Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1991
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by Fareed Haj, Ph.D.
The following is reprinted from the July, 1990 Braille Monitor.
From the Associate Editor: In 1970 Mrs. Jernigan was doing some affiliate organizing in the state of Florida. While she was working in Miami, she met a young educator who was interested in the things she had to say about the National Federation of the Blind. He had received his Ph.D. from New York University two years before and was profoundly aware of the discrimination faced by blind people whose ambition is to live active, contributing lives as fully participating members of their communities. The name of this young man was Fareed Haj. He has kept in touch with members of the Federation through the years and has continued to read the Braille Monitor.
Dr. Haj has worked in special education in Dade County, Florida, for the past twenty-three years. Initially he was hired to teach twelve visually impaired students but was soon given an additional twelve youngsters who used wheelchairs, all without the help of a classroom aide. He then spent some time teaching honors English and social studies to regular students and then served as a high school guidance counselor. For the last ten years he has been an Educational Specialist in the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System, which does psychological testing of new students, trains teachers to work with youngsters having various disabilities, maintains a resource library, conducts a computer lab for training staff and developing special programs, and publishes a newsletter. Dr. Haj actually works in a resource center, providing support to teachers all over the school system who need help in dealing with handicapped students.
Dr. Haj earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in English and philosophy. Simultaneously he earned an external degree in the same disciplines from the University of London. He was short of funds at the time and decided that if he was unable to complete one degree for financial reasons, he could be sure of finishing the other. He then traveled to New York City, where he earned a master's degree from Hunter College in rehabilitation counseling. His Ph.D. from New York University is in counseling with strong emphasis on special education and psychology. He has also done a great deal of post-doctoral work, primarily at Teachers College, Columbia University, but also at Harvard, Fordham, and a number of other institutions.
On April 1, 1990, Dr. Haj delivered an informal talk to a group of special education teachers. His views about blindness and the education of the blind were so refreshingly sensible (one is tempted to say despite his impressive credentials) that it seems useful to reprint the speech in full. Dr. Haj's views are another reminder that competent blind laymen are not the only ones advocating the use of Braille, rigorous teaching for blind youngsters, and treatment of blind students as though they were capable of being educated normally. There are professionals out there who do believe in and work toward enabling blind people to reach their full potential. Many, like Dr. Haj, are themselves blind, but increasingly others who are sighted are winning our respect by their willingness to learn about blindness, not just from books and other professionals, but from blind people, speaking for themselves. Here are Dr. Haj's remarks:
My topic this morning has to do with problems of counseling the visually handicapped. I do not propose to talk about personality theory. Any of you who have been in a classroom with visually handicapped children or in meetings with blind adults know that there is no such thing as a unified personality of the visually handicapped. Consider a group of six, and you find that one is outgoing and bubbly, and another is quiet and reflective. One is very friendly, another is private, and so on.
Nor do I propose to talk about the psychology of the disabled. I am skeptical that there is any such thing because if there were, society would be justified in stereotyping the disabled. After all, if they have a certified psychology, then why not stereotype them? But obviously the handicapped are different for many reasons. The time of the onset of the disability is very important. There is a big difference between a child who is born blind and someone who has led a very active life for seventy or eighty years before going blind. There is a big difference between somebody who has visual acuity of twenty over two hundred and can read print with some help and somebody who doesn't have any vision at all. So the time of the onset of the disability is very important, life experiences are important, socio-economic considerations are important. You really can't talk about the psychology of the handicapped with so many variables.
The only thing that the blind have in common is that they cannot see, and even then there are differences. Consider the distinctions between a totally blind person and one who has a lot of vision. So even when you talk about the blind, you are talking about the legally blind, and what they can see depends a great deal, not only on the visual acuity, but on the amount of light. You can talk about tunnel vision or peripheral vision—there are so many differences. It doesn't make sense to me to talk about either the personality of the blind or the psychology of the handicapped. I am going to assume for a moment that the blind have serious problems requiring counseling. This is not a given; I assume it only for argument's sake. The reason I have called my talk —Problems with Counseling the Visually Handicapped— is that I don't think there is a unique problem in counseling the visually handicapped. As a group, we are not more messed up than the population at large. The problems we have are with the counseling we receive. I am going to talk about some of the practical problems of counseling: who is qualified to do it, when to do it, where to do it, and what to counsel about. These are important topics; we could spend a day on each of them.
