RISE-ing Up and Changing Lives in Northern Virginia

A few months ago, I blogged about my career journey
And my recent half-time contract working with the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia on our Project RISE youth transition program. I haven’t written much on the program here, partly since I try to keep the Weekly Wisdom blog content relevant to a national or international readership, and also to protect the privacy of individual students. However, since our program recruitment is in full swing right now, I wanted to take this chance to share a bit about what we’ve done, get the word out about our future plans, and perhaps inspire others to consider developing similar programs. (Plus, this is my professional blog, and Project RISE is a big part of my professional life at the moment).

This past spring and summer, we served 18 students ages 14-21 who are blind or visually impaired and live in northern Virginia. During monthly interactive group sessions, our students explored careers, wrote resumes and cover letters, practiced professional interaction, and learned nonvisual skills for independent living and travel. We also had a lot of fun! Students learned from each other and from our dedicated blind mentors who are all either working professionals or older college students.

This summer, I had the pleasure and challenge of coordinating work experiences for nine of our students. These included competitive summer jobs, volunteering, or internships geared toward specific vocational goals. We had a student intern in a medical research lab, another at a commercial bakery, and a law firm. A fourth student had a music internship tailored specifically for him, and I will get to see him perform his original music tomorrow evening. It was challenging to find positions for students spread out across a fairly wide geographic area and with a variety of specific vocational interests. But the reward for the students, for us, and for the employer partners has been well worth it.

Since the program started in February, the growth we have seen in individual students is striking. I’ve observed shy students who barely said two words to anyone at the first session, going up on stage to debate with their peers and reaching out to professional contacts on their own. Students with partial sight who voiced discomfort or disdain for their white canes at the beginning began willingly carrying them to our events. Older students modeling self-advocacy for younger students and honing their own leadership skills in the process. These gains may not be tangible at the moment, but they will undoubtedly translate into success at school, at work and in life.

As a pre-employment transition program, we have to provide a specific set of services under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Our curriculum may seem complicated, but when I think about what makes our program so impactful, the most important active component, in my mind, is something that is barely mentioned in the regulations. Yet it is something that resonates with my own past. The summer after 7th grade, I recall going to a day camp for nondisabled teens, coming home one night, and bursting into tears. Such melodramatics are very rare for me, and in fact, that was the last time I have ever seriously cried. It was a reaction to years of accumulated microaggressions and the sense that I didn’t belong among my peers, or even in the broader community where I knew few other disabled people. At that particular point, I had nowhere to go emotionally but up.
It was less than two weeks after that night when I first met
my blind best friend
And the tide began to turn. As I found a blind peer group, and later found blind mentors, I was reassured of my belonging. I stopped blaming my disability for frustrations in my life. And I gained the confidence to move beyond my comfort zone.

The community we have established in Project RISE is, in my view, directly responsible for the incredible gains we have seen. Many of our students may be the only blind or disabled person in their family, their school, or their local area. Some have grown up with the daily microaggressions of ableism. Others are losing vision and wondering if their dreams must be deferred. Through our community, they are getting the support to relinquish misconceptions and to embrace their identities as blind people. They are learning that there is a place where they belong and that their dreams are possibilities. As evidence of our community’s strength, 13 of our 18 students will be returning this fall.

Spurred on by the success of our first term, Project RISE will be having another full year of monthly meetings in the northern Virginia area. We are also expanding to offer quarterly meetings and mentoring to blind and low-vision youth across the state of Virginia. To learn more, check out
the Project RISE website
follow us on Facebook!

Hell-Bent on Helping: Benevolence, Friendship, and the Politics of Help

In the 1950’s, psychologist Gordon Allport wrote about intergroup contact as a remedy for prejudice. Allport postulated that bringing different groups of people together is necessary, but not sufficient, to improve intergroup relations. In order to meaningfully reduce prejudice, Allport emphasized, contact between people from different groups must be one-on-one, cooperative, condoned by authority figures, and members of the two groups must have equal status. Allport’s “contact hypothesis” has been supported by evidence in the lab, as well as through natural experiments like the racial desegregation of schools in the American South.
Beginning in the 1970’s, many children with disabilities are attending their neighborhood schools with nondisabled peers. It is often thought that such integration will reduce ableism in our society. Teachers and principals may set up “buddy” programs or “friendship circles” to encourage contact between disabled and nondisabled students, in the name of reducing ableism. But, some school inclusion programs fail one of Allport’s critical tests: they place the nondisabled student in a helper role, and the disabled student in a lower-status “helpee” role.
As the below article points out, the status imbalance that some schools unwittingly encourage may explain why many mainstreamed disabled kids “may have successful buddy systems during school hours, and still be isolated after three o’clock.” In other words, relationships based on helping alone don’t confer the benefits of real, reciprocal friendships. Instead of breaking down barriers, they can serve to reinforce existing stereotypes and hierarchies.
Instead, the authors suggest fostering the natural development of friendships, teaching the nondisabled kids to listen rather than jumping in to help, and appealing to children’s natural sense of justice. This article is a bit long, but I encourage readers to pay attention to the practical suggestions presented at the end. The need for real inclusion is stronger now than ever. As the authors state:

We must guard against merely creating another generation of “professionals” and “clients”, with the former group seen as perpetually competent, and the latter, perpetually needy.

