Editor’s Note: This article is an updated version of the story My Journey at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, by Elizabeth Lalonde, which originally appeared in Volume 5 of the Blind Canadian magazine. It is reprinted with permission from both Elizabeth and the Canadian Federation of the Blind.
Elizabeth Lalonde has a BA with a double major in journalism and anthropology from the University of Victoria, she has previously worked as a communications co-ordinator for the Province of British Columbia and served as president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind from 2002 to 2012. Since returning from Louisiana, Elizabeth has worked towards bringing intensive, live-in blindness/Deafblindness skills training to Canadians. She is a founding member of the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind, one of the organizations working to establish the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre project. one of the project’s aims is to establish an intensive, live-in blindness/Deafblindness skills training program modelled on centres such as the one in Louisiana.
Currently, there is no training in Canada comparable to what Elizabeth received in Louisiana. By donating to the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre project, you can help change this for Canadians who are blind or Deafblind from coast to coast to coast.
This is the second post in the Student Voices series. You can read more articles in the series.
My Journey at the Louisiana Center for the Blind
By Elizabeth Lalonde
I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the U.S., to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind, in Ruston, Louisiana, in 2009/ 2010.
The Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) is an intensive training centre where blind people can go to learn confidence and the skills of independence. The centre is located in a small town in northern Louisiana. I went there to learn as much as possible, so I could bring the model home to Canada and help blind Canadians. I did this. But, I did more than this.
During my time at LCB, I experienced an unexpected and tremendous sense of fulfillment, confidence and accomplishment on a personal level.
I wish to thank Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB); Pam Allen, Director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind; the LCB staff and students; and my family for their support, patience and faith in me throughout this journey.
Following, is the story of my personal journey at LCB taken from sections of the blog I kept during my training.
The full blog is online at www.elizabethlal.blogspot.com
To read more about the Louisiana Center for the Blind, go to http://www.louisianacenter.org
Friday, November 6, 2009: It Begins
I finished my first week at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. In one week, I learned to: thread a needle, slate the alphabet in Braille, travel independently around the building in sleepshades, measure wood with a click ruler, and practice on a Braille note taker. I am learning so much and thinking in ways I haven’t before, calling on all my powers of concentration and skill to get through the days.
Today, was my first outside travel lesson. My instructor and I walked back and forth in front of the centre and practiced finding streets. I worked on finding curbs. Mostly, I over-stepped them, or didn’t go far enough.
Once, I stood in the middle of an intersection and heard my instructor call me back from the road. Once, I fell, almost gracefully against a parked car. But, by the end of the lesson, I walked successfully to each curb.
Today, was also the day I learned to thread a needle. I used a needle threader, and after 20 painstaking minutes, hooked the needle onto the threader, caught the thread on the hook, and pulled the thread through the eye of the needle.
Today, in shop, I measured a block of wood using a click ruler. A click ruler is the only tool created specifically for blind people. It is a metal ruler divided into inches, half inches and one-sixteenth inches. Each click represents one-sixteenth of an inch. (These rulers also come in metric.)
I am invigorated, exhausted and overwhelmed. I remind myself to forget my ego, to start fresh, and realize I am on a journey.
I moved into the LCB apartments this week. I have a lovely roommate, who is 20 years old. She is a great support and mentor.
Thursday, November 19, 2009: My second week at LCB
Another week over, travel was better this week. I am starting to orientate myself using audio and tactile cues. I didn’t realize how much I used my limited vision to navigate and avoid – or not avoid – obstacles. Wearing a blindfold all day allows me to focus on my other senses.
My instructor and I walked down a few blocks from the centre. I practiced finding street crossings and staying on the sidewalks. I am learning to listen to the sounds of traffic on the parallel and perpendicular streets, and to feel the direction of the sun, or the incline of a driveway, to judge if I am walking straight. If the cars suddenly sound like they are in front of me, instead of to my left, then I know the road has not magically changed position. I have.
Like most of the teachers here, my travel instructor is blind. It is motivating to know I can eventually become as competent as he is at getting around.
In shop this week, I used a drill for the first time. The drill is heavy; it takes all my strength to hold it in place. I need to build some muscle.
Today, I fried bacon and eggs in cooking class, a task I normally use sight to do. It felt good to cook the whole meal under sleepshades. I turned the bacon with tongs. And listened to the sizzle of the bacon grow quieter, which told me it was time to flip it over. For once, I didn’t burn the bacon.
The centre is putting on a Christmas play about Santa Claus losing his sight. The play is written by the Braille teacher, Mr. Whittle. In the play, Santa is depressed about going blind. He learns about the training centre in Louisiana and goes for training to become a competent and confident blind Santa.
At the centre, we have ‘seminar’ twice a week. Seminar gives the students and staff a chance to talk about blindness, how to handle family issues and how to think about blindness in a positive way.
Monday, November 23, 2009: Making Progress
I walked in sleepshades to the apartments and back, and, only veered onto the road a few times. Each time I knew right away and corrected myself. I am learning to line myself in a specific direction, by listening to the traffic.
