by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a frequent contributor to these pages, and we are the better for his thoughts. He is committed to helping blind people receive good rehabilitation and challenging his students to go beyond what is comfortable. Here is an article in which he shares with us a new word that was added to his vocabulary while on a travel lesson and how the word describes something he thinks important for those who work in or receive services from our nation’s rehabilitation service:
When I meet my new students, I take the time to talk with them to get to know them a little bit. I like to learn their story, family structure, hobbies, career goals, motivations, and things like that. I enjoy getting to know people anyway, but it tends to improve the quality of instructional time, too. Here in Hawaii we have a very high immigrant population. When I meet immigrant students, I often ask them what has brought them to the United States. Frequently I get answers about leaving areas of civil unrest or pursuing greater educational or economic opportunity. One student told me that he came to the United States to get better at speaking English. It turned out that he spoke many languages, and he had worked as a private language tutor for many years. When working with him, I always had to be on my toes to hear when he would drop a new word which I needed to add to my vocabulary. At the end of such lessons, when we would debrief in my office I would write down these new words and their definitions. For the sake of this story I will refer to this student as Jim.
One day on a group travel lesson, he coined a new word which captured an important concept. I took Jim and another student to find the post office in downtown Honolulu. I gave them the directions myself and wanted to see how well they could follow them. When we got on the number 4 bus, Jim sat somewhere down on the bottom level but behind the disability seats—we don’t use those during training. The other student and I went to sit near the very back of the bus. When we got to King and Punchbowl, the stop where we had agreed to get off the bus, only Jim and I did so. The other student, it appeared, had lost his focus and had inadvertently given himself an entirely different kind of travel assignment. Upon exiting, Jim began calling the name of his classmate to regroup with him on the sidewalk. We both realized that his classmate was not there.
Jim became noticeably upset and passionately declared that his classmate had been ecorched. For pronunciation, this word begins like “ecosystem” and rhymes with “scorched.” I had to slow him down to help him relax and focus, but I also wanted to know what this word meant. He explained that a sapling tree which has been ecorched has had all of the bark stripped off from it so that the tree is still alive but will inevitably dry out and die. Such a sapling tree would never survive to reach its potential. I could not help but laugh at the imagery. Jim asked if I was going to call the bus company to see what they could do. I told him that I was sure his classmate would figure something out, and I suggested that we proceed to find the post office without him.
Sure enough, after we had walked about fifty yards down the sidewalk, I received a call from his classmate. He sounded a little stressed out. He told me that he had realized that he had missed our stop and then gotten off the bus. He was at the Alapai Transit Center, a major transit center which was also completely unfamiliar to him. Someone had given him directions to the post office from there, but I told him not to worry about finding the post office and just hop on a number 13 bus to go back to the training center. I figured this would fall within his optimal level of challenge.
During our trip back to the training center, Jim and I had some time to debrief. I asked him how he spelled the word “ecorched,” which he explained to me. Since he spoke so many languages, I asked him about the etymology of the word. He explained that it was derived from a French verb, écorcer, and he was making an English word out of it. He told me that another use of the word was to describe a military strategic move where a commanding officer would assign a disliked subordinate to a maneuver that was sure to get him killed. In other words, a commanding officer could ecorch a subordinate by sending him into a battle ill-equipped against much stronger forces. Jim told me it was almost a form of human sacrifice. He said that he coined the word out of his strong emotion. I was so excited to finally have a word for an instructional transgression of which we are so often accused.
This experience and newly-coined word encapsulate many important themes in blindness rehabilitation, especially some misperceptions about Structured Discovery, a model developed by members of the National Federation of the Blind. The National Federation of the Blind operates three training centers on this philosophy, and there are three state-run training centers which are accredited on this model as well. I am proud to work at one of them. Structured Discovery is based on a belief that blind people are normal and that we must do more than simply learn alternative techniques. We must take the time to achieve an emotional adjustment to blindness so that we truly come to think of ourselves as normal. We must develop confidence in our own ability to function and compete. We must learn how to blend into sighted society. Good practitioners take an active role in the organized blind movement to help us move toward full equality and inclusion. Sometimes we use teaching methods which demonstrate that we expect much more of students than they expect of themselves and more than those around them have expected.
Why did I leave that student on the bus instead of making him get off at King and Punchbowl? He had struggled with paying attention to stop announcements on buses many times before. He was advanced enough in training that he would be able to problem-solve to make it back to the training center. After all, it was easier than a drop route. If I had told him that we were at our stop, it would have taught him that it was not necessary for him to pay attention for stop announcements because somebody else would do it for him. I am writing this article about two months after this experience, and I am pleased to report that he has been on his game with stop announcements ever since and shows no nervousness about going to unfamiliar transit centers. He had a valuable problem-solving experience that day when he arrived in a completely unfamiliar transit center and had to find his way back. I told him what bus to take in order to help him have some direction and keep him from stressing out too badly, but, if it had happened today, I would probably just tell him to figure it out. As a student progresses in training, the challenges get harder. We do not set people up to fail or be overwhelmed, but we always push them to that next level. We need them to understand in their hearts, based on experience, that they can function on their own and that blindness does not necessitate an instructor to help them travel.
There are some professionals in the blindness field who might contend that it is unsafe or mean to allow a student to have those kinds of experiences. There are some who would say that I did ecorch him that day. I am proud to be a part of a training center whose staff and students have cracked jokes about that word ever since that day because we understand that students can and should be allowed to make mistakes. There are some blindness professionals who are afraid to let their students make mistakes and who contend that mistakes break a student’s confidence. On the contrary, we demonstrate every day that the process of learning to overcome mistakes can build a student’s confidence. I do not allow the risk of getting lost or students being challenged to prevent me from pushing them to their limits. This is a necessary part of finding the frontier and then advancing it further. Some days my students do fail, but we talk about the problems and conquer them another time.
I would never be able to teach the way that I do if not for my training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I feel bad for those blindness professionals who are attempting to teach alternative techniques and understandings of blindness which they do not possess themselves. It is not necessary that I be a blind person to do this; I know some sighted cane travel instructors who are proficient travelers under sleepshades and can hold a great philosophical discussion. I have no problem letting students make mistakes because I know from experience that correction is possible. When we let students make mistakes, they learn not to be afraid of making mistakes on their own. This opens the door for experimentation and innovation. Yes, blind people are capable of these things, too, and these abilities make us better contributors on the job and in society in general. I am glad that I now have a word for the thing that I never do to my students: ecorch.