Sunday, September 13, 2009

Day of Caring 2009

Every year, my employer offers an opportunity for us to get out into the community and do a one-day service project. Also every year, a friend who works for a state agency invites me to join her for a day of outdoor recreation. Finally, finally, because both of these worlds converged, I had to say yes.

The Department of Services for the Blind, specifically the Orientation and Training Center in Seattle, provides a variety of learning experiences for people who are blind and visually impaired. Their curriculum includes outdoor "challenge" activities such as hiking, biking, skiing, boating, rock climbing, and riding the city bus. (Oops -- strike that last item. It belongs in another section of the course.)

I've been around a lot of people who are blind and visually impaired. It has been my great privilege to participate as a student at three week-long conferences of the Lutheran Blind Mission. While each of those weeks involved a small group of 25 folks, I was the only sighted student. Those times were fantastic immersion experiences. Since then, I've attended two conventions of the Washington Council of the Blind, with somewhere over 250 attendees. People have told me I'm an excellent sighted guide, and that I come across as a very trustworthy sighted person. For all these things, I am grateful.

Although I was introduced at the Day of Caring activity as a member of the WCB and someone knowledgeable about the blindness community, I was reticent to appear as an expert. I wanted to watch and learn, and also help. What I was most curious about was how this group of sighted volunteers would be trained as guides, how confident they'd feel about guiding, and how the interactions would progress.

I'm very pleased to say that everything went swimmingly! The volunteers plunged into their assignments, the students from the OTC teamed up with their guides, and the activities began. The guides weren't overly hesitant, and it probably helped that there were clear expectations and a schedule for the day. I heard from the OTC students and staff how much they enjoyed everything and how pleasantly surprised some of them were because they had fun. I didn't get to talk with my library colleagues, but I suspect they would have said much the same thing. And it was fun.

One student freely stated that she had had no intention of getting on any kind of bicycle contraption that day. But, when the time came, she wasn't exactly given a choice, and she climbed aboard. Her guide was very steady and quiet, she said, until she finally gave up and let herself relax a bit. At that point, her partner began to give bits of commentary on what he was seeing. The longer they rode, the more she enjoyed it! In fact, when lunch was delayed, she was the first to ask to take one more ride before eating.

As I continue to craft fiction, my goal is to peel back layers of misconceptions regarding people who are visually impaired. It would be wonderful to write a novel that would promote understanding and discussion between the sighted and blind communities. There's a lot that the sighted folks just don't see, so to speak.

And with that, I'll get back to work editing my novel-in-progress. Thanks for reading.


Miss Kitty said...

What an awesome opportunity! Wow. I'm at a loss for words--how wonderful that must have been for everyone involved.

Anonymous said...

Katharine, your insights into the world of the visually impaired are so interesting. What first got you interested in this specific calling?