The Braille Monitor                                                                                         October, 2003

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On White Canes and Orientation Centers

by James H. Omvig

James Omvig
James Omvig

From the Editor: Shortly after we returned home from convention Jim Omvig, president of the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, called to say that he had made the most of his trip home from convention by writing an article that he thought might be useful as we struggle to understand the issues underlying Resolution 2003-101. I agreed with him, once I read what he had written. This is what he wrote:

I listened with interest to the long discussion on informed choice in Louisville on Friday afternoon, July 4, at the 2003 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. The week had offered all of the excitement and renewal of energy the blind of America have come to expect from our conventions, but the last hour took on a slightly different tone. As a result of a recent attack upon the Federation, its programs, its policies, and its people by the usual suspects, a resolution had been introduced and was being debated–-a resolution which, among other things, set forth the proposition that those who administer orientation and adjustment centers for the blind have the legal right under the informed choice provisions of the Rehabilitation Act to decide whether guide dogs will or will not be used in centers for travel training during the adjustment-to-blindness process.

Initially I was more than a little surprised that a few of our own members spoke passionately against this proposition. Before long, however, it occurred to me that this discussion should not have surprised me at all. The fact is that, while a few Federationists have spent much of their lives trying and testing and learning what it takes truly to empower the rank-and-file blind person, there is no reason whatever to expect those not intimately involved in the rehabilitation system, even the staunchest of members, to have in-depth knowledge about the finer points of the personal adjustment process. Therefore I hope that the following article will lend some insight and perspective to the debate. (I am writing this article en route home to Ruston from Louisville while the thoughts and points of contention are still fresh in my mind.)

One of the great fallacies in the field of vocational rehabilitation for the blind has been the mistaken assumption that a little skill training will do the trick and therefore some Braille, computer training, home economics, and a little travel training with dog or cane is all that the average blind person needs to achieve personal success. Nothing could be further from the truth! Skill training without extensive attitudinal adjustment is virtually useless. Some argue that it is even worse than useless-–that it is downright harmful, since the consumer who has been given only a little training, who lacks perspective, and who has no reason to know any better will assume that he or she is now fixed and that this is as good as it gets. This fallacy persists and has been one of the principal factors contributing to the shamefully high unemployment rate among working-age blind people in America.

The minimal training thought to be good enough in the past isn't good enough any longer. Freedom should be accessible to all blind people, and a cutting-edge formula for personal empowerment and success now exists and is available for the taking. Therefore programs for the blind must raise the bar. They must learn about and then adopt state-of-the-art practices and strive to provide personal empowerment for their blind consumers. (The discussion of canes in this article refers to adjustment-to-blindness training only. It has nothing whatever to do with the question of which travel aid-–dog or cane-–will be used upon completion of that training or for other parts of the VR process. Whatever the individual chooses–-dog, cane, or nothing at all-–is his or her own business.)

Some background information will be helpful in clarifying the direct and critical relationship between white canes and adjustment-to-blindness services. As I pointed out in Freedom for the Blind,1 American Foundation for the Blind research shows that between 70 and 80 percent of our nation's working-age blind people are unemployed. Of those who are employed, far too many are severely underemployed or are destined to be locked in at entry-level jobs for a lifetime. Putting to one side all of the bogus rationalizations, only two alternative explanations for this dismal statistic exist: either blind people as a group, no matter how thoroughly trained and adjusted to their blindness they may be, are inherently incompetent; or, something has been fundamentally wrong with the blindness system in America-–the vast complex of programs for educating or rehabilitating people who are blind.

I can declare with absolute confidence that the problem is not with the blind themselves. The evidence that properly trained blind people can live independent, successful, competitive, normal, and happy lives and can assume their rightful places as fully participating members in society is too overwhelming to conclude that these successes are exceptions and that the blind as a group are inherently incompetent. Therefore I must reluctantly and cautiously draw the conclusion that the problem has not been with the blind at all but with the blindness system itself-–that educational and vocational rehabilitation programs for blind people and the university programs which prepare the blindness professionals working in them historically have not been what they could and should have been.

