by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. He was working on his dissertation in agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he changed directions and decided to pursue a career as a teacher of the blind.
In this article he discusses a long-running debate about blind people pursuing careers working with the blind and exposes interesting contradictions in what we say and feel about the value of the field and the motivations of those who work in it. Is educating and rehabilitating the blind important enough that this is where we should direct some of our most capable people, or do we reflect the widely held view in America that "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." In addition, we are similarly divided when it comes to when people should enter the field. One line of thought has been that blind people should first work in a field that has little or nothing to do with blindness, show that they can be successful, and then come to work with the blind. In this way they can speak with authority to say that blind people can compete in the private and public sectors. The argument on the other side is that teaching is a learned skill and that one can't just transition into the blindness field without specialized training, the kind that is usually gotten by young people who select the field when deciding a college major. Here is Justin's perspective on this issue:
Many of us may think that, if we want good oranges and can go anywhere to buy them, the place to go is Florida. However, in agricultural economics the "oranges principle" teaches us that high-quality products are disproportionately shipped out of the regions where they are produced. The price of shipping a high-quality orange is the same as the price of shipping a low-quality orange. The price to the consumer has to absorb the cost of the shipping; if people have to pay more for any orange because of shipping costs, they might as well buy high-quality oranges. In the namesake example we learn that the high-quality oranges, relative to the low-quality oranges, are disproportionately shipped out of Florida.
Today, young people in the organized blind movement have a culture discouraging the most competent among us from entering careers in the blindness field. I knew this to be the case long before I chose to enter the field, and I must admit that I was a part of perpetuating that culture at one time. My fellow Federationists were consistently thrilled to learn that I was studying in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) area and were always willing to support me. I had become socially conditioned so that, when I met young blind people interested in working in the blindness field, I quickly asked if they had considered any other opportunities outside it. In mainstream society, if we meet someone who plans to get a job at McDonald's, we do the same thing: we ask if they have any bigger plans. If we meet someone in medical school, we don't ask. We are not nearly as compelled to push that person to fulfill a greater potential. This demonstrates some widely held value judgments about working at McDonald's and working as a medical doctor. It was not so long ago that I was telling other blind students that they could do better than becoming a Braille teacher.
I knew that this cultural phenomenon existed, but I had to face it myself when I transitioned into the blindness field. This prompted my investigation into the causes of that culture, and I have written this article to outline the results of my investigation. I must thank Dick Davis and the Employment Committee of the National Federation of the Blind, a committee on which I am proud to serve, for acting as a solid sounding board and providing me with some of the concepts I describe today.
We have gone through several historical phases in employment for the blind. At first we had blind people living in blind guilds, doing all we could to survive together, maybe caning chairs or singing to make a little money. The concept of blind people holding competitive, integrated jobs was nowhere on the horizon. Then we went into the sheltered workshop era, where blind people were often employed in facilities with other disabled people, frequently making subminimum wages and being supervised by the sighted. Opportunities for advancement were almost zero, and the thought that this should be otherwise was ridiculed as fanciful if not downright foolish. As bad as it was, blind people at least had jobs.
Then we started seeing blind people working as the greeters at the state agencies serving the blind. Blindness did not need to be hidden anymore, and people entering the agency buildings could feel good to see a blind person doing something. Soon enough blind people began holding jobs as assistants to blindness professionals and then as low-level human service professionals. Here we were able to say that we were working in the blindness field, though we were not the highly skilled blindness professionals that the National Blindness Professional Certification Board certifies today.
After this phase we began seeing an increase in the employment of the blind in many fields, though technical ones like engineering and medicine still saw smaller gains than fields such as social work or education.
We now live in a time in which a blind person can realistically pursue a career doing just about anything. There are challenges to get the education, secure a job, and deal with the inaccessible technology that so often comes with it, but blind people have more opportunity now than we have ever had before. No longer should we feel forced into work in the blindness field, but neither should we be so focused on running away from the past that we fail to consider careers on an old but still-to-be-conquered frontier.
When considering careers with the most occupational prestige, many require rigorous training beyond the skill sets that people already have prior to beginning training for them. For example, medical school and law school are rigorous preparation programs, giving aspiring lawyers and doctors the skills that they did not have prior to attending those programs. It is generally assumed that people know how to ask, "Paper or plastic?" prior to becoming employed to bag groceries. Similarly, a properly trained blind person can read Braille and walk with a cane, as well as function with a strong sense of self-efficacy; these are fundamentals of daily life. Those who do not fully understand the duties of a good teacher of the blind mistakenly believe that possessing those basic fundamentals is all a person needs in order to teach blindness skills to others. But that assumption overlooks how much work a teacher of the blind may have to do to give a student self-confidence, self-worth, and a healthy attitude toward living with blindness. In this devaluing of teaching and the art of motivating people to become all they can, we diminish the respectability of the blindness field and categorize some of our more energetic members in the movement as poor performers or those who just couldn't compete.