Let us start with who is going to do the counseling. Believe me, that is not an easy question. The visually handicapped child spends a great deal of time with the regular teacher if he or she has normal intelligence—especially on the junior and senior high levels. And in my long and varied life I have dealt with many, many teachers—thousands of them. Having gone through elementary and secondary school myself; having attended thirteen universities on three continents; having served as a special education teacher, working with all exceptionalities; having been a counselor for all exceptionalities; and having been an education specialist for the past ten years, it has been my good fortune to work with many, many regular teachers. And I find that, broadly speaking, they all fall into one of three categories. None of the three is qualified to counsel the blind.
The first kind of regular teacher that the blind encounter is superficially very warm, very supportive, very understanding, very friendly. There are fringe benefits to being this type of teacher. The administrators congratulate you on how wonderful and positive you are with that poor blind child. The parents are delighted that you have discovered their kid is gifted—after all, you're giving him A's. And you feel good about yourself for being such a wonderful human being. What's more, the child is delighted. Somebody has discovered him and made him feel welcome.
There are advantages for the child in being in such a setting. I have found over the years that when you get a teacher who is interested in you, your classmates become interested. When you find a cold, rejecting teacher, your classmates will also leave you alone. The advantage of that kind of teacher is that your classmates will become more friendly. But believe me, the discrimination practiced by this kind of teacher is as harmful to the child as is any other kind. There are two reasons for this. First, by being so warm and by knowing on day 1 that you are going to give the blind kid an A no matter what, you are also giving him an inflated self-image, and he is going to be very badly shattered once reality hits. Eventually he will discover that he is not a forgotten genius, and that is going to hurt.
The other problem with this kind of disguised rejection is that the child is not going to learn much, and that is going to hurt him down the road. Because if he feels that he is doing okay, he will not learn to give his very best. It also gives his classmates the wrong impression of the blind. The blind child may be too young to understand the subtleties of discrimination, but when that child is being treated more like a pet kitten, he is being told (even if he doesn't understand it) that he is not equal. No one can ever be both privileged and equal. Either you insist on privilege, or you insist on equality. You cannot have both.
In my own life I have experienced this truth many times, and sometimes it hurts. Sometimes you cause people to become your enemies when you really don't want them to. But there are times when you have to stand and be counted.
I ran into a teacher like this in graduate school. He came to me one day and said, "You know, you haven't missed a session this year; all your assignments have been A's; if you don't want to take the final, don't. I am giving you an A." Believe me, that was a tempting offer. I was living two hours away, and we were poor at the time. Traveling on the bus cost money that was hard to come by, and I was sure of an A. For a moment I was tempted. I am sure that man concluded I needed counseling because I said, "No sir, I don't want to do that. I want to come and take the exam, and I would prefer a B to an unearned A." I went on, "Look, if you really want to do this, make an announcement that everyone with an A average doesn't have to take the test. Then I will be very happy not to take it, but I will not be the only one not taking the test and making an A." I am sure that I dropped a few notches in his estimation, but I didn't care. I was fighting for a principle. People have to understand: either you insist on fulfilling your obligations, or you don't. Either you insist on your rights, or you don't. A man who fights to fulfill his obligations is going to fight for his rights, too, and deserves to do so. I have fought for my rights many, many times, but always with the knowledge that I was equally willing to demand my responsibilities.
Many of these battles have been private, and I will not bore you with them. But there have been times when I have had public fights. Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost. Twenty years ago, soon after I got my doctorate and joined the school system and became an American citizen, I decided that the best way to show my appreciation, to be useful to my adopted country, was to offer my services to the State Department to be sent anywhere they could use me as a Foreign Service Officer—to show the world that this country believes in the value of the individual, that this country treats people according to what they can do, not according to what they can see.
Naively I applied to Civil Service to take the Foreign Service exam. The local officer agreed. But then I said, "Look, I need someone to read the exam to me because I am blind."
Nonchalantly she said, "Oh, but we don't take the blind." I said, "That's nice; who is your supervisor?" She gave me the name of her supervisor, who at the time was a bit nervous toward political appointments (it was the early seventies, and civil rights was a big issue), and she said, "I'm going to pass the buck by sending you to the Atlanta office."
I said, "fine," and I called the Atlanta office. They said, "Oh no, no, no, that is a Washington decision." So I called Washington, and I got someone who sounded intelligent.
I said, "Lady, I am trying to do something, and without knowing anything about me you are telling me that I cannot do it? The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare is spending hundreds of millions of dollars rehabilitating the handicapped, and another department in the same government is telling me that you have no opportunities for the blind? I insist on taking this test, and if I have to go to a class action suit, I will."
