space. “That picture we took of the moon was really interesting. I pictured the moon being rocky and everything, but I never really had seen a picture with craters and mountains and stuff, actually detailed.”

Chelsea Reilly, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Carthage College, agreed with the sentiment of the group as well. “I think that looking at the pictures and being able to observe was really good because we got to feel the tactile images and know what the shapes and lines are of what’s out there in space. I think that putting it into a book of our own and getting our own ideas out there was really fascinating.”

On the afternoon of day three, sandwiched in between plane rides and book making, I had the opportunity to talk with the six young women about their experiences at the camp. I had come to collect their comments about what had gone well and what could have been done differently, so that possible future camps like this one could be made even better.

What I didn’t expect, however, was how much insight these young students would have about their own learning styles and preferences. For me, these interviews moved beyond mere evaluations of the camp to a kind of teaching tutorial, the lessons of which are worth sharing.

One significant theme that emerged across the students’ talk was the importance of trust. Each of the young women talked about the enormous trust they felt the teachers and staff at the camp placed in each one of them. As is so often the case, trust seldom remains a

one-way street. Once the students realized how much responsibility the camp team was willing to hand over to them, the young women found that they, in turn, were able to let their guard down and dive head first into the learning experience without any fear.

For example, several of the students mentioned how surprised they were that the camp team allowed them to actually work, hands-on, with the 24-inch telescope. As with all young people, there exists a strong desire among these students to try things on their own without someone stepping in and doing things for them. Katie contrasted her experience at this camp with some of her prior experiences. “People don’t always let me do things myself. They would either put their hands over mine and show me, or they would just do it themselves and not let me do it at all. So, I think this was great that we got to really control the telescope and move the floor and take the pictures.”

Amelia agreed, “Other people would say, ‘No! She will never touch the telescope. That’s just too dangerous!’ But here they trust you, and they don’t really limit you on what you can and cannot do.”

By allowing the students to work on their own and develop confidence with some expensive and highly technical equipment, the camp team showed the group that they were genuinely interested in their learning experience. This fostered an atmosphere in which the students felt comfortable to show what they didn’t know by asking questions of the camp team. Olivia specifically found the small size of the student group quite helpful to her learning experience. “You felt like you could ask anything, and you wouldn’t be made fun of by anyone. At school it’s a large group, and even though you’ve known your classmates for a while, you still feel uncomfortable, and the teachers don’t have a lot of time to answer all the questions you have.”

Because each of the students was at a different age, grade, and knowledge level in science and astronomy, the camp could have easily fallen into the trap of teaching to the so-called lowest common denominator. This would have had the advantage that no student gets left behind or confused by any of the activities, but it certainly would have also limited or constrained the learning experience of those students who had a stronger base in science and astronomy prior to arriving at the camp. Katie talked about how well the camp team dealt with this facet of the learning process. “I’m pretty familiar with astronomical basics, so one thing I really liked is that they didn’t limit me. I could ask more advanced questions, and I didn’t feel weird about it.”

Beyond trust, the students also talked about how special it was to work with a group of teachers and professionals who were open and willing to learn how the students themselves wanted to be taught. Although two members of the camp team were teachers of the blind, several other members had had limited experience working with blind and visually impaired students.

The team members’ willingness to approach this camp with open minds about how to teach the young students especially impressed Olivia. “The team had this willingness to learn. They wanted to know what would work for us and what didn’t.”

Amelia agreed, “Some people just won’t listen to how you want to be taught. When you’re blind and visually impaired, you kind of learn differently. But here they will listen to how you want to be taught. The more time they spent with us, the more they learned how to teach us.”

Katie summed up the impact of this distinctive learning experience as well. “It’s very rare to meet people who are so willing to help you, and not only help you, but who want to learn how you like to be helped.”

All in all, every participant in the SEE Project rated the three-day camp a huge success. Clearly, partnering young students eager to learn with experts in a particular field is no easy task. The funds made available by the NASA IDEAS grant provided a much needed financial base, but it was the energy, creativity, and open mindedness of both team members and students that allowed this experience to become a model and an inspiration for future endeavors of this kind.

In my twelve years of university teaching, I have cherished meeting that handful of students who are excited to learn and driven to discover their intellectual boundaries. For some, coming up against blocks in their own scholarly journey can cause stagnation or retreat. Little did I know that I would find six young scholars in an observatory in Wisconsin whose focus and drive allowed them to transcend the boundaries they faced—if even for just three days.

I drove back to the Windy City that evening having learned something about myself as a teacher. Striving to control what and how my students learn may seem an efficient way to tackle the time-restraints and uncertain chaos that all teachers face from time-to-time. But perhaps there is another way. Perhaps I could truly listen to what my students want and learn to open up my classroom and my teaching more to their needs and interests. Perhaps I could learn to let go of the wheel a bit and trust the students to steer for a while. Easy? Certainly not. But if these tactics can get students to reach for the stars, then it’s most definitely worth a try.


1.               The Principal Investigator of the SEE Project is Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, who is an Assistant Professor at DePaul University.

Technology and Keyboarding:

A Parent Wants to Know, What Comes First?

Editor’s Note: The plethora of technology available for blind students today is both wonderful and confusing. With options come choices, and with choices, questions: What piece of technology should a child get, and when? What skills do they need before they start learning specific technology? What factors are most important to consider when making these decisions? The following email exchange addresses a couple of these important technology questions. The exchange is between the parent of a middle school student and Curtis Chong. Readers may remember Chong (a blind leader in the NFB in Computer Science Division) from previous articles he has written for Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor. Curtis Chong is one of those technologically savvy blind adults who compete successfully in today’s work environment. Born blind, Chong also cares deeply about the education of blind children today. On a number of occasions I have asked him to respond to letters and other inquiries from parents about technology matters. Here is the latest email request I asked him to handle, beginning with the letter from the parent and concluding with Chong’s response:

Tuesday, August 31, 2004


Can you forward this email to someone at NFB that can answer my questions on technology for middle school children? I would appreciate it.

I have a twelve year old, seventh grader, who reads and writes grade II (contracted) Braille, uses a BrailleNote very efficiently, and started typing over the summer. His typing skills came extremely quickly. He used the Talking Typer program and he has gone all the way up through all the letters, most of the punctuation, all the numbers, and other various keys—braces, brackets, slant bar. He doesn’t know upper case numbers and the plus, minus, and dash keys as of yet. His speed on sentences is 18 words per minute with 96 percent accuracy and on individual key lessons it is 95 percent accuracy at 38 words per minute. He’s so awesome on this typing. He has typing goals in his IEP for June 2005 that he has mastered (obviously I need a new IEP), but before that IEP is rewritten I have some questions. …

1. What keyboarding/typing proficiency does a child need to have before moving on to learn JAWS? [NOTE: JAWS is a software access program that allows a blind person to access a computer with speech output and the use of keyboard commands instead of a mouse.]

2. Is JAWS the next logical technology piece or should it be Kurzweil? I don’t know anything about Kurzweil but I do know what JAWS can do for him; i.e.—Internet access which is a must for high school. He’s fast approaching ninth grade! My opinion is that it is JAWS!

3. What keys on the keyboard does he NOT need to know before moving on to JAWS? Are there any? There are 105 keys on a keyboard (according to his vision teacher)—the alphabet being 52 (26 upper and lower). He knows about 80 of these keys, and the F1 through F12 keys will be simple for my son because they are in obvious positions on a keyboard. So, I’m confident that he could be proficient with about 92 keys in a week. He will continue to work on the few keys that he doesn’t know, but I want to move on to JAWS.

4. Would the NFB send someone into my son’s public school to do a technology assessment, that I would pay for, and how much would that cost?

I guess that is it in a nutshell. I appreciate your time and assistance.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Dear Mrs. _______ :

I am pleased to have received an emailed message from you to Barbara Cheadle. You raise a number of important questions, and I welcome this opportunity to share a few of my thoughts about something which matters a great deal to me—that is, ensuring that blind children obtain the very best education and skills training.

As a totally blind person who has worked for more than thirty years in the field of information technology—for the sighted as well as the blind—let me take a stab at some of the questions you raised. As I understand it, your twelve-year-old son became blind some three years ago. The fact that he is now using a BrailleNote very efficiently is, I believe, very fortunate indeed. This would seem to indicate that he has facility with Braille—both in reading and writing. This facility should be encouraged to flourish as he progresses through high school. In the long run, this will enable him to be truly successful. You know, according to a number of research studies, the majority of employed people who are blind use Braille.

You mention in your message to Barbara that your son recently started learning how to type. I myself started learning to type when I was eight years old, and by the time I was twelve, I was clocked at 58 words per minute. While I do not expect your son to be able to type this quickly given that he only started this last summer, I do believe that within six months, he should have full knowledge of every key on the keyboard, and his typing speed should be pushed to at least 30 or 40 words per minute. Moreover, within nine months, he should give serious thought to preparing his written assignments using the computer instead of the BrailleNote.

What this recommendation implies is that for your son, JAWS for Windows is the very next logical step. The Kurzweil 1000 program is used to convert printed information into speech and is a logical complement to the basic use of the computer. However, unless a blind student masters JAWS, it will be difficult indeed to use the computer to produce written documents, send and receive email, browse the World Wide Web, or install software. Once these basic activities are mastered, then consideration can be given to using Kurzweil 1000 to read some printed material. Mastery of Kurzweil 1000 is much more quickly achieved if one starts out with full knowledge of the keyboard and facility with a screen access program such as JAWS for Windows.

In order to use JAWS, knowledge of every key on the keyboard is vital. However, typing speed is not. At your son’s current rate of typing (18 words per minute), he can start to learn JAWS as soon as he demonstrates that he knows all of the keys on the keyboard: the alphanumeric (normal typewriter) section, the center section (containing the cursoring keys), the numeric keypad on the right, and the function keys (located at the top of the keyboard). However, you should understand that along with learning JAWS, your son will need to learn some basic concepts that are important for computer users to know: the basics of the Windows operating system, the Windows Start Menu and Desktop, managing files on your computer’s hard drive, and so on. He will also need to learn how to prepare documents on the computer using Microsoft Word, email using Outlook Express, and browsing the Web using Internet Explorer. These should be specified in any IEP you develop from here on out.

I hope this information is helpful to you. Unfortunately, I am not in a good position to recommend someone who could perform a reliable technology skills assessment for your son. However, I would be pleased to elaborate on what I have said here in a future communication should you find it helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong, President


Using Readers

by Carol Castellano

Editor’s Note: Carol Castellano is widely known and respected for her knowledge and grasp of the essentials in the education of blind children. She is the author of numerous publications, including the NOPBC publication, The Bridge to Braille: Reading and School Success for the Young Blind Child. This article is an excerpt from Castellano’s upcoming book tentatively titled, Making It Work: Educating the Blind Student in the Regular School, which will be published by Information Age Publishing for the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University.

The ability to use a reader effectively is one of the most important skills the blind/visually impaired student needs to develop. A reader is someone who reads print material to a blind/visually impaired person either directly or by recording it onto a tape or CD. Blind/visually impaired adults use readers on the job and in their homes for personal mail and other material. Students use readers for various tasks, such as research in a library, accessing texts and articles that are not available in their preferred medium, and in many testing situations. A student’s need for readers increases in the higher grades and in college. A reader can be either paid or volunteer.

Basically, a reader serves as a pair of eyeballs. If you think about how you might go about performing a certain reading task for yourself, you can understand how a reader operates. If you were looking through a book for a piece of information, for example, you might quickly read through the table of contents, check a few key words in the index, skim the first few paragraphs of several chapters, and skip around, skimming for a name or particular phrase. These are the kinds of tasks that a reader does. The key, however, is that the blind/visually impaired person directs the reader in each of these tasks.

The blind/visually impaired person directing a reader makes all decisions about what is to be read. The reader must realize this. The blind person moves the reader through the material, telling him or her how fast to read (as fast as possible is the usual recommendation!) and when to read straight through, stop reading, skip, skim, read captions, describe illustrations, read graphs, etc., as necessary to extract the information the blind/visually impaired person wants. The reader does not “find the answers” or do the work for the blind/visually impaired person. The reader does not explain what has been read or teach the material to the blind person. The reader is simply the conduit for the information.

In order to direct and use a reader effectively, the blind/visually impaired student needs to know a good deal of information. He/she must be familiar with various print page formats, headings, captions, contents, indexes, etc., and also with the typical elements found in charts, graphs, and diagrams. The student needs to understand the set up of dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, etc. The student also needs to know what information is contained in card catalogs (paper and computer) and library databases and understand how to search them. The student should obviously be included in all school training on library and research skills.

In addition to being able to listen well, the blind/visually impaired student needs to learn how to synthesize and analyze the material he/she is hearing quickly in order to decide what is important and what can be skipped or skimmed. Chances are the student will be taking notes during the reading session, so note taking skills are also of great importance.

In order to give good direction to a reader and to keep the appropriate control of the reading situation, the student needs to develop social interaction ability, communication skills, and assertiveness.

Training a student in all these skills begins with every book the child reads, every social interaction, every lesson on library skills, and every subject that requires notetaking. Most often family members are the child’s first readers, but the TVI, classroom teachers, and the librarian all play a part in making sure the child gains the skills.

