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Woman 2 Watch- Donna Hill

Donna Hill & Hunter, her guide dog

This week’s Woman 2 Watch is Donna Hill who is head of media relations for the Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind. Donna is also an accomplished a singer/songwriter with 3 recordings, a breast cancer survivor and blind American who is a volunteer writer/publicist exposing the successes and challenges of being blind in America. Read below to see how Donna is changing the world..

FG: As head of media relations for the Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind what is the primary message you are trying to get out to the public?

DH: There are many talented performers in all genres of music from classical to folk to rock and hip hop who are blind or have severe visual impairments. They excel at their craft despite obstacles including a lack of learning materials and software in accessible formats as well as denied opportunities due to misunderstandings about blindness. Their music is not often familiar to the public, but as songwriters, vocalists and musicians, they have much to offer. In supporting the non-profit, volunteer-run Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind (PAD, NFB), people have an opportunity not only to ensure that other blind musicians will have the tools they need, but they will experience the joy of discovering new music. http://nfbpad.wordpress.com/

FG: What are some of the services or programs that the Performing Arts Division offers to blind Americans?

DH: The Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind offers scholarships, subsidies and networking to blind and visually impaired performers. Our CD Sound in Sight Volume 1 is a multi-genre compilation of 18 original tracks and covers donated by blind recording artists, which is sold to raise funds for our programs. Hear clips at: http://cdbaby.com/cd/padotnfotb

FG: What are some of the challenges blind Americans face in today’s society?

DH: Blind Americans have more potential and more challenges than any other minority in America today. The statistics tell a grim story; over 70% of all working-age blind Americans are unemployed, and only 10% of blind children are taught to read Braille, despite strong links between Braille literacy and independence. Nonetheless, blind people are actively employed in fields never thought possible. There are blind lawyers, mechanics, journalists, chemists, computer programmers, teachers and engineers. Recently, Tim Cordes, a blind man, graduated from medical school in Wisconsin; he’s not the first to do so. The successes of these people show that blindness is not an insurmountable obstacle, and that blind people can live full and productive lives. The key is providing blind people with training and equipment enabling them to do the same things sighted people do. The National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates like the Performing Arts Division are dedicated to changing what it means to be blind and changing the public’s low expectations of its fellow citizens who are blind. This is particularly important, because blindness is on the rise. Most people who are blind lose their sight as adults, after they have already developed strong and often negative impressions of what blindness means. In 2009, the CDC predicted a 3-fold increase in diabetes-related blindness among working-age Americans by 2050. Changing what it means to be blind will help these not-yet-blind Americans continue to live full, productive and happy lives, as well as lifting the burden for their support from the back of the taxpayer.

FG: What are some of the misconceptions people have about blind Americans?

DH: Misconceptions about blindness abound, despite the successes of some blind people. As I follow what is said about blindness on the internet, I rarely go more than a few days without reading something that re enforces the worst negative stereotypes. A blind computer programmer recently told me that his boss confided that he was reluctant to hire him, not because he didn’t think he could do the job, but because he assumed that a blind man would need help going to the bathroom and getting to work. Another blind woman reported that her dental hygienist asked her who brushed her teeth. Last spring, a blind couple in Michigan had their baby taken away shortly after her birth because a hospital social worker believed that blind people couldn’t safely parent a child without sighted supervision — the child was returned after 2 months with the help of the NFB. Blind people frequently report that the sighted public interferes with their guide dogs and white cane travel, grabbing and pushing them around without so much as a hello. If a sighted person is with the blind person, it is assumed that he or she is there to help the blind person, causing merchants to address the sighted person when inquiring what the blind person wants. In short, the public believes that blindness makes it impossible for people to accomplish the ordinary activities of life — travel, preparing food, making decisions about health care, house cleaning, shopping, etc. without sighted assistance. For those of us who refuse to accept this status, the possibilities for independence, leisure activities and productivity are endless. Other misconceptions exist about the availability of help for blind people. Many people believe there is one overriding organization that helps with everything. In fact, services come from many groups both government-funded like the Talking Book program of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and private non-profits like the National Braille Press and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. Programs have been slashed; with industry unwilling to consider non-visual access when designing consumer goods, the adaptive equipment needed by blind people is far more expensive than equivalents used by the sighted.The NFB, over 50,000 blind people advocating for equal rights and opportunities, has 3 training centers (Colorado, Louisiana & Minnesota) where both newly blind people and those who were denied non-visual skills training in school can acquire the skills they need to live full and productive lives. Summer camps throughout the country introduce blind children to successful blind adults, while other programs empower newly blinded senior citizens to continue the activities they love. http://www.nfb.org

