Setting High Expectations for the Blind: A Duty for Blindness Professionals

by James H. Omvig

Adapted from an article in the Braille Monitor Volume 50, Number 6, June 2007, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind

Marc Maurer, President
200 East Wells Street  at Jernigan Place
Baltimore, MD  21230
Phone   (410) 659-9314
www.nfb.org

From the Editor: The following paper is a somewhat expanded version of a speech that was presented at the spring training conference of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB) in Bethesda, Maryland, on April 26, 2007. James Omvig is a nationally recognized expert on the rehabilitation of blind people. He is the author of Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment; The Blindness Revolution, Jernigan in His Own Words; and with C. Edwin Vaughan, Education and Rehabilitation for Empowerment. This is what he says:

I am delighted to be here today to speak with you—the leaders of the state vocational rehabilitation agencies for the blind in America—about orientation and mobility (O&M) and your theme, “Stepping up to Independence.” While I’m not going to speak directly about O&M in particular, I am going to speak at length about real independence and high expectations—the essential foundation which makes for good blind travelers and empowered blind people. I’m also going to touch briefly on duty.

On the very day I saw your call for papers for this conference, I had experienced two distressing incidents concerning low expectations, and it was these two incidents that moved me to ask Vito DeSantis if I could have the opportunity to be one of your presenters. He agreed, so here I am to talk with you about the duty blindness professionals, including travel teachers, have to help their customers learn to set high expectations for themselves.

Let me begin by threading six incidents concerning expectations into my early remarks, and then I’ll get into a new concept—The Hierarchy of Truth:

First I would like to read you a touching e-mail message I received this spring on the day your call for papers was circulated. It is from a blind Texas high school student named Chelsea Muñoz:

Dear Mr. Omvig,

Thank you for sharing the article with me: I loved it! [I had sent Chelsea an article of mine concerning low expectations earlier in the spring.] It’s saved on my computer so that I can share it with others.

Speaking of low expectations, I have a story to share with you. (Actually, I could probably think of quite a few, but I should save some for when we’re talking in person.) Last semester I had to do a PowerPoint presentation for my economics class. Our dialogue (between the economics teacher and me) went something like this:

Mr. Baxa: Chelsea, instead of doing the PowerPoint presentation like the others, you can just write up an outline of your speech, remain in your seat, and present it to the class that way.

Me: Actually, Mr. Baxa, I can do the presentation just like everyone else. The only thing I’d need help with is knowing which slide I’m on, but other than that, I’m all set. I’ve got my notes like the rest of my classmates, and I’ll just stand at the front of the room like them too. We’re talking about equal rights here, and I wanna be treated equally.

Mr. Baxa: Ok ma’am, if that’s what you’d like, then go for it!

Chelsea’s e-mail wraps up by saying, My economics teacher said I had set a new standard for blind students. I can only hope he sticks to his guns.
                                                     
Now this is a cute story about a blind high school girl, but there’s something terribly wrong with this picture. It should not have been either the necessity or the duty of the blind student to teach her teacher—the professional—about high expectations for the blind. The teacher should have known and had proper expectations for the student and should have been able to teach the student about the subject if, indeed, she had needed any teaching. In this case, of course, she didn’t.

“So,” you directors and rehabilitation professionals of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind may ask, “this cute but troubling story had to do with education, not rehabilitation, so why are you telling it to us?”

Fair enough. So let me tell you another story. This story does have to do with adult rehabilitation and O&M, and it didn’t happen fifty years ago (when the instructors in orientation and mobility were beginning to be trained); it happened less than two months ago—on the very day I saw the call for papers for this conference.

One of the state agencies for the blind (it shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty) sends a group of blind teenagers to the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore each spring to introduce them to successful adult blind role models, to see the latest technology for the blind, and to give them at least a glimpse of the National Federation of the Blind’s notion of proper training. Those students who wish may be introduced to a bit of hands-on Federation travel training.

