Braille Monitor               January 2024

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Structured Discovery Practitioners Are Part of the Organized Blind Movement

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: Justin is a committed member of the National Federation of the Blind who believes that his commitment does not stop when he goes to work and resumes on his free time. He teaches with a philosophy that is not an on-again off-again part of his being. Here is what he has to say about Structured Discovery and the role of the National Federation of the Blind in creating and maintaining it:

When I decided to attend Louisiana Tech University to pursue a master’s degree and a professional certification to teach cane travel, I was not simply looking at it as a path to teaching cane travel. I also looked at it as a way to learn more about the organized blind movement. The Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University and its programs were created by leaders in the organized blind movement because there had previously been no university program, at least in the United States, where a blind person could earn a master’s degree in orientation and mobility with a professional certification for teaching orientation and mobility. The National Federation of the Blind was not satisfied with the world being as it was, so we took action, creating a certification board, professional certifications, a university research institute, and university programs. Because the folks at Louisiana Tech understand the importance of a defined philosophy about blindness, the organized blind movement, and the ability to critically think about blindness, my master’s degree program helped me to further develop my own understanding of our philosophy and how to apply it to many of the situations that we face in society.

I once applied for a job that would allow me to work in the public policy space in the blindness field. I remember having a conversation with the prospective boss, and I remember him asking me, after all the time and effort that I had devoted to earning a master’s degree and professional certification, why I would want to throw that all away to work in the public policy space. I was definitely caught off-guard by that question. I insisted that earning a master’s degree and certification in the blindness field was a part of preparing me for a career in the blindness field and that my love for public policy work had been involved in my professional choices from day one. I insisted that Structured Discovery practitioners were inherently focused on the civil rights of the blind and the advocacy work of the organized blind movement, evidenced by how I could earn continuing education units for recertification by performing governmental affairs and other policy work.

One thing that sets Structured Discovery practitioners apart from the rest of the practitioners in the blindness field is our participation in the organized blind movement. I am speaking in trends, not absolutisms. I am not the first person to promote this idea. I learned it from mentors and role models.

During my time at Louisiana Tech, one of the documents that we read for class was the 2004 Institute on Rehabilitation Issues (IRI) Report, which discussed two major models for teaching orientation and mobility. In a chapter written by Jeff Altman and Joe Cutter, one simple line told the story of something that is so incredibly important to me. Offering its preceding sentence for context, here is the quote: “Accordingly, proponents of the Structured Discovery method believe that it is essential that instructors themselves hold a deep, personal belief in the ability of blind people. They do not regard themselves as simply trainers of a particular skill, but rather, regard themselves as part of the movement of blind people from exclusion to full integration and equality,” (Altman & Cutter, 2004, p. 90). The same chapter later included the following passage: “They do not see Structured Discovery as only one choice among many, all equally effective in preparing blind people to learn to travel safely and independently.

Proponents believe that the attitudinal dimension, the emphasis on the civil rights perspective of blind people as part of a minority group, is central to the acquisition of travel skills but, more to the point, the acquisition of confidence and self-respect. They believe that it is vital that the student recognize that blind people live in a world in which their opportunities are constricted by prejudice and misunderstanding,” (Altman & Cutter, 2004, p. 93). The idea that Structured Discovery practitioners are part of the organized blind movement is not new, but it is frequently misunderstood and overlooked.

Mercedes Zapata, a member of our California affiliate, recently earned a PhD from the University of California-Berkeley. She continues to publish research in the blindness field. In one of her recent articles, published in the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, she investigated the relationship between social support that blind people receive through participation in the National Federation of the Blind and predictors of disability identity and well-being (Zapata, 2022). The greater the person’s perceived social support through the NFB, the greater their life satisfaction and the more positive their disability identity. Structured Discovery practitioners want these outcomes for our students and for ourselves, so we participate in and introduce our students to the NFB.

Next, I want to state my own personal discomfort with the continued commitment to the term “orientation and mobility” and why I love how we do not call it that in our training centers. My cane travel instructor was Arlene Hill, and she never let me call what she taught “orientation and mobility.” “Orientation and mobility” sounds inherently scientific and complicated to many people. When a newly blind person shows up for blind services, I could either tell them that I’m going to teach them cane travel or that I’m going to teach them orientation and mobility. I want it to sound like what it is: a foundational skill that ordinary people can do, where nobody should worry that they are not smart enough to do it. “Cane travel training is not viewed as a subset of the broader discipline, but rather, is regarded as the foundational skill needed by blind people to travel independently. Cane travel is regarded as a set of skills and strategies, developed by blind people, that have evolved over time and have been refined as the world has changed. It is not regarded as mysterious or scientific or something that is, or should be, the exclusive province of any group of professionals,” (Altman & Cutter, 2004, p. 91). My instructor, Ms. Arlene, also discussed many of these ideas in her writing about seven years earlier (Hill, 1997a, 1997b).

In my opinion, calling the subject which I have taught “orientation and mobility” helps to perpetuate the Vision-Centered Approach and the Vision Industrial Complex, both of which have been named by President Riccobono. There are many practitioners who work with blind people who decide to align themselves with the Vision Industrial Complex, with its existing power and pervasiveness, and demonstrate their commitment to reinforcing it further in an effort to extract some crumbs of power and prosperity for themselves. Some of them may profit quite nicely. Anyone who challenges or disrupts the Vision Industrial Complex faces a stiff headwind, as the system is designed to reject or crush us. Those who make themselves enforcers of sighted hegemony over the blind are like wasps protecting a nest, and they’ll come after us. This is why collective organizing is so important. We have to work together if we are going to make progress, and the wasps have a playbook for dealing with unruly lower beings. Every play in that playbook begins with getting us by ourselves. If we don’t let them get us by ourselves, then we disrupt the playbook, and we become more threatening to the Vision Industrial Complex.