FG: What effect does Braille have on the success of a blind American’s quality of life?

DH: Braille is a highly valuable skill for blind and visually impaired people. Even learning the basics — without acquiring the skill to read books at a speed comparable to print — can be the difference between dependence and independence. Blind people use Braille labels to organize spices, CD and DVD collections and paperwork. We make to-do lists, Braille copies of our favorite recipes, knitting patterns and important financial information. For blind children, there is no substitute for Braille. Audio learning, for instance, does not teach spelling and sentence structure; in Braille, these are immediately seen with the fingers, just as they are seen in print with the eyes. Children who are denied Braille have been shown to have a substandard ability to write coherently and to organize their thoughts. In addition to the problems of low expectations for blind students, there is a shortage of Braille instructors, and often their education is so minimal that they themselves are not literate in Braille. One of the main focuses of the NFB and its affiliates is to promote the use of Braille and establish standards for teaching it. Currently, only California has written standards for what is expected.

FG: Does the Federation have any international initiatives for the blind in other countries?

DH: The NFB cooperates with blindness organizations in other countries to work on issues such as international copyright law that will make it easier for blind people around the world to acquire books in accessible formats. NFB also runs the International Braille and Technology Center (Baltimore), a comprehensive evaluation, demonstration, and training center, with over $2.5 million worth of nearly all of the tactile and speech output technology now available to the blind. Since 1990, the IBTC has served as a resource for vendor-free advice on all aspects of access technology. Staff members of the IBTC consult with individuals, employers, rehabilitation and education professionals, and technology developers worldwide, thus better ensuring that the consumer perspective is represented and technology choices are the best for each blind person. NFB leaders and members also participate in programs like Braille Without Borders, in which blind rehabilitation professionals travel to poor countries and instruct their blindness professionals and blind citizens in non-visual skills.

FG: How many of your business decisions are based on know how vs. your intuition?

DH: As a writer and recording artist, I confess that my decisions are often based on intuition. Nonetheless, I am continually educating myself about business practices, such as the use of the internet for marketing. I am also attempting to improve my skills as a writer, songwriter and musician. Any endeavor needs to be a combination of intuitive and practical skills as well as the investment of many hours functioning at a high level.

FG: What do you consider to be some of the major highlights of your career thus far?

DH: As a journalist and performer I have had the honor and pleasure of interviewing and opening for many of my favorite performers in the folk music genre including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc Watson, Jez Lowe and Steve Gillette. On my three recordings, I worked with many other fine musicians. My greatest joy, however, has come from the impact my music has had on my audience. One man contacted me about purchasing another copy of my first album Rainbow Colors, because he had worn the first one out during 6 months in the hospital and rehab after an accident. One morning, when I arrived at a Philadelphia area elementary school to talk to the children about my guide dog and blindness, they greeted me by singing my song “We Need Everyone of Us.” The same song was also used for a 5th grade graduation.

FG: What is a spiritual mantra or philosophy that you live by?

DH: Don’t give up.

