To be completed before Tuesday sessions.
by Peggy Elliott
Broadly speaking there are two models of service an agency serving blind people can adopt, what we call the passive and active models.
In the passive model, agency staff are trained on the array of services the agency offers and, for each client, determine for which services the client is eligible and dispense those services. Agency staff are the professionals, knowing what to do, and clients are recipients, receiving services to which a law entitles them. This is the model used by most agencies serving the blind across the country.
The other model is the active model. This model begins with the understanding that the real handicap of blindness is not the inability to see but the beliefs each blind person has about that blindness, picked up from society’s beliefs. Those beliefs, in essence, hold that a blind person can never really be competitive with a person who can see, that blindness techniques will always be inferior to techniques using sight, and that the best a blind person can hope for is to find a niche where his or her individual set of gifts will allow a peaceful life or a non-threatening job.
The active model
model ties all services to the importance of ridding the blind person of these beliefs and replacing them with genuine beliefs backed up by practice. These agencies gear all of their services toward creating a knowing within the client that blindness skills do work and that blind people can be just as capable and contributing as sighted persons. While clients will seldom state this outright and many may not even consciously realize that they have this belief, most people coming to an agency for the blind for the very first time believe that he or she is innately inferior to fully sighted people. In the active model, staff are also trained on requirements of the law, but those requirements are viewed as a mechanism through which they must provide the services that the clients need to obtain and put into daily practice the belief in their innate worth and ability to live a full and complete life.
Under the active model, all agency personnel, from the director to the custodians, must demonstrate belief in the competence and ability of each blind person. Achieving agency-wide belief in blind persons requires extensive training of new staff who, like blind clients, usually do not thoroughly believe in the capability of blind persons. In the passive model, it’s easy to mouth the independence and capability words without believing them; in the active model the staff person must actually believe those words to successfully provide service.
In addition to staff training and continuing education, in order to be and remain an agency that operates under the active model, we need to actively question all of our actions, policies, and programs. We need to look critically at what we do and ask ourselves the following questions:
by Shawn Mayo
The word “organic” is a very popular term these days. We hear it often and in varied contexts from the produce aisle at the grocery store to the latest book on business success. Merrium-Webster has many definitions for organic, but the two that speak to what we are going to talk about are: “developing in the manner of a living plant or animal” and “an integral element of a whole : fundamental” These definitions encapsulate our position toward curriculum.
There has been discussion about whether we should produce a manual that outlines how NFB centers do our training. I think such a manual would be impossible. Curriculum is a living thing. It is constantly changing to fit its environment, the tools and strategies available, and the individuals who put it into practice. The part of curriculum that is written down is only as useful as a football team’s playbook. It is an important part of preparation, but it won’t tell you which play will work best in a given game situation and it is absolutely worthless without a team to execute the plays. In fact, if you want to be a championship team, you need to have players who know when to run the play as designed and when to improvise. For example if a student comes into computer class after having finished up a travel assignment in which he is preoccupied because he was just pulled across the street by a stranger, and the instructor knows from seminar class that his family has been telling him that he does not need to use his cane. The instructor may have to discuss what has happened with the student to discuss solutions and ways of educating the public and his family rather than working on the dialog box assignment that is planned for in the the curriculum.
All curriculum must begin with a goal. There has to be an outcome that the curriculum is meant to achieve or there is no point in going to the work of building curriculum. The primary goal of adjustment to blindness training at our NFB centers is for our students to make blindness a non-factor in all areas of their lives. There are many factors that shape the kind of life that a person will have—intellectual ability, skills and talents, work ethic, education, economic status, etc. but blindness shouldn’t be on this list. There are probably other things that should not be on this list, but those would be the domain of other types of programs. What we know is blindness and we know that every blind person can be as successful and fulfilled as they would be if they had perfect vision. Our job is to create an environment where blind people can gain the skills, self-confidence, and positive attitude they need to take blindness out of the equation. –to become as independent, socially adapted, employable, and successful as they would be if they were not blind.
Every other goal we set and everything we do stems from this goal. Everyone we hire and every member of our boards believes in and actively works to achieve this goal. I was going to make the analogy that this goal is the trunk of the curriculum tree, but it is really like the tree’s DNA. It both defines the very nature of our programs and is embedded within every aspect of our training.
From this primary goal, there come secondary goals which form the baisis for the different classes we offer. In order to make blindness a non-factor in one’s life, there are very practical needs that must be met. A person has to be able to get from place to place, read, write, and access information, take care of oneself and one’s home, etc. Everyone has to achieve these things, but the extent to which each person needs to accomplish each of these sub-goals depends on his or her own personal attributes and aspirations. We require students to complete drop-offs. This is where they are taken to an unknown location and find their way back to the center while asking only one question. Sometimes we have had students who have memory loss or other cognative disabilities. They still complete the drop-offs but may need to ask more than one question. We never tell anyone that they couldn’t learn anything—in fact we know that students can always reach far beyond what they themselves expect–but we always keep our ultimate goal in mind. It’s not just whether they meet this or that preset standard of achievement , it’s whether or not they are making blindness a non-issue in their lives.
Success is not a static term. The equation of success will be different for each individual, but blindness won’t determine whether a person reaches their potential.
The term “the blind” historically has given society the erroneous impression that blind people are all alike. The only real common denominator among blind people is blindness. The only real common denominator among our students is how they conceptualize blindness and live out that conceptualization in their daily lives. One of our assistant directors at BLIND, Inc., Dick Davis, has a tradition of giving each student a rock when they graduate. He explains that this rock started out large and rough and has been made small and smooth by flowing water. He explains that the rock represents blindness and that when a person is first blind or hasn’t dealt with blindness, it is the size of a boulder and they have to use a lot of energy to drag it around everywhere they go. But during training a student erodes the boulder, little by little, until it is a manageable size—a rock that fits in their pocket. Sometimes it will feel uncomfortable and other times they will forget it’s there and accidentally run it through the laundry, but it won’t ever command much of their attention or strength. They won’t have to organize their lives around blindness—they can organize their lives around what matters most to them.
An Address Delivered by Kenneth Jernigan
At the Josephine L. Taylor
Washington, D.C., March 3, 1994
When Mr. Augusto asked me to appear on this panel, he told me that almost all of the people in the audience would be professionals, rehabilitators and educators; so my remarks are principally aimed at those of you who are professionals. Today we are talking about how to save specialized services for the blind and what kind of partnership can or should exist between the blind and service providers. The fact that we are considering this topic and that the discussion is being led by the consumer organizations and the agencies in the field implies that we think specialized services are in danger, that they are worth saving, and that the organizations of the blind and the professionals can work in partnership, and that the partnership can make a difference. There is no question that programs for the blind are in danger, but whether the professionals and the consumers can effectively cooperate to save the situation is still being determined.
Partners must be equals. You who are professionals need, in the modern lingo, to internalize that. You need to internalize something else, too. If an organization of the blind is not strong enough and independent enough to cause you trouble and do you damage (that is, jeopardize your budget, create political problems for you, and hurt your public image), it is probably not strong enough and independent enough to do you any good either. Likewise, if you as a professional don’t have enough authority to damage the lives of the blind you are hired to help, you almost certainly don’t have enough authority to give them much assistance.
Fifteen or twenty years ago you heard very little talk in our field about consumerism. Today that has all changed. The organized blind movement has now developed enough strength and presence that it must be taken into account in every decision of any consequence. How you as professionals react to that new reality may very well determine whether specialized services for the blind will survive.
Some time ago I was asked to speak to a group of agency professionals on the topic “Blind Consumers: Chattels or Choosers.” It is not only a catchy title but a real issue, for we can’t meaningfully consider the relationship between the blind and the agencies established to give them service without taking into account current public attitudes about blindness, and even more to the point, the truth or falsity of those attitudes. With all of our efforts to educate the public, the average citizen’s notions about blindness are still predominantly negative; and since all of us (whether blind individual or agency professional) are part of the general public, we cannot help being influenced by public opinions.
Even so, we in this room (or at least most of us) profess to know that the blind (given equal training and opportunity) can compete on terms of equality with others; that the average blind child can hold his or her own with the average sighted child; that the average blind adult can do the average job in the average place of business, and do it as well as a sighted person similarly situated; that the average blind grandmother of eighty-four can do what the average sighted grandmother of that age can do. Of course, the above average can compete with the above average, and the below average will compete at that level. Blindness does not mean lack of ability, nor does it mean lack of capacity to perceive beauty or communicate with the world.
The techniques may be different, but the overall performance and the ability to experience pleasure are comparable. There are blind mathematicians, blind factory workers, blind dishwashers, and tens of thousands of just ordinary blind citizens to prove it. This is what I as a blind person, representing the largest organization of blind persons in the world, know and it is what you, knowledgeable professionals in the field, also know. Or, at least, this is probably what we would say we know if asked. But do we know it? Down at the gut level, where we live and feel, do we really believe it? As the poet Tennyson said, “I am part of all that I have met,” and he was right.
Whether we are blind person or agency professional, it is very hard for us to contradict what our culture has taught us and what it reinforces every day. As the German scientist Max Planck said, “A new truth usually does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
On this critical issue we cannot afford to engage in sophistry or deceive ourselves. If blindness is as limiting as most people think it is and as many professionals have traditionally said it is, then we should not deny it but face it. On the other hand, if the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight but the misunderstandings and misconceptions which exist, we should face that, too, and deal with it accordingly. In either case the need for the professional in the field will be equally great, but the services and the objectives will be different.
Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I was interviewed by a rehabilitation counselor. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. After changing the subject and talking about other things, he returned to the question and asked me to tell him three or four careers I might like to consider. With the brashness of youth I told him I didn’t need to do that, that I knew what I wanted to be-I wanted to be a lawyer.
He trotted out rehab jargon and told me that, while he wouldn’t say it was impossible for a blind person to be a lawyer, he would say it wasn’t feasible. A blind man, he said, couldn’t see the faces of the jury, couldn’t handle the paperwork, couldn’t do the traveling. I argued-but I was a teen-ager; and he was the counselor, who controlled the funds. He finally said (gently and with big words, but very clearly) that I could either go to college and be a lawyer, and pay for it myself-or I could go and be something else, and the agency would help with the bills. I didn’t have any money, and I was only a teen-ager-so I went and was something else.
I know now that he was wrong. I am personally acquainted with at least a hundred successfully practicing blind lawyers, and many of them are no better suited for the profession than I was. But I would not want you to misunderstand my point. That rehabilitation counselor was not being vicious or deliberately arbitrary. He was acting in what he believed to be my best interest. He was well disposed toward me and generously inclined. He simply believed (as his culture had taught him to believe) that a blind person couldn’t be a lawyer.
What, then, should be the relationship between the blind and the agencies, the consumers and the professionals? As I see it, the answer must be given at two levels-the individual, and the institutional. The issue is easier to deal with at the individual level; for the choices are more personal, the alternatives more clear-cut, and the short-term consequences more obvious. If, for instance, a blind youngster should come to one of you today and say that he or she wanted to be a lawyer, I seriously doubt that you would resist or discourage. Law is now generally accepted as a suitable profession for the blind.
This does not mean that each of you in this room who is an educator or an agency employee will always make the right decision concerning careers and other life situations involving the blind persons with whom you deal. But make no mistake: You will and must make decisions. Money is not unlimited, and by funding one project you necessarily choose not to fund another. You have the responsibility for making decisions and for being knowledgeable enough to give correct information and advice to the blind persons who need your help. I have no doubt that, in most instances, your motives will be good, but your decisions will be wise only to the extent that you have a correct understanding of what blind people can reasonably hope to do and be, and what blindness is really like-what the limitations of blindness are and, perhaps even more important, what they are not.
Obviously this kind of decision making concerning individuals is not easy, but as I have said, it is far less difficult than the other sort, the institutional. Moreover, despite the fact that the decision making concerning individuals leads to successful lives or blighted dreams, it is not as important (even to those personally involved) as your institutional decisions. In the long run every blind person in this country will be far more affected (more helped or hurt) by your institutional than your individual decisions. For purposes of today’s discussion I want to talk about your institutional decision making concerning the kinds of consumer organizations you will encourage or inhibit. And I urge you to resist the temptations of sophistry, for you cannot avoid making decisions in this area. You will make them whether you want to or not-and, for that matter, whether you know it or not. If in no other way, you will make such decisions by your daily attitudes and your subconscious behavior. Therefore, it is better to make them consciously and deliberately.
Of course, you cannot create an independent organization of blind consumers, for if the organization depends upon your permission and financing, it is by definition not independent. Freedom cannot be given by one group to another. It must either be affirmatively taken by the individual or group alleging to want it, or it cannot be had. It must be self-achieved, and the process must be ongoing and constant. But if you cannot create an independent organization of the blind, you can and will establish the climate that will encourage or inhibit it. And the stake you have is not solely altruistic or professional. It is also a matter of self-interest, and possibly survival.
In today’s climate of changing values and hard-fought issues, the best possible insurance policy for an agency for the blind is a strong, independent organization of blind consumers. Regardless of how much blind individuals may like the agency and support its policies, they cannot achieve and sustain the momentum to nurture and defend it in time of crisis. That is the negative way of saying this: If there is a powerful, independent organization of the blind and if the members of that organization feel that the agency is responsive to their needs and sympathetic to their wants, they will go to the government and the public for funding and support. They will be vigilant in the advancement of the agency’s interests. Its friends will be their friends. Its enemies will be their enemies. If it is threatened, they will feel that they have something to lose, and they will fight with ingenuity and determination to protect it.
Chattels, on the other hand, have very little to lose. They are at best indifferent and at worst resentful, always waiting for a chance to rebel in periods of crisis. In good times they rarely criticize, but they also do not imaginatively and effectively give support. In bad times they not only fail to defend-they cannot defend. They have neither the strength nor the know-how. Moreover, they lack the incentive. Having been taught that agency policy is none of their business, they cannot in time of danger suddenly become tough and resourceful. As many an agency has learned (the same is true of nations), chattels do not make good soldiers.
The agencies cannot have it both ways. Those that encourage independence, and help the blind achieve it, will prosper-and those that defensively cling to yesterday’s power base will perish. If a sufficient number of agencies fail to recognize the new realities, then the whole blindness system may well be destroyed.
And what are these new realities, these vital issues of which I speak? There are at least three, inter-related and inseparable: funding, generic as opposed to specialized programs, and empowerment of clients.
There was a time (and not long ago at that) when agencies for the blind pretty much got all of the money they reasonably wanted, and sometimes more than they reasonably needed. Today, budgets are tightening; the environment is deteriorating; population is rising; and resources are dwindling. In addition, other disability groups (once disorganized and invisible) are finding their voice and reaching for power. Some say they took their lessons from the blind. Be that as it may, they are now a growing force to be reckoned with, and there is no turning back. The argument they make is deceptively alluring. Give us, they say, a unified program for people with disabilities-no special treatment for any segment of the group. We are one population. Despite superficial differences, our needs are essentially the same. Save money. Eliminate duplication.
You and I know that the logic is shallow and the promise false, but it will take more than rhetoric to save our programs. In the general melting pot of the generic disability agency the blind will have no useful training, no meaningful opportunity, no real chance. If the special training and rehabilitation needs of the blind are to continue to be met and if our programs are to survive, there is only one way it can be done. The agencies for the blind and strong, independent grassroots organizations of the blind must work together to make it happen. And the partnership cannot be a sham. It must be real. It must be a true partnership of equals-each giving, each supporting, and each respecting the other.
This brings me to the empowerment of clients. By this I do not mean that the clients should administer the agencies. This would not work, and it is not desirable. Rather, I mean that clients should be respected, that they should be given meaningful choices, that they should have access to information, and that they should be encouraged (not pressured but encouraged) to join independent organizations of the blind-organizations which are not company unions but which have both the power and the inclination to serve as a check and balance to the agency, to act in concert with it, to pursue reasonable complaints against it, to refuse to pursue unreasonable complaints against it, and to work in every way as a supporter and partner. Let these things be done, and both the blind and the agencies will prosper. Let them not be done, and I think the blindness system will perish.
There is something else: Workers in the blindness system must resist the growing tendency to hide behind the term “professionalism” and must stop treating “professionalism” as if it were a sacred mystery. There is a teachable body of knowledge which can be learned about giving service to the blind; but much of that knowledge is a matter of common sense, good judgment, and experience. Most thinking blind persons (certainly those who have been blind for any length of time and have had any degree of success) know at least as much about what they and other blind people want and need from the system as the professionals do, and it must also be kept in mind that not every act of a “professional” is necessarily a “professional” act or based on “professionalism.” Just as in other fields in America today, the professionals in the blindness system must be judged on their behavior and not merely their credentials.
Whether you believe that the type of partnership and cooperative effort I have outlined will work depends on whether you believe in the basic tenets of democracy. It also depends on whether you believe the blind are capable of real equality. I do believe these things, and I hope you do, too. Otherwise, programs for the blind are probably doomed.
by Emily Wharton
The below is the written version of the first speech I gabe to the entire IDB staff as Director in December 2016. It wasn’t delivered quite this articulately. I was extremely nervous. I was nervous both because I didn’t have a great deal of public speaking experience and because I really wanted everyone to clearly understand and share my dreams and expectation for this agency.
