Braille Monitor                                     June 2017

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From Helplessness to Independence: A Philosophical and Practical Overview

by Maurice Peret

Maurice PeretFrom the Editor: Maurice Peret is the chairman of the National Federation of the Blind Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety and makes his living as the talent recruiter in the Human Resources Department at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. This committee has a listserv, and what follows is one of the gems extracted from it discussing how one applies Federation philosophy and the choice that each individual must make in his or her life about when and to what degree they will apply it. Flexibility is the key, and Maurice does a fantastic job of expressing this. Here is what he says:

Sometimes the most poignant analogies are those that appeal to our most primal impulses, survival instincts, and basic human senses. Thus the historic inception of the consumer-based model of rehabilitation can be likened to beggars at a feast of plenty. Gratitude and even reverence was expected of the blind for the voluntary charity of crumbs once in a while tossed their way. But, as is the pattern of the struggle of oppressed peoples, those crusty morsels merely triggered and amplified the growling pangs of hunger and discontent, giving voice to the growing demand for a place at the table. For a while a “highly functioning” token few were invited to sit quietly at table, preferably not to be seen nor heard. But the crescendo of voices gave way to the collective expression of dissatisfaction with having to wait to be served; after all, the palate must be cleansed, primed, and prepared to welcome the cacophony of textures, aromas, and flavors of variety in the dining and not just the feeding experience. It was not enough for the blind to simply wait to receive the fruits of those who knew what was best for their charges. They wanted to know ahead of time what was for supper. They desired access to the same information availed other feasters, to be able to make their own choices from a menu of options. The development of this new force grew to insist not only to be seated, not only to docilely accept what was given, but to have equal say in the decision process to determine what would be offered. Their efforts propelled them beyond the table and into the kitchen, accepting responsibilities according to their abilities, ranging from rolling silverware to washing dishes and even to performing light food preparation tasks which, after all, were recognized as well suited to tactile methods.

But the blind must acknowledge their natural limitations, it would be said. The kitchen was replete with danger for the functionally disabled consumer. There existed extremes in temperature, slippery surfaces, sharp-edged and pointed implements, and all manner of mechanical and electric food appliances to negotiate, a veritable labyrinth of hazards for the blind who found themselves quite out of their element. Nonetheless did the powerful and diverse organized throng press their insistence on being present at and involved in all levels of the meal management process until they purchased a controlling share in the marketplace. And so it followed that the mere need to survive, to nourish body and mind, gave way to the full appreciation of the culinary experience, not just to taste but to savor, not only to shovel in but to enjoy and to articulate the finer dimensions of nuance, blended flavors, bouquets and hints of vegetable, mineral, animal, ferment, and hues of color, all by which the gourmet experience is described in fanciful and sometimes curious fashion. The highly refined palate draws upon integration of all sensory stimulation: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and of course, taste. And so it is in the development of human navigation and movement.

Traditional rehabilitation models have historically operated predominantly from a behavioral psychology and visual-centric foundational approach, with nonvisual techniques and strategies often presented as methods of last resort. This seemed to imply an inferiority of alternative techniques to often inefficient low-vision strategies. The nonconventional or Structured Discovery Learning Method derived from the cognitive learning theory challenged the prevailing practice through immersion by visual occlusion to prove not only the viability of but often superiority of alternative techniques of independent travel. This, combined with confronting social and attitudinal misconceptions about blindness and about the capabilities of blind people, represented a paradigm shift within the field of work with the blind.

In my many years as a rehabilitation professional, I have found the Holy Grail lies somewhere in the gray area between dogma and capitulation or selling out to mediocrity.

I came to our NFB philosophy through its manifestation in the Structured Discovery Cane Travel or (SDCT) professional practice. I remember vividly back when I first heard about the National Orientation & Mobility Certification (NOMC) in an article written by our beloved James Omvig, “A New Certification,” I was thoroughly driven to obtain it for myself. I was very much like a new convert to religious faith, more youthful vigor than knowledge.

