Braille Monitor                                                    February 2008

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Diplomacy, Reality, and the Organized Blind Movement
The Elements of Rehabilitation

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerFrom Dan Frye: President Maurer delivered the opening address at the Dare to Be Remarkable residential rehabilitation conference held at the National Center for the Blind from December 5 to 7, 2007. In addition to providing a historical context for the development of the rehabilitation system in America, his remarks offered a succinct perspective on the Federation’s views about the essential elements of effective residential rehabilitation for blind consumers. President Maurer proposed commonsense solutions and gave candid advice to the assembled professionals. The text of his speech follows:

Sometimes, when I think of rehabilitation, my attitude becomes whimsical. With this in mind, consider the following:

Rehab is our business;
Rehab is what we sell.
Rehab is our business,
The system we know so well.
All the students learn from us
Everything they should know,
How to get an education,
How to travel where they want to go.
The complications of legal rights,
The mysteries of different schools,
The federal/state rehab scheme,
The regulations and the rules.
How to compose resumés,
Create the documents to find work,
Teaching an integrated lifestyle,
Before your clients become berserk.
Rehab is our business;
Rehab is what we sell.

If rehabilitation is noncomplicated—simple and easy to perform—why is there not uniformity of result throughout the nation? Why does the system seem to work better in some places than in others? Are the clients different from locality to locality? If the clients are much the same, the rehabilitation programs must be different.

According to the dictionary, rehabilitation was known in the English language as early as 1533. The rehabilitation of that time denominated an act of the king or the pope to restore legal or ecclesiastical rights to a person who had lost them. The restoration of an individual to a previous condition of value, of prominence, or of authority was contemplated by the term. In this sense rehabilitation is a concept still used in the law today.

Rehabilitation of the kind we are discussing today, finding a method of training or instruction adequate to permit individuals to employ their talents despite a severe disability, is a much more modern concept. The story is related that those who were injured and disabled during the Civil War were known as "the invalids." During World War I many, many soldiers were severely wounded and disabled. Something had to be done for them. The first United States Rehabilitation Act was adopted in 1920. The Smith-Fess Act, otherwise known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, was the first federal law to authorize rehabilitation efforts.

Blindness programs were first specified in rehabilitation law in 1943. Some of the writers on rehabilitation have stated that the early rehabilitation act did not emphasize blindness because it was thought that this disability was too severe for rehabilitation to take place. It was not possible to restore blind people to productivity, they thought. However, in a great many states, agencies for the blind had been created. These agencies attempted to perform rehabilitation. The Bardon-LaFollette Act of 1943 first authorized federal support for separate programs for the blind. Schools for the blind had been established beginning in the late 1820s, but often the students who graduated from them were unable to pursue higher education or to find employment. Furthermore, a number of people became blind after their school-age years. During the 1920s and 1930s the American Foundation for the Blind, founded in 1921, made a concerted effort to encourage states to adopt legislation establishing service programs for adult blind people.

In 1951 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, then president of the National Federation of the Blind, worked with others in California to create the California Orientation Center for the Blind. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who became president of the National Federation of the Blind in 1968, joined the faculty of this center in 1953. It was the first program to attempt comprehensive orientation training that incorporated faculty members from the National Federation of the Blind and the principles of independence espoused by the Federation. The Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts was creating a training program that taught mobility for the blind at about the same time, and it expanded services to include other orientation classes during the 1950s.

In 1955 Dr. tenBroek delivered an address to the American Association of Workers for the Blind in which he outlined theories behind the approach of the National Federation of the Blind to rehabilitation training. He expressed the view that rehabilitation training is based upon the constitutional right of freedom of expression, which necessarily implies freedom of movement. Dr. tenBroek's speech, entitled "The Pros and Cons of Preferential Treatment," outlines the thinking of the Federation with respect to the necessity for orientation training and the requirements to be expected of rehabilitation programs in providing it.

In 1958 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who had served his apprenticeship in the California Orientation Program from 1953 until that year, became the director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. He quickly established an orientation program which became the most powerful of its kind. By 1968 Dr. Jernigan had received an award from United States President Lyndon Johnson for the excellence of his efforts in the state of Iowa.