There is a great story that I first heard told by Dr. Wayne Dyer. There was once a small village and a conquering army passed through and inprisoned all the men who refused to join the army. Since the prisoners were given only stale bread to eat, a villager decided she would bring them stew every night. Since the prisoners were given only thin blankets and it was getting cold, another villager brought the prisoners heavy blankets. Since the prisoners were frightened, another villager sat outside their window and sang them comforting songs. However, one villager knew what the prisoners really needed. She broke into the prison and stole the key and set all the prisoners free.
It’s probably pretty easy to see where I’m going with this metaphor. The prison is blindness, the prisoners are our clients, the villagers bringing food and blankets are all the people and institutions that want to provide chairty to the poor blind people, and the villager who stole the key is us. It’s not particularly subtle. But I have found it very useful over the years – especially when I was an itinerant teacher. As service providers, we make hundreds of large and small decisions when interacting with each client and I have found it very helpful to pause and think “am I giving this person a blanket or a key?” Am I setting them free and helping them to become capable of providing their own needs or am I causing them to become more dependent on me or someone else? Am I helping them to face and overcome their fears or avoid challenges that will help them to grow??
What I found over the years is that when I took the time to ask myself these questions, I provided better teaching. When I didn’t, it was very easy to lose the forest in the trees. It’s really easy to get focused on getting through the lesson, getting the client off my list instead of helping them to achieve self-sufficiency.
And there are two factors that make it even more challenging to provide empowerment rather than comfort. The first is that the three other villagers are always there to provide the food, blankets and amusement. There are many teachers of the visually impaired and disabled students services offices focused on getting the blind person through school. There is public assistance and charity. There are so many individuals and groups that want to help the poor blind people, that one can make a cozy little nest inside one’s prison cell. Sure, it’s cramped and confining, but it’s also safe and easy. There is something very appealing about being taken care of.
But, as we know, there is so much possibility, fulfillment, and life beyond the prison walls and blind folks can and live freely and self-sufficiently out in the wide world. And it’s better out here. It’s not safe and it’s not easy, but it’s richer, fuller, and infinitely more interesting out here. And this is the message that we need to get across to clients, employers, legislators, everyone. This is our elevator speech:
“A lot of people think losing your eyesight is really terrible, and it can be at first, but we help people to get the skills and confidence they need to deal with blindness and live full, productive, and happy lives, working, playing and living in the community just like everyone else.”
So this is what we, as an agency are all about. This is what we do and who we are. And I think everyone in the room knows this and is in agreement with this. If I’m wrong and you don’t feel that you can deliver this elevator pitch with complete honesty and sincerity, you are probably going to want to find another place to work, because you are not going to be happy here.
Sorry to be so forceful and direct in my first speech as the new director, but I’ve felt a real lack of leadership and direction over the past couple of years and it’s my job to fix that. So let’s have an awesome holiday tea and productive meetings and then get back out there and swipe some keys.
by Amy C. Phelps
BrailleMonitor October 2004
From the Editor: One of the highlights of the 2004 convention was the final item on the morning agenda on banquet day. Most delegates had never heard of the speaker, and we were intrigued by her title. The speech was delightful, both funny and inspiring. Amy Phelps earned a master’s degree from Mississippi State University and became a certified rehabilitation counselor in 1999. As she relates in the following address, she was directing a small adult rehabilitation center (the Reach Center) in Tupelo, Mississippi, when she concluded that, if her students were ever to become more effectively rehabilitated, she had to make some changes in her own attitudes about blindness and approach to rehabilitation. On August 19, 2004, she passed her examination to receive National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC). She will officially receive that certification when she graduates in November from the Louisiana Tech master’s degree program in which she is now enrolled. This is what she says about her amazing journey of self-discovery and revelation about blindness:
Hi, My name is Amy, and I am a recovering rehab professional.
When I was asked to give a speech to the National Federation of the Blind, my first thought was to wonder what in the world I, as a sighted professional, could tell you that you don’t already know. When I received the invitation to speak, I thought to myself, “What do I have to offer? How can I impact the blind of America?”
Then I began to reflect on the experiences which led me to pursue a master’s degree in orientation and mobility through the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, and this is where, I hope, what I have to offer begins. So join me on the journey of becoming a recovering rehabilitation professional.
Before coming to Louisiana, I was lost. Lost, in that I knew something wasn’t right in the services I was providing the blind. I had worked for a state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agency for fifteen years, the last eight of which I worked as a rehabilitation counselor for the blind and as the director of a small orientation center. Let me assure you, I thought I knew all there was to know about blindness. I had the degrees and certificates to prove it, or so I thought. I had completed the requirements as a certified rehabilitation counselor and a vision specialist in vocational rehabilitation. I also had special training in deaf-blindness–I was knowledgeable; I had papers!
Then, as time passed, I began to realize something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t certain what it was, but I knew something was wrong with services for the blind. Consumers in our state were receiving adjustment-to-blindness training, but some of our consumers rotated through the training centers so many times we considered replacing the entrance with revolving doors. As a service provider I would often question what we were doing wrong. Our blind consumers were receiving training, sometimes going to college, sometimes not, but either way a high percentage of the blind didn’t seem to be taking career paths. Could it be we weren’t doing something right? Did we need to reconsider our services and attitudes? Did we need to examine our expectations? Of course as a good rehab professional I immediately assumed that it couldn’t possibly be me. Remember, I had papers. Besides, this was the way we had always done it, so it had to be right.
Now fast forward with me on a flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 2002. I am on my way to a conference for residential training centers for the blind. While in flight to Albuquerque, I notice a woman on the plane with a long white cane. I automatically assume this woman is also going to the conference because I never imagined a blind person would actually fly somewhere that wasn’t work related. A blind person going on a vacation, alone? Unheard of!
At this point I am clueless about the conference, assuming it is going to be another one of those conferences where they tell you what else you as a professional must do to help your consumer become independent–modify this, change that, do more for the consumer, allow him or her to pick and choose the entire program, keep everything safe and comfortable because, you know, the consumer is blind. I am prepared to hear the same old same old–accommodate, accommodate, accommodate.
I am pretty unemotional about the conference. Walking through the airport, I again notice this same woman, whom I had seen on the plane. Wait, she is actually going through the airport by herself, but where is her sighted guide? No blind person can really go through the airport alone. And then I think, “Ahhhh, so that is what superblind looks like.” I had heard about it, and now I have seen her.
I arrive at the conference center, and low and behold there are superblind everywhere. People are getting in and out of taxis by themselves, going through the hotel, walking on the sidewalks by themselves. Someone must have emptied the superblind barrel right here in the middle of Albuquerque. There are hundreds of blind people with long white canes, doing exactly the same things I am doing. For the first time in my life I actually see blind people going through a buffet line independently, walking through the hotel, and going to different breakout sessions, and they don’t have sighted guides. Heck, they are even able to pour salad dressing on their salads. So, I think to myself, there can’t be that many superblind people. I soon learn they weren’t superblind at all–just properly trained. They were Pam Allen, Carlos Serván, Roland Allen, Jerry Whittle, Jim Omvig, Joanne Wilson, Eric Woods, Allen Harris, and Jeff Altman. And, oh, by the way, the competent blind woman at the airport was Christine Boone.
So I return to my job; I have seen the light; I am going to start making changes. If the blind in our state can learn to be as independent as the people I saw in Albuquerque, then we won’t need to replace that front door. If the right changes are made, once students complete training in a center, they will be empowered to go to work and live truly independent lives, but how in the world will I make this happen? I have a vague idea and a list of names and telephone numbers of people who presented at the conference and this book which soon became my Bible for rehabilitation for the blind. It is called Freedom for the Blind. After reading the introduction, I know I have to call the author. So I pull out the phone numbers from the conference and look up the number for James H. Omvig, and so begins the rest of the story.
At this point I start making phone calls to Pam Allen and Fatos Floyd almost daily; Sam Gleese, president of the NFB of Mississippi, weekly; and sometimes Mr. Omvig hourly, asking questions. Now mind you, prior to this conference I knew almost nothing about the National Federation of the Blind. The only thing I had been told was that the NFB was sue-happy, confrontational, and a group you wanted to avoid at all cost. Here I am, a rehabilitation professional actually calling the organized blind for solutions in providing training to the blind. I am a radical.
So it is official: we are going to make changes in our center–-changes in how we provide adjustment training to the blind. But again I am not certain how to do it. I have an idea of what needs to be done, but I also realize I have much to learn.
Early in the summer of 2003 I went through two very short weeks of immersion training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind; I was beginning to see what needed to take place. I thought I believed in the blind. I thought blind people could do what they wanted without inconvenience to themselves or others. I thought I had the right attitude, until one day during a meal for forty. At that meal, as a student wearing sleepshades, I had to examine what I really believed. While I was sitting at the table, someone asked me if I was going to get dessert. I had made the big mistake earlier of saying it was one of my favorite desserts, and Ron Gardner overheard me. When asked the question again, I declined. Mr. Gardner asked me a soul-searching question. He said, “So, Amy, are you not getting dessert because you don’t want it or because you are afraid to go get it–because you are blind?” At that moment I really began to question my beliefs.
Needless to say, I had dessert, but this incident really stuck in my mind. What did I really believe about blind people? I knew all around me blind people were doing whatever they wanted to, but could I? Did I believe that I could do what they were doing as a blind student, or was I talking the talk but not walking the walk? Tough question for someone who has papers!
Now I was back at work, talking daily with staff and students about their attitudes about blindness. Armed with just a couple of weeks of blindness training under my belt I answered what questions I could, leaning on my new NFB family to answer questions I was uncertain about. But still I knew I needed more. Then one day I was talking with a student about blind travel instructors, telling her about Roland Allen, who was coming to work with our O&M instructor. This student, who had been blind since birth, informed me that she would never want a blind travel instructor. She said and I quote, “I don’t want a blind travel instructor because who will keep me from walking into the street and getting hit by a car? Blind people have to understand their limitations. Having a blind travel instructor makes about as much sense as blind people cutting their own meat in a restaurant.” This, my friends, really brought home to me the fact that as a rehabilitation professional I had missed the mark in the services we were providing.
The days passed. I was receiving great support from the state agency and my new friends in the NFB–daily words of encouragement for trying to make changes, but still I was uncertain. I often talked with my friends and colleagues about what I had seen and been a part of in Louisiana. Both sighted and blind, some were supportive; some were skeptical.
Then one day the home-ec instructor was out sick, and I had to fill in. I was going to go grocery shopping with a student. This student had been through the training program several times, but still she returned unable to do anything independently. This student and I were going to learn to use customer service. I put on my sleepshades, grabbed my cane, and off we went. The whole time this student was complaining about going grocery shopping alone. She would never do her own grocery shopping; she had friends who shopped for her. She didn’t know anything about shopping and had no desire to learn. Needless to say, she was a bit cranky during the entire trip.
Once we returned to the center after shopping, I asked her about going shopping and how she felt about it. She again reiterated that she would never go shopping alone and that I was exceptional if I could. I was astonished. This attitude was the product of low expectations in the education system, society, and rehabilitation; and it had to stop.
What had I done as a so-called professional? If I-–after only a couple of weeks of training under sleepshades–-was exceptional, there were huge problems. I had to do something. I realized as a result of the Albuquerque conference, my brief visit at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and the support of the National Federation of the Blind that it was time for me to take action. I no longer wanted to be a mere professional with papers; I had to make a difference.
The time had come for me not only to push my students out of their comfort zone and become independent but also for me to do what I was asking my students to do. I as a professional had to come to know emotionally as well as intellectually that I could be independent and self-sufficient. I as a professional sighted or blind person had to be able to serve as a role model for my consumers. No longer could I sit back and talk the talk; I had to learn to walk the walk. I must be able to grab my sleepshades and long white cane and just do it.
At this point I decided I would no longer live a life of low expectations for consumers; I would raise the bar so that consumers could learn to travel independently without inconvenience to themselves or others. This, my friends, is what led me to leave my job of fifteen years to pursue a master’s degree in orientation and mobility through the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. I chose this program, not because I wanted more papers or a string of letters behind my name, but because this program is the best, with a foundation developed for the blind by the blind, grounded in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. I chose to pursue a master’s degree in O&M because I knew the training I would receive through the Institute on Blindness would have high expectations for me as a student, therefore equipping me to be a blindness professional who could really make a difference. I had to prove to myself that I could travel independently as a blind person. I realized having papers was not enough.
So I challenge you today to choose to make a real difference. Whether you are a professional in the field of blindness wanting to become a recovering rehab professional or a college student looking for an exciting career, choose, as I did, to make a real difference. Consider a master’s degree program at Louisiana Tech University; contact our director Ron Gardner, or visit with staff and students at the Institute on Blindness table in the exhibit hall. Oh, yes, let me warn you. Be prepared for high, and I do mean high, expectations.
To sum everything up that I have learned since Albuquerque, blind people are nothing more than normal people who cannot see. Blind people can go where they want to go when they want to, without inconvenience to themselves or others. But, most important, it is respectable to be blind. This is why I am proud to say I am a recovering rehab professional, and I am very proud to say I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind, and as a rehabilitation professional it is my privilege and responsibility to help change what it means to be blind.
by Edward Bell, PhD
Editor’s �s Note: The following piece is reprinted from the February 2008 issue of the Braille Monitor,
From Dan Frye: Dr. Edward Bell, director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, delivered an illuminating lecture on the definition, purposes, and practical application of the structured discovery teaching method and general philosophical mindset at the Dare to Be Remarkable conference during the second plenary session on December 6, 2007. Using his personal life experience, theoretical underpinnings, and quantifiable research to illustrate the concept of structured discovery, Dr. Bell makes clear this often misunderstood approach and shows how it can be put to practical use in the context of rehabilitation training of blind consumers. His comments, while not exhaustive on the topic, will be a good primer on structured discovery for us all to consider. This is what he said:
�Structured discovery� is the term that has been coined to define a specific methodology used in the rehabilitation of blind people. This methodology, born out of the collective knowledge, experiences, and beliefs of successful blind men and women who have achieved independence, serves as the driving force behind effective rehabilitation training today. But what is structured discovery, and how can it be implemented in classrooms and training programs throughout the country? The answer is simple yet allusive and intangible.
Before one can implement structured discovery in a training situation, one must first have a fundamental understanding of this concept at both the intellectual and intuitive levels. Structured discovery is not a set of principles or rules that can be written down and taught in a couple of modules. It is instead a fundamental shift in the worldview, philosophy, and scope of practice within which a person operates. It is part and parcel of who a person is as a teacher. Anyone who tells you that he or she teaches both conventional and structured discovery methods has a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea�it is not possible to pick and choose which methodology to use if you are a true structured discovery instructor. In attempting to clarify the issue, I will use personal experiences, theoretical foundations, and research to explain structured discovery.
I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was raised as a hopeful, independent sighted child. Although I grew up in poverty with no opportunity for a college education, I was at least raised with the expectation that I would work, have a family, and contribute to society in some way. When I was suddenly blinded at age seventeen as a result of a gunshot wound, my entire world changed. Although I had never met another blind person in my life, I knew in my gut that my life would be severely limited, that my opportunities for employment were nil, and that my expectations for a normal life were gone. This was evident to me despite the fact that I had had no exposure to blindness prior to my own accident.
Knowing nothing about blindness, we contacted the state VR agency to learn about our options. I learned that I had access to informed choice and had the right to choose my own employment goal and service providers. In the age of informed choice this would have been the expected course of action. This information alone, however, would have been, not informed choice, but uninformed chance, and the results would have been disastrous.
You know the choice in the old adage, give a man a fish�or teach him to fish�. At that point in my life I did not want to fish, I did not believe that blind people could fish, and I was not motivated to learn to fish. Had I lived in many other states, failure to fish would have been my choice, and my case would have been closed. I lived in New Mexico, however, where my rehabilitation counselor knew better. She recognized that my diminished hope and lack of aspiration was not my true goal, but rather a result of the diminished expectation of society that I had internalized. My counselor expected that I would go to the orientation center, expected that I would complete my GED, and expected that I would then go to college. She did not hold another gun to my head, but rather insisted on my success through her unending love, encouragement, and support. She was not content to provide me with options and allow me to make a choice knowing that I would sell myself short. This is an example of the way structured discovery works.
At the orientation center positive blind role models (both staff and students) surrounded me. They immediately put a cane in my hand and got me out onto the streets. They taught me techniques, helped me to overcome my fears, and demonstrated to me through my own success that I was going to make it. Each time I attempted to gain sympathy from my instructors by telling them my dramatic story of being blinded in a drive-by shooting, their response was, �I am sorry to hear that, but what are you going to do now?� I quickly concluded that no one was feeling sorry for me and that I should get over it. Once the pity party was over, my only choice was to look forward and never to look back. This is the way structured discovery works.
So I immediately jumped into college and then into my present career, right? Wrong. I was still the uneducated kid from the ghetto who did not have a strong academic background, had no role models from home, and had no interest in pursuing higher education. My instructors at the center and fellow students, who today are my dear friends, would not allow me to sell myself short. They encouraged me, helped me to study for remedial classes, and expected that I would be successful. They helped me to problem-solve challenges in college, picked me up when I fell down, and reminded me that we were all in this together. This is the way structured discovery works.
For some of you my story is entirely illustrative, while for others structured discovery remains illusive. I will try to explain. While it is often characterized by a cane and sleepshades, structured discovery is more accurately a holistic approach to the way we work with all blind people. It is simultaneously a set of specific skills and an overarching approach to the way we view the condition of blindness. Too often professionals in the field view the longer white cane and sleepshades and come to the conclusion that they have defined structured discovery. In true behavioral psychology it is easier to describe that which is directly observable. Structured discovery, however, borrows much more heavily from the cognitive-psychology side of the fence, where considerably more emphasis is placed on the changes that happen within an individual, but, which are not directly observable by the naked eye. Far more than a philosophical approach, over forty years of empirical research in social cognitive learning supports the foundations of structured discovery.
