Braille Monitor                                                                    October 2006


The Wings of the Dream

by Jeff Altman

Jeff Altman

From the Editor: Jeff Altman is first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska and a member of the Lincoln Chapter board of directors. He teaches travel in the orientation center at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind. He holds a master's degree in orientation and mobility from Louisiana Tech University and is a member of the National Blindness Professional Certification board and a National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) examiner. Jeff has thought deeply about the differences between traditional travel instruction and the structured-discovery method. In the following article he finds an intriguing way of illustrating the differences. This is what he says:

In many ways the approach to orientation and mobility (O&M) espoused by the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness does not follow conventional wisdom about blindness or how best to teach blind people new skills. Some find it difficult to understand why the Institute is going against long-established practice that in their view has worked just fine. Among those who believe the conventional approach is truly meeting the needs of blind people are the majority of professionals employing traditional orientation and mobility techniques. Many of them work in or direct university programs that train students as O&M instructors. They not only appear to believe that these techniques work best for blind people, they claim to have conducted extensive research supporting what they are saying. With these academically trained professionals saying that everything is fine, that they are doing what is best, and that their research shows they are using the most effective approach, why would anyone challenge their pronouncements? Why would we in the National Federation of the Blind go as far as starting our own university program and certification process? Perhaps a page from history will illustrate why change must sometimes come from outside and why sometimes it comes from everyday life rather than the halls of academia.

The true story I wish to tell begins with a number of people independently working toward one goal with varying degrees of success and many more failures than successes. Most who had tried to solve this problem were looked upon as fools or even madmen.

Nevertheless, they had had just enough success to inspire people to keep trying, and each new researcher had his own ideas about how to solve the problem. The achievement they were seeking occurred in nature. In fact, if it hadn't been such a common phenomenon in nature, people might never have attempted it. Not surprisingly, when people tried to achieve the goal, they usually just imitated nature, which mostly didn't work. Others tried simpler solutions based on their observations and experience, but somehow they just didn't get anywhere. The more they failed, the more most folks became convinced that the problem could not be solved and that anyone who tried was simply foolish.

Then a well-respected German engineer named Otto Lilienthal entered the quest. He had some success, and he also kept records that he was willing to share with others interested in solving the problem. In fact his research became the basis for much of the experimentation that followed. Sadly his work ended with a catastrophic failure.

Although Lilienthal's work ended in failure, his successes inspired others to keep trying, and his beliefs about the possible solution became the basis of much of the work to follow. His work brought experimenters closer to the answer than anyone before him. In fact few even considered the possibility that his work might be misguided, so they continued along the path he had blazed. The respectability that Lilienthal's research brought to efforts to reach this goal slowly moved the search toward respectability and consideration by scientists in university programs.

Even so successes were few and far between, and, even more frustrating for those working on the problem, when they did succeed, they found their results difficult to reproduce. The military began to recognize the possible benefits of solving the problem, so they approached Samuel Langley, one of the best-known scientists in the country, who at the time was the head of the Smithsonian Institution. He was asked to take on the challenge and given a sizable budget and access to the best resources available. Like many others at the time, Langley was confident that his instincts, bolstered by the work of Lilienthal and others, would lead to the solution of the problem, so with confidence he set out to do just that.

Around this same time two brothers from the Midwest also became interested in the problem. They were not scientists by any means, but they were well read, and together they were good at solving problems. When they decided to take on the problem, they had very little money to invest, despite running a successful business. Rather than starting from scratch as so many others had, they decided to read every article they could find on the subject and base their efforts on the success of others.

They read the work of Lilienthal and others who had been working on the problem and grounded their first efforts on the most successful ideas. Within a few months they had some success, but they realized that something was wrong, not just with the techniques, but with the entire approach. They concluded that they could not simply assume that their predecessors had been on the right track. They needed to take a careful look at every aspect of the ideas they were employing to find the solution. So they stepped back from the problem long enough to think about how their approach needed to differ. They kept the things that seemed to be working and began afresh with the things that were clearly not. They knew of Langley's work and that of other scientists, but these two ordinary businessmen believed they could be the first to achieve the goal.

