Braille Monitor                                                                    August/September 2006


Save the Fire

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred Schroeder

From the Editor: Wednesday morning, July 5, 2006, Dr. Fred Schroeder, who serves as president of the NFB of Virginia and who had just been elected first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, came to the platform to deliver the following speech:

The great author Elie Wiesel once wrote of a poet who was asked to name the one item that he would save from his home were it ever to catch on fire. The poet answered that he would save the fire, for without fire life would not be worthwhile.

We have just heard from the directors of our three orientation centers. While each is unique, they share a common bond, a common purpose, a common driving force--something more than a common curriculum or common teaching methodology--they share a philosophy, a passion for what they do, and an unshakable belief in the ability of blind people to live normal, productive lives. They share the fire--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind.

We have adopted the name "structured discovery" to describe what we do and to differentiate it from the conventional approach to blindness training, but we could as easily call it the "National Federation of the Blind method." For structured discovery is a teaching methodology, but it is also a philosophy. It begins with high expectations and is rooted in the belief that blind people can learn to travel, learn to read and write, learn to cook and clean, and participate fully in society.

Of course conventional programs say that they too have high expectations and that they too believe that blind people can learn to be independent and participate in society. They use the same words, but they do not mean what we mean. Of course the idea of words having more than one meaning is not new. Several years ago I came across a number of newspaper headlines that, intentionally or not, carried double meanings, double interpretations, making the point that the same words can convey more than one message. Here are a few examples:

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Drunks Get Nine Months in Violin Case
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Words with more than one meaning. Sometimes the double meaning is intentional, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is merely entertaining, and sometimes it is gravely serious. We in the National Federation of the Blind speak of independence; other programs do as well. We talk of helping blind people live productive lives, and so do they. But we know that using the same words is not enough. It does not mean that conventional programs believe what we believe. Let me read to you a number of statements taken from the literature of various adult blindness training programs from across the country. Some are statements taken from the brochures of our centers, and some are taken from the brochures of conventional programs, among them some of the least effective. See if you can tell them apart.

1. We are "committed to the concept of the independence of blind people and to promoting the belief in their ability to lead independent lives."
2. We "help people who are blind...learn how to function independently and to live full, productive lives with dignity and respect."
3. "We teach the skills that blind people need to become independent and employable."
4. We are "committed to a strong, positive, constructive philosophy concerning blindness."
5. We provide "an environment of hope and encouragement for people who are blind."
6. "Underlying all instruction is the belief that education and rehabilitation are much more than the simple teaching of skills."

So there you have it. Six statements of hope, six statements of belief in the ability of blind people. The words of the most effective indistinguishable from the words of the most repressive. In our centers we teach Braille, we teach cane travel, and these days we teach computer technology. But of course so do they. Conventional programs also teach Braille and cane travel and computer technology. And they tell us that they push their students and have high expectations for them. They tell us that they do what we do, that there is no difference. Our good friend and longtime Federationist Dr. Ruby Ryles calls this the "we-do-that syndrome."

So is there a difference? Of course there is. The difference is that we mean it when we say we believe in blind people; we mean it when we say we believe that, given training and opportunity, blind people can live normal lives on terms of equality with others. The difference lies, not in the words themselves, but in what is meant by the words; it is the fire behind the words, the fire within the words--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind.

That is why what we do works. We change blind people's lives--not just a few and not just occasionally, but person after person, day after day. But instead of seeking to understand, seeking to learn, conventional programs try to explain away their poor results. They say that our success comes from the fact that we pick and choose who we take; they say we accept only the most promising, the most motivated, the most likely to succeed, while they, on the other hand, work with all blind people, not just the best and the brightest.