True, a structured discovery program depends heavily on a long white cane, and sleepshades are used throughout the instruction. These, however, are merely the means to the end, but not the end in itself. Structured discovery at its core has much more to do with the cognitive, emotive, and behavioral changes that occur within the individual. Dr. Jernigan built this methodology by focusing on mastery of blindness skills, building self-confidence, learning to cope with public attitudes about blindness, and changing the way individuals think of themselves as blind people. His foresight and knowledge are the foundation of the methodology that has come to be known as structured discovery.
Albert Bandura, a leading cognitive psychologist, has helped us to articulate the concept of self-efficacy and the way these processes are achieved through structured discovery training. Bandura did not study blindness, and Dr. Jernigan did not study Bandura, but the philosophy and research are inseparable. It is important to note here that self-efficacy is not unique to blindness but is fundamentally the way human beings learn. More than forty years of empirical research has been done to explain how individuals succeed in accomplishing their goals. These are the tenants found in structured discovery training.
Bandura stated that self-efficacy is the cornerstone of human agency and is defined as an individual�s belief in his or her capacity to carry out actions effectively to achieve desired goals. According to Bandura there are four primary ways to increase self-efficacy, and it is these tenets that underlie structured discovery training.
The most powerful way to increase efficacy is by succeeding at tasks one considered difficult or impossible�success breeds success. It is not achieved through counseling or talking about it, but by having the direct experience for oneself in a meaningful way. Structured discovery functions to provide extensive experiences to people in real-world situations. Through Socratic questioning they learn to problem-solve in every situation, from how to judge the safety of a street crossing to living independently. Each small success builds efficacy to accomplish greater and greater goals.
The second most potent means to increase efficacy is through role modeling or witnessing someone who is similar to you doing the very task you fear. This is not trivial but a cornerstone of structured discovery learning. It is simply not sufficient for an instructor to talk about how important nonvisual skills are. If he cannot put his money where his mouth is, the student will lose all confidence in him. This is why structured discovery centers hire blind instructors and insure that sighted instructors can do their jobs nonvisually. By the same token, if blind students see their fellow students constantly going sighted guide, deferring to students with more vision, and depending on sighted instructors to protect them during challenging tasks, they will come to believe that blindness means dependency, not independence. The actions of instructors and other students have a far greater impact on the outcomes for the student body than any amount of rhetoric about independence.
The third way to increase efficacy is through persuasion, which is the encouragement, support, and praise we give students when they succeed at their goals. Critical to structured discovery is that instructors find ways to praise students for their success, but only for meaningful success. When praise is given for accomplishments that are mundane or trivial, it serves more to lessen and not strengthen efficacy. Structured discovery centers work constantly to recognize the day-to-day accomplishments of each student, while continuing to push them to move onto the next challenge. Announcing bell ringers [victories worthy of celebration], sampling each other�s creations in home ec, and debriefing after lessons are all ways that the instructor provides encouragement and motivation for the student to try harder.
Finally, emotions effect efficacy in two ways–by increasing positive feelings or pride in success, and by reducing fear and anxiety about performance. In other words, a small amount of stress challenges the student to work harder; however, confidence may be diminished if stress exceeds one’s current ability. In structured discovery, no matter what the student�s capacity, it is critical to push that student continually to meet higher and higher challenges. People tend to live up to the expectations that others hold for them, whether the expectation is high or low. What is wrong with shooting for the moon? If you miss, you will still be among the stars. Once you stop providing meaningful challenges to students, you can stop the training–you can send them home because you are no longer using the structured discovery method.
Structured discovery centers build self-efficacy in many ways. It is counterproductive to try to come up with a list of activities or modules to teach using the structured discovery method. In the first place, the list will quickly become outdated, and, in the second place, attempting to do so contradicts the very nature of structured discovery. Teaching occurs in many environments, and the learner must be challenged on all levels. Structured discovery is about providing students with meaningful experiences that build their skill sets while simultaneously boosting their confidence in their ability to do more things. This is done through experiential learning, viewing positive role models, and continually raising the bar for one another. This is the methodology that Dr. Jernigan laid out fifty years ago, and it is based on the same principles that have been empirically validated for more than forty years in many realms of human learning.
The proof is in the pudding. What has happened with all of these people who have learned using the structured discovery method? In attempting to understand the true nature of structured discovery and to provide the evidence that supports its efficacy, we at the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University have begun to study students who have received structured discovery training. The following studies highlight the important factors of structured discovery. Some of the participants graduated from structured discovery centers, learned through their experiences in the NFB, or participated in programs that used structured discovery elements.
Functional Independence: In 2004 Dr. Ram Aditya conducted a study involving 228 blind adults who had graduated from residential training programs across the country. The study used a measure created by Dr. Aditya to quantify the functional independence of blind adults in their daily lives. The scales included measures of daily living, mobility, information access, and home management skills. The results demonstrated that individuals taught using the structured discovery model of training had statistically higher scores on the functional independence scale. Not only did recipients have significantly higher reported belief in their ability to function independently, but they had even more highly significant scores on their reported behaviors of living independently. This means that, not only did individuals state that they were more confident in their abilities to live independently, but they were in fact more engaged in society and living independently. The data support the premise that the structured discovery teaching method is more efficacious in cultivating ability and behavior of independent functioning.
Focus Group: Just over a year ago Professor Mary Ann Goodwyn and I conducted two focus group studies of blind adults whom we determined to have met objective criteria of success, and we asked them to illuminate the factors that they believed had led to their success. This qualitative study of fourteen NFB members revealed that success, beyond economic factors, was defined by having control over one�s life, achieving important goals, doing the things one wanted to do, giving back to others, and having a quality life led with integrity and good will towards others. After more than twelve hours of focused discussion, participants reported that the factors they associated with their success were having strong family expectations for success; finally coming to accept blindness and identifying themselves as blind; gaining skills for independence, especially in mobility and Braille; having access to positive blind role models; learning problem-solving skills for work and life; involvement in an organization which provides personal identity, social support, an opportunity to give back, and a feeling of normalcy and commonality; and the collective efficacy that comes from knowing that one is part of a social network of like-minded individuals who work collectively to achieve their common goals.
Mentoring: We have already said that role modeling is a critical component of structured discovery. Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, former executive director of the Jernigan Institute and a beloved NFB leader who recently died of cancer, knew this and endeavored to create a national model for mentoring blind or visually impaired youth. Through this one-to-one role modeling and the infusing of problem-solving techniques, structured discovery has been implemented. Data have now been collected for youth who have participated for two years in the NFB mentoring program along with new applicants who have not yet benefited from a mentoring relationship. Data have been collected on 153 individuals, fifty-four of whom have completed the mentoring program and ninety-nine of whom are just beginning. The results demonstrated that youth who have participated in a mentoring relationship with a member of the NFB for at least one year had statistically significant higher attitudes about blindness. These youth also demonstrated a measure of hope for their future. Those in the mentoring program had significantly higher scores than those who had not participated. As was revealed in the focus group study, affiliation with the NFB was associated with greater acceptance of blindness, which in turn was associated with higher levels of hope and healthier attitudes about blindness.
Youth Slam: In July 2007 the NFB conducted the first ever Youth Slam, which brought nearly two hundred youth to Baltimore to be surrounded by positive blind role models, to encourage their interest in science-technology-engineering-and-math-related (STEM) careers and to provide them with a network of blind mentors to assist in their success. I have been involved in the data analysis of participating youth. Pretest data were collected on 131 youth, and posttest data were obtained from 122 of those youth. While the results are still being compiled, the data so far demonstrate that youth who participated in the Slam had statistically higher attitudes about blindness after their participation. Additionally, youth reported significantly higher rates of confidence in their ability to achieve passing grades in STEM-related courses. Here again we find an association between the exposure to positive blind role models, the use of nonvisual techniques, and problem-solving skills with personal attitudes about blindness, and confidence in succeeding through challenging events.
For those interested in these statistical analyses, all significant findings reported here were found with probability values less than .05 and .01. Neither the qualitative nor the quantitative research studies capture the full scope of structured discovery, yet each supports the fundamental elements that make up a structured discovery program. The anecdotal evidence that supports structured discovery training is noteworthy. I have had an opportunity to work with several programs interested in adopting the structured discovery methodology. When I ask why they are interested, the first thing said is, �We have seen graduates of NFB centers walking around, and they are so confident and poised.� At least once a month I receive phone calls from centers around the country hoping to hire our graduates. While their O&M needs are great, these programs recognize the value of structured discovery, and the directors insist on this type of training. Although such information is not quantifiable, when it is taken as a whole, it is compelling.
In summary, the job of a structured discovery instructor is to consider the entire individual, including his or her desires, aspirations, hopes, and dreams. It is not sufficient for such an instructor merely to provide a set of skills and feel that her work is done. She should feel that it is her professional responsibility to change the attitudes about blindness of individual students and society as much as it is to do anything else. It is not just philosophy. It is her ethical responsibility to the profession. It is her role as a structured discovery instructor, and it is entirely within the scope of best practice in her profession.
For, though we all want to teach a man to fish so that he will eat for a lifetime, we must first inspire him to pick up the pole, we must stand by him when he falters, and we must show him how to cast the line that is his future. This is what structured discovery is all about.
Five tweenage children with long white canes are shown walking together side by side, some with arms around each other. PC: The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
Attending college courses in my special education major as a Deafblind person was a bit of a trip. I was always the only one who was disabled in my classes. I would sit there and listen to third-person descriptions of people like me, Deafblind or otherwise disabled people, as my face turned flush and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I could feel people averting their gaze away from me. The class grew silent and uncomfortable if I disagreed too vocally. At the same time, I had to fight for a semblence of professional belonging. I had to carefully balance my strong urge to speak up on behalf of my disabled peers while trying to maintain a prefessional distance in order to fit in and not be the gimp with “a chip on her shoulder.”
So, I listened as I was told that blind and deaf people could only ever become literate at an average of a 3rd grade level. That we faced certain isolation, depression, anxiety and low quality of life. Most of us — or “them” in the vernacular of my classes, “those people” — would live a life below poverty level, be un- or underemployed and only be able to live independently with lifelong services and supports from “professionals.” It was very bleak for “them,” but how wonderful it was that there were saviors like us! We were the Very Special People who were going to come in and intervene and improve the lives of this poor lot. They were to be pitied, and we were to save them. Once I sat through a guest lecture from one of these saviors. She was a teacher of the vision impaired (TVI) who was hailed as a wonderful, special person who was helping the blind in her district so much. I was a volunteer in a mainstream organization that focused on adult literacy. I was asked by the organization to work with one of her former students. He was 18 years old, couldn’t read, spell, dish up a plate or tie his shoes. He was not cognitively disabled, he was very intelligent and well read using talking books. I taught him how to read and write Braille in six months and how to tie his shoes in 15 minutes. No one had ever taught him before, he said. This was when I learned to be critical of every single thing I learned in college.
The content of the courses that earned me a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in special education were not totally without merit. I did learn some things. I learned about statistics, standard deviations, assessment basal and ceiling scores. I learned about laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and how to comply with its required tedious IEPs. I learned some useful skills like how to break down a task into its smallest components and how to make a multimodal communication system for nonsymbolic or nonverbal communicators. I learned about methods of functional assessment and positive behavior supports for students with violent and difficult behaviors. Some of this was worthwhile and useful over the years.
What I didn’t learn, at least from my college courses, was anything useful about actual kids and adults with disabilities. All the descriptions of 3rd grade reading levels and poverty rates and the prevalence of depression may have been statistically true, but the implication was that this was just inherent to the disability itself. The pathology of disability was that it was bad, a deficit that could be mitigated somewhat but never completely overcome. There was only so much anyone could do to really help a blind person. Those few really successful disabled people we knew about were the outliers. Supercrips who had through sheer grit and incredible talent had acheived amazing things such as having a career, a family, an independent lifestyle. Basically, what is considered average for everyone else was considered outstanding for the disabled.
A Disturbing Trend
Even now, in my career as a skills trainer/consultant for people with vision loss, I see this attitude. The talk has gotten more upbeat and less bleak. Now, when I go speak at conferences for TVI teachers I hear words like Independence! Exemplary Outcomes! High Expectations! It all sounds wonderful. How things have changed! But then, during the lunch breaks and hall discussions, I hear it. You do not have to scratch too far below the surface to find that these high expectations have a definite limit in the mind of many TVIs. “Oh, you know never to go out in the dark without a person to help you!” I hear a teacher telling a college student who has night blindness. “We can’t teach these blind people ANYTHING! They won’t LEARN!” says a tech teacher to another group of teachers as they nod their heads in frustration. “I had to do my 2 hours of CEUs under blindfold.” says an orientation and mobility instructor. “I hated every minute of it and was scared to DEATH to cross a busy street. Thank goodness I only have to know how to teach it and not DO it!” she continues to the nods and empathetic laughter of her colleagues.
My partner and I teach adults with vision loss and sometimes other disabilities to use assistive technology. Many of our clients are older, private pay clients who do not qualify for state services because they are retired. Newly blinded, they wish to stay independent and maintain their homes and relationships. Some of them are not tech savvy, but they tend to learn quickly. We also have contracts with many different organizations to teach working-age blind people the assistive technology that will help them become employable again. Some of these clients are newly blind due to accident or disease. Others, have grown up with vision impairment and came out of the special ed system.
We started to notice a bit of a pattern. The ones who came out of the school system and grew up blind were more likely to lack a fundamental level of proactivity and…I’ll call it “wherewithal” with their skill building. Now, some will say learning is easier for those who used to be able to see…and there is truth to that. Having some visual references, even if fuzzy and long ago, does help when communicating learning material in a visual world. It can take more effort, more descriptive language, more tactile interventions and other strategies to teach a visual concept to someone with no visual experience. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a lack of initiative, a dependence on task analyzed lists and steps and the TEACHER to turn to at every instance of frustration. (Of course, this is a generalized observation; a trend. Of course there are people who have been blind since birth that don’t display these traits.)
At first, I thought this was a mistake in teaching method — an over emphasis on task analysis and an underemphasis on problem-solving. Task analysis is the method of breaking down a task into very specific subtasks and providing step-by-step instructions to each one in a routine. This can be a very effective method to teach some students with developmental disabilities who need really concrete and consistant instruction. It can also help in the initial learning of brand new unfamiliar material to get started up the learning curve. Learning how to create task analyzed learning programs is BIG in special education programs. Maybe, I thought, the use of task analysis has been overgeneralized to the extreme with students with vision impairments.
But then, when I started working with and watching TVIs more closely, I started to realize that they weren’t overusing task analysis as a learning strategy. Instead, they were task analysing skill sets because they themselves only knew the skill on a very basic, step-by-step, look-at-the-user-manual level. Most TVIs and orientation and mobility instructors seem to only have a cursory or very basic knowledge of the skills they are teaching. Because THEY are only at a sort of beginner’s step-by-step level with blindness skills, that is how they teach them. There is no teaching to full expert mastery at a problem-solving, synergistic level because they never got there themselves. (Now again, this is a trend I see. I also know both blind and sighted TVIs that are highly skilled at what they teach and have achieved mastery and automaticity with blindness skills.)
Blindness Skills: The Building Blocks to Success
Blindness skills — or alternative techniques of blindness — are nonvisual methods to accomplish the same things others commonly do with vision. With a few exceptions, there is a way for the average blind or low vision person to accomplish pretty much everything a sighted person can. These skills range from Braille, to using screenreaders on computers, to cooking and sewing, home maintainance, traveling and transportation, to managing health to advocating for accommodations and fair treatment for oneself. All are good, solid, dependable skills that do take practice to learn. And most are completely mistrusted and misunderstood by the general public, and by many blindness professionals.
When you are blind, not a day goes by when you don’t get told that what you do is amazing and no one knows how you do it! There is no way they could EVER do what you do! The flip side of that is that also not a day goes by when you’ve done something normal like gone to the store, cooked dinner, gotten dressed, whatever, and you get told that you couldn’t have done that by yourself. Where is your sighted helpmate that helped you? You need a sighted person! The skills of blindness are just not truly trusted or believed in by most sighted people. Many sighted people have only had just seconds or minutes of experience under nonvisual conditions and have had no instruction in blindness skills. TVIs and O&M instructors often have had only a few hours or days. Its not surprising that the skills are not well understood. But it is difficult, that unlike other unique skills, people often refuse to take your word for your competence in them and the effectiveness of them.
Think of a skill that is a little unusual to have. Maybe being able to figure skate well enough to do some jumps and spins, or playing a harp or piano or running a marathon. Most people realize that these skills take years of practice, but if you put in the time, they are not impossible. Sure, only an elite few will get to the Olympics in figure skating, but at any local public rink, you will find figure skaters who can skate impressively and do jumps and spins. The same goes for playing the harp or running a marathon. These skills take time, dedication, good instruction and commitment. But if you put the time in and have a good coach, it is not surprising that you will become very good at them.
The same is true for blindness skills. People with good blindness skills have put in lots of time and practice and have often had very good coaches and mentors in other blind individuals. Its a skill set that not a lot of people have, but anyone could acquire blindness skills with practice, practice, practice. Traveling around town without sight is not especially amazing and superhuman. It is not foolhardy and scary, either. Its just a skill you learn with some work and dedication. Give yourself 6–12 months without sight and with lots of good practice and instruction, and you are going to be a decent traveler. Keep working on it a few more years? You will be an expert. It will become so second nature, you will not think about it.
