Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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Indiana Students Talk about Life, Blindness, and COGS

The Indiana COGS Club members pose with Matt Maurer and their school chaperones.   They are, from left to right, back to front: Mr. Al Lovati, Mika Baugh, Dr. Matt Maurer, Ms. Debbie Squire, Rylie Robinson, Breina Morris, Heather Oklak, Joel Cook, ang Nick DeHart.
The Indiana COGS Club members pose with Matt Maurer and their school chaperones. They are, from left to right, back to front: Mr. Al Lovati, Mika Baugh, Dr. Matt Maurer, Ms. Debbie Squire, Rylie Robinson, Breina Morris, Heather Oklak, Joel Cook, and Nick DeHart.

Editorís Note: The first formal presentation of the day at the June 29, 2004 NOPBC parents seminar, was a panel of blind students from the Indiana School for the Blind COGS technology club. This trip to the convention was organized for them by their club leader, Dr. Matt Maurer, a college professor who volunteers at the school. Six students came with two school staff members, plus Dr. Matt Maurer, as chaperones. Four of the students prepared presentations for the NOPBC panel and the other two students talked to the NFB in Computer Science Division meeting later in the week. Here are the edited comments from the transcription of the studentsí panel presentation:

Introduction, Barbara Cheadle:

This morning, Marty Greiser, our vice president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, picked up the morning agenda, came over to me, pointed to it, and saidówith a questioning look on his faceóďMatt Maurer Ö is that Ö is he Ö?Ē I said, ďYes, heís related.Ē [laughter]. We have two Maurerís to talk with us this morning. Our NFB President, Marc Maurer, was raised in a large family with many siblings and today we get to hear from one of those siblings, his brother Matt. Dr. Matt Maurer is here to give a presentation with a panel of blind students from Indiana. Matt Maurer is a Professor of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis. He is an energetic man who is passionate about many things in the world, including his belief that blind people can be normal people and do normal things. He found a way to channel that passion through volunteer work with blind students at the Indiana School for the Blind (ISB). And with him this week is a most enthusiastic and bubbly bunch of young people from that school. I met them out around midnight last night, exploring the hotel with their chaperones, Al Lovati and Debbie Squires, from the school. They were having a fun time. Now, Iím going to turn the microphone over to Dr. Matt Maurer to introduce this panel of youth from Indiana. Here you go, Dr. Maurer:

Dr. Matt Maurer: Thank you, Mrs. Cheadle. Yes, I am Dr. Marc Maurerís brother. That means we grew up together as kids and punched each other in the stomach and all that kind of stuff. I can tell, oh, a hundred stories on him that would embarrass him, but Iím not going to do that. I donít think heíd like it [laughter]. But it was very interesting growing up with my brother, Marc. He was an extraordinary child and heís an extraordinary man. Iím really proud to see what heís been doing today.

Iím here with six representatives of the Indiana School for the Blind COGS Club. COGS is a technology club, When we formed it about three years ago, I wanted to call it the Geeks Club, but I was immediately informed that the ďGeeksĒ was not a good name. So we had this protracted discussion on what to call our new club. Finally, the students agreed on an acronym, COGS. But what is really funny is that they all agreed to call the club COGS, but they could not agree on what COGS stood for. Some will tell you itís a Collection Of GeniuseS [laughter] others will say itís a Collection Of GuyS and GalS. But tell me if you agree with me on this: a group of people who agree on an acronym without agreeing on what it stands for, are definitely geeksóarenít they? [laughter, clapping from audience]. So, I agree with Mr. Levati, heís sitting in front there, he says that COGS, is a Collection Of GeekS [laughter].

