Braille Monitor                                                    February 2008

(back) (contents) (next)

A Summary of Essential Blindness Philosophy in Residential Rehabilitation Training

by James H. Omvig and Joanne Wilson

From Dan Frye: On Wednesday afternoon, December 5, 2007, James Omvig, Joanne Wilson, and Ron Gardner collaborated to present a ninety-minute primer on the essential elements of a progressive philosophy of blindness, a lesson on how to communicate these philosophical principles to blind students in training during seminar or business classes, and a discussion of the value and purpose of training blind students under sleepshades. This concurrent breakout session, dedicated to explaining and demystifying the training philosophy and methodology championed by the National Federation of the Blind, was well attended by a host of administrators and teachers from residential rehabilitation centers (both conventional and NFB-sponsored facilities) across the country.

James Omvig has practiced law as an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board and has been a rehabilitation administrator responsible for running the residential rehabilitation training centers for blind people in both Iowa and Alaska. He has authored a number of books and articles on rehabilitation policy and practice, including Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment. Joanne Wilson was an elementary school teacher, founder and first executive director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration from 2001 to 2005. She now serves as executive director of affiliate action on the national staff of the NFB. Ron Gardner is president of the NFB of Utah and a member of the Department of Affiliate Action staff. A summary of their reflections shared during this interactive breakout session follows:

James OmvigJames Omvig: To understand blindness correctly and also to know how to educate or rehabilitate blind people effectively, one must first recognize the fact that blind people as a class are a minority in every negative sense of that term and that blindness is much more of a social problem than a physical one. The erroneous and negative public attitude about blindness rather than the physical condition is the real problem with which we must deal. From the time of infancy blind people have been taught that to be blind is to be helpless, incompetent, and inferior. Members of the general public have been taught the same thing, and in the evolution of things blindness professionals have also bought into this erroneous stereotype.

These negative attitudes about blindness do not exist and flourish without consequences. Low expectations about the abilities of the blind flow directly from and accompany these feelings of inferiority. Therefore, because of these negative and unhealthy feelings, most blind people have historically sold themselves short, and unfortunately most educators and rehabilitators of the blind have done the same.
Since the blind are a minority and people generally believe that the blind as a class are inferior and incompetent, this erroneous and stereotypical thinking must be changed. In this context services for the blind, no matter what they are, must be aimed at teaching blind people a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness based on the understanding that prevailing social expectations are both wrong and harmful.

Ever since its founding in 1940, the Federation has sought ways to sort fact from fiction on the topic of blindness and to state certain facts and principles to clarify what blindness is and is not. These principles have come to be known as Federation philosophy. These truths are taught routinely at NFB centers and may be stated in a few sentences:

1. As Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (founder of the National Federation of the Blind) was fond of saying, "Blind people are simply normal human beings or at least as normal as human beings are." In short, we are no more and no less than ordinary people who happen to be blind.

2. The blind are a cross section of society, and individually we are as different as sighted people are. Therefore, contrary to popular myth, misconception, and superstition, we are not all alike.

3. The physical condition of blindness is nothing more than a normal human characteristic, which is no different from all of the hundreds of other normal characteristics that, taken together, mold each of us into a unique person. The characteristic of blindness is not unlike our age, height, gender, or education. Blindness is not what defines each of us. It is just one of the normal characteristics with which we must deal.

4. The properly trained blind person uses alternative (nonvisual) techniques to perform efficiently without sight those tasks and functions which would be performed visually if he or she had ordinary eyesight.

5. Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person can participate fully in society and can compete on terms of equality with his or her sighted peers. In short, given proper training, blindness may be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance or inconvenience.

6. Vision is not a requirement for competence, success, and happiness, and it is respectable to be blind.

7. Therefore the blind person who desires a normal and productive life must accept rather than deny his or her blindness and then learn to deal with both its social and physical aspects in order to become comfortable with it.

The foregoing principles are the truth about blindness that should be adopted by schools and agencies for the blind as the defined philosophy they teach to their blind customers. If a blind person learns that he or she is a normal person who can do what other normal people do, he or she will be able to set appropriate personal expectations.

Therefore the orientation and adjustment center committed to full empowerment for its blind customers will not leave their attitudes about blindness to chance. It will routinely teach these ideas about blindness to its students. Blind people who are not yet well adjusted and empowered need a compass to guide them to set proper expectations for themselves, and this defined philosophy is the ready tool with which to do it.

Further, in order to become fully empowered, blind people need personal competency in five broad areas of human endeavor. Since every blind individual needs these competencies to achieve complete personal empowerment and freedom, any good orientation and adjustment center for the blind provides them. They are:

1. Blind people must come to know and feel emotionally, not just intellectually, that they are normal people who can be as independent and self-sufficient as sighted people and who can do what other normal people do.

2. Blind people must not merely be introduced to but actually master and become competent in the skills (the alternative techniques) of blindness.

3. Blind people must examine and come to understand the public's attitudes about blindness and then learn to cope calmly and rationally with the strange or unusual things other people do or say because of their complete misunderstanding and lack of accurate information about vision loss.

4. Blind people must learn to blend in to society and conduct themselves appropriately; in other words, they must be punctual, neat and appropriate in appearance, reliable, courteous, and free from blindisms.

5. Successful blind people know and appreciate the importance of giving back to society. Further, involvement in a consumer organization of the blind offers not only the joy and satisfaction one receives from giving, but provides the natural support group that blind students who leave the safety and comfort of quality centers need when they reenter the real world.

The foregoing information can be found in detail in the book, Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment.