I participated as a student in this program from June of 1969 until my departure for college at the University of Notre Dame in August of 1970. My memory of that year of training is that I learned so much so fast that it changed the direction of my life. As I reflect upon my own experience, I sometimes feel a bittersweet amusement at the comments of some of the blind people I have met based on my experience with orientation training. I spent a little more than a year in the program. I have no interest in doing it again. Some of the blind people I have met have told me that the rehabilitation programs in which they participated were excellent. They enjoyed them each of the several times they went through the classes. One blind person I met said that she had been rehabilitated seven times. I wondered when she would be finished. At the time I spoke with her, she was in her early forties.

To delineate the elements of residential rehabilitation training for the blind is fairly straightforward. To implement them satisfactorily is enormously difficult. Rehabilitation training for the blind requires a fundamental belief that blind people have ability—as much ability as anybody else. When rehabilitation personnel believe that the people they are teaching can achieve enormous potential, the expectations for blind clients go up, the effort poured into the program by the trainers increases, and the results improve.

The rehabilitation program will instill a demanding work ethic in the clients. It will teach the essentials for performing tasks using blindness techniques that would be performed with sight if the clients had it. It will train the clients to understand the nature of blindness—what the limitations of the condition are, what society expects of blind people, what is reasonable for blind people to achieve, what misunderstandings exist about blindness, and the way to address the social aspects of the subject. It will expect the clients to come to be able to manage their own lives—determining what kind of education they want, deciding what kind of livelihood they will seek, choosing the lifestyle that they want, and making other decisions for themselves. It will assist the clients to achieve the objectives chosen by the clients. It will recognize the necessity for the blind to offer something to society. Making a contribution to the society in which a person lives is a necessary part of achieving integration within it. It will help the clients to come to understand that they may not expect a livelihood without having something to trade for it—in other words, productivity is essential. It will take all other necessary steps to assist in creating a climate conducive to the integration of the blind on the basis of equality. This is the task of the rehabilitation program.

In my own case the teachers in the rehabilitation program that I attended expected me to begin each day at 5:30 a.m. with gym class that lasted an hour. Many blind people are encouraged to believe that gym class is not for them. I encountered this argument at the University of Notre Dame when I matriculated there. At the university my gym class commenced at 8:00 a.m. A strong temptation crossed my mind to accept the argument that blind students should be exempted. However, with proper rehabilitation I knew this argument to be an attempt to duck my responsibilities. If I wanted all the benefits the university could offer, I must be prepared to accept the responsibility for performing the duties demanded of all other students. Gym class was a requirement; I went.

When my gym class in the rehabilitation program had concluded at 6:30, I was free to clean up and dress for the day. I purchased breakfast from a blind vendor. By 8:00 a.m. I was expected to be ready to learn to travel with a cane. This class lasted until 10:00 a.m., when the period for wood and metal shop began. At noon I was free for lunch. Home economics commenced at 12:30; Braille began at 2:30; typing began at 3:30. At 4:30 we had a business or philosophy class. At 5:30 in the afternoon we were free to look for dinner or to engage in other activities. Sometimes evening activities occurred. In other words, the schedule was demanding—not to say intense. The blind vendor who sold breakfast and lunch had a vending facility in the rehabilitation agency. However, no facility was open for dinner. The objective (we were told) was to get us out of the building. We were expected to seek our supper at a restaurant in town not too far from the rehabilitation agency. By necessity we learned to travel the streets of the town with our canes because we were quite interested in getting something to eat.

During my period of rehabilitation I asked the shop instructor to teach me how to overhaul an automobile engine. Although this activity had not previously been a part of the program, he agreed. I was expected to provide the automobile. I had asked to overhaul the engine because I had heard the teachers saying that blind people could do almost anything that sighted people could do. I wondered if the teachers really meant it. I thought overhauling an automobile engine would be a challenge for them. They challenged me right back by demanding that I figure out a way to get an automobile. Though I did not know where to obtain one, I promised that I would get it.