The Vision Industrial Complex teaches us that teachers of the blind should not be connected to the organized blind movement. Still today, some agencies for the blind tell their employees that they are forbidden from joining the National Federation of the Blind because it would be a conflict of interest. Many of us struggle to get permission from our employers to attend Federation functions because they determine that it is unrelated to our jobs. If our job is to reinforce the Vision Industrial Complex, I suppose it would be a conflict of interest, but if our job is to advance the well-being of the blind, a social minority group, then connecting with the organized blind movement is essential.

Some of the scholars before me have described a reductionism inherent to the Vision-Centered Approach, where practitioners try to measure, analyze, and bean-count our way through everything they do to work with blind consumers. The Structured Discovery approach, by contrast, honors a more holistic way of approaching blind services, where we look at the interconnectedness of the different parts of a person’s experience, as well as the interconnectedness of the collective experiences of blind people and the major institutions in the blindness field.

While it may be possible to learn all other mechanics of providing Structured Discovery instruction without participating in the organized blind movement, I believe that the very process of aligning oneself and one’s teaching with the organized blind movement offers something extra, which is essential for maximizing the contributions toward the liberation of the blind as a minority. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and I cannot imagine trying to replicate the value of being a Federationist without participating in our movement.

The benefits are exchanged equally between Structured Discovery practitioners and the broader NFB. Structured Discovery instructors are having conversations about blindness philosophy and current issues all day, every day, so we are ready for these conversations at any time. Structured Discovery instructors learn things from our teaching experience that can be useful to our movement, which we are often proud to share. Our movement also channels the collective lived experiences of blind people, which can and should inform an instructor’s praxis. Leaders in the National Federation of the Blind can contribute meaningfully to adjustment-to-blindness programming and should be introduced to students in training.

I have not called Structured Discovery a “method,” and I never do. When Structured Discovery is reduced to a method by the powers within the Vision Industrial Complex who practice under the Vision-Centered approach, it allows them to argue that they can employ the Structured Discovery method when they want and then switch back out of it. The key ingredient that makes Structured Discovery work, in my opinion, is what lies in the heart of the instructor and in the culture of the blind services agency where the instruction occurs. It comes from an emotional adjustment to blindness and an understanding as deep as one’s gut that blindness is not scary, dangerous, or anything else inherently bad. When I say “adjustment to blindness,” it can apply to anyone, including the sighted and including those who have been blind since birth. The adjustment to blindness that I discuss is an emotional adjustment to the societal condition of blindness, not the medical condition of blindness. Societal expectations treat children as children, but when blind children reach adulthood, we are often still infantilized in a way that our sighted peers are not. This key difference inspires an enhanced need for support in the adjustment to blindness in the transition to adulthood. Refining our own adjustment to blindness is important for us to help our students to advance theirs, as well.

If an instructor is practicing under the Vision-Centered approach, they cannot truly have the commitment to the organized blind movement and collective liberation of the blind, as well as the emotional adjustment to blindness, necessary to provide Structured Discovery instruction. In other words, it is impossible to be a person or blind services agency that can simultaneously provide Vision-Centered instruction and Structured Discovery instruction. I cannot teach Vision-Centered orientation and mobility in the morning and then teach Structured Discovery cane travel in the afternoon. I cannot switch my worldview that quickly. It’s either oppressive or it’s liberatory; if it is ever oppressive, then it is never liberatory. We need to pick one because we can’t have both.

If a Structured Discovery practitioner shows up at a function of the National Federation of the Blind, I hope that the leaders in that space will recognize them as someone who has made a sincere commitment to our movement, even if that state has never had a Structured Discovery practitioner and even if they are sighted. The other side of that coin is that I expect Structured Discovery practitioners to be true to the organized blind movement, even in spaces where they are the only person who belongs to it, and even if they are sighted. Structured Discovery is much more than a method and nobody can toggle back and forth between the Structured Discovery approach and the Vision-Centered approach. If anyone wants to pursue a career in the blindness field, I consistently direct them to the programs where they will learn within the Structured Discovery approach, which currently include Louisiana Tech, Louisiana Tech, and Louisiana Tech. Participating in the National Federation of the Blind adds something special and irreplaceable for instructor and student. Participating in the National Federation of the Blind is the fundamental ingredient that sets Structured Discovery practitioners apart from the rest.

References:

Altman, J., & Cutter, J. (2004). Structured discovery cane travel. In D. Dew & G. Alan (Eds.), Contemporary issues in orientation and mobility: 29th IRI 2004, Institute on Rehabilitation (pp. 65-96). Washington, DC: George Washington University.
Hill, A. (1997a). Teaching cane travel: A blind professional's perspective. American Rehabilitation23(3/4), 23-25.
Hill, A. (1997b). Teaching cane travel blind? Braille Monitor39(4). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm97/bm970402.htm
Zapata, M. A. (2022). Social Support through a Blindness Organization Predicts Life Satisfaction and Positive Disability Identity. Journal of Blindness Innovation & Research, 12(1). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir22/jbir120104.html. DOI: http://dx.doi/10.5241/12-220

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