Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

(back) (next) (contents)

Great Expectations:
From the Hierarchy of Sight to the Hierarchy of Truth

by James H. Omvig

James Omvig
James Omvig

From the Editor: Jim Omvig is a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind and an experienced attorney and rehabilitation professional. In the following article he talks seriously about the absolute necessity for rehabilitation counselors to cultivate their own high expectations for their customers. This is what he says:

One of the most devastating things that can happen to any human being is to be trapped in the prison of low expectations, but for the vast majority of blind people this condition has been the norm rather than the exception throughout recorded history. President George W. Bush has referred to the problem of lowered expectations as "soft bigotry," and I think he is right. Usually, of course, when we think of bigotry, we also assume a wrong. In the case of lowered expectations, however, we are looking at an unintended consequence rather than an intentional wrong. Perhaps President Bush was alluding to unintended bigotry when he used the word "soft."

As we discuss lowered expectations concerning blind people, just whose expectations are we talking about? Is it the blind themselves? How about parents and other family members? Perhaps we are talking about educators? Or could we be talking about blindness professionals employed in the vocational rehabilitation (VR) system? Is it members of the general public, or might it possibly be all of the above?

The fact is, of course, that it is all of the above. While there are exceptions to every rule or to every declarative statement, it is commonly understood that throughout history blind people have been thought of and regarded as inferiors, incompetent, inept, and virtually irrelevant. They have been thought of as wards and as people who need to be taken care of. They have not been expected to do for themselves or care for themselves, and they have certainly not been expected to participate fully in or contribute to society.

Recently I was asked to devise some method for measuring expectations, a daunting task. However, I have thought of at least one possibility: I call it "the hierarchy of truth."

Before turning to a discussion of this hierarchical approach, however, let's examine some cases of low expectations--of soft bigotry. Dr. Ronald J. Ferguson is a senior research fellow at Louisiana Tech University. In his recent book, We Know Who We Are,1 Dr. Ferguson tells the following disturbing true story about a young, totally blind teenager:

When Jessica [fictitious name] was in ninth grade, she underwent two weeks of vocational and academic assessment in conjunction with the writing of her rehabilitation plan. A number of tests were administered to determine her vocational interests as well as academic achievement and potential for college. The results on all of the academic assessments showed that Jessica, although only in ninth grade, had scored in the 90th percentile or higher on tests normed for high school seniors as well as those normed for first-year college students.

Jessica's parents permitted an informal survey to be conducted in several classrooms at three different universities. Jessica's test scores were shown to upper level undergraduates majoring in education or graduate classes of rehabilitation students. The professor asked the students to give their impression of the young woman's academic potential (a fictitious name was used). In addition, class members were asked to suggest possible careers that this person could pursue based on the test results. Overwhelmingly, class members noted the student had outstanding academic potential. Some of the suggestions for a career included engineer, medical doctor, scientist, and lawyer.

Jessica's parents had not told the university students who participated in the informal survey that she was blind. These university students were mystified when they learned that, reviewing these same test results, Jessica's rehabilitation counselor had suggested that she consider careers not as an engineer, but as a secretary, not as a medical doctor but as a receptionist, not as a scientist but as a customer service representative, and not as a lawyer but as a computer operator.

Just consider: The blindness professional, who had been trained to serve and help the blind, expected about what the average person on the street might have expected of this bright blind teenager. No one would suggest that this professional intentionally tried to hurt the young blind woman or do her wrong in any way. The motive would have been the exact opposite--to help. It was the counselor's understanding of blindness--or lack of understanding--which led to the problem and the soft bigotry. One is tempted to wonder how the VR counselor's expectations could vary so markedly from those of the college students who looked at the same test scores. Obviously the counselor did not know the truth about blindness.

Consider another case. A student working on a master's degree in orientation and mobility (O and M)--another blindness professional--tells her classmates that she has just met the best blind traveler she has ever encountered. She is working with him in the San Francisco area to teach him how to manage the BART rapid transportation system.

A classmate, a blind person named Fred Schroeder, asks innocently, "If your student is such a great traveler, why does he need you to help him?"

The O and M student responds, completely oblivious to the implications concerning lowered expectations of her reply, "He needs me because a blind person cannot learn to manage BART without help."

The young Fred Schroeder asks, "Who do you believe taught me to handle the BART?"