Within a few days the shop teacher took me to a hardware store, where we bought thousands of dollars worth of tools that could be used to overhaul an engine. When they said they would help me, they meant it. I got the car, and they taught me how to rebuild its engine. It worked very well when I was finished. I was impressed by the experience because I loved automobiles. I was more impressed by the experience because I had asked the program to do a difficult thing, and it responded. From this I learned that the wishes of blind people are sometimes granted, and the desires of blind people to build interesting lives can have substance and meaning. In other words, this program taught me that my life mattered.

Our philosophy class, the one that began at 4:30 in the afternoon, concentrated on the subject of blindness. I remember the day that one of the teachers told me I should learn about this subject. I was seventeen at the time, and I had been blind all of my life. I thought to myself, "What in the world is there to know? I have dealt with this topic every single day for years." However, I had not dealt with it in an informed way.

This class was conducted by a senior staff member who had become acquainted with a broad range of literature regarding blindness. Questions considered included what blindness means, what blindness does not mean, what limitations are inherent in blindness itself, what the misunderstanding of blindness can do to the thought processes of a blind person, what might be expected from a blind person, what misconceptions exist within society about blindness, how these misconceptions can be managed, and how independence is created. All people are frightened by blindness—some more than others. All people misunderstand blindness at least to some extent—even those who have lived with it for extensive periods and have studied it. All people sell blind people short at least part of the time, regardless of their training or experience. I realize that these global statements may seem to overstate the case, but my experience tells me that they don't.
The skills portion of rehabilitation programs is important, but the blindness study gives the skills segment of training meaning and depth. If it were possible to teach either the skills necessary for independent cane travel or the understanding of independent travel without the skills, it would be more desirable to teach the second than the first. It is enormously difficult to teach either without teaching both.

As I said earlier, the rehabilitation program I attended scheduled activities for me from 5:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening, and sometimes evening activities occurred. The reason for the extensive day of exercise and study is that this schedule demonstrated in a tangible way the notion that hard work is an element of rehabilitation and independence. Unless the teachers are willing to demonstrate this characteristic, most students will not believe that it is essential. Therefore teachers must expect long hours and hard work.

Then there are the elements of faith and love. Unless the teachers in a rehabilitation program become invested in the lives of their students, they will not easily be able to impart the necessary emotional and spiritual support that are required to instill a belief in the minds of the students that they have the capacity to face the world and to handle the problems that come up. Students need to know that their teachers believe in them and care about them. Blind people are routinely told that they have no ability and that their lives are without value. Most of the time these things are said with kindness, but they hurt no less for all that. The teachers represent a change of mind and a change of heart for the students. Unless the teachers believe and care enough to share that belief, the students' minds and hearts will remain unaltered and rehabilitation cannot occur.

During the course of rehabilitation the teachers will be a primary point of contact with the students. However, greater depth of understanding becomes possible when members of the organized blind movement, the National Federation of the Blind, are also incorporated into the classes. Furthermore, long-term support is available from the Federation, and the organization has thousands of role models from whom to gain experience and advice, and the Federation conducts hundreds of activities to inspire blind students. This is a major factor for the outstanding success of the training facilities operated by the National Federation of the Blind. The spirit of the Federation breeds success.

Some administrators have said that they cannot work closely with the Federation because they must remain neutral. This argument is a dismal cop-out. Neutrality in rehabilitation has never been required, and it has almost never been practiced. Rehabilitation officials should go wherever they can get the best support for their clients. My opinion is that the Federation is that place. We are prepared to work with you and build alongside you. We believe that fairness to all clients is necessary. No client should be penalized for membership in any organization. However, neutrality means that you believe membership organizations are unimportant. This is shortsighted.

One final observation must be made. Many believe that the world should be fair but that for the blind it is not. This leads a number of blind people to seek a way to get even or to look for opportunities to demand retribution or to soak the sighted. The thought is, "I'm blind, and you owe me." This thought process—soaking the sighted and retribution—is an expression of bitterness. It is destructive, and it hurts those who employ it. The blind must come to know that with proper training and opportunity blind people have the capacity to compete with others and to succeed. Blind people are not victims; nobody owes us anything. We must earn our way just as anybody else must. Rehabilitation shows us that we can, and it gives us the tools to do precisely that. It has enormous potential. Properly conducted, it is among the most honorable professions that exist anywhere in the world. It is an honor for me to talk with you about the remarkable capacity of rehabilitation in the twenty-first century.

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