They tell us that their clients have many problems in addition to blindness that limit their ability, that if they worked with only the highest-functioning blind people, they would have the same success we have. What a sad yet revealing way of thinking! Not only is it untrue, it shows that they believe that true independence--the possibility of living an integrated, productive life--is for only the exceptional blind person, the select few, the blind person with the greatest potential unhampered by other disabilities. But of course that is not true, and we do not pick and choose. Our centers work with all blind people because we believe in all blind people, because our centers share the fire--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind.

Tiffany Lozono lost her vision as a result of a brain injury that also caused impaired mobility requiring her to use a wheelchair. The brain injury also affects her short-term memory and has left her with an intermittent speech disorder. Tiffany is a recent graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind and now lives independently and works as a blindness technology trainer.

James Ard worked at Grambling University for twenty-two years before losing his sight to the complications of diabetes. In addition to blindness James experienced numerous related health problems. After graduating from the Louisiana Center for the Blind, James returned to his former position as a senior business manager at Grambling.

Craig Roisum is a graduate of BLIND, Inc. Craig is deaf-blind, is a former national scholarship winner, and is now in school working on a degree in geophysics. In the meantime, he performs contract work in the heating and cooling industry.

And there are many others. We have had students who use wheelchairs, students with traumatic brain injuries, students with shunts, students who stutter, students with cognitive disabilities, students with learning disabilities, students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, students who are deaf-blind, and students who are double and even triple amputees. And we have worked with at least one child of whom I am aware who has Asperger syndrome, a condition similar to autism.

Our success cannot be explained away by claims that we take only the elite, the super blind; but more to the point, what we do cannot be replicated without an understanding of what it is that makes our centers different from other programs, without recognizing that what sets us apart, what makes us successful is our belief in blind people, our high expectations. It is the fire--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind.

Yet the we-do-that syndrome persists. Lacking the fire, they look to the mechanics--the things that seem to be different in our approach. They know that we believe in using blindfolds. They know we use long canes--canes much longer than the convention. Yet without trying to understand the why, they mimic the procedures. Then they say that they use blindfolds too, not with everyone, but with a few; and they use longer canes, not with everyone, but with those who they decide need them. So now they are just like us--no difference.

At best such a view is naive. At worst it is dishonest and harmful. It implies that we are dogmatic while they are open to many approaches, that we treat everyone the same while they adapt to individual needs, that we force everyone to accept our beliefs and methods while they respect individual choice, the right of people to select for themselves which teaching method is best. It allows them to be self-satisfied and smug, professional and superior, and it allows them to avoid facing the simple fact that what we do works--not just for a few and not just for the elite, but for the ordinary blind person. It allows them to continue doing what they are doing without the need for self-examination or comparison; and it allows them to ignore the striking difference in results between our approach and theirs.

What conventional programs do not understand--will not understand--is that what has made us effective is our conviction; it is our passion; it is the fire--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind. It is the fire that makes the difference. Our success comes from putting into practice what we believe, putting into practice our commitment, our collective energy, and imagination; it comes from encouraging all blind people, those with additional disabilities and those without, the old and the young, the motivated and the unmotivated.

That does not mean that every conventional program is bad. Some are better than others, and a handful are quite good. A few are working hard to change, and I hope others will follow. But those who truly want to change, want to make a real difference need to understand that a passing effort is not enough, lip service is not enough, and claims that they do what we do does not make it so. Meaningful change takes commitment and, most important, the openness and willingness to learn what it is that makes us successful.
The structured discovery method--the National Federation of the Blind method--is our philosophy put into action. It is the expression of our belief in blind people, and it is the depth of that belief, the passion, the fervor, the intensity of that belief. It is the fire--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind. No worthy or unworthy, no one cast aside or left behind, no chosen elite, no select few.

To continue the progress, to meet the challenges ahead, to remain true to ourselves, we must strive continually to deepen our commitment and strengthen our shared belief in the ability of blind people. Said another way, we must work together to save the FIRE--the fire that is the National Federation of the Blind--for, as Elie Wiesel's poet so wisely observed, without the fire, life would not be worthwhile.