The Federation Family by Kathryn Webster

From the Editor: Kathryn Webster serves as the president of the National Association of Blind Students, a proud division of the national Federation of the blind. Prior to Kathryn’s presidency, she served as the Secretary/Treasurer of NABS, on the Connecticut Affiliate Board, and as President of the North Carolina Association of Blind Students. This past May, President Webster graduated from Wake Forest University, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Data Analytics and Computer Science. The determination and leadership displayed by Miss Webster is second to none. Months before beginning her career at one of the top consulting firms in the world, she is spending her summer teaching technology to blind students at BLIND Inc., one of our National Federation of the Blind training centers. Join me in reading this month’s blog post written by a true Federationist as she discusses emotions gathered during and after National Convention.

Dear Student:

I write this post as I’m sitting in an apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota, serving as a 2017 summer counselor for the Post-Secondary Readiness & Empowerment Program (PREP) at Blind Inc., one of our NFB training centers. I never thought I’d be here this summer, before venturing off to Washington DC to begin my career as a data analytical consultant. I also never imagined my life as it is now, graduated with my Bachelor’s degree at Wake Forest University and president of the largest organization of blind students in the country. As I reflect on the past 3 and a half years of immersing myself in the National Federation of the Blind, I know my journey is unlike anyone else’s. That is the unpredictability that accompanies joining our family. We all have individual experiences and encounters that keep us wanting more. Each and every person who joins us at the National Convention carries home with them a variety of sentiments and emotions, those that mold their perspective of our organization. As leaders, we put a great deal of effort into welcoming our newcomers, greeting our veterans, and engaging in conversation with our close friends. This term “our” is used loosely by our members. Countless people question the diction used when addressing our family. Our? Why? Each of our members do not have the same values, opinions, ideas, and thoughts. What we do have, however, is the association with the National Federation of the Blind. This entry holds the purpose of sharing some thoughts as we enter the family reunion of the National Federation of the Blind. Whether this is your first time, your third, or your, insert x number of years, I assure you that these takeaways will leave you thinking.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we? In 2013, I graduated high school on June 21, with a plane ticket booked to my first National Federation of the blind national Convention as a national scholarship finalist. I graduated with straight A’s; I was on my way to a top 25 university. I had it all figured out…or so I thought. In all honesty, I was a confident and independent 18-year-old. I vaguely knew of the NFB. Nevertheless, I was on my way to Orlando to get that money, nothing more. I sat patiently through that first taunting meeting dressed in a business suit, with a grin on my face, my shoulders back, acting engaged and intrigued by the subject matter. As the week progressed, I started relaxing. Never once did I forget myself in the scholarship process, but I kept a professional face on. Not to mention, I did not know anyone my age. So, it was about the money, and with that came networking, mentorship, awareness of myself and those around me, and the need for the NFB. I do not write this with scholarship finalists as the main audience here; in fact, it is anyone reading. The first National Convention is always an adventure, regardless of the character you are going in as. For me, I was there for the money. For some, it’s for partying and hanging out with friends; for most, it’s the policies made, the inspirational speeches, and the search for understanding. Whatever it is, and whoever got you there, understand that, now, you have the same association as every single person in that hotel. You are attending the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. You are a part of “our” family. No one has it all figured out, and your brain is a sponge for knowledge. Take advantage of that, I’m serious. Remember, don’t hang onto the distribution of information for anyone else, but yourself. Learn something new; ask a random person a question; sit next to a new member during General Session. Simply put: do something that triggers your search for knowledge and understanding.

Now, why? Why are you in that hotel, spending time with thousands of blind people, and trying to focus on those admirable words shared by President Riccobono? Or, why? Why are you ignoring the speeches, the breakout sessions, the seminars of interest? Is it because you see this as solely a social opportunity? A way to meet friends? Do you get bothered by something the speakers say? If so, question that. If you disagree, ask yourself why. Or, better yet, ask the person you are sitting next to about the logic behind such claim. Disagreement ignites resolution. Disagree because you do, not because others tell you that they do. At first, I questioned the opposition of blind people attending only state-run agencies. What about our NFB training centers are so great? Certainly, I was hesitant to ask a national leader about this. Instead, I reached out to a friend, one whom attended one of our training centers. They directed me to the 2008 Braille Monitor edition that discussed the two types of teaching. It reads: “The vision paradigm of the traditional model is characterized by the necessity to operate from a visual model of the world in order to travel independently.” It continues by explaining: “In the cognitive paradigm of the structured-discovery model, the role of the instructor is not to approximate the visual experience and constantly monitor the student during training, but to assist the student in becoming increasingly able to relate the physical mechanics of cane travel to the cognitive skills that define independent travel. Because the structured-discovery method is a nonvisual method of learning to travel, travel students in training wear sleep shades during all lessons. Why not use residual vision during training? … They come to us for help because they feel limited in the daily routines of their lives; they feel unsafe and unwilling to travel alone in new environments. By simple definition; if you are learning nonvisual techniques of travel, you can’t use your vision. Therefore it is reasonable and necessary to occlude vision to learn nonvisual techniques. Here it should be noted that a little sleepshade use is worse than none at all, because what you have really taught is fear. When you decide to teach nonvisual techniques, you need to commit thoroughly to it.” Plainly put: the National Federation of the Blind willingly and confidently commits to our mission, vision, and priorities. This is one example of how our teaching symbolizes the manner in which we dedicate ourselves to the core values of our movement. So, ask why, and be open to the responses you’ll hear.

Three and a half years later, I’m still here. Even more, I am here growing each day as a leader, as an advocate, and as a friend. I have taken advantage of our resources, our leaders, and our network. I dove head first in. One thing I will say for certain is that I looked back. Without a doubt, I questioned our policies and programs, our research and our intentions. What would a membership organization for blind people, of blind people, be without discussion for blind people? With that came understanding, full and thoughtful understanding of why. I don’t have all the answers, but I have people to lean on for those answers. Convention attendees, I applaud you for taking this step to expose your mind to our reunion. If you see the NFB as a family already, then I cannot wait to see you at our family gathering. If you are still unsure of where you fit in, take a risk this July. It could take one person to reverse your mindset completely. If this is your first time, I, along with so many, cannot wait to meet you in one month!

See you soon, and welcome to the largest family you’ll ever have.