Essential Skills and Guidelines

Many blind students wonder what skills they will need to master before starting college or if they should get skill training before finishing college. Below is a list of the main skills that members of the National Association of Blind Students have described as important for academic and life success. Most of these skills are taught directly at the NFB's three training centers: The Colorado Center for the Blind, The Louisiana Center for the Blind, and BLIND, Inc.

All three centers have summer training programs for high school students as well as a six-to-nine-month program for blind adults (ages 18 and up). The programs all provide a sound education in Braille, computers, cane travel, and home management. If you have already been to a training center or are unable or don't want to attend one at this time, there are other ways to develop your skills (see below).

Braille:

What: Braille is to the blind reader what print is to the sighted reader-a method of actively reading and writing words. Though it is not always possible to get textbooks in hard copy Braille, students with Braille PDA's or notetakers can read their textbooks on the device's Braille display. Blind students also frequently use Braille to take class notes that they can then study for exams, or to solve math problems. The slate and stylus, a portable tool for writing Braille by hand, is often useful in situations where a PDA cannot be used, or when an electronic Braille device breaks down.

Why? Braille is efficient and fast for anyone, regardless of how much vision you have or how big the letters are. Reading and writing Braille enables you to pay attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation-something that's harder to do if you're just listening to audio texts. And, many people find that it's much easier to remember information if they read it and write it down rather than just listening to it.

Where Should I Be? Anyone whose vision loss prevents them from reading print efficiently will benefit from learning Braille. It's important to be able to write class notes in Braille and read them back later, either on paper or using a Braille notetaker. Students should also be able to use Braille efficiently enough to read aloud in class. Be sure you can read and write in Nemeth code for math classes as well as in standard literary Braille. People who learned Braille as young children can often read just as fast as their sighted peers; those who learn Braille as teenagers or adults may take longer to build up speed, but with practice they can read a passage aloud comfortably.

How Do I Get There From Here? If you're in high school, consider spending a summer or two at an NFB center to learn the Braille code or sharpen your Braille skills. Be sure to attend your Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings every year and take an active role in developing the goals on your IEP. Insist that Braille instruction and usage are an integral part of your IEP, even if you also read some print, and enlist support from your parents and teacher of the visually impaired (TVI). If you're past high school and haven't learned Braille, don't despair-it's never too late to start! Many adult students have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled their reading speed after just six months at an NFB training center. For people of any age, once you know the Braille code, the only way to keep up your Braille skills is practice, practice, practice! Obtain some Braille books from a local library, the National Braille Press, <NFBShareBraille.org>, or download some from <BookShare.org> (which is free for students) and spend some quality time reading Braille. Write down notes to yourself and phone numbers in Braille, or keep a Braille journal. By doing this you're not only practicing Braille, but also honing your spelling and grammar-and you can impress your friends by telling them about all the books you've read!

Technology:

What: More and more college courses require students to use the computer for downloading reading materials, writing papers and assignments, doing library research or communicating with other students. Also, many course materials that sighted students access in print can be accessed in electronic format by blind students, or blind students can use scanners to convert printed material into E-text. Other portable devices that don't use the computer directly, such as the Victor Stream and the KNFB Reader Mobile, enable us to read audio books or photograph and read printed papers.

Why? Blind students must be able to use the same computer applications that their sighted peers are using to complete assignments. We also sometimes use technology to access our course materials when our sighted peers don't. Scanning a handout or book may take a little extra time, but if you already know how to do it efficiently, you can spend your time learning the material rather than struggling with the technology.

Where Should I Be? All blind students who cannot read the computer screen efficiently should develop expertise using a screen-reading program such as JAWS or Window-Eyes. It is crucial to be able to type well and to use word-processing, email and Internet applications as well as scanners and the accompanying OCR software. It's also a good idea to know how to use spreadsheet, database, and presentation programs (i.e. PowerPoint) and to format papers independently.

