Braille Monitor                                                             February 2007

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Pushing the Envelope

by Jeff Altman

Jeff AltmanFrom 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. In the following article he reflects on what makes the structured discovery method of blindness skills instruction work so much better than standard methods. This is what he says:

“Pushing the envelope” has become such a common phrase in our everyday language that it will soon take on the hollow ring of a cliché. However, before we allow the phrase to slip into social obsolescence and its true meaning to become obscured from overuse and abuse, blind people should not allow ourselves to dismiss the valuable insights into human potential that these few words perfectly express.

The phrase is somewhat obscure, but understanding it is well worth the effort. Moreover, pushing the envelope exactly expresses the very nature of our philosophy in the National Federation of the Blind and the rehabilitation programs based upon this truth.

The word “envelope” has several meanings, one of which refers to a collection of curves expressing data on a graph and the way they relate to each other. The phrase “pushing the envelope” has its origins in aerospace research, which in our time means exploring the unknown--the new frontier.

For many of us, people such as Kelly Johnson, Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, and Sally Ride are among the larger-than-life heroes who have captured our imaginations and given us a sense of wonder about the future. Our image of their world is one of brilliant engineers, cutting-edge technology, advanced--often secret--aircraft designs, and those unique individuals known as test pilots, who seem vastly more skilled, professional, brave, and perhaps more insane than those who simply cannot imagine what it is like to climb behind the controls of an unproven aircraft and take it to its limits.

In aeronautics the envelope refers to the curves on a graph that map out the various aspects of an aircraft’s overall performance capabilities and limitations. Based on the project specifications and the experience and knowledge of the engineers, the aircraft development team arrives at a set of expectations regarding the aircraft’s likely performance and maps out its projected operational envelope. In their professional opinion these are the limitations within which they are confident the aircraft will perform safely.
They could simply leave matters there, but then the true potential of the design would never be known and might even be accidentally exceeded later with tragic results and no real understanding of why things went wrong. To make certain that a new aircraft can be safely flown to its true potential, the engineers’ initial expectations have to be deliberately exceeded in a scientifically controlled manner. Graphing out these new data changes the curves of the envelope, moving them further away from where they had originally been established, hence “pushing the envelope.”

This process yields the aircraft’s performance envelope, which means the aircraft can be taken to the very edge of its potential performance. Through this research problems are discovered and solved, and the overall science of aviation is expanded, along with the understanding of human potential in this environment. This process has brought about jet aircraft, supersonic flight, and space travel.
On the practical side, for safety’s sake the engineers then use the data they have collected to establish the operational envelope, which is comfortably within the performance envelope achieved during testing and spells out the maximum recommended limits to which the aircraft should be flown in ordinary situations. In reality, the engineers recognize that the average pilot will rarely approach the edge of the operational envelope, let alone the edge of the true performance envelope, so the margin of safety is reinforced through research. In this way the greatest utility can be obtained from each individual aircraft design in everyday use without unknowingly exposing passengers and crewmembers to serious risk.

How does all of this fit into our experience as blind people? Just like the new aircraft designs being tested, each of us has our own unique potential and limitations. We hear much discussion about people reaching their personal potential, but truth be told, few of us ever really have the opportunity to reach such levels of achievement. Even those who do reach their true potential would find it very difficult to live their lives at such great heights of achievement. Erik Weihenmeyer climbed Mount Everest, and Miles Hilton-Barber set the world’s altitude record for ultra- light aircraft. They are both powerful symbols of human potential. They have also made it clear that human potential is not limited to those with normal eyesight. Nevertheless, Erik had to climb back down from his mountain, and Miles had to land his plane. Even so, through their achievements each of them has found the higher ground in his life and helped carry all of us higher with him.

Each of us, no matter how much we challenge ourselves or what we achieve, still gravitates back toward the comforts of home and the security of our everyday lives. In saying this, we need to recognize that it is in how we come to define the comforts of home and our everyday lives that makes the real difference. The challenges we pursue and the achievements we reach are the measures by which we define what is comfortable, secure, and ordinary in our lives. Once we have achieved a part of our true potential, it is only natural and often necessary to step back a little from the edge of our performance envelope to rest and take care of the ordinary aspects of our lives within the comfort of our personal operational envelope.