Those Who Can’t, Can’t Teach Well
Good mentorship and coaching always helps. And herein lies the problem. TVIs and O&M instructors get so little practice under blindfold in blindness skills that they never truly believe in the skills as a real, viable alternative to sight. They often see them as a poor substitute that only provide barely adequate functioning for a blind person. They don’t really believe in what they teach. It would be like learning figure skating from a coach that still has to hold on to the sides of the rink. Or a piano instructor that only knows how to play “Chopsticks.” Or a running coach whose maybe jogged a couple of times but has never run a 5K, much less a marathon. Part of teaching is imparting the skills, and the other part is helping someone believe they can do it. This is very hard to do if you’ve never learned the skills beyond the basics youself.
Here is an example. Braille is probably one of the best skills for literacy, employability and learning out there. There are two basic parts to learning braille, there is memorizing the code and there is building up tactile awareness and speed. (And for prereaders, there is also learning phonetics and reading comprehension to go along with that.) In many TVI programs, teachers learn to read visual braille. This is a print version of braille that completely ignores the part in which you have to feel the code, keep track of where you are, develop a flow, understand braille syntax, etc. Maybe they have a class where they try their hand at tactile braille, maybe they read a chapter about how to teach it, but they never master this skill. (To their credit, some TVIs have gone on to master Braille on their own, but most cannot read braille much past visually looking at the code.) It is very discouraging to be a student and to be the only one you know who reads braille, INCLUDING YOUR TEACHER! It would be a powerful mentorship moment to be able to ask your braille teacher to read braille and have her just sail away on it. But when asked, most TVIs cannot read braille with their fingers with any speed. This matters.
Independent travel, too, is one of the most powerful equalizers for blind people to work and be included in their communities. But many orientation and mobility instructors only have very limited experience traveling on their own. The most dangerous thing I have noticed that travel instructors sometimes do (unintentionally, I’m sure) is to instill such a level of anxiety in their students about travel that the students literally develop what appears to be not unlike an anxiety disorder or phobia in regards to travel. Blind kids don’t usually start this way, they learn it from everyone constantly telling them how unsafe it is for them to go anywhere without lots of tedious instruction. If you don’t know — really KNOW — that these travel skills can and are trustworthy and effective, you cannot instil that confidence in your students. Travel skills are almost entirely in your head. Both as a problem solving exercise (which direction am I going? What are the clues around me to give me information about my surroundings? Where do I need to go next?) and more importantly having confidence in the ability to travel safely without sight. No one will ever say that traveling without sight is as easy as having sight. It takes more thought, attention, and ability. But it is not unsafe or unreliable. Many O&M instructors task analyze travel so much that blind students get afraid to go anywhere that hasn’t been approved and routed out with explicit directions and deemed safe by their sighted instructor. This makes for a very limiting existence.
Assistive technology is another area where I see this. A low vision specialist told my partner a “funny story” about how she was teaching a student about using Blind Square, an app that assists with mobility and mapping using GPS. When with a student, she got lost in a downtown area. What a great opportunity to model problem solving to get re-oriented! But instead, she panicked and called her husband (this was after hours during a night walk lesson.) And her husband was able to find her using HIS phone’s tracking technology and came and rescued them. My partner said to her, “you know if you just shake your phone, Blind Square will tell you where you are, right?” No, she had no idea. She did not know the app well enough. Not only does this show a lack of tech knowledge, but a lack of faith in the ability to use real, solid skills (both high and low tech) to get yourself out of a fix. This is one of the most important skills a blind person needs for independent travel.
And this is also where I see a dependence on task analysized steps instead of thinking through problems and using a variety of different skills to solve them. Many adaptive tech instructors we see only have a basic understanding of the tech they teach, and thus can only teach at the level of very scripted steps in a sequence. Its ok to start here, but to really get comfortable and competent with tech, you need a teacher that is really comfortable and competent with tech, and believes in it instead of seeing it as a frustrating substitute to sighted methods. Tech is ever changing and quirky. And there are always 5 ways to do things. Knowing these five ways gets you out of messes. If you only know how to use a limited set of scripted steps, tech is going to be so frustrating as to be almost useless.
Those Who Can Have Faith that Their Students Can, Too
Because TVIs and O&M instructors only get such a very limited amount of instruction in blindness skills, they tend to deprioritize them. They often overly rely on vision maximization strategies (magnification, lighting, etc.) because they are easier to teach and they are more comfortable with them. Although sometimes vision enhancement strategies are appropriate to have in the tool belt, many students miss out on blindness skills and are never able to acheive to their full potential with magnification alone. Overall, without real ability in blindness techniques, it is almost impossible to believe in the skills and model and teach them effectively to students. This translates into generalized low expectations and poor outcomes for many students. It reinforces the idea that the poor quality of life issues mentioned in my special ed classes are inherent to blindness, not inherent to poor educational oportunities and attitudes. It offers a nice excuse for not doing better.
The TVI and O&M professions would be richly enhanced by including more competent blind instructors in their ranks. Historically, blind professionals have been excluded from the profession. Just a couple of decades ago, official policies of professional and licensing organizations excluded professionals with vision impairments. It was a powerful statement on the outlook and expectations of the profession responsible for the education of our blind youth that they did not believe any blind person was competent enough to teach blind people. Though laws and lawsuits made explicit policies illegal, it is still extremely difficult for blind individuals in some blindness professional programs today. I recently heard of a program that could not accommodate a blind student in their Braille class because all of their braille instructional materials were in printed braille and they did not know how to translate all of those graphic representations of braille to braille. I’m not even making that up. In another instance, blind students complained to a university office for students with disabilities about poor blindness accomodations in TVI programs with testing and written material. The office as well as the state agency for the blind offered to assist the TVI program to step up their accessibility level, but they were declined and the students continued a constant struggle through the program. A program that was to teach them how to accommodate blind students but couldn’t accommodate them. If they saw the irony, they did not admit to it. There has been a level of tension through the years between blind and sighted professionals in the field to the point where a conspiracy theorist might wonder if these programs weren’t intentionally making it difficult for blind professionals to get through the program.
But I don’t discount that sighted teachers can have the ability to become highly competent teachers of the blind with high expectations and outcomes for their students and strong faith in the skills they teach. I have met many such TVIs and O&M instructors over the years. These instructors have often taken it upon themselves to go the extra mile to really learn and understand blindness skills. They spent hours under blindfold learning skills on their own, often with the help of the blind community. They brush up on their blindness skills on a regular basis and keep up with technogy trends. They spend time with blind leaders and professionals, go to self advocate conferences and get to understand the issues in the community. These teachers have gotten past the learning curve and have knowledge and faith in the skills and students they teach them to.
A large part of the resistance to learning blindness skills under blindfold for a adequate period of time seems to be, at its base, that doing so is hard and scary. Well, sure, at first. But if a professional can’t get past this, maybe its time to ask themselves whether it then will be fair and effective for them to expect their students to. Or whether their fear and trepidation might rub off on their students in a negative way. Maybe another profession might be a better fit for their skills. There is really no substitute for really knowing and experiencing what you teach.
University programs and also employers could help to facilitate this by providing opportunities for long-term blindness skills training at immersion centers or by creating their own semester or year-long full-day immersion experience. Employers could support sabaticals to these centers and provide funding or at least time off and CEU credits for self-advocate conferences and opportunities. There is no real reason why sighted instructors should be teaching chopsticks to a pianist who dreams of playing Rachmaninov. It is not too much to expect that teachers know how to play Rachmaninov as well. With work, mentorship and time, anyone — blind or sighted — can become highly competent at navigating the world without sight.
by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
The Braille Monitor October, 2003
From the Editor: Last spring, long before Resolution 2003–101 on rehabilitation choice caused great discussion at our convention, I asked former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Dr. Fred Schroeder, to write an article for the Braille Monitor discussing his understanding of what the concept of informed choice as laid out in the Rehabilitation Act means. After all, when the choice language was written into the act, Dr. Schroeder was RSA commissioner. Who better was there to articulate what was meant and what was not. This is the article he wrote:
Perhaps no more misunderstood provision of the Rehabilitation Act exists than the requirement that individuals receiving rehabilitation have the opportunity to exercise “informed choice” in all stages of the rehabilitation process. While many issues have arisen surrounding the real meaning of the language that makes choice a fundamental value of the rehabilitation process, the most hotly debated question in the blindness field today is the proper application of informed choice in the selection of and participation in orientation-and-adjustment-center training.
The definition of effective orientation and adjustment training for blind people has been a topic on which people in the blindness field firmly disagreed long before the informed-choice provisions were enacted into federal law. In the mid 1980’s the National Federation of the Blind began establishing orientation and adjustment centers modeled on the program Dr. Jernigan had created in Iowa years earlier.
The Federationists who established these programs did so because they believed the existing orientation and adjustment programs in the country did not offer training that challenges blind people to come to terms with their blindness, nor did the training encourage blind people to develop fully the skills necessary to live and work productively. In short, these Federationists assessed the existing training commonly available and came to the conclusion that it was rooted in low expectations mirroring society’s stereotypic view of blindness–producing training that moved people from dependency to lesser dependency with no real goal, no real belief in the attainability of a normal, productive life. In other words, existing training pretended the training model based on lowered expectation was a virtue called respect for the individual. Federationists came to reject both the model and the training based on it, and founding centers of their own was the logical next step.
The essence of the NFB model is its assumption that blind people are capable of full participation in society. Of course all programs maintain that their training is based on the same assumption, but those who have attended training at one of the NFB centers know that, while all programs say they believe in blind people, at NFB centers that claim is supported by actions.
So what are these actions that make such a difference? First, in NFB centers skills training is not viewed as separate or apart from confidence building. Blind people are helped to believe in themselves and acquire the necessary skills to put their newfound confidence into practice. The fundamental connection between skills training and confidence training is explained and emphasized, both in words and in the students’ progress through the center, during which they are taught and drilled on all basic blindness skills while simultaneously being taught the confidence to problem-solve throughout life. This combination of skills and confidence, of first learning and then practicing to routine mastery gives students a firm foundation on which to stand throughout all life’s challenges.
Participants in NFB centers are referred to as students, not clients. The distinction between student and client is followed systematically throughout Federation training center practice. Being a student is an active task. Students take responsibility for their own learning and progress. Being a client on the other hand means that the person waits more or less passively for something to be done to him or her. Next, students take the full range of courses which, taken together, are designed by training center staff to complete both skills and confidence training to routine mastery. On the other hand, clients at more conventional centers, new to blindness or to grappling effectively with it, are nonetheless encouraged, in a mockery of the real meaning of choice, to pick and choose from available classes–even, or especially, those of which the client is most afraid, leading to the absurd result that the client who understandably knows little about blindness is made to feel empowered, while he or she is declining to learn the fundamentals needed for true empowerment.
Moreover, students are viewed as blind people regardless of whether they have some remaining vision, in contrast to the client model which allows clients to reject this training method without really even knowing what they are rejecting. Accordingly, students with some sight wear sleepshades all day–five days a week–in all classes and during after-hour activities. Why? First, because sustained use of the blindfold allows students to achieve routine mastery of the essential nonvisual skills that they will need to function safely and effectively after training. Second and equally important, because it is the most effective way to help students reshape their beliefs about blindness.
Third and as important as the other two is the profound belief at NFB centers that students must learn to see themselves as part of the community of blind people–part of the struggle of blind people to achieve true equality and full integration into society. NFB centers teach their students that students must not simply take but give back as well, that they have an obligation to pass on what they have been given and to be a part of the movement of blind people toward true integration. They become a part of the National Federation of the Blind–the family of blind people, giving and receiving support, giving and receiving encouragement, giving and receiving hope for the future.
There are other differences between NFB centers and the more conventionally designed ones–use of rigid canes that are longer than customary in conventional programs, for example; but the fundamental difference is one of expectations–believing in blind people and helping them to believe in themselves.
So where does informed choice come in? It may seem obvious that blind people can choose to attend an NFB center or they can attend more conventional programs. After all, the concept of informed choice is based on the assumption that an individual has options from which to choose. Nevertheless, some agencies and individuals subscribe to a misguided, even corrupted concept of informed choice which they have then used like a club to try to force NFB centers to operate like conventional centers. These misguided proponents of choice argue that the law forces NFB centers to be just like other centers in allowing participants to choose for themselves which classes to take, whether to wear sleepshades, and which type or length of cane to use. These misguided proponents claim to be upholders of the law and seek to enforce their opinion upon NFB centers despite the fact that such practices are incompatible with the underlying NFB-center philosophy and despite the fact that, rather than showing respect for the individual, such practices are widely recognized by blind people to be ineffective and, all too often, harmful.
Perhaps the most absurd application of this misguided version of informed choice came to my attention when I was commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. An NFB center was routinely accepting students from a state rehabilitation agency under a contract with that agency that allowed agency clients to choose the NFB center and thereby save the rehabilitation agency the trouble of doing the same paperwork over again for every new student attending that center. The rehabilitation agency told the center that, as a requirement for continuing its contract with the NFB center, the center was not to assign students canes.
Instead, according to this misguided version of choice, the NFB center was simply to show new students a selection of all available canes and allow the student to select a cane of any type and length without comment from the instructor–as though professional judgment and expertise had somehow been repealed in the name of choice. In other words, the rehabilitation agency was so drenched in the choice language that it was willing to break a contract with a training center offering a genuine alternative to its clients because of what it perceived as a lack of choice when in fact the fundamental choice was between approaches to training and not between specific canes to be used by a newly blind person.
Once, while I was attending a blindness-related meeting in Washington with Dr. Maurer, another misguided proponent of informed choice floated the idea that people attending NFB centers should not be required to participate in NFB activities. This person maintained that orientation and adjustment training should be neutral and went on to make it plain that, in his view, neutral meant neutral in the sense of not promoting any particular philosophy, by which he obviously meant the NFB’s approach to blindness. Dr. Maurer quite reasonably asked the person why someone who disagreed with NFB philosophy would want to attend an NFB center. The person replied that it was well known that the NFB centers offer the best training in the country. Dr. Maurer pointed out that participation in NFB activities is a key part of the training, not an add-on or extraneous activity.
The suggestion that our centers be philosophy-neutral would be like demanding, in the name of choice, that parochial schools not insist on providing religious instruction because it might be offensive to some students. If NFB centers are forced to give up the characteristics that distinguish them from other programs, blind people will again be limited to one homogeneous model of rehabilitation training, the training Federation centers seek to replace, forbidding the very training the misguided proponent himself admitted was the most effective.
During my term as commissioner I made it clear when I issued policies and provided technical guidance to rehabilitation agencies that informed choice must be practiced at the program level or, in other words, at the time an overall program is chosen. For informed choice to be real and effective, blind people must really have the right to learn about available options and differences among programs and then to exercise their right of informed choice in selecting a training program. However, it is not reasonable to ask and is most certainly not required by law to force a program to change its fundamental nature in the name of informed choice.
Consider this analogy: a person wishing to pursue a professional career may find that it is necessary to obtain a college degree. The individual may, after reviewing the curriculum, make a choice among the various options and attend a particular college or university, exercising the right to choose among such differences as more or fewer required classes; more or fewer requirements outside the major field; presence or absence of foreign language, math, or science requirements; and presence or absence of strict rules about alcohol on campus. But, once the choice of college is made, the student cannot then insist on being exempted from an otherwise required class simply because he or she does not believe that it will have relevance in his or her professional life.
Similarly, a student cannot simply decide that he or she would prefer a different textbook from the one the instructor has selected or simply decide not to attend class without suffering consequences from such decisions. Once the choice has been made to attend a particular college or university, the student is bound by the requirements of that institution and the decisions of its faculty. The student’s choice is to attend or not to attend. By simply making that choice, the student is not then endowed with the power to dictate that the program change its curriculum, teaching methods, or for that matter its philosophy at the whim of that one student.
Similarly training programs providing orientation and adjustment for blind people also have differences. Some orientation and adjustment centers permit their participants to choose which classes they will take and whether they will wear sleepshades for all classes, some classes, or not at all. Some programs allow participants to choose how long they will attend. But other programs–those at NFB training centers and those modeled on our centers–believe in a much more structured approach to training. Individuals have the right to exercise informed choice in deciding which type of program they wish to attend, but they do not by reason of having chosen a particular program then have the right to demand that the program alter its structure or programming for them.
That is the law. That is the technical answer–blind people can choose to attend an NFB center, or they can choose to go somewhere else.
Yet in a real sense the legal or technical content of informed choice sidesteps the most important question. To say simply that people can make a choice leaves the impression that both options are equally good, that they are equal in quality, that both are effective in assisting blind people to gain the confidence and skills to live normal, productive lives. Treating informed choice as a neutral concept suggests that the choice is one of style, not quality–like choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream or choosing whether to vacation in Boston or Yellowstone–a choice based on preference and individual interests. The truth is that the differences are not gratuitous or unimportant, not simply a matter of style, not the casual choice between ordering a steak and a piece of fish for dinner.
When a blind person seeks training from a rehabilitation program, that training is likely to be the person’s single formal opportunity to acquire the skills he or she will need to live productively. If the blind person receives training rooted in the stereotypic belief that blind people are inevitably limited to lives of marginal participation, he or she is likely to internalize such beliefs. On the other hand, if the training is rooted in the belief that blind people can learn to take charge of their own lives and can master the skills to work competitively, then blind students are much more likely to develop confidence and pursue personal goals and interests. To hold high aspirations, blind people must believe that they have at least a reasonable chance of attaining those aspirations. To have hope, blind people must believe that they have the possibility of living a normal life.