In our society we assign value to opportunities based in part on how exclusive those opportunities are. Part of how we assess the prestige of a university is based upon how hard it is for someone to gain admission to it or how selective or exclusive it is. If an opportunity appears to be off-limits and restrictive to many members of our community, we assess that opportunity to be more valuable than those opportunities which are more widely available. Scarcity drives up the assessed value. Becoming a teacher of the blind is not off-limits to most blind people who wish to become one. What we do may be a lot of work, but it is not rocket science, and the discrimination that blind people face in the job market is lessening with each new CBP (certified blindness professional) entering the field. Though the shortage is immense and the need is great, the ability to access the opportunity somehow makes that opportunity less appealing.
Our goal is to help every blind person become well rehabilitated, but often this term is defined more by contrasting him with others who lack the skills or confidence we want every blind person to have. Many of us have encountered a teacher of the blind who was dependent enough that she or he did not serve as the kind of role models we wanted them to be. Maybe it was the Braille teacher who was led everywhere by a sighted assistant. Maybe it was the blind rehabilitation counselor who would talk to himself during important meetings. Since many supervisors and decision-makers in the blindness field have low expectations of blind people, they may fall victim to accepting a lower standard of performance from these employees. If we know that blind people can occasionally keep jobs in the blindness field without performing competitively, we are tempted to associate that career field with blind people who have not yet acquired good training. Would we make the same generalization when encountering an ineffective lawyer, a doctor lacking bedside skills, or a teacher who didn’t relate to her students? If we generalized this freely, soon we would come to feel that all fields were safe havens for incompetents, and indeed some who are less than competent are found in every field.
The flipside of the argument that people who work in the blindness field are incompetent or have to meet a lesser standard is also in evidence. The blind people who work outside blindness in the more prestigious career fields are most often thought to be independent and well rehabilitated. We therefore strive to work in these fields, not just because they might interest us, but as a way of affirming our own independence. We seem to believe that, as with oranges, the good ones get shipped out. The assumption is that those without the best training and attitudinal adjustment are less able to compete in the cutting-edge frontier job fields, which leads to their disproportionately staying in the blindness field. The same logic holds that well-rehabilitated blind people are disproportionately entering frontier job fields. I doubt that statistics exist to show that these assumptions are true, but perhaps this is research I will one day do.
The idea that becoming a teacher of the blind is a less valuable career rests upon the assumption that blind people are not important. Ultimately, we prioritize what we identify as most important. When we tell a young person that he or she can do better than a certain career, we are saying that the career itself is not important. When we devote our career to helping a certain group of people, assessing the importance of the career inherently requires a value judgment on the importance of the population being served and of the service being provided to them. As a parallel, we too often tell a woman that she should not become a stay-at-home mother because she can do better for herself and for the broader population of women by pursuing a financially-compensated career. As stay-at-home fathers become more common, the same message will likely emerge for men. This bias and consequent push inherently carries with it the message that children are not important and that caring for their health and safety and fostering their intellectual and personal development is not important. If by the will of God I become a parent one day, I do not plan to undervalue the importance of caretaking, and I am grateful for the benefits I experienced because my mother kept herself available to her children most of the time.
When a person encourages blind students to consider other options over teaching the blind or talks about the career as if it is a less-appealing option, that person is telegraphing the message that this career is less important and not quite worthy of a truly capable and competent blind professional. Maybe the person persuading blind people to go in a different direction does not understand the life-changing effect that a good teacher of the blind can have on a blind student. Maybe that person has been affected by the low expectations in society and considers blind people to be less important than sighted people. Maybe the person who believes these things has never taken the time to consider the contradiction in saying how important it is to get quality training and opportunity and at the same time devaluing those who provide just that. We can all fall victim to these messages, and the National Federation of the Blind is what inoculates us against them. Part of the emotional adjustment which occurs at our training centers is learning to believe at the deepest levels that blind people are equal in value to our sighted counterparts. After all, we are.We need good blind role models working in the blindness field. It is only because of the good blind role models in my life, whom I found through the National Federation of the Blind, that I am on the path to self-actualization and living the life I want. Good sense ought to lead us to ensure that good blind role models are working in the blindness field. Every blind person deserves an instructor who can put on a pair of sleepshades and do exactly what he or she is telling the blind student to do. As President Riccobono reminded us in his first national convention banquet address, diamonds must be cut by other diamonds. The lesson is clear: we must not ship out all of the good oranges.