Braille Monitor July 1986
by Karen Arellano Edwards
(The following article appeared in the Fall/Winter, 1985, issue of The Blind Educator, the publication of the National Association of Blind Educators. It was originally given as an address at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico on April 8, 1984.)
Any blind person who wants to go to a university and pursue a certain field of study and who really puts forth a determined effort and gets good grades is bound to succeed. There's no discrimination against blind people--not as long as they're willing to work hard. That's what I believed until about about four years ago when I entered New Mexico State University. I started out wanting to go into elementary education. About a year after I started school I decided that I was interested in the field of speech language pathology. A speech pathologist works with all ages of people ranging from infants to adults in the diagnosis and treatment of various types of speech and language problems. Right now I'm a senior at New Mexico State University. I plan to graduate in May with a degree in Communicative Disorders and from there, to become a speech pathologist, I need to go for a master's degree. Others in my program will go on to get a degree in audiology. In the program that I'm pursuing now we have to have a background in hearing and in speech and language. In addition to taking course work, a majority of our training is derived from actual clinical experience.
At New Mexico State we have a community speech and hearing center, and the students work as clinicians running the whole program. In the Las Cruces area, we serve a number of clients of all ages. Students team up in pairs, and each student is responsible for two clients per semester. In the program we are required to take two years of clinical practicum. In the beginning when I decided to pursue this field, I was very encouraged. I got a lot of positive feedback from the professors, and I didn't think I would encounter too many difficulties. I knew there would be certain tasks I would have to modify, and I knew I would need assistance in some areas. But I had faith that in the end everything would work out. During my first semester I worked with a client and a student clinician, and everything seemed to be going smoothly. But I was functioning mainly as an observer in the therapy setting in the first semester, which is how you start out. During my first semester I got a pretty good grade, and I was pleased with myself and everyting seemed to be going quite well.
Then, I entered my second semester of the practicum experience, and that's when I ran into some trouble. I didn't actually know that there was any trouble until the end of that semester when I received a D-plus for my clinical practicum experience. I consider myself to be a fairly good student. To say the least, I was a bit shocked when I received the grade. I immediately went to my supervisor and inquired about how this had come about, because as far as I knew I had met all of the expectations. When I met with my supervisor, he informed me of the reasons behind the grade I had received. First of all, he explained that the department felt that a blind person would be a poor model of communication for sighted people. He told me that a large part of the University's emphasis in communication is that of nonverbal communication and, the department felt that a blind person would not be able to adequately evaluate and treat someone in the nonverbal sense. I was criticized for not having good eye contact. I was accused of purposely not maintaining eye contact with the client. They believed that eye contact is a learned behavior and that I was capable of it but was purposely not doing it. At the end of that meeting I felt that I had gotten nowhere. Throughout the meeting my supervisor presented me with a number of situations. "What if you were asked to screen thirty kindergartners? When you do screening of children you are required to do examinations of the mouth and the ears. How are you going to be able to look inside?"
I said, "I would have someone look for me, but I would be able to interpret the information."
He said, "What if no one was around to help you out?"
So this just went on and on, what if...what if. He also said, "We have nothing against you personally, but we feel that a blind person will not be able to be competent in this field, and I would seriously recommend that you consider doing something else."
When I had earlier planned on pursuing a degree in education I had received the same kind of response. I realized that no matter what I decided to study, there would always be people telling me that it wasn't possible and to study something else. I thought I would go to the head of the department and see what happened from there. When I went to the head of the department, I received much the same response. It had turned out that the entire faculty had discussed my case and were all in agreement, that a blind person would not be able to function effectively as a speech pathologist. The next semester of practicum I determined to work really hard. I thought that maybe I did have some shortcomings and if I worked extra hard, my efforts were bound to pay off. As one progresses through the program in speech pathology, there are different levels of student clinicians. The first level is mainly observation, and from there you go up the ladder to levels two and three. Well, that fall I was not promoted to the second level. I decided I would be a good sport about it and keep trying. That semester turned out to be even worse. My supervisor would frequently take me aside and relate instances in the therapy session which "alarmed" her. One time I planned to make puppets in a therapy session, and I took along some preschool plastic scissors. Following the therapy session my supervisor took me aside and said, "I was just panicked to see you using scissors with a preschool child. Don't you realize that this could pose a safety hazard to your client and you should consider not using anything that's sharp or that could possibly cut or injure a child." I felt her concerns were ridiculous. They were plastic scissors, and I was in control of the situation. It is really hard to put up with that kind of attitude. I learned I had to be a more assertive person through this experience. In the beginning I let them have their own way and did not stick up for myself.
