Braille Monitor                                                                                                           November 2004

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Freedom and Individual Choice

by C. Edwin Vaughan

Dr. Ed Vaughan
Dr. Ed Vaughan

From the Editor: Dr. Ed Vaughan is a frequent contributor to these pages. He is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Missouri and currently dean of international programs and adult education programs at Menlo College in Atherton, California. In the following article he shares his thoughts about two currently fashionable terms in the rehabilitation field. This is what he says:

You can look at the experience of freedom in several ways. Freedom can be analyzed theologically, philosophically, and as a social experience. Each of us feels that we make choices, but our lives are somewhat determined by the cards we have been dealt, by the social world we have been born into, and by the array of opportunities that unfold as our lives develop.

Usually, when we think of freedom, our focus is on the individual person. In this article we will briefly talk about how we may think of freedom in terms of the choices we consider--freedom in its social context.

These fairly abstract ideas sometimes spill over into the world of rehabilitation and education. What does freedom of choice mean to an individual receiving rehabilitation services? How does the individual learn to choose? Who determines the choices that are available? Current expressions of this issue revolve around whether or not sleepshades and the long white cane should be a required part of an educational program aimed at teaching independent living. Some argue that independent choice means that students can pick and choose the parts of the training program that appeal to them. Or consider how much your choices may be limited if you encounter a counselor or teacher with a limited vision of what blind people can accomplish and who may have limited knowledge of the training programs that produce graduates who actually do live independently. We will analyze this debate referring to the concept of freedom.

We all have the experience of thinking. We consider the relationship between various things happening to us. Humans are biologically active and always interacting with their environments. When we encounter an obstacle, we consider ways to remove or get around the blockage. When we need to deal with blindness, we consider obstacles to be overcome. We have learned from our own experience or from the words of others that some behaviors work better than others for solving a problem. When we weigh and consider the various alternatives to help us reach a desired goal, we are being what John Dewey called "intelligent."

You are being intelligent when you weigh and consider the relationship of available means to desired goals. Your goal might be to live as independently as possible or to prepare yourself to enter the working world. To reach these goals, you would consider all of the choices reasonably available to you. By "reasonably" we mean actually available in the world you live in and know about. You would consider the amount of work it will take and the cost to you in time and resources. Do you take the easy way, or are you willing to enter a more demanding program? From whom will you learn about the choices available to you?

Traditionally the model used by professionals in rehabilitation and special education has been to focus on the individual and the kinds of problems he or she presents. The professional has learned what is best practice for this particular problem. An example of this appears in a series of articles and books by Dean and Naomi Tuttle. As a psychologist Dean Tuttle frequently writes about self-concept and adjusting to blindness. His first book dealing with these issues was Self-Esteem and Adjusting to Blindness (1984). A second edition of this book appeared in 1996, followed by a chapter with Naomi Tuttle in Foundations of Education: History and Theory of Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments (Holbrook and Koenig, 2000).

In discussing significant others and reference groups, Tuttle advises that a blind person should be introduced to a teacher, school superintendent, counselor, or friend, and at one point he goes so far as to suggest that one meet another blind person to learn some practical strategies:

However, there is a time when the credibility of a message is much stronger coming from another blind person. The professional may want to arrange for a competent blind person to meet with the individual who is mourning. Areas of concern to be discussed with the recently blinded might include some "tricks of the trade" or some quickly and easily learned adaptive techniques. (Tuttle, 1984, pp.179-180)

This is an example of the way the educator or professional can limit the freedom of the individual by limiting or not being aware of choices that are available. He makes no mention of the organized blind movement as a resource for the counselor or for the blind individual.

Counselors or teachers communicate the emotions and ideas learned from their professional experience. They tend to reflect the negative notions about blindness that pervade society. Since the broader society holds these mistaken views, the rehabilitation customers--mirroring the attitudes of the broader society--will have internalized these same views. Something or someone must intervene and direct the customer toward healthier and more positive thinking. VR counselors and rehab teachers should, as a regular practice, refer new blind customers or students to local organizations of the blind.

We recommend that graduate students studying rehabilitation and special education be required to learn about and participate in consumer organizations. Theses internships should include experiencing the world as a blind person experiences it. Likewise college teachers and rehab professionals should be continually involved in local and national consumer organizations. Staying aloof or uninvolved to avoid taking sides is no longer acceptable. Professionals can understand the rapidly developing improvements in the world of the organized blind only by becoming involved. Likewise educators should encourage parents of blind children to involve themselves and their children in organizations as early as possible.

Through such experiences the counselor or teacher is in a position to help students become aware of more choices. By becoming so involved, students themselves will continually be learning about new opportunities and options. In fact they may become involved in creating new possibilities for the next generation.

The above discussion of being intelligent, making rational choices, and then acting on them focuses heavily upon cognitive or mental processes. Unfortunately knowing is not always doing. Overcoming the obstacles presented by blindness is not easy. It involves confronting all of the negative images about blindness that we, our parents, and our teachers have learned. This is why the National Federation of the Blind has so long stressed not only positive attitudes but the contagion and excitement that come from being surrounded by people who are inspired about the possibilities of life and who are actively involved in creating new choices.

In this approach freedom does not come from solving your own problems and going it alone; it comes from immersing yourself in a social world that is full of excitement and full of promise and in which you are continually supported by a network of friends who have already been there and done that. Instead of passively accepting the world as defined by others, you will actively be in control of your own energy and your own life as you help change ideas about what it means to be blind. Both freedom and informed choice come from knowing what is possible and having the strength and courage to embrace it.

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