Joanne WilsonJoanne Wilson: The principal responsibility of a training center is to assist each student in developing a realistic and long-lasting emotional adjustment to blindness. This objective should be the foundation of all curricular objectives—in the types of intersections students cross in mobility, in the dishes they prepare in home economics, and in the projects they complete in woodshop. Although addressing adjustment to blindness in daily training scenarios is critical to student success, they also need direct instruction on this topic. High-quality training centers accomplish this by establishing a regular time to discuss emotional adjustment to blindness with the purpose of helping each student develop a defined philosophy. This component is critical for true rehabilitation to occur.

The following describes the composition of a philosophy class or seminar:


Techniques and the Role of Staff

Seminar Topics

A variety of materials can be used to start up a seminar: newspaper articles, NFB speeches, Kernel Book stories, Braille Monitor articles, movies, posing questions, experiences that have occurred to the students while in training or at home, role-playing, etc. The role of consumer organizations should be discussed in one way or another during every seminar. Students should attend NFB events such as local chapter meetings, state conventions, national convention, Washington Seminar, and student seminars. These events should be topics of discussion. Leading philosophical discussions is hard work but is absolutely critical for effective rehabilitation. For specific ideas on running seminars, contact Joanne Wilson at (410) 659-9314, ext. 2335, or by email at <>.

Ron Gardner discussed structured discovery training and explained why the Federation advocates using sleepshades for partially blind students in orientation and adjustment centers. He summarized information on this topic from Jim Omvig's book, Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment. An excerpt from this book addressing the rationale for sleepshade instruction is reprinted below:

Sleepshades and Emotional Adjustment:
If the customer is partially blind, then these challenging and other apparently difficult class and extracurricular activities are performed using blindfolds called sleepshades to achieve maximum emotional empowerment and to reduce vision dependency. There are several reasons why this practice produces the best results for those who are partially blind:

1. The blind person who has had usable vision will have learned to function visually and will continue to try to do it, no matter how ineffective that current level of limited vision may be. He or she will assume that this is the normal way of doing things and will be vision dependent. Therefore the partially blind customer who is not blindfolded but is trying to use his or her poor vision during training will try constantly to use that limited vision and will not really accept and learn alternative techniques. However, competence in the alternative techniques can never be achieved in these circumstances, nor can any real emotional adjustment take place. There is but one simple way to overcome this problem--train without using sight at all. Practicing over and over without using vision will produce the desired level of competence as well as a real emotional feeling and understanding that the alternative techniques are efficient and reliable and that blind people truly can function, with or without vision.

2. Since we are discussing proper emotional attitudinal adjustment in this section, we also must understand completely that, if the residual vision is used during training, the customer will continue falsely to believe that the only reason he or she can do anything at all is because of the remaining vision which he or she has. No positive emotional adjustment occurs in such training, but in fact perpetuating this false belief simply strengthens the level of the misunderstanding. This entire problem is eliminated instantly when sleepshades are used, and positive emotional adjustment takes place. What a freeing experience it is when the customer realizes, "I can do that, and my blindness has nothing to do with it!"

3. Also, for efficiency, the partially blind customer needs to learn how to use his or her remaining vision to maximum advantage. In order to accomplish this objective, he or she must first really learn those alternative techniques and come to understand that they work. These techniques must become reflexive, well honed, and comfortable. Then, when training has been completed, the customer will no longer operate with blindfolds but will use that combination of alternative and visual techniques which is best suited to handle specific tasks on a case-by-case basis. However, the decision as to which to choose for a given task--whether to use an alternative or a visual technique--can only be made satisfactorily when the customer is competent in and comfortable using the blind technique--when the customer is no longer vision dependent. Only then can residual vision be used to best advantage. As I pointed out in chapter two, limited sight is always valuable if it is used properly.

On the issue of sleepshades, there are those specialists who hold an opposite opinion. They argue that training of the partially blind with sleepshades is useless since, once the blindfold has been removed, the blind customer cannot ignore vision and use alternative techniques and the remaining senses efficiently. They suggest that, since people receive eighty percent of their information through the eye--a premise which I vigorously reject--the phenomenon of visual override occurs when the blindfold is removed. Thus vision will once again become dominant and make the use of alternative techniques and other sensory information confusing and meaningless. I totally disagree with this view, although this theory could present the appearance of being true, if the training under sleepshades has not been proper but merely cursory, that is, if the purportedly trained customer actually continues to be vision-dependent.

First, this notion of providing training without sleepshades completely misses the point of the valuable emotional adjustment which takes place when the customer learns that he or she can function competently using no vision at all. Second, it misses the point completely of the importance of helping the customer use his or her residual vision effectively, by learning when it is appropriate to use it and when it is not. I am not suggesting for one minute that residual vision should not be used. Of course it should be used; it should be used for efficiency in combination with effective and well-honed alternative techniques.

If customers are provided with a thorough explanation of the reasons for the use of the blindfolds during training, then most will accept their use and make progress accordingly. For a few it takes several explanations before they really get it, but through persistence they will get it. Even so some will be tempted to cheat their teachers by lifting their shades to take a peek. Such students will get it even more quickly if they are taught from the outset that they actually will be cheating themselves rather than their teachers if they decide to lift the shades to take that peek during practice. Most rational adults will easily come to understand this point. In addition, the training done under sleepshades must be of sufficient duration--usually several months--for the customer truly to master the skills and adjust the emotions. When proper sleepshade training is used, the argument supporting the concept of visual override goes out the window.

(back) (contents) (next)