Future Reflections Sept./ Oct./ Nov.1984, Vol. 3 No. 4
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By Barbara Cheadle
There are always some things that a blind person needs, or wants, that is impossible to buy at the corner drugstore or even at the big downtown mall. A blind person cannot, for example, walk into a local stationery store and pick up some Braille paper; or get a spare cane-tip at the hardware store; or pick out a nice Braille pendant watch at the jewelers. A parent looking for toys for a blind child has fewer problems (most toys on the market are just as good for the blind child as for the sighted child). But try finding children's Braille books in your book store, or a Braille Scrabble game, a bell-ball, a tactile map of the U.S., a Braille or large print spelling game at your local toy store.
Most of us assume that somewhere, there are places that provide the blind with all the technological aids they need. However, parents of blind children may get frustrated trying to find those "places" and may be surprised, or disappointed when they find aids they never knew existed, or discover some aid they imagined ought to be, simply isn't. There are no magic technological answers for all the problems of blindness, but there are more aids and more places to get them than ever before in history. It can even be a headache of a problem for a blind adult or student to choose the right speaking or Braille computer equipment, software, programs, etc. Will you get an Apple, an IBM, a K-Pro, or something else? For those who remember what it was like a generation ago -- the blind, the parents whose blind children are now grown -- that is a happy kind of problem, indeed!
A parent a generation ago who wanted to buy a simple, wooden puzzle map of the U.S. would have had to pay a $100.00 or more for one. Mostly, though, there were very few aids (even at those prices) available to either blind children or blind adults. Blind children were not even eligible for library services from regional libraries for the blind until 1952. The author of A Handbook for the Blind, published in 1952, didn't even mention Braille watches and considered white canes controversial.
It's not that a piece of Braille paper, a Braille watch, or a Braille Scrabble game is the stuff that happy, productive lives are made of, but consider what it means to the blind to be able to get, say, a Braille watch easily and cheaply; or conversely, not to have them available at all. What if only a few were able to afford one; or for that matter, what if only a handful of the blind were to have any constructive use for one?
That's the way it was for the blind 50 year ago. There were few expectations and even fewer opportunities. Invariably, the best and happiest days of a blind person's life were those spent at the school for the blind. Life was empty after school. No job, no family of their own, no productive place in the community. The image of a blind person in a rocking chair is not just the attitudes of that day. It was how thousands of the blind quite literally spent their lives. In such a world, aids for independent living simply did not fit. Like Humpty Dumpty, the blind were broken, unfit; and nothing could put them back together again.
Attitudes slowly began to change and along with the change came and increased interest in aids and services to the blind. At first, the emphasis was on easing the "terrible plight" of the blind; giving the blind something to fill up empty hours and something to take their minds off their troubles for a while. Helen Keller, in her 1930 testimony before a congressional committee in support of the Pratt Bill (later the PrattSmoot Act which established federal funds for a national Library for the Blind) summed up the prevailing tone of the day with these words:
Books are the eyes of the blind. They reveal to us the glories of the light-filled world. They keep us in touch with what people are thinking and doing, they help us to forget our limitations. With our hands plunged into an interesting book, we feel independent and happy. Wouldn't you give anything in the world for something to make you forget your misfortune for one hour?
Today, of course, such a blatant appeal to feelings of charity and pity toward the blind would not be tolerated. We live in a different age. The blind want a good education, good jobs, equality and responsibility in the community -- not something to keep them quietly occupied and out of the way. The aids of today reflect these new expectations -- talking computers, children's canes, talking calculator/clocks, tactile toys and books for children, even beeping balls. However, in 1930 Helen Keller's words accurately represented the beliefs of her time.
Helen Keller did not act alone in 1930. She was a spokeswoman, fund-raiser, and rallying symbol of the American Foundation for the Blind. (Her relationship with the AFB was unique. She was no ordinary staff member or contract employee. It would not be inconsistent with the facts to say that the AFB practically "owned" her. She was eir greatest asset in public relations and fund ing.)
