Future Reflections Fall 1991

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BLINDNESS AND THE USE OF PARTIAL VISION

by Alfred P. Maneki, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: Reprinted from the August, 1989, Braille Monitor, this article is based on a speech Dr. Maneki, a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, gave at an NFB seminar for parents of blind children.

Despite what some have said about the National Federation of the Blind, we are not opposed to the desire of blind people to use the vision they possess, assuming that they employ it effectively and that they have acquired alternative techniques which they can use when it is more efficient to do so. Braille, cane travel, typing, and good listening habits are not inferior skills, and we should be trained to use them when our sight is inadequate to do the job at hand. The problems arise when the blind person who has not been properly trained is forced to rely on clearly inadequate partial vision rather than the alternative techniques of blindness which are more efficient.

The educational system, when I was a child as well as today, always does what is easiest and will do more only when concerned and informed parents insist on the most appropriate training for their children.

I grew up before the development of modern computer technology and before Public Law 94-142 and IEP's. At that time most children, even the "partially sighted," were sent to the school for the deaf and blind. I know now that this was a typically repressive school in many ways with extremely negative attitudes about blindness. We were neither instructed nor encouraged in cane travel. Shop classes, cooking classes, and recreational activities were minimal. We were never challenged intellectually. There was an emphasis on music, which did nothing for my musical inabilities. I am sure that our teachers felt sorry for us and did not think we would amount to much in our lives.

And yet all children in the "blind department" were taught to read Braille and to write it with slate and stylus. We were admonished constantly: "Don't use your eyes! They'll go bad!" It was easier back then for the system to teach Braille to all of us. The school for the blind had to teach Braille anyway. Braille books were available in relatively greater numbers than they are today. All but a very few blind and visually impaired children were sent to the school for the blind anyway. Who bother with large print?

Today, the situation has been reversed. Braille is the bother. "Why teach Braille if you don't have to and if the parents will let you get away with not doing so?" I am convinced that if I were a child growing up in Howard County, Maryland, today, tests would show that I could read large print. Forget about reading and writing efficiently! These tests would be used to convince my parents that I really didn't need Braille after all. Here again, though, it would never be acknowledged; the primary consideration would be the convenience of the teachers and administrators. Video technology makes enlargement of print much cheaper than Braille, and teaching print reading is more familiar, so never mind the eyestrain, the slowness, or the relative lack of portability of the equipment.

Inevitably, children grow up and must conduct their lives with whatever training or lack of training they have received. I was very fortunate to have learned Braille in my childhood and acquired other alternative techniques later. I was able to take notes with slate and stylus in my college classes. I had developed good listening habits and could use recorded materials and readers effectively. I was able to prepare for graduate level exams, write a Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, teach college mathematics, and find rewarding employment in government service, none of which could I have pulled off if I had had only large print at my command.

Here is my advice to parents and partially-sighted students. Never let your school system off the hook. Demand alternative techniques when they are not offered. Insist upon large print if it would help. Make the system work to your advantage by requesting as many alternative techniques as are really useful and efficient. Do not allow yourselves to be convinced by the so-called "experts on blindness" that it is simply beyond the capacity of the partially blind child to learn both Braille and print. It isn't true. Most important, cultivate positive attitudes about your child or yourself as a blind person, and develop proficiency in the skills of blindness that will allow competent performance.

How does one use partial vision, and when is it useful? Every individual is best able to answer these questions personally and should have the training and good sense to know that relying entirely on vision when it is insufficient is foolish. Here is a sample of instances when I find my eyesight useful:

* Writing on a blackboard. I learned delivering college lectures that I could write on a blackboard even though I could not see what I had written. Here earlier training with large print would have been most helpful.

* Traveling without using a cane. Although I do not always absolutely need to use a cane, there are times when it is necessary. Some years ago I stopped wasting time trying to anticipate when I might need it. I decided to use it all the time, and I now have one less thing to worry about. With experience and competence with a cane one outgrows self-consciousness about blindness.

* Identifying paper currency. Although I cannot do this rapidly, it is a convenience when I am given change for a purchase.

* Reading labels. This is useful for identifying canned goods, but not much more.

* Reading large print on a computer terminal. This is moderately useful when working with computer program code, which tends to be concisely written.

* Distinguishing junk mail from bills and personal correspondence. This is helpful, but not essential.

* Looking at my Braille watch, rather than reading it with my index finger.

The list could go on, but I think my point is clear.

My parents and teachers never really believed that Braille, the white cane, using readers efficiently, and typing would enable me to be successful in life. Nevertheless, I was taught these skills; and although they were started later than was ideal, they have helped me more than the limited sight that I have and use some of the time.

I owe whatever understanding I have of myself and of blindness largely to my involvement in the National Federation of the Blind. Through its teachings and in its practices, the NFB has given me a sense of well-being and completeness that I could not have achieved alone. The NFB is not a cult, as some misguidedly and ignorantly claim. Instead, the NFB represents a powerful and effective effort by the blind to correct the ills and injustices of a frequently misguided society, and all are invited to join in our quest for freedom.

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