She said, "Now just calm down. There is no law that says you can't take this exam, but I promise that we are not going to pass you." I said, "Ma'am, one step at a time. Let me put a foot through that door—let me crack open that door, and let me take that exam." She said, "You are wasting your time." I replied, "Am I not allowed to waste my time?" She said, "Okay, if you feel that way." I took the test, and she kept her promise, and of course, I was rejected. You know, it took twenty years before a blind person was recently admitted to the Foreign Service by the State Department.
That was an early disenchantment. I began to lose my idealism very quickly thereafter. But to go back to teaching, all this is why I feel that the teacher who is too warm and too accepting is subtly rejecting you as surely as any other kind of person. That is why I told my professor that I did not wish to be privileged.
When I did school counseling, many times blind kids would come to me and say, "Write me a note for my regular teacher to get me out of class ten minutes early." When I would ask why, they said, "Oh, we don't want to be in the halls between classes." I would act horrified and say, "You're telling me it's going to take you fifteen minutes to get from room to room? Are you blind or something?" The child would grin and say, —Okay, not ten minutes, just two." I would say, "All right, if you really insist, I will give you two minutes; but to be honest with you, I would rather give you no minutes at all. I would rather you go out in those halls between bells like everybody else. If you need somebody to guide you, let them guide you. I don't care. I'd rather have you do that than leave before the end of the class." I said that for two reasons. "Every time you get up out of that seat ten minutes or two minutes or even thirty seconds early, you are alerting the whole class to the fact that you are different—you need special treatment. This is not why we put you in this class. We put you there because we believe you can be an equal. We don't want you gaining notoriety. Besides, in those last two or three minutes you'll be looking at your watch all the time to make sure that you are leaving two minutes early instead of concentrating on what the teacher is saying. Many teachers sum up at the end of the class, reviewing what they have covered that period and telling you what the assignment will be for the next time. If you miss that last two or three minutes, you aren't going to know what the homework is or when the exam will take place. Is it worth all that?" Sometimes I would convince them, and sometimes I would not. That's all right because as a counselor you honestly have to learn to listen to the child and, if he makes sense, do what he says. We should not be playing God with people's lives, not even children's.
We have to respect their opinions. So that kind of warm teacher is not going to be able to counsel the blind child. There is a second type who is more honest about his or her feelings. These teachers reject the child outright. On the junior or senior high school level teachers see about one hundred fifty youngsters a day. Some of them work six periods a day because they are needed or they need the money, so they don't even have a planning period.
Some of them have after-school activities to supervise. Some are advancing their careers by getting a master's or specialist degree so they can earn more pay. Some are teaching adult education. They look at a blind student coming in on top of all their other responsibilities, and they say, "Oh my God, what did I do to deserve this?" They say, "We aren't going to take this out on the child; we are simply going to pretend he isn't here. We aren't going to flunk him, but no matter what he does or doesn't do, we are going to give him a D. Out of the goodness of our hearts, we might even give him a C." That child will just sit there—tolerated but not accepted. Proximity does not mean equality. The fact that he is sitting in that class doesn't mean he is an equal. The year goes by, and that child does not learn very much. I have had more than my share of that kind of teacher on college campuses, both undergraduate and post-graduate level. I have sat in classes when the teacher was passing out papers, and he would give a handout to the person on my right and to the person on my left, to the person in front of me, to the person behind me but skip me. Eventually, you learn to say, "Hey, I paid for the course, too." Would you like to have your child counseled by that kind of teacher? Not me. The third type of teacher is my favorite. This is the learner, and I have known some of those. Years ago, I sent a blind student to a music class. The teacher saw the kid, and immediately he called the office to have somebody sent to cover the class. He marched down to my room and said, "Guess what, they have given me a blind kid!"
I said, "I know, I sent him there." He said, "You know it is a music class?"
I said, "I know, and I wish I could help you, but I don't know the first thing about music. Years ago I took a whole year of music, and on my best day I imitated a cat fairly well on my violin. I am not the person to help you; I am sorry."
