The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April 1997

(next) (contents)

Stacking the Deck Against Blind Travel Instructors

by Marc Maurer

Can blind people teach cane travel? The answer to this question is so thoroughly documented that there can be no doubt. Blind people can and do teach travel to other blind people every day. Blindness does not necessarily guarantee that the teacher will be a good one. However, some of the most effective cane travel instructors are blind.

In the February, 1996, issue of The AER Report, the newsletter of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind & Visually Impaired (AER), an item appears entitled "VA Rules on Hiring Blind Mobility Specialists." The article reports that a decision has been issued by the Office of the General Counsel of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs regarding the capacity of blind travel instructors to teach orientation and mobility, sometimes known as O&M. The General Counsel's opinion declares that the blind are unfit to do this teaching.

The decision says that using blind mobility teachers is dangerous and that refusing to employ them is justified. Despite the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation (according to the article), blind people may be excluded from employment as travel teachers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But not everybody believes it. Federation members and leaders throughout the United States know the conclusion is untrue. But we are not alone. Not even everybody within AER believes it. Dr. Sharon Sacks, who serves as president of AER, appeared on the platform of the convention of the
National Federation of the Blind of California in November of 1996. When she was asked about the opinion of the General Counsel with respect to blind mobility instructors, she stated without equivocation that the conclusion reached by the General Counsel was wrong. Her willingness to stand and be counted in the effort of blind people to receive fair treatment is refreshing and welcome. It is fair to say that there are still those who will oppose the opportunity for blind instructors to teach cane travel--notably officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, Dr. Sacks is clearly, unambiguously, and strongly on record. She believes the prohibition to be wrong, and she believes that it should be changed.

The report, which appears in the AER publication, says in part:

"In October 1995, the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued an opinion in response to the question of whether Federal civil rights laws which prohibit discrimination against the disabled require the VA's Blind Rehabilitation Centers to train and/or hire blind orientation and mobility instructors. The federal civil rights laws in question are sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (These provisions impose on federal entities and recipients of federal financial assistance the same obligations which the Americans with Disabilities Act imposes on the private sector.) The opinion begins with a thorough analysis of the role of the O&M
instructor in the Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC) setting. A team of O&M specialists from three VA BRC's visited a facility in Louisiana which uses blind instructors to teach mobility."

I interrupt the AER article to say that the facility mentioned is the Louisiana Center for the Blind, ably
directed by Joanne Wilson, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. The quality of training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind and the innovative programs conducted there are widely recognized throughout the United States and in a number of other nations. Leaders from the Louisiana Center and other National Federation of the Blind training centers have, during the past two years, conducted extensive programs of instruction for teachers of the blind in Poland. Joanne
Wilson was invited to make the keynote address at the World Blind Union's Women's Forum in Toronto, Canada, last August. In addition, joint travel training instruction classes are currently being taught by the Louisiana Center for the Blind and university instructors in Louisiana. Although the AER document fails to mention any of this, these facts help to give background to the discussion. Here is further text from the AER article:

"The focus of the training seemed to be on locating a destination and returning to a starting point. Falling, bumping into objects, stumbling, and falling off curbs were commonplace. Based on their observations at the Louisiana facility, the review team concluded that the facility's program of instruction was vastly different from that of the BRC's (Blind Rehabilitation Centers), as was the end result. Students were not as skilled in the ability to avoid unnecessary contact with objects and were more prone to stumbles and falls to a degree that would be deemed an unacceptable safety risk for the BRC patient population. In addition, many advanced students were observed spending too much time in potentially dangerous situations due to a lack of training in basic skills, such as efficient recovery techniques normally taught at the BRC's."

I interrupt once again to say that I disagree with most of the statements in this article so far, but one
observation seems to me to be entirely true. This is that the results from training at the Louisiana Center are different from those achieved at the Department of Veterans Affairs. My own observations make me believe it. Students who graduate from training centers operated by the National Federation of the Blind know how to travel with a cane with confidence and skill. Quite often the individuals who pass through the centers operated by the Department of Veterans
Affairs complete their training without the same degree of proficiency in cane travel. Of course, the language of the document demonstrates the attitude of the Department of Veterans Affairs toward the blind. At the VA, trainees are known as patients, not students. But back to the article.

