The Braille Monitor May 2003
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Open Letter to a Blind
Choosing Rehabilitation Programs and Instructors
by Mike Bullis
From the Editor: Mike Bullis has been teaching blind people how to travel, read Braille, and find employment since 1974. Not content simply to teach, Mike likes to practice what he preaches. He has owned eleven businesses, including restaurants, a motorcycle shop, and a mediation business. In the November 2002 issue of the Braille Monitor, we published his first "Open Letter to a Blind Person." The topic was determining whether and when to take the time to get truly effective rehabilitation training. In the following letter he addresses the question of finding a program that meets your needs. This is what he says:
We now turn to the difficult subject of choosing which programs and instructors will best meet your needs as a blind person. For many of you reading this letter, the training you receive will be paid for through the federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act. This act places much emphasis on your ability and right to make an informed choice. Under purpose, the act states in part:
The goals of the nation properly include the goal of providing individuals with disabilities with the tools necessary to make informed choices and decisions; and achieve equality of opportunity, full inclusion and integration in society, employment, independent living, and economic and social self-sufficiency.
This emphasis in the law on making informed choices, along with other trends, means that as a blind person you will have ever more options to choose from in the type of training you receive. Gone forever are the days when you went to the local rehabilitation agency and the staff provided what they had available. Today your state agency may provide training, other private agencies or contractors in the community may do similar work, or private programs across the country may offer training.
When it comes to blindness training, it makes sense to go wherever you need to to acquire the necessary skills once and for all and then move on with your life. If it means going to another state or even another country temporarily, in my view it is still worth the sacrifice. Every program has a teaching philosophy and style that may or may not fit your needs and produce a positive outcome. In theory the competition among them will help all programs become better so that all consumers will benefit.
However, just as choosing your long-distance provider can be confusing, so too deciding on what training you should receive and from whom can be mystifying. What's more, you are making decisions that will affect the rest of your life, so it's important to get them right if you can.
In discussing blindness training, I will assume that you're looking for a comprehensive program as opposed to acquiring one skill like Braille or computer use. You certainly can and should use the information provided here to help you make decisions about single courses, but in general this discussion will focus on programs providing a broad array of courses, including travel, Braille, computer skills, cooking, and grocery shopping.
The first difficulty blind people face is making an informed choice about the services being offered. A newly blind person is likely to perceive very few possibilities. Life appears limited and frustrating, and it seems as if very little can be done to mitigate the tragedy of blindness. The average person has a mental image of blind people as helpless, living in a world not just physically dark, but barren of life's fullness. Whether we admit it or not, the image of the blind beggar of old still haunts the recesses of our minds in the twenty-first century.
Then too, having done most things visually, those struggling with recent blindness find it nearly impossible to imagine doing them without sight. Hobbled by this limiting concept of blindness, how can one make an informed choice about appropriate training or future possibilities?
The fact is that, depending upon the motivation of the person and the quality of the training program, blindness need not be a tragedy. Life can once again become normal--filled with job, spouse, and the range of challenges and joys that one's neighbors enjoy. Thousands of blind people work, raise families, and live the American dream with vigor and competence. However, doing so often depends upon the quality of the trainers and rehabilitation programs chosen.
One of the keys to making a positive choice is having high expectations. If you expect little from a training program and think that blind people can't accomplish much, your decisions about trainers and programs will be colored by those assumptions. If your image of a blind person is a fumbling, bumbling, slow person who simply is not competent when assessed by normal sighted standards, you will not expect much from the trainers and programs that serve you. Furthermore, if you think that the average blind person is inherently slower and less competitive than the average sighted person, you will probably conclude that much of what I am about to say is unrealistic, perhaps delusional.
I can only tell you that I have been fortunate enough throughout my life to associate with thousands of blind people. I have observed that people's skills and ability to compete successfully in life depend first and foremost upon their beliefs about what is possible. That is, if they believe deep down that they can be excellent travelers or Braille readers or computer users, they probably will be. By "believe," I don't mean that they just give lip service to platitudes about the capacities of blind people. Unfortunately blind people face a lot of pressure to say we believe things we do not. At some point in your instruction you need to find somebody with whom you can share your actual fears and anxieties about blindness, not just repeat platitudes about how competent blind people are.
In general today's society demands that we refer to people with all kinds of disabilities in politically correct language such as "differently abled" and "special." This effort may perhaps have some benefit, but it ignores or glosses over our deepest feelings that disability means inferiority. A major part of your training must focus on this central concern. What is required is a combination of counseling and activities geared to help you develop a positive attitude about blindness.