Meanwhile Samuel Langley decided he was ready to demonstrate his solution to the public. He arranged a demonstration and invited the media to witness this great achievement. However, things went very wrong; in fact it was nearly a complete disaster. Nevertheless, Langley remained committed to the design he had developed based on the accepted theories of the day. He was confident in the soundness of his ideas and convinced that only small, overlooked details had caused the failure. He analyzed what had gone wrong, reinforced these aspects of his design, and prepared to try again. Throughout the preparation he remained convinced that he must work out every possible problem beforehand because he considered it impossible for any human being at the time of the actual experiment to respond effectively to the immediate demands.

Meanwhile the two brothers began to recognize that some aspects of the problem had never been appreciated before. They needed to begin by solving the smaller parts of the problem, which required them to develop instruments that had not yet been invented, so they developed tools that would allow them to study specific parts of the problem. As a result they moved away from commonly held assumptions. They concluded that, not only could the average human being learn to manage the demands of the experiment, but that doing so was the only practical way for unpredictable conditions to be managed. They had more and more successes, and they also began to attract the attention of others working on the problem.

They were invited to address a group of experts on the problem and to share their findings, but rather than having their work embraced, they were for the most part met with ridicule. They left the meeting convinced that they knew more about the matter than the so-called experts.

They returned to their work more determined than ever, recognizing that they had many problems left to solve before they would be ready to test their theories, and knowing that Langley might succeed very soon. In fact they were hard at work solving the remaining difficulties when word of their successes reached Langley. He wrote asking them to come to Washington to discuss their findings. But they felt they could not afford the time to meet with him and frankly were not sure they could trust him. Langley made another attempt to prove his theories just a few days before the two brothers were ready to test their solution, and again he met with failure. A short time later, on a windy day in December, the two brothers saw their dream come to fruition. Their hard work, careful thought, and willingness to think beyond the conventions of their day allowed them to solve the problem and much more.

Ironically the machine these two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, built in their bicycle shop just over a hundred years ago hangs today from the ceiling in a place of honor in the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, a few blocks from our Washington Seminar headquarters hotel. If you can, take the time to walk over. When you look at this remarkable machine, remember that the Wright brothers built this successful aircraft for approximately two percent of the budget provided to Dr. Langley. Modern aeronautical engineers stand in awe of this primitive machine because Orville and Wilbur didn't just build a flying machine; they defined the future of aviation.

Theirs is not a single invention but the culmination of many solutions to an incredible number of problems. These two ordinary men designed a light-weight engine at a time when the best engineers could not meet the necessary specifications. They invented the wind tunnel, the air foil, the formulas necessary to determine the amount of lift created by a wing, aircraft control surfaces, and the aircraft propeller. Beyond all this, through trial and error they had to teach themselves how to fly, a remarkable accomplishment when you consider that for a time they were the only human beings with access to a machine that could really fly, and nobody had ever before learned to fly.

The many inventions of the Wright brothers were so incredibly well conceived that a century later they remain at the very core of modern aviation, and most of the improvements since their initial invention have been more a matter of refinement than outright change. Yet the most important contribution the Wright brothers made to modern aviation was not a machine or a physical object at all. They gave to this science the understanding of the true nature of flight and the necessary thought processes to explore its possibilities freely. The absence of this freedom to think beyond rigid constraints had prevented true progress. This is the reason that sixty-six years later a small piece of that 1903 Wright Flyer accompanied Neil Armstrong as he stepped for the first time onto the surface of the moon.

So why speak of flying machines and ordinary people in an article about travel training? Because the history of orientation and mobility has some important parallels to the experiences of the Wright brothers. In the beginning blind people were pretty much on their own when it came to figuring out how to get around. Some blind people were successful travelers, and many were not. When someone devised a successful method, there was often no way to share this information with more than a few others. Few people were making organized efforts to solve the problem, and for the most part the blind were dismissed as too severely handicapped ever to be truly rehabilitated. It took the effects of a world war for society to become serious about finding a solution to this problem.
Emerging from the belief that blindness was the worst thing that could happen to anyone, programs were developed to reduce what the public perceived as the overwhelming dependency of blindness (if only to a small degree) so that these returning veterans could be less of a burden to their families and society at large. Rather like the work of Otto Lilienthal in the fledgling field of aviation, the work of Dr. Richard Hoover moved independent travel for blind people from the disarray of independent and disconnected efforts to a systemized approach teaching specific skills to be used consistently.

