The Braille Monitor                                                                                         December, 2003

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Cooperation and Collaboration
or Contention and Criticism?

by Marc Maurer

During much of the last two decades many articles have been written and many speeches have been given about the need for cooperation in the field of work with the blind. Has this cooperation not always existed, one might ask? Indeed, it has not. There are two schools of thought among entities dealing with blindness. Because there have been two, the need for cooperation is paramount. If organizations and agencies in the blindness field do not cooperate, programs for the blind suffer. But this is not simple or easy because entities in the blindness field often mistrust each other, and the philosophical approaches are frequently very different. Even when all parties involved have substantial goodwill for each other, cooperation demands work. When this goodwill is absent, the harmony and collegiality which have often been advocated are almost impossible.

Cooperation cannot occur unless those in the field of work with the blind are willing to meet with each other and share ideas. It requires give and take and a substantial measure of goodwill, and cooperation implies a willingness to support one another--it cannot be one-sided. Sometimes the perception of the organized blind is that the insistence on cooperation from the agencies doesn't actually imply real give and take or mutual support. Sometimes this request for cooperation appears to mean "We want you to cooperate with us. We will cooperate with you whenever we need you. If we think we don't need you, we will attack you whenever we feel like it."

This kind of cooperation is exemplified by a meeting which occurred at the National Center for the Blind in the mid-1990's. Representatives of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), and the National Federation of the Blind were discussing potential legislation. Officials from the Foundation and AER urged that there be cooperation in approaching members of Congress. We agreed, and we set a time to exchange ideas.

 When the meeting came to pass, we of the National Federation of the Blind began it by presenting our plans for the next legislative season. When we had concluded our presentation, the other representatives at the meeting got up to leave. We objected, saying we had thought there would be an exchange of ideas. They said that they were not prepared to tell us what they were planning to do; they had come to learn what we were planning to do. Inasmuch as they had gained knowledge of our plans, they saw no further point in continuing the meeting. I suppose it need not be pointed out that no further exchanges of this kind have occurred.

During the 1980's a relationship of mutual respect and growing cooperation began to develop between the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. Mr. William Gallagher, the then president of the AFB, and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, serving then as president of the National Federation of the Blind, worked together. Differences of opinion continued to exist, but these differences were often discussed in depth, and real understanding frequently resulted.

The effort to foster cooperation has continued, and some notable progress has been made. However, the substantial cooperation that has been developing now appears to be in jeopardy.

Carl Augusto
Carl Augusto

Carl Augusto, the current president of the AFB, accepted an invitation to appear at the 2003 convention of the National Federation of the Blind to report on the work of the Foundation. During the portion of the program in which he appeared, James Gashel, NFB director of governmental affairs, asked Carl Augusto whether the Foundation had joined with others in the blindness field to adopt a position paper with respect to certain practices dealing with rehabilitation of the blind. The Foundation's name is appended to the paper, which strongly indicates that the AFB adopted the text of the document. This paper may be interpreted as a criticism of the work and the positions of the National Federation of the Blind. It may be regarded as an attack upon the Federation.

Even if it is not interpreted this way, the statement was drafted and apparently adopted without consultation with the National Federation of the Blind. Cooperation and harmony demand interaction and communication. The statement was adopted with no interaction, no communication, and no notice. From the point of view of the organized blind, this statement was concocted in secret and distributed to undermine the programs of the Federation. Such behavior is inconceivable from an ally and is reprehensible in one who would seek to make common cause. James Gashel asked Carl Augusto if the Foundation had adopted this paper without consultation. Carl Augusto appeared not to know.

I asked Carl Augusto if he would seek the information and report back to us. He said that he would.

Shortly after the close of the convention, Carl Augusto called me to say that he had felt attacked at the convention. I asked him if he had discovered whether the Foundation was a party to the statement circulated earlier bearing the Foundation's name. Mr. Augusto responded by saying that he felt the exchange at the convention would detrimentally affect the relationship between our organizations. I indicated to him that, if what had been said about the Foundation were true, I thought he was right. I waited for several weeks for the answer to my question, but I did not hear from Carl Augusto. I decided to reiterate the question in a letter. Here it is:

August 13, 2003

Mr. Carl Augusto
President
American Foundation for the Blind
New York, New York

Dear Carl:

You accepted an invitation to speak at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, on the 2nd of July, 2003. This invitation was extended to you because I felt that it would be worthwhile to promote a cordial relationship between the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. I indicated to the audience that I thought harmonious relations were possible and that there had been significant effort to develop them.

Following your presentation, questions were raised with you about the participation of the American Foundation for the Blind in a joint statement which appeared to be an indirect attack upon the National Federation of the Blind. You seemed unfamiliar with the document being discussed, but you told us that you would look into the matter.

A few days after the convention you called me to say that you felt as if you had been attacked at the convention. You further told me that you believed that attacks of the kind you had undergone would jeopardize the working relationship between the organizations we represent. I indicated to you that I would obtain the text of the joint statement which had been the subject of questioning at the NFB convention.