Training the Student to Use a Reader

The person who trains a student in using a reader usually plays two roles during the practice sessions, that of reader and that of teacher, stepping in and out of each role as needed. As reader, the person stays relatively quiet and follows the student’s direction. As teacher, the person asks questions to help the student think, and gives suggestions and explanations when needed. For example, he/she might say, “Okay, I’m going to stop being your reader for a second. You know we just came to a graph. What might you want to tell your reader to do now?”

A useful way to get the student thinking about the process is to give him/her an assignment to find a certain piece of information in a book using a reader. Before you begin reading, ask the student to think about how he/she would go about trying to find that piece of information if the student were able to access the book directly. The student can then try giving the reader directions based on how he/she would approach the task.

One beginning training idea is to simulate real assignments but apply them to simple materials that the student is already familiar with. For example, a typical English class assignment might be the following:

So-and-So learns a lesson in the novel. Tell what lesson is learned and give examples from the text supporting your idea.

Instead of using a novel that the class has read, however, use a simple book or story like “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three

Little Pigs.” The student then directs the reader to the parts of the story that have the information needed. As reader, sit quietly and await instructions from the student and then follow them exactly, whether they are good instructions or not. Through exercises like this the student will learn ways to give clear, concise direction.

Another training exercise could be to assign the student to research a certain piece of information (for example, the population of a certain country) from an encyclopedia-type article. In this exercise the student would practice instructing the reader to begin reading the article, but to skip to the next paragraph when the student says, “Skip.” The idea is for the student to begin recognizing very quickly when a paragraph is likely to contain the needed information and when it does not have to be read fully.

The student will probably get real experience using a reader at the library when the first research paper is assigned. When trying to decide which books would be useful for his/her topic, the student might direct the reader first to read the table of contents, then to check the index for certain entries. He/she might ask the reader to turn to a certain chapter and read the first paragraph or the first sentence of each paragraph and to look for certain key names or words. The final decision about which books to choose should be the student’s. If it is clear that the student needs more practice before he/she can make these decisions successfully, it would make sense for the reader to step out of the reader role at times to offer further tips and instruction. 

One of the difficulties of training a child in reader skills in school is that the readers are usually adults and it can be awkward for a child to take charge and direct an adult. Likewise, sometimes the adult takes over the process. Be alert to this potential problem. If the student is being too passive, help him/her learn to be more assertive. If the adult is taking over, remind him/her that it is necessary for the blind person to be in charge of the task. Possible in-school readers might be a classroom aide, a volunteer from the community, or an older student.

In college and in adult life, the blind/visually impaired person will be responsible for hiring, training, directing, supervising, and, yes, firing readers when necessary. Keep this in mind as you provide training to your student in this critical skill.

[PHOTO/CAPTIONS: This youngster wears sleepshades as she practices her cane travel skills in a long corridor.]

When the Light’s Not Right

Editor’s Note: Does your partially sighted child or student avoid traveling after dark, or does he or she hesitate and seem lost or confused when he or she steps into a hall flooded with glaring sunlight? Traveling independently under poor lighting conditions is one of the ninety-plus travel situations Willoughby and Monthei examine in detail in their book, Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool Through High School. The following excerpt is a good example of the style, approach, and content you will find throughout this excellent resource and teaching guide. (Information about how to order the book is at the end of the article.) Here is what Willoughby and Monthei have to say about promoting independent travel even under poor lighting conditions:

Module 8

Poor Lighting Conditions:

Independence at Night

In Dim Light and With Glare

OBJECTIVE: The student’s independence will be consistent regardless of lighting conditions—including glare, inconsistent lighting, dim lighting, and day vs. night.

AGE OF STUDENT: All ages (Note: Ages are mentioned in relation to circumstances given in a particular Example—e.g., recess in an elementary school. Concepts and techniques apply to all ages.

Manner of presentation would be altered according to the student’s maturity.)


Attitudes toward blindness

Understanding vision and partial vision

Detecting step-downs or drop-offs

Flexibility and confidence

General travel


Finding a person

In a crowd or a line

Finding a seat

Responsibility and citizenship

Weather and temperature

SEE ALSO (Other Modules):

Inclement Weather

Visually Confusing Appearance

Sleep Shades

Walking Independently While Following Someone

Unexpected Drop-Off or Step-Down

Auditorium or Theater

TEACHER PREPARATION: Inquire about present level of independence in dim light and in extreme glare. Look for situations and times when the student could encounter these conditions during lessons.

REMARKS: Many persons with partial sight travel fairly well in normal daylight, but have significant difficulty at night or under glare conditions. A person may use a cane at all times, yet continue to rely mainly on the eyes for certain things—e.g., finding doorways or watching for traffic. Or, he may decline to use a cane in daylight at all, believing he “doesn’t need the cane unless the light is bad.”

The remedy is consistent reliance on good cane technique.

First, the student must learn techniques thoroughly while wearing sleep shades, not using sight at all. Outside of lesson time, he may supplement the cane with the use of sight when it is convenient. However, the cane remains in use at all times, and alternative techniques are relied upon whenever sight may be unreliable or inconvenient. (See Handbook, pp. 182-185.)



(Primary grades)

“Mrs. Brown tells me that coming in from recess has been hard for you. People have been helping you find your coat hook and find your seat. Would you tell me about that?…

“Thank you for explaining. So, it’s very bright on the playground, and then the hallway seems awfully dark. It takes awhile for your eyes to get used to the change…

“Mrs. Brown tells me that you have your cane with you when you’re coming in, and we’re glad you’re remembering. I’m going to help you get the cane to work even more while you’re coming in, so that you won’t need extra help.”


Proceed with the following practice:

Have student wear sleep shades and practice “coming in from recess” during a travel lesson. Have him go in and out of the rest room; find his coat hook; find the door to his classroom; etc.

Simulate coming in from recess (again, with sleep shades) while you follow with a stopwatch. Everything must be completed in the five minutes normally allowed.

In a special extra lesson, do the same things without using sleep shades. Emphasize relying on the cane regardless of what is seen (or not seen) visually. Again, have the student simulate coming in from recess while you follow with a stopwatch. If he hesitates, trying to focus his eyes, prompt him: “Use your cane! Three more minutes!”

Observe the end of an actual recess, and note that the student arrives at his seat without extra help.

Ask classroom and playground teachers to help you spot-check maintenance of good habits.


(Middle School or high School)

Problem: The student travels well under sleep shades in various environments. At school, however, even though he has his cane with him, he tends to run into people in the west stairway and the north hallway. He has great difficulty finding a seat in a classroom if the lights are off for a film.

You note that the north hall and the west stairwell are rather unevenly lighted. You say, “I’d like to tell you about an unfortunate high school student I once knew. Although he didn’t see well at all, he refused to use a cane at school. One stairway, especially, was rather dimly lighted. One day he was going down in a hurry and ran into another student—hard.

“The other student thought he had done it on purpose, and slugged him. The blind student hit back, and they both found themselves in the principal’s office. As an added complication, one of the young men was White and one was African-American; each thought the other was racially motivated.

“They were both suspended for three days.

“Now, I am pleased to point out that you are not making that other student’s biggest mistake—not having a cane at all. If he had had a cane, it’s very likely that the other student would have given him space, or at least would not have thought he ran into him on purpose. There probably would not have been a fight. Just having a cane with you provides identification and prevents a lot of problems, as we have said before.

“But I think maybe you sometimes have part of the same problem: you may not be using your cane consistently here at school. I think sometimes you rely on your eyes and your memory, and just sort of carry the cane. Then when the light is poor, you run into people or can’t find your way. What do you think?…

“It’s been quite awhile since we’ve had an actual lesson here at school, since you’re doing so well downtown. I think we’ve been neglecting certain points, and I’d like to do some work here…”

Proceed with the following practice:

The student, wearing sleep shades, practices walking up and down the west stairway; going to an unfamiliar room in the north hallway; finding a seat in a darkened classroom (with prearrangement, in a room which is vacant at the time); etc.

If desired, the above is repeated as a special extra lesson without sleep shades.

Explain that you will occasionally observe while the student is going from class to class. You will not say anything at the time (you will just walk along casually nearby, and not make it obvious that you are observing), but will discuss it later.


(Middle school or high school)

Problem: the student never walks independently at night. In fact, he dislikes going anywhere at all at night. He travels quite well in the daytime, and while wearing shades during lessons; however, at night he hangs onto someone else.

Talk about daytime travel vs. evening travel. Emphasize that travel under sleep shades trains a person to use techniques not requiring any sight. Even if a person uses partial vision to some extent in daylight, he should easily be able to change emphasis at night and place more reliance on the alternatives.

“Imagine you are wearing sleep shades,” you might say. “You get along fine when you are really wearing them. Try imagining that you do have them on.”

Depending on circumstances and the student’s abilities, arrange experiences such as the following:

Practice in poorly lighted areas of the school, as in the Example above.

On a very bright day, ask the student to walk around outside and then come inside to complete specific tasks immediately (as in Example 1, above).

Practice outdoors when weather causes extreme glare or other adverse visual conditions.

Arrange a session after nightfall. This might be in conjunction with an evening conference; after the early sunset in winter; or by some other scheduling arrangement.

First, practice as usual with sleep shades in situations which particularly bring out the value of the cane: crossing streets, meeting unexpected step-downs, etc. Then continue with comparable practice as a special extra lesson without sleep shades. Urge the student to “imagine the shades are still on” and rely mainly on alternative techniques. Disregarding visual input is wise when it is unreliable or so incomplete as to be confusing.

The above practice (first wearing shades, and then immediately practicing in a similar way without shades in poor light) may be done without the travel teacher being actually present. A mature student may practice alone. Parents or others may assist. But the helper must really understand that alternative techniques are superior to the attempt to rely on inadequate vision.

In time, the student will learn to integrate the use of his vision with alternative techniques in the way most advantageous for him individually. But, especially at first, it is often good advice to say, “Never mind what you see with your eyes.”

It may be helpful to time activities with a stopwatch, record the number of hesitations, etc., both with sleep shades and without.

REMARKS: A student may comment, “I get along fine in good light, even if I’m not really using my cane. Why can’t I just leave it—or use a folding cane and keep it folded—in the daytime? I only need it at night!”

The Handbook discusses this question in detail. Essentially, these are the main points:

We never can be sure what lighting conditions will exist from one minute to the next. A light bulb may burn out; the weather may change; lighting may vary for any number of reasons.

If a person uses a cane only part of the time, techniques will never become automatic, polished, and reliable. Techniques will not be fully effective even when they are used.

If a person really cannot travel well under poor lighting conditions, then his eye condition is such that he actually would benefit from using the cane at other times, even though the need may not be so obvious.

The main reason for avoidance of a cane is the lack of acceptance of blindness as a respectable characteristic. When positive attitudes are attained, the subject is viewed objectively.


Willoughby and Duffy, Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students, pp. 157-198.

Richard Mettler. Cognitive Learning Theory and Cane Travel Instruction: A New Paradigm, pp. 66-106.

Editor’s Note: Published by the National Federation of the Blind, Modular Instruction is available for $20 plus $9 shipping and handling. Readers may place a credit card order with the NFB Materials Center by fax at (410) 685-5653 or by phone at (410) 659-9314. Checks made payable to the NFB may be mailed with a request for Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool Through High School (order number LSA01P) to NFB Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. This information applies to print orders within the continental USA only. For information about alternative formats or the cost for shipping to Alaska, Hawaii, USA territories, and to other countries, please contact the NFB Materials Center by mail, phone, fax, or by email at <nfbstore@nfb.org>.

Online Education Program New Initiative from the NFB Jernigan Institute

Editor’s Note:  Has it happened, again? School has started but, somehow, the orientation and training your child’s new classroom teacher was supposed to get about how to include a blind student in her or his class simply never happened. We all know that a successful school year for our kids depends heavily upon a well-informed classroom teacher. We also know how difficult it is to schedule time for that training. Here’s good news from the NFB Jernigan Institute about a program that can help solve that chronic problem. Mark Riccobono, Manager, Education Programs, NFB Jernigan Institute uses a question and answer format below to describe this new initiative:

Q: What is the online education program?

A: This new program is training on blindness provided by the blind themselves. The NFB Jernigan Institute has established a learning portal from which online educational offerings are now available. The first four courses include:

Introduction to the Education of Blind

Children in the Regular Classroom

Introduction to Braille

Introduction to Access Technology for the Blind

Introduction to Non-visual Web Accessibility

These initial courses are just the beginning of an extensive Online Education Program the NFB Jernigan Institute will offer. Through partnerships with parents, educators, rehabilitation professionals, university programs, and others, the NFB Jernigan Institute will bring together the unique consumer experience, the skills of professionals in the field, and the valuable knowledge of parents into an education program unlike any other.


Q: Who can benefit?

A: The initial course offerings are targeted at those who know little about working with blind students, Braille, and access technology. However, many parents will also benefit from content in these courses. Courses in this program can be taken for continuing education units (CEUs) through a partnership with the Council for Exceptional Children at no additional cost. Future courses will be developed to target specific areas of need which will be identified by the Jernigan Institute and its partners. Efforts are underway to establish an “NOPBC Parents University” under the Online Education Program in order to establish new ways of delivering the rich content and support that only the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and mentors from the National Federation of the Blind can provide.

Q: What are the costs?

A: Each of the first four courses is available for just $89.95 per course. The course cost is the same regardless of whether or not you take the course for CEUs.

Q: What does this mean to you?