I was walking down the hall one day this spring during the latest such visit as one of our outstanding teachers, Amy Phelps, was giving a travel lesson to a young, blind female visitor. We were introduced, and then Amy said to the teen, “Tell Mr. Omvig what your mobility instructor said to you the other day.”

The student replied, displaying what can only be described as sheer defeatism, “My O&M instructor said I can never be independent!”

This is wrong, it is outrageous, and it sickens me! And, as I say, this story does concern the adult VR system. It explains why some of us who are rocketing rapidly into the ranks of old timers in this field keep working and writing and talking and pleading.

As a third example, very recently I learned of a state agency for the blind that had a kind of laundry list of items VR counselors were expected to purchase routinely for new blind clients. Among other things the list included such items as crock-pots and microwaves so the blind wouldn’t run the risk of burning themselves on stoves; black-and-white cutting boards so that the blind could operate visually using contrasting colors; knives with special safety guards so the blind wouldn’t cut themselves; and flashlights blind travelers could use at night. I suggest strongly that what new blind customers need is proper adjustment-to-blindness training, not gadgets and gimmicks.

The fact is that the knowledge exists right now—we don’t have to wait until some never-to-be achieved future—as to how properly to train and empower people who are blind. The knowledge also exists how properly to establish appropriate levels of expectations for those blind individuals with whom we work. It should not matter one iota where the knowledge has come from. Nor should it matter whether we as individual workers have come out of the ranks of the system which has trained traditional blindness professionals or from the organized blind movement itself. What does matter is that we come together, study together, learn the truth about blindness together, dream together, and then work together so that we can empower rank-and-file blind people together.

As an aside, when people first began offering some kind of help to the blind, they were volunteers. Then, in time, paid workers—professionals—joined the work of the volunteer helpers. Now, of course, these professional workers receive state and federal funds to provide the services to the blind the public expects. In these circumstances I believe responsibilities have shifted from simply being nice to blind people to what should now be characterized as a duty for blindness professionals.

Just for fun I looked up the meaning of “duty” in the latest version of Dictionary.com, the most convenient tool available at the time. It points out that duty means: “Something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation.”

If we accept this definition, and I do, then blindness professionals of today have a moral if not a legal obligation to learn the truth about blindness and then to pass it on routinely to the blind people with whom they are paid to work. This is the only way expectation levels can be set accurately.

One of the most devastating things that can happen to any human being is to be trapped in the prison of low expectations, but for the vast majority of blind people, this condition has been the norm rather than the exception throughout recorded history. In President Bush’s first inaugural, he referred to low expectations as “soft bigotry,” and I think he is right.

As we begin the discussion of lowered expectations concerning blind people, just whose expectations are we talking about? Is it the blind themselves? How about parents and other family members? Perhaps we are talking about educators? Or, could we also be talking about blindness professionals employed in the VR system? Is it members of the general public, or might it actually be all of the above?

The fact is, of course, that it is all of the above. While there are exceptions to every rule, it is commonly understood among the well informed that, throughout history, blind people have been regarded as inferiors who are incompetent, inept, and virtually immaterial, if not irrelevant. We have been thought of as wards and as people who need to be taken care of rather than as employable citizens. We have not been expected to do for ourselves, or even care for ourselves, and we certainly have not been expected to participate fully in or contribute markedly to, society. This problem is then compounded because, tragically, most blindness professionals themselves have succumbed to the same social conditioning—the erroneous myths, the misconceptions, and the superstitions—about blindness.

Just think about it. We have been educating blind children in America for nearly 180 years now—the first school for the blind in America, the New England Asylum for the Blind, was established in 1829. We have provided employment for blind adults in the sheltered shop system for more than 150 years—the first sheltered workshop was established in 1850 in New York City. And we have been providing VR services to blind adults in one form or another for 87 years—the original VR Act was adopted by Congress in 1920. America has devised a truly elaborate blindness system.

Yet studies show that, even after all of these blindness services, more than 70 percent of all blind people of working age are unemployed. Further, of those who are working, far too many are significantly underemployed. Clearly we have provided training, lots of it, but sadly very little of it has been effective training based on the truth about blindness.