Second, success depends upon the quality of the instruction students receive. If their instructors believe in the normality of blind people and expect students to accomplish ordinary tasks in the ordinary amount of time, they most likely will. If, on the other hand, their instructors expect them to be slower and less competitive, they will be. This outcome is even more pronounced when the instructors are blind. Whether these instructors recognize it or not, they become models for their students. That is, students make their instructors the standard for what they expect a blind person to accomplish. If the instructor is competent, the student will believe that becoming competent is possible.
The only caveat here is that a program should employ more than one competent instructor. Most students resist the idea that blind people can be competent. Because of their ingrained belief in the fumbling, stumbling blind person, they find it all too easy to write off one successful blind instructor as a fluke or aberration. They will regard him or her as exceptional or special and will assume that they themselves cannot be expected to do the same thing. So ideally a program will have two or more really competent blind instructors to help root out this myth.
I should add that ideally students nearing the end of their training or already having finished it will be available to serve as examples. These students will provide the indispensable example for newer students. At some point a new student should be able to say, "If that student can do it, so can I." But the only way this will happen is if students are exposed to people whom they perceive as equals in intellect and general ability.
The program you choose should also expose you to many blind people in the community as they go about their normal lives. The phrase "seeing is believing" is just as true for blind people as it is for the sighted. You must come to believe deeply that you can compete equally in society. You probably don't really believe that now. Your mind--and possibly your deepest instincts--are likely to be sending you the message that you simply can't expect to compete and that blindness means inferiority.
In order to change this programming you must observe lots of capable blind people every day. They will help you retool your attitudes and expectations. I don't mean that the training program should bring in conspicuously successful community leaders to speak. Speakers are useful, but they don't usually help transform your beliefs. Why? Because they're just talking, and talk is cheap. When week after week you see blind people nonchalantly cooking, traveling, raising their children, and going to work, the truth of what I have been saying will begin to sink in. Until then, for all you know, the imported blind speakers are simply deluding themselves into believing that their blindness isn't a big deal.
One blind person put it very clearly: "This blind guy comes in and gives a speech about how capable he is and then leaves in a cab. Who did he think he was kidding?" One might argue that the blind speaker had every right to take a cab and might have had a very good reason for doing so, but in a training program example is everything, and the example set was a poor one. If, on the other hand, the trainee had been exposed to this speaker regularly, he might have observed that the person was an excellent cane user, competent Braille reader, and so forth. But the snapshot given the trainee was of a person who couldn't travel without using cabs. A good training program should provide more than snapshots; it should provide intimate looks at the lives ordinary blind people live. That usually means blind staff who are willing to welcome students into their homes and let them observe what their home life is really like. This critical element is often left out of training programs.
Look for a program with lots of activities--cooking lunches or dinners, traveling independently to new places, and engaging in physical recreation. Blind staff should fully participate in these activities as examples to students. Again more advanced blind students can also act as catalysts to help new students adopt a view of blindness as synonymous with independence, not limitation and frustration.
One of the reasons it is difficult to choose appropriate trainers is that virtually everyone in the blindness field uses the same words to describe what they do. Everyone claims that they will help you become independent, get the best training, and recognize the negative attitudes and stereotypes about blindness. In this day of politically correct statements, almost no one is going to say, "You really ought to accept the limitations of blindness. You can't expect to walk as fast as others; you'll always walk slowly. You will be less efficient in the kitchen than the average sighted cook. You just have to understand these things and live with them. You'll always read Braille more slowly than a sighted person reads print. We are teaching you to read print instead of Braille because Braille is so slow."
No, people won't say these things to you because such statements are no longer politically correct. Besides, most teachers have convinced themselves that they are doing the very best they can and are practicing state-of-the-art instruction. Though some programs or teachers consistently turn out better travelers or Braille readers or typists than others, no comparison chart exists for review. Another thing to remember is that, even in very good programs, some instructors are better than others.
Your task is to devise a method of observation that will tell you whether people indeed practice what they teach. One of my tenets of good rehabilitation teaching is that the instructor should help the student learn to problem solve. No teacher of travel or cooking or Braille can expose you to every known situation or problem you will face. Therefore the goal of effective instruction should be to help you devise methods that will help you efficiently solve the problems of blindness. Again virtually every teacher will tell you that this is what he or she does.
