Reaching Out to Your Community to Educate and Inform People About Blindness

Reaching Out to Your Community to Educate and Inform People About Blindness
by Cindy Burgett, President, Washington Council of the Blind

When we look at the opportunities for educating and informing our community about blindness, let's consider the six P's: participating, presenting, publicizing, promoting, providing and projecting.

1. PARTICIPATING! Chapter participation in community events: fairs, parades and service projects.

Many community fairs and events will allow you to set up an informational table for your chapter or affiliate for free or at a minimal cost. My local chapter has a table each year at Kid's Day, an event sponsored by our local Fire Department and held at the county fairgrounds. The cost is $20 and our main targets are children and their parents. We bring children's Braille books, have a couple of guide dog handlers with dogs at the booth, bring a Braille writer and some stickers to Braille kids names, and we have a stamp to put on their passport proving they came by our booth. Your display should depend on your audience. If you go out in the community promoting blindness issues, you need to be equipped with a list of resources: library services, rehab agency information, Guide Dog schools, local eye specialists, local transportation services, Lions Clubs, and of course your local chapter and state affiliate information.

Parades require a little coordinating, but what an awesome sight it is for people to see a group of blind people walking independently in a parade. One year that I can remember my chapter doing this, we had a Volkswagen convertible leading us with a couple of members riding in it holding up a banner. We followed with our canes and dogs, and some of us were even pulling along a stroller.

How about your chapter taking part in a community event such as making phone calls for a particular Initiative, wrapping presents for Toys For Tots, stuffing envelopes for the local Humane Society, standing with your local Lions handing out there little canes? The options are endless.

2. PRESENTING! Members making presentations to: schools, clubs, churches and business organizations.

Individual members who are comfortable with public speaking will often find themselves sharing their personal experiences with blindness. Explaining Braille to young children or accessibility issues to business people are great ways to educate. Give the name of a contact person in your chapter to your local school districts and Chamber of Commerce, letting them know of the willingness of your members to do this, and you will be surprised!

You might consider helping your members interested in doing these types of presentations by connecting them with resources to get: braille/print alphabet cards, posters creating illusions of different eye conditions, brochures about different eye conditions, your affiliate brochures or business cards, etc. Our state affiliate has purchased braille/print alphabet cards with our contact information on them for our members to use in these types of situations. The American Printing House for the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind and National Library Service are just a few of the places you might check with for some of these items.

3. PUBLICIZING! Publicize your organization through: a web site, brochures, business cards, phone line/voice mail, newspaper coverage of an event and word of mouth. Most of these cost very little, but what a way to reach out to the community at hand.

There is free web hosting out there. Our local chapter uses www.free.webs.com. By utilizing your own members to keep your web site updated, you will save some money. However, if you decide to seek assistance elsewhere, you may be able to find a volunteer or hire a webmaster at a nominal fee.

Brochures can be done professionally or from a member's computer. As long as you get the information out that you want to share and make sure your material is in large print.

Business cards are another easy way to spread the name of your chapter or affiliate. WCB provides business cards with Braille on them for our members to take and share at their leisure. My local chapter has cards as well, but they do not have Braille; however, they do advertise our local information.

A phone line may be too costly for some affiliates, but having someone answer a phone in person, ready to answer questions is a real asset. I know many affiliates already have a toll-free number for this.

The next best thing to a phone line is having voice mail. Our chapter has a designated phone number that just provides an outgoing message and the ability to take messages. We pay about $13 a month for this service that is under one of our member's names. The bill actually comes to our chapter in care of that member.

Free advertising is a great thing to take advantage of. When you know an event is coming up where one of your member's or your chapter or affiliate is playing a specific role, let the media know. Prepare your members to give contact info for your chapter or affiliate when being interviewed.

Then there's word of mouth. When you meet someone on the bus, at the doctor's office, at the grocery store, in the workplace, you are given a unique opportunity. Use it to your advantage. Engage them in small talk if appropriate. Offer a business card or to give them your phone number. Better yet, offer to take their phone number so that you can call them back with the answer to a question they may have or to give them details about an upcoming meeting or event with your local chapter.

4. PROMOTING! Promote blindness through a chapter/affiliate project or program.

Working with your city on Accessible Pedestrian Signals and seeing through such a project from beginning to end will give your chapter numerous opportunities for education.

Sharing in an awareness day for a company such as your local transit system is another opportunity. One of the chapter's in our state affiliate did this last year. Their members provided canes for employees who rode the buses while under blindfold, to simulate being blind. These members were also present to answer questions and make sure the participant's experience was as realistic as possible.

Participating in a job fair by allowing attendees and vendors to see what assistive technology is available for potential employees to use and to answer questions they may have. You may even partner with another vender in such a project.

Paying a visit to your Legislators. Let them know how a given initiative or bill will benefit blind people, or how it would harm us.

Putting on a program such as a convention or outreach day. These are not only opportunities to reach out to other blind and visually impaired people in your community, but they are great opportunities for awareness of blindness issues and education to the general population as well.

5. PROVIDING! Provide support. This can be as easy as making a phone call or directing an individual to services they didn't know about, or a lot more of a commitment by your chapter to sponsor a support group for a Senior Center or living facility.

We all have special gifts or talents. So, whether yours is: being a good listener, knowing how to fill out the different forms one needs to deal with to receive services, a natural gift of encouraging people, the time and know-how to teach computers or cooking, great organizational skills to help coordinate a program or service, the ability to facilitate a group, or something else all together, working with your fellow members to determine each of your individual strengths will assist you as a cohesive group to move forward in supporting one another and reaching out to your community to support others.

6. PROJECTING! Project a positive image about blindness! Each blind or visually impaired individual is a walking advertisement for what it means to be blind. Whether we like it or not, the image someone else paints of a blind person by their actions, appearance and attitude will make an impression on every person with whom he/she comes into contact. This also means that you are often that very person giving an education to someone who is creating an image of what it means to be blind.

Maybe it isn't fair that we, as blind people, should all be lumped into the experience of one person. But we all learn from experiences in every aspect of our lives. So why should this be any different?

How we talk to others, how we present our selves (our personal hygiene and what we wear), how we handle body language (looking at others when we speak to them, eye contact, and our awareness of personal space), how we solicit assistance and how we respond to offers of help, and how we travel from Point a to Point b, are just some of what others are using to establish their image of what it means to be blind.

It is true that most of us do not hold a degree in Blindness Education. But our own personal experiences as blind individuals place us in the position of educating the public about blindness whether we want to or not.

Each of us are personal ambassadors of blindness. Let's join together in recognition of our power as a collective body and individually, embracing the opportunities we have, educating the many sighted people we encounter on our daily journey.