A: The NFB Jernigan Institute Online Education Program provides parents with another tool to present to educators in order to raise their awareness about blindness and working with your blind child. Consider writing one of these courses into an IEP to ensure that the educators working with your child have appropriate training or simply encourage teachers you know to include these NFB courses in their professional development plan.  If the current available courses are not ones you are interested in, the NFB Jernigan Institute values your input and welcomes your suggestions for future online courses.

To learn more, visit the NFB Jernigan Institute at: <www.nfb.org>.

You can also visit the Online Portal directly at: <http://learning.nfb.org>.

[PHOTO/CAPTIONS: Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent, and Mary Willows, teacher, California School for the Blind]

The California School for the Blind and the Unique Joy of Braille Literacy

by Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent & Mary Willows, Teacher of the Blind

Editor’s Note: It has been decades since schools for the blind dominated the education of blind and visually impaired students in this country. However, despite the decline in the numbers of children they serve directly, the schools continue to exert a powerful influence in the education of blind children. This is so even if the level of the programs, services, or expectations in a particular school is mediocre or worse. Local schools, administrators, and teachers look to their state school for the blind as a model for programming and as a source of information and outreach services. It behooves us—meaning parents, educators, and blind alumni—therefore, to develop some means of evaluating these specialized schools. However, it is hard to put our emotions into perspective when assessing a school with which we have some familiarity. Our personal experiences—good or bad—with a school may or may not be part of a larger pattern. No school is perfect, and even the very best of schools may be the wrong placement for a particular child at a particular point in his or her education. That said, I decided it would be useful to solicit articles about schools that—from the NFB consumer perspective—demonstrate some highly desirable qualities. I was delighted, therefore, when Dr. Wittenstein and Mary Willows came through with the following piece that highlights two qualities that are especially high in my book: Braille literacy and consumer partnerships. Here is, beginning with a note about the authors, a description of the California School for the Blind:

About the authors:

Dr. Stuart Wittenstein is in his ninth year as superintendent of the California School for the Blind (CSB). A strong advocate for Braille literacy, Dr. Wittenstein was the Braille teacher at the Texas School for the Blind. He also taught the Braille and Nemeth Code courses in the teacher preparation programs of Hunter College and Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York State. He has written and presented on the issue of teachers’ attitudes towards Braille. In 1997, the National Federation of the Blind of California (NFBC) commended Dr. Wittenstein for his emphasis on Braille literacy at the California School for the Blind.

Mary Willows is a classroom teacher at the California School for the Blind. Mrs. Willows is a long time leader in the National Federation of the Blind. She has served as president of the National Organization of Blind Educators and received the “Educator of the Year Award” in 2002. Mrs. Willows has taught students with various skill levels including those who are working toward re-entry back into the home school district. Recently, Mrs. Willows has been teaching students who will use Braille in ways that are more functional.

History: CSB and NFB

The California School for the Blind has a long tradition of promoting the use of Braille. As Federationists know, CSB is the home of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Newell Perry taught math there in the 20’s. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek was one of his students. Braille was taught to all students attending CSB in those days. Dr. Perry emphasized the need for good skills. He knew from personal experience how important literacy was for the blind. He knew that Braille had made the difference in so many lives. With Braille, one could go on to higher education and ultimately a job. Without it, opportunities for the blind were very limited.

Today, CSB continues to improve opportunities for students.

Celebrating Braille: Unique Joy

“The teaching of Braille reading and writing is one of the unique joys in the careers of teachers of blind children.” (Wittenstein in a 2003 lecture at San Francisco State University)

The California School for the Blind (CSB) in Fremont is a state special school of the California Department of Education. Its 25-acre campus is a state of the art facility for educating children who are blind or visually impaired, including those with additional disabilities. Since CSB serves the entire state of California, the school also includes a residential option for students who live too far away to commute on a daily basis.

Students enrolled at the California School for the Blind participate in a wide range of educational programs aimed at intensive work on the expanded core curriculum for children who are blind, emphasizing Braille reading and writing, orientation and mobility, assistive technology, career education, adapted physical education, music, art, recreation and leisure, independent living, and functional academics. A small number of high school students attend Fremont Unified High School for part of the day. Some students attend Ohlone Community College.

CSB is proud of its commitment to Braille literacy and hosts such special events and programs as:

Braille Connection Days: This is a weeklong celebration of Braille that invites community members, blind children, blind adults, blindness educators, and rehabilitation professionals to come together to examine how Braille is used by blind citizens at work, in school, and in their communities. A past highlight of this event was the traveling museum exhibit “Hands-on Reading and Writing” from the American Printing House for the Blind. For more information about these traveling exhibits go to: <http://www.aph.org/museum/handson.html>.

Braille Bee: An exciting contest created by CSB Braille specialist Ann Gelles, this activity provides Braille reading students an opportunity to test their skills with one another. Braille reading guest judges are an important component of this contest. These blind members of the community serve as role models and speak with students about the impact of Braille literacy on their lives.

Braille Readers Are Leaders: CSB has participated many years in this annual NFB-sponsored reading contest. Either Mrs. Willows or Ms. Gelles enrolls all of the Braille readers. Students are able to chart their improvement from year to year. At a pizza party held in their honor, contestants receive special certificates and prizes for their participation. Dr. Wittenstein congratulates the students on their accomplishments. The participation in this national reading contest is always a source of pride for students and staff.

Who Wants to Be a Braille Millionaire: Modeled after the TV game show, this end-of-year activity provides much fun and competition for students. Elements of the show that are in the CSB version include features like “Ask the Audience” and “Phone a Friend.” Braille specialist Ms. Gelles moderates the game show, and students call on each other and staff members as “phone a friends.” They often call on Dr. Wittenstein because of his background as a Braille reading teacher.

Braille Is Beautiful at CSB: This year, the NFB of California provided parents in the San Francisco Bay Area with an opportunity to learn Braille for free. On September 11, the “Braille Is Beautiful” workshop was held at CSB. Parents were invited to attend this full day hands-on workshop to learn Braille and network with other parents as well as NFBC leaders. Nancy Burns, President of the National Federation of the Blind of California and her husband, Don, attended, met parents, and shared their support and experience.

The Lucky Touch Braille Fortune Cookie Company: This student-operated business combines the theme of local color (San Francisco’s Chinatown) and Braille literacy. The student board of directors markets the cookies, Brailles the fortunes, and keeps the books. Braille fortune cookies with both standard and customized fortunes have been purchased by teachers, parents, blind persons, and agencies throughout the U.S. If you were one of the lucky people who found a California affiliate member at the NFB national convention you may have seen them. We hope to see the “Lucky Touch” fortune cookies again next year. For more information, contact faculty advisor: Judith Lesner at (510) 794-3800, ext. 300, or <jlesner@csb-cde.ca.gov>.

Mrs. Willows’ Classroom

To get a more personal take on the school program at CSB, one should visit the classroom of Mrs. Mary Willows. Mrs. Willows’ students are blind and also have other learning disabilities. Her students are working on the skills that may one day enable them to live independent lives. Mrs. Willows incorporates Braille into everything her students do. When the students enter her classroom, they find Brailled card pockets with each student’s name written in Braille on the outside of the pockets. They search through a stack of Brailled three by five cards until they find the card that bears their name. Then they locate the pocket and slip the card inside. This is how students take responsibility for the attendance each day. This way, students learn not only how to identify their own name, but also learn to read their classmates names as well. Braille is everywhere in Mrs. Willows’ classroom; over the hooks where students hang their canes and jackets; on each desk so they can locate their own desk; on the phone directory so students can take responsibility for their schedule and make phone calls to staff themselves; even on the boxes of tea which Mrs. Willows shares with her students during breaks.

Visitors are always welcome in Mrs. Willows’ class to see what students are learning. At each visit, one finds Braille on even more surfaces and objects. This past year, Mrs.

Willows began using garden-based learning. In the garden, every plant is labeled in print and Braille so that students can locate a favorite plant for watering. Mrs. Willows’ class is a good place for students to learn and grow and become literate.

Collaboration with the Organized Blind

The California School for the Blind administration and teachers have benefited greatly from collaboration with the organized blind. Dr. Wittenstein feels very strongly that the organized blind are great advocates for the school, and wonderful role models for the students. CSB’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC) is chaired by the former President of the California affiliate of the Parents of Blind Children Division, Donna Sexton. Jim Willows, a past president of the NFB of California, also serves on that committee as do blind members of the community affiliated with other organizations and agencies. Educational practice at CSB is greatly informed by the experiences and input of blind community members.

Dr. Wittenstein has spoken at one NFB national convention (2003) and is a frequent speaker at NFB state conventions, both in California and elsewhere. Last spring, he was a featured speaker at the Utah state convention. In his talks he emphasizes the activities a school can implement to foster Braille literacy and positive attitudes towards Braille. He also prepares parents for the intricacies of the IEP process and informs them of the legal justification for learning media assessments and Braille instruction.

In the most recent example of collaboration between NFB and CSB, NFB of

California President Nancy Burns and Dr. Wittenstein served on the California Department of Education Task Force that wrote the first state standards in Braille Reading and Writing. This Task Force was a direct result of legislation sponsored by NFBC. It is hoped that these standards will be a model for other states to use in the development of strong educational standards for Braille reading and writing. The final report and recommendations for implementing this Braille bill are available online at: <http://www.cde.ca.gov/ sp/se/as/ab2326.asp>. This exciting development is the direct result of partnerships between educators and the organized blind.

For more information regarding these collaborations, as well as CSB’s other school programs, please check CSB’s Web site at:<http://www.csb-cde.ca.gov/>. And feel free to email questions or comments to: Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent at: <Swittenstein@csb-cde.ca.gov>.


Print to Braille

First: Callie Hurst, age 13, Colorado, 1,890 pages

Second: Ashley Brow, age 14, Massachusetts, 1,312 pages

Third: Tamilah Alexander, age 16, New Jersey, 795 pages

Fourth: Sabrina Richards, age 10, West Virginia, 745 pages

Fifth: Lyndon Dunbar, age 16, Louisiana, 659 pages

Kindergarten - First Grade

First: Vejas Vasiliauskas, California, 3,313 pages, grade 1

Second: Lucas Leiby, Pennsylvania, 2,737 pages, grade 1

Third: Nathan Stocking, Minnesota, 2,376 pages, grade K

Fourth: Cassie McAllister, Iowa, 2,104 pages, grade 1

Fifth: Amal Radi Momani, South Carolina, 2,041 pages, grade 1

Second - Fourth Grades

First: Paige Tuttle, Kansas, 7,576 pages, grade 3

Second: Morgan Budreau, Minnesota, 6,730 pages, grade 3

Third: Joshua Gregory, Maryland, 6,308 pages, grade 4

Fourth: Greg Botting, Michigan, 4,676 pages, grade 4

Fifth: Marisa Parker, Massachusetts, 4,357 pages, grade 3

Fifth - Eighth Grades

First: Lindsay Upschulte, Illinois, 21,981 pages, grade 5

Second: Tyler Kavanaugh, Kansas, 18,947 pages, grade 5

Third: Katie Kress, Minnesota, 13,765 pages, grade 6

Fourth: Desiree Oudinot, Pennsylvania, 9,171 pages, grade 8

Fifth: Casey Burns, Wisconsin, 9,136 pages, grade 8

Ninth - Twelfth Grades

First: Meghan Whalen, Wisconsin, 15,486 pages, grade 10

Second: Jonathan Wong, California, 8,989 pages, age 15

Third: Ryan Willms, Illinois, 8,692 pages, grade 10

Fourth: Jessica Watson, Maryland, 6,486 pages, grade 10

Fifth: Keao Wright, Hawaii, 5,900 pages, age 15

Most Improved

Terry Partain, Arizona, age 18

Maurice Hamilton, Maryland, age 20

Ellaun Williams, Missouri, age 11

Laura Cefarrati, Maryland, age 18

Daniel Gibson, South Carolina, age 15

Andy Davis, Kentucky, age 16

Andrea Tuchawena, Arizona, age 19

Skily Smith, Missouri, age 12

Kelly Graves, Kentucky, age 17

Jason Polansky, Maryland, age 7

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Heather Field in a typical pose: on the floor playing with Discovery Toys® and a toddler.]

Christmas Crafts For Blind Children

by Heather Field

Editor’s note: The following original craft ideas are easily adapted for other ethnic or religious holidays. The author and originator of these ideas is blind herself. Trained as a special educator in her native Australia, Miss Heather (as the children she tutors calls her) is extraordinarily creative. An award-winning songwriter, she currently resides near Nashville, Tennessee, where she makes her living in the music industry. However, she maintains her connections to the education field as a volunteer tutor, education consultant, and a Discovery Toys consultant. She may be reached at <missheather@comcast.net> or (615) 790-9765.

Christmas is a wonderful opportunity for children to be creative. However, many blind children are denied that joy simply because people can’t think of things that blind kids can do. I know. I grew up as a blind child who had to think up my own ideas for joining in the family frenzy of making things for Christmas. There is no need for blind kids to miss out; there are many things that they can do to join in the Christmas celebrations. But it is a busy time of the year; so spending hours looking for suitable craft ideas is not usually on mom’s list of urgent Christmas tasks. It can also be difficult for parents to find crafts for children who have poor motor skills—those who can’t yet draw, paint, or cut straight.

So, I’ve put together some ideas for activities and crafts that are not reliant on vision or even good motor skills. I hope these will give you a little boost in getting your blind child involved in the hands-on preparations for the season. Once you get started, I think you’ll find that the joy and self-confidence children get from making things for Christmas is worth that bit of extra thinking and preparation required. Here’s wishing you a Happy Crafty Christmas!


