The Braille Monitor March, 2002
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Fred Schroeder Replies
Fredric K. Schroeder
Last summer I discussed the deplorable state of blindness research and its negative impact on the ability of blind people to seek true social integration. My basic point was that people conduct research and therefore societal attitudes overlie research efforts in all fields, including the blindness field. This is not an attack on science or the scientific method but an acknowledgement that even within pure science we must have a starting point at which to begin our inquiry. In its best form empirical research minimizes the assumptions on which it is based and, more important, tries actively to control for those assumptions which are most likely to compromise the objectivity of the study.
In my view traditional attitudes about blindness are so deeply ingrained that it is unrealistic to believe that we can fully divest ourselves from the negative assumptions about blindness that constitute the norm in our society. In my presentation I argue for research that advocates for our right to live full and normal lives--research that seeks solutions to pressing problems, research that assumes we as blind people can live and work as sighted people do, and research that uses the tools of science to further this belief.
I said, "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."
Professor Vermeij responds to my call for advocacy research by arguing that true science must seek objectivity. In his words, "We do not, however, have the right to accept only the science that happens to agree with our world view and to reject anything that happens to conflict with it. Inconvenient truth is better than convenient lies, for in the end it will teach us things that will enable us to respond effectively. Politically charged science is dangerous stuff that calls into question the credibility of those who engage in it and harms the dispassionate gathering of evidence through observation, experiment, and the building of theory."
I agree with Professor Vermeij that in its ideal state science should strive for objectivity; however, where I believe we disagree is in what to do when objectivity appears unattainable. Within social science research objectivity is, at best, illusive when working with highly subjective concepts such as "discrimination," "confidence," and "expectations." Professor Vermeij states, "Objectivity may be difficult to achieve, and biases may be difficult to eliminate, but that does not mean we should give up and give in." I agree that we should not accept only those truths that we find palatable; nevertheless, I believe that it is important to recognize the way in which our humanness affects our view of truth.
I do not argue that blind people are no different from the sighted. I do not shy away from research that reveals these differences. If we accept that blind people are different from sighted people, and I do, the important question becomes where we should begin in trying to understand these differences and their implications for the lives of blind people. How do we separate truth from tradition and preconception about blindness and blind people? How can we use this knowledge to further social and economic integration rather than perpetuating a system in which differences have been used as irrefutable proof of lesser ability?
What I propose is research that is advocacy-based--an approach that assumes our ability to compete; assumes our ability to learn; assumes our ability to work and do the same things as others in our society. By starting with a positive view of blindness, we can work to identify the barriers to full participation and seek ways to break down those barriers. This is not a politically charged or a myopic view of the world. This is not a fear of unpleasant truth. This is collective action.
In our society there are groups or classes of people who are disadvantaged. Women earn less than men; minority children have higher dropout rates than non-minority children; and blind people suffer social and economic discrimination and have devastating rates of unemployment. These are known facts, but are they the product of inferiority or the product of lesser opportunity? Are these disparities the natural consequence of the individual's condition or status, or are they evidence of social ills that weaken our society and threaten its health? I support research that applies science to answering the question of why these inequities exist and, more important, what we can do to resolve these dysfunction’s in our society.
In planning a research agenda, it is reasonable for us to pursue those areas of inquiry which we collectively believe will benefit our lives. Said another way, how can we best pursue research (or understanding) that is most relevant in the lives of blind people? In my presentation I described contemporary blindness research that is at best irrelevant but more often damaging to the lives of blind people.
This is not because I found their findings unflattering to blind people but because I found the research riddled with negative assumptions about blind people. I am not afraid of unpleasant truth; I am alarmed when prejudice is given respectability by cloaking it in science. I believe that the current state of poor blindness research stems from historic prejudicial attitudes about blindness. Society believes that we are set apart by our lack of sight. It assumes that we are in effect deficient sighted people whose lives only approximate normalcy but can never attain full normalcy. Therefore much of the present day blindness research predictably seeks knowledge that can help ameliorate our inferior condition.