How Do I Get There From Here? The NFB training centers offer excellent instruction in basic computer skills. You can also talk to your TVI or vocational rehab (VR) counselor about finding someone locally to train you on the basics of screen-reading technology. Once you know the basics and are comfortable with typing, you can learn a lot on your own. Get access to a computer with screen-reading technology installed and teach yourself using the manuals for your particular access program (i.e. JAWS, Window-Eyes, Voice-Over, etc.) Also take advantage of the context-sensitive help in many computer programs and don't be afraid to play a little with a new program until you feel comfortable using it. Learning software and new portable devices on your own will enable you to master new technologies as they come out without needing continuous training from someone else. Of course, you will need to get access to a computer and a screen-reading program, which sometimes costs money. If you're in high school, you can access a program called System Access to Go (SA to Go) for free. Go to <Satago.com> Alternatively, your school district may cover the costs of JAWS, etc.-be sure to go to your IEP meetings and explain to your parents and TVI the importance of having solid computer skills now rather than later. If you're past high school, your VR counselor should cover this cost.

Cane Travel:

What: A cane is a blind person's best friend, enabling him or her to go anywhere safely and efficiently regardless of how much sight the person has or what the lighting conditions are. We use the information that canes provide along with cues from our other senses to keep ourselves oriented and find our way from one place to another. Even if you use a guide dog or are thinking about getting one, it's important to have strong cane skills. Most of those same skills will enable you to get around effectively with a dog.

Why? In school and work situations there are many times when it's not practical to walk with somebody else. As a skilled cane traveler you can get around anywhere, even if it's a place you've never been before. You won't need to wait for a mobility instructor to show you around or another person to guide you. Blind people who travel independently are regarded by the sighted as much more competent. And, there's just something very liberating about going to a school dance, party or new campus and walking around freely just like everyone else.

Where Should I Be? At a bare minimum, blind students must be able to find their way around their campus independently and efficiently-without being late for classes. In addition to knowing the basic routes for getting from one building to another, we also need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances like construction or loud noises in our path. Unfortunately, many mobility instructors teach us routes but don't teach us how to stay on course when the environment changes. We should also be able to learn where new buildings are on our own, by asking questions and paying attention to the environment. Of course, travel isn't limited to campus. When our sighted peers are able to drive, we must be able to get around in the community. This involves orienting ourselves in our neighborhoods, crossing streets effectively, using public transportation, and hiring drivers and taxis.

How Do I Get There From Here? The training programs at the NFB centers have transformed even the most disoriented travelers into masters of the long white cane. The centers' travel classes will challenge you in ways that impart lasting confidence and strength in this area. Anyone whose vision loss prevents them from traveling safely outside at all times will benefit from regularly using a long white cane. Blind high school students should be getting consistent orientation and mobility (OandM) training, and blind adults can obtain it through their vocational rehab department. Anyone in the United States can get a cane for free from the NFB.

Once you have a basic understanding of how the cane works and how to "mental-map" your environment, carry your cane and use it at all times. As much as possible, walk beside friends and family members with your cane active instead of going sighted-guide. Pay attention to what's around you and ask questions when you go into an unfamiliar area. Practice walking around malls, airports, and other indoor places on your own.

If you're in high school and have reached driving age, there's no reason for you to rely on Mom and Dad for rides. Learn about the transportation options in your area (perhaps with your OandM instructor) and make use of them whenever possible so you're comfortable with public transit and hiring drivers when you get to college. Walk or take the city bus to school, or hire a friend to drive you. Sometimes parents worry about letting their blind teenagers ride a city bus, cross the street, or go to the mall without a sighted companion. If yours feel this way, show them this Web site-they'll be reassured to see that blind adults and teens do these things safely all the time. If you practice doing these things now, you'll be a better, safer traveler in the future.

Daily Living Skills:

What: In addition to accessing academic materials and getting from one class to another, blind students who live on their own, like sighted students, must be able to take care of themselves and their things. If you live in a dorm with a meal plan these tasks will be less complex, but you will still need to know the basics of keeping a clean room, doing laundry, taking care of medical needs, and buying things as necessary. Obviously, once you live off campus, buying food and cooking (even if it's microwave meals) will be necessary for survival. All too often, those of us who grow up blind don't get experience handling these daily tasks, and we also may not have been able to watch other people doing these things, so initially learning these skills may take a little extra effort.