Sometimes just remembering to include your blind child in what you’re doing will provide lots of opportunities for them to be creative. If, for example, you are packing some little gift baskets to give as gifts, your child can crumple tissue paper to put in the bottoms of the baskets. Or, if you’re using straw or shredded paper, they can put that in. If you’re making up small bags of nuts, candy, dried fruit, etc. then your child can help fill the bags, hold the ribbon roll while you cut, hand you the scissors, or even cut the lengths of ribbon. Perhaps you made jams or jellies as gifts, if so, then your child can put the little pieces of decorative cloth and the rubber bands over the lids. Expect that in almost every project there are things that your child can do to be involved. Let them try all the activities; you’ll be surprised what they’ll be able to do that you may not have expected.


The Christmas Dish


Dig way back into the kitchen cupboard and find that dish or bowl with the raised or textured design or pattern. It might be covered with molded fruit (such as grapes) flowers, leaves, or just a pattern; whatever it is—it’s fun to touch and feels decorative. If you don’t have such a dish on hand, or it’s too fragile or expensive for a child to handle, look in your local discount or Dollar Store. It should not be hard to find an inexpensive, plastic, textured dish around the holiday season.

Next, explain to your child that she or he needs to find lots of colorful items that are interesting to touch, see, or hear to put in this dish to make it a special Christmas Dish. Have her or him collect these things from around the house and from among your Christmas supplies. Items might include: satin Christmas balls, streamers, cotton balls (for snow), shells, tinsel, marbles, gauzy fabric, pebbles, and favorite small toys. You may also have your child crumple aluminum foil or colored paper into decorative balls or twists.


Have the child arrange all of the things in the dish. Be sure to let the child do the work, giving encouragement and descriptions (colors, shininess etc.) where necessary so that the child tries lots of different ideas and makes the decisions about the final arrangement. Sit the finished dish on a low table or shelf where the child can show it off to visitors and enjoy touching it and rearranging it as often as desired.

Christmas Fun Box


A small shoebox with a lid. A tray or cookie sheet. About 20 empty matchboxes and an equal number of small fun things that will fit into the matchboxes. Items should have some connection to the Christmas season and may include such things as: different shaped nuts in the shell, pieces of wrapped candy, a tiny reindeer, a little car, some tinsel, a little teddy bear, some pine needles, a couple of sleigh bells, some cotton balls for pretend snow, some scrunched up cellophane to crackle and sound fun, some little (non-breakable) Christmas tree ornaments, pretty glass beads, a broken cinnamon stick, a cotton ball with a dab of vanilla, peppermint, or other favorite flavor extract on it.


Either collect the items to put into the matchboxes with your child, or collect five or ten more than you need. This will allow your child the fun and practice of making choices. Spread the items out on the tray. Have your child touch and talk about all the things on the tray and explore what each feels, smells, sounds like, or looks like. Discuss how each item relates to the holiday. Then, have her or him put each item into its very own matchbox. Put all the match boxes in the shoebox to be taken out and examined or shown to others during the season.

Optional: Your child can also color or decorate the matchboxes and/or shoe box with markers, crayons, stickers, etc. if desired.

Christmas Toy Touch-Diorama


A large, low-sided cardboard box (such as a gift box) with a lid. Play dough or modeling clay. A variety of selected small toys such as match-box cars, tiny toy buses, trucks, trains, boats, soldiers, dolls, balls, teddy bears, and plastic dogs, cats, birds, or other animals, and so forth. It will be extra fun if some of the little toys are new.


Explain to your child that he or she gets to make a special picture box. The toys will be the pictures. This is a picture box of all the toys that the children all over the world want Santa to bring them. Begin by having your child roll a lot of little balls of modeling clay each about half as big as a marble. Next, have your child select one toy at a time, place a little ball of modeling clay on the bottom of it, and then place it into the box, squashing down the ball of clay to stick the toy in place. (Your child might find it easier to place the ball of clay in first and then place the chosen toy onto it—whatever works best for him or her is fine.)

Your child will have lots of fun putting the lid on the picture box and then taking it off again and touching all the toys in it. It’s like reading a picture book. This is a fun box to take in the car. Your child can play with it, telling stories about each toy or talking about who might want each toy and so forth.


Nativity Scene.

Buy an inexpensive nativity scene and let your child set it up in a diorama box, using modeling clay to firmly anchor the pieces so that they can be touched. Take time and encourage your child to thoroughly touch (with both hands, all fingers), hold, and examine each of the pieces. Also, you might want to get some hay for your child to put in the box, or allow your child to add some of their own toy animals if they wish.

Santa Scene.

Cover the floor of the box with cotton wool snow bits and place little Christmas toys or unbreakable ornaments in the box, anchoring them with the modeling clay. Items may include little pine trees from the scenery of a model train set; small, inexpensive plastic or wooden toys; tree ornaments in the shapes of Santa, angels, elves, snowmen, children playing instruments, whistles, and so forth. Let your child decide if she or he wants to make a specific scene, maybe a Santa’s workshop, or simply select items at random.

Your child can also attach tinsel around the outside of the box, make a pretty path inside the box, or do any other number of things to decorate the box or add interest to the scene. Remember, however, it is all about allowing your child to be creative and to do the work of creating it themselves, so don’t be concerned about the appearance. This is NOT about what looks “nice” to you or to others. It’s about what is fun and feels good to your child. It will be beautiful to your child if he or she has made it.

Touch and Smell Christmas Bowl

Materials and Preparation:

Choose a medium-sized bowl, preferably ceramic, glass, or metal—one that will make a nice sound when dried items are swished around in it. Into a low-sided container, such as a cake tin, pour out enough plain, uncooked pasta to half-fill your chosen noise-making bowl. Use medium to large-size shaped pasta, such as bow-ties, shells, ziti, or macaroni.

Next, put out some shakers of kitchen spices such as cinnamon, all spice, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Choose two small, different shaped containers, such as a square take-out box and a round cereal bowl, and mix up some green and red water-based paint in them. (The purpose of different shaped containers is, of course, so that your child can independently find the color they want—red is in the round bowl and green is in the square one.) If you don’t have any paint, you can use a few drops of food coloring in water if you don’t mind your child’s hands being colorful for a day or two until it wears off.

Finally, put a tray for drying, such as a large cookie sheet covered with wax or foil, to one side of where your child will be sitting. Let your child help in as much of these preparations as possible; this is half the fun and is an important part of making Christmas memories.

Be sure that the work surface can be wiped clean or that you have covered it with a disposable paper or plastic. Ditto for your child—old clothes or a paint smock are in order. Your child should also help with the wiping and putting away.


Have your child dip the different pieces of pasta into a bowl of red or green paint (or colored water) and then set it on the tray to dry. If your child can only pick up a handful at a time and drop it in the bowl and then pull it out and drop it on the tray, that’s fine. Be sure, however, that the pasta is only one layer high on the tray so that it will dry. Remove the paints and wash hands. Then, have your child smell all the spices, discuss them, and ask him or her to decide which ones to sprinkle on to the tray of wet pasta. Most children will sprinkle them all, and that’s just fine.

If your child is ready to try this, you may even grate a little lemon or orange zest to sprinkle on, too. Clean up while the pasta is drying. Drying time will vary depending on the amount of dipping it got.

When the painted and scented pasta is dry have your child pick it up and put it into the bowl. If some pieces are stuck together he or she can break them apart. Your child will think it fun to watch, smell, listen, and feel as he or she puts his or her hands into the Christmas Bowl and swishes the decorated and scented pasta all around.

You can add additional fun things to the mix. Some bells for a Christmas sleigh sound, some nuts and/or wrapped candy to find and talk about and then eat on Christmas morning, some cinnamon sticks to find and sniff, and so forth. Place the bowl where your child can show it to visitors and enjoy touching, smelling, and talking about it.

The Christmas Rope


Cardboard inner rolls from plastic wrap, Christmas wrapping paper, toilet rolls, paper towels, etc.; a ball of string; and at least two different drawing/coloring media—such as crayons, glitter pens, colored pencils, water-based markers, or water-color paints.


Cut any large rolls into manageable lengths—the size of the toilet paper roll is nice. Put cardboard rolls into an accessible container such as a low-sided tray or box.

Cut a piece of string at least five feet in length to allow for tying at each end. Thread the string through one toilet roll and tie the end you threaded through onto the string so that the toilet roll forms a stopper to prevent the other cylinders from sliding off the string. Encourage your child to do as much of the tasks above as possible; this is an important part of the fun and makes memories. Then, talk about the various coloring/drawing media with your child. Discuss how they work and how each kind makes a different look when used. You might also want to talk about the traditional Christmas colors—red and green—and other colors or color schemes that your family uses for holiday decorations in your home.


You are now ready to decorate the cardboard cylinders with any of the coloring media. Show your child the correct grip for pencils/pens and talk to her or him about what colors look nice together; but, be sure to let your child make the decisions about what colors and which drawing media will be used on which cylinder. It’s no fun if someone else gets to make the decisions. When all the cylinders have been decorated, thread them all onto the string. When the string is almost full tie it off with a roll as a stopper, as you did at the other end. You can then hang your pretty Christmas Rope from one end or string it across between two objects. You can also fasten the two ends together and make it into a circle to hang.

Be sure to hang it where the child can find it, show it to visitors, and touch it.


Thread small strips of crepe paper, tinsel, yarn, ribbon, colored fabric, etc. through each cylinder on the string and tie them up so that the ends hang down to make a fun, tactile fringe.

The Stick Christmas Tree


Sticky tape or quick drying glue. A flowerpot or similar container that has a broad base and is large enough to hold your tree in place and stay stable if bumped. A long cardboard roll for the Christmas tree trunk such as the inner cardboard roll from wrapping paper or two cardboard cylinders from plastic wrap taped together. You can also roll your own tube from cardboard cut from a cereal box. Rocks, pebbles, gravel—even marbles will do—enough to hold your tree firm in its pot. Popsicle sticks or similar sized sticks collected from outdoors to make the branches. Small Christmas tree balls and other ornaments assembled onto a shallow tray where they can’t roll away when your child pokes and sorts through them. Assemble more than you will need for the tree so your child can have choices. Hooks for the ornaments. Tinsel or other streamers.


Using a pointed object, such as the end of scissors, poke small holes in the cardboard-roll(s) at irregular intervals. If you are using two short rolls to make a longer roll, push the end of one into the other, then tape or glue it into place.


Help your child center the cardboard trunk of the tree in the container, and then have your child put in the rocks or pebbles to hold it firmly in place. Show your child how to find the holes in the trunk by touch (this is good practice in learning how to develop a good search pattern using a light touch and fingers on both hands). Then, show your child how to push the stick branches into the holes as far as they will go. Next, let your child select from among the little Christmas ornaments you collected, attach the hook, then hang on a branch of the tree. You might want to place a little tape over the top of each hook after the ornament is hung so that it will not slide about. Place a big star or Christmas ball over the top of the tree and keep it in place with a little glue or tape. Another decoration option is to dot cotton balls on the tree like bits of snow. After all ornaments are hung, the last step is for your child to wind or drape streamers and/or tinsel all over the tree. Place the Stick Christmas Tree where your child can reach it, touch it, and show it off to guests during the season. Don’t worry if it starts to fall apart—you can mend it, add new ornaments, or simply let it disintegrate until you are ready to dismantle after the season is over.

A Christmas Touch-Book


Sheets of cardboard cut into standard 8-1/2 x 11 size sheets and punched to be made into a book (any cardboard will do). Ribbon or yarn to tie the book together. Double-sided tape. A collection of small Christmas items placed on a shallow tray or cookie sheet, for example: tinsel, streamers, flat Christmas tree ornaments like stars or bells, pine needles, tiny pine cones, scraps of Christmas wrapping paper, small scented candles, candy canes, cotton balls (to represent snow), stick-on bows, old Christmas cards (preferably with tactile embossings), and so forth. Collect more items than your child will need for the book so he or she can make choices.


Have your child choose what he or she would like to put into the Christmas book. Using small pieces of double-sided tape he or she can affix them on to the pages of the not yet assembled book. For those things which will not easily stick (or stay stuck) or which may be better picked up and felt, punch two little holes in the page with a sharp object such as a small nail, and thread some yarn through the holes. Then, tie the object onto the end of the yarn. After the pages are completed, tie them into a book with the yarn or ribbon. Encourage your child to show the book and talk about the objects to a family member (dad, grandparents) or even a younger sibling or child. They might even want to make up a story to go with their Christmas book.


You may also wish to make each page smell differently by rubbing various scented candles all over the cardboard before beginning.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Blind youngster, Nick Pavel of South Dakota, tests his skills on BopIt during an NFB Camp session.]

Good Toys for Blind Kids

Fall 2004

Last fall, we asked readers to nominate a favorite toy for blind kids. We only received a few suggestions but they were very good ones. Below is the list of toys parents and teachers of blind children suggested. If you missed your chance to nominate a toy last year, don’t worry: you can do it now. Please take a few moments to fill out the toy information form on the next page and let us know what you consider to be a “Good Toy for Blind Kids.” You may also email your nominations to: <bcheadle@nfb.org>. We will continue to publish this feature at least once a year (or more often) if we get at least five good nominations.

Twist and Shout by LeapFrog

Nominated by: Sue, grandparent of a ten-year-old blind boy.