Unfortunately, this hardly objective view is accepted as objective through a misapplication of scientific principles. We know that blind and sighted people have differences. Yet I believe the way in which those differences are explored reveals the fundamental beliefs of the researcher. As I said in my presentation, "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 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."
Professor Vermeij points out, "Bad science--and there is lots of it in every discipline--is no excuse for questioning the scientific method or doubting legitimate attempts to acknowledge, understand, and evaluate biases and assumptions." I agree, and it is not my intent to denigrate true science; rather, it is my view that the well-earned credibility of true science has been exploited, or at least misapplied in most of the body of literature comprising blindness research.
Professor Vermeij makes reference to what he calls my "misapprehension and mistrust of science" and states that this view is "unfortunately widespread." He says, "For some years there has been a steady trickle of articles in the Braille Monitor with similar antiscientific sentiments, in effect, that science is fine as long as it reaffirms our point of view. This is a dangerous, counterproductive attitude that could seriously detract from messages about blindness that are in every other way laudatory and helpful. We must take care neither to taint science nor to compromise the political principle that the blind should be treated as equals to the sighted."
I do not agree with Professor Vermeij that articles in the Braille Monitor reflect a negative view of science. Our criticism is not with science but with its misapplication. For example, I believe that, when citizens speak out against misuses of power by governmental officials, they are not speaking in opposition to democracy. When minority groups complain about discriminatory practices by police, they are not speaking against an orderly, safe society. We speak out against poorly constructed blindness research that is damaging to our dignity and perpetuates stereotypes.
I recognize that my view is controversial, but I believe it is both morally and scientifically defensible. I do not believe we are well served by filtering truth or manipulating facts; nevertheless, I firmly believe that research targeted to address specific problems offers the promise of real progress. For example, I know that most blind people who learn Braille as adults do not achieve the same reading speed as those who learn Braille as children; yet I know that for blind people to be competitive they need real literacy. My view of advocacy research is that we begin with an expectation--a belief that blind adults can master Braille and achieve true literacy.
With this as my goal, the focus of my research shifts. I do not seek to explain why newly blinded adults will never read as well as those who learned Braille as children, but rather I look for methods that yield better and better results bringing me closer and closer to my objective. I am not satisfied until I achieve my goal. In other words, if I am not successful, I view it as my failure to find the correct intervention or training strategy, not as something to which the individual is inescapably doomed. I do not ignore those factors that frustrate my reaching my goal. To the contrary, identifying those impediments is a vital part of the process.
Scientific methods are the way in which we approach advocacy research. It is the way we structure our systematic investigation of the problem with which we are concerned. It is the way we evaluate our results and modify our subsequent efforts. Science is not the culprit but our ally. Science is a tool. When used well, it is indispensable. However, when misapplied, it is damaging and serves to keep us in poverty and isolation.
I believe we will have found its correct application when we have found ways for blind children to have an education comparable to that of their sighted peers, when we have unemployment rates comparable to those of the sighted, when newly blinded adults can expect to regain literacy through Braille, when blind people have access to information comparable to that the sighted receive. But I also believe science can help us address social ills. By solving many of the problems that confront us, we foster greater understanding and acceptance. I believe that science can help eliminate prejudicial practices and help guide our public policy.
What I propose is nothing more than what we as a movement have done throughout our sixty-two-year history--challenge the status quo, refuse to accept an inferior status, advocate for our rights, and assert our right to live with dignity free from prejudice. I do not believe we should be naive or defensive about those aspects of blindness that set us apart. We use Braille to read. We travel with white canes. And, increasingly, we use technology to function competitively.
I believe it is reasonable to focus our research efforts to further our move toward true integration, and I believe it is reasonable to oppose research that anchors us in an inferior status. Indeed, I believe that the process of asserting our right to full participation is the only real way we as blind people have made significant progress toward social and economic equality. No one can give us equality, and we must not allow anyone to keep it from us. Society wishes us well, but society does not believe, as we do, that blind people are capable of full participation. I fully agree with Professor Vermeij when he says, "Inconvenient truth is better than convenient lies," but I do not believe that we are well served when we let others define that truth.
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