The model of travel taught here is called ‘structured discovery,’ which differs from the traditional route method of travel, where the blind person memorizes specific routes. ‘Structured discovery’ allows the blind person to learn to travel anywhere independently using problem-solving techniques.
I am working my way through the level two contractions in Braille and am reading and slating Braille every day.
We had apartment instruction this week; this is when the staff come to the students’ residence and make sure students are keeping their places clean.
On Friday, one of the students at LCB graduated. It was neat to see someone finish what I am beginning. Her ceremony lasted an hour. Students, friends and family attended by conference call, or in person, to talk about her accomplishments and watch her get the ‘freedom bell.’ All graduating students receive a ‘freedom bell’ to keep as a symbol of their time here, and as a symbol of their new independence.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010: Getting into the swing
I am getting into a routine and working hard. I am reading Braille at 25 words a minute – a huge improvement from when I started in November.
I travelled over Christmas in sleepshades and my mom, who had come to visit, noticed that my speed and confidence had increased.
My travel instructor now assigns me independent routes. He gives me a specific route or asks me to find a store. I go to the store and bring back a business card to show I made it.
I walk with my cane at a good pace. I am fast, but working on my accuracy. Some days, the travel sessions are excellent and I reach the destination, without many detours. Other days, I veer to the other side of a street without realizing it, get turned around and walk the wrong way, or walk on the street, instead of the sidewalk. These mistakes frustrate me, but I know it is a part of my training and I will get better.
In shop class, I completed the first phase of ‘grid blocks.’ Now, I am making what are called ‘Braille blocks.’ The students scribe lines, make indications and drill holes, to create a block with six holes, like a Braille full cell. Students make three of these ‘Braille blocks,’ learn a new tool, make three more, and learn another tool. Most recently, I learned to use a table saw.
In computers, I am learning many new JAWS (screen reading software) and Windows commands. The instructor gives us assignments, such as to write and format a short essay about our experiences at the centre, and to create an Excel spreadsheet.
I am immersed in all this learning, but by far the most incredible part of being at LCB is the people. There are 20 students here. We do so much together and experience so many things, good and bad. The bond grows each day. LCB is a family. The immersion is not only physical immersion – to learn the skills of blindness – but also, at a deeper level, an emotional immersion. Training is a time, a space away from regular life, to take stock and work on oneself.
Thursday, March 25, 2010: Whirlwind
My life is a whirlwind. Home seems so far away, and it feels like I have been living in Ruston, Louisiana, forever. I have been training for five months now. I am progressing in all my classes. The progression isn’t as drastic as in the beginning – more a continuous evolution of skills and confidence.
The other day, I travelled 20 blocks in an hour. My speed and accuracy is increasing. But, occasionally, I still make big mistakes. Last week, I was travelling with confidence, until I discovered I had walked in the wrong direction and down the wrong road. If the construction worker hadn’t told me where I was, I might have walked to Canada, before figuring out my mistake.
I am learning to focus on the parallel traffic to keep me in line and out of the parking lots. I have to avoid distractions, as much as possible. If my mind wanders, my feet follow.
In shop, I am progressing to the end of the requirements, before starting my final project. I spent at least two weeks learning to use a tool called a router. The router and I, do not have the best relationship. My first task was to tighten and loosen the bit with two wrenches at the same time. This exercise improves coordination and dexterity. It also significantly improves one’s ability to bite one’s tongue and stamp one’s foot in frustration. You have to tighten and loosen the bit ten times without help, before progressing onto actually using the tool.
For me, routing wasn’t much easier than dealing with the bit. After some practice, I am now able to use the router to smooth the sides and corners of my Braille blocks. This week, I learned my last tool of the series, the sander. The sander is beautiful in its simplicity.
In life skills, I changed a fluorescent bulb in the ceiling, and failed. I found the light on the ceiling with my cane (yes, canes have more uses than one could imagine); I climbed the ladder and attempted to connect the new bulb; it must have jammed, because the light did not come on. I will have to do this again, before graduating from this class.
There are 25 students here now. The school is getting crowded.
Saturday, May 29, 2010: Sweat and Tears
I am at the peak of my training. It is called intensive training for a reason.
I finished the home economics part of the program, except for my meal for 40, which is this Wednesday. I cooked my meal for eight, when my mom was visiting. I cooked chicken and mushroom soup casserole, biscuits, salad and lemon mousse. I also made hot tea, for some Canadian flair. Americans, down south, don’t often drink hot tea. Do you know how hard it was to find a teapot around here?
I think the meal for eight is more challenging, than the meal for 40, because it is formal; you have to set the table and serve everyone.
I grew frazzled near the end with all the last-minute things, while the guests waited in the next room.
I finished shop class yesterday. I made two memory boxes for my sons, as my final project. One is stained walnut and one cherry. My son, Ronyn, gets the cherry box, because he has red hair. My son, Rhys, gets the walnut box, because he has brown hair.
For the rest of my training, I will focus on my Braille, computers and travel.