He said, "I want this kid out, right now. Put him somewhere else." I said, "Sir, you are a teacher, and others are teachers. If I took him out of your class and put him somewhere else, the next teacher is likely to feel the same way you do. Do me a favor. Keep this child in your class for two weeks. Let's find out what he can do. Honestly, I don't know what he can learn from you if you feel that way. I don't know what you can teach him with this kind of attitude. And I don't know anything about music; I don't even know if I made a wise decision. But let's give him two weeks and find out what goes on." Reluctantly he agreed but assured me he would be back in two weeks. A week later he came back and said, "I apologize to you. I was too harsh last week. That kid has the best attitude and attendance in the class. He is no trouble at all. He is eager to learn. I feel so ashamed; I shouldn't have rejected him that way. I am here for you to advise me on how I can help this child." For the balance of that year he was the kind of teacher who took assignments home to tape for the student. He worked with the kid productively all year, and it was a wonderful experience. I wish we had more of that type of teacher. If anyone could do the counseling, this third type of teacher would be the one, but of course, he is not the right one because he is more the counselee than the counselor. So we have now eliminated regular teachers as potential counselors.
Who, then, should do the counseling? The guidance counselor? Some of you work at the junior or senior high level. Let's not tear down guidance counselors. But you give any man five hundred counselees and a lot of paperwork, especially on the high school level, where the counselor has to make recommendations for college, deal with crises, schedule classes, advise students about courses, counsel the kids who got F's, hold parent conferences, cope with emergencies, and you have overload. In my experience regular counselors have as little to do as possible with special education as a whole, and with the blind in particular. They keep as far away from these students as they can. They don't have time, they don't have experience, and they don't know anything about the speciality. All right, in our center we have a Special Education Administrator. Maybe he should do the counseling. In many of the centers we have a hundred, a hundred-fifty handicapped children. The person in charge is getting the paperwork ready for psychologicals, making sure that the IEP's are in place, conferring with parents, and attending meetings. The director may well have no time for counseling. Just because he or she has probably majored in learning disabilities or administration, he or she is not necessarily expert in the visually handicapped either. So the special education administrator is not the person to do it.
That by default leaves you, the special ed teacher, the vision teacher; and the counseling may have to fall on you. Are you qualified to do this counseling? (Oh dear, here it comes. I have to stand before an audience and tell you why I don't feel you're qualified. I am sorry.) Some of you are undoubtedly qualified and very good. I commend you for choosing to work with the visually handicapped. Your hearts are in the right place. But some of you are itinerant teachers. You may have ten or fifteen kids in six or ten schools. Maybe some of you are luckier and see the kids more often. But it is not uncommon for the itinerant teacher to see each student one hour a week. So such a teacher sees each student thirty-six clock hours a year, assuming the following: the teacher is never sick, is never absent, does not have a biologic child who is ever sick or absent, her car never breaks down, the blind child is never sick, is never on a field trip, is never at an assembly. Do you believe that all these assumptions are going to happen? Even if they did, you have only thirty-six clock hours to work with that child. How much can you accomplish in thirty-six hours? How well can the child get to know and trust you in thirty-six hours? Not only that, but can you honestly justify to your conscience chatting with that child when he needs help with English, math, and science; when he doesn't know what to do with the homework assignment that is due; when there is a test to be administered? There are so many other pressing duties for you. Frankly, when I see a teacher chatting away a few of those thirty-six hours, I get concerned. Counseling can so easily degenerate into chatting, and there are many, many academic needs for that blind child. Counseling may not have the highest priority.
Now I come to an even more ticklish point. Let me stipulate in the beginning that I am not including any of you. In the vision field there is a rumor of a tremendous shortage. We are taking people cold who do not know the first thing about teaching the blind or visually handicapped. We are saying, "Okay, here is a class; go ahead and teach." I feel bitter about this for a number of reasons. First of all, I ache for the blind children, who need all the help they can get, and instead of a knowledgeable teacher they get somebody who is totally illiterate in their own medium. That child will not learn much.
I also feel sad because it is a poor reflection on our own society. We are told that we have a tremendous shortage of teachers of the visually handicapped, yet there are hundreds and hundreds of visually handicapped graduate students who are working on second and third degrees just to mark time because nobody will employ them. Wouldn't that blind person with three degrees be better for the blind child than someone practically taken off the street? How much more could that visually handicapped person teach that blind child? Good heavens, they could teach, not only literary Braille, but music Braille, mathematical notation, computer Braille. There is a rumor that Braille is a dying thing, and nobody needs it anymore.
This is a sellout.
This is betraying our blind population. The reason that people tell you that is frankly that they don't know Braille and they don't want to learn. So they tell the blind that Braille really does not matter. It does matter; I assure you that it does matter! I would never have gotten my degrees without it. I use records and tapes, computers, scanners, and sighted readers; but when I am really in a jam and really need to know something, I have to read it in Braille.