The American Foundation for the Blind had been established in 1921 as a private non-profit agency for the blind. In the 20's and 30's the AFB was a leader and pioneer in work with the blind. (That's no longer true. In fact, the American Foundation for the Blind is one of the greatest hindrances to progress that the blind face today.) In those early years however, the AFB accomplished some things for which the blind will always be grateful. It was the AFB that pioneered, for example, in the development of the talking book and Braille watches. Because of the AFB's efforts, blind people were listening to long-playing phonograph records years before they were commercially available.
By the 1950's, the American Foundation for the Blind was THE authority on blindness. They also had a monopoly on the aids and appliances business. Oh, you had the American Printing House for the Blind which served blind school aged children and some small, local outfits here and there; but the AFB was really the only show in town. It was also true that their products were overpriced, service poor, and attitudes toward the blind condescending and arrogant. But in those days no one questioned that. After all, God is not custodial or arrogant. God is God.
There was another force building in the land in the decades of the 40's and 50's that would forever change the course of history for the blind. It would impact the blind in all areas of their lives -- employment, financial aid to the blind, education, legislation, rehabilitation services, and aids and appliances for the blind as well. The National Federation of the Blind was founded in 1940. The NFB was to be the collective voice of the blind -- the blind speaking for themselves.
Many agencies for the blind welcomed the organized blind and worked harmoniously with the NFB. Others felt threatened and reacted with anger and hostility. They couldn't believe that blind people could actually manage their own lives and speak for themselves. Some of the institutions, such as the sheltered workshops for the blind, felt their pocketbooks and superiority jeapordized when the NFB came along demanding better wages, working conditions, and equal treatment for blind workers.
The hostility turned ugly. Blind people were threatened with the loss of their jobs or fired outright because they dared to join the NFB. Confidential files of blind clients were opened and exploited in an attempt to discredit blind Federationists. Finally, the National Federation of the Blind turned to Congress for help.
In 1957, John F. Kennedy (who was then a senator from Massachusetts) introduced a bill "to protect the right of the blind to self-expression through organizations of the blind." Needless to say, the hostile agencies vehemently opposed the bill. Among the agencies for the blind that lined up against the right-to-organize bill was the American Foundation for the Blind.
Though the bill was never passed, the impact of the congressional hearings and the determination of the organized blind was enough to make the agencies back off. The blind did win in fact, if not by legislation, the right to organize and be heard.
All of this has relevance to the topic of aids to the blind. By the 1970's the blind were simply no longer willing to buy a cane, and custody with that cane.
The blind began to have some alternatives when the Iowa Commission for the Blind, under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, began marketing a superior solid fiber-glass, metal tipped cane. Then came the hollow fiber-glass cane. Its lighter weight made it more desirable than the solid cane, and soon the NFB took over its production and distribution. Today, the NFB has some 80 per cent of the cane market. The NFB sells the straight fiber-glass cane, the NFB III telescoping cane and children's canes. The canes are the best on the market and the cheapest.
In the 1970's, Independent Living Aids stepped into the picture and gave the blind an alternative in all other kinds of aids and appliances. Independent Living Aids has since declined and other companies, such as Aids Unlimited, have taken a good share of the market. The AFB still sells aids and appliances, but the service is only a shadow of its former size and dominance.
The AFB's custodialism and the competitive alternatives to the AFB were not the only factors in their demise in the aids and appliances business. Another reason was graphically illustrated when talking clocks first came on the market. The AFB offered the talking clock at $90.00 -- about the highest retail price possible. The NFB made a deal for some talking clocks and started selling them for $80.00, and the promise to drop the price as soon as possible. The price was dropped -- several times. The price was first cut from $80.00 to $68.00, then to $58.00, and finally to $45.00. The AFB went out of the talking clock business. One wonders why the AFB -- a national non-profit organization -- couldn't have found a way to give the blind consumer a better deal. Maybe it says something about management or ethics or both.
Some of the problems we face in the 80's regarding aids for the blind are variations on the problems faced 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, attitudes about blindness stifled the development of aids. Today, negative attitudes encourage the proliferation of the ridiculous. For example, there is a six or eight handled mug for the blind. The thing has handles sprouting out all over it! One wonders if the inventor believed that the blind grow six hands to compensate for the lack of sight! Then there are the special, nonskid snowshoes for the blind, special shower attachments and the "bird call" signals for the blind at street crossings. There is even an elaborate, expensive -- and totally useless -- electronic travel guidance system at the University of New Mexico.