We can blame employers who are reluctant to hire the blind for a small part of it, but the fact remains that the blindness system has failed in its duty. It has not been operated properly, and traditional blindness professionals must share much of the blame for the failure.

Recently I was asked to devise some method for measuring expectations—a daunting task. However, I have thought of at least one possibility: I call it The Hierarchy of Truth. Before turning to a discussion of this hierarchical approach, however, let’s examine two additional cases of low expectations—of soft bigotry.

Dr. Ronald J. Ferguson was formerly a senior research fellow at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. In his recent book, We Know Who We Are, Dr. Ferguson tells the following disturbing true story about a young, totally blind teenager:

When Jessica [fictitious name] was in ninth grade, she underwent two weeks of vocational and academic assessment in conjunction with the writing of her rehabilitation plan. A number of tests were administered to determine her vocational interests as well as academic achievement and potential for college. The results on all of the academic assessments showed that Jessica, although only in ninth grade, had scored in the ninetieth percentile or higher on tests normed for high school seniors as well as those normed for first-year college students.

Jessica’s parents permitted an informal survey to be conducted in several classrooms at three different universities. Jessica’s test scores were shown to upper level undergraduates majoring in education or graduate classes of rehabilitation students. The professor asked the students to give their impression of the young woman’s academic potential (a fictitious name was used). In addition, class members were asked to suggest possible careers that this person could pursue based on the test results. Overwhelmingly, class members noted the student had outstanding academic potential. Some of the suggestions for a career included engineer, medical doctor, scientist, and lawyer.

Jessica’s parents had not told the university students who participated in the informal survey that she was blind. Even so, these university students were mystified when they learned that, reviewing these same test results, Jessica’s rehabilitation counselor—the blindness professional assigned to help her—had suggested that she consider careers not as an engineer, but as a secretary; not as a medical doctor, but as a receptionist; not as a scientist, but as a customer service representative; and not as a lawyer, but as a computer operator.

Just consider: the blindness professional, who had been trained to serve and supposedly help the blind, expected about what the average person on the street might have expected of this bright blind teenager. Now, no one would suggest for one minute that this professional intentionally tried to hurt the young blind woman or do her wrong in any way. Far from it! The motive would have been the exact opposite—to help. It was the counselor’s understanding of blindness—or lack of understanding—that led to the grievous error and the soft bigotry.

How could the VR counselor’s expectations vary so markedly from those of the college students who looked at the same test scores? Obviously the counselor knew nothing whatever of the truth about blindness. He failed miserably in his duty.

Consider another case. A student working on a master’s degree in orientation and mobility—an aspiring blindness professional—tells her classmates that she has just met the best blind traveler she has ever encountered. She is working with him in the San Francisco area to teach him how to manage the new BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit system). A blind classmate, the young (and perhaps impertinent) Fred Schroeder, asks innocently, “If your student is such a great traveler, why does he need you to help him?”

The young O&M student responds, completely oblivious to the implications concerning lowered expectations of her reply, “He needs me because a blind person cannot possibly learn to manage BART without help.”

The brash young Fred Schroeder asks, “Who do you believe taught me to handle the BART?”

Again, without thought about the implications, the sighted student replies, “I don’t know. Who did?”

This young woman was in a master’s class to learn to teach blind people, and I am certain she believed she held high expectations for the capabilities of the blind in general and her students in particular. But she didn’t. The fact is that Schroeder had taught himself. The problem was that the sighted student did not understand the true nature of blindness and, therefore, did not understand the true capabilities of blind people.

The question of lowered expectations is complex. Blindness professionals of today all discuss the need for raising expectations, and they give the impression that this is routinely happening. I am sure they believe that the issue has been addressed and, since it is so prominently discussed, that the historic problem has been fixed. It hasn’t!

When we are talking about the problem of lowered expectations, we are not implying that an intentional wrong has occurred. In work with the blind, people universally intend to do right. However, even though we are dealing with good intentions, expectations remain far too low, and, therefore, the problem for blind people continues to be soft bigotry.