The sighted student replies, "I don't know. Who did?" This young woman was in a master's class to learn to teach blind people, and I am certain she believed that she held high expectations of the capabilities of the blind in general and her students in particular. She didn't! The fact is that Schroeder had taught himself. The problem was that the sighted student did not understand the true nature of blindness and therefore did not understand the true capabilities of blind people.

The question of lowered expectations is complex. Blindness professionals today all discuss the need for raising expectations, and they give the impression that this is routinely happening. I am sure they believe that the issue has been addressed and, since it is so prominently discussed, that the historic problem has been fixed. I should point out here that, when we are talking about the problem of lowered expectations, we are not implying that an intentional wrong has occurred. In work with the blind, people almost universally intend to do right. However, even though we are dealing with good intentions, expectations remain too low, and therefore the problem for blind people continues to be soft bigotry.

The Interpersonal Expectancy Effect2

A Harvard researcher, Robert Rosenthal, showed the remarkable effects of expectations in a study conducted in 1964 and 1965. Rosenthal was concerned that "one person's expectation for another's behavior could come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy."3 He conducted his study in a California school which operated under an ability-tracking system whereby each of the school's six grades was divided into three groups: fast, medium, and slow. After the principal of this California school had read a Rosenthal article on "investigator expectancy effect," which discussed the fact that the bias of the researcher was reflected in the outcome of certain studies, she wondered if the expectations her teachers had for their students had anything to do with the level at which they performed and their resulting placement in one of the three tracks. Because of this concern the principal had invited Rosenthal to conduct the study at her school.

Rosenthal began his study by administering IQ tests to selected students. He then lumped students into two groupings--those who were expected to improve at an average rate and those who would be expected to improve at a superior rate. He told the teachers who would be working with the youngsters which students were expected to be average and which were likely to be superior.

Rosenthal returned to the school several times over a two-year period, retesting the students on each visit. His findings confirmed his worst fear: the self-fulfilling prophecy had come true. The average students functioned at an average rate, and the so-called superior students improved at a superior rate. In fact, the tests showed that IQ increases actually tracked with teacher expectations for each group.

After the study was completed, Rosenthal revealed the startling truth. When he had split the students into two groups, he had done so randomly. However, he had led the teachers to believe that those in the average group were students who had tested at an average level, and the ones in the superior group had tested superior. The teachers' expectations for the members of each group correlated precisely with the students' achievement. No doubt the teachers who were involved in this study believed that they held not only fair but also high expectations for all of their students in both groups--no doubt they were people with good intentions.

Since this problem of soft bigotry could arise among teachers who assumed they were teaching normal children, just imagine the impact of lowered expectations on an entire group of people perceived by society as something less than normal. Among other things this study shows clearly that people who believe they have high expectations for those with whom they are working often don't, and good intentions alone don't cut it.

The Hierarchy of Truth

Federationists may express some skepticism if I introduce a hierarchical approach to the issue of expectations for an appropriate level of achievement among blind people. In the past, for example, those of us who have been involved in the orientation and adjustment process have disavowed and debunked the myth of the hierarchy of sight. Those who adhere to this hierarchical approach believe that the degree to which a blind person can be competent and successful rises or falls in direct proportion to the amount of vision he or she has. Those who hold this view are dead wrong. The fact is that the amount of vision--if any--a blind person possesses has nothing whatever to do with competence, happiness, success, or anything else.

But I believe that the hierarchy of truth is another matter altogether: that is, the level of expectation an individual has concerning maximum achievement and success for the blind as a group--or for a particular blind individual--rises or falls in direct proportion to the level of emotional--not just intellectual--understanding and acceptance he or she has regarding the truth about blindness. This is true regardless of whose expectations are being examined--those of the family, society in general, the blind individual, or most especially the blindness professional involved.

And what is the truth about blindness? It may be stated quite simply in a few sentences. First, (as Dr. tenBroek was fond of saying) blind people are normal human beings or, at least, as normal as human beings are. That is, we are ordinary people who just happen to be blind. The physical condition of blindness is nothing more than a normal human characteristic, no different from all of the others which, taken together, mold each of us into a unique person. We are merely a cross-section of society as a whole, and, given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person--not those perceived as the super-blind--can participate fully in society and can compete on terms of absolute equality with their peers. The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight itself but is rooted in the public's misunderstandings, misconceptions, and superstitions about it. In short, the blind are a minority in every sense of that term, and service providers must come to understand this significant fact and focus their blindness services accordingly. Simply put, it is respectable to be blind. This is the truth that should be adopted by schools and agencies as the defined philosophy they teach regularly to their customers.