FG: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

DH: When I was a child, my parents had the unenviable task of raising two kids who were gradually losing their vision from Retinitis Pigmentosa. The disease was not even studied until I was graduating from college. They lived in a world, similar to today’s parents of blind children, in which children who were legally but not totally blind were expected to function as sighted, rather than learn non-visual skills. This leads to massive eyestrain and spending far more time on homework than one’s peers. It also invites an enormous amount of bullying. Most children in this situation find themselves falling further and further behind academically as well as socially, while the adults around them think this is inevitable because of the child’s visual acuity. My parents believed I was just as good as anyone else, but they didn’t have any specific knowledge or suggestions about how I might fulfill my potential. My father said many times, “Use your brains, Donna.” It was his way of encouraging me to find the solutions within myself, and it has served me well over the years, as new challenges, including 2 bouts with breast cancer, have come and gone.

FG: What would you tell your younger-self if you knew then what you know now?

DH: I would tell my younger self that she is already blind and it’s OK because there are far fewer limitations caused by it than most people realize. I would explain that her education was sorely lacking in non-visual skills such as Braille, and encourage her to get involved with the NFB to meet successful blind people and learn how to acquire the skills she’d missed out on. I would also tell her that her basic instincts are correct; she has much to give and she can find and create opportunities. Finish this sentence….

FG: Women should stop complaining about ___________ and ____________________

DH: Women should stop complaining about whatever they’re complaining about and start doing something that will impact the problems they see in the world and utilize their unique gifts.

FG: If your life had a soundtrack what would be your top three songs ?

DH: “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel “From a Distance” sung by Nancy Griffith

FG: What project(s) do you have coming up?

DH: I am finishing a fantasy novel called The Heart of Applebutter Hill, which will be published in 2011. It features 2 14-year-old refugees who uncover a plot to steal a valuable treasure from their new school. The girl, a songwriter, is losing her vision. In addition to the search for a spy at their school, the two uncover information about the bullying of two of their friends. The book will be used to help raise funds for the NFB. I hope it will open the eyes of the public and those working with blind people to not only our potential but the underlying obstacles we face on a day-to-day basis, and show how overcoming them helps society as a whole. For more information on Donna Hill contact her through her writer’s page at Suite 101 http:// www.suite101.com/profile.cfm/donna_hill Hear clips from her CD The Last Straw at:http://cdbaby.com/cd/donnahill

FG: As Head of Media Relations for the Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind what is the primary message you are trying to get out to the public?

DH: There are many talented performers in all genres of music from classical to folk to rock and hip hop who are blind or have severe visual impairments. They excel at their craft despite obstacles including a lack of learning materials and software in accessible formats as well as denied opportunities due to misunderstandings about blindness. Their music is not often familiar to the public, but as songwriters, vocalists and musicians, they have much to offer. In supporting the non-profit, volunteer-run Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind (PAD, NFB), people have an opportunity not only to ensure that other blind musicians will have the tools they need, but they will experience the joy of discovering new music. http://nfbpad.wordpress.com/ FG: What are some of the services or programs that the Performing Arts Division offers to blind Americans? DH: The Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind offers scholarships, subsidies and networking to blind and visually impaired performers. Our CD Sound in Sight Volume 1 is a multi-genre compilation of 18 original tracks and covers donated by blind recording artists, which is sold to raise funds for our programs. Hear clips at: http://cdbaby.com/cd/padotnfotb

FG: What are some of the challenges blind Americans face in today’s society?