The misguided idea that blindness should be viewed as nothing more than a sort of clinical challenge–a condition requiring skills taught by professionals who will always know more than the blind person can ever learn, skills which can help the blind person function a little better but which can never allow him or her to compete on terms of equality with the sighted, and with no expectation of true normalcy, true equality, or true fulfillment, dignity, and self-respect. The prevalence of such a view is a sorry commentary on the failure of the blindness field to understand the social dimension of blindness and its impact on blind people and society as a whole.
We have been told in the form of a criticism that NFB training centers are a one-size-fits-all approach to training. In one sense, this is true, but not in the way that the general public assumes that all blind people are the same, regardless of age, education, health, or ability. NFB center staffs recognize that, to be successful, all blind people must come to understand that they are blind, that blindness means they will face discrimination, that blind people themselves are often one source of that discrimination in the form of lowered personal expectations, that to combat discrimination from within or without they need a broader perspective on blindness coupled with confidence and skills, and that the best way to gain perspective, confidence, and skills is through a concentrated training program and ongoing involvement in the National Federation of the Blind.
What is the alternative to this so-called one-size-fits-all model? It is what we have always had–the conventional training system based on low expectations. When people become blind, they do not know what they need, what is possible, or even what training will best serve them. So to use choice as an excuse for justifying low expectations is unconscionable.
Not every blind person who has attended an NFB center is a success; not every blind person who has received conventional training or, for that matter, received no training at all is a failure. Yet NFB training is not more or less the same as other training. Yes, the same skills are taught: cane travel, Braille reading and writing, cooking, and computer technology. But it is not true that the outcomes are the same. NFB orientation and adjustment centers do in a concentrated way what the Federation has done for blind people for all of its sixty-three-year history: give blind people the means to challenge society’s and, all too often, their own, low expectations. As with the Federation as a whole, NFB training centers help the blind person learn that life is not limited by the physical characteristic of blindness as much as it is by low expectations. Training gives the blind person the confidence to believe in a future in which he or she will face discrimination yet will have the skills and the strength to meet and overcome it.
NFB centers do not teach skills in isolation from philosophy. In fact the life-changing dimension and extraordinary vitality of NFB centers arise from their imparting of the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. Therefore to encourage blind people to believe that any training center is pretty much like any other goes far beyond a factual mischaracterization and is fundamentally misleading to people who have not been truly informed about the differences.
How then does an individual exercise informed choice in selecting a training center? To be truly informed, the blind person must meet graduates of training programs–not just one or two, but many. The blind person needs to learn what these graduates are doing with their lives. Are they in school? Are they working? Are they married and raising families? Are they active in their communities? Are they pursuing hobbies and social interests? Are they going to the theater, the ball game, restaurants, shopping, and movies? Or are the graduates mostly spending time at home, explaining that they really prefer quiet, are not people persons, haven’t quite decided what to do with their lives, and are often considering maybe getting a little more training in some aspect of blindness skills that they didn’t quite master or keep up with after their training–good as they assure everyone it certainly was.
So where can a blind person go to meet normal blind people, the ones getting out and doing things and getting jobs and moving ahead with their lives? The easiest way is to attend the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. At our national convention one has an opportunity to meet blind people from throughout the country. Some will have received training from NFB centers; some will have received training from conventional programs; and some will have received no training at all. What blind people with all three backgrounds at an NFB convention have in common is the commitment to the Federation’s approach, to the combining of skills and confidence, whether they received this knowledge through an NFB training center or more broadly through contact with the National Federation of the Blind.
The collective experience of blind people distilled and focused by the Federation enables the blind individual to begin to gain a perspective broader than his or her own experience and begin to see what is possible for blind people, given training and opportunity. One cannot attend a national NFB convention and fail to be impressed by all that we have achieved. One also cannot attend a national convention and fail to be moved by all that remains to be done. At national convention one meets young blind children and their parents and learns of their hopes. One meets blind college students preparing to assume future leadership, blind adults working in every conceivable job or occupation, and blind seniors determined not to sit quietly in the shadow of nonparticipation.
True choice can be exercised only when a person has real information–perspective on which to base his or her choices. Selecting orientation-center training is the foundation on which one can base either future achievement and success or a future of genteel occupancy of the quiet sidelines of life. Choice is not the simple selection of a long or short cane–rigid or folding; not the choice of one class and not another; not the choice of training nearby rather than in a distant city. These things are only the trappings of choice, not its substance.
How then does one begin the process of making an informed choice? Those who are serious about embracing informed choice might begin by calling their NFB state presidents to learn when and where the local Federation chapter meets. If none exists in the area, they can ask for help in starting one. Going to Federation state and national conventions to meet people and become involved is also an excellent early step. Such actions commit one to the movement of blind people working toward first-class citizenship. Contributing time, money, and talent to help build a future in which blind people are judged by their ability and not by their blindness can be a powerful step in learning to believe in blind people.
Having established this foundation, any blind person can eventually decide that the time has come to call the director of one of the NFB centers and ask for help in working with the state rehabilitation agency to support individual participation in training. Everyone has the right to exercise the right of choice, but the most important right is to exercise the opportunity to make an informed choice based on information and perspective–a choice that will serve the individual for a lifetime and provide the training and confidence to live life exercising personal interests and ability rather than living a life of limited participation based on low expectations.
by Carrie Gilmer
From the Editor: Wednesday morning, July 6, will be remembered by all those who attended the 2005 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Following the annual election, we turned our attention to the education of blind children and the continuing crisis in that field. All four presentations were stimulating and thoughtful and are printed in the following pages. But the first one was unforgettable. As Jim Omvig said the next day at the beginning of his speech, Carrie Gilmer’s was the best Mom speech he had ever heard in over forty years of attending NFB conventions. The audience response to that statement clearly indicated everyone’s agreement.
Carrie Gilmer is president of the parents division in Minnesota. She works at BLIND, Incorporated, the NFB’s adult training center in Minneapolis. In her cover note transmitting the text of her speech to me, Carrie commented that, while she was profoundly touched and humbled by the reception her remarks received, she continues to feel anger and frustration that, despite the hard work of parents and consumers, her family’s story of roadblocks and resistance from the educational establishment continues to be echoed in almost every school district across the nation. This is what she said:
Good Morning. In Minnesota since last fall I have been affectionately known as President Carrie–the one who won the election. For a long time before that I was known lovingly and simply as “Jordan’s Mom.” I speak today for my son and those like him who cannot vote and do not yet have their own voice. This is what parents do–speak and, if need be, fight for their children while teaching them to speak and fight for themselves. I thank Dr. Maurer for inviting their voices to be heard today.
Sometimes the problems we face as parents of blind children and the obstacles placed in the paths of our children seem so large and unending that it feels like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. It seems like an impossible dream that someday our blind children will be encouraged, educated, and measured in the same way as sighted children are.
In 1968 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan–an extraordinary leader and an extraordinary human being–was given a special citation by the president of the United States because he had so revolutionized services and training for the blind in the state of Iowa. His success was in turning the worst rehabilitation program in the nation into the best rehabilitation program in the world, and he did it in just ten years. When Harold Russell, chairman of the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, presented the award to Kenneth Jernigan, he made (in part) the following statement: “If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world. The story of the Iowa Commission for the Blind is the story of high aspiration magnificently accomplished–of an impossible dream become reality.”
That was nearly forty years ago in the state right next door to mine. It seems that such great advances two generations ago would by now mean great advances for us too–just a few hours to the north. And I believe, if geography had been the only barrier, what I have to say today would be quite different.
Jordan and Carrie Gilmer
Jordan and Carrie Gilmer
As president of the Minnesota Parents of Blind Children and as a new board member of the National Parents of Blind Children, I am deeply concerned with the way things are if you are born blind or become blind as a child. If you must be blind as a child, what does that mean? What does it really mean when we get right down to where the rubber meets the road for each individual child? That is how we know how far we have come and if the education is effective enough–the answer also lies in the results where the rubber meets the road.
No matter how great the philosophy sounds or what amount of funding and effort go into the policies and training–the philosophy and training have to meet the driving test. If a particular car model has crash after crash, for example, we know that basic things on the car obviously have to be completely redesigned. We don’t merely change the paint or upholstery. Certainly we cannot be less willing to throw out the educational designs and philosophies that can end in the crashed and run-over lives of our children. I’d like to share with you how the rubber has met the road at my house and in my son Jordan’s life in particular.
After many months of tests and waiting, Jordan’s eye doctor called to tell us that Jordan was well within the legal definition of blindness and there was nothing he could do. He acted as though his diagnosis meant fatality for a normal life and a future doomed to gloom. Initially as parents we feared the same thing. He wished us good luck and referred us to Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB).
We called SSB, and two months later we had a home visit from a blind SSB counselor. He told us not to sit Jordan down and have a big talk about being blind: we shouldn’t make an issue of it. He encouraged Braille whenever Jordan entered school (which was not for another seven months). He gave us a monocular that was at least thirty years old and worked at an angle like a periscope. He spent half of his time with us talking about his own negative experiences as a blind child and the fact that he still struggled with personal embarrassment over being blind. He had a folding cane, but he never mentioned whether Jordan should have one, and we didn’t ask. We didn’t ask a lot of questions. We didn’t have a clue where to begin. We had really been hoping–counting the days until he came–that he would tell us everything we should do. He was very kind but said there wasn’t much he could do and referred us to the local school district. My husband and I knew two things for sure when he left: 1) SSB was not going to help us, and 2) We did not want our son ever to be embarrassed about who he was.
During this time I had read a few of the NFB’s Kernel Books that my grandmother had given me. I don’t know why I didn’t contact the NFB at that time except that the people in the stories seemed as far off as the hopes they had kindled in me for Jordan’s future. I called the school district instead.
The vision department woman from the district was very nice, and she advocated Braille. But, since Jordan was “doing fine,” that is, he wasn’t bumping into things, everything could wait until school in the fall. She didn’t think she even needed to see him. Things weren’t as bad as we thought. She had been teaching Braille for forty years–a real expert!
So we went on as if nothing were different, except now we knew–we knew why he wasn’t running, why he walked with anxiety. We noticed more that he played in small areas, chose not to ride toys, and leaned so close to things. But we didn’t understand really what he could and could not see. The doctors couldn’t describe it or tell us how he saw things. Jordan couldn’t describe it, and he had no comparisons. We all wondered. What did “legally blind” really mean anyway? Jordan especially had a lot of trouble with the legal part. Over the years we have found most people don’t understand what “legally blind” means. They assume you can see okay–blurry perhaps–but you can get by and tell what things are. They assume legally blind people all see the same, too, as if it is one specific acuity. It was confusing. The doctors all made it sound serious and severe, but the school vision staff made it sound not so bad.
When kindergarten came, our forty-year expert said Braille was all that Jordan needed. And he didn’t really need it now–it was just easier to start now in case he lost vision later. She never mentioned anything else–no cane, no explanation to us or the classroom teacher of what a 95 percent vision loss would mean in the classroom. All he had to do was to get up close whenever he wanted. As the year went on, everyone told us how great he was doing. He seemed happy every day. He insisted on wearing a tie every day–to kindergarten! And so he did. He was serious about going to work. He took to reading easily, it seemed, with absolutely equal ease in large print and Braille. At the end of the year he was picking up Braille so easily the Braille teacher told us she thought he was tactually gifted. We were very proud. Still–he had less than 5 percent of normal vision. Could a person really get by on that?
That Braille teacher retired, so we got a new one for first and second grade. This Braille teacher thought Braille should be fun–not only that, but it needed to be fun. That is, there was something about Braille that was very much un-fun, so one had to do quite a bit of propping it up and turning it into a game to hide the fact that Braille was not something you would like to spend time learning. So they played a lot of Yahtzee and the like. Jordan began to view print as reading and Braille as a game. As the fun increased, his skills decreased. Moreover, the Braille teacher made no attempt to integrate Braille into the classroom.
By now, my husband and I were realizing that, even if Jordan didn’t lose any more vision, the print in chapter books and newspapers would be too small for him. The slow speed of print seemed more limiting than Braille would be. It also seemed fatiguing and unhealthy to be straining and bent over all day. We were starting to be extremely serious about Braille.
By the end of second grade all kinds of problems were popping up besides his slow progress in Braille. Jordan almost always played alone on the playground. He didn’t approach or try to enter groups in his classroom. He ate lunch alone. No one encouraged tactile exploration for him beyond the usual for all kids. No one identified themselves when speaking to Jordan in any part of his day. No one mentioned a cane, and he walked with great anxiety over the distance just in front of him. No one mentioned a slate and stylus or the Library for the Blind. He was frequently made to sit on the floor by the wall in gym class so he wouldn’t get hurt. Once or twice a month he had O and M instruction in how to use his vision to know the cardinal directions and the layout of his perfectly square, small school. The Braille teacher advised us to educate the class about Jordan’s vision by having them look at blurry photographs of deer and by having the class put wax paper over their eyes and look around the room.
We knew there were gaps. Something was not right. We didn’t comprehend yet exactly how much. But the vision, O and M, and phy. ed. teachers constantly told us how great he was doing and how he could do what all the normal kids could do–and in the normal way (meaning of course, visually). We didn’t realize yet that they meant he was doing great–for a blind kid. The regular classroom teacher was concerned, however, and realized that the vision department had helped us no more than it had helped her. She told me to seek out a part-time secretary at the school who had raised two blind children. The secretary didn’t seem to want to talk, but she did give me two copies of Future Reflections and advised me to look for expertise there.
I read the articles by Ruby Ryles and Barbara Cheadle and others I don’t remember. I was stunned and shocked and mad at myself and furious with the vision staff. I was confounded and dumbfounded. First I felt stupid and like the worst mother in the world. I mean, how could I have had a blind son and not know it? Never mind that neither the pediatricians nor other family members had realized it either–I was the mother. I should have known. And now, after I had been told he was legally blind, I had bought into the illusion that he could make it using less than 5 percent of normal vision. Now here was all this perfectly reasonable information–why didn’t the school tell me? Didn’t they know?
It seemed I had two choices–I could take a guilt trip around the world with nightly pity parties, or I could get busy and educate myself and make things right for Jordan. I called the local affiliate of the NFB because I figured (wrongly) nationally in the NOPBC and the NFB they were pretty busy and probably too high up and official to talk at length to a desperate and confused mother way out in Minnesota. Judy Sanders took our family under her wing out in Minnesota, and the affiliate helped send Jordan and me to the national convention in Atlanta.
Merry Noel gave him a cane; Joe Cutter told me why Jordan should use it and showed him how. To this day Jordan still uses Joe’s explanation to him that this was his “third eye on the ground” to explain to little kids what his cane is for. Roland from Louisiana told me to make Jordan take it every day and use it, and to make it as simple as “wear your shoes” or “get your coat.” Jordan at not quite nine years old had been walking bent over like a ninety-year-old man. As we walked around Atlanta, he walked erect for the first time, let go of my hand, and went exploring. I realized his spirit had been as bent over as his posture had been. I sat down on a curb and wept.
There I also learned about the slate and stylus. I heard about normalcy and age/ability-appropriate expectations. Much of that convention went over my head, but one thing stuck over all. I learned I had a blind son who could quit worrying about being legal.
In third grade he showed up at school with a cane. You never saw anyone scramble so fast to write up IEP goals. Jordan also got a new Braille teacher; she resisted the slate and stylus. She reluctantly taught Braille. She avoided nonvisual discussions and insisted it wasn’t necessary. She refused to call him blind–he was visually impaired. She did not integrate Braille into his classroom day.
About this time my husband and I went to a local state convention. We were hoping to meet other parents. We were the only parents there. We were elected vice president and treasurer! I felt silly because I didn’t know anything, but I felt responsible to learn and learn quick. Bruce Gardner was the national representative at that convention. He spent a long time talking to my husband and me. He made a lot of sense and only seemed a bit over the edge on one thing–he said he read some NFB material every day. Yes, every day. I didn’t get it.
Then Jordan began going to Buddy Camp. The whole family started to get to know a number of successful blind adults. It was in Buddy Camp that Jordan first felt, deep inside, that it really was okay to be blind. It was the first time that the people teaching the skills also used and believed in them. It began to make a life-changing difference for all of us. From observing the positive changes in Jordan and seeing the nonvisual techniques used efficiently by blind adults, we became more determined to see that Jordan became skilled in alternative techniques. Also the more time we spent with successful blind adults, the more comfortable we became with blindness and viewing Jordan as an independent blind adult. We became more convinced that, if Jordan had proper training, what would limit him would be the same things that limit all human beings, that is, was he lazy or not, organized or not, educated or not, talented or not? Did he have money in his wallet or not? Did he have opportunity or not?
In fifth grade we insisted all of Jordan’s textbooks be in Braille. The Braille teacher rolled her eyes at us and shook her head. Like a curve on a graph, we can look back and see Jordan’s competency in Braille reading relate to the attitude of those instructing him. He ended up not getting Braille into his day much in fifth grade either.
Middle school was coming now, and we believed it was critically imperative that he become more fluent, fluid to grade level in Braille. It was only going to come from constant use and good instruction in proper techniques and encouragement and instruction on changing poor habits from someone who believed Braille was equal to print and from someone who believed Jordan should be a primary Braille reader. We hoped we would find such a person in sixth grade. We insisted on complete Braille immersion. No print, except at home for incidental or leisurely reading. The fifth-grade teacher predicted trauma and failure would result from our plan.