From all of the above, it naturally follows that, if a blindness professional truly understands blindness and believes that blind people are normal people who can do what normal people do--that is, if the blindness professional knows the truth about blindness--then proper (normal) expectations will be set for blind customers. Further, the blindness professional, whether educator or rehabilitator, will arrange for services which will raise the expectation bar for the blind customer to the level at which it should be, and the customer will be empowered as a result. In general the expectation level for a particular blind customer should be precisely the same as it would be for that same individual if blindness were removed from the equation.

Here is a true story concerning a proper level of expectation. When Joanne Wilson was directing the Louisiana Center for the Blind, she had high expectations--expectations of normality--for her students. When one young male student left the center, he went on to college at a major university. Five or six other blind young men were in his dormitory. They had not experienced National Federation of the Blind center training and empowerment.

A couple of years later Joanne encountered this young man at a meeting. He thanked her profusely for "making me different." Joanne asked him what he meant, and he recounted the following story:

On a Sunday afternoon, when he had some extra cash, he grabbed his cane, left his dorm room, went to the bus stop and took a bus to the local K-Mart, purchased a TV, rode the bus back home, and connected his new treasure. That evening he invited his blind friends in to watch his new TV.

To a person, they were shocked. "How did you do that?" "You mean you took a bus and went to the store by yourself?" "How could you find the store?" "How could you find the TVs and decide which one to buy?"

Joanne Wilson knows the truth about blindness and sets expectation levels in accordance with this truth. Then she routinely passes her knowledge on to those around her. As a result they have great (normal) expectations for themselves and are not prisoners in the very system that was intended to set them free.

I pointed out above that the problems of lowered expectations are very nearly universal. They are shared by members of the general public, employers, family members and friends, and all too often by the blind themselves--they have bought hook, line, and sinker into the myth of the hierarchy of sight. Ultimately, of course, the general public will come to understand the truth of the normality of blind people--the blind themselves have the primary responsibility for making this happen. So too family members and friends will get it, but this will probably happen only when blind people themselves have come to know the truth and can share it with others: that is, when their success and happiness have risen to a level commensurate with their comprehension and internalization of the truth about blindness.

This brings us to the ultimate question: how then can blind people learn the fundamental truth about blindness and thus become empowered? There can be but one answer--the duty rests with blindness professionals. It is their obligation to give their blind students or customers inspiration, optimism, and the golden gift of hope. It is their obligation to raise the level of expectations to that which is normal for each of their blind customers. It is not the function of blindness professionals to tell their customers what cannot be done. The main function of the genuine professional is to help his or her customers raise expectations and do what to them, in the beginning, may seem impossible. Enough obstacles stand in the path of the blind person without having the blindness professional or the blindness system itself add to them.

The NFB has discovered the truth about blindness, and this truth is routinely shared with blind students who attend NFB centers. Similarly, this truth is presented as a part of our master's degree programs at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. One of the most exciting developments to occur in recent years has been the acceptance of this truth by more and more educators and rehabilitators. There seems to be only one way that people--either blind individuals or blindness professionals--can internalize this truth universally and raise the bar: that is, through immersion into blindness. Full immersion is what happens at the NFB training centers, and it is also what happens for students of the Louisiana Tech program. This practice must become the norm across this nation.

Therefore my urgent plea is that blindness professionals take advantage of the information available for the asking and learn the truth about blindness. By so doing, you will be empowered to raise the level of your own expectations for your customers to what will be normal levels for each of them. In turn, you can guide them to raise their expectations accordingly. Give them inspiration! Give them the truth about blindness! Give them hope, because where there is no hope for the future, there is no power for the present! If you give your customers all of these things, they will have appropriate expectations for themselves and therefore they will be encouraged to do all of those things which normal people do. For the blind great expectations are nothing more than normal expectations held up to the truth about blindness.

Endnotes:

1. Ronald Ferguson, We Know Who We Are: A History of the Blind in Challenging Educational and Socially Constructed Policies: A Study in Policy Archaeology (San Francisco: Caddo Gap Press, 2001), p. 22.

2. Robert Rosenthal and D.B. Rubin, "Interpersonal Expectancy Effect: The First 345 Studies," The Behavior and Brain Sciences, 3 (1978):  377-386.

3. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, Pygmalion in the Classroom (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968).

(back) (next) (contents)