Another thing we have done is to take a person who sees at about five over two hundred and say that he can see some, so we aren't going to give him Braille. Never mind that he can read for only five minutes before getting tired. How many text-books is he going to cover in five minutes? Wouldn't that child be better off with Braille?
So we are getting teachers who are definitely not able to counsel with the blind because they don't know anything about the blind. They just came into the field when they were drafted. Why have we stopped taking the blind into our classrooms as resource people, where they could not only teach the blind but serve as role-models? (if we have time, I want to tell you how important role-modeling is.) We haven't taken them because we have changed the rules of the game. In their wisdom, the experts have decided that it is better for a teacher to spend half her life in the car, going from school to school, spending an hour with the kid, instead of having a resource room, where six or seven or eight children can come to her and spend all day. In that classroom the blind could have functioned, but they cannot do so when teachers are required to spend the day on the road in a car. We change the rules of the game, and then we tell the blind, "I'm sorry, you are not qualified to teach the blind."
I have applied to teach at colleges and high schools, and the argument they give me is, "How can you teach, you can't read print?" Yet nobody makes the same argument to the sighted teacher who can't read Braille. This is bad. So I tell you that many vision teachers are not qualified to do the counseling. I'm sorry; this is what I believe. Some of you in the resource room may, of course, be qualified to do this counseling. This brings me to the question of when to do the counseling. Okay, you are a resource teacher; your heart is in the right place; you have chosen the right profession; you're dedicated; you're wonderful. All right, you want to counsel the blind? When do you do it? When you have six or seven kids around, all asking for your help? When do you ever get the kid all by yourself to sit down and really counsel with him? Do any of you have that luxury?
Years ago, we had a serious problem. Somebody wanted me to counsel a blind youngster; it was an urgent thing. Do you know when I had to choose to do it? Both of us had to give up our lunch periods. We gave him another assignment, but my break was gone. Lunch is the only time a teacher can sit down privately and talk with a child. As a classroom teacher, you are not often going to have only that one kid. You cannot really expect the kid to open up, and if he does, he might get into trouble because the other kids might start teasing him about the private issues they have overheard. So we conclude that you don't have time to do the counseling.
All right then, let's send him to a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist for that matter. You know, there are teachers of the visually handicapped who seldom see a blind child, and most psychologists have never dealt with a blind child. They really don't know how to begin counseling. They want to do it, but their concept of the blind is no different from that of most of the rest of the population, and they really don't know what that kid can and can't do. The psychologist may not be any more qualified than anybody else to do the counseling, and the same goes for the psychiatrist, because he has had so little exposure to the blind. In other words, there really is nobody to do the counseling. And if there were a professional who could do it, when could it be done and where? If you are, let us say, an itinerant teacher, you are lucky if you can find a quiet place. In a library people are walking in and out. Maybe in a closet under a stairway? Maybe in a corner of the cafeteria? I've been in schools; I know what goes on. Should that child gain your trust and openly start talking to you in the cafeteria or in the library or under the stairway? There are problems with talking—where and when and who does it.
Let us assume we have found a psychologist with experience, willing to work with the blind. Who is going to pay for it? Maybe the state rehabilitation agency? If that agency pays for it, then is that counselor working for the client or for the agency? That is really an ethical problem, and I wish we had more time to go into it. When the state rehabilitation agency or another agency sends a blind client to a counselor, it is saying directly or indirectly, openly or implicitly, "Shape that blind person in our image." And knowing what I know about agencies, it is not an image I want to be shaped in. That counselor is not your agent; he is the agent of the agency, and the blind counselee will view him as such. He is going to tell the blind person to shape up, that society is right, that the system is correct, to take that chip off your shoulder. He's not working for the client because the client is not paying him. He is working for whoever is paying—in this case, the agency. I wish psychological counseling were like legal counseling, where you pay your lawyer, and he is honestly working for you, facilitating your objectives, giving you what you are trying to get, not telling you that you are messed up and you are wrong and you had better shape up.
But let us assume that we have a situation in which the parents are paying for their child's counseling and the counselor is going to be on that child's side and that he is not working directly or indirectly for any agency that potentially may be sending him other clients, when is he going to schedule the appointments? Kids in a metropolitan area like Miami have to get up at five in the morning to catch a bus at 6 so they can be in school by 7:15 or 7:30. They leave school at 2:30, and they don't get home till 4:00. Many latchkey kids, after that kind of day, go home to an empty house. When are they going to see a counselor? When do they have time, and how are they going to get there?