With such dire predictions, off to middle school he went. Every worksheet, every textbook, every notice came in Braille, and he began using Nemeth code in math. Jordan ended sixth grade having made the “A” honor roll three times with seven classes. Nothing was shortened or turned in late. He and I both worked very hard. I read a lot to him because his speed was so slow, and I tutored him in math for an hour, sometimes two, every evening. He spent two to three hours every evening on homework. He did not argue or complain any more than I did. He understood that, if he didn’t keep up in sixth grade, he wouldn’t be able to keep up in high school. He also became more social and started playing the trombone. He auditioned and participated in the school’s spring production of Music Man. So much for the dire predictions of the former Braille teacher.
Overall his growing successes were mostly due to another two summers of BLIND, Inc.’s Buddy Camp. The experiences there had reinforced and built on his belief in himself and the methods he needed as a blind person. As important, attending local NFB meetings throughout the year led to the deepening of friendships. This also gave him frequent and consistent exposure to the normalcy and competency of other blind people. Sharing common experiences of the misconceptions of others and hearing how blind adults were taking control of their own futures empowered Jordan in a way that nothing or no one else could. The instruction he received in just four weeks per summer gradually brought his skills closer to true age-appropriate performance. The solidifying of skills reinforced his confidence, and his confidence led to the desire to practice and improve his skills. By seventh grade he was coming to know himself, and he wasn’t going back. He was forgetting he had ever felt uncomfortable about blindness. He began to bloom.
We continued the tug-of-war over nonvisual techniques with the vision teachers for everything besides Braille. Jordan’s vision is useful and convenient for some things, but the visual for him requires some modification over 98 percent of the time. Of course he should use his vision to its utmost. We never understood the concept that you couldn’t enjoy both–or have both be useful. But the truth is that vision usually does not give him all or the most accurate or the easiest-to-obtain information. And sometimes relying on his vision is actually dangerous–such as in crossing the street.
We had some major events at the end of seventh grade that demonstrated to us once and for all just how deeply warped and ingrained the philosophy of the vision staff in our district is. I’d like to share some of these issues with you briefly.
The O and M person bought a Geordi for travel and gave Jordan the idea his vision was useful and safe to rely on to cross busy city streets. The regular vision teacher agreed to nonvisual techniques in sewing and then abandoned Jordan and the techniques. She left him convinced the only way he could sew was to press his forehead against the sewing machine, straining to follow a green marker line drawn on the fabric.
The vision staff gave the regular classroom teachers the impression that Jordan’s vision was quite useful–he wasn’t really blind. The teachers took him snow tubing–nobody told him when it was safe to go down. Jordan thought he could trust his own vision to tell. He came home with two black eyes–one swollen completely shut–from crashing into another student. When asked about all of these things, the vision teacher informed me, “You know, Carrie, Jordan likes to use his vision.”
Then, when industrial arts came along, their real beliefs came glaringly to the surface for all to see. The regular shop teacher had no idea what to do with a blind student. We asked him to come down to BLIND, Inc., and learn about nonvisual techniques, and he was eager to. The vision teacher didn’t think this was necessary at all; she thought Jordan could get by with his vision. The shop teacher, she said, only needed to know he had to get classroom materials to her to be Brailled.
The vision teacher believed Jordan (and all blind people) in every case in every place preferred to use vision–no matter how costly, uncomfortable, inconvenient, or inefficient and no matter how limiting. Any vision was better than no vision at all. It was obvious to us now that this belief colored every decision, every instruction method, and every plan laid out by the so-named vision staff.
At the end of his tour Dick Davis, the industrial arts teacher at BLIND, Inc., told Jordan’s regular shop teacher to paint Jordan’s shop glasses black. The shop teacher agreed. I waited for the phone call. It came.
The vision teacher was very upset. No sleepshades! She said she was worried about the safety of the other students in his class.
“What?” I said, incredulous.
She had to consult supervisors and lawyers. A whole range of excuses poured out of the phone. It wouldn’t be possible; it was too dangerous. She concluded by saying she didn’t know how long it would take–maybe the class would be over before she could have an answer. We should just trust her to assess (guess) where his vision was useful, and the teacher could guide Jordan (do it for him) when it wasn’t.
My husband and I began to realize that during all those years, while we were being flexible, compromising, and choosing our battles, when they asked us to ignore the little things, to trust them and be patient, it was Jordan’s rights and his validity as a blind person, his normalcy and full potential, his independence and freedom that we were compromising and being flexible with. Well, we were done. No more. We knew who our son was, and we weren’t going back. We intended to have progress. They had declared war. We were going to man the barricades and prepare to do what we had to do.
By this time I was working at BLIND, Inc., as a secretary. I went and stood in the resource room. It was full of NFB literature. A gold mine I had not tapped lay before me. I thought of Bruce Gardner and that I had thought he was over the edge for reading some of it every day. I thought of calling him to apologize. I took a big leap over the edge myself.
Joyce Scanlan, president of the Minnesota affiliate, had been spending hours and hours over the last years teaching me, and so had many others–but I needed more–I was going to war! I began reading Walking Alone and Marching Together. I grabbed a dictionary. I grabbed every speech and article I could find. I found Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei’s book. I wept and called them both. Shawn Mayo called Peggy Elliot, and Joyce Scanlan called Dr. Maurer. They closed ranks around us and told us to stand our ground. I read Schroeder and Omvig articles and all your Kernel stories. I read 24/7–laundry, dishes, and dust piled up–no time!–I had to read everything. Soon I was reading so much I didn’t know who had said what anymore. All the speeches were running together, and they all had a unified message. They strengthened me and gave me the depth of words and ammunition for the exact target–prejudice.
We didn’t want strife or confrontation–we wanted Jordan to participate equally and safely in a required course alongside his peers. Then we had the big meeting. Two industrial arts teachers, one vice principal, one assistant director of special education, one special ed. teacher, one Braille teacher, and one diversity specialist were waiting for my husband, Joyce Scanlan, and me.
The Braille teacher and the assistant director of special education would not budge, and they had no intention of listening to us. It was clear that they were there to convince their colleagues that we didn’t know what we were talking about. But because their reasons were not based on accurate knowledge, they had to keep changing their reasoning and arguments. The Braille teacher wanted Jordan to use his vision as best he could. She wanted to make a different and separate plan as she guessed his vision on each separate tool. My husband and I knew that this would lead to her determining–as was her history–that no alternative techniques were needed. The classroom teacher could provide guidance. Jordan could get by.
I asked her, if Jordan could not when seated upright tell me by vision alone exactly what was on his dinner plate on any given evening, how he could possibly stand upright and know where a saw blade was using his vision. “I’m not sure,” was her reply. When the other people in the room realized Jordan could not tell what was on his dinner plate and could not recognize his own mother a few feet away by vision, they realized that, sleepshades or not, they had better get prepared to have a blind student in shop. What does it mean when the professionals who were to be the experts on blindness and special education were the only ones in the room who would not agree to keep an open mind?
The district agreed to send them all to BLIND, Inc., for a tour, then we would meet again and decide. It had come out in the meeting that in our district (the largest in the state), of 43,000 students and about 100 of them receiving VI/blind services, no one had let a blind student take shop before. Meanwhile we pulled Jordan from the class. They weren’t prepared to teach him safely.
Jordan was strengthened to do this because Dick Davis agreed to spend over thirty hours of his own time to teach Jordan the higher-level projects under shades down at BLIND, Inc. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know if we would have been able to hang tight. Jordan said he understood the power tools better under shades, and he wanted to stand up for his own rights–but the fear of not being able to complete the projects like everyone else brought tears to his eyes and made him question fighting for the techniques he knew he needed. The knee-jerk reaction to the shades by his vision teacher had shocked him, and he understood that deep down it was really a visceral reaction to total blindness. He was hurt.
On the last day of school they finally gave us their decision. We had won! Sleepshades are now in his IEP as a training tool, and it is our (his) choice when to use them. I have never met a blind person who needed training on how to use vision. I have never met a blind person who needed help learning to like to use vision. I have met many who needed help understanding when it was not usable. Jordan took advanced shop this year, completely under shades. He began by explaining his use of darkened safety glasses to his peers in the shop class. The shop teacher told us that the other kids really watched Jordan closely in the beginning. But Jordan was comfortable, casual, and performed with skill under the shades. He said that Jordan was highly respected by the other students.
Now nobody even notices anymore. And I am proud to tell you Jordan received an A both terms in this advanced industrial arts class. The A was not given; he earned it with superior work, performed as a totally blind person. I must emphasize that Jordan was comfortable and casual and held a belief in blindness techniques as completely viable because of his previous experiences under shades at Buddy Camp. His shop teachers at school loved the click rule and were highly impressed with the methods. Because of Jordan two other blind students had the chance to take shop in our district this past year as well. That is some progress where the rubber meets the road.
In fourth grade Jordan had told me that he was popular because he was blind. Think about that. This last year, in eighth grade, he realized he’s popular because he is the kid who does the weather, news, and funny skits on the school’s Friday morning news program. He is the kid who is second chair in the trombone section; who is friendly with everyone; who is on student council; who is comfortable with himself; who is on the A honor roll; who helps others with homework; who always has a joke to tell; who has been on the bowling team, on the swim team, and in ski club. He is the kid who is active, confident, positive, polite, and kind. There are about 1,500 students at Jordan’s middle school. Once in a while he meets someone who hasn’t seen him with his cane or doesn’t know him; then he is still the “blind kid” for a moment. But they soon learn he is Jordan Richardson, and blindness is only one of his characteristics.
When Jordan brought his class picture home this year, I noticed something new. A white cane was in the picture, held proudly across his chest. I ask you, who imparted that casual comfort to Jordan? Whose philosophy passes the crash test? I thank God for the National Federation of the Blind.
I’ve been asking people in all kinds of positions across my state to Imagine with us. Imagine a day when it is well to be blind anywhere. I’m just an ordinary mom–but I know that no human rights advance ever took place without regular people giving all they had. I’m not a blind person, but I believe in the normalcy of my son. I believe in the normalcy of all our blind children. I believe in the normalcy of all blind people. I ask each affiliate to wrap your arms around the parents and children in your states as Minnesota has wrapped its arms around us. If we change things for the children, we will change the future. And we will because, as Dr. Maurer has said, we will never give up. What seems impossible can become reality. Every one of you is living proof.
by Ryan Strunk
From the Editor: Ryan Strunk, a college student from Lincoln, Nebraska, and a recent NFB scholarship winner, has been the beneficiary of the NFB philosophy from an early age. His mother, Carol, was president of the Nebraska Parents of Blind Children, a division of the NFB of Nebraska, for many years while he was growing up. At the 2003 NFB Convention, Ryan was one of four speakers on the student and parent panel at the NOPBC daylong seminar for parents and teachers. The following article is based upon the remarks he made that day. As you read it, you ought to know that he did not collaborate with Peggy Elliott, our keynote speaker (see Elliott�s speech elsewhere in this issue). Neither of them knew the other was even on the agenda. Nevertheless, if you had any doubts or questions about whether Elliott�s principles of �I can do it� and �It�s up to me,� can be applied in real life, read on. Although Ryan never once uses the phrase, �It�s up to me,� he clearly lives and breathes the principle. Here are Strunk�s reflections on transition from high school to college:
In a recent nationwide survey of blind high school students, participants were asked what three things scared them the most. The top three answers (in no particular order) were as follows: pop quizzes, mom�s meat loaf, and the high school to college transition process. Actually, that�s not true. I just made it up, but judging from the college students I have talked to, I don�t think I�m too far off the mark. If attempted improperly, transition between high school and the secondary education institution can be scarier than any history test or wedge of overdone meat loaf. But if done well, the transition between high school and college can be as painless a process for a blind student as it is for his or her sighted peers.
Over the past several years changes have been made which bring the blind closer to equality with the sighted. However, there is still much to do. Thus the transition process can be just a bit more difficult for the blind than for the sighted. For example, if a sighted individual wishes to buy a textbook for college he or she simply goes to the bookstore and picks up a copy. At the same time, the blind student calls up Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic only to discover that the particular textbook has not been recorded. What then does the blind student do? Well, if the student has received proper training prior to transition from high school to college, the question of what to do next won�t even come up.
So in the next few minutes I would like to reflect about my transition experience and offer a few suggestions for parents and teachers. However, before I start, let me review a basic principle. It is essential that parents and teachers hold blind students to the same standards and give them the same responsibilities as their sighted classmates. The student must be involved in the decisions and choices related to their education. Too often, the temptation to shirk responsibilities because of one�s blindness arises. It is easy for youngsters to succumb to these temptations and it�s too easy for parents and teachers to let it happen�especially in the younger years when good philosophy has not yet had a chance to take root. I even did it myself, more than once, I have to admit.
This principle is important, though. When a student is responsible for all his or her scholastic duties it gives the student a better outlook on blindness and simultaneously says to the world, �I�m blind, so what?� This principle lays the foundation for teaching self-advocacy and is at the core of a good philosophy about blindness and transition.
After this first and most important rule is established, the student can get down to the finer details of independence and self-advocacy. In my university in Lincoln, Nebraska, the disabled students services office recommends that it be the entity in charge of notifying professors that a blind person will soon be attending their classes. Of course, this is one of the suggestions that I don�t adhere to. I�m quite capable of doing the work myself and speaking for myself. It�s my job to explain my blindness and deal with questions and I don�t need or want someone else doing it. Even blind students in grade school are capable of learning to talk to teachers to explain their blindness and the adaptations they need.
When a college, or even high school, student approaches his or her teachers prior to class attendance, several things are accomplished. First, it shows a high degree of responsibility by the student, thereby lending him or her greater credibility in the teacher�s eyes. Second, the student can personally make sure that print materials, packets, syllabi, etc. needed on the first day of class are adapted ahead of time�whether they be given to a Braillist, scanned into a computer, enlarged, or made electronically accessible on a computer disk. Third, this demonstration of preparation and self-advocacy not only makes a student more popular with his or her teachers, but it also helps to insure that the student does not fall behind later in the school year.
When I began high school, I became responsible for ordering all of my own books and materials, much to my chagrin. However, in retrospect, this was a responsibility that benefited me greatly when I made the transition to college. Now, of course, if anyone tells this to my vision teacher I�m going to get a whole lot of I-told-you-so�s�so, if we can keep this our little secret, I�d really appreciate it. Anyway, through the responsibility of ordering my own books I learned how to deal with situations in which the preferred medium was not available. I also learned how to balance needs and preferences against cost. For example, when I was in high school I wanted a particular geometry book in Braille. However, I didn�t learn until after the book was purchased by the school system that the production of this forty-volume monstrosity cost the school more than $17,000�a sum, which, now that I�m in college, I can�t afford to duplicate. I learned that, in certain instances, it is necessary to order a book in a format other than the preferred one. I learned about the choices I had and I learned how to be flexible. A student can try to find a book on tape. A book might be scanned into a computer. In some instances, a student can even purchase the book from the publisher in electronic format and, of course, a reader (that is, another student or other individual) can always be hired.
People have reminded me on more than one occasion that the college disabled student services offices (DSS) can get my books for me. Such statements are usually followed by the question, �So why do you want to order your own books in the first place?� My answer is always the same. First, I have known of more than one student who has been forced to begin class without a book either because the DSS office forgot to order it or was unable to get it. Second, and more important, when a student goes out into the real world, he or she will no longer have DSS or someone else to ensure that all of his or her needs are met. Why not start the training now�while the student is young�and give that individual the necessary skills for success later in life (like on the job)?
Finally, I can think of little that helped me more than my parents� insistence that I go out, get off my lazy tail, and socialize. If less than one percent of the country�s population is blind, one can pretty much draw the conclusion that interaction with the sighted is inevitable. Every blind student should be given the opportunity and the encouragement to get involved in the world around them as much as any other kid their age. Encourage your kids to try out for sports, join the school band or choir, or even�if they are ambitious enough�to run for student council. Through interaction and socialization, kids learn good communication skills, and statistics show that more than eighty percent of employers feel that good communication is essential in the ideal employee.
Is all of what I have just mentioned absolutely essential? If you ask me nothing could have been more helpful. The life-skills I have acquired because my parents and teachers made me practice them over and over have strengthened my philosophy about blindness, given me the means to take charge of my own destiny, and provided me with the confidence to succeed. Without the training and without the help of my dedicated and loving parents and teachers, I could never be where I am today. So push your kids. Keep them involved. Make them take responsibility for themselves, and tell them to be proud of who they are. If you do all this, the transition process will be so much simpler. Then all you�ll have to worry about is�dating!
It�s been a lot of fun talking to all of you, and maybe I�ll see you in one of my �future reflections.�
Dissing the Blind
by James S. Nyman
From the Editor: The following remarks were delivered by Dr. James Nyman at the annual White Cane Banquet of the Omaha Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska, Saturday, November 8, 2008. After teaching for a number of years at the university level, Jim Nyman became director of Nebraska Services for the Blind in 1974, a post in which he continued until his retirement in 1998. He reports the first Federationist he met was Jacobus tenBroek. Here are Dr. Nyman’s remarks:
In 1994, on our way to visit a friend in South Africa, my wife and I stopped over for a day in Athens. I had looked forward for a long time to visiting this birthplace of western philosophy. Shortly before we arrived there, some Greek archeologists announced they believed they had excavated the prison cell where Socrates had died after drinking a cup of hemlock, a poisonous concoction derived from the hemlock plant. He had been condemned to death for corrupting the youth of Athens by seeking the truth. With some difficulty we found the excavation site on Mount Phillipapou, and I had my wife photograph me standing where Socrates died for the truth. Socrates had discovered that the search for truth sometimes leads into the dens of politics with, in his case, deadly consequences. It has been said that, in politics, truth is often the first casualty. Well, tonight I hope to rescue truth from the hazards of politics but still find it in a topic that is vitally important to blind persons.
