The Braille Monitor                                                                                       December 2002

(back) (next) (contents)

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

by Peggy Elliott

Peggy Elliott
Peggy Elliott

From the Editor: Peggy Elliott is second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. In October President Maurer sent her to represent the NFB at a conference organized and conducted by the Milan Institute of the Blind, where she participated in the conference program by presenting a paper on October 12. She had been asked to discuss the NFB's philosophy of rehabilitation and experience in establishing adult rehabilitation training centers. Her remarks were well received. What follows is the complete text of the speech. The individual components are not surprising, but having them assembled in one place is useful and illuminating. Here is the speech:

I live in the middle of the vast North American tall grass prairie, so farming metaphors come naturally to me. I would like to describe the National Federation of the Blind using the analogy of a working farm, one designed to bring high-quality products to market. In our case, the high-quality products are capable blind people who work, earn salaries in a wide variety of jobs and professions, and participate in their community life.

To achieve a good working farm, the farmers must have four key elements: establishment of the farm; planting of the crop; harvesting of the crop; and marketing of the crop. When the first three elements are present, marketing of the resulting high-quality product is simple.

To begin a farm, the farmers must acquire land, purchase equipment, and assign chores, all based on the fundamental decision of what is to be produced. The Federation didn't begin quite as logically, but its roots determined the path its members have followed.

The Federation was founded by blind men and women from seven states, all of whom were experienced in local advocacy and all of whom were part of state-based organizations composed primarily of blind persons. No government money was involved. From the very beginning those three factors have determined our development: led by the blind; majority blind membership; no government money.

Lack of money meant that Federation members had to use their heads and their hearts as their main resource. Those heads and hearts were primarily within blind people who, in the early years of the organization, worked out a new way of looking at blindness not shared then by governmental professionals serving the blind. Blind people taught and learned from one another and worked out a view of blindness that underlies all Federation work today. The conditions of our founding led to the equipment we chose to use in our work on behalf of the blind, what we call our Federation philosophy.

We Federationists came to believe that the attitude about blindness inside the blind person is the single most important factor determining the blind person's success. We came to believe that basic skills of blindness are almost as important. And we came to believe that collective work by blind people ourselves to convince our sighted fellow citizens of these truths is the third essential factor.

First the attitude: At a time when our sighted peers and blindness professionals were certain that blind people could work in only a few menial jobs, we Federationists began to tell one another that blind people could work in virtually every job and profession. We have a joke that, every time someone says a blind person can't do something, a blind person doing that job turns up. By discussing our dreams among ourselves, we blind people came to define our place in the world as everywhere and not limited to certain professions.

We came to believe that we could achieve this goal of doing whatever our gifts inclined us to do rather than doing only the one or two jobs the world at large believed the blind could do. And we came to believe that the strength and determination to do it comes from each other, from our fellow blind people who encourage us and occasionally give us a shove in the right direction. The sighted workers around us and the world of professionals serving the blind all too often seek to define and to protect and to limit; we blind people among ourselves sought to dream and then to make the dream come true through our own lives and the lives of friends and members of each successive generation of blind people. We came to believe that, if you want to, you can do it, and we came more and more to see fellow blind people doing just that.

The second piece of equipment our founders, leaders, and members found indispensable is a set of blindness skills. These are well-known techniques: Braille, use of a white cane, simple and safe techniques for cooking, using woodworking and metalworking machinery, and in more modern times use of computers. Our use of the equipment, however, has two distinctive aspects not usually taught by professionals.

First, we challenge each other not merely to learn but to achieve mastery of these skills. Not just reading Braille but fast reading of it. Not just writing Braille but fast writing in all settings including where there is no electricity, demanding mastery of the slate and stylus. Another joke: You can always tell a room full of Federationists because some may have laptop computers but virtually everyone will have a slate. Mastery as well of the long white cane and, while we're on the subject, mastery of using a cane long enough to give you fair warning of what is in front of you. We see the cane not as a symbol or a warning to motorists but as a vital tool that keeps us safe and, along with our brains, keeps us on the path and gets us where we are going. Cooking, woodworking, and other daily living skills are abilities in which simple techniques work fine and in which the blind person, once started on the path, can begin to determine how to do other tasks efficiently and without sight.