As a sixth and final example, here is a true story concerning a different kind and level of expectations. The outcome for the blind customer is also completely different.

When Joanne Wilson was directing the Louisiana Center for the Blind, she knew the truth about blindness and had high expectations—expectations of normality—for her students. When one young male student left the Center, he went on to college at a major university. Five or six other blind young men were in his dormitory. They had not experienced National Federation of the Blind training and empowerment.

A couple of years later Joanne encountered this young man at a meeting. He thanked her profusely for “making me different.”

Joanne asked him what he meant, and he recounted the following story:

On a Sunday afternoon, when he had some extra cash, he grabbed his cane, left his dorm room, went to the bus stop, and took a bus to the local K-Mart, purchased a TV, rode the bus back home, and connected his new treasure. That evening he invited his blind friends in to watch his new TV.

To a person, they were flabbergasted. “How did you do that?” “You mean you took a bus and went to the store by yourself?” “How did you know what bus to take?” “How could you find the store?” “How could you find the TVs and decide which one to buy?” “How could you hook it up by yourself?”

Joanne Wilson knows the truth about blindness, and she believes it. When she ran the Louisiana Center for the Blind, she set expectation levels in accordance with this truth. Then she routinely passed her knowledge on to those around her. As a result they have normal expectations for themselves and are not prisoners of the very system that was intended to set them free.

 

The Interpersonal Expectancy Effect

A Harvard researcher, Robert Rosenthal, showed the remarkable effects of lowered expectations in a study conducted in 1964 and 1965. Rosenthal was concerned that, “one person’s expectation for another’s behavior could come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” He conducted his study in a California school that operated under an ability-tracking system in which each of the school’s six grades was divided into three groups: fast, medium, and slow.

After the principal of this California school had read a Rosenthal article on “investigator expectancy effect,” which discussed the fact that the bias of the researcher was reflected in the outcome of certain studies, she wondered if the expectations her teachers had for their students had anything to do with the level at which they performed and their resulting placement in one of the three tracks. Because of this concern, the principal had invited Rosenthal to conduct the study at her school.

Rosenthal began his study by administering IQ tests to selected students.

He then lumped students into two groupings—those who were expected to improve at an average rate and those who would be expected to improve at a superior rate. He told the teachers who would be working with the youngsters which of the students were expected to be average and which were likely to be superior.

Rosenthal returned to the school several times over a two-year period, retesting the students on each visit. His findings confirmed his worst fear: the self-fulfilling prophecy had come true. The students the teachers expected to be average functioned at an average rate, and the so-called superior students—those the teachers expected to be superior—improved at a superior rate. In fact the tests showed that IQ increases actually tracked with teacher expectations for each group.

After the study was completed, Rosenthal revealed the startling truth—the dirty little secret. When he split the students into the two groups, he had done so randomly.

This meant that the average group included superior students, and the superior group included average students. However, he had led the teachers to believe that those in the average group were students who had tested at an average level and the ones in the superior group had tested superior. The teachers’ expectations for the members of each group correlated precisely with the students’ achievement. No doubt the teachers who were involved in this study believed that they held not only fair, but also high expectations for all of their students in both groups—no doubt they were people with good intentions.

Since this problem of soft bigotry could arise so easily and naturally among teachers who believed they were teaching what they would call normal children, just imagine the impact of lowered expectations on an entire group of people already perceived by society as something less than normal. Among other things this study also shows all too clearly that people who believe they have high expectations for those with whom they are working often really don’t and that good intentions alone don’t cut it.

 

The Hierarchy of Truth

My own colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind may express some skepticism when I introduce a hierarchical approach to the issue of setting proper expectations for blind people. We are quite aware that in the past the hierarchical approach has failed the blind miserably when we examine what some call “the hierarchy of sight.” Those who adhere to this hierarchical approach—that includes almost everybody in America—believe that the degree to which a blind person can be competent, successful, and happy rises or falls in direct proportion to the amount of vision he or she has. Great emphasis is placed on functioning visually if one has the slightest amount of vision. (By way of personal confession, I was convinced before I encountered the National Federation of the Blind that I absolutely had to have vision in order to be successful and happy.) Those who hold this view are dead wrong. The fact is that the amount of vision—if any—a blind person possesses has nothing whatever to do with competence, happiness, or success. It has only to do with the kind of training the blind person should be provided.