Unless I am singularly lucky, I may find myself following in the footsteps of Socrates, treading on the same dangerous ground. When I conclude my remarks, don’t be offended if I decline any beverage you may offer me.
What is this truth I am seeking? You will probably have guessed that it has something to do with the unemployment rate for blind people. You would be right in part, but I will also be looking for the reasons that explain that rate–whatever it turns out to be. I have to confess up-front that I don’t have a definite answer to either question. We have all heard that the unemployment rate for blind people is 70 percent or more. We have heard that percentage repeated many times, and it has achieved the status of a great truth. This is a shocking number, and it may be that the shock itself puts it beyond questioning. If repetition is the measure of truth, we may already have found what I said I was seeking. On the other hand, we might be well advised to heed the ironic caution of a very wise philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein, who suggested that this procedure is, “As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true.”
If we can’t rely on repetition as the measure of truth, we will have to adopt some other method in the search. The nineteenth-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli observed that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. If I were to suggest that the repeated claim of a 70 percent unemployment rate is either a lie or a damned lie, I suspect I would have very quickly passed from the search for truth into the realm of politics and the cup of hemlock would have been handed to me forthwith. So I suppose I will have to fall back on statistics to pursue the truth.
We can start with some official statistics. Each month the U. S. Department of Labor issues a report on the unemployment rate for the previous month. Over the past few years that rate has ranged from 4.2 percent to 6.1 percent. If we accept 70 percent as an accurate figure for the unemployment rate of blind people, the ratio between the Labor Department rate for the general population and the claimed rate for the blind would be anywhere from 11.5 to 16.7 times higher for the blind. In Nebraska the unemployment rate has hovered around 3.5 percent for the past few years, so the ratio would be about twenty times higher in our state. Typically, when individuals and organizations invoke the much higher rate for the blind, it is either implicitly or explicitly equated with the official unemployment rate. Before we can accept this identification, we need to know what the official rate involves.
The concept appears to be simple enough: “Unemployment rate means the ratio of unemployed to the total civilian labor force expressed as a percent.” It gets a bit more complicated when we explore the meaning of some of the terms that go into this computation. The Department provides definitions for five terms that are involved:
civilian noninstitutional population includes everyone over sixteen except those in institutions and the military;
the civilian labor force includes everyone in the civilian population who is either employed or unemployed;
employed means working as an employee or in a business, farm, or profession;
unemployed is anyone who is available for work and has made specific efforts to obtain a job; and
unemployment rate is the percentage of unemployed persons in the labor force.
To simplify and clarify: the civilian labor force is the fraction of the civilian noninstitutionalized population who are either employed or unemployed. At the end of 2007 this was 62.8 percent. In order to be included in the calculation of the unemployment rate, an individual must meet four requirements: he or she must first be sixteen years or older; second, have no employment; third, be available for work; and fourth, have made specific efforts to find employment during the period of reporting. When it is claimed that 70 percent of blind people of working age are unemployed, are we asserting that seven out of every ten blind people satisfy these four requirements of the Labor Department’s strict meaning of unemployed, within the civilian labor force? If not, we need to find a more illuminating way to express the shocking truth about the low level of participation of the blind in remunerative employment.
An initial formulation that does not rely on the guidelines for statistical reporting might read: “Seventy percent of people over sixteen who are blind in the civilian noninstitutionalized population are not currently employed. This formulation suggests that 30 percent of blind people of working age are, in fact, employed and are therefore counted in the civilian labor force. This contrasts with the 62.8 percent of the overall civilian population who were in the labor force at the end of 2007. This rate of participation is approximately double that of the blind. What of the 70 percent who are claimed as unemployed?
A glance at statistics for the civilian population helps to illuminate the question. By simply subtracting the 62.8 percent from the total civilian population, we are left with 37.2 percent who are not presently in the labor force. We can reasonably assume that, due to medical and age-related complications associated with blindness in addition to the usual reasons, blind people are absent from the civilian labor force at a somewhat higher rate than that of the general population. Those reasons include such factors as continued education, especially in the younger age range; family responsibilities; early retirement; disinclination to work; discouragement during job-seeking; and, for a fortunate few, sufficient wealth to eliminate the need for remunerative employment.
Given that 30 percent of blind people are employed and more than 37.2 percent are simply absent from the labor force, we can now ask what percentage can be counted as unemployed. We can only speculate, but 32.8 percent is the absolute maximum and not the 70 percent that is claimed. If we employed the same formula to compute the Department of Labor official unemployment rate as advocates use to calculate the 70 percent figure, we would arrive at the startling conclusion that the monthly unemployment rate had fluctuated between 41.4 percent and 43.3 percent rather than the 4.2 percent and 6.1 percent that has been reported. This, of course, includes the 37.2 percent of the civilian population who simply did not work. One can just imagine the shock waves that would run through Wall Street and the political world if this were reported. Nevertheless, the method used to arrive at this figure would be precisely parallel with that used by advocates to calculate the 70 percent unemployment rate for the blind; that is, it includes all those who are absent from the labor force by choices unrelated to work.
Combining the 30 percent of employed blind persons and the 37.2 percent or more of those absent from the labor force, we arrive at a figure of more than 67.2 percent of those who cannot be counted as unemployed. Less than 32.8 percent appears to be the remainder. Is this, then, the true unemployment rate of the blind? If we now return to the Labor Department statistical reporting standard, the answer will have to be no.
What is the status of this lower percentage? You will recall that, in order to meet the strict standards of the Department of Labor, individuals are counted as "unemployed” only if they are not employed, as defined but “had made specific efforts to find employment.” They must also be available for employment, but I will address the question of availability a bit later in my remarks. Meanwhile, for present purposes, “specific efforts to find employment" can include a set of activities as minimal as checking job listings in the local newspaper or on some Internet site, following up on an employment lead, arranging an interview, sending out a résumé, making a cold call, conferring with a rehabilitation counselor, checking with friends and acquaintances in a network of associates, participating in a job training program at a community college, or attending a job fair. While some of this activity will be recorded in documents of one sort or another, it is otherwise a matter of conjecture what portion of these individuals has engaged in one or more of the “specific efforts” enumerated. A full 100 percent would be a generous estimate. Anything less than that would further reduce the percentage who could be counted as unemployed, even under the looser guidelines.
Since being available for employment is one of the Labor Department’s criteria for being counted as unemployed, when medical complications and age are considered, the number of blind people who are available for employment is further diminished. While age and medical conditions are not an absolute bar to employment, we know that a higher proportion of the blind experience these additional complications. I cannot quantify the impact of these factors on employment statistics, but the effect is to reduce the unemployment rate significantly below the 32.8 percent that I said was the absolute maximum. If I were not a very modest man, I think I might claim at this point that I had, in the span of a few minutes, cut the unemployment rate for the blind by more than one half. But, it will take more than statistical wizardry to make a substantive difference in the lives of those who fall into the ranks of the unemployed. While it may be politically less dramatic than 70 percent, even the lower percentage is unacceptably high. The lower number, however, should allow us to focus on the fact that it is not a global percentage that we need to reduce, but rather the lives of many individuals that we need to improve.
To recapitulate the analysis: 30 percent of the blind of working age are employed, and around 40 percent are neither seeking employment nor available for work, so that 30 percent or fewer are technically unemployed. This change of perspective should permit us to focus our attention on the particular factors that explain the unacceptably low rate of participation in the labor force. It puts us in a better position to formulate individual plans and general policies to attack the problem.
Dissing the Blind
For simplification I have identified a half dozen factors that, singly or in some combination, are involved in most cases of unemployment. Since each of these factors begins with the three letters D-I-S, I call this “Dissing the blind.” Thus we have 1. discrimination, 2. disincentives, 3. distance, 4. discouragement, 5. disinclination, and 6. disability. We can only hope that the complexity of particular situations will not leave us in the position of the unfortunate centipede in the poem:
The centipede was happy quite,
Until the toad, in fun, said, "Pray: Which leg comes after which?”
Which brought its mind to such a pitch, It lay distracted in a ditch.
Clearly it is not easy to change a whole culture and the attitudes that govern behavior toward disabled people. Optimists may claim that over the past half century great strides have been made, but evidence for this claim is fragmentary at best. Persuasion and occasional favorable rulings can resolve individual cases in employment, education, and access to public benefits, but discrimination is a continuing reality that blind individuals and the blind as a group must confront.
Forty years ago, when I was seeking employment as a college teacher, I recall at least two rejection letters that flatly stated that a blind person could not manage the responsibilities of a faculty member. We are not likely to encounter such open declarations in today’s atmosphere of social consciousness, but the more subtle forms are probably more difficult to combat. Because those who discriminate rarely leave a trail of evidence to document the discrimination, it is difficult to quantify the scale of actual discrimination. One thing is certain: the accumulation of anecdotal evidence cannot all be dismissed as the product of a paranoid imagination. The National Federation of the Blind, by public education, legislation, litigation, negotiation, and innovation, has succeeded in having some of the barriers to employment identified and lowered. Unfortunately, barriers have proved more amenable to modification than the underlying attitudes that lead to their erection in the first place.
Disincentives: In 1968, when we organized a new affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind in Illinois, I served as the legislative representative, becoming an official registered lobbyist in the state. One of the first undertakings I carried out was to write a letter to all the members of the Illinois Congressional delegation, urging them to support an increase in the earnings allowance for blind recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). The NFB has long argued that restrictions in the earnings limitations discouraged blind people from seeking employment since, when the limit was reached, recipients would experience a sudden drop in income and loss of medical benefits.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When Supplemental Security Income (SSI) was implemented in 1974, an even more restrictive earnings limitation was applied. Until 1996 the earnings limitation for blind SSDI recipients was linked to those for Social Security recipients between the ages of sixty-five and seventy. In that year that coupling was eliminated, and, while the earnings limits increased at an accelerated rate for older people, it lagged significantly for the blind. In 2008 this disparity is between $18,840 for the blind and $36,120 for older people: a total of $17,280, or $1,440 a month. On May 15 the House of Representatives passed the Blind Persons Earnings Fairness Act, which would gradually re-couple earnings limitations for blind and senior recipients. If this is finally adopted by both House and Senate, one of the significant disincentives to seeking employment will have been greatly reduced.
When Medicare became a part of
SSDI benefits in 1965, the argument became more compelling. Many blind beneficiaries needed medical services for other conditions covered by Medicare. Under these circumstances it is understandable that fear of losing medical benefits associated with the SSDI program has been one of the greatest disincentives to seeking employment. To counteract these obvious disincentives, the period of eligibility for medical benefits has been extended for ninety-three months so that the threat of losing these benefits immediately after cash benefits are terminated no longer exists. Nevertheless, fears have a tendency to outlive the facts, so it is incumbent on the Social Security Administration, rehabilitation personnel, and advocates to impress the facts on potential job seekers. Some positive incentives besides extended medical coverage have been incorporated into SSDI to reduce or eliminate disincentives, including discounting work- related expenses and imposing no limitations on earnings during a trial work period of nine months to a year. If parity is reached with the earnings limits for older recipients, a moderate income and living standard with some security against the devastation of medical costs will have been achieved. These measures and others have significantly reduced the disincentives to seeking and obtaining employment.
Distance: Let’s take a fanciful journey into the next generation. Everyone will be driving smart cars. To be more precise, smart cars will be driving everyone. Earlier this year, at the annual showcase of the electronics industry in Las Vegas, an experimental vehicle was demonstrated. With global positioning technology and other systems for controlling the movements of the vehicle, all the passenger needed to do was enter a destination into the GPS and sit back and wait until the car arrived.
Many aspects of ordinary life are impaired by the limited options that confront a blind person. Social, economic, recreational, entertainment, religious, educational, and family participation can involve the necessity of devising alternatives for simply getting there. At best public transportation is a poor option, except in the largest metropolitan areas. The private automobile has come to dominate social existence, including work, to the point that in some settings blindness can virtually immobilize an individual. The lack of imagination and resources among those who operate public transportation systems makes it clear that no solution to the problem of simply getting there, wherever there might be, is likely to come from that quarter. If a quarter century turns out to be an accurate projection for the introduction of smart cars, I will be just a little over a hundred years old and probably not seeking employment, but it would represent the elimination of one of the serious obstacles to the employment of blind people. But employment is only part of life, and the other dimensions would also be greatly enhanced. I said it would be a fanciful journey, but some of the younger members of the audience may live to see it realized.
Disinclination: Some people in this world would prefer not to work. Some of them are blind. If people are blind in this society, there is a pretty good chance they can qualify for a variety of public supports: SSDI, Medicare, SSI, public housing, food stamps, and other benefits. If an individual settles into a comfort zone in this framework, a disinclination to work can be sustained. I recall suggesting to Robert Newman that he create a scenario of a blind character for his Thought Provoker in which an individual found a comfort zone of adequate resources and a lifestyle that nurtured a disinclination to work. The vehemence of reaction to this scenario suggests that our well-known commitment to the work ethic will minimize this factor. No matter how much we may deplore this rejection of the work ethic, most of us know someone who prefers this lifestyle. Technically, anyone who is so inclined is not counted under the Labor Department strict standard for being unemployed, but he or she would satisfy the more general notion of unemployment. Fear of rejection or discouragement after repeated failures may explain the attitude, but the reality must be acknowledged. I know no way to quantify the contribution of this phenomenon to the unemployment of blind people.
Disability: In 1917 Nebraska adopted a definition of blindness that still provides the statutory meaning of this visual condition. The definition reads: “The term blind includes all persons whose sight is so defective as to seriously limit their ability to engage in the ordinary vocations and activities of life.” The misleading aspect of this definition is that it directly links the degree of defectiveness with the limitations on ability to engage in vocational and other activities. Unfortunately, this perception is deeply ingrained in popular beliefs about the relationship between visual acuity and ability to function in the world, including the world of work. This statutory definition, however, is open to a different interpretation, one that suggests that limitations can be overcome. In the familiar formulation of Kenneth Jernigan: “If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance.” The critical qualification, of course, is, “with proper training in the alternative techniques of blindness.” When positive attitudes drive and sustain the motivation to employ the alternative techniques, then blindness is significantly reduced as a factor. It is not an accident that individuals who complete a training program in the orientation center in Lincoln have an employment rate of around 90 percent. Further evidence for the value of training in the alternative techniques is provided by Dr. Ruby Ryles of Louisiana Tech and Dr. Fred Schroeder, who have documented that 90 percent of employed blind people are proficient Braille readers. In the modern economy Braille literacy and computer literacy combined are indispensable skills. Without such training it is difficult to see how individuals could, in the strict requirements of Labor Department statistics, be said to be available for employment.
While it is only a guess, I am willing to wager that the unemployment rate could be cut in half again if proper training in alternative techniques and the adoption of positive attitudes were available to all blind people nationally.
I began by saying that I was seeking the truth about the rate of unemployment of blind people. The conventional wisdom and political rhetoric suggest that this rate is 70 percent. When viewed in light of Labor Department guidelines, this asserted rate is more a matter of politics than an accurate description of reality.
But official statistics only hint at a serious problem. It is more illuminating to examine the reasons for the low rate of participation in the labor force. In other words, the problem is not how we can reduce a statistical unemployment rate, but how we can increase participation in the remunerative labor force.
I have suggested that discrimination, disincentives, distance, discouragement, disinclination, and disability account for most of the absence from the work place. Administrative and judicial remedies may affect discrimination in limited ways, but public education activities by the National Federation of the Blind and the examples of blind individuals will do more to effect changes in the social attitudes underlying discrimination. However, as the saying goes, “Don’t hold your breath!” Much has been done to reduce the disincentives associated with SSDI, SSI, and Medicare, but the impact of these benefits must be communicated by the Social Security Administration, advocacy organizations, and rehabilitation agencies. We need to do a better job of education and counseling. Transportation will continue to be a significant problem for blind people to resolve, requiring a combination of individual ingenuity and initiative and some public action. Perhaps in the next generation technology may make the convenience of the private automobile as available to the blind as it is to everyone else. Discouragement stemming from repeated failures and disinclination to work may be overcome when success replaces failure. Encouragement by advocates and professionals can sustain efforts toward employment, but, as they say, “Nothing succeeds like success.”
Finally, disability is the most pervasive and the most remediable factor that explains the low rate of participation of the blind in the labor force. It is a sad truth that the vast majority of blind people have not had the opportunity for proper training in the alternative skills of blindness and the sustaining attitudes that would render them successful job seekers and workers.
If we are guided by the Biblical injunction, “Seek the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” rather than contributing to the creation and perpetuation of myths and misconceptions about a 70 percent unemployment rate, we may indeed find the truth we have been seeking. Well, what is this truth that can set us free? It turns out not to be all that mysterious and, I hope, not at all hazardous to the seeker. I would say that this is the truth that the National Federation of the Blind has pursued since its founding in 1940. It is the truth that blindness can be managed in the social and physical environment by proper training, adopting a positive philosophical attitude, and persuading others to understand this truth. Little by little, but a little too slowly, this truth is beginning to prevail.