We call these skills alternative techniques because we believe that, with mastery, these skills are as effective in most cases as the use of sight and, where not quite the same, are still safe and effective. This view of blindness skills is rooted in an attitude about blindness, the notion that blind people can do it, that there must be a way. Once this attitude is embraced and fundamental skills like Braille and cane travel are mastered or at least apprenticed, the skill of learning how to do other tasks becomes routine. In other words, with the positive attitude and the basic skills, the blind person comes to expect of himself or herself performance, achievement, and success that he or she can produce, creating a sense of personal responsibility that continues to grow with experience and success.

The final factor we Federationists learned along with attitude and skills is collective action. We learned that we learn best by teaching others; that other blind people often want to be taught and then become teachers themselves; and that the sighted public is usually willing to learn of our capabilities and pleased to find success where they mistakenly believed only pain and failure existed. Working collectively with each other and also with the sighted public, we are, as Federationists say, changing what it means to be blind. We are offering each other and our sighted fellows a new view of blindness while serving as the teachers and advocates, playing roles often thought impossible for blind people, roles our practice makes us increasingly comfortable in assuming.

These then are the basic equipment and work schedules for our farm: an attitude demanding achievement and success by blind people; mastery of basic blindness skills and the concomitant skill of working out techniques whenever necessary; and the sense of community that commands us to teach and to learn from each other and to serve as ambassadors to the broader sighted community. Once our Federation founders, leaders, and members had understood the lay of the land and the equipment to be used, they had also defined the crop: high-quality blind people suited to perform the many jobs and roles our society demands, allows, and encourages. So, now to the planting of that crop or, said another way, the communication of the attitude, skills, and community to new blind members.

The Federation for its first twenty years planted the seeds in new blind members purely by voluntary association. Blind men and women came together in monthly meetings in their cities, in annual conventions in their states, and in a large national convention once every year. Slowly, by ones and twos, the seeds were planted as each blind person learned the new ways of thinking and then taught them to other blind people. The planting was always one at a time and happened slowly. For each blind person it was a change of attitude, a learning of skills that took years to assimilate and apply before the teaching could begin. What changed this rate of planting was the founding of the first training center for intensive transmission of the attitudes and skills in my home state of Iowa by the Federation's longtime president, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan.

Dr. Jernigan pioneered the concept that planting the seeds of self-reliance and personal responsibility could be speeded up by a sort of immersion in blindness training. He used the Federation's bedrock philosophy about capability flowing from attitude and skills to create a training center in which blind people were immersed in the attitude, drilled in the skills, and drenched in real personal success. Dr. Jernigan's model has now been followed in at least seven private and public centers in the United States in which the seeds are planted every day.

These training centers have found that a good training base takes most blind people about nine months of residential training. That seems to most people a long time, but the investment of time is what makes the difference in the resulting crop. Other training centers require much shorter periods, but their success rates are much lower. Three main differences exist between Federation training centers and all other centers, resulting both in the longer investment of time and in the higher rate of success.

First, a Federation center's staff are all deeply aware of the myths and misconceptions about blindness leading both society in general and blind people in particular to conclude that a blind person can hope for limited achievement in only a few narrow predetermined tracks. For example, I and most blind people I know who lost their sight before college went through a period in which we believed we would become either foreign language interpreters or radio announcers. These are two professions demanding both great skill and great gifts, and most people, including most blind people, don't possess the gift or have the will to acquire the skill. But we blind youngsters figured these were the only two professions we knew about that were based on talking. We didn't realize how much nontalking goes into either profession, and, more important, we didn't realize we were limiting ourselves to a choice of profession based on our blindness. We thought we were being realistic. The staffs at Federation training centers are well aware of how myths and misconceptions about blindness affect all aspects of life, from fear of scrambling eggs to fear of using a band saw to fear of reading Braille aloud to fear of walking to the local grocery store to get a head of lettuce. All these are things most people do naturally as a part of daily life, and most blind people not only don't do them but fear even the attempt. Federation training center staff know this and begin working with each student from the very start both to confront these fears and to learn to overcome them. The teaching of healthy attitudes about blindness begins with the recognition that bad attitudes permeate almost everybody, including blind people who proclaim they are fear-free.

