Future Reflections Spring/ Summer1987, Vol. 6 No. 2

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GROWING UP BLIND: IS THERE ANYONE LIKE ME WHO CAN HELP?

by Kennan Cole and Homer Page

(This article is reprinted, with permission, from THE JOURNAL OF EXPERIENIAL EDUCATION, Summer, 1986 issue.)

The future is very uncertain for any young person. It is especially uncertain for a young blind person. There was a movie made for television entitled, "Up From Darkness". It told the story of a blind college student's struggle to be accepted by a medical school. One scene in the film came after the student had been rejected by over 200 medical programs. The young blind man had gone back to his parents' home for a holiday. In frustration he had run out of their house into the yard. His father went out to talk to him. The blind student asked his father if he thought he could be a doctor. His father answered yes, that he thought he could, but he didn't think he would ever get the chance.

The self-doubt that rejection engenders and the hopelessness which follows in the wake of frustrating attempts to fulfill one's potential are well stated in this dramatic scene. Young blind persons need some direction in dealing with setting life goals, realistically assessing their own potential, and managing both socially imposed limitations and their response to those limitations. It is most important that they have the opportunity to interact with, and learn from, adult blind persons who can be effective role models for blind youth. The real life story upon which the film discussed above was based on a happy ending. The student was admitted to a medical school as a special student. He graduated and is now a practicing psychiatrist. Youth need to know that adult blind persons do become successful.

In the following sections of this essay the authors shall discuss the way in which one National Federation of the Blind program, The March on Washington, provides a context for blind youth and adults to interact, and for blind adults to model important behavior for the youth that are participating in the program. We shall also reflect on our own experiences with role models and identify some of the key aspects involved in effective role modeling. We are also concerned with the way in which the blind youth work with the blind adults to achieve common goals. Kennan Cole is 17 years old. He is a junior at Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has been blind from birth. He has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1983.

Homer Page is 44. He has been blind from birth. He currently teaches in the College of Education and directs the Office of Services to Disabled Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a member of the Boulder City Council, and he is First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado.

I. THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON

Over the last several years the National Federation of the Blind has been increasingly concerned with the importance of bringing young blind people into contact with blind adults. Seminars have been held around the country sponsored by the NFB for the sighted parents of blind children, and a publication entitled Future Reflections has been established to aid parents of blind children. The NFB has established a Student Division which seeks to involve blind students in issues of importance to them. But the important activities that bring blind youth and adults together are the regular activities of the Federation. One of the programs which lends itself well to the involvement of youth with adults is the program that we call the March on Washington.

The National Federation of the Blind is a consumer organization. It was founded in 1940 to assist blind people achieve greater security, opportunity, and equality. It now has over 50,000 members. There are affiliates in each state, as well as the District of Columbia. The headquarters for the national organization is located in Baltimore, Maryland. The Federation actively lobbies with Congress and state legislatures around the nation. It also frequently becomes involved with issues that affect the education and rehabilitation of the blind.

Each year in early Febuary, the NFB organizes the March on Washington. Over 200 persons from 35-40 states gather in the nation's capital for several days to visit members of Congress and speak with them about issues of importance to NFB members and to the nation's blind population.

A briefing is held on Sunday evening prior to going to the Capitol. The issues that will be presented to the Congress are reviewed. Questions are asked and answered, and materials about the NFB and fact sheets which present relevant information concerning the issues under discussion are distributed.

Prior to the March, members from delegations make appointments with their state Congressional delegation. After the briefing, each state delegation meets to review the schedule of appointments, assigns NFB members to meet with their representatives, and once again review the issues to ensure that each person has a good grasp of issues and procedures.

First time delegates are paired with more experienced persons. Schedules are checked and travel directions are given. Often leaders of each state affiliate will speak individually with first time delegates, and especially with youth, to help them feel more certain that they can communicate effectively with members of Congress and Congressional staff persons in the days ahead.

Early Monday morning of the week of the March the NFB members spread out to the Senate and House office buildings to visit with the Congress. But for the first time delegate, especially the very young delegate, this is an awesome experience. The young person experiences first-hand the sense of independence and competence associated with traveling with other blind persons through the city and Capital complex, successfully locating Congressional offices, and carrying on discussions of importance with the members of the Congress.

After a day on the Hill the delegates return to the hotel for an evening of debriefing. The events of the day are discussed, and participants are asked to make written reports about their visits with each Senator or Representative that they have seen.

This routine is repeated until all the members of Congress have been contacted. Data is then compiled. Those Congress people who are supporting legislation or who are willing to sponsor or cosponsor NFB legislation are noted. Those who should be recontacted or provided additional information are identified. Assignments are made to those who should do this followup.

The March on Washington provides the context in which adult blind persons may act as role models for blind youth. We shall now turn to a discussion of why such role modeling is important, how we have personally experienced both positive and negative role modeling, and how the March on Washington actually functions to permit the interation between adults and youth, which is needed for role modeling.

II. KENNAN COLE: BLIND ADULTS CAN HELP

I have been blind from birth. During the early years of my schooling I attended the Kansas School for the Blind. But for most of the years of my education I have attended public school.