This is a good toy because: It speaks the math problem, such as 3+3=???, then gives three multiple-choice answers. My grandson then has to hit the end of it in a timely fashion. If he makes the wrong choice two times in a row, it says ‘Let me teach you,’ and goes over the math problem and gives the correct answer. It keeps track of points and reports back every so often. Also, the model is upgradeable and you can buy small cartridges to change out different material, i.e., math, social studies, science, and vocabulary. So now, when they are riding in the car, my blind grandson can play with his Twist and Shout while his brother is playing with his Gameboy.

Where can YOU get it? Wal-Mart, Kmart, and other stores that sell toys.

Hide and Seek Cat

Nominated by: Vicki, a teacher at the Visually Impaired Preschoolers Center, Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind, in Tucson, Arizona.

This is a good toy because: It encourages a child to search for the hiding stuffed cat. The stuffed ‘talking’ cat calls out for you to find him every 30 seconds and it gives verbal re-enforcement when it is found. Also, it turns itself off after 15 minutes.

Where can YOU get it? Look for information online at <www.onalark.com> or call (888) 477-6532.

Magnetic Capital Letters by Playskool

Nominated by: Lydia, a teacher in Maryland.

This is a good toy because: These plastic magnetic print letters are Brailled and can be placed on the refrigerator at home where a parent can supervise a child’s play while preparing dinner. In a mainstream classroom the blind child and his/her sighted friends can play with them and learn their ABC’s together. A teacher teaching phonics and reading will greatly appreciate its many uses. The toy allows people who do not know Braille a chance to help the child. Also, this toy is an intro to prewriting for a child who needs to learn how to write his or her name. Children can use them to tactilely learn the shape of a printed letter.

Where can YOU get it? Look for it in Kmart, specialty toyshops, and other stores that carry toys.

Mini Boom box

Nominated by: Marisa of Michigan, the parent of a seven-year-old blind son.

This is a good toy because: My son likes to carry it around and listen to music. It’s not really a toy, but it’s easy to use; he can work it himself. He feels “grown-up” when he uses it.

Where can YOU get it? Radio store or discount stores.

Bop-it or Bop-it Extreme

Nominated by: Pam of Ohio, a parent of a blind child.

This is a good toy because: It challenges a child to use his or her listening and coordination skills. The hand-held auditory toy gives a series of auditory cues and the child has to repeat the sequence by “bopping” “spinning” etc. certain objects on the toy. The child can select different difficulty levels and the toy keeps score. A blind child can play with this toy independently or with a partner or group.

Where can YOU get it? Almost any store that has toys, Wal-Mart, etc.

Massage: A Feel-Good Treat That Works Wonders Resources and Tips for Blind and Multiply Disabled Children

by Linda Zani Thomas

Editor’s Note: Linda Zani Thomas, one of our NOPBC parent leaders in New Jersey, recently forwarded the following article to me. She wrote it for her own publication, Lifestyles of the Fun and Special: A Newsletter About Relaxation, Recreation and Entertainment for Children with Disabilities, but wanted to share it with Future Reflections readers, too. Information about Linda Zani Thomas and how to subscribe to her newsletter follows the article. Here is what she says:

Aaah, massage. We all want one! It’s the perfect way to relax and melt away stress. But a massage for a child with disabilities does that and a whole lot more: it increases range of motion and sensory tolerability, promotes learning social skills through bonding with the massage therapist, encourages communication—not to mention pain relief and complete relaxation for a sense of total well-being. With all the tedious and frightening physician visits, physical therapy, and the medication side effects our kids endure, don’t they deserve a break? According to several studies, massage therapy has been found to help children with autism, ADHD, cystic fibrosis, and cerebral palsy (www.miami.edu/touch-research/index.html).

Many of our children see orthopedists, neurologists, and physical therapists on a regular basis. They are all excellent sources for recommendations for massage therapists to work with your child. Often, a physician’s prescription and a letter of medical necessity will suffice to get insurance company coverage. Funds available from your state Division of Developmental Disabilities may also be used for massage therapy costs.

There are many types of massage therapy, with Swedish massage as the basis for most. This combination of strokes and passive stretching benefits most people. Neuromuscular therapy, trigger point therapy, and active release technique are just a few other options. Active Release Technique (ART) is a soft-tissue management system created by Dr. P. Michael Leahy. Jody-Lynn Reicher, NCMT, ART, AMTA of Fine Tuning Therapy in Waldwick, New Jersey, is one of the few massage therapists in New Jersey certified in ART. She is well versed in Neuromuscular and Trigger Point Therapy as well. Reicher reports that these two therapies along with ART can be used for children who have gone through surgery, as it helps decrease scar tissue. When choosing a therapist, Reicher recommends finding one who is well versed in a number of techniques and has a good knowledge of pain disorders and dysfunctions.

Children who are bedridden, in wheelchairs, or suffering from catastrophic illnesses often have stiff necks and backs. According to Reicher, “They rarely complain. In my experience, children appear to be more accepting of the discomforts and pain of their illnesses or disorders. Massage can give them sorely needed relief.” Jody-Lynn Reicher can be reached at (201) 493-9310.

Many children with disabilities (especially cerebral palsy) experience irritable bowel syndrome and/or constipation caused by a disturbance in the natural peristaltic movement of the intestines. Gentle touch to the abdomen encourages normal peristaltic movement and can help calm gastrointestinal distress.

If you don’t have access to a massage therapist, there are techniques you can do at home. Trigger Point Therapy (TRP) works on the afferent nervous system by using ischemic compression. TRP techniques can be tried at home; a qualified professional can show you, with your doctor’s permission, how to apply ischemic compression using a simple tennis ball.

Peggy Jones Farlow, M. Sp. Ed, LMT, specializes in Healing Touch for Children with Special Needs, an interest that grew out of twenty-seven years of experience as a speech pathologist. She developed a program called Touch to T.E.A.C.H for primary and professional caregivers. This ten-minute modified massage routine combines acupressure with Swedish massage strokes and is used by Peggy in her classroom. To read more about Touch To T.E.A.C.H. online, go to <www.TouchtoTeach.com>. Peggy can be contacted at <circleofhealth98@aol.com>.

Editor’s Note: Here is information Linda Zani Thomas about her newsletter and how to subscribe to it:

As the mother of a fifteen-year-old, multiply disabled girl, I have tried many things to get my daughter to relax, play, and enjoy life. This newsletter, Lifestyles of the Fun and Special: A Newsletter About Relaxation, Recreation and Entertainment for Children with Disabilities, is dedicated to getting useful information to those who need it most: the caregivers of these remarkable children.

I will produce four issues annually and take no advertising sponsorship, thereby assuring you of completely unbiased information. I am charging a small fee to cover the costs of this publication and Web site. To subscribe, please mail a personal check or money order for $ 9.95 made out to Linda Zani Thomas and mail to PO Box 644, Ringwood, New Jersey, 07456. I welcome your comments, suggestions, and stories about your relaxation, recreation, and entertainment experiences with your children. Please email me at <lfsnewsletter@aol.com> or drop me a line at the address above. Linda Zani Thomas, Editor/Publisher.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Anna Cheadle]

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Nikos Daley (left) and David Venit prepare to locate the spare tire in the trunk of one of Stan Griffin’s cars.]

What You “Auto” Know: Blind Teens and the Mechanics of Myth-Busting

by Anna Cheadle

The myth tells us: blind people can’t drive, so they don’t (need to) know about cars. The myth tells us: changing a tire is too dangerous for a person who can’t see. The myth tells us: the driver, not the blind passenger, is responsible for getting from point A to point B.

We at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) like to point out when the myth is wrong, but it’s not that the myth “is” wrong at all. The myth can be wrong, blind people can be competent, and teenagers can be responsible (really). But we all know that to turn “can be” to “is” takes a lot of time, energy, teaching, and patience. These days, the time to let a blind teen explore a car or change a tire just doesn’t seem to be taken very often; after all, most sighted people, even friends and parents, naturally take it for granted that there are lights on a car ceiling, a speedometer on the dash, or a hidden panel in the trunk covering the spare “doughnut” tire you hope never to use. When the time does come to use it, heightened emotions and frustrations often preclude the possibility of patiently helping your blind teen (or any teen, for that matter) go through the process with you.

So early in 2003, Loretta White, a longtime parent leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland (NFB/MD), teamed up with blind counselors from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) and a cadre of family members (two dads, a grandfather, and two mothers) to turn could-be competence into real hands-on knowledge. The two-and-one-half-day weekend retreat, titled “What You ‘Auto’ Know,” drew participation from nineteen blind teens from Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Sponsored jointly by NFB/MD and BISM, the youth retreat incorporated both an “on the road” segment and one “in the garage” of volunteer Stan Griffin, who supplied his own auto garage and rental cars for the weekend. The kids’ newfound knowledge was tested with both “before” and “after” tests (taken, for most effective myth-busting potential, from actual Maryland driver’s license practice exams), as well as a more memorable, and unexpected, real-life test. But one myth at a time.

The BISM retreat leaders knew that students were more likely to take their passenger responsibilities seriously if they first had a chance to get in the driver’s seat. A local driving school, Drive Rite, was kind enough to volunteer a student-driver car and instructor for the morning to let Maryland’s blind teens have a chance to take the wheel, and they relished it. Every single participant learned how to start the ignition, find the mirrors, adjust the seat, hit the gas, apply the brake, and shift gears. They drove in forward and reverse, made 3-point turns, and learned to park. And just because these blind students would not be driving as part of routine life, did they feel that this experience was irrelevant to their lives? You bet not. Sight is not a prerequisite for mechanical savvy or pleasure—just ask NFB President Marc Maurer, a self-professed car buff himself, who rebuilt an 8-cylinder engine on his own at the age of eighteen.

Accordingly, the workshop’s emphasis on the importance of car-competent blind staff and volunteers reflected NFB and BISM philosophies. Okay, so the counselors probably couldn’t overhaul an engine. But their combined experiences figuring out automobiles as blind passengers certainly qualified as “car-competence” to the teens, who reported learning a great deal from the knowledge and anecdotes of their blind role models, mentors, and instructors throughout the weekend.

While half the group experienced the thrill of the open—well—parking lot, the rest got behind the scenes in Stan Griffin’s auto shop (the groups switched later in the day). Stan provided rental cars from his own business and set the teens up in the four car-bays at his garage. Students were encouraged to explore the cars tactilely inside and out, an opportunity many had never been given. With counselors, Stan, and the cadre of family members looking on, the teens tried to figure out how to adjust air conditioning vents; likely places to find a tire jack; how to identify a lug wrench; how to release the hood from inside the car, find the mechanism under the hood itself to release it all the way, and find the metal arm to hold it up; how to open the trunk; and more.

Once they knew the basics of navigating car interiors, the real work began: learning to change a flat. Little did the volunteer tire-changers know that their skills would be put to real use when parent volunteer Barbara Cheadle discovered that she had—you guessed it—an unexpected flat tire! Three of the students, under the direction of Rachel’s dad, Dan Becker, eagerly applied their new knowledge to the emergency, and soon had Cheadle’s Ford Escort road-ready again.

But there is more to road safety than the adventure of changing a flat tire. There is the much less glamorous business of checking the fluids. Much of Saturday afternoon was spent poking around under the hood looking for that slim apparatus called the oil stick. Using tactile cues, students learned to find the stick by themselves, rather than relying on the “It’s over there” that is all too often voiced in impatience or even misguided helpfulness to blind youth. Sometimes the most helpful sound is silent patience.

By the time the students were done with the physical part of the day, they’d gained experience that would not only boost their confidence as passengers, but could genuinely improve their safety in a road emergency situation. As they were to learn during the evening wrap-up, conducted by BISM counselor Ellen Ringlein, knowledge of car safety is only one way to be a responsible passenger, and I am talking about more than not poking your driver in the head with a clumsy cane.

That said, not poking your driver in the head with a clumsy cane is rather an important aspect of being a responsible passenger. Though many blind persons believe that a long white cane becomes a hindrance in a car, students in “What You ‘Auto’ Know” learned otherwise. Ellen asked her students to get out their canes and go through the motions with her as she simulated stowing your cane first from a front-seat position, then a back-seat one. Students learned that from the front, you slide the handle of your cane back between the seat and the wall until it fits all the way into the car; similarly, from the back you slide the tip of your cane forward between the seat and the wall. Given some time and a no-pressure environment, students were able to perfect this technique.

They also learned methods for being—or at least seeming like—knowledgeable passengers. Every blind person has their own taxi-driver nightmare story, but hopefully these kids can avoid those situations now that they know to ask the right questions: What streets divide the city into North and South? What about East and West? What are the names of the neighborhoods we’re driving through? What are some important landmarks to know, and how far are they from each other? How does the fare structure work? What’s outside the window now—and should I tell the driver to look for that on the way home? Students also had a chance to feel tactile drawings of road signs so that they could better understand what drivers look for and respond to when they drive.

Anyone who’s “been taken for a ride,” whether intentionally by a wayward taxi driver or innocently by a directionally-challenged friend, knows that blind passengers must learn techniques to take control of getting from A to B on their own terms. The more the teens learned now, counselors reminded them, the better off they would be later down the line when they began to schedule and pay drivers on a regular basis. In an open-table discussion, students and counselors talked about the important topics of how much to pay for gas, offering to help load/ unload the car, treating cars with respect (don’t scrape or bang doors, don’t leave your trash inside, etc.), and offering to pay for parking. They also learned to make backup plans for transportation, such as asking for bus information from phone information services.