One of the most effective ways this preparing of the ground for planting is done at Federation training centers is by the consistent insistence that a majority of the staff and particularly staff members in key positions be competent blind people. The best refutation of the myth that blind people can't do something is for a blind person to do it, and this holds particularly true in a context in which blind people are learning competence.

Second, every Federation training center has at its core regular discussion classes about blindness. Many students enter a center unable to say the word "blind" comfortably and unable to identify themselves as blind. They are often unable to discuss openly simple failures and hurts occasioned by blindness and to examine such incidents for their real meaning because they feel embarrassed about being blind and yearn to hide the fact from themselves and others. Routine discussion of issues, both great and small, helps prepare the ground for healthy planting of the seeds of self-reliance by giving each student the social context in which failures and hurts occur and helping each to begin to root out the weeds of myth and misconception so that the healthy seeds can grow.

While training center staff portray and discuss good attitudes about blindness, the students are also learning the skills of blindness. These classes provide opportunity for the students to achieve success; it's an axiom that every student is good at some aspect of training, and each student excels at different subjects. In addition, entrance into the training centers is staggered in time so that there are always some beginners, some intermediate students, and some advanced students. The advanced students can help to encourage struggling beginners by telling their stories of how this or that task was hard at first but that they have now achieved competence in it. Advanced students teach by example and naturally provide encouragement to beginners while solidifying what they have learned as apprentice teachers. The result is that every student achieves success in some areas before others and can transition from student to apprentice teacher while working to achieve mastery in the areas in which he or she is not as gifted.

Dr. Jernigan first discovered and the Federation training centers all know that a few weeks or a few months of training is not enough to prepare the ground and to plant deeply the healthy seeds of good attitudes and good skills. Many other U.S. centers boast that their training takes only weeks or a few months, which can seem attractive to the busy adult who loses vision or the teenager eager to enter college with friends. Unfortunately, mere weeks or a few months simply are not enough to prepare the ground and plant successfully. Myths and misconceptions about blindness run very deep in our souls and in our culture, and it takes time to work down through that soil to the roots of those weeds and uproot them. It also takes time for the healthy seeds to implant successfully since most of us first encountering the Federation's approach say something like this to ourselves: "Sure, it would be nice if those optimistic ideas were true. But I've heard lots of people say those same words, and they didn't believe them. I sure don't believe them even if it would be nice to do so." Rooting out the unhealthy weeds and planting healthy seeds is not enough. The seeds must germinate in healthy soil and receive nourishment in their early growth, and this is best provided by that same nourishing training-center atmosphere staffed largely by blind people who believe and live the approach every day.

Dr. Jernigan also discovered that it takes time to implant good skills of blindness. For example, teaching use of the long white cane can be done in a few weeks since the hand and arm motions are basically pretty simple. What takes time to learn well is the unconscious skill, a skill so well known by hand and arm that reaction time is instantaneous. And what takes even longer is learning that the cane can acquire and one's own mind can process information about one's environment sufficient to keep one safe and oriented comfortably and without strain. It's a matter of walking longer and longer routes in more and more complicated patterns until one learns from this repetition that the hand and arm and brain work together smoothly and safely. Instruction for a few weeks can give the outline of the skill but cannot yield the unconscious mastery that daily walking for nine months guarantees. Shorter training, in other words, is merely letting the seed germinate a bit and then sending the student home to make errors; fail to drill daily; and often lapse back into poor habits and, finally, reliance on sighted assistance. Longer training allows germination, sprouting, and growth to full height, during which time the student can make mistakes, learn how to correct them, and develop self-reliance based on a valid faith in cane and brain, all in the nourishing atmosphere that continues to emphasize success.