So far, the counseling problems we have discussed are who, where, when, and how. Now let's talk about what, and here it gets worse. I have been a blind person for a long time—since the age of nine months. And the counseling I have gone through with professionals led me for years to pray every night, "God save me from the experts." Let me tell you what I am talking about, and if I have to be personal to make a point, I will-I don't mind.
My parents grew up in a south Lebanese village. As soon as they got married, they wanted to strike out on their own, go to the land of opportunity, and really make it big—like all young people. They traveled fifty miles to the south to the port town of Haifa, in Palestine at the time. They established a home; they rented a little flat. My father got a job, and within a year of their marriage I was born. They thought that their cup of happiness was full. They had a healthy baby, a home, and a job. Things had never been better, and they had every hope that things would go from better to better. Nine months later that child was blind-totally, finally, irrevocably. They were plunged into such a depression that it took them a very, very long time to recover. They lost their appetite for food; life had no meaning. For years any time they heard about a quack anywhere in two countries, they went to see if he could help me. If they had received the right kind of professional advice, they could have saved a lot of time and money and effort and much aggravation. But they did not mind. No one had trained them to be the parents of a blind child.
They did not know anymore about it than anybody else, and their concept of blindness was that of the entire population. Just because you have a blind child, it doesn't mean that you feel different about blindness, not initially, at any rate. What were the experts telling my parents? "Oh, you're twenty-one, twenty-two; you can make another twelve kids if you want. Forget about this one, or assume he was born dead; many kids are born dead. Put him away somewhere, forget about him, and start again." That was not the kind of advice they wanted to hear. Finally an expert came and said, "Look, put him in an institution. True, it's only an asylum, but at least they will teach him some Braille." That was better advice than some we give families today. At least they did not tell my parents to forget about Braille.
Anyway, that could have been the end of the story. If I had survived in that asylum, I would still be there today. The only reason I am standing before you this morning is that my parents went to visit me there after two months. They had no degrees, they had no college education, they were not professionals, they were not even high school graduates, but they had hearts, and they allowed their hearts to guide them. They looked at that place, and they said, "This place is not for our son." They took me out. Had they not done that, I know I would still be there, and any spirit would have been crushed, even mine. My history would have been totally different. It was only because my parents allowed their hearts and minds to rule the situation that I have achieved what I have in life. This was the first pernicious counseling I received from professionals.
There are many other examples. When I began college, my teachers were so impressed that one of them came and said, "I want you to go on to graduate school in America, where there are more opportunities." He thought it would be a good idea to get some advice from the experts on blindness, so he wrote to one of the American institutions. He explained that he had a blind student who seemed to be talented and whom he wanted to help, and he got a letter from the expert which said, "We don't believe in college education for the blind. We believe that the blind should go into open industry." That man, having heard from the experts, decided, "Well, what can I do?" And that was the end of that attempt to give me greater college opportunity. God save us from the experts. I encountered another expert at about this time. I had applied to an international organization for a scholarship. It was very interested; in fact, I was the highest applicant on their list.
They ranked people, and I was number 1 in the entire population of my country, not the blind. I was certain that I was going to receive a good scholarship and be placed at a good college in America. The first year nothing happened. The second year nothing happened. By the third year I had found another way to come to this country to further my education. That international organization never came through. Upon investigating the matter after I was already here, I learned that an expert somewhere decided, without consulting me, of course, that I needed a small community, where I would be given a room and could go to college. If that had gone through, it would have been the worst thing for me because what I really needed was a huge metropolitan area, where I could draw on volunteers, where I could find resources, where there was variety. But the experts thought I needed a small community. Where they got that, I have no idea; they didn't ask me. What did I know; it was only my life. The expert advice we get is often poor advice.
Does that mean that blind people don't need counseling at all? No. We need counseling, and a lot of it. But the kind we need is more in the realm of education than psychology. When you walk around a class of blind kids, you may see one who is sitting there, rocking back and forth. His hands may be flying all over the place or he may be twirling a handkerchief. Maybe his head is shaking side to side. Do you just call the ambulance and commit him to the psychiatric hospital? In an autistic child these are indicative of deep psychological problems. Among the blind they may or may not be. The blind child with a lot of energy, having to sit still, not seeing what other people are doing, may develop these mannerisms without being aware of them. He does not need counseling that will reveal things about his grandmother. He needs for a teacher to say, "Look here, this is not acceptable behavior." Do it gently; do it firmly; do it as often as it is needed. If you have done this for a couple of years without any results, then you know that the problem may be more deep-seated. At least try the educational approach first; I have known it to work in many, many cases. Very often it is not that the blind are messed up; it is that they do not have enough information.