DH: Blind Americans have more potential and more challenges than any other minority in America today. The statistics tell a grim story; over 70% of all working-age blind Americans are unemployed, and only 10% of blind children are taught to read Braille, despite strong links between Braille literacy and independence. Nonetheless, blind people are actively employed in fields never thought possible. There are blind lawyers, mechanics, journalists, chemists, computer programmers, teachers and engineers. Recently, Tim Cordes, a blind man, graduated from medical school in Wisconsin; he’s not the first to do so. The successes of these people show that blindness is not an insurmountable obstacle, and that blind people can live full and productive lives. The key is providing blind people with training and equipment enabling them to do the same things sighted people do. The National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates like the Performing Arts Division are dedicated to changing what it means to be blind and changing the public’s low expectations of its fellow citizens who are blind. This is particularly important, because blindness is on the rise. Most people who are blind lose their sight as adults, after they have already developed strong and often negative impressions of what blindness means. In 2009, the CDC predicted a 3-fold increase in diabetes-related blindness among working-age Americans by 2050. Changing what it means to be blind will help these not-yet-blind Americans continue to live full, productive and happy lives, as well as lifting the burden for their support from the back of the taxpayer. FG: What are some of the misconceptions people have about blind Americans? DH: Misconceptions about blindness abound, despite the successes of some blind people. As I follow what is said about blindness on the internet, I rarely go more than a few days without reading something that re enforces the worst negative stereotypes. A blind computer programmer recently told me that his boss confided that he was reluctant to hire him, not because he didn’t think he could do the job, but because he assumed that a blind man would need help going to the bathroom and getting to work. Another blind woman reported that her dental hygienist asked her who brushed her teeth. Last spring, a blind couple in Michigan had their baby taken away shortly after her birth because a hospital social worker believed that blind people couldn’t safely parent a child without sighted supervision — the child was returned after 2 months with the help of the NFB. Blind people frequently report that the sighted public interferes with their guide dogs and white cane travel, grabbing and pushing them around without so much as a hello. If a sighted person is with the blind person, it is assumed that he or she is there to help the blind person, causing merchants to address the sighted person when inquiring what the blind person wants. In short, the public believes that blindness makes it impossible for people to accomplish the ordinary activities of life — travel, preparing food, making decisions about health care, house cleaning, shopping, etc. without sighted assistance. For those of us who refuse to accept this status, the possibilities for independence, leisure activities and productivity are endless. Other misconceptions exist about the availability of help for blind people. Many people believe there is one overriding organization that helps with everything. In fact, services come from many groups both government-funded like the Talking Book program of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and private non-profits like the National Braille Press and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. Programs have been slashed; with industry unwilling to consider non-visual access when designing consumer goods, the adaptive equipment needed by blind people is far more expensive than equivalents used by the sighted.The NFB, over 50,000 blind people advocating for equal rights and opportunities, has 3 training centers (Colorado, Louisiana & Minnesota) where both newly blind people and those who were denied non-visual skills training in school can acquire the skills they need to live full and productive lives. Summer camps throughout the country introduce blind children to successful blind adults, while other programs empower newly blinded senior citizens to continue the activities they love. http://www.nfb.org FG: What effect does Braille have on the success of a blind American’s quality of life? DH: Braille is a highly valuable skill for blind and visually impaired people. Even learning the basics — without acquiring the skill to read books at a speed comparable to print — can be the difference between dependence and independence. Blind people use Braille labels to organize spices, CD and DVD collections and paperwork. We make to-do lists, Braille copies of our favorite recipes, knitting patterns and important financial information. For blind children, there is no substitute for Braille. Audio learning, for instance, does not teach spelling and sentence structure; in Braille, these are immediately seen with the fingers, just as they are seen in print with the eyes. Children who are denied Braille have been shown to have a substandard ability to write coherently and to organize their thoughts. In addition to the problems of low expectations for blind students, there is a shortage of Braille instructors, and often their education is so minimal that they themselves are not literate in Braille. One of the main focuses of the NFB and its affiliates is to promote the use of Braille and establish standards for teaching it. Currently, only California has written standards for what is expected.

FG: Does the Federation have any international initiatives for the blind in other countries?

DH: The NFB cooperates with blindness organizations in other countries to work on issues such as international copyright law that will make it easier for blind people around the world to acquire books in accessible formats. NFB also runs the International Braille and Technology Center (Baltimore), a comprehensive evaluation, demonstration, and training center, with over $2.5 million worth of nearly all of the tactile and speech output technology now available to the blind. Since 1990, the IBTC has served as a resource for vendor-free advice on all aspects of access technology. Staff members of the IBTC consult with individuals, employers, rehabilitation and education professionals, and technology developers worldwide, thus better ensuring that the consumer perspective is represented and technology choices are the best for each blind person. NFB leaders and members also participate in programs like Braille Without Borders, in which blind rehabilitation professionals travel to poor countries and instruct their blindness professionals and blind citizens in non-visual skills.