When the day was over, students got to practice mobility skills by riding the duck boat in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and later taking a bus to a much-deserved meal out at Friendly’s. If Saturday was a day of action, Sunday was time for reflection. Students discussed the weekend in a laid-back setting and had a picnic with their parents before they departed.

And when the results came in from those Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) driver’s license tests, Loretta and the BISM crew knew for sure their could-be car-competent teens were on their way. On the post-test, three teens, Rachel Becker, Nikki Singh, and Brian Blevins, received what would be passing scores on the real test! Many sighted teens and adults study months to prepare for this test. Now that really “is” competence.

“What You ‘Auto’ Know” reminded participants that any blind person who has ridden, rides, or might conceivably someday ride in a car ought to know something about them. It reminds those who hear about it that lack of knowledge, not lack of vision, is the real danger for blind persons involved in roadside emergency situations (so find ways to tell your sighted friends about it). Hopefully, it will also inspire young blind travelers to take control of where they are going and how they are getting there by learning to be aware of their surroundings and to direct drivers with confidence.

Maurer writes, speaking of stripping and rebuilding that engine as a teenager, that it required “patience and organization,” qualities he carried over to his leadership of the organized blind.1 Like mechanics, myth-busting too must be patient and organized, for it is the stripping and rebuilding of public opinions and the policy regulations that lap at their heels. At the end of the day, it is simply not enough to say to a blind person “It’s over there,” and it is simply not enough to say to a sighted person “the myth is wrong.” Mechanics and myth-busting require a more tactile approach, and consciously or not, students in last year’s car clinic learned a little bit about both. Through their actions and knowledge, they will now be living, tactile cues to the sighted world that the myth is wrong. Though it is tempting to shout it, impatiently, on every corner, sometimes the most helpful Voice of the Blind encourages without sound.


  1. Maurer, Marc. “To Race with Blindness: The Car and the College Student,” from the twenty-fourth volume of the NFB Kernel books series: The Car, the Sled, and the Butch Wax, © 2003, National Federation of the Blind.

Blind Mechanic Had Magic Touch

by Bryan Corbin

Reprinted from the Edinburgh, Indiana, newspaper, Edinburgh Courier, Thursday, March 25, 2004.

Inside a Greenwood auto-repair shop, Curtis Blackburn works under the hood of a car, his nimble fingers expertly searching out oil leaks. He fixes brakes, rebuilds engines, and makes other repairs. Blackburn is a blind auto mechanic. Because of an eye disease, he can perceive only light and dark and can discern no detail. Yet his lack of vision does not hinder his ability to diagnose car problems and repair them. His boss at Moonlight automotive in Greenwood said Blackburn is as skilled as any sighted mechanic, and works faster.

“He is unbelievable, he really is,” repair-shop owner Greg Wilson said. “The one thing we’ve got to watch is (his leaving) fingerprints, because he can’t see them.”

Quick-witted and easygoing, Blackburn, thirty-four, has worked in auto repair for fourteen years, despite losing his remaining vision during high school. He’s been employed at Moonlight Automotive for the past eight months.

“I have to do it; I’ve got to have a job. It’s something I know how to do. It seems normal to me,” he said.

An uncanny memory for engines and the ability to form mental pictures of them enables Blackburn to fix vehicles with minimal assistance. “I’m pretty familiar with most all engines; I have a mind’s-eye picture of what I’m doing,” Blackburn said. By sense of touch he feels out the problem, such as a coolant leak. When he disassembles an engine, he usually can reassemble it without lining up the parts a certain way. “If it’s got a lot of internal parts, I keep all that stuff in an order; otherwise, if it’s just a general engine, I throw it in a pile,” he said.

Blackburn easily maneuvers around the Moonlight Automotive garage, locating whatever tools he needs. “I learned Braille, but after working on cars so long, my hands are so tough and calloused I can’t read Braille anymore,” he said.

A fellow mechanic, James McDaniel, marvels at his blind co-worker’s knowledge of makes and models. “Usually I’m asking him questions,” McDaniel said. “He gives me guidance. He’s amazing.”

Blackburn and his wife, Crystal, live in Greenwood. She drives him to work on the way to her job, then picks him up each evening. Aside from not driving and no longer being able to see text to read it, Blackburn’s life is quite normal. “I’m really amazed at what he does, even now, and we’ve been together six years,” Crystal Blackburn said. “To watch him (work on cars) still amazes me. He just uses his hands.  I thank God he is able to do it,” she said. “I think a lot of people would give up hope if they had a handicap.”

The Magic Touch

A native of Rosedale near Terre Haute, Curtis Blackburn got interested in auto repair as a boy while hanging around as his father worked on cars. Blackburn was able to see in childhood, but over time his vision deteriorated because of a genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. The disease is incurable, and by high school, Blackburn had lost nearly all his vision. In his auto-mechanics classes at Ivy Tech in Terre Haute, Blackburn was the only blind student. One accommodation was allowing written tests to be read aloud to him, he said.

After graduating from Ivy Tech in 1989, a vocational rehabilitation program helped match him with an employer: a Central Standard gas station with a single-bay garage in Terre Haute that was willing to take a chance on him. But that job ended a few years later when the garage converted into a mini-market.

“There wasn’t much for me to do then,” he said. “Terre Haute was such a closed-minded town, no one would hire a blind mechanic.”

Blackburn moved to Greenwood eight years ago, and after working for a competing garage, he applied to Moonlight Automotive eight months ago. Wilson, the owner, had reservations at first.

“I was worried about him knocking stuff over, tripping on something,” Wilson said. But he gave the blind mechanic a try. Blackburn performed as effectively as the sighted mechanics, and he worked faster. “He goes toe-to-toe with anybody who can see,” Wilson said. Wilson doesn’t allow Blackburn to take apart cylinder heads or steering columns because of the tiny parts involved or to balance tires. But other repair jobs are fair game. Although Wilson doesn’t hide the fact that one of his mechanics is blind, most customers of the AAA-certified shop aren’t aware of it.

Blackburn has an eleven-year-old daughter, Stephanie, from a previous marriage. He and his wife met six years ago through a telephone date line, he said. “We talked for awhile on the phone, and she came over and met me and we hit it off pretty quick,” he said.

Crystal didn’t realize at first that Curtis was blind. “I kind of picked up something was wrong, I just didn’t know what. The next time we had a date, I had questions, but I didn’t want to push,” she said. Once she understood, she was initially skeptical about the relationship. “I felt like it would tie me down,” she said. “I kind of learned quickly it doesn’t.

He is so self-sufficient, it doesn’t make a difference except for the driving.” They married in September 2000.

Something To Prove

Crystal, along with Curtis’ mother and grandmother, stays current on the latest medical research into retinitis pigmentosa. An experimental treatment, tried on a few human test subjects, involves implanting a microchip onto the back of the eye to perform the retina’s function. Blackburn has put his name on a list of willing volunteers. “Oh, I’d give it a whirl, at least on one (eye); and if that didn’t work, try the other one,” he said.

“I would love for him, if nothing else, to be able to see his daughter,” his wife said. Crystal said that by working and being independent, her husband has something to prove. “He cannot stand to be anything but busy, and I know he does not want to be on welfare, so he is a very hard worker,” she said.

Blackburn agreed he must prove himself and push himself onward. Yet he doesn’t consider his work as an auto mechanic to be all that remarkable. “It doesn’t seem amazing to me. It seems like my normal day today,” he said. “I’m just workin’.”


Choosing a College

by Eric Duffy

Reprinted from the Fall, 2003 issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the NFB of Ohio.

Editor’s Note: There is a growing misperception among parents of blind college-bound students that only colleges with well-known and established services and procedures for serving blind students are worth investigating. As Eric Duffy’s story below demonstrates, this is simply not true. In fact, there are many good reasons why students and parents should consider information about college offices for students with disabilities as “nice-to-know-but-not-a-make-or-break-factor.” By the way, Duffy, who has cerebral palsy in addition to blindness, is today a successfully employed family man. Here’s what he has to say about the college search:

It seems hard to believe, but twenty years ago I was preparing to enter college. In January or February of 1983 my dad and I toured Otterbein College. We both worried about how to pay for my education, but we were agreed that I was going to college in the fall. A moment came when my dad was persuaded that our financial worries were over, but even then I knew better.

That spring and without my knowledge my dad was summoned into the principal’s office at the Ohio State School for the Blind to meet with a counselor from the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired. This counselor told my dad that if I would attend Ohio State University, they would pay all of my expenses, and I would probably even get some pocket money. Furthermore, she went on to explain, my life would be much easier at Ohio State. They had an office that would make sure I had all of my books on tape, someone to take notes for me, and someone to intervene with my professors if I was having problems. My dad thought all this sounded fine, and he was a bit upset when he learned that I had already talked with the counselor but hadn’t mentioned the services to him. I explained that I wanted to go to a small school and that I didn’t need people to get my books for me or to talk to my professors on my behalf. I explained that I wanted to be in charge of my own education and that I thought that if I were to do what BSVI wanted me to, I would have to give up a lot of control. To my dad’s credit, he understood.

So, my dad and I agreed that, with or without the help of BSVI, I would go to Otterbein. But my BSVI counselor was undaunted. In July, she came to my house and once again explained why it would be best for me to go to Ohio State. Not only did she list all of the help I could get from the Disability Services Office, but she said much more. According to her, Otterbein was a small college that enrolled a lot of guys who couldn’t make the football team at Ohio State. Therefore, she reasoned, I would not make many friends. She finally told my dad that without the help of the Disability Services Office, I would not make it through the first quarter. I was certainly bright enough to succeed, she said, but blind people just needed more help than I was going to get at Otterbein. By the end of that meeting my dad understood better than ever why I was determined to do as much as I could on my own.

Within a day or two of that enlightening visit from the BSVI counselor, I received a call from the director of the marching band. He said he had noticed that I had been in concert band during high school and wondered if I would like to try marching band in college. I thought this would be a challenge and a good way to get to know people—so much for the counselor’s theory.

In August my dad and I attended freshman orientation at Otterbein. I was only the second member of my family to attend college. We received a lot of information at a fast pace. We were told that a certain number of the incoming class would not make it through the first year and that some of those would not finish their education. The recruiting process had ended and the college was giving us a dose of reality. I was the only totally blind student at the college. Most of my classmates were overwhelmed by the orientation process and unsure about how to interact with me. Likewise I was certainly swimming in new waters and was a bit uncertain about the whole experience. By the time the weekend was over, my dad was plagued with worry. He tried not to let me know just how concerned he was.

As soon as I could, I bought my books from the college bookstore with financial help from BSVI. I got home only to discover that some of the books I had picked up were not the ones I needed. I knew that I would also need to order books from what was then

simply called Recording for the Blind. I also made several calls to see if I could get any books in Braille. I thought Braille would be particularly helpful in my algebra classes. Needless to say, I did not get a single book in Braille. Many of the books I needed had already been recorded but in an edition earlier than the ones on my syllabi. Still others had to be recorded. By the time classes began, I did not have all of the books I needed. I knew that I was going to have to find people to be live readers and to record books and other materials.

I did not have all of my books recorded by the time school started. I then had to begin having handouts and research materials read. Having attended the Ohio State School for the Blind, I had not had to worry about such things before. My dad asked me how things were going from time to time, and I never let him know quite how hard I was struggling just to keep up with the reading. But I learned as I went along, and things got easier. After our last visit from the BSVI counselor, I told my dad that if I made it through my first quarter, I would make it through the first year. I said that if I made it through my first year, I would make it the rest of the way through school, and he would be coming to my graduation.

Well, I made it through that first quarter and, ultimately, my freshman year. It was a great feeling for me to know that I was successful despite the many obstacles I had faced. I knew that my college experience would be great preparation for the world of work. Not only was I getting prepared academically, but I was also learning to take charge of my own life. I knew that if I was going to be employed successfully, I was going to have to learn to work with my readers and co-workers to get the information I needed.

Two days after the orientation weekend ended, my dad had a major heart attack. My mom told both of us that if he died, I was not going to continue college. I know it meant a lot to my dad by the end of that year to see that I had made it.

It was pretty clear to me that if I needed an accommodation at Otterbein, I simply had to make my needs known. I didn’t have all the answers, but I was able to work to figure them out, and I knew it was my responsibility to do so. Several semesters into my education a substitute professor was brought in to teach sociology—one of my majors. Suddenly I discovered I was failing one of his classes, and I didn’t even know it. I talked to several other students who had mysteriously found themselves in the same situation. I had no disability services office to intervene on my behalf, but the other students in the same situation had no one to intervene for them either. What did we do? Several of us talked to one of the deans. An investigation was conducted, and they discovered that this professor was having serious problems teaching and needed some intervention himself. With that intervention he was permitted to finish the quarter and never invited to teach at Otterbein again.

Eventually I took an astronomy class. In the beginning both my professor and I were a little unsure about how I was going to do the work, but it did work. The same thing happened with my introduction to computers class. Screen readers such as JAWS were not widely used back then. They were only in the early stages of development. We took what was on the market at the time and made it work.