So how do you tell if the method used will produce that result? One technique is the counting method. Watch an instructor teach a lesson and count how many times he or she provides information or answers and how many times he or she lets the student discover the solutions for himself or herself. Teachers who are giving answers more than 70 percent of the time are not teaching much problem solving. Teachers who make, let, or help students find their own answers more than 70 percent of the time are truly teaching problem solving.
Because people often seem confused about what is meant by problem solving and discovery learning, as it is called, let me illustrate by showing what it is not. The teacher says, "Which direction are you walking--north, south, east, or west?"
The student says, "west."
The teacher says, "No, that's not right."
The student then guesses, "south," and the teacher agrees.
I hope you can see that no problem solving is being taught here unless it is the increasing ability of the student to make educated guesses and wheedle answers out of teachers.
The instructor intent upon teaching mobility and problem solving might start out the same way: "Which way are you traveling?" When the student says "south," the teacher says, "Why do you think that?" The answer to this response helps the instructor understand the extent to which the student is truly developing useful skills in any situation as opposed to right or wrong answers. Whether the student gives a correct or incorrect answer, the teacher probes, "Which environmental cues favor your answer, and which ones do not?" This is a very active process that really stimulates thinking and mental growth. It pushes students to use sound, wind, sun, traffic--everything that might help form an intelligent decision.
Here is an example from the kitchen. One instructor might say, "Here is a little device that will help you tell when a cup is full by beeping." The student is then presented with the device and shown its use.
Another instructor says, "How many ways can you think of to tell when a cup is full?" The teacher and student might then experiment with several ways of determining the answer--weight, temperature, touch, sound, or special devices. When the second student is through with the lesson, he or she understands that blindness presents opportunities to find solutions to problems. The first student concludes that blindness presents problems that require teachers to provide special devices and expert information to solve. The first method teaches that blind people have to consult experts and learn tricks. The second method teaches that there are many ways to solve problems and that they are easily soluble. Both instructors undoubtedly believe that they are teaching the same level of independence.
When evaluating programs, potential students tend to sit down and talk with instructors. My advice is to watch or listen to instructors as they teach lessons. Meeting with program directors or instructors will tell you little about their skills. The best instructors often cannot readily describe what they do, or they are self-effacing in their description. The capacity to teach is an art as well as a science, and those who do it well often don't recognize it and can't explain what they do. You simply have to watch them work and draw your own conclusions.
Then too it often happens that the style of one instructor may simply suit you better, not because he or she is a better teacher, but because the style just fits your personality better. That's another reason why this evaluation period is necessary.
I favor rehabilitation programs that rely on the old- fashioned values of discipline and hard work. As you learn the skills of blindness, you are trying to remake your mind; that is, teaching your brain a new set of skills which will develop into habits. This is best done through discipline and immersion in those new skills. Professor Peter Drucker somewhat sarcastically said it well, "Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work."
Look for programs that challenge both your physical stamina and mental capacity to learn. If your goal is a job once you are trained, it follows that you want a program that keeps you actively learning for eight to ten hours a day--just as a job does. As a blind person you probably find that family members and friends expect little of you.
Furthermore, you may find that the depression that often descends at the onset of blindness causes you to slow down. You don't get up early, don't get regular physical exercise, and don't consistently challenge yourself. You want a program that will help you regain your physical and mental discipline. Family and friends, well-intentioned though they may be, have perhaps unwittingly helped you withdraw from the daily activities of life. The program you choose should push you to re-engage yourself with the community and reinvigorate you to face the challenges life has to offer.
You may have other disabilities that limit your ability to work hard or engage in a full day's work. Since blindness is often a result of age, this too may limit your endurance and capacity to learn. The program you choose should accommodate your capacities, but it should not automatically be geared to the least common denominator. That is, each student should be pushed to his or her fullest capacity, not allowed to work at the pace of those with physical or mental limitations. Because many blind people have other limitations, some programs reduce expectations for everyone.
You should also look for programs that help you develop confidence by teaching you to do things which you may or may not do every day after leaving training. Some quick examples should illustrate the point. Students should have to prepare a meal for a group of twenty-five or more people. They should have to travel in completely new and unusual situations with little or no guidance from instructors. Water or snow skiing, rock climbing, mountain climbing, and other physically challenging activities are also good.
Why? Because these more extreme activities will give you the confidence to perform the daily humdrum ones easily and quickly. Your attitude will become, "If I can serve a meal to twenty-five people, I can cook dinner for my family every day with no trouble." You will say, "If I can walk down to the riverfront and find pier 23, I can easily make that new, unfamiliar street crossing without difficulty." This is an attitude you're attempting to develop.