I recall, for instance, jumping in full tilt to the raging debate on the O&M listserv, predominantly populated by traditional practitioners. I innocently spread our Federation philosophy as it was emerging in the O&M field, this at a time when active debate still raged about the wisdom of blind cane travel instructors. Of course, that question has since been settled by incredibly talented blind professionals practicing their trade all over the country.

I have long defined the concept of longtime experience as having made the same mistakes newbies make, only a few thousand more times. Isn’t that what they say: that success is built upon a mountain of failure? Anyway, what years of working with actual blind people has taught me is that strict formulaic strategies rarely succeed when they are easily sniffed out by the newly often frightened and skeptical trainee.

An example I will share is in working with a very new and very frightened student. She told me repeatedly and vociferously that she did not need to learn to cross the street downtown since she had no intention of ever traveling there by herself anyway. My answer was “Okay, fine. You don’t have to cross the street at all, but let’s just go stand on the corner and listen.” Naturally from there my student gradually learned to cross the street with the light and admitted that it was nowhere as scary as she expected it to have been. She remained immovable, however, in her reticence to venture out on her own in that way. It was just too far a leap for her at the stage of life she was in. Beginning to see some possibilities to achieve some independence, however, especially to meet basic needs like making doctor’s appointments, she wanted to learn to access the local paratransit system on her own. We discussed this from every possible angle, and in the long run we worked with her to apply her newfound confidence to independently use paratransit.

The question is, was she more independent? Were her expectations of herself raised to a level worthy of our positive self-determinist philosophy? At what point do higher expectations intersect with informed consumer choice? How often have graduates of our NFB training centers reverted to some of those “more convenient” accommodations or to that short, rollerball-tipped cane they used prior to receiving SDCT training? For that matter, how many consumers having undergone full blindness emersion training but who retain functional vision put the white cane aside?

When I accepted an O&M position at a conventional state agency, I was asked by the director if I really believed that the safety of my students was not my responsibility. Clearly, this director had been exposed to our philosophy and possessed fairly definite opinions about it. I carefully explained that while my job was to work with students to develop safe and effective self-monitoring techniques, naturally in the early stages of instruction I would be in close proximity, monitoring their safety to the extent of being able to react quickly enough should a harsher unintended lesson be learned.

The point of all this is to say that the National Federation of the Blind exists as a collective vehicle, based upon our individual experiences, to identify problems, discuss and debate possible solutions, and finally arrive at a democratic consensus on how to carry out the work to address these issues. These decisions have and do change over time as society, technological advances, and social attitudes evolve. That is why we meet regularly to reexamine, if necessary, previously agreed-upon policy in the form of resolutions. I am reminded of a story told by Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder that there was a time when the idea of putting Braille signage in elevators was scorned by the Federation as an unnecessary adaptation imposed upon the blind by otherwise well-intended sighted folks. Blind people had used the elevator for years prior to that, after all, and did not need such gadgetry. Can anyone remember the last time they were on an elevator that did not have Braille signage? If so, I’ll bet it stood out quite a bit as unusual. For my part, I certainly appreciate having Braille signage in public spaces and use it all the time.

We live in an exciting and historic period as technology advances in unimaginable ways right before our eyes, seemingly at lightning speed. Our approach to ever complex smart streets, shared spaces, and autonomous vehicles must keep up with these changes so that we don’t get left behind. We have to be flexible in our examination of these changes to adapt to them as we increasingly perfect our skills and abilities to accommodate them. After all, don’t we say that it is not society that must adapt to the blind but the blind, ourselves, who, given proper training and opportunity, can and must adapt to the ever-evolving changes?

Leave a Legacy

For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax-deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.

With your help, the NFB will continue to:

Plan to Leave a Legacy

Creating a will gives you the final say in what happens to your possessions and is the only way to be sure that your remaining assets are distributed according to your passions and beliefs. Many people fear creating a will or believe it’s not necessary until they are much older. Others think that it’s expensive and confusing. However, it is one of the most important things you will do, and with new online legal programs it is easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do decide to create or revise your will, consider the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary. Visit <www.nfb.org/planned-giving> or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2422, for more information. Together with love, hope, determination, and your support, we will continue to transform dreams into reality.

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