I might add here that it was in the Federation training centers that the value of the really long white cane was discovered as blind people began to walk at a normal pace and in all conditions, including snow, rain, busy cities, and crowded malls. We discovered that, when the cane extends at least two steps in front of the stepping foot at normal walking pace, it can clear the way and warn of danger, while shorter canes must be uncomfortably stretched forward or simply do not give warning in time. These long white canes can be shortened by dropping the hand to grasp below the handle so that the cane sweeps only a step or a few inches before the stepping foot in crowded areas where the progress of all is slowed by congestion. In other words, the long cane has all options while the shorter cane has only the option of slow speed or danger.

In describing this planting of good attitudes and mastery of skills, I must mention the dedication of training-center staff, who perform the planting. These men and women, most of them blind, consciously serve as role models, deliberately challenge myths about blindness, and teach skills often resisted by blind people who are fearful or unconvinced that the skill will keep them safe. The job is an intensive one, demanding much emotional giving and much patience while each student works through the germination and sprouting at his or her own pace. The teachers must balance simple instruction with both firmness and compassion, knowing for each student when to push and when to comfort. It's a delicate balance, much more demanding than the physical planting of seeds and waiting for growth. Each teacher must know when finally to step back and watch the student finish growing by himself or herself. It's that letting go that marks the truly fine teacher.

 At Federation training centers the ground is prepared by suppression of deeply rooted weeds of myth and misconception while healthy seeds of attitude and skill are planted, nourished, and encouraged to grow to full height. The result is a high-quality blind person, ready for anything.

And that's the harvest of these training centers and of the Federation. Dr. Jernigan told the story about wishing to become a lawyer and having the rehabilitation professional inform him that his goal was not feasible. Before I entered the training center that Dr. Jernigan established, I talked with another rehabilitation professional about my vocational goal. Still unsure about what I as a blind person could do for a living, I asked this professional what she recommended. She asked me what I wanted to do. Knowing I didn't know anything about blindness, I asked again, requesting that she tell me what some of her other clients were doing. She asked again what I wanted to do. Puzzled by this refusal to help me define a reasonable goal for a blind person, I asked her what she thought I should do. She asked again what I wanted to do. Having met Dr. Jernigan myself, I began to get the idea that I wasn't going to be guided or pushed in any given direction. So I meekly suggested that I might perhaps become a lawyer. Without a word, the professional spun in her chair, noisily rolled paper into her manual typewriter, and started typing that I was going to be a lawyer. I was vastly impressed that she thought I could actually do it and, I confess now years later, vastly relieved that a sighted woman thought a blind person could do it.

Well, I did it! I hold a law degree from Yale University and have had my own private practice for seventeen years after serving as a government prosecutor and trial lawyer for five years. I learned long ago at that Federation training center that, with good Braille and good cane skills, with a can-do attitude deeply rooted in me, first by role models around me and then by my own success in training, I could do whatever I wanted to do. I proceeded to do it.

And so do well over three-quarters of the graduates from Federation training centers. The harvest is not only competent blind people; it is society reaping the harvest of all its citizens instead of only the sighted ones. It is society receiving taxes from wages and salaries earned by blind people instead of using taxes to support blind people. It is blind people serving, as I do, on my local city's governing body, my husband serving as a deacon in the church, many of my friends serving as Boy Scout or Girl Scout leaders as an outgrowth of their raising children, and I could name hundreds of other vocational and volunteer roles held by blind people after they armor themselves with the attitude and the skills the Federation teaches.

The harvest is one of successful, competent blind people, and this makes the final task of marketing the crop an easy one. The task is made even easier as Federation training centers teach that third element in addition to attitude and skills—the commitment to teach others. By the time a blind person graduates from a Federation center, he or she will be familiar with the myths and misconceptions recently weeded out, with the good attitudes now firmly planted, with the self-esteem that good basic skills provide, and also with the task each blind person has of teaching others around him or her about the competence of the blind while participating in the blind community's collective effort to change what it means to be blind. Excelling in school, seeking out jobs, finding one's place in the community are all part of that original seed that was firmly planted. Instead of being unsure and apologetic about blindness, the training center graduate is imbued with the idea of success and the sense of community that encourages one to succeed for all blind people while receiving support from blind people when inevitable reverses occur.