Another time I was working with a preschool aged child, playing on the floor. My supervisor again took me aside following the session and told me that I should not do therapy on the floor since the child's toys would be left around and I would fall down and hurt myself and possibly the client. Another discouraging aspect of my experience was that throughout I have been paired with very domineering clinicians. They usually ran the whole show since I was always at a lower level than my partners. If I made any suggestions, they were not really taken into consideration. One time we made a video tape of a therapy session. We were playing it for our supervisor, and the supervisor turned to my co-clinician and said, "I really love the way you implemented this idea into the therapy session." It had been my idea, and I was the one doing the therapy. But she assumed the other clinician had come up with the idea. Another time that I met with the supervisor she discussed with me all of the discouraging aspects of being a speech pathologist. She told me that you would have to spend at least twenty five hours every weekend trying to catch up, and it would take even longer if you were blind. You would have to take home lots of paperwork. She said I should think seriously whether I should become a speech pathologist.
My grade for the next practicum didn't improve too much. The way we were graded was a very subjective system. All the clinicians were graded in each area by the amount of supervision they were perceived as needing. Of course, I, as a blind clinician, was always perceived as needing additional supervision, and so I always came out scoring on the low end of the scale because I was said to need maximum supervision. So, again, the following semester I was not promoted to the next clinical level. This semester I have been involved in conducting hearing evaluations. Part of the process involves looking in the client's ears. I explained to my professor that I planned to have someone look into the client's ear for me, and I would do the interpretation. My professor told me that the competency would not be mine since I was not actually doing the looking and, therefore, I would not get credit on that section of the evaluation. I would have to receive a zero because it would be somebody else's competency and not mine. Also at NMSU we work in the office taking care of phone calls and all of the administrative aspects of running a speech and hearing center. From the very beginning they wanted to pair me with another clinician. They felt that I would be unable to function in the office alone and insisted that I have someone sighted with me at all times. I have told them that I can handle the work alone, but they still insist on pairing me with another clinician.
One time this semester I was working with a five-year-old client of mine, and my supervisor came in to observe. During the therapy session she proceeded to criticize me right there in front of the client. She said, "John, how do you think Karen could have better done that?"
The client said, "I don't know."
She said, "Wouldn't it help if she would have reinforced you in a different manner?"
He said, "I don't know." (He's only five years old.) It was rather embarrassing to say the least. I was very humiliated to be criticized there in front of my client. It turned out that my co-clinician had planned to use the same technique that I did and therefore was able to correct the way she conducted her therapy session. So all of it fell on me.
Whenever people work together there is going to be some conflict. Time and time again I have been told that my interpersonal skills are lacking because anytime there is a conflict, I am perceived to be the root and cause of it.
So, I have felt there has been a lot of bad treatment, and I have learned what it means to be the victim of discrimination. One day I was tempted to walk into the registrar's office and withdraw from the university. This was at the point where I had a year yet to go, and I thought I just don't have the strength to continue with this. It's too much mental anguish.
But I said to myself I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind, and there are thousands of blind people across the country facing discrimination, and they would not quit, because if they did, progress would never be made. No one would ever succeed at being a classroom teacher or an engineer or a lawyer if they gave up. It is only through persistence that success is possible. I have wanted to be a speech language pathologist for a long time. I have worked hard through college, and I am not about to give up just because four staff members do not believe a blind person can function as a speech/ language pathologist. I have tried in my dealings with them to promote the Federation's philosophy of blindness--that blindness is not a tragedy. It's an inconvenience that can be overcome. Although the battle is not over yet, I know that I am going to make it through, because I have got the support of the National Federation of the Blind. I really thank all of you, because I know that anytime I need support that you will be there and that has meant so much to me. The National Federation of the Blind has given me the belief in myself to carry the fight and to stand firm for myself and for what I believe. It has shown me that the real problem of blindness is not developing alternative techniques but convincing ourselves and society that the blind can compete on a basis of equality. I do not know what career I will eventually end up in, but I have learned that through the National Federation of the Blind many doors have been open and all doors yet closed can be opened.