These activities aren't necessarily realistic in the sense that, as I said, you may not perform them every day. But, if you're going to demonstrate to overly helpful family members or friends that you can function efficiently as a blind person, you'll want to have the confidence that comes from doing big or unusual tasks. Men and women in the Armed Forces are pushed to their limits in boot camp, not because they are likely to work that hard again while in the service, but to give them the confidence that they can do whatever it takes in a difficult situation. You too want to gain that same confidence.
When you get home with your family, some of your confidence will inevitably seep away. The old habits of low self-esteem and limitation will come back as family members treat you as they always did. You want to leave the program with enough extra confidence that, when a little erodes away, you're still substantially ahead of the game. You're not trying to be super blind person; you're just doing what it takes to build confidence that can withstand outside pressure. If you come home having learned only to do the average tasks in the ordinary way, when slippage occurs, you will necessarily subside to below normal.
Ninety percent of those reading this letter and considering rehab training have some vision. When you evaluate programs, you should observe the way they teach people with some vision. First consider the extent to which the program emphasizes competitiveness. The skills you will be learning should be measured against the standard of what will be competitive on the job, in other words, compared with what a sighted person can do.
This issue often arises when considering how those with residual vision should read or travel. If you are to be competitive and efficient in today's world, you will want to use a combination of techniques that maximizes speed and efficiency. The average sighted person reads at about 200 words a minute. You will want to aim at that target. Avoid the temptation to choose print because you think it makes you look sighted, even when it's much slower or less efficient than Braille. The program you choose should help you find that combination of techniques which maximizes your skills, not your capacity to look sighted. You yourself should be helped by the program to face your blindness squarely--not trying to fake sight in order to look normal.
The level of illiteracy among those who are legally blind with some vision is staggering. Studies show that these people are employed less often and have less professional success than people who are totally blind and use Braille. Teachers are often tempted to cater to the student's desire to avoid appearing blind, so they encourage the use of print at all costs. Ultimately you will pay the price for accepting techniques that are slow and cumbersome. With work you can learn to read Braille at the same speed that the average sighted person reads print. If you choose another technique, it should be at least as efficient. If it is not, you won't be competitive in school or the job market.
For blind people with some vision, I don't know of any workable teaching technique that doesn't involve using sleepshades or a blindfold. You simply must learn to develop alternative techniques that don't involve vision. That means spending several hours a day doing things without sight. The advantages are incredible because, after your alternative skills are developed, you can then go on to use your vision in the activities for which it is most efficient. You must confront this issue head-on, not avoid doing whatever it takes to be competitive. Settling for less will leave you less competitive in the work world, less functional in the social world, and more frustrated in your personal life.
Another issue to consider is the way a training program handles the differences between students with some vision and those with none and their interactions with each other. When people come for training, they often have very low self-esteem. Whether totally blind or with some vision, students believe that they are no longer able to compete in the world. Both groups receive the message from sighted people that they lack ability and are painfully different.
When these two groups of students are together in a training program, a sad symbiosis can result. Those with some vision become the helpers of those with none. On field trips the students who can see a bit guide the totally blind ones. If something is lost, the person with some vision eagerly searches for it rather than encouraging the totally blind person to learn the necessary skill. The message to the totally blind person is clear although never stated: having some vision is much better than having none. The person with residual sight feels gratification at finally being able to use vision to help some one. At long last he or she has superior skills to somebody. The result is that the totally blind person never learns good skills, and the person with some vision gains an unrealistic sense of self-importance.
When a totally blind student rooms with someone with a bit of sight, unless the program helps him or her think through what is happening, the person with residual sight will end up doing most tasks around the apartment because it's "easier for me." Never mind that the totally blind person can and should learn to vacuum the rugs, do the dishes, and mop the floors as well as a sighted person. He or she won't learn these skills unless the program helps students recognize the tendency to place a premium on sight and view total blindness as necessarily inferior.
The most important thing to remember is that you need to look for and expect the best, and the best usually means hard work and acceptance of personal responsibility. It also means that your instructors should push you and be competent examples of what they teach--helping you learn the problem-solving skills you will need as a blind person. You will face much pressure to accept mediocrity. Unfortunately this pressure often comes from the agencies established to serve you. Fortunately, though, you have many choices and can become a self-confident blind person, provided that you are willing to reject that which doesn't meet with the highest standards of excellence.
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