Hell-Bent on Helping: Benevolence, Friendship, and the Politics of Help

In the Age of Mainstreaming, Being with Other Disabled Folks is Still Important

It’s time for another reblog!
On this blog, I’ve talked about the benefits of disability friendship for adults. Today’s post talks about the benefits of disability friendship for children and teens.
Like this blogger, I was one of the “lucky ones” in that I received a typical education, but also spent time around other kids who shared my disability. These connections were first arranged by my assigned teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), who organized activities for the blind students in our school district. Later, our local blindness agency in my hometown set up a program for blind school-age children around the city. The program ran on weekends and during summers, allowing us to attend our neighborhood schools and still spend time together.
These programs need an investment of resources and labor to run well, but as the below post points out so eloquently, they are worth it.
In the Age of Mainstreaming, Being with Other Disabled Folks is Still Important

Greetings from the NFB National Convention!

This week I’m attending the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando. This is my fifteenth NFB national convention. I first attended when I was 16 years old, and only missed two conventions since. The weeklong program follows a consistent pattern from year to year, but each convention is a unique experience for me. I attended first as a youth in high school, then as a winner of one of the 30 scholarships that NFB awards. As I progressed through college, some conventions were primarily parties, while others were filled with leadership responsibilities, new lessons learned, and new lessons taught. Over these years I have participated in the conventions as a presenter, an organizer, a sales volunteer, a leader in the NFB’s student division, and a mentor to many. I have also received mentorship and companionship from countless blind individuals from all walks of life. This year, in particular, I reflect on the balance I strike between learning and teaching. As a learner, I was fortunate to receive private lessons on the use of “R” statistical software from a blind man who is a world-renowned expert on the subject. As a teacher, I had the opportunity to discuss my disability simulation research with the NFB’s National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. I am also serving on the mentoring committee for the NFB’s scholarship program. In this role, I have the privilege of spending each day of the convention paired with a different NFB scholarship recipient. While I am teaching them about the organization, I am also learning more about the potential that we have as blind people to participate fully in all facets of life. Instead of being an organization that merely serves people who are blind, NFB is an organization that harnesses our collective talents and allows us to serve one another.
If you are curious to learn more about the convention, check out the 2017 2017 presidential report or the 2017 policy resolutions

Why Does Disability Surprise Us?

In 32 years of living with a visible disability, I’ve learned that my condition brings up many different emotions in people: fear, pity, and awe, to name a few. But there’s another common emotional reaction to disability that, I think, supports all the others: the reaction of surprise.

Sometimes people seem surprised to find us out on the streets. They’re shocked when we disclose our disability in the course of applying for a job, for school admission, or on an online dating site. We are sometimes socialized to pre-warn such people of our disability status before meeting them face-to-face, so we don’t just “surprise them” with the news. When I talk to parents whose infants are newly diagnosed with a disability, one of the most common things they say is “This wasn’t what we expected” or “we needed to change our expectations.”

But, why is this? When statistics show that 15-20% of human beings have a disability, why is encountering someone with a disability, either a stranger or a new addition to your family, so unexpected and surprising?

I don’t know the answer to this. I suspect that, at least in part, our surprise is a consequence of our denial. In some ways, we may be either hard-wired or taught to fear becoming disabled in much the same way we fear our own death. And, if we are motivated to deny the possibility that we might become disabled someday, we may also extend that thinking to the belief that disability in others isn’t all that common. When we encounter a person with a disability, we may be motivated to see that person as an unusual oddity rather than an ordinary human being. This way of thinking makes it more difficult for us to acknowledge the fact that or our own children, employees, friends or romantic partners could be disabled.

As a consequence of this collective surprise, when a disabled person does arrive on the scene, we may end up scrambling and fumbling to accommodate that person. Whereas, if we expected disability from the outset, we could build our systems from the ground up so that they are fully accessible to people of all abilities. For example, all too often employers find themselves having to figure out how to make their company’s computer hardware and software accessible when a blind person is hired, rather than simply buying accessible software ahead of time in the event that a blind employee (or, really, anyone who might not work well with graphics-based technology) is hired in the future.

So, I challenge you not to be surprised by disability. Instead, expect it. Expect that 15-20% of the people you will meet will have some physical or mental difference that affects their ability to access one or more environments. Expect that the people with whom you interact may have differing needs or strengths. Don’t be surprised if someone in your workplace, school, family, social circle, or anywhere else has a disability, perhaps one you didn’t notice at first. Their revelation doesn’t affect their belonging in that social space. It doesn’t mean that their successes are somehow inspiring or unusual. It just means that they may do some things in a different way. Perhaps once we start to think of disability as regular and mundane, we may find it easier to accept those who have disabilities as ordinary people.