As the Bible says, "By their fruits ye shall know them." The fruits of the Federation approach, now distilled into the training centers, are self-reliance and personal responsibility by blind people that lead to success, to jobs and payment of taxes, and to taking our places in our communities as valued members or leaders, not because we are blind, but because we are competent and wanted.

To conclude, I must step away from the farming analogy because it has served its purpose. Blind Americans, through their own association and discussion with one another, realized the potential in blind people and made up their minds to make that potential real. We faced two personal barriers: lack of belief in ourselves and lack of skills. Through our organization we began to teach each other the belief and skills. A natural outgrowth of this teaching was the founding of training centers to accelerate the training. The key to our future as individuals and as a group rests with us blind people ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of blind Americans have now picked up the key and unlocked their own futures. Some learned this through the Federation itself, some learned it at the training centers, and some regrettably have chosen to let the key drop to the ground without using it.

The key gives each of us a choice—whether to make the transition to assuming responsibility for our own lives and for our blindness as a part of those lives. Before the Federation, others owned us and our blindness. Many were kindly about it, but family members, professionals in the field, and even occasionally strangers made decisions for us and determined what we could and could not do. With the key of the Federation we have unlocked the door and made the transition to making these decisions (from when we will shop for groceries to what job we will take) for ourselves.

This transition is no different from the transition we encourage teenagers to make into adulthood or the transition a trainer at a work site encourages a new employee to make. At first the young adult or new employee is instructed and guided, but, as time goes along, the instruction and guidance are withdrawn, and the adult or employee makes decisions and succeeds or fails on his or her own. In the same way we Federationists have forged the key of instruction and guidance for blind people, have provided it to each other, and have explained that the result is for each of us to take responsibility for ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of blind Americans have responded enthusiastically and joined the ranks of people changing what it means to be blind.

We have found one final fact about those myths and misconceptions about blindness. Vigorously as they may be uprooted, they still try to creep back into the souls of blind people and into the broader society where the weeding has been less complete. Whether it is an employer refusing to hire a blind person, a judge declaring that blind parents are unfit to raise their blind child, a church insisting that all blind parishioners must sit together at the back of the church, or a health spa rejecting a blind person as a member, myths and misconceptions about blindness still bedevil the daily life of every blind person, even those proudly carrying and using the key of Federationism, and to some degree more for them, since these are the blind men and women stepping out of the roles prescribed for the blind and into the role of a citizen likely to appear anywhere and do anything other citizens do. We have found that working collectively to continue to bring about social change is the best way for each of us as individuals to keep our attitudes and skills fresh and vibrant and also the best way to keep changing what it means to be blind in the broader society.

The goal is simple and achievable: Instill in every blind person a sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility and expect each one to take his or her place in society, reaping the benefits and bearing the burdens other citizens do without predetermining those benefits or burdens by social custom or professional intervention. The method is equally well-known: teach each blind person the attitude and skills that lead to self-reliance. The barriers to achieving this are clearest of all: social certainty that blind people are weak links and should be sheltered rather than empowered or, even worse, set firmly on the sidelines so no one has to think about them. We in the National Federation of the Blind have learned that the barriers can be swept aside and the goal attained only when we associate with other blind people, forge our own futures, and remember that, until all blind people achieve this freedom, we are all still held back by those weeds of myth and misconception.

The words are true. The pattern works. The key is real. And the future for blind people is unlimited if only we ourselves will grasp and live it and if only we are strong enough to overcome the social attitudes that either hold us back or label us as unimportant.

Our challenge is to believe, to learn, and to recruit others to do the same. Knowing this and believing it, the only way we blind people can fail is for us to abandon belief, to decline mastery of skills, and to accept that our lives will be bounded and defined by the decisions of others. I for one don't plan to live that way, and I encourage every other blind person and sighted people of good will to take the same oath.

(back) (next) (contents)