Braille Monitor                                                     December 2007

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Pointers to Help VR Counselors

by the NFB of Ohio Board of Directors

From the Editor: The following document is the product of brainstorming by the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. We kept hearing complaints from blind people whose vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors regularly treated them with casual rudeness or complete obliviousness to the tenants of simple courtesy when working with blind people. At the invitation of the state blindness agency director, Mike Hanes, we prepared this document, which was then circulated throughout the agency. It seems to have been well received, so we thought it might be helpful to affiliates and state agencies in other parts of the country as well. Here it is:

This document is intended to be of use to VR counselors with little or no previous experience dealing with blind people. Part of your job is to minimize blindness as an issue in your interactions with customers. The painful truth is that people seeking assistance from the state agency for the first time may be very far from comfortable with their disability. In fact, you may be the first person they come in contact with who knows anything about blindness. Being made to feel awkward or not in command of their physical situation will distract the consumer and make your job harder. So here are some tips for coming to terms with blindness yourself and helping to put your customers at ease.

The First Visit to the VR Office

Consumers who come to your office for the first time are already at a disadvantage. They may well not know how to travel confidently with a cane, and they are unfamiliar with the layout of the VR offices and the configuration of the furniture.

When you enter the room, walk straight to the consumer and speak directly to him or her. Introduce yourself. Note whether the person extends a hand to shake yours. Most adults meeting for the first time or in a business setting, which this is, shake hands. You can initiate a handshake by saying, ďLet me shake your hand.Ē Blind people will then usually extend the right hand so that you can grasp it. Even if you have to lean forward and take the personís hand, this is probably worth doing. It communicates the message that you consider that you are dealing with an adult who is your equal. Never leave the customer standing with a hand extended while you ignore the gesture. Even if you are uneasy, stifle the impulse to pace around the room. A person who is trying by ear to follow your movements and look in your direction will have difficulty fixing on a moving target. If you do need to change your position in the room, speak as you move so that the other person has a chance to follow your movement by ear. When you are concentrating on doing something, it may be difficult to remember to generate enough sound to provide audible notice of where you are and what you are doing. But remember that for a blind person silence is like having a fog bank roll down, leaving him or her isolated and uncertain of what is going on and whether others are still in the room. It should go without saying that, when you step out of the room, you should mention this little fact to the blind person.

Make every effort to address the blind person directly rather than anyone else who may have accompanied him or her. You can glance at the sighted person from time to time, but your attention should remain on the consumer, even if you question whether your message is getting through.

When the time comes for the customer to sign forms or agreements, you can do several things to be considerate. No responsible adult should be expected to sign a document without knowing what it says. You can read it aloud to the customer, or, if he or she has an accessible computer or other means of reading a document before the meeting, you can send a paper or electronic copy to the personís home address. But, if you are sending an electronic file, be certain that the document is a file that a screen reader will be able to open and read. For safety sake this means no PDF and certainly no TIF or GIF files. You should make it your business to know which kinds of files will work with a screenreader and which will not. When the time comes for a signature to be written, discuss how best to enable the customer to write his or her name most easily: signature guide, crease in the sheet on the signature line, the edge of a card, indication with a finger where to begin. Communicating impatience or ignoring the constraints of blindness on the consumerís ability to sign on the dotted line or even to tell where the dotted line is is never acceptable.

From the beginning of coming to terms with their disability, blind people must learn to speak for ourselves and command the respect of being addressed as adults. However, some blind people have been so oppressed by their experience of the disability and personal or family reaction to it that they do not actually expect to be treated as adults. This is one reason why your modeling ordinary respect and courtesy for a blind adult is very important. We hope these suggestions seem painfully obvious; they are. But we can assure you that we frequently hear tales of VR counselors who have overlooked them. Sometimes new customers donít even know why they feel uncomfortable in the presence of their counselors. Only we hardened old-timers have the experience and nerve to command and insist upon the attention and information we require and deserve.

Traveling with a Blind Consumer

You have no doubt been instructed in the fine points of acting as a human guide. Assuming that you have successfully offered your arm for the person to grasp above the elbow, you can begin walking. In a first meeting this is probably only to another room and a chair. When you reach the consumerís chair, reach out with the arm he or she is using and pat the chair back or arm while saying something like ďHere is a chair.Ē Most people will rapidly figure out that they can contact the chair by sliding their hand down your arm to your hand and thence to the chair. From there it is easy to figure out how to move around to the seat and sit down. Occasionally you may have to pat the seat while identifying it before the person figures out how to get there and sit down. If the customer seems uncertain how to get from standing at your side to taking the seat, suggest sliding a hand down your arm to find the chair back or arm or seat, whatever you are patting. With newly blind or obviously inexperienced people, watch carefully to be sure that the customer is following through correctly and will in fact land on the chair seat. You can further set the scene for the meeting by explaining that you are going around the desk to sit in your chair, or you are going to sit over here in a chair on the other side of the doorway.

Blind people should be encouraged to assimilate information about their surroundings. Many of us are poor at building these mental maps because we get little practice doing it and we are not expected to know where we are, so it is surprisingly easy to fall into the habit of allowing other people to haul us around, we know not where. You can help to fill the information void. Donít make a production of it, but, as a matter of course, introduce everyone in the room at a meeting and have each speak so that their position in the room or around the table is obvious. In a matter-of-fact tone you can begin the meeting by explaining where the rest room is and how to get there. This establishes the expectation that the customer might make that trip independently. Even if it doesnít happen, you have established the concept that some blind people do this independently and that this person could learn to do it too.

When walking with a consumer, call attention to landmarks within caneís reach of your passing. Encourage the person to build a mental map and use the cane to gather information. Anything you can do in passing to help him or her bring these skills together will demonstrate effective cane use. When you reach a car door, again extend your hand and tap the door to give the person the reference point. With a bit of practice most people can seat themselves in a car with very limited information from you. In the name of future independence, tactfully encourage the consumer to bring the cane along and use it as much as possible even when you are prepared to serve as a guide.

Conclusion

You should make a practice of sizing up your customerís skill and experience quickly and accurately. Those who are comfortable with their blindness will convey that fact to you quickly and easily. These people know more about what to expect from the agency and want to know that you will treat them with dignity and respect. Ask them to identify their needs. They are likely to know what they want, and the two of you can decide whether or not their goals are practical or even possible. Newly blind consumers generally have no idea what is feasible for blind people to do. They can best be thought of as sighted people who can no longer see because they have not yet learned how to be blind, and they often assume their lives are over. At first your job may be to raise their sights and offer them the possibility of hope for the future. Putting positive information into their hands like the NFBís Kernel Books recorded by NLS or the monthly publications of the consumer organizations can be very useful. In this way you donít have to take meeting time to deliver pep talks.
Your long-term job is to develop an equal partnership with the customer. You can accomplish this if respect, courtesy, and common sense are part of your relationship from the beginning.

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