I am making progress in Braille, but it is slow. I am still reading 30 to 40 words per minute. Sometimes, I will be reading along smoothly and quickly, then get hung up on a word, or a punctuation mark, and lose time; this frustrates me. The more I read, the less I get stuck, and the more easily I can decipher words.
I did my first ‘supported drop route’ a few weeks ago. On a ‘drop route,’ a driver takes the student and the instructor to an undisclosed location. Neither the student or the instructor know where they are. The student must find his or her own way back to the centre, using the new skills, and without asking any questions.
I was excited. First step, I determined the cardinal directions: north, south, east, west. Then, I listened for clues – quiet – except for a busy street in the distance to the south.
I walked toward the traffic sounds. When I reached the street, I heard the distinctive clink, clink sound of the cars running on concrete. This clue told me I was most likely on Alabama. Alabama is one of the only streets in Ruston, with this distinct sound.
Then, I listened and heard cars to the west on the parallel road. There weren’t many cars. Those I did hear were coming from 2 directions. I determined, since I was most likely on Alabama, the street to the west could only be Bonner, Trenton, Vienna, Munro, Minden, Homer, or Everett.
I ruled out several of these streets right away. Trenton is a busy, one way street, where the cars only go south. Munro is a fairly busy road. Bonner is also busy. I decided, it must be Homer or Everett. I went on this assumption and walked east. If wrong, I could always go back to my starting place and come up with another theory.
As I walked, I heard the one-way traffic of Trenton, and breathed a sigh. I crossed Trenton, turned south, and knew for sure.
Last week, I sprained my ankle on my way back to the apartments, after dropping off my sons at their dad’s. It wasn’t a hard fall, but my ankle turned the wrong way – and, boy, did it hurt. Interestingly, when I sprained my ankle, I wasn’t wearing my sleepshades; if I had been, I might have paid more attention to where I was walking, and used my cane properly, instead of pushing it along in an inefficient manner.
Sleepshades are precious. They represent our hard work and determination, to get through this training and to improve on our skills. Many times my shades have hidden sweat that drips down my face, or tears that fall from my eyes.
Several of my close friends are graduating, and new students are starting the journey of training. I miss those who have left. I will be graduating in August. My time here has gone so fast, but in other ways, I have been here for a lifetime.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010: Pickle Juice
I shopped for my ‘meal for 40’ yesterday, so much to buy. I quadrupled the recipes. I am making chili, rice, tossed salad, baking powder biscuits and ‘Dirt Cake.’ Oh, and pink lemonade.
I cooked all day. The only mishaps were when I broke a jar of pickles, which fell out of the fridge and shattered into a hundred pieces of glass, drenched in pickle juice. I uttered a few unrepeatable words and spent 20 minutes cleaning up the mess.
I also put baking soda, instead of baking powder, in the biscuits, and had to re-do the whole mixture.
It was 91 degrees today, but with the humidity, it is over 100, so hot. The June bugs sing at night.
Saturday, June 12, 2010: Lost in a backyard
I timed 42 words a minute last week in Braille. I am reading in the forties now. It is nice to feel my fingers slide more quickly and smoothly across the page, and hear my voice read the story aloud, with emphasis and expression.
I have two extra cane travel classes a week. One day, I searched up and down the same block for 45 minutes, but could not find the address. Finally, frustrated, hot and exhausted – and lost in a backyard – a stranger found me and helped me back to the sidewalk. He said, “I know we aren’t supposed to help you, but I saw you looking around for so long…” I thanked him profusely. It turned out I had accidentally been given the wrong address. I know that block well now.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010: Did my 10 K Today!
I completed another graduation requirement in travel today – a 10 km walk around Ruston. My teacher gave me a preset route written in Braille, which included combinations of all the routes over my time at LCB, in one long travel session.
Part of the route involved crossing the Interstate, then going back to the other side of town: east, west, north, south, and everywhere in between. I started the route at 7 o’clock in the morning, when it was a perfect temperature for walking, about 76 degrees. I lost concentration only a few times near the end and got disoriented, but I used my skills to figure out where I was, and got back on track.
The last few weeks have been quiet. I did my ‘out-of-town’ route on Monday. I went to Monroe on the Greyhound and took the city bus to the mall.
I finished my final computer assignment: Braille versions of a menu; the hardest part was cutting the vinyl and binding the covers.
I timed at 57 words a minute in Braille. My goal, before leaving here, is 60; only four words away.
Friday, August 6, 2010: Out with a Bang
Today is my graduation day – just like me, to graduate during a thunder storm.
I cannot believe my journey here is over. My time here has been long and lifechanging. I am excited to be going home, but, also, filled with grief to leave my life here. This is a place, both, in time and outside time, both, in this world and otherworldly. I am the same person as when I started. Yet, forever changed.
I will go soon to the library to receive my ‘freedom bell.’
By donating to the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre project, we can work together to provide Canadians who are blind or Deafblind from across the country the skills to live life independently with confidence and dignity. One of the aims of the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre project is to establish an intensive, live-in blindness/Deafblindness skills training program modelled on centres such as the one in Louisiana.
You can read more articles in the Student Voices series.