Maybe I should not talk about this in public, but I will anyway. Years ago I had contact with a blind student. The principal came to me saying that he was disturbed about a boy who was taking regular courses and was masturbating in class. This problem is, or can be, serious, and I was very concerned by it. It could have been indicative of serious psychological trouble. We had worked for years to build a positive image of the handicapped, and all we needed was a few incidents like this to ruin everything we had done.
I told him I would see what I could do. I did not make light of the situation. I talked to the child, who did have problems. There were some autistic tendencies. But it turned out to be that the child, who was born blind and was not particularly bright, had no idea what vision entailed. And I don't blame him; I'm not sure that I know what vision entails either. I can't be certain that any profoundly deaf person understands what hearing entails. For a deaf person it is very difficult to know what people can and cannot hear, what hearing people can and cannot do. The same is true of the blind. Vision is confusing. If the blinds are drawn, people outside can't see you, and another time with the blinds open, they can see you. If the glass is transparent, they can see you; if it is one-way, they can't. It is very difficult, particularly for a person blind from birth really to know what vision involves. After talking with that young man, I concluded that he honestly believed that because masturbation was silent, nobody could see him.
[At this point a member of the audience commented that sighted people have a hard time knowing how much a partially sighted person can see. In front of a college class a professor once indicated his surprise that she could see him at all. She commented that a tactful person would never have made such a comment in public. Dr. Haj then continued:] And how many professors talk about you as if you couldn't see them? How many of them ignore you. I wish I could tell you the number of times I have gone to a classroom that was empty because the teacher had written on the board, "I am not going to be here next week." Or "Next week is a vacation." Or "We are going to meet somewhere else next week." A good teacher would have had the courtesy to speak while he wrote. I cannot tell you how many midterms I could have done better on if I had known that the test was coming. A teacher should have the courtesy to say, "We will be covering chapters thirteen to sixteen." Such an instructor should have the courtesy to say these things even if there were no blind student in the class. But, like every other profession, not everybody is perfect.
So many of the things that seem to be in the counseling domain may not be. Many of them are more properly in the realm of teaching. For example, take a blind kid who is unkempt. His hair is always flying, and his shirt is always hanging out. Frankly, he is not very clean, and he is not brushing his teeth often enough. Is that a counseling situation? Maybe it is, but I think it is more effectively handled as an educational one.
When my own boys were teen-agers, we went through a nightmare. They wanted to buy the most expensive clothing because it carried a certain tag. Surely that was not a personal need. That was an acquired need—just to be like the other kids. It was because their peers were doing it. People learn so much from their peers. When you have a blind child who is not handling his food properly, who is not dressing himself properly, that doesn't necessarily mean that he needs a psychologist.
It may do so, but it may simply mean that he never had enough environmental clues, enough visual clues to be able to imitate accurately. He doesn't know what is involved. This is why it is appropriate for the teacher to take the time to teach him how to cut his meat, to eat spaghetti, to handle all his food. I see nothing wrong with that. If this is what he needs, then it is an appropriate educational objective.
A hundred years ago home economics was taught at home. Nobody went to school to study the subject. A girl was taught to make her dresses, set the table, and cook at home. When the need eventually arose to study home economics outside the home, students took it in school. If the blind person needs education in grooming, eating, or social behavior, why not tackle it in school—what's wrong with that? This brings me to two points. Though we may assume that we can give the blind counseling because they have all the time in the world, the truth is that they don't. A blind person who really wants to accomplish a lot has to spend much more time on his or her books than the sighted. If a teacher tells you to go to page 153 and study it, you flip to the page and begin studying. If I am using tape, and the teacher says page 153, I don't know which tape or track the page appears on. It might take me fifteen or twenty minutes to find the right place in that book. A sighted child reading that book would have a pencil handy, he can mark important passages. If I want to mark that passage, I have to play that tape again and again, writing it down in Braille a few words at a time. If you tell me that I have to spend time in counseling, too, I don't know when I am going to do it.