All of this comes to mind as I think about my life as it was twenty years ago. I am also thinking of the blind students entering college for the first time this fall. My advice to all of these young men and women is to make choices about your education based on your interests, desires, goals, and aspirations. Take charge of your education and your life. If the school you are attending has a disability services office, find a way to make it work for you. Use it to your advantage if you can; work around it if you must. But the responsibility for getting your books on time is yours. The responsibility for your success in school and in life is also yours.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Barbara Pierce]

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Blind teen, Nikki Singh (left) understands the value of good listening skill as she and sighted teen Isaac Powell, socialize at a Church-sponsored dance.]

Making Friends, Meeting Strangers

by Barbara Pierce

Editor’s Note: Barbara Pierce is the editor of the NFB’s monthly publication, the Braille Monitor, and the president of the NFB of Ohio. Pierce has a passion for helping parents and blind youth understand the importance of developing good social skills. She has published several articles and conducted many national workshops on the topic. Her most recent essays are “Please Pass the Manners,” Future Reflections, volume 20, number 3; and “Clothing, Grooming, and Social Acceptability: Part 1,” Future Reflections, volume 22, number 2. Here, she provides tips and guidance to parents about how to help their blind children develop skills in making friends and meeting strangers:


Human beings are social animals. Only a small percentage of us prefer to live alone, away from all company and doing everything for ourselves. On the other hand people vary in their ability to make social contacts and in their interest in doing so. The process of building friendships with sighted children and even breaking into groups of playing youngsters is challenging to every blind child, but mastering the skills is every bit as important in strengthening the blind child’s social skills as it is for sighted children.

How can a blind toddler learn to interact with other youngsters when he doesn’t know what they are playing with? What should parents do when no one invites their blind child to birthday parties? What should a blind elementary student do when classmates or neighborhood kids spend their time jumping rope or riding bikes or other activities she cannot take part in? How can we help teens of both sexes when they discover that no one is interested in dating someone who is noticeably different? I don’t have easy answers to any of these questions or a hundred more I could pose. But these are issues that do not evaporate, and we can help blind children and adults develop skills and techniques that will enable them to navigate these rough waters with poise and confidence.

The Early Years

In order to learn how to conduct oneself in social situations, one must have a pretty accurate idea what is going on in the group one wishes to enter. Therefore blind people must evolve strategies for doing so. With practice these skills can often be performed almost subconsciously. But in the beginning developing such abilities may well seem nearly impossible.

One of the silliest statements about the importance of vision I have heard touted as truth is Thomas Edison’s assertion that 80 percent of what humans learn comes to them through their eyes. Setting aside the obvious question of who collected the data and how he or she came up with 80 percent, the fact remains that lots of information comes to all of us in several ways simultaneously. So how does a newly blind person of any age sharpen his or her nonvisual abilities to gather data?

To some degree children who have never depended on vision will do this automatically. But parents can speed and improve the acquisition of these skills in all blind and severely visually impaired children by working and playing constructively with them.

Tuning your own senses to notice textures, sounds, shapes, and odors is a good way to begin. Whether you are working with a blind toddler just beginning to explore the world or an older youngster who has recently lost sight, you can help by calling attention to nonvisual cues around him or her: the distinctive feel of all-weather carpet; the different ring of footsteps on tile, wood, and paving; the resilience of padded indoor carpeting; the sound-absorbing qualities of a wall, tree, or parked car; the cooking smells issuing from a restaurant exhaust fan; the fragrance of a store’s perfume counter; etc.

Sharpening these skills is important because these are the tools the blind child will use to keep track of what is happening in the immediate area. How many other children are playing in the room? What are they doing? Are the Lego blocks spread out under foot? Is a video playing with kids likely to be sitting in front of the television? You can help your child learn to notice such things and draw correct conclusions from the data.

You will probably feel some frustration when you begin trying to notice such things for yourself nonvisually. I encourage you to make friends with blind adults and ask them to help you train yourself to process accurately the information that comes to you through senses other than sight. Be warned, however, that not all blind adults are equally expert in interpreting environmental information and drawing correct conclusions.

For example, I have knocked on hotel room doors and heard the blind resident arrive at the door to open it for me and begin searching for the door knob at shoulder level. You can hear a hand moving across the wood of the door. Door knobs are always at about hip height for adults, so, even if the person has not remembered to note which side the door handle is on, there is no reason to begin searching for it two feet above the level of the knob. Suggesting that a child begin hunting for something in a likely place will help her to think about such matters for herself and will speed the task of finding things.

I suggest that parents make a game out of determining by sound what toy or what kind of toy is being played with by another child or by the parent. Balls, blocks, cars, and noise-making pull toys all make distinctive sounds. When a child becomes familiar with his own talking or musical toys, these too are easy to identify.

Another helpful trick is to tie a small bell to the shoe of any other playmate too small to identify himself reliably when asked. In this way your blind child will know where other children are in the room, even if he does not know exactly who each child is. This information is important for maintaining an accurate idea of what is going on around one.

Striking the correct balance between urging the blind child to enter into play with others independent of a parent and providing her with the quiet stream of information that helps to orient her to her surroundings is not easy. Each child will make progress at his or her own rate. What is enough information for one child to get started and continue independently is not sufficient for another. Moreover, children’s needs change. Parents should always work to reduce the amount of intervention necessary for the blind child to play with other children.

This may be a good place to discuss the role of aides for young school-age blind children. The aide who works to make herself indispensable to her student is working against the child’s best interests. The aim should always be to help the youngster to do more and more of the interpretive work independent of adult supervision. A blind child will never learn to make friends on the playground with an aide always intervening to ask for him to have a turn on the swing or her to try to jump rope. As parents gain confidence providing constructive bits of information, they will be able to guide an aide always to do the minimum necessary to allow the blind child to take an active part in class or group activity.

The Middle Years

Elementary school is the time when a blind child must learn the rudiments of making friends and getting along with the group. Other children are unlikely to make a point of including the blind child without adult encouragement or even insistence. A little of this may be helpful, but in the end the blind child must make his or her own way.

Getting to know other kids is a place where parents can help. It may be useful to make a presentation to the class at the beginning of the school year if the children have no previous experience of a blind classmate. Bringing cupcakes with Braille letters picked out in M&M’s or making other blatant appeals to gluttony, curiosity, or human interest can be a good first step. Parents, a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), or a blind adult from the community can make blindness seem less scary, even interesting, but adults can’t make classmates do more than give the blind student a chance to make a place for him or herself.

The classroom teacher may be able to suggest an individual or small group likely to accept a blind friend. Inviting students over after school, for a birthday party, or on a weekend outing is another way to help your child break the ice. Encouraging your child to become active in a school or extracurricular program will offer additional chances to establish friendships. If you don’t hear the names of classmates or kids from church, Scouts, or 4-H, begin probing to learn why not. Be creative in constructing opportunities for friendships to grow. If they are not happening, begin looking for the explanation and suggestions of what to do about it.

When I was a child, my family lived on a short, dead-end street. Eight girls of almost the same age lived on that block. In the summer my mother always made sure that, when the group congregated on our porch, a cool drink and cookies appeared partway through the afternoon. This sometimes happened at the other houses, but we could count on it at my house. This may have been bribery, but I don’t think it ever appeared to be that in the minds of the kids. The advantage to me was that I was completely familiar with my own home and could move around quite freely and confidently.

The other advantage to such experiences is that your child can build on the social capital of the interactions. When talking with the kids at school, your child can say in passing, “When my friends and I were at the movies the other night. . .”, “Jenny and I were playing dress-up with my mom’s old prom dresses. . .”, “My dad was helping Tim and me build a racer. . .”: you get the idea. Your child may discover the value of dropping such tidbits independently, or you may have to help him or her get started. Other children will soon gather that the blind kid does all the stuff the rest do.

Your job is always on the sidelines: providing opportunities, setting the stage, observing how things are going, collecting data from other observers, providing information and feedback quietly to your child as things go along. During these years you need to help your youngster learn to do things independently and to refrain from engaging in personal habits that put other people off.

This is as good a place as any to bring up one more area in which elementary students should begin learning how to shape their environment. At its most inconspicuous level this is subtly teaching sighted strangers and acquaintances the appropriate ways to conduct themselves and to treat a blind person. At its most visible we call it self-advocacy. Children can and should begin learning how to establish the ground rules for interactions with a blind person. You can choose either to help resolve the problems that arise or to compound them.

When a server asks you whether your blind child would like a refill on a soft drink, do not answer the question for your blind child when you would not do so for a sighted one of the same developmental level. It may even mean saying, “I don’t know; why don’t you ask Jimmy?” Don’t allow others to establish eye contact with you and begin discussing the blind youngster as if she were not there and able to hear the conversation: “It is such an inspiration to watch her struggle with that little cane to figure out where she is going.” The best antidote for such twaddle is a bracing comment about how Sue is doing very well when she remembers to bring the cane along and use it properly. This said looking firmly at Sue brings her into the conversation and makes the person take notice of her as a person with both ears and feelings.

As a child grows up and gains experience, she or he will need to work out strategies for all sorts of initial interactions. You can’t accomplish this for your child, but you can help devise the strategies. One of the most vexing conversation openers is, “I bet you don’t recognize my voice.” All blind people deal with variations of this opener. It takes a good deal of self-confidence to respond, “No, I’m sorry, I do not,” and then stop speaking while continuing to look at the person. I have often wanted to retort: “No, but if you were important, I am sure that I would.” So far I have resisted the temptation to make some such response, but the fantasy reflects the degree of frustration and social pressure that such comments elicit from blind people. I suggest that you help your child think through possible appropriate rejoinders. If you are present, you might put in either “It’s Mary Jones, your old Sunday school teacher,” or “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are either. Should we know you?”

When you and your child walk into a social situation, you can make a point of inconspicuously mentioning the names of all the people in the group whom you recognize. In the Federation, when a new person enters a room—say a meeting—we make a practice of going around and telling the blind newcomer who all are present. This is a matter of courtesy and one that sighted people who are used to having blind people in groups frequently adopt.

I never hesitate to say when I arrive, “Who all are here?” If I am leading a group, even if it is comprised of people whom I know, I often ask the group to go around saying names so that I can fix in my mind where everyone is seated. I have had people tell me that, as they grow older, they appreciate having that reminder of names in the group. When everyone is reminded of all the names, they have less tendency to signal by glance alone the person to whom remarks are being addressed. I mention all this here because a blind person cannot begin too early to form the habit of training others how best to keep from making awkward or embarrassing mistakes.

The Teens

I don’t know very many people, blind or sighted, who would willingly relive their teens. Almost all of us are painfully uncertain of ourselves and uncomfortable in our changing bodies and emotional maturity during these years. Because sighted teens are preoccupied with their own problems and insecurities, they are even less likely to spare a thought for the massive uncertainties that plague the blind students they know. I doubt that parents can spare our blind youngsters any of this suffering, and suffering it most certainly is. From my observations and my firsthand experience I will tell you up front that the teen years are some of the most difficult for virtually every blind person, and marching straight through them is the only way to get safely to the far side.

Very few blind teens have much of a dating life during high school. I know of exceptions, but for the most part sighted teens are so insecure themselves that they do not dare associate themselves romantically with anyone as demonstrably different as a blind person. Because girls mature earlier than boys, socially adept and presentable blind men may have more of a dating life in high school; at least they stand a better chance of having one than blind young women do. If a blind young woman is very attractive and poised, she may draw some masculine attention, but it is likely to be from men who are a bit older or markedly more mature in their outlook.

So what is a teen to do during these desert years of just friendship with the opposite sex? The short answer is, endure them and garner as much experience from them as possible. This is the time for parents to do as much as they are permitted to help polish social and grooming skills. Every teen wants to be listened to and taken seriously. Blind teens are usually good at listening. Rightly or wrongly, they are often given credit for wisdom and understanding beyond their years. They can capitalize on such attitudes. Granted, it is no fun to be the favorite sister of everybody on the basketball team or in the National Honor Society or to advise the cheerleaders on how to impress the class president. After all, the blind male thinks, I am a person with feelings, and I would love to go out with you.

Pass the tissues, Mom, and prepare to do some listening yourself. The truth is, however, that all this confiding is providing valuable experience and fodder for later conversational references. Comments like, “I spent an hour on the phone with Sue last night,” or “One of my closest friends last year was our quarterback, and he isn’t even playing ball at the university this year.” Such hints of friendships can reassure other students that this kid is connected and knows what’s what, even if he or she is blind.

All this is tough to learn to pull off, and it will not work if the blind teen is not at all able to hold her own in group settings or has made no friends. Building skills and connections in the early years is key to giving the teen enough confidence to make his way in the treacherous waters of high school social life.

Giving your teen the opportunity to get to know other blind teens in strong and challenging summer programs for blind students is an excellent way of jump-starting social awareness, honing social skills, and providing wonderful grist for the conversational mill during the school year. There’s nothing like reminiscing about waterskiing, white-water rafting, or rock climbing to convince the high school set that the blind student is pretty cool. Moreover, such training programs or even short-term friendships at the NFB national convention can provide much needed confidence building and reinforcement as new skills are developed and old bad habits are wrestled with.

Meeting Strangers

The things I have said about the early teens hold true for beginning college and even for starting to live alone. As one grows older and gathers more experience, the details change, but the principles remain the same: make a good appearance; develop blindness skills and the confidence that comes with knowing that you can cope in any situation; listen, really listen to others and respond with care and tact; develop a plan for your life and goals that may be shaped, but are not bounded by blindness. That said, one is left with the challenge of imposing one’s world view and view of blindness on a wide and ever-shifting community of strangers. Frankly, this life-long necessity to educate the world and force others to take you at your own valuation gets to be a pain in the neck. The good news is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It also helps to have a group of friends in the NFB who understand what you are doing and how frustrating or funny it can sometimes be.