I did not know any adult blind people until I became active with the National Federation of the Blind. This occured when I was 14 years old. It has been one of the most important things ever to happen to me. Before I met adult blind people, I knew that I was smart and that I could accomplish things in my life, if I would ever get the chance, but I had no idea of what I could really do. I thought about running a clothing store, but I didn't know what that meant. Now I know I would like to be active in public affairs. I would like to be a lobbyist or a director of govermental affairs for an organization seeking to affect public policy.

When I was in the seventh grade I had a biology class. It had a lab. I wanted to participate in that lab, but the teacher didn't think that I could. I accepted her opinion, although I felt badly about it. The other kids told me I was lucky because I didn't have to do the work. Deep down inside however, I knew that I was being left out and I wondered if my whole life would be like that. Later I had a chance to discuss this with blind adult members of the NFB. They told me that I should have participated in the lab. Some of them told me how they had taken a biology course, and done the lab work. The next year I took a weight exercise course in Physical Education. The coach didn't want me to work out in the weight room. He was afraid I would get hurt. I talked with my friends in the NFB, and they told me I could take the class. That gave me the confidence that I needed; so I told the principal and the coach that I wanted to take the course, and that I intended to do it. They stopped trying to keep me out of it. I took it and of course, I wasn't hurt. I really felt good about that. I felt that I could be like the other kids.

I have attended two Marches on Washington. I felt almost intimidated at first. There were so many people, and they were all talking about things I didn't understand very well. But they were nice to me, and told me just to listen and I would learn what to do. The first night we went over the issues that would be discussed with the Congress the next day. I was assigned to a team which would be working together to visit with the Colorado Congressional representatives. I was a little scared, but my team leader made me feel at ease.

The next day we began our visits. I had never been very independent as a traveler I would take help whenever it was offered by a sighted person. But those people travelled without help. They made me realize how important it was to be independent. I really learned a lot about the issues that were important to blind people, and I learned a lot about myself. I had wondered if blind people were very important, and if we were a little foolish going to Washington to ask for legislation. I had thought that we might be ignored or laughed at. But we were recieved with courtesy, and even sometimes with interest. I left Washington feeling that we had done a good job, and that I had the right to expect to be taken seriously.

I have thought a lot about what my involvement with the National Federation of the Blind has meant to me. I know I would not have done as well in school, or learned as much because I would not have demanded that I take part in everything. I know I wouldn't be as independent as I am now. I know that as I grow up I will have to deal with discrimination, but I know that I can get help when I need it.

If it were not for the NFB I would not have met blind adults. I have never met one through school. I would be a lot worse off if I had not gotten to know the blind persons I now know. They have told me many things that I need to know. But it isn't what they have told me that is most important. The most important things have been what they have done, things such as travelling independently, working at intresting jobs, and standing up against discrimination, and having normal lives that give me a lot of hope for my future. I know my life won't be easy, but I believe I will be successful because I know other people who are leading successful lives as adults.

III. ROLE MODELING: THE MEANING OF BLINDNESS: HOMER PAGE

I am blind. I am now 44 years of age. I have been blind since birth.

Members of my family have been blind over several generations, I remember wondering if some curse hung over us. I rejected such thoughts at an early age, but for many blind persons the question, "Why me?" haunts them. the negative attitudes which they feel towards themselves, and that their blindness represents some deep dark tragedy.

A few years ago I recieved a call from a guidence counselor who worked at a near by junior high school. He told me that he had a blind student who was behaving difficultly. The student was experiencing a great deal of anger about his blindness which related to his inability to observe the sexual development of the young women, which was the predominant topic of conversation among his male peers.

It was my opinion that at the bottom of all this was a sincere feeling on the part of the blind student that he was not loveable, and that no women would ever want him. He did not believe that a normal adult life was an option for him. My suggestion to the counselor was that he introduce the student to a family with an adult blind member so that the student could begin to learn that blind persons do lead normal adult lives. They have families, careers, and successful social and community involvements. Such insight can only come as young blind persons actually observe blind adults functioning in adult roles. This issue becomes more acute as mainstreaming places blind children in school settings where they do not come in contact with other blind persons, especially blind adults.

At the base of a blind person's struggle for self-actualization is a continuing need to affirm oneself against the hard wall of prejudice that is so very much a part of one's every day life. It is this ignorant, condescending reality that saps the strength and warps the will of many blind persons. In some cases a blind person may never be challenged to perform because those around him or her may have only the lowest expectations of his or her ability. When this situation occurs the blind person may settle for a limited set of life accomplishments. He or she may accept the assessment of others that she or he can do little, and consequently never attempt to achieve standards of performance in her or his education, work, or social life that would apply if she or he were sighted.

The scenario is diffrent for many other blind persons. These people refuse to accept the judgement that they are inferior. They rebel against that judgement. The struggle which they commit to is one that endures for a lifetime.

