Future Reflections Winter 1993, Vol. 12 No. 1

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POWER--OR EMPOWERMENT?
by James H. Omvig

Reprinted from News and Views of Blind Arizonans, The NFB of Arizona newsletter, Summer, 1992.

[PICTURE] James Omvig

News and Views Editor's note: James H. Omvig is an attorney. He was the first blind lawyer ever employed by the National Labor Relations Board. He worked for that agency both in Washington, D. C., and New York City. Later, he became professionally involved in vocational rehabilitation and served as Director of the Iowa Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Blind, the Director of Social Security's Handicapped Employment Program, and finally as the Director of the Alaska Center for the Blind and Deaf, before retiring to Arizona because of chronic ill health.

     Recently I was putting together some information and ideas while preparing for a training presentation I was invited to make to the staff of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. As I was thinking about the question of how best the staff of that agency could serve its consumers to make sure that they could reasonably expect to experience quality lives, I was struck by the thought that I might have a clear contradiction in my own notions about service providers.

     To set up the situation exactly as it was when I was troubled by my own thoughts, let me give you this additional piece of information: We in Arizona have been working for three years, now, on the issue of literacy for our blind children. At the very time I was preparing for the New Mexico presentation, we were working with the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind on a policy regarding Braille literacy. Some of the