by Fredric K. Schroeder
From the Editor: On Friday afternoon, July 6, Dr. Fred Schroeder, a past Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and now a Research Professor at San Diego State University, addressed the 2001 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. It is refreshing, though in this case not surprising, to listen to a researcher with common sense. This is what Dr. Schroeder said:
Beginning in the early 1900's, Logical Positivism (or what we commonly think of as the modern-day method of scientific inquiry) emerged as the dominant mechanism for identifying and verifying fact or truth. Positivism asserts an objective reality that can be measured or quantified. In the field of blindness we have suffered decades of misguided research cloaked in the positivist tradition, which rather than expanding understanding has served to legitimize prejudice. The application of the scientific method with its assertion of objectivity has been used to lend credibility to research into various aspects of blindness by ascribing objectivity where none truly existed. In other words, the assumption that science is independent of attitudes and emotions is the very thing that makes modern-day positivism so dangerous.
Perhaps science should be independent of human frailty, but the mere fact that we wish it to be so does not make it possible. In fact, the very idea of independent objectivity within social science research creates the very pitfall that the positivist seeks to avoid. In my view rather than denying the presence of bias, we should acknowledge it, that is to say, disclose our biases and thereby create a context in which to understand the assumptions and thought processes guiding our research.
As you know, in 1980 I completed post-graduate training in orientation and mobility (O & M). At that time the idea of blind people teaching cane travel was controversial within the O & M profession. The source of the controversy is not difficult to understand. It was based purely and simply on myths and misconceptions about blindness--myths and misconceptions rooted in the assumption that the blind, by virtue of their blindness, are inherently unsafe or, at best, less safe than the sighted when teaching cane travel, in spite of the fact that prior to World War II the way blind people learned to travel with a cane was by learning the skill on their own or by asking other blind people. Nevertheless, with the advent of the orientation and mobility profession came the application of traditional societal views about blindness to the straightforward process of teaching a blind person to travel safely and efficiently.
As I said, I enrolled in a university program in orientation and mobility, which stimulated a national debate on the question of whether blind people should be permitted to do what we have done forever, that is, to teach each other how to travel independently. Eventually the profession turned to science to help settle the question. In the late 1980's a research study was initiated to see whether blind people could in fact teach cane travel with a level of competence and safety equal to that of sighted instructors. The study was crafted in the tradition of the positivist model; that is, the researchers identified various competencies and objectively measured them. The problem, of course, is that, far from being objective, scientific pursuit cannot extricate itself from underlying belief systems. The research question itself stemmed from an assumption. In other words, we would not have undertaken to test whether blind people could teach as well as the sighted unless there had been some doubt about it.
But the problem did not end there. In addition to the research question's revealing a negative assumption about blindness, the way in which the study was structured in an effort to answer the question also reflects bias. The researchers began with a series of discrete tasks routinely performed by sighted mobility specialists and then looked at whether blind people (parenthetically let me add, blind people who had never taught travel) could perform the tasks as well as sighted instructors. No allowance was made for the fact that blind people and sighted people might use different strategies in teaching. Instead, the strategies used by the sighted were presumed to be the standard. They were automatically regarded to be the only strategies or, at least, the best strategies for teaching cane travel.
As you can imagine, blind people did not fare well in the study, but what did the study prove? Perhaps Dr. James Nyman, former director of the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired, said it best when he remarked that the Western Michigan study proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that blind people do not see as well as sighted people.
The study was flawed, not so much by its failure to achieve objectivity, as by the misguided assumption that scientific inquiry is capable of complete objectivity. We are human beings; we are not capable of complete objectivity; nor is it helpful to pretend that we can operate free from bias and assumption. The problem with the positivist model is that it asserts a level of objectivity that is unrealistic. My complaint, however, is not simply that the positivist model is untenable but rather that positivism itself is self-perpetuating. We construct measurements and satisfy ourselves that they are proxies of truth, when indeed to one extent or another they are images of our own preconceptions.
Much of the contemporary blindness research is irrelevant in the lives of blind people, and that which is not irrelevant is often damaging. Recently I reviewed the current literature representing research efforts into a variety of issues concerning blind people. Among other things my review revealed that blind people use fewer visual gestures than the sighted and are less able to supplement hearing visually, that is to say, less able to lip-read than the sighted.