For blind people, far too often what is comfortable, secure, and ordinary is defined by someone else, usually someone holding very different expectations from those they hold for themselves and others with normal eyesight. This is why having the right philosophy and proper training is so important. It is also the reason that effective training must incorporate a positive philosophy of blindness.
Blindness can be challenging for those who have not had proper training, and the myths and misconceptions that surround blindness can make true independence seem like an impossibility to even the most determined. For this reason, simply providing nonvisual skills to blind people, no matter how good the instructors or how rigorous the skills, does not, in and of itself, represent proper training. Learning these new skills, even though they are intended to allow the individual to return to normal life, is very challenging.

Like all new skills the alternative techniques of blindness are at first awkward, inefficient, uncomfortable, and even a little scary--not unlike learning to climb a mountain or fly a plane. Often these skills have been developed by professionals who want the best for the people they serve, and most of all they want blind people to do as much for themselves as they safely can. While this is certainly sensible, it is also the way problems can emerge, especially if the professionals hold limited expectations for the blind people with whom they are working and are more focused on maintaining safety than in assisting them to achieve their true potential. In other words, the operational envelope has been established based on professional opinion rather than through the scientific process of pushing the envelope.

We need to recognize that most blind people enter skills training for the first time with very limited expectations for themselves. The challenge of learning the ordinary skills of life like independent cane travel, home management, and Braille can easily be perceived as truly pushing themselves to the limit of their abilities, especially since such mastery is well beyond what they expected of themselves. They are quite likely to believe that their training has truly pushed them to the very edges of their performance envelope, especially if the training is blended with expressions of concern for their personal safety and assurances that their training is the best available. When this kind of training has come to an end and these folks step back from what they believe to be the edge of their personal performance envelopes, they may very well live their lives at a level far below that of their normally sighted neighbors, assuming along the way that they have achieved an appropriate quality of life for someone who is blind.

Proper training is different because it begins with the philosophy that the limitations created by blindness are an individual experience that can only be truly understood through challenging one’s expectations and beliefs about blindness. The projected operational envelope is based upon the collective experience of thousands of successful, independent blind people, and the scientific method for pushing the envelope is known as “structured discovery.” Through observing good role models, being challenged to meet high expectations, learning to draw upon experience and to problem-solve, and internalizing a truly positive view of blindness, students move toward the goal of true independence.

Just as engineers and test pilots work together to discover a new aircraft’s true performance envelope so that it can be employed safely to the greatest effect, in the structured-discovery-based approach instructors work with their students as a team to help them discover the true edge of their own performance envelope. Students push themselves well beyond learning the ordinary, everyday skills to take on challenges such as woodshop training, rock climbing, and cross-country hikes through unfamiliar territory. The emphasis is on testing the limits and learning to problem-solve, and therefore students individually develop the skills that work best for them, rather than memorizing skills that have been formulated for them by an instructor. They also gain a true understanding of their personal limitations and the best way to achieve the goals they set for themselves. Because these activities would be considered challenging by anyone’s standards, when students have completed their training and returned to their everyday lives, they have a true understanding of their own capabilities and limitations. They are also accustomed to testing the limits, drawing on their own experience and knowledge, and well practiced in problem-solving. Moreover, their individual operational envelopes are realistically based on personal experience, and for many this is at an equal level with their normally sighted counterparts.

Pushing the envelope is truly at the heart of effective rehabilitation training for blind people, and it is also at the core of what we believe as members of the National Federation of the Blind. We can’t all be Erik Weihenmeyer or Miles Hilton-Barber, any more than most people will ever break the sound barrier or walk on the moon. Yet all of us can push our own envelopes, and as role models and mentors we can reach out to help others to push themselves beyond their expectations toward a better life.

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