So, let me introduce these guys and gals and let them talk to you about what life is like for them as blind students. We will speak in the order from my right to my left. Heather Oklak is on my far right and next to Heather is Mika Baugh. The guy on the panel is Joel Cook. Do you notice that representing our tech club we have three gals and one guy? It wasnít hard to get the guys interested in technology, but we had to work hard to get the gals involved. But we did and here they are and Iím so proud of all of them. Finally, sitting next to me is Riley Robinson. Heather and Joel are going into the 11th grade, Mika is going into the 9th grade, and Riley will be a 7th grader. Heather, Iím turning it over to you:

Heather: Hi! My name is Heather Oklak and Iím seventeen years old. In the fall I will be a junior at the Indiana School for the blind, or, as itís more commonly known, ISB. Iíve attended ISB for five years now, but I didnít start out at the blind school. I started out at a public school in my hometown. I was the only one in my class or my school, for that matter, who used adaptive technology such as the CCTV and large print. Every once in awhile someone made fun of me but, more often than not, I was just one of the group. Because those friends judged me for who I am and not what I see, they are some of the best friends I ever had. But the blind school is also a big part of my life. My sister, who is six years older than me, decided when she was a junior to transfer to the blind school. I was only in the fifth grade and my parents thought I should transfer, too, but not Ďtil I was in the sixth grade because Iíd be changing schools then, anyway. I didnít like the idea at first because I thought I would be in my sisterís shadow, and I feel like itís been that way for my whole life. But now that I look back, Iím really glad we made this decision. The year I transferred to ISB I had a teacher who helped me step out of my shell and taught me how to advocate for myself.

But when I changed schools, it was like starting a whole new life: new town, new city, new house, new people. Everything changed. Going to the school I had a chance to participate in things I never would have participated in if I had stayed in public school; things like track, cheerleading, swimming, speech team, and extracurricular activities like student council and COGS. These are things I never would have had the confidence to try before I had been with a group of other blind and visually impaired kids like me. I always felt a little bit different, but now I realize Iím not different; I just donít see as well. Right now Iím participating in a program where I go a half-day to the public school and take the rest of my classes at the blind school. Itís a little bit more challenging but I still get the one-on-one attention when I need it, so my grades are better. I have more confidence and I really like the achievements Iíve made. Thatís pretty much all I have to say. Thank you. [Applause]

Mika Baugh: Hi. My nameís Mika Baugh. Iím fourteen years old and have been attending the Indiana School for the Blind for the past nine years. I was born with a fairly common eye condition know as optic nerve hypoplasia. In this condition the optic nerve of my eye didnít fully develop. I have vision in both eyes, but I only use the left because the right is extremely blurry. I participate in numerous sports and other activities such as track, cheerleading, swimming, drama club, and COGS. My family has been very supportive throughout the years and my friends are understanding and always there for me. For me, one of the hardest things about living with a visual impairment is the constant put-down you get from some people. Yeah, some tasks may take a little longer and may need to be modified, but they can be done. It is your job as a visually impaired individual to advocate for yourself and show people what you can do, and not what you canít. Another obstacle isóindependence. Some people may feel that it is virtually impossible to achieve this if you are visually impaired, but I found out that if you join an activity or a sport that you enjoy, itís a lot easier to achieve than you might think. COGS, for instance, has helped me to take initiative, speak for myself, and countless other things that I will use throughout life. Some of you, if you have recently lost your vision, may feel like you are alone or that no one is there for you. Trust me, even if you are not around all kinds of blind people all the time, there are many people out there who want you to succeed and who will do anything it takes to help. If you find them and give them a chance, theyíll see you through your struggles and will be there for your triumphs. Living with a visual impairment has its ups and downs like everything else in life. There will always be those people who care for you, and those that try to put you down. But without a loss, winning wouldnít be so great. Thank you. [Applause]

Joel Cook: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Iím Joel Cook and I am here to tell you about my life and how it has been affected by my visual impairment. This impairment that I speak of is, as Mika said, optic nerve hypoplasia. Iíve had this condition since birth and have lived with it for sixteen years now. As it keeps me from driving a car, I have to rely on other methods of transportation, such as city busses and taxi cabs which, I might add, the city of Indianapolis, Indiana, provides quite well. On streets and sidewalks, however, itís a whole Ďnother ball game. [Laughter] Iím just like anybody elseóany average personóícause I can maneuver on and around them with a great deal of ease. Although I do not always see distant street signs and businesses, low vision devices such as monoculars and magnifying glasses, aid me in doing so. However, transportation isnít the only area where I make adaptations in order to succeed. I need various other aids to do my homework, take tests, read books, and do other scholastic activities. Some of these adaptations include using large print materials, the Kurzweil 1000 to scan print materials into my computers so I can change fonts and formats, and my trusty magnifying glass for those lazy days when I just donít feel like scanning things or when the Kurzweil is not in the immediate vicinity. Succeeding at using these adaptations has aided me in getting great grades and doing well in school. On the home front, well, thatís another area where I require minimal adaptations. I can do just about anything any other person does. I ride a bike, mop the floor, sweep, do laundry, and things like that.

