Toward a Brighter Day

By Ken Volonte, NFBC San Joaquin County Chapter President

Editor's Note: Ken Volonte is a longtime member of the NFB. His NFB philosophy is steadfast and he takes every opportunity to share this philosophy.

The Community Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Stockton has been a fixture here in town since 1949. I receive the schedule of activities every month, but I never attend the center. The newsletter is much more exciting than the actual center. Such things as beep-ball and trips to Reno are scheduled activities. At the center, people learn weaving and ceramics and many times that is all they do for the rest of their lives.

I addressed the following comments to the center's board of directors on Sept. 18, 2003.

I appreciate the opportunity to come and speak to this board. This won't take long, just long enough.

I wouldn't be here at all, perhaps, but for a number of phone calls I received just a few months ago. The first call came from a counselor at one of the high schools in town. He talked about a student who was losing his eyesight and didn't know what to do. The boy was feeling kind of hopeless, and could I help.

I asked the usual questions: was the student a client of rehab? Was he receiving Braille instruction through the school? Finally, I referred this counselor to the Blind Center. "Oh yeah," he cut in, "my student's been there-they offered him beep-ball."

I wouldn't have thought anything of this except that a few weeks later I got another phone call from a man in his mid-thirties. He, too, was losing his sight rapidly. He mentioned that he and his wife had walked into the center to see if there was any help there. "I felt like I was walking into a tomb," he said. "Some lady talked to me for 20 minutes about all the free stuff I could get." The man spoke rapidly. "She told me that I could get rehab to pay for a big screen TV if I couldn't see my set anymore-and then there were people weaving. I got out of there as fast as I could." Keep these stories in mind.

Word on the street is that the Community Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired will be looking for a new director soon. The last director spoke to the San Joaquin County chapter of the NFBC last March. We blind people of Stockton had high hopes for both the director and the Blind Center, but our hopes were dashed with the first schedule of activities.

There were the ceramics classes, the Braille classes, the movies, the guitar and piano classes, etc. Were these classes well intentioned? Perhaps, but they also kept blind people dependent on the center.

We asked the director about this fostering of dependency, and he admitted that this was indeed the case. He said, "I don't believe the same as some of these other agencies for the blind. They just teach the client for a few months and then let 'em go. We don't do that."

I asked him what the expectations were for students learning Braille. The director fidgeted awkwardly and said he didn't know anything about that and referred me to the Braille teacher. Here's a heads up for the new director: Braille ought to be as useful for blind people as print is for sighted people. I ought to know. I am a Braille reader.

Aside from these recreational classes, the Blind Center staff needs to embrace a positive attitude about blind people, and that philosophy of blindness needs to be instilled in every person who goes there for instruction or recreation. That can't happen unless the director believes it to be true. In turn, the director needs to show the staff that such a philosophy is true.

We the blind of this county need a center with the vision that it is respectable to be blind; that we are a part of society not to be pitied, but to be employed. This tea party without end has to change. It has to. If not, many blind people in this town will be needlessly condemned to lives of unproductive hurt and misery.

Now you may ask what all the fuss is about; after all, this is old history. The Blind Center is looking for a new director. Trouble is, when this board finds a new director, my fear is that nothing will change. As I write this, a new schedule of activities has arrived at my door. It's the same as it has been for years and years, pretty much unchanged since 1949 when the center first opened.

As a blind person who lives here, and who has been disappointed by the negative philosophy and practices of the center for a long time, I can envision so much more that what's there. I see the Blind Center becoming a document production center for Braille voter guides, pamphlets, entertainment guides and the like. I see blind men and women working at the center teaching Braille and cane travel and all the other skills of blindness that we need to become full and productive members of society. Other centers do this. All it takes is a change in philosophy.

Why must we blind people of Stockton settle for ice cream socials and beep-ball? Surely we deserve more than a little welfare and movies on Thursday afternoons. We deserve a Blind Center where we can come and learn what it really means to be blind. We need a center that offers up a way to live life afresh. Thank you for your attention.

This is what I said to the board. Immediately upon leaving, the president of the board approached me and asked for specific qualities to look for in a new director. This question bodes well for the blind of Stockton. At the time of this writing, the center is still looking for a new director. It's a golden opportunity for the right person.

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