Why? Let's face it-Ramen Noodles and Easy Mac get old after a while! Cooking, shopping, and cleaning are necessary to lead enjoyable lives, and mastering these skills enables us to have the same opportunities as the sighted-to live far away from parents if we choose, to marry and raise families, and to have adventures like studying abroad.

Where Should I Be? Many college freshmen, blind and sighted alike, are not gourmet chefs. But it is important to be comfortable preparing a simple meal independently even if you have a meal plan. It's also important to be able to shop for groceries and other necessities with customer service assistance, to do your own laundry and to keep your residence clean. With training and practice blind adults routinely perform all the same daily living tasks as the sighted-cooking, cleaning, shopping, childrearing, and home repairs. As we grow and take on more adult responsibilities, we should aspire to meet this standard.

How Do I Get There From Here? Many states provide daily living skills teachers-often called "rehab teachers"-for blind kids and adults. A rehab teacher can help you build basic skills. But again, one of the best ways to get an intensive lesson in cooking, cleaning, and home maintenance is to attend the summer or adult program at an NFB training center. The teachers at these centers are very adept at teaching techniques specifically used by blind people, and unlike some rehab teachers, their expectations are high. For example, center students typically have to cook an entire meal for up to fifty people, which should make preparing a routine dinner seem easy by comparison. If you live with parents or others who cook, offer to help them in the kitchen or around the house and gain firsthand experience. We may not be able to see how someone chops an onion or sweeps the floor, but we can get as good at it as they are by doing the work alongside them.

Organizational Skills:

What: Doing well in school or holding down a job requires organization. We have to be punctual for classes and appointments, use our time wisely and keep track of our things. Sometimes blind students have to be more organized than most if we have to spend time converting assignments to a format that we can read or hiring readers to work with us. Unfortunately, blind students aren't always expected to keep deadlines or manage their own workload. As a result, starting college or work can be a rude awakening.

Why? College professors and employers expect punctuality from their students or employees. Being organized also reduces stress and enables us to do quality work. Where Should I Be? Blind students should be in the habit of completing their assignments in the same amount of time as is expected for our sighted peers. We also need to keep track of our own notes and research materials and be on time to classes and meetings.

How Do I Get There From Here? Everyone has a different way of organizing their time, so experiment to find a way that works for you. Whenever possible, start homework assignments early in case there are any accessibility problems. Use Braille labels to keep track of any print papers you need to keep and develop a system so you can find your papers or personal belongings easily. Plan ahead so that you arrive places on time.

Social and Advocacy Skills:

What: Making friends and getting along with classmates can at times be challenging. As blind people living in a primarily sighted world, we can face uncertainties due to our inability to read others' nonverbal signals or to know what kind of body language to use. We also have to deal effectively with situations in which we are denied opportunities by the sighted.

Why? People who communicate effectively and give a good impression of themselves are much more likely to get jobs and find friendships than are people with weaker social skills. The impression that you make on others is at least as important as your merits in showing others that you are capable of doing a job. Being able to ask for what you need in a respectful manner will also increase your chances of having your needs met and being afforded opportunities by the sighted public.

Where Should I Be? Blind people at any age should be aware of our nonverbal behavior (appearance, posture, eye contact, gestures, etc.) and be able to adjust it to the situation that we are in. We also need to communicate effectively with others and deal with the negative ways in which we are sometimes treated.

How Do I Get There From Here? There are links on other pages of this Web site devoted to issues of fashion and etiquette. Spending time with sighted family and friends and asking them for advice about how to behave in particular situations (what to wear, who to look at, etc.) is a good way to learn. Get involved in student groups on your campus to meet people who share common interests with you. Ask other blind people for input on how they handle particularly difficult social situations.

Take the initiative to educate your teachers or professors about your blindness when you meet them instead of waiting for your TVI or disability support services (DSS) adviser to do it. Be prepared to answer questions about your blindness and show them by your example that it won't limit your success.