Then, to compound the problem, the blind have been thought of by society-–and far too many have learned to think of themselves–-as a group apart, a helpless and hopeless lot, as having neither the right nor the ability to work for their daily bread nor to earn their self-respect. The blind as a group–-despite individual exceptions-–have thought of themselves, not as unemployed, but as inferiors who are unemployable. The reality is that the blind are a visible minority with all of the negative implications this phrase conjures up. It is the misunderstandings, the misconceptions, and the superstitions about blindness, not blindness itself, that have been the nagging problem keeping the blind down and out through the years and that must be addressed through proper adjustment-to-blindness training.

The fact is that every blind person-–man or woman, young or old, educated or not-–needs personal empowerment to be completely whole. With this empowerment comes the freedom all blind people have the right to expect. Since this is so, it logically follows that every progressive orientation and adjustment (O&A) center for the blind should adopt the best training methods and techniques it can find and do its very best to empower each and every student who chooses to attend it. A center's overarching purpose should be to function as an empowerment station. Incidentally, the notion that only private centers, not those which are state-operated, can adopt and promote the cutting-edge training practices and techniques is absurd on its face. All centers-–both private and state-run--can and should embrace state-of-the-art practices and join what has been called the revolution of personal empowerment.

The empowerment station model of an O&A center is one which recognizes that the blind are a minority and that therefore all offered services must be aimed at teaching the students who choose to attend it a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness based upon an understanding that prevailing views are wrong and harmful. Such a center must be an attitude factory. Further, those of us in the Federation who have concentrated on what it truly takes to provide proper training and full empowerment have come to understand that such a center must help its blind students strive to achieve four personal objectives as their individual formulas for success. They are:

(1) The blind person must come emotionally, not just intellectually, to know that he or she truly can be independent and self-sufficient;

(2) The blind person must really learn and become competent in those skills–-the alternative techniques of blindness-–which will make it possible for him or her to be truly independent and self-sufficient;

(3) The blind person must learn to cope on a daily basis with the public attitudes about blindness-–with those things that will be said or done to him or her because of other people's misunderstandings and misconceptions; and

(4) Even when the blind individual has adjusted emotionally to blindness, even when the alternative techniques have been mastered, and even when he or she has learned to cope effectively with the demeaning things other people do or say, the blind person must also learn to blend in and to be acceptable to others. He or she must be punctual, reliable, neat, and appropriate in appearance and possessed of good social and table manners, and the like. Since the ordinary blind person needs to learn to blend in and to be acceptable to society for maximum success, the schools and agencies must do the very best they can to make sure that this desired result is achieved.2

It is possible, with a willingness to think outside of the box, for the traditional O&A center to become an exciting empowerment station and to move those students who choose to attend it toward successful, high-quality employment and increasing integration into the broader society. Then informed choice becomes the real key to opportunity. It means that a blind consumer has the right to choose to attend a particular adjustment center-–one that uses the core curriculum he or she wants. The law, however, does not give the student the right to define what a center's programs will be. Those administering the center have the right-–indeed, I believe they have the duty-–to learn about and then use the best practices known and available at any given time. Those who choose to attend a particular center, of course, certainly do have the right to expect excellence, and excellence should be the goal of each of the VR programs.

Now let us return specifically to the issue of white canes in the adjustment-to-blindness process. Point 1 of the 4 points listed above-–helping the student come to understand and feel at the gut level, not just intellectually, that true freedom, independence, and normality are possible for him or her-–is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the entire process. This objective is achieved at the empowerment station over a six-to-nine-month period by seeing to it that the student learns that blindness does not mean inferiority and that the word "blind" is OK-–normal. Further, this process is enhanced by placing the student in situations in which he or she must meet difficult challenges--by using sleepshades for the partially blind; by facing routine life experiences such as wood shop, rock climbing, or water skiing; by engaging in frank discussions about blindness; by being exposed to good blind role models; by learning the importance of paying back; by being willing to invest the time it takes to get it; and by using the long white cane constantly for all facets of the adjustment program.