But I believe that the hierarchy of truth is another matter altogether: that is, the level of expectation an individual has concerning maximum achievement for the blind as a group—or for a particular blind individual—rises or falls in direct proportion to the level of emotional understanding and acceptance he or she has concerning the truth about blindness. This is true regardless of whose expectations are being examined—those of the family, society in general, the particular blind individual in question, or most especially the blindness professional involved.

And what is this truth about blindness? It has been developed and fine-tuned by the National Federation of the Blind over the past 67 years and may be stated quite simply in a few sentences:

(1) First as Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (the founder of the National Federation of the Blind) was fond of saying, blind people are simply normal human beings or, at least as normal as human beings are. That is, we are no more or no less than ordinary people who just happen to be blind.

(2) The blind are a cross section of society as a whole, and individually we are as different as sighted people are. Therefore, contrary to popular myth, misconception, and stereotype, we are not all alike.

(3) The physical condition of blindness is nothing more than a normal human characteristic. The characteristic of blindness is no different from all of the other normal characteristics which, taken together, mold each of us into a unique person. Blindness is not what defines each of us.

(4) The properly trained blind person uses alternative techniques—nonvisual methods—to perform efficiently without sight those tasks and functions that would be performed visually if he or she had ordinary sight.

(5) Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person—not those perceived as the super-blind—can participate fully in society and can compete on terms of absolute equality with his or her sighted peers. In short, given proper training, blindness can literally be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance or inconvenience.

(6) To state it all very neatly—if it won’t permanently damage too many psyches—vision is not a requirement for competence, competitiveness, success, and happiness for properly trained blind people, and it is respectable to be blind.

(7) Finally, the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight itself but is rooted in the public’s misunderstandings, misconceptions, and superstitions about it. In short, the blind are perceived—and generally perceive themselves—as inferiors and are a minority group in every negative sense of that term. Therefore, service providers must come to understand this significant truth; then they have a duty to focus their blindness services accordingly and provide programs aimed at teaching their students or customers a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness based upon an understanding that prevailing views are wrong and harmful.

(8) To sum it all up simply, the blind person must accept rather than deny the fact that he or she is blind and then learn to become comfortable with it. All of the foregoing is the simple truth that should be adopted by schools and agencies as the defined philosophy they teach regularly and openly to their blind customers.

From all of the above, it naturally follows that, if a blindness professional truly understands blindness and believes that blind people are normal people who can do what normal people do—that is, if the blindness professional knows the truth about blindness—then proper (normal) expectations will be set for blind customers routinely. Further, the blindness professional, whether educator or rehabilitator, will arrange for services which will raise the expectation bar for the blind customer to the level at which it should be, and the customer will be empowered as a result. In general, the expectation level for a particular blind customer should be precisely the same as it would be for that same individual if he or she were not blind.

I pointed out above that the problems of lowered expectations are very nearly universal. They are shared by members of the general public, employers, family members, and friends, and all too often the blind themselves—they have bought hook, line, and sinker into the myths of the hierarchy of sight and the concomitant inferiority of the blind.

Ultimately, of course, the general public will come to understand the truth of the normality of blind people, but the blind themselves have the primary responsibility for making this happen.  So, too, family members and friends will get it, but this will probably happen only when blind people themselves have come to know the truth and can share it with others: that is, when their success and happiness have risen to a level commensurate with their comprehension and internalization of the truth about blindness. Putting this another way, the self-fulfilling prophecy for success for blind people will come true when rehabilitation professionals understand that blind people are normal people who can do what other normal people do.