However, there are a few select things that I have trouble doing. I canít distinguish outdoor colors very well, so I mess up a lot when doing various types of yard work such as mowing the grass and picking up sticks. Other things that I canít see very well are animals in nature, birds at a distance, and the chalkboard in a classroom. I recall one instance, when I was a strapping young lad about age eight or nine (before I had any of my adaptive aids), when this girl challenged me to a little geography test. We were to stand at some distance behind a line and say the name of the state as someone pointed to it on a U.S.A. map. Unfortunately, I could barely see the outside outline of the map. I lost terribly to her; man, did I lose! However, I wasnít going to let a little contest like that get me down. I picked myself up and came back for more (figuratively speaking) and Iím a stronger person for it today. I loath it when I hear a blind person say, ďI canítĒ or ďIím not able to Ö,Ē when they havenít even lifted a finger to try. Try new things every once in awhile. You never know where the future could take you. [Applause]

Rylie Robinson: Hello my name is Rylie Robinson. I am twelve years old. I attend the Indiana School for the Blind. Iíve attended this school since preschool and itís pretty fun. I was born with LCA, lebers congenital amaurosis (I think itís a disease where the optic nerve is fragmented in several places), so I am totally blind. I participate in sports such as swimming and cheerleading and I am probably going to do track next year. Iíve always won first place in my swimming competitions, so far, and our Indiana cheerleading girls have won firsts, too. I also play the piano and sing. I sang the National Anthem at a Purdue

University swim meet, which I thought was a great experience for me. I entered in a composition contest for piano. I won one hundred dollars for my composition called ďCeremonial DancesĒ. About blindness, I used to have some fears of certain sounds. When I was in second or third grade, I was scared of leaves; I didnít like the rustling sound they made across the sidewalkóI just didnít like that sound. But one day, when my sister Madison and I were sitting on a log waiting for her to take me down to our creek, a leaf fell in my lap. It didnít harm me or hurt me, so from then on I wasnít scared of leaves any more. [Rylie giggles and slight laughter from the audience]. But, being blind, I have some strengths, too. I can learn things pretty fast. For example, I learned the Internet really quickly from Mr. Powell, one of the teachers at the school. I can do most things on the Internet that sighted people can do except use the mouse. The last thing I want to talk aboutówell, Dr. Maurerís kinda already talked about it but it is in my speech, tooóis GOGS; the collection of geeks, geniuses, goofballs, etcetera. [Laughter]. In COGS we work with computers, the Internet, and electronic Braille devices. We also teach other people how to use them. Like I said before, I can do a lot of things that sighted people can do. Thatís a little about me and my life as a blind individual. [Applause]

Dr. Matt Maurer: Thanks, guys.† Some of the things that have happened as a result of the club are, I think, noteworthy. Each year (this was our third year) we adopt a theme or guiding idea for the year. This year we adopted the theme of Independence through Technology, and the kids made some pretty nice strides toward achieving it. Another accomplishment of COGS this past year was our creation of the Help Desk. Nick, one of the club membersóheís sitting in the front row thereóis one of the heads of the Help Desk. Most of us know that if you have a problem with your computer, what you need to find is a seventh-grader to help you fix it; right? [Laughter] So we decided to institutionalize this informal practice. Our COGS kids are the first ones called when a teacher is stuck with a computer problem and he or she doesnít know how to fix it. Thatís Independence through Technology. This project is related to another idea we worked on this year (and weíre still working on); thatís the idea of Service. Just because you are blind doesnít mean that you must always be the recipient of help. Part of being a good citizen is turning your gifts into gifts for others in your society. Thatís something weíre going to hit the ground running on next year by doing some projects with elderly people who are losing their eyesight. The COGS technology club has been very useful, I think, to the student members. It has certainly been a gratifying experience for me. It is a tremendous joy to work with these students. [Applause]

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