Yet, in much the same way that Lilienthal's work and approach to solving the problems of human flight were misguided, Hoover's work grew from the underlying misconception that blindness so severely limited a person's ability to get on in the world that independent, nonvisual travel was inherently difficult and dangerous. In such an environment even the simplest and most basic activities were viewed as impressive accomplishments, so it is little wonder that blind people learning to cross streets or walk a predetermined route through a busy city seemed a phenomenal success. Given this view of blindness, it is equally understandable that those who developed the techniques also came to view orientation and mobility as so complex and potentially dangerous that only highly trained, normally sighted specialists could impart these skills to the blind.

This approach to orientation and mobility arose out of a deficit model, that is, the belief that blindness makes a person deficient in some significant way as compared with others who are not blind. In this model success was measured against a standard of lowered expectations that fit with the beliefs about blindness held by society and for that matter by many blind people. It is easy to declare success when the people you are teaching meet the standards you have set for them, especially when those standards are based on the notion that a lower quality of life is the best they are capable of achieving.

This model was initially embraced by everyone because it was a clear improvement over what had been before. Then a few people began to recognize that something was wrong with both the basic approach and the underlying beliefs. The people that began to question these underlying principles were themselves blind and certainly not considered by the experts to be knowledgeable enough to have their opinions valued. They began to question the beliefs because they did not reflect the truth about blindness that they experienced in their everyday lives. They knew in their hearts that blind people could achieve the same dreams as their normally sighted counterparts. Like the Wright brothers before them, in spite of their experience and growing success both as independent travelers and instructors, their discoveries were not embraced but by and large were met with ridicule.

Just like Langley's approach to the problem of flight, much of the research coming out of the conventional approach to orientation and mobility seeks to refine or lend support to long-established notions about blindness. Apparently this research never objectively considered the possibility that the underlying beliefs on which this paradigm is based could be misguided. Now that we are nearly sixty years beyond the founding work of Dr. Richard Hoover, why has so little changed for the better in travel training? Perhaps because the failures of orientation and mobility are much subtler than the failures of early aviation. Certainly crashing headlong into the ground or never even getting off the ground at all is a bit more obvious than people not expected to do anything useful receiving training and then going on to do nothing useful. The failures of the conventional approach to orientation and mobility are in many ways more devastating and tragic than the failures of early aviation because the pioneers of flight truly believed in their dream, and each time they watched a bird in flight they knew there was hope. Now, a hundred years later, we fly higher, faster, and further than any bird could ever dream of doing.

The members of the National Federation of the Blind truly believe in the dream of independence and equality for all blind people. We continue steadfastly to hold on to our hope in the face of ridicule because we know there is a better way to provide training to blind people, and we understand that proper training begins with the recognition that blindness does not have to change who we are but only the way we do things.

"Structured discovery" is the name we have given to an important body of scientific research about something we in the National Federation of the Blind have understood for a long time. Blind people learn in the same way as others, the knowledge and experience we have is equally valid and valuable, and we have the same ability and desire to grow as everyone else. We have the same dreams as our neighbors and the capacity to achieve them. If the conventional approach to orientation and mobility truly provided the hope that those new to blindness deserve, if it offered more than a set of physical techniques, if it truly assumed that blind people are simply people who cannot see, and if it were in fact reawakening in the people it serves the dreams they believed were lost and moving them toward those dreams, then we would not be working with such determination to change the field of orientation and mobility.

The National Federation of the Blind has brought us closer to the dream of security, opportunity, and equality for the blind, yet we must continue to work hard because this dream has not yet been realized. The orientation and mobility program at Louisiana Tech University has come into existence because we now know the best way to assure that all blind people will have the best opportunity to achieve true independence. There can be no turning away from this promising future.

We are witnessing a paradigm shift that will change almost everything we have ever believed about blindness and blind people and will lead to a time when everyone will understand that blindness is merely one of the many characteristics that can be a part of a complete human being rather than the defining and devastating disability so many believe it to be. Together we have freed ourselves from the aspersions of conventional thinking and created the wings that will allow us to reach our dream. Blind people speaking for themselves through the National Federation of the Blind and the Louisiana Tech orientation and mobility program are defining the future for blind people, and we want to extend an invitation to everyone to join with us in changing what it means to be blind.