What I Learned at Blind Bootcamp, Part 2: Why We Meet

Valli Ferrel, one of the program's first students, leads a tour of Spring Mountain Winery where she directs PR

This is Part 2 in a series. Click here to read Part 1.

by Will Butler

Earlier this week I started writing about what it’s like to immerse yourself in our adult training retreat at Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa. Now that it’s over, you’d think it’d be easier for me to sum up in retrospect, but the truth of the matter is I’m still processing it all. The amount of information that was given to us was immense. The strength of personal connections made between all the students, aged 25-77, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen occur over the course of five days. The disparity between how we behaved when we arrived and how we behaved when we left was remarkable. The skills, tools, and adaptations we learned were all custom-made, personalized little gifts  — in many ways, they won’t mean anything to our spouses or family or friends — and it’s hard to imagine ever describing it to someone who wasn’t there in a way that’s meaningful. But I guarantee that if you stumbled upon the twelve blind folks eating dinner at Gott’s Roadside on Thursday evening, you’d recognize immediately that they had been through something special together.

But enough vagueness; if you’ve read this far I’m sure you actually want to know: what did we spend all our time doing? The truth is, we learned how to live on all levels, from the most mundane to the most abstract and emotionally elusive.

Getting better at everyday tasks (which in these circles is called independent living skills or ILS) was, at least for me and a few others, a priority. For starters, we had an entire session dedicated to helping you find stuff. Boring as it may sound, these are the questions newly blind people find themselves agonizing over: If I drop a pill bottle, what’s the fastest way to find it? Can I wipe down a counter and be sure it’s clean? How do I put in the right batteries? How do I shave? With our training shades over our eyes for anyone who still relied on some eyesight, we were taken step by step through these everyday simplicities and reassured that, yes, there was an easy way to do all of them. Later on, we did this with cooking as well, cleaning, chopping, and preparing dozens of pounds of marinated vegetables for dinner, all the while learning blind-oriented knife skills, measurement and identification techniques. I was surprised to find that my cooking skills were better than I would have thought, and that discovery if nothing else was worth the class. Suddenly, when I get home, I wanted to cook again.

At another session, we went in-depth on labeling and organizing, talking strategies but also getting hands on with solutions. Many blind people eagerly embrace new technology, but simple, low-tech hardware and quick dollar store solutions are still mainstays of everyday adaptation. Stickers, high contrast cutting boards, talking calculators, magnets, velcro, buttons, bumps, signature guides, safety pins, sock locks, knife holders, innovative dishware, extra-thin silicon oven mitts and above all rubber bands (for tagging shampoo/conditioner bottles, etc.); there was a never-ending list of items to add to the efficient-living arsenal. These are things that blend in, seem obvious once suggested, but are also ideas I would never have come up with on my own. We also exchanged advice. How exactly do you deal with the grocery store? What do you do when your husband wants help dressing himself? How do you sort your clothes? We were all at different levels, and yet we could all relate. You’ve never seen a group so eager to talk about their dresser drawers.

This is not to make it sound like it was all low-tech either. Personally, as a Mac person I’d been putting off learning JAWS, the screenreader software which is PC-only and also happens to be the industry standard for word processing. To me it seemed daunting, unnecessary because I am low vision and not totally blind. And yet, put me in front of a PC and I’m admittedly useless. To my surprise, our tech instructor Julianna had me up and running (and surfing Facebook) without any visual cues within an hour. That’s the power of having a human teach you how to do these things. It was about getting advice and giving it. If you knew something someone else didn’t yet, it felt good to share your strategy with them. Though the solution may be simple you could feel that the other person really deeply appreciated it.

Tech solutions were different for different people. Some brought touchscreen devices, iPhones, iPads or laptops that they wanted to get better at using. Others learned how to load up their Victor reader (another portable, more tactile audio player) with documents, podcasts, books and news. For some, it was enough to learn about Wilson, the compact voice memo recorder that could help them keep notes and to-do lists, or the Pen Friend, a smart audio pen that allows to record your own labels. And with the absolute surge in the iPhone’s general popularity in recent years, the motto of the week seemed to be “there’s an app for that.” Nearly every month now an app comes along that can significantly change a blind person’s life. Apps such as KNFB Reader, Tap Tap See, Be My Eyes, and hundreds more have absolutely proliferated, and we couldn’t live in a better time for cool blind tech. This is what Sydney was responding to when she exclaimed with joy and relief in our very first solutions session.

It wasn’t simply about taking down a list of items to buy, either. This was one of the first opportunities some of us had to try stuff out and see if it worked. You could sit down with one technology, play with it for a while, then try an alternative. All of it was at our fingertips, in one room, all week long.

Because of the nature of my vision, mobility has not always been a problem for me, but even so I met with Katt Jones for a one-on-one assessment. We talked about everything to do with cane travel; some things I had picked up naturally but didn’t know the names for. She showed me a more elegant and efficient way to locate doorknobs. She corrected my technique approaching and scaling stairs. We talked about “how to train your human,” or in other words, how to help people help you. She took me to downtown Napa, where we walked back and forth across a massive intersection, analyzed the ins and outs of curb cuts, and then went to Trader Joe’s. Some things were new, and for the things that weren’t, it felt good to have a certified O&M instructor tell me confidently that I was doing things right. Even walking around the grocery store alone, I already felt more comfortable than usual, even if it was just in my head.

There were also the more interpersonal, emotional discussions. What to do when a loved one says something hurtful, how to hold your own in household duties, and how to be honest and expect honesty back were all topics we explored. Then came the embarrassing stories, the stories about humility and moving forward with grace, the stories which will not be published here.

The week really showed the wide range of experience within the blind community. There were those with degenerative conditions, people who had been in accidents, victims of violence, and some with less explicable or diagnosable visual impairments. There were those who had lived full, vibrant lives and those who were just beginning their journeys. There were kids from low-income backgrounds alongside retired college professors. And all of them went through some sort of metamorphosis. For some it was just social, and for others very physical. There were adult students too timid to take one step on their own when they arrived Sunday evening; and within days, even 24 hours for some, they were calmly navigating the hills and paths of Enchanted Hills entirely by themselves.

The big takeaway, for me, was that the best learning comes from peers and role models. Jamey Gump’s teenage counsellors in training were right there along side us most of the week, and it was pretty cool to see their training mirror our own. They looked to each other as everything from mentors to mere curiosities, and above all just people they could feel comfortable around. We all stood in a line on Wednesday night and did the “cookie challenge,” wherein contestants tilt their head back and race to get an Oreo from their forehead to their mouth with no hands. One of Sook Hee Choi’s deafblind students was the winner. Thursday night there was a talent show, which involved jokes, skits, a tap dance, and a no-holes-barred Billy Joel-esque piano ballad from Shane, EHC’s arts and enrichment counsellor for the summer. In the morning, all the kids and adults — each their on their own training program — mingled like happy campers. Kids who I had earlier assumed were completely blind approached and said cheery hellos to me of their own accord. And, kept busy every day from breakfast to sunset it wasn’t until about the time I left that I stopped and realized how much I’d been enjoying the whole week.

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