Some of us arrange our lives so that we mostly do not have to deal with numbers of strangers just as some sighted people do not like meeting people they do not know. The difference is that most sighted people can slip into the background if they wish, and blind people who are out and about are always going to be noticed. Beginning early to use a white cane and getting really good at it will help anyone feel more comfortable being watched. Good cane users do not necessarily do everything right the first time, but with time one learns to accept that perfection is not the object; getting there safely and independently is.

From time to time, and for some of us very frequently, we must walk into a room full of strangers. I used to work with my college’s alumni. Masses of them would return to campus, where I had to mingle and locate the particular alums with whom I was going to be planning reunions or meeting to do committee work. At such receptions all of them were wearing name tags, so they at least could take a quick look at names and years of graduation and make an informed guess about whether or not they should recognize each other. I on the other hand had not a clue who most of them were.

Those were not my favorite occasions, but I would take a deep breath, grab my white cane, and plunge into the crowd. The one thing to be said about a really long white cane is that it is not easily overlooked, and it certainly does explain why its user slips into a group saying brightly, “And who all is here?” I would pick my group carefully, avoiding the ones deeply engrossed in conversation. I would slide between groups until I heard a familiar voice or a group engaged in superficial chat. Sometimes, as I passed by, someone would speak to me since I was obviously staff. Or I would overhear a question that I could answer and insert myself into a group that way.

Once you have made one contact, no matter how it is done, you can get that person to look around for other people you are supposed to be finding. As with most things, getting started is the hard part. Going on is a matter of waiting for opportunities and seizing them.

The earlier your youngster has some such social experiences, the sooner he or she will adjust to the same sort of encounters at a slightly higher level. Again, social demands at NFB conventions or training centers provide invaluable experience and excellent role models.

Every blind person like every sighted person has a natural level of social confidence and preferred involvement. Your job as a parent is to be sure that your child’s level is not unnaturally low because of poor skills or lack of social know-how. Temperamentally some people are introverts and some are extroverts, but within the constraints of personality your child should be able to function with poise and confidence. We all develop strengths and discover weaknesses in ourselves. That is part of the human condition. We must all learn as best we can to make the most of the strengths and compensate for and gloss over the weaknesses.

I hope that in reading this essay you can find the patience and dedication to help your child make the most of his or her abilities, develop the skills that will breed self-confidence, and foster healthy attitudes about blindness and the opportunities that await him or her.

Catalogs from the Editor’s Bookshelf

Compiled by Barbara Cheadle, Editor, Future Reflections

As editor of a national publication, I get lots of unsolicited material—including lots of catalogs (that’s not a complaint, by the way, merely an observation). The list below is, literally, a list of the catalogs on my bookshelf today. The catalogs offer products that I believe readers would find useful, or would like to know about. I make no claim, however, about the reliability of the companies offering the products, quality of products, price, etc. It is not a comprehensive list of catalogs, a list of the best, or worst, or anything else. It is exactly what I have said: a list of relatively current catalogs that have shown up in my mail basket.

Catalogs of Blindness Products

Ann Morris Enterprises, Inc.

A Catalog of Innovative Products Dedicated

to People with Vision Loss, Volume 18, 2004

P.O. Box 9022, Hicksville, NY 11802-9022

(516) 937-1848 or (800) 537-2118

fax: (516) 937-3906




AFB Press, Catalog of Publications 2003-2004

American Foundation for the Blind

Customer Service, P.O. Box 1020,

Sewickley, PA 15143-1020

(800) 232-3044  •  fax: (412) 741-0609

Canada and International: (412) 741-1398

<afborder@abdintl.com> <www.afb.org/store>

APH Lots of Dots Products Catalog,

2004-2005; APH Bookstore Catalog, 2004;

New Textbooks in Accessible Media,

Spring 2004

American Printing House, Inc.,

1839 Frankfort Avenue, P. O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085

(800) 223-1839 or (502) 895-2405

fax: (502) 899-2274

<info@aph.org>  •  <www.aph.org>

Benetech, Bookshare.org pamphlets

480 California Avenue, Suite 201,

Palo Alto, CA 94306-1609

(650) 475-5440  •  fax: (650) 475-1066

<info@bookshare.org> <www.bookshare.org>

Braille Institute,

Fall Classics Vol. 6 No. 2 2004;

Catalog of Brailled Children’s Books 2004

741 North Vermont Avenue,

Los Angeles, CA 90029

(323) 663-1111 or

(800) BRAILLE (272-4553)



The Braille Resource and Literacy Center

1094 South 350 West, Orem, UT 84058

(801) 224-3334  •  fax: (801) 224-0089


DVS Guide, Fall 2001, Vol 12, Issue 3

P. O. Box 55742, Indianapolis, IN 46205

(317) 579-0439 or (888) 818-1181

fax: (317) 579-0401


To order Braille catalogs, (888) 818-1181

To order large print catalogs, (888) 818-1999

To hear an audio version or other

information, (800) 333-1203

Exceptional Teaching Aids, Inc.

2004 - 2005 Catalog

20102 Woodbine Avenue,

Castro Valley, CA 94546-4232

(800) 549-6999 or (510) 582-4859

fax: (510) 582-5911



Hadley Course Catalog 2004-2006

Large Print Edition

The Hadley School for the Blind

700 Elm Street, Winnetka, IL 60093

(847) 446-8111 or (800) 323-4238

fax: (847) 446-0855

<info@hadley.edu>   <www.hadley.edu>

Howe Press of Perkins School for the Blind, Catalog of Products

175 North Beacon Street

Watertown, MA 02172

(617) 924-3490  •  fax: (617) 926-2027



Independent Living Aids, Inc.,

Can-Do Products™ For Your Active

Independent Life, 2004

P.O. Box 9022, Hicksville, NY 11802-9022

(516) 937-1848 or (800) 537-2118

fax: (516) 937-3906



LS&S Group 2004-2005 Catalog

P. O. Box 673, Northbrook, IL 60065

(800) 468-4789 or TTY: (800) 317-8533; Illinois: (847) 498-9777

fax: (847) 498-1482



Materials Center,

National Federation of the Blind

Aids & Appliances Descriptive Order Form

1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230

(410) 659-9314  •  fax: (410) 685-5653

<nfbstore@nfb.org>  •  <www.nfb.org>

National Braille Press, Catalog: Children & Adult: Braille, Large Print & Electronic Books, 2004

88 St. Stephen Street, Boston, MA 02115

(617) 266-6160 or (800) 548-7323

fax: (617) 437-0456

<orders@nbp.org>  •  <www.nbp.org>

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D)

Tools for Success: 2004 Catalog, Catalog of Players & Accessories

Att: Customer Service

20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540

(866) 732-3585 or (800) 221-4792

fax: (609) 987-8116

<custserv@rfbd.org>  •  <www.rfbd.org>

Science Products: Vision Resources,

Vision Aids Resource Guide, Inventory Clearance Catalog

P.O. Box 888, Southeastern, PA 19399

(800) 888-7400   •  fax: (610) 296-0488

Seedlings Braille Books for Children,

2005 Catalog

P. O. Box 51924, Livonia, MI 48151-5924

(800) 777-8552  •  fax: (734) 427-8552

<seedlink@aol.com>  •  <www.seedlings.org>

Tactile Vision Inc.

461 North Service Road West, Unit B-11 Oakville, Ontario LGM 2V5, CANADA

(905) 465-0755 or (866) 465-0755

fax: (905) 465-1334



Vision Associates,

Expanding the Tree of Knowledge

2109 West US Hwy 90, Suite 170-312

Lake City, FL 32055

(407) 352-1200  •  fax: (386) 752-7839



Catalogs of Special Education and Disability Products

Crestwood Communication Aids, Inc.

Catalog 2005

6625 North Sidney Place

Milwaukee, WI 53209-3259

(414) 352-5678  •  fax: (414) 352-5679



Enabling Devices: Toys for Special Children, 2004/2005; Back to School 2004

385 Warburton Avenue

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, 10706

(800) 832-8697 or (914) 478-0960

fax: (914) 478-7030



FlagHouse 50th Anniversary Edition

Summer 2004

601 FlagHouse Drive

Hasbrouch Heights, NJ 07604-3116

(800) 793-7900 or (201) 288-7600

fax: (800) 793-7922 or (201) 288-7887



Franklin Electronic Publishers,

Education Catalog, Fall 2004

One Franklin Plaza,

Burlington, NJ 08016-4907

(800) 266-5626  •  fax: (609) 239-5950



Integrations: An Abilitations Catalog,

Fall 2004

P.O. Box 922668, Norcross, GA 30010-2668

(800) 622-0638  •  fax: (800) 845-1535


LilliWorks, Active Learning Foundation

1815 Encinal Road, Alameda, CA 94501

(501) 814-9111  •  fax: (501) 814-3941



Soundbytes, The Hearing Enhancement Resource Catalog, 2004

P.O. Box 287175, New York, NY 10128

(888) 816-8191  •  fax: (516) 938-1513



Speak To Me!

330 S.W. 43rd Street, Suite 154

Renton, WA 98055

(800) 248-9965


Technology for Education, Inc.

Assistive Technology for Special Needs and General Learning, Catalog 2004

1870 50th Street East, Suite 7

Inver Grove Heights, MN 55077

(800) 370-0047 or (651) 457-1917 fax: (651) 457-3534

<jrogers@tfeinc.com>  •  <www.tfeinc.com>

Catalogs for Low Vision

Mons International, Just for You

6595 Roswell Road NE #224

Atlanta, GA 30328

(800) 541-7903 or (770) 551-8455

<mons@negia.net> • <www.magnifiers.com>


Noir Medical Technologies,

Maximize Your Eyes

P.O. Box 159, South Lyon, MI 48178

(800) 521-9746 or (734) 769-5565

fax: (734) 769-1708


North American Active Learning Convention

February 7-9, 2005, San Francisco Bay Area

Oakland Marriott City Center

Theme: Lighting the Fire:

Igniting the North American Active Learning Agenda

For: Special educators, physical and occupational therapists, parents and care providers of learners with severe/multiple disabilities under the developmental age of four.

“Education is not filling a pail but lighting a fire.” —William Butler Yeats

Hosted by: LilliWorks Active Learning Foundation

1815 Encinal Ave. Alameda, California 94501

(510) 814-9111; Fax: (510) 814-3941; www.lilliworks.org; info@lilliworks.com


•           Dr. Lilli Nielsen’s final scheduled international visit

•           Leading North American Active Learning experts:

Patricia L. Obrzut, M.S., O.T.R. and Cindy Bowman, Activities Director of

Penrickton Center for Blind Children, and others from around the continent

•           Live Hands-OFF sessions—see experts at work

•           Special sessions: Active Learning in the Home, Running an Active Learning Classroom and Center, Active Learning Curriculum Development, and Planning the Future of Active Learning

Sponsors:  National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, Evansville Association for the Blind, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Blind Babies Foundation, and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children

Registration fees: Early Bird: $350; Base (after November 15): $400; Late (after December 31): $450; Day of: $475.  Please contact Lilliworks (see above) for registration materials and more information.

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

Free Braille Book Bags

Thanks to a grant from Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation, National Braille Press and Seedlings Braille Books for Children are distributing free Braille book bags to American families of young blind children, ages birth to seven. Go to ReadBooks! at <www.braille.com> or call 888-965-8965, extension 34.

Math Teaching Aid

Math Window™ is a low-tech mathematics teaching aid that allows a blind and visually impaired student to learn math concepts and set-up and solve math problems. The kit includes a framed magnetic board, 156 numeral and math symbols in Nemeth Braille code and print, 6 separation lines, and a canvas carrying case with handles. Also available is an Algebra Add-On Kit. For more information contact Wolf Products, 106 Purvis Road, Butler, Pennsylvania 16001. (724) 285-5428, <www.mathwindow.com>, <wolfproducts@mathwindow.com>

New, Improved Easy-to-Read Font

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) announces a new easy-to-read font designed especially for people with low vision.  Developed under the guidance of APH leader Elaine Kitche, APHont™ was tested by a number of institutions before its public release.  Sr. Elaine George of St. Lucy’s Day School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, found that sixty percent of her students who read large print preferred APHont™ (the next highest percentage was twenty-two). Visit ww.aph.org/products/aphont.html> to download APHont™ directly, after certifying its use for or by persons with visual impairments. For more information, contact Gary Gregoricka, Public Affairs, (800) 223-1839, ext. 457 or <prassistant@aph.org>.

Braille Transcription Services

Multimedia Transcription Service (MTS) is a non-profit organization in Hackensack, New Jersey. We offer quick and accurate transcription in literary Braille and Nemeth code of texts ranging from first-grade primers through college level mathematics and chemistry. We also offer many foreign language transcriptions. Our customers include APH, educational institutions, government and non-profit agencies, corporations, hospitals, theaters, and individuals. If this information could be helpful to any parents looking for publications to be done for their children, we would be pleased to work with them. For more information, contact: Cathy Zimmerman, Certified Braille Transcriptionist, Multimedia Transcription Service (MTS), 131 Main Street, Suite 120, Hackensack, NJ 07601. (201) 996-9423, fax: (201) 996-9422, <mts.ber@hipcil.org>.