Although wood shop certainly is perceived as a challenge, for most students travel training class is the one which contributes most directly and significantly to the process of building self-confidence. Carrying and routinely using the nonfolding, long cane works in several ways to meet the objective of sound emotional adjustment. First, the student can't try to hide or deny his or her blindness when using a long, straight cane, and this experience also helps speed one's acceptance of blindness. Further, the long cane has become a symbol of independence for many, and it also serves as a visible identifier to others. Each of these factors helps to speed and solidify the emotional adjustment process.

Then there is the enormous emotional boost which can come only from the success of actual performance. When the student completes a long and complicated travel route independently using only the cane, that success in and of itself evokes feelings of pride and self-confidence--"I did it!" The student experiences a small dose of this feeling of course in every travel lesson and each time the student walks to a bank or restaurant using the cane. If exactly the same long and complicated training assignments-–or the shorter trips-–are completed using a guide dog rather than a cane, the trainee does not experience the same boost of self-confidence. "Did I do it, or did the dog do it? I wonder if I could have done it without the dog?"

The goal of all of these challenging activities, including long cane use, is transference, not merely mastering the simple skills of independent travel or daily living. "If I can do this, maybe I really can do other things too-–things I never thought I could do. Maybe I can get a job and support my family!" The travel training, along with industrial arts, water skiing, rock climbing, and the other challenging activities intended specifically for confidence-building are one continuum aimed at the realization of self-esteem.

Finally, one of the speakers at the July 4 discussion pointed out, correctly, that Dr. Kenneth Jernigan had counseled Federationists not to get caught up in the trappings of independence. This speaker, however, went on to imply that Dr. Jernigan might have cautioned that the people running the progressive adjustment centers should not get hung up on the issue of canes.

Dr. Jernigan's point about independence and its trappings was being made concerning the way we who are blind should approach life in general, not how we should approach the fundamentals of adjustment-to-blindness training. In fact, Dr. Jernigan created and administered the very first empowerment station (at the Iowa Commission for the Blind), and the long cane was integral to its remarkable success. The entire statement in his 1993 speech, "The Nature of Independence," is:

Hold your head high, in the joy of accomplishment and the pride of independence–-but not because of dog or cane or human arm, and not because of your ability to read Braille or use a computer. These are the trappings of independence, not the substance of it. They should be learned and used when needed-–but they should be regarded only as means, not ends. Our independence comes from within. A slave can have keen eyesight, excellent mobility, and superb reading skills-–and still be a slave. We are achieving freedom and independence in the only way that really counts–-in rising self-respect, growing self-confidence, and the will and the ability to make choices. Above all independence means choices and the power to make those choices stick.

The entire purpose of the emotional-adjustment process in the progressive orientation and adjustment centers is to do just that: To equip blind consumers with "rising self-respect, growing self-confidence, and the will and ability to make choices." The anticipated outcome of this brand of adjustment training is the freedom which comes from within, and use of the long, noncollapsible cane is integral to this readily achievable outcome.

As I said when I began, the issue of white canes as an efficient training strategy in the progressive adjustment centers has nothing whatever to do with the travel aid a blind person will use upon completion of his or her personal adjustment or for other parts of the VR process. Individual choices will be made, and the blind consumer will truly be positioned to make sound and wise decisions once personal empowerment has become a reality. Actually it has always been my understanding that the guide dog schools themselves have had the policy that consumers must be adjusted to their blindness and also be good cane travelers in order to qualify for admission into their programs. Similarly most, if not all, of these schools require that, after a day or two for becoming oriented, dogs rather than canes must be used at all times for all parts of the program. This is as it should be.

My earnest hope is that all Federationists will come to understand and support the empowerment movement for rank-and-file blind people across this nation. The deplorable and needlessly high unemployment rate among the blind demands that these proven state-of-the-art practices be initiated broadly, and soon.

1 J. Omvig, Freedom for the Blind (Region VI Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program, University of Arkansas, 2002), <www.rcep6.org>.

2 Ibid., 65.

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