These so called "aids" only hinder the progress of the blind. They are unnecessary and unwanted. Worse, they continue to perpetuate the myth of the helpless blind. They take money and attention away from the development of really helpful aids -- such as talking computers or computerized Braille printers. If only the inventors of these gadgets would first consult the organized blind and find out what is really needed and wanted.
Money, along with technology, is another factor we face in this decade as we attempt to close the gap between what is available to the sighted and what is available to the blind. The market is simply not big enough to make it profitable for most businesses to research, develop and market aids for the blind. That's why the development of aids can lag so far behind the technology, and why prices are often so outrageously high. It's also why non-profit agencies get involved with aids and appliances. Non-profit organizations can help keep prices down and encourage the development of new aids. The NFB, for example, helped promote the development of the reading machine, kept prices down on talking clocks and calculators, offers aids and appliances to members and other blind individuals at cost and engages in other activities to promote the availability of affordable aids.
Despite the problems, the blind have it better than ever before. They have the opportunity to shop around for the best product at the best price. The blind also have the knowledge and opportunity to ask questions. Does this company or agency have a positive, progressive philosophy about blindness? Does their treatment of the blind in their literature, hiring practices and fund-raising rhetoric reflect that positive attitude? And it's important for the users of these services to ask these questions. After all, if an organization provides a useful service -- say, the production of Braille books -- but are custodial and demeaning in their attitudes toward the blind, what does that tell the public about blindness and how the blind should be treated? Obviously the public will consider such service providers to the blind as the "experts," and take their cues from them. And if the "experts" are wrong, who is going to correct them? The public? Their fellow professionals? Of course not. The blind, and parents on behalf of their blind child, must take the responsibility of "watchdogging" the agencies, institutions, and companies that provide aids and services to the blind.
Over the past couple of years, the NFB and specifically the NFB of Kentucky, has been doing just that with an organization that has special significance to blind children -- the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). The APH is the agency through which federal funds for educational materials for blind children are funneled. Since 1879, blind school-age children have been entitled -- through their school -- to educational materials (such as Braille writers, Braille and large-type textbooks, etc.) from APH. APH also produces other Braille and recorded matter for any group (such as the Library of Congress) that wishes to contract to buy from them.
But fewer and fewer groups are doing that. The APH is no longer the highly respected, non controversial agency it once was. Here's the facts. As of March 31, 1983 there were 479 employees at APH; only 13 of those were legally blind. None of the blind workers held secretarial, clerical or managerial positions. Most of the legally blind staff are Braille proofreaders (APH management felt that blind people were not "versatile" enough to handle jobs in the printing plant). The APH has sent out fundraising letters that were as one blind man put it, "Simply awful." They characterized the blind as helpless and pathetic. There have been other problems, too. Scandals of conflicts of interest, lost contracts, and staff reductions.
The services and materials the APH can offer to blind children and adults are important. But what good is it if they are giving these important services with one hand, then snatching the benefits away with the other? It's like they are helping the blind take one step forward by providing necessary educational materials, then pushing the blind back two steps by denying them employment opportunities and perpetuating the myth of the helpless blind.
We cannot stand by and see the good APH -- or any agency -- can do destroyed by their own limited view of the capabilities of the blind. The National Federation of the Blind has been talking and negotiating with the American Printing House for the Blind, but progress has been slow.
In the National Federation of the Blind, we often say that the real problem of blindness is not the physical loss of sight, but the public attitudes about blindness. Some people would like to see blindness as only a technological problem. They point to all the new "fabulous" technological aids as the magic solution to the problems of the blind. Well, it isn't that way and it never has been. Attitudes and expectations are the key. History tells us that; experiences today reaffirms it. Blindness does mean the need for alternative or adapted tools as well as alternative techniques. But aids for the blind must always be kept within their proper perspective lest they become stumbling blocks instead of stepping stones to progress.
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