The joint statement appears to be a document which declares that the only valid certifying body for rehabilitation in the United States is the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals. The joint statement appears to declare that any program of rehabilitation which is unable or unwilling to accept students who are learning to travel with guide dogs is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The joint statement appears to declare that teaching blind students using blindfolds as the primary or exclusive method of training is not in accordance with the best practices. I enclose a copy of the joint statement for your review.

If this document has actually been adopted by the organizations named within it, the statement must have been prepared, discussed, and accepted without the participation of the National Federation of the Blind. Such a procedure would violate the spirit of collegiality, which I had thought was part of the growing harmonious relationship between our organizations. Furthermore, the joint statement bears the name of the National Accreditation Council. This organization is perhaps the least credible and most controversial in the field of work with the blind. If the American Foundation for the Blind has linked its name with that of the National Accreditation Council, this would be most unfortunate. The National Accreditation Council long ago declared war upon the blind, and the organized blind have responded by assuring those who want to know that the blind will not accept the dictatorial, highhanded behavior of NAC.

I have kept my promise to you in our telephone conversation. I have sought the document which purports to bear the name of the American Foundation for the Blind. I ask you to respond to the question we raised with you at the convention. Does this joint statement reflect the considered opinion of the American Foundation for the Blind? In your telephone conversation with me that occurred shortly after our convention, you said that the future harmony and cooperation that might exist between the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind would be affected by our behavior toward each other. I believe that you are absolutely correct. Please let me know if the joint statement was adopted by the Foundation and others without the courtesy of inviting the National Federation of the Blind to express a view.

Sincerely,

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind

The attachment to this letter is as follows:

Joint Statement on Critical Issues Facing Specialized Rehabilitation Services for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

We the undersigned organizations endorse the following principles:

Use of Visual Occlusion in Orientation and Mobility Instruction

We believe that programs providing instruction in independent travel to individuals with functional/usable vision are most effective when they recognize the importance of using both visual and nonvisual techniques to travel safely and efficiently. For some individuals, blindfolding may be an effective method for teaching reliance on the use of other senses; however, we believe the best practice is to incorporate instruction in the use of remaining vision so that individuals will learn to use both visual and nonvisual information simultaneously.

While we believe that the use of visual occlusion is an appropriate instructional technique for some individuals, it must not be mandated as a condition for the receipt of any services. Additionally, when occlusion is to be used, it should be provided with the prior expressed consent of the individual receiving instruction. The professional orientation and mobility specialist, in consultation with the consumer and when appropriate the consumer's family, should determine whether and how to make use of visual occlusion.

Certification

We support certification of professionals meeting the unique and individual needs of consumers with visual impairments. To be meaningful, such certification must require satisfaction of relevant postsecondary education, practice-based skills acquisition, and adherence to a Code of Professional Ethics. These criteria are designed to ensure that certified professionals possess a relevant and measurable knowledge base, competencies, and skills to provide individually tailored services. A certification program's adherence to this combination of criteria assures a level of professional quality which cannot be guaranteed by minimal practice-based criteria alone.

The certification program of service providers in the blindness and low vision field administered by the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) meets these criteria. In addition, ACVREP maintains full recognition with the National Certification Commission (NCC), a nonprofit external reviewer of certification programs. To ensure adherence to meaningful standards, we believe that any organization that purports to certify professional service providers should be similarly recognized by the NCC and/or other comparable independent reviewing or accrediting bodies.

Use of Dog Guides

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and laws in all fifty states guarantee access to public accommodations and to the programs and services of state/local government by people who are blind or visually impaired who may use dog guides. This guarantee extends to participation in any and all education and vocational rehabilitation programs and services. The use of a dog guide therefore is the individual choice of a consumer, which must be honored.

Statement Endorsed by:

American Council of the Blind

American Foundation for the Blind

Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired

Blinded Veteran's Association

Council of U.S. Dog Guide Schools

National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving People With Blindness or Visual Impairment

National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind and Visually Impaired

National Vision Rehabilitation Cooperative

The letter to Carl Augusto was written on August 13, 2003, more than a month after the close of the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I wrote to Carl Augusto because I had not heard from him. Although he had promised to tell us whether the Foundation had been involved in the secret negotiations to adopt a statement upbraiding the National Federation of the Blind, he had not provided us with the information.

The hot days of summer faded into the fall. The breezes of September stirred the leaves on the trees, and many of them fell, but no letter arrived from Carl Augusto. The gentle warmth of September turned to the briskness of October. The frost appeared on the mailbox, but the mailbox remained empty. October became November, and the pumpkins were displayed on the front porches. Thoughts of turkeys stirred in the minds of the people, but no communication came from Carl Augusto. Has he lost our address or forgotten how to write? It may be that this silence is the most informative kind of communication.

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