Below is correspondence Regarding the Use of the Term “Visually Impaired” on material appearing on IDB’s website between a support group organizer and IDB Director Emily Wharton.
Date: December 17, 2018 at 1:22:26 PM CST
Subject: revised blurb
Attached is my revision of the publicity blurb. I think it will meet your criteria.
If you want we could have a discussion about my attitudes toward politically correct language. I often use it to avoid offending people, but am not very convinced of its long-term efficacy. It is my observation that, while the language we use does have an impact on how we perceive things, simply changing the term for a thing or group that experiences stigma actually has little effect on the general population’s attitudes. If the attitudes remain negative, that negativity will simply be transferred onto the new term.
My longest experience with this has been with regard to people with psychiatric disorders – a group with stigma that goes back for millennia. A long time ago they were known as “demon-possessed.” When that became unacceptable it became “lunatic,” then “insane,” then “mentally ill.” All of the more recent changes were in an effort to avoid stigma, but the stigma remains, so it has moved on to taint the good intentions of each succeeding euphemism.
The same could be said of the “differently abled” – a convoluted term if there ever was one. We used to be “cripples,” then “handicapped,” then “disabled,” the “people with disabilities.” While I think attitudes are improving, I think it has little to do with changes in language. I have found the “person first” language movement particularly annoying because it has no real effect, other than contorting one’s language in writing about people in this particular group.
With regard to blindness, I have long had a preference for the term “blind” to cover all ranges of vision loss, but 21 years of working in the field (and living an entire life with blindness) have taught me that many people fear blindness more than any other disability and refuse to use the “B word.” If we force it on them, they will tune us out. Unless there is a trend that I’m unaware of, the most prevalent euphemism for loss of vision these days remains “visually impaired.” I prefer to move beyond that, but if that’s what people think they are, I’ll meet them where they are and try to wean them from using euphemisms and deal with blindness head on. As long as they move in the right direction, I don’t care what terms they use.
With regard to “visually impaired” vs. “vision loss,” despite what you were arguing this morning, both terms still speak of deficits, so I can’t rate one to be better than the other. Of course we could go really over the top and use something as opaque as “ophthalmically precluded,” and then there would be no further problems?! I prefer to choose my battles on other turf.
From: Emily Wharton [mailto:Emily.Wharton@blind.state.ia.us]
Sent: Monday, December 17, 2018 3:18 PM
Subject: Re: revised blurb
Hi ***, first of all welcome back to Iowa. I hope retirement is treating you well. Kim passed your discussion on to me as I was the one who made the decision that we will be removing the term visually impaired from our website and marketing materials whenever and wherever possible. I know our website and materials are very out of date and this is a slow process, but this is our ultimate goal. My reasoning behind this is that when I returned to Iowa I was surprised and saddened to see how acceptable it was to use the phrase “visually impaired” in place of the word blind in our marketing materials, website, and daily discourse. I understand where you are coming from with the method of using “visually impaired” to help draw in people who do not consider themselves blind and this is an effective strategy when followed up by the hard conversations about blindness and how it is OK to be blind and that blind is not a bad word. Our problem was that we weren’t always or often enough having those conversations. We weren’t talking about blindness or helping people to understand that blind didn’t mean totally blind. We weren’t helping folks to come to understand that blind isn’t bad. We weren’t helping them get past their fear of blindness or the word blind. We aren’t yet as good as we need to be about this, but getting particular and direct about using the word “blind” is helping us to have these important conversations. I would also argue that “low vision” can help those who believe the word “blind” means only those with no sight at all to see themselves as included without calling a person defective like one does with the term “impaired.” Additionally, there is a lingering misconception, particularly prevalent among our education and workforce partners that the term ”visually impaired” is the sensitive and politically correct way to refer to blind persons and we really don’t want to promote this misconception. I was visually impaired for a long time and was very much filled with shame until folks at IDB and BLIND, INc. helped me to understand that being blind did not mean that I was broken or defective. . So I really don’t disagree with you regarding the unwieldiness of person first language or the concept of meeting people where they are at, but I think we as an agency owe it to the people we serve to say that it is respectable to be blind and help promote an image of blind people as whole and capable human beings. . If you’d like to discuss this further, I’d be happy to have more discussion..
Emily Wharton, MFA CPM
Director, Iowa Department for the Blind
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my little screed. It helps to know where you are coming from, and why “visually impaired” has been stricken from the approved language list. I am in full agreement with you philosophically. (Why would I not, as I’m largely a product of BLIND, Inc. and IDB and NFB?) I just know that if I don’t use some of the non-B-word language in an introductory blurb, many who could benefit from the group would not even consider it. I think the letter, as edited, will serve our purpose very well.
From President Maurer: On December 5, 6, and 7, 2007, a rehabilitation conference entitled “Dare to Be Remarkable,” occurred at the National Center for the Blind. Staff members from the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the Colorado Center for the Blind, and Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) made presentations. Shawn Mayo, director of BLIND, addressed attendees of the conference on December 6. Although I was not present for her remarks, I understand that she expressed the view that the task of an orientation center for the blind is to teach blind students that, when blindness is properly understood, it is a “nonissue.” This choice of words caused much discussion. Before the day had concluded, I had discussed this remark with both Jim Omvig, a very longtime Federation leader, and Shawn Mayo.
Subsequent to the rehabilitation conference, Jim Omvig sent a letter to Shawn Mayo and others, and she responded. I was somewhat surprised both by what Jim Omvig said and by what Shawn Mayo replied. In a letter dated December 14, 2007, I expressed this surprise and added comments of my own. Upon reflection I have modified my thinking slightly, and I have altered my response accordingly.
One of the most oft-repeated (and frequently misunderstood) statements of Federation philosophy is that the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. “The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exist. With proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. The ordinary blind person can do the ordinary job in the ordinary place of business and do it as well as the ordinary sighted person.”
Many have said, either with annoyance or anger, that blindness is not simply a nuisance�it is much more than that. Of course the Federation has never said that blindness is either simply or only a nuisance. What we have said is that with proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. This leaves the social aspects of blindness to be considered, which can be a very great nuisance indeed and often much more than a nuisance. As I reflected upon the language employed in the rehabilitation conference, I wondered how blindness had changed in the decades that I have been working in the Federation.
It seems to me that the letters written with reference to the remarks of Shawn Mayo pose questions that have a fundamental impact on the underlying philosophical belief system of the Federation. Here is what was written:
From: James H. Omvig
Sent: Tuesday, December 11, 2007
To: Shawn Mayo, Pam Allen, Julie Deden, Marc Maurer
Cc: Joanne Wilson
Subject: NFB Orientation Centers and NFB Philosophy
I don’t want to make too big a deal of my concern with the way you stated NFB philosophy on Thursday, but since Dr. Maurer has raised it with you, I thought I’d let you know of my concern. And since I’m writing you, I thought I’d share it with the other centers. I’d hope we’re all consistent and up-to-date concerning our NFB belief system.
As I told you, I was concerned when you began your remarks by saying that the purpose of an NFB center is to make blindness a “nonfactor” or “nonissue” in the lives of our students. I was concerned for two reasons: first, NFB philosophy has never been stated that way, and it surprised me; but, second, and even more important, our critics are always looking for something we say that can then be taken out of context and used to make us appear to be unrealistic or foolish.
I assume that, when you said a center’s purpose is to make blindness a “nonfactor” in a person’s life, you were really saying what we always say, “Blind people are normal people who, given proper training and opportunity, can compete on terms of absolute equality with our sighted peers,” and that, “Given proper training, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance or inconvenience,” that “Blindness is a normal characteristic that can be managed in the same way humans manage other normal characteristics.” That’s all clear enough to me and to those in the room who already understood and were committed to NFB philosophy.
But there were enough strangers in the room that the audience may well have included those who would be all too eager to leave the conference and head back home armed with what they would consider new ammunition with which to distort and smear. Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive and an alarmist, but I don’t think so. I’ve been at lots of meetings and conferences over the past twenty-five years–during the time I’ve been writing about our training techniques and philosophy–where the effort from many traditional blindness professionals has been precisely that.
Actually, the issue of whether or not blindness is a nonfactor came up back in 1973. Someone wrote to Dr. Jernigan and said essentially, “You and the NFB are not consistent. You can’t say, on the one hand, that blind people are normal people and then, on the other hand, also say that blindness is a nuisance or inconvenience, even if one has experienced proper training. Either we’re normal, or we’re not.”
Dr. Jernigan answered this question at the 1973 New York convention in his speech, �A Left-Handed Dissertation.� Analogizing blindness to left-handedness, he pointed out that left-handed people are normal people but that, even so, left-handedness is still a nuisance (a characteristic) that is real and must be accepted and dealt with. Although the last paragraph of the speech is long, I thought I’d copy it here in its entirety, since it speaks to the point of blindness as a nonfactor. It reads:
For all these reasons I say to you that the blind are able to compete on terms of absolute equality with the sighted, but I go on to say that blindness (even when properly dealt with) is still a physical nuisance. We must avoid the sin and the fallacy of either extreme. Blindness need not be a tragic hell. It cannot be a total nullity, lacking all inconvenience. It can, as we of the National Federation of the Blind say at every opportunity, be reduced to the level of a mere annoyance. Right on! We the blind must neither cop out by selling ourselves short with self-pity and myths of tragic deprivation, nor lie to ourselves by denying the existence of a problem. We need your help; we seek your understanding; and we want your partnership in changing our status in society. There is no place in our movement for the philosophy of the self-effacing Uncle Tom, but there is also no place for unreasonable and unrealistic belligerence. We are not out to “get sighty.” Will you work with us?
Shawn, I hope my raising this issue with you is not a bother. Since I have written so widely on the topic of NFB training over the past twenty-five years (based on hours and hours of discussions on the subject with Dr. Jernigan), I have a pretty good handle on what we think and why we do what we do. I recognize that our philosophy can grow and develop, and I also recognize that I am not necessarily the keeper of all knowledge on the subject, but I am not aware that we have progressed to the point that we say that blindness is a “nonfactor” in someone’s life.
If I’m missing something, let me know. Also let me know about whether you think we need to be concerned any longer about how others state, or misstate, our positive message about blindness.
Hope all is going well at BLIND, Incorporated.
From: Shawn Mayo
To: James H. Omvig, Pam Allen, Julie Deden, Marc Maurer
Cc: Joanne Wilson
Date: Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Subject: RE: NFB Orientation Centers and NFB Philosophy
I am really glad that we can discuss this because our philosophy is so very important. I think that discussion is good but that we also have to be careful that we don’t mistake discussion for criticism. I in no way think you were criticizing me for saying what I said. I believe in discussion as I’m sure you do, but I hope we never reach the point where the appearance of discussion is used to mask a one-size-fits-all philosophy. I don’t think either you or I would want that.
“Left-Handed Dissertation” is a speech that we use regularly in seminar. Something I love about this speech is the way that Dr. Jernigan carried forward the ideas that Dr. tenBroek articulated in his Society for the Bald in “Within the Grace of God,” and then President Maurer carried the same concept forward when he talked of the plight of the tall in “The Rest of Reality.” It shows how durable our philosophy is even though it is articulated in different ways at different times.
When I was writing my portion of the panel presentation, though, I was thinking more about another speech we often use, “Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic” and particularly the passage: “No one is likely to disagree with me if I say that blindness, first of all, is a characteristic. But a great many people will disagree when I go on to say that blindness is only a characteristic. It is nothing more or less than that. It is nothing more special, or more peculiar, or more terrible than that suggests. When we understand the nature of blindness as a characteristic–a normal characteristic like hundreds of others with which each of us must live–we shall better understand the real need to be met by services to the blind, as well as the false needs which should not be met.”
I could have just put the term “characteristic” or “physical nuisance” in place of “nonfactor” or “nonissue,” but I didn’t for two reasons. First, the term “physical nuisance” was new and innovative when it was first used: however, we have used it so frequently that people�even people not overly familiar with our literature-may not be as inclined to think about the term and what it actually means. I’m no great rhetorician, but I do know that, while not wrong, repetition can have a sedative effect on listeners, and we intended to make people work at listening to what we had to say and hopefully remember and discuss it.
Second, I wanted to deal with this on more of a sociological level. There are a good number of folks who’d like to break all people down into a string of hyphenated subject positionings based on gender, class, race, sexual orientation, etc., and there are a lot of disabled folks who’d like to add disability to that list. I wanted subtly to show that, not only is blindness not a tragedy, it isn’t an identity either. Joyce Scanlan received a call the other day from a college student wanting to research blind culture. We need to stand up, as Joyce did, and say blind folks are as individual as snowflakes. That is what I meant when I said, “The only real common denominator among blind people is blindness,” the same as “Blind folks are a cross section of society.” The concepts that blindness is a characteristic and that blind people are a cross section of society are two sides of the same coin, and I wanted to flip it around and show both sides. I thought the term “nonfactor” worked for this.
As far as anyone�s taking the phrase out of context and using it against us, any words can be twisted and misrepresented; that’s the nature of language. People have done this with Dr. Jernigan’s speeches as well as with those of other members. And the rehabilitation field has done this with the words we use to describe NFB training, informed choice, structured discovery, etc. In the context of our presentation “nonfactor” or “nonissue” means removing it from the individual’s decision-making process. It’s not that blindness goes away. We just want them to put it into perspective so that decisions that have been made on the basis of blindness are no longer being made on that basis.
The rehab establishment has a long history of false advertising when it comes to Federation philosophy, but that has never stopped us from speaking our minds. We were also addressing a seminar for professionals in the blindness field. While I wouldn’t vouch for the intelligence of every person in attendance, we did assume that they were reasonably bright and at least mildly interested in the NFB and our thoughts on rehab, or they probably wouldn’t have bothered to show up. We wanted to treat them like professionals and produce a presentation that was honest and intellectually engaging on the assumption that they would listen to the speech as a whole, consider it, and engage in meaningful dialog. I think that, if anyone wants to take one term out of context, that’s his or her decision. I certainly don’t have twenty-five years of experience in rehab or the Federation, but I believe that I have a firm understanding of our history and philosophy. I also believe I have the responsibility to carry our philosophy forward, and I am doing the best I can in this regard. I like what Dr. Jernigan said in his final banquet address, and I consider it a challenge I am trying to live up to:
I leave the presidency of this organization knowing that our movement has come of age and is fully mature. Make no mistake: we will go the rest of the way to freedom. I know it as surely as I know that the blind are as competent as others. I know it as surely as I know that the sighted are capable of accepting us as the equals we are. We of the second generation of the movement have kept faith with the first generation. We have treasured the heritage, expanded the opportunities, resisted custodialism, fought where we could with the weapons we have had to advance the cause, supported each other, nurtured our fellow blind, and sacrificed and planned for the future. We have also kept faith with our children, the third generation. We have transmitted to them a powerful movement. We have trained them in the ways of freedom. We have shared with them our beliefs and our understanding. We have wanted better for them than we have had for ourselves. And, above all, we have loved them. We do not seek to make them like us, for in our strongest imaginings we cannot go to the house of their ultimate tomorrow. We seek only to go with them as far as we can on the way.
December 14, 2007
Sent via email
Dear Jim and Shawn:
I have read your emails dated December 11 and 12, 2007, and I am a little surprised. I had thought that you, Jim, had expressed the view to me that Shawn’s expression of philosophy overstated the case because it opined that blindness could be rendered a nullity, which you believed was impractical as a concept. In your email I do not find this assertion, which surprises me somewhat.
I found the conversation that we had during the rehabilitation conference about Shawn�s presentation fascinating. I wondered whether the proposition that blindness could become a nonissue could in any respect be possible. You related to me that this is what Shawn had said. If her argument is merely a restatement of what we have always said (whether her statement is subject to misinterpretation or not), then it seems less dramatic than what you earlier told me she said. I am well aware of what Dr. Jernigan said in “The Left-Handed Dissertation,” and I agree with him. I think Dr. Jernigan’s packaging of the ideas in that speech is among the most delightful of his writings. However, I am interested in knowing how Federation philosophy will develop. I do not believe that Dr. Jernigan thought up everything we should know. This implies that something new will be added to our philosophical comprehension of blindness and that we should be open to it. I hope I am open to the contemplation of ideas that extend beyond what all of us know. I think the thought of blindness becoming a nullity is an interesting one. I don’t think I believe in it, but I would like to examine the proposition.
It seems to me that our expectations are greater today than they have ever been. Our technology is advancing faster than it ever has in the past. I also believe that we are challenging elements within society beyond those that we have addressed in former times. Will there ever be a time when blindness approaches irrelevance in the minds of blind people and of the public at large? Other characteristics of humanity that divide populations into groups have changed in importance. “No Irish need apply” is a saying that in the past meant exactly what it said. There are still tensions in Ireland, but in the United States Irish descent does not prevent participation in the broader society. Even the French and the British seem to work together these days. Apartheid is no longer the law of the land in South Africa. Will blindness ever become a nullity? I find this a fascinating question. I offer these thoughts only for what they may be worth.
Marc Maurer, president
National Federation of the Blind
You may wish to listen to recordings from previous Commission Board meetings. referenced this week. Here is the link and a list of referenced meetings:
YATP Program Controversy – September 10, 2019
Library Name Change and Store Closing – July 16, 2019
2017 Reduction in Force and Budget Issues – March 7, 2017
2013 Reduction in Force and Budget Issues – February 5, 2013