FG: How many of your business decisions are based on know how vs. your intuition?

DH: As a writer and recording artist, I confess that my decisions are often based on intuition. Nonetheless, I am continually educating myself about business practices, such as the use of the internet for marketing. I am also attempting to improve my skills as a writer, songwriter and musician. Any endeavor needs to be a combination of intuitive and practical skills as well as the investment of many hours functioning at a high level. FG: What do you consider to be some of the major highlights of your career thus far? DH: As a journalist and performer I have had the honor and pleasure of interviewing and opening for many of my favorite performers in the folk music genre including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc Watson, Jez Lowe and Steve Gillette. On my three recordings, I worked with many other fine musicians. My greatest joy, however, has come from the impact my music has had on my audience. One man contacted me about purchasing another copy of my first album Rainbow Colors, because he had worn the first one out during 6 months in the hospital and rehab after an accident. One morning, when I arrived at a Philadelphia area elementary school to talk to the children about my guide dog and blindness, they greeted me by singing my song “We Need Everyone of Us.” The same song was also used for a 5th grade graduation.

FG: What is a spiritual mantra or philosophy that you live by?

DH: Don’t give up.

FG: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

DH: When I was a child, my parents had the unenviable task of raising two kids who were gradually losing their vision from Retinitis Pigmentosa. The disease was not even studied until I was graduating from college. They lived in a world, similar to today’s parents of blind children, in which children who were legally but not totally blind were expected to function as sighted, rather than learn non-visual skills. This leads to massive eyestrain and spending far more time on homework than one’s peers. It also invites an enormous amount of bullying. Most children in this situation find themselves falling further and further behind academically as well as socially, while the adults around them think this is inevitable because of the child’s visual acuity. My parents believed I was just as good as anyone else, but they didn’t have any specific knowledge or suggestions about how I might fulfill my potential. My father said many times, “Use your brains, Donna.” It was his way of encouraging me to find the solutions within myself, and it has served me well over the years, as new challenges, including 2 bouts with breast cancer, have come and gone.

FG: What would you tell your younger-self if you knew then what you know now?

DH: I would tell my younger self that she is already blind and it’s OK because there are far fewer limitations caused by it than most people realize. I would explain that her education was sorely lacking in non-visual skills such as Braille, and encourage her to get involved with the NFB to meet successful blind people and learn how to acquire the skills she’d missed out on. I would also tell her that her basic instincts are correct; she has much to give and she can find and create opportunities.

Finish this sentence….

FG: Women should stop complaining about ___________ and ____________________

DH: Women should stop complaining about whatever they’re complaining about and start doing something that will impact the problems they see in the world and utilize their unique gifts.

FG: If your life had a soundtrack what would be your top three songs ?

DH: “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel “From a Distance” sung by Nancy Griffith

FG: What project(s) do you have coming up?

DH: I am finishing a fantasy novel called The Heart of Applebutter Hill, which will be published in 2011. It features 2 14-year-old refugees who uncover a plot to steal a valuable treasure from their new school. The girl, a songwriter, is losing her vision. In addition to the search for a spy at their school, the two uncover information about the bullying of two of their friends. The book will be used to help raise funds for the NFB. I hope it will open the eyes of the public and those working with blind people to not only our potential but the underlying obstacles we face on a day-to-day basis, and show how overcoming them helps society as a whole.

For more information on Donna Hill contact her through her writer’s page at Suite 101:

http:// www.suite101.com/profile.cfm/donna_hill

Hear clips from her CD The Last Straw at:

http://cdbaby.com/cd/donnahill

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