The first dimension of this stuggle is the need to acknowledge and to accept the reality that, as a blind person, one must perform more effectively than one's sighted colleagues in order to achieve equal recognition, and the higher the goals of the blind individual the more true is this axiom. No matter how successful the blind person may be, each new step upward requires one to prove all over again that he or she is competent. Too many people accept a lower level of success and quit trying to fulfill their potential. Blind and sighted alike are comfortable with the limited success that the blind person may achieve. It is so easy to believe that even the most mediocre level of success is "amazing," but the question nags at one, "If I were not blind, could I have done more?" The answer is always "yes." The question follows, "Did I quit too soon?" In the answer to this question lies one's integrity and hope for the future. For we all quit too soon, but some try again.

How can an adult blind person be an effective role model? In order to be an effective role model an adult blind person must be able to acknowledge the reality in an effective and dignified way, while minimizing the personal psychic costs, and he or she must demonstrate that success is possible for someone who is blind even though real barriers do exist.

The March on Washington provides many opportunities for role modeling. The March is planned and conducted by blind persons. Its efficient operation, high quality briefings, well formulated position papers, and generally good reception from the members of congress and their staff demonstrate to the blind youth in no uncertain terms that blind persons can function as very effective adults.

The subject matter of the issues under discussion; protection from discrimination in the acquiring of insurance, inclusion under the Civil Rights coverage afforded other minority groups, and payment of minimum wage to blind persons employed in sheltered workshops vividly remind the blind youth of the reality of the world that he or she must face. But the active, articulate presentaion of these issues in the halls of Congress is also a reminder that there are effective strategies for combatting a diminished life. One can actually play an important part in shaping one's own future, and can do it in an effective and dignified way.

Few issues are more important to a blind person than is independent travel. The Capitol complex, with its many levels, underground rail shuttle, changing office configurations, and large crowds present the blind person with ample opportunity to demonstrate his or her travel skills. In order to travel well a blind person must have the confidence to move assertively in space. The independent travel of blind persons is probably the most unsettling behavior of blind persons for those who are sighted. They often worry about the safety of the blind individual. They will be overly helpful. This may create conflict between the blind person who wishes to be independent and the sighted person who wishes to be helpful. The situation is complicated by the genuine need which the blind traveller may have for information while moving around the Capitol complex.

The behavior which must be modeled by the blind adult from which the youth may learn requires confidence and maturity. When asking for information the blind person must be direct, polite and careful not to imply the need for more assistance than is being requested. Negotiating this interface with the sighted world in a dignified, polite and effective manner provides the youth with a learning experience of great worth.

IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS:

We treat young blind persons as if they would never grow up. I have heard parents and teachers say, "What will become of him or her?" The negative beliefs that are generally held about blindness and blind people make parents and teachers alike fearful for the future of the blind child. This fear is often turned against the adult blind person who is viewed as a threat. The adult blind person is a reminder that the child will grow up, and will have to make a life in his/her own. The parent or teacher must let go. The child cannot be protected from the prejudice, the condescension, and the sighted world's evaluation of the worth of the child that awaits as she or he passes into adulthood.

Many blind children with ability, or even with average intelligence, are told, "You are different. You are not like them. You do not need a cane nor do you need to learn braille. Those things will make you appear blind." We know well a blind youth who has very limited vision. His special education teacher had discouraged him from using a cane even though he would be a more effective traveller if he did. Adult blind persons convinced him that he should use a cane. When he went to his special education class carrying a cane, his teacher, a caring sincere person, told him that she had failed. In her eyes he had slipped into the status of being blind. She had hoped to save him from that fate. But he was blind. That fate was already determined. What was not determined was how he would learn to accomodate to his blindness.

He needed to build a solid identity for himself as a blind person, and he needed to learn to use alternative techniques that would allow him to compete with his sighted peers. He is now a successful college student with a promising future in the computer field. This young person has also participated in the March on Washington, and has made important growth toward adulthood as the result of adult role models.

We know blind persons who were told that their rather average achievements were truly outstanding. This too is a form of overprotection. Those persons are now adrift in the world of adult rsponsibilities and realities. Such inappropriate feedback can be offset by contact with competent adults who can challenge young blind persons and can give honest, realistic feedback. This may be hard for the sighted parent or teacher who at bottom does not believe the youth can compete, and would protect him/her from that brutal fact as long as possible. But the youth will grow up and the world will be hard and those able to cope will survive, and those not able to cope will live lives of quiet desperation.

Finally, one last thing must be said. Many parents and teachers of blind children fear the conflict that blind persons introduce into the picture when they become involved. They do not want to be told how to raise their children. They do not want to lose them to a world of blind adults. They do not want to be reminded that their child is blind. And most of all they do not want to challenge the education and rehabilitation establishment. The professional establishment promises that everything will be all right, and that they need not worry. Blind adults working through the National Federation of the Blind promise only sincere and competent support in a continuing struggle for selfhood in a world that will require much and give little.

Blind adults and blind youth are bound together in spite of efforts of parents, teachers, or even blind youth themselves to deny this reality. Programs which bring blind youth and adults together are of major importance to the future opportunities of these youth to live fulfilling, successful, and truly productive lives.

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