Have I ever had a counselor? Yes I have. I have been fortunate to have very, very good counselors. The ones who had the greatest influence on my life never said, "Come, I want to counsel with you." One of these was a nun. When I finished elementary school, I returned home, and because a war had just ended and there were no laws requiring the education of the handicapped, there was no place for me to go. My parents applied to one school after another but were told there was no place for a blind child. I was cheering the schools on because I didn't want to go to school, so I hoped my parents would just give up. But they were stubborn; they didn't.
Finally they found a Catholic school for girls which said they would take a chance as long as I never talked alone with a girl. I went to that girls' school, and I did my best. Am I glad I went there! The curriculum was English. Had I not improved my English, I don't know how I would ever have studied because English is one of the few languages in which you can get all the Braille you want. I have found that, when you are handicapped, you can turn anything to your advantage. The fact that no school would have me turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because I was able to go to that English-speaking girls' school. As a handicapped person I have found in life that it is necessary to follow the motto: if you are given a lemon, make lemonade. Turn everything you can to your advantage.
The Superior of that school was a very, very wise woman. She had perhaps completed high school, but she was one of the best educators I have ever encountered. When I had been there three years (it was one year before I was to graduate), she called me down and said, "Look, we need to talk." In those days in Israel we still took British degrees. Students received the matriculation certificate, later called the general certificate of education, both of which were issued from London. She said, "Those people don't know you. I am not sure if we can give you the matriculation certificate that is issued to everyone else. But we will give you a school certificate of completion stating that you have finished our program."
I am not an aggressive person, but there are times when a principle is involved and I surprise myself by standing up for my rights. Here I was, in the eleventh grade, talking to my school principal, who was a mother superior, and I said, "Mother you are wrong. I am not going to do that." She was rather taken aback, but she told me to go on. I said, "I have worked as hard as everybody else. A certificate of completion from you will not have the same weight as a regular national diploma from London, and I am not going to accept it. I have worked too hard."
She asked, "What do you propose that we should do?" "I think that you should write a letter saying that you have a blind student, who you think deserves to get the regular diploma, and let them make arrangements. Tell them that I can type my answers." She was the kind of counselor I respect because she was not too big to learn from a child.
She said, "You know, you have a point. Why don't I do that?" Students were supposed to take exams in three ordinary subjects and in two advanced ones. I took six ordinary level and four advanced (double the load of everybody else), and I was the only one to pass everything that year. I did get the diploma. That nun was the best kind of counselor—one who was willing to listen.
I had already met another counselor like this in elementary school. When I was in the sixth grade, I discovered that I had been retained. I couldn't understand why. I wasn't brilliant, but I wasn't that bad. So I marched off to the principal's office, knocked at the door, and asked to talk to him. I surprised myself with my boldness, but I asked him why I had been retained in the sixth grade. He explained that, because of the war then going on, he was afraid that, when I completed the seventh grade, there would be no place to send me afterward. They could not contact my parents, and they feared I would become a refugee and that I would be turned out on the streets. His concern touched me, but I said, "Sir, civil wars have been known to drag on for twenty years. If we have to face this problem in two years, why not face it in one?" I guess he thought I was not so stupid after all. He admitted that he was no wiser than I in this matter and agreed that, if this was what I wanted, I could have it.
That man had a greater influence on my life than any other educator that I have ever had. He was a totally blind man himself. Fifty years ago in Palestine he was appointed the principal of a school. Look around you here today. How many handicapped administrators do we have in Dade County, Florida? Ten percent of our educational employees (2,000 people) are employed to help the handicapped.
Where are the handicapped in important staff positions? If we want to influence the handicapped, their parents, and the legislature,"I am reminded of a song—Don't Speak of Love; Show Me." We can talk about opportunities and rights for the handicapped, and in the meantime we are employing thousands of able-bodied people to help the handicapped. But wouldn't it be more effective if we had handicapped people in high positions who could really influence decisions?
This is a disgrace! That man in a third-rate country fifty years ago was made the principal of a special school, and he had the greatest impact on all of us blind children and on our families. My parents, who knew nothing about the blind, thought that this was the worst thing that could have happened to me, until they met that man. They saw that he was married, had children, and held a job—that he was living a normal life. His example, more than any counseling, gave them the courage to go on, the conviction that something good could happen. Until they met him, they had a terrible image of the blind. One day, when I was about two, they looked out the window during lunch and saw a blind beggar. They both ran after him to try to give him something. Their lunch was never eaten that day.
It's inspiration and role-modeling in counseling that are more important than any talking we do. Actions always speak louder than words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an action is worth a million.
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