This brings us to the ultimate question: how then can blind people learn the fundamental truth about blindness and thus become empowered? There can be but one answer—the duty rests with blindness professionals. It is their duty to give their blind students or customers inspiration, optimism, and the golden gift of hope. It is their duty to teach the truth about blindness and, by so doing, to raise the level of expectations to that which is normal for each of their blind customers.

All of this involves a several-step process: First, the enlightened and committed blindness professional must really learn, internalize, and embrace the truth about blindness personally. Then he or she must learn and embrace the fundamentals of “proper training” and find out where it can be obtained. The final duty is to pass the truth on by doing everything possible to secure proper training for his or her customers so that those blind people can possess the tools which are essential to enable them truly to take control of their own lives and become the best that they are capable of becoming.

To summarize the concept of “proper training” (I have written extensively on the subject in Freedom for the Blind4) there are five things any blind person needs in order truly to become empowered, and any good VR program for the blind should provide them routinely.

First, the blind person must come emotionally, not just intellectually, to know that he or she truly can be independent and self-sufficient. Second, the blind individual must master, not merely be introduced to, the alternative techniques (the skills of blindness). Third, the blind individual must learn to cope calmly and rationally with the things other people will do or say because of their lack of accurate information about blindness. Fourth, the blind person must learn to “blend in” and to be acceptable to those around him or her. And, fifth, the blind person must learn to “give back.” By becoming involved in the organized blind movement, the blind person will have a natural safety net when confronted almost daily with all of the routine negativity about blindness which exists everywhere.

It is not the function of blindness professionals to tell their customers what cannot be done. The main duty of the genuine professional is to help his or her customers raise expectations and do what to those customers, in the beginning, may have seemed to be impossible. Enough obstacles stand in the path of the blind person without having the blindness professional or the blindness system itself add to them.

Nor is it helpful when blindness professionals who are thinking and living in the past flare and become angry when it is pointed out that their stereotypical attitudes and methods are outmoded. It is not all about them! It is about the people who have been hurt by the failed blindness system, and it is all about improvement. It is about making conditions, training methods, and opportunities better for the blind than they have ever been.

The National Federation of the Blind has discovered the truth about blindness, and this truth is shared routinely with blind students who attend NFB or other progressive centers. Similarly, this truth is presented as a part of our master’s degree programs at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. One of the most exciting developments to occur in recent years has been the acceptance of this truth by more and more educators and rehabilitators.

There seems to be only one way that people—either blind individuals or blindness professionals—can internalize this truth universally and raise the bar: that is, through immersion into blindness. Full immersion is what happens at the NFB training centers, and it is also what happens for students of the Louisiana Tech program. This practice must become the norm across the nation.

Therefore, my urgent plea is that blindness professionals everywhere take advantage of the information that is available for the asking and learn the truth about blindness. By so doing, you can do your duty and also be empowered to raise the level of your own expectations for your customers to what will be normal levels for each of them. In turn you can guide them to raise their own expectations accordingly. Give them inspiration. Give them the truth about blindness. Give them hope because, where there is no hope for the future, there is no power for the present!

If we as blindness professionals give our customers all of these things, they will have appropriate expectations for themselves and, therefore, they will be encouraged to do those things which other normal people do. For the blind, great expectations are nothing more than normal expectations as measured against the truth about blindness.

 

Endnotes:

1. Ronald Ferguson, We Know Who We Are: A History of the Blind in Challenging Educational and Socially Constructed Policies: A Study in Policy Archaeology (San Francisco: Caddo Gap Press, 2001), 22.

2. Robert Rosenthal and D.B. Rubin, “Interpersonal Expectancy Effect: The First 345 Studies,” The Behavior and Brain Sciences, 3 (1978): 377-386.

3. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, Pygmalion in the Classroom (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968).

4.  Omvig, J. H. (2002).  Freedom for the Blind:  The Secret Is Empowerment.  Fayetteville:  University of Arkansas Press (Region VI Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program).

 

For more information about blindness, please contact the Jacobus tenBroek Library of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute at (410) 659-9314, or send an e-mail to JtBLibrary@nfb.org.

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