These studies and others certainly raise the question of relevance, but more alarming are the studies that apply science to solving problems that in truth are not problems at all. One study I reviewed created a structured mechanism for measuring progress in teaching route travel. The investigator never questioned whether route travel is the right way to prepare blind people to live independently. In my mind route travel is a vestige of society's assumption that blind people can only find their way by memorizing a pre-determined path. In truth the concept of route travel is not far removed from the age-old stereotype that blind people navigate by learning to count steps. As I looked through the body of literature representing the blindness field, I was struck by the lack of research rooted in a presumption of the competence of blind people.
If we are to make serious progress in assisting blind people in living productive, integrated lives, we must begin with a clear, well-articulated belief about what that future should look like. Much as they may wish to deny it, positivists incorporate traditional views of blindness into their research while arguing that attitudes and opinions have no place in scientific investigation. Whether they should or should not, they do, and rather than denying this fact, we should recognize and face it directly. I want to gain knowledge. I want to know more about ways in which blind people can be aided to live full and normal lives, and I want this goal to drive our research. I want our research to be relevant.
Many years ago I read a research article about what kind of footwear was best for blind people to use in snow and ice conditions. Believe it or not, the researcher had a blind person walk on snow and ice wearing various kinds of shoes and boots and counted the number of "body contacts" the individual made with the ground. In other words, the researcher measured how many times the blind person fell and, lo and behold, concluded that slippery soles, such as those made of leather, resulted in more body contacts with the ground than soles that were designed to grip, such as rubber soles.
This is not research. This is institutionalized prejudice. Far from being free of bias, such research presumes that the blind are dramatically different from the sighted and therefore require the intervention of the blindness profession to address their most basic needs. This is not objectivity but prejudice encased in a thin veneer of science. As you know, we are well underway to raising the funds needed to build a research and training institute on blindness, and of course the obvious question is why. Why should we use our time and resources on research, development of technology, and training?
To my mind the answer is the same as to the question why we use our time and resources in support of civil rights, in support of information technology, such as NEWSLINEŽ and JoblineŽ, in support of education and employment. It is because the future of blind people lies in self-determination. Our future will be as constricted or expansive as our collective will. We need research, not to know whether to wear leather or rubber soles on ice, but to learn how newly blind adults can learn to read Braille as well as they once read print. We need research to learn the best ways for blind children to master the same skills and concepts (particularly in math and science) as their sighted peers, and do it efficiently. We need research to explore ways in which information increasingly displayed visually can be best represented through speech, Braille, or other media or combinations of media.
As Dr. Maurer charged us last year, we need new technology that will allow us to drive; or, as Dr. Kurzweil discussed, we need a pocket-sized reading machine. And we need technology to allow us to do other things that are not currently practical. But, underlying it all, we need research that recognizes our inherent normalcy. I do not consider it a failure of scientific inquiry to presume that blind children can learn to read and write and acquire an education. I do not believe it is a failure of scientific inquiry to assume that blind people can be in charge of their own lives and can contribute to the social and economic well-being of their communities. In fact, I consider it a failing of the positivist model that a presumption of normalcy is viewed as unscientific while a presumption that normalcy is in doubt is viewed as objectivity. I do presume that we as blind people are normal. I do presume that we can learn and work and engage in the same range of activities as the sighted. I do not want our research to strive to separate itself from these beliefs.
We have labored too long under a system that has legitimized its low expectations for us under the guise of professionalism and research. This so-called objectivity has resulted in the development of methods to teach us how to take a sponge bath or sit in a chair. I want research that deals with the real problems of blindness--large and small problems such as the way to gain efficient access to information and transportation, equal access to education and employment: research that recognizes my fundamental humanity and seeks to support it by amassing knowledge.
For research to be relevant, it must address the problems about which we are concerned, not whether we use as many visual gestures as the sighted, not whether we lip-read as well as the sighted; for as Dr. Nyman put it, we know that the blind do not see as well as the sighted. What we need is what we have needed throughout our move toward social and economic integration. We need the National Federation of the Blind. We need the collective spirit and voice of blind people. In his report on Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Maurer enumerated the major accomplishments of the past year. The common thread was a belief in blind people; a belief that, given training and opportunity, the ordinary blind person can compete on terms of equality; a belief that we have the right to live free from the prejudice of others.
The National Research and Training Institute is the logical extension of our shared commitment to achieve first-class status. Civil rights, education, and employment have worked best and in fact have only worked well when we the organized blind have set the direction. Under Dr. Maurer's leadership, for the first time the blind of this nation and, for that matter, the world have the opportunity to have meaningful, relevant, respectful research, not based on outmoded, negative assumptions about us (while pretending objectivity), but based unashamedly on a positive vision of blindness, a positive philosophy of blindness driving our research, the development of new technology, and training in the field of blindness.