"The General Counsel's office also did a review of what little research exists in the area and noted, 'Although there has been little investigation into whether vision is needed to teach O&M, the one scientific study to address the issue suggests that vision plays a significant role with respect to the ability of the instructor to react quickly enough to events such as starting, stopping, turning, negotiating stairs, veering at street crossings, and colliding with obstacles.' Based on the research review and the findings of the team which visited Louisiana the General Counsel's office concluded that '...the use of totally blind O&M instructors poses a significant safety risk.' [The VA then] looked at the next question, whether a reasonable accommodation could be found which would eliminate the risk or reduce it to 'acceptable levels.' The main accommodation suggested by the General Counsel's opinion memo was the use of 'a sighted assistant.'"

One might interrupt to ask why that is the only way they thought of doing it. Could it be that the people who asked for the opinion offered the suggestion that a sighted assistant was the only alternative? Why do the orientation and mobility teachers who are closely associated with the Department of Veterans Affairs always think that sighted assistance is a necessity for teaching travel? Are they worried that the competition from blind instructors will be too fierce? But back to the article.

"The memo notes: 'The problem with this approach [having blind instructors use the technique of employing sighted assistance] is that the assistant would have to possess the same knowledge and abilities as the sighted [sic] instructor. Hence, such an accommodation would essentially require two instructors (one blind, one sighted) to do the job of one sighted instructor.' ...Reasonable accommodation does not require an employer to reallocate essential functions of a job to an assistant."

"Other accommodations such as using blind instructors only in indoor environments, were also deemed unacceptable because they 'would result in a substantial modification of the VA's program in which the same instructor teaches and instills confidence in the patient throughout the program of instruction.' Such a fundamental alteration would result in an undue hardship and thus not be required by law."

"The memo concludes: 'Because of significant safety risks, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does not require the VA to hire O&M instructors who are totally blind. In addition, notwithstanding any affiliation agreements, the VA would not be required under the Act to provide clinical training to totally blind students enrolled in affiliated colleges and universities.'"

This is what was reported by AER, and it is a commentary on the bias and prejudice of those who compiled the evidence and wrote the document. AER has asked to be recognized as the official body to determine who will and who will not receive certification as orientation & mobility specialists. However, the AER official position has (until recently) been that blind people are incompetent to teach cane travel, even though many of us are doing so. It is ironic that the so-called professionals in education and rehabilitation could adopt a policy which is so obviously discriminatory.

However, times are changing. As noted earlier, the president of AER has publicly rejected this discriminatory position. I am told that blind people will now be considered as candidates for certification by AER. But this certification is different (according to some) from that of the sighted, I am told. Although the official standard (according to the president of AER) is that blind candidates
for certification will be treated no differently from the sighted, blind candidates, according to certain officials in the rehabilitation field (the letter in the June 1996, Braille Monitor article titled, "Who Is Qualified To Be A Mobility Instructor?" comes to mind), must demonstrate their ability to teach cane travel using a sighted assistant. No other mechanism would be plausible, according to some.

With all of this as background, one might suspect that certain people who are part of AER were afraid that the current discriminatory policy might not stand up. Consequently, they set about bolstering a weak case.

Approximately three years ago, instructors in the Department of Veterans Affairs' program to teach cane travel to blind veterans requested the opportunity to visit the National Federation of the Blind Orientation Center in Ruston, Louisiana. The purpose of the visit (according to these VA officials) was to study the methods used by blind cane travel instructors. The Louisiana Center for the Blind
has extensive experience with the use of blind cane travel teachers.

Arlene Hill, the cane travel instructor, and Joanne Wilson, the founder and director of the Center, believed that this would be an opportunity to demonstrate the ability of blind teachers and to expand communication and understanding in programs dealing with blindness. They welcomed the visitors to the Louisiana Center for the Blind.

In the fall of 1995 the real purpose of the visit was revealed. These officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (who, it is reported, are also members of AER) compiled a report of their visit to the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The report included excerpts of video tapes of blind students being taught travel by blind instructors. The evidence gathered by these officials was submitted to the office of the General Counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs with a request that the General Counsel issue an opinion stating whether the law requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to consider blind travel instructors for employment.

In selecting the evidence to be presented to the office of the General Counsel, the so-called impartial observers chose to portray not the reality of the training but a distortion of the facts. This was accomplished by depicting travel training as much more dangerous than it is and blind people as much less competent than we are. For example, when a student is walking on the street where there is a drain into which he or she might step, keen attention is called to the possibility of this mishap even though it never happens. A blind traveler at the Louisiana Center for the Blind learns to manage in virtually any circumstances during the course of travel training. At the Department of Veterans
Affairs, blind travelers are apparently kept out of any place which contains the slightest potential for injury. The contrast in teaching technique was apparently emphasized to the Office of the General Counsel with the implication that travel training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind is conducted irresponsibly. The blind, according to this formulation, should be content to travel only in places which are entirely safe--safe as defined by the officials who have selected for themselves the task of caring for the blind--the officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

With this distorted information in hand, the office of the General Counsel issued its opinion. It is ironic that a program designed to serve the blind has reached the conclusion that the blind are inferior to the sighted and cannot be trusted to teach travel.

Arlene Hill, travel training teacher at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, observed the approach of the Veterans Administration in gathering its evidence. This is her report:

These are my observations on the July 1993 visit from the three Veterans Administration employees.

When these visitors arrived, we held a brief meeting in which they explained that they would be observing travel students and their instructors and making videos of travel routes. They explained that they had come to learn how we, as blind instructors, taught our blind students. I felt that this would be an opportunity to share our work and show how our students learn and progress. I was asked very few questions as a blind instructor about how I teach students.

At the time of the initial meeting, I requested a microphone for both the instructor they were observing and the student. We explained that a good bit of our training depends on communication. They agreed that was a good idea and said they would work on providing mikes, but they never

Only once during their visit was I aware that they were taping. As far as I remember, they never sat in on the sessions in which directions were given to the student before leaving on a route. At no time were they aware of the communication between me and any student. Because our training is based on students' both building self-confidence and learning how to problem solve, we do not rush in to move students away from stairs, curbs, cars, poles, or other obstacles. With beginning students, problem-solving begins with instruction about how to use a cane and lots of practice to develop a proficient technique. Communication is necessary between a new student and the instructor, who explains what to listen for, what to look for with the cane, and how to handle various situations.

Continuing to develop and build on problem-solving skills depends on allowing the student to work through problems faced while traveling on the streets. I try to ask students leading questions to help them think and learn to listen and look for the necessary and useful cues while traveling.

When the memo printed in The AER Report states that the students of a blind instructor come into contact with objects too close for safety, the writer can be referring only to the cane's touching objects. In fact, a blind person cannot travel safely without having the cane touch the many objects on the streets.

We watched some of the taping the team did one morning. They focused the camera on a student's feet. Then the lens crossed the street to record the presence of a drainage hole at the curb. The camera returned to the walking feet crossing the street. When the student located the drain with her cane and did not fall, the camera immediately left her feet.

When all is said and done, it is easy to draw any conclusions you choose as long as you don't bother to look at the entire picture. The video they made has no voice track. For all any one can tell, the students never received a single correction or instruction during all of the taping. Even so, the videographer recorded blind people traveling independently in many different situations. It is always
easy to make judgments, but when they are based on half-truths, they have little validity. During the visit the team asked very few questions about how blind travel instructors do their job--again, half a story.

This is what Arlene Hill observed, and her comments are corroborated by Ruby Ryles, who has recently served as the Assistant Director of the International Braille Research Center for the Blind. She has observed and understands the methods and techniques used by blind instructors. After reviewing the legal opinion of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Mrs. Ryles offered her own comments. Here is her sworn statement.

I, Ruby N. Ryles, being first duly sworn depose and state:

The AER Report is a newsletter published by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. After reading a narrative in the February, 1996, issue of this newsletter, I felt compelled to come forward to express my deep concern about the information in this report and the manner in which it was compiled. I am also disturbed about the technique used for selecting the information published. A description of the methodology used failed to appear in the report.

I am a Research Associate with the International Braille Research Center. I have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Within the next few months I will complete a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. My training in work with the blind was done at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. My teaching career spans thirty years with both sighted and blind children and sighted and blind prospective teachers at the university level. I have worked as an administrator at the state level, as a classroom teacher, as an itinerant teacher, and as a consultant. I have taught teacher education courses at the University of Washington and Louisiana Tech University. During the summers of 1994 and 1995 I held an adjunct faculty position at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. During that time I taught four courses designed to satisfy Louisiana State Department of Education requirements for certification of teachers of blind children.

Because the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) is nationally recognized for its excellence in the field of rehabilitation and because the center continuously provides training for both consumers and professionals, the teacher education courses at Louisiana Tech are taught in cooperation with the staff at LCB. Most of the classes are held at the center, and many sessions are taught by or with the LCB staff members. This unique arrangement provides prospective teachers with experiences unavailable in a more passive environment, such as a lecture/test format.

During the summer of 1994, I designed and taught a course entitled "Orientation and Mobility for Persons Who Are Visually Impaired," which was designed to provide teachers of blind children with a basic understanding of mobility techniques used by skilled blind adults and children. One half of the course was comprised of lectures, films, panel discussions, readings, and guest lectures. The
other half of the course consisted of individual instruction in the skill of traveling under sleepshades using a cane. All but one of the students was fully sighted.

Each of my students was assigned an experienced cane travel instructor from LCB who taught him or her the basic cane travel techniques which should be taught to young blind children. Although the director of LCB employs both sighted and blind cane travel instructors, I specifically requested that only blind instructors be used with my students. After many years as an educator in this field, I have found that blind instructors who are themselves skilled cane travelers impart not only a higher level of problem-solving skills, but a realistic understanding of problems encountered in travel without sight. Moreover, the daily positive example of a competent blind traveler provides a powerful tool to allay my sighted teachers' all-too-common deep-seated misconceptions and fears of independent travel without sight.

Using sleepshades (sometimes called blindfolds) and a cane, my students received training in safely crossing streets, orienting themselves to traffic, detecting and avoiding obstacles, and navigating curbs and stairs. Each class period I walked or drove the streets of Ruston observing and measuring the progress of each student. I often observed the lessons from a distance of six to eight feet. Because I did not wish to interrupt the lesson, the student and instructor were unaware of my presence. Never once did I have occasion to question the safety of my students while they were under the instruction of their blind mobility instructors.

An incident occurred with the students I was teaching in late July and early August of 1994. During several of the first mobility sessions, I noticed an individual with a home camcorder video taping parts of one of my students' lessons. I noticed that the cameraman was selectively taping. I
watched as he sporadically taped very short segments, then lowered his camera and casually studied other pedestrians and items in nearby shop windows. He did not record the entire lesson. As I observed him, the mobility instructor, and my student, it was obvious that he was recording neither
the important oral nor the hands-on corrections being made by the blind mobility instructor. The problem-solving process techniques valued and taught by the blind mobility instructor were never taped in their entirety.

I wondered if the individual was familiar with techniques of teaching mobility since he was not taping the instructor's oral corrections. I was tempted to approach him to point this out but did not. Inevitably, the partial and spotty tape recording of sessions made the record of the classes incomplete and inadequate for forming valid conclusions. It appeared to me that this was an effort to capture on film the missteps, the miscues, and the stumbles of the trainee and to eliminate from the film the episodes in which corrections were made and counseling was provided.

When I later inquired in more depth why this individual was taping my student, I was told by the director of the center that the individual and his two colleagues had been sent by the Department of Veterans Affairs to learn how blind mobility instructors teach. However, the three individuals avoided indicating that they were part of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, which for years has had a policy either to inhibit or to prevent blind instructors from teaching mobility to the blind.

These people gained the cooperation of LCB and me by saying that they wished to learn more about the techniques used by blind mobility instructors. They had persuaded the LCB director to allow them to come by telling her that the VA was considering permitting blind mobility instructors to
do internships with the VA and that the VA was considering hiring blind mobility instructors. They said that they were at LCB to learn the techniques of blind mobility instructors and any adaptations that might be needed. They presented themselves to the director of the center as objective and
willing to learn. Given this, she informed me that she was pleased that LCB would be a part of the process.

The cameraman and his colleagues and I were taken to dinner that evening by the director and other staff at LCB. Blind staff members with knowledge of techniques used to teach mobility were present at dinner, but the three individuals made no effort to start or take part in conversations on this subject. The failure to provide complete information about the background of these individuals and the fact that they created a videotape record which emphasized errors and excluded problem-solving
techniques, together with their behavior in both professional and social situations, leads me to the
reluctant conclusion that they intended deliberately to mislead the director and other staff members about their purposes and intentions.

The cameraman did not stay long enough to tape the final lesson of any of my students. After ten two-hour lessons, my sighted students, under sleepshades, crossed four-lane streets and intersections with and without stoplights and handled a variety of independent travel obstacles. They learned the safe techniques to accomplish independent travel under sleepshades because of their blind mobility instructors. I never once felt concern for the safety of my students during their lessons.

During the final class period (an evaluation session with me) students unanimously agreed that the training under sleepshades provided at LCB was invaluable to their future teaching. When they were asked how I could improve the course, the majority responded with requests for additional training under sleepshades from LCB. The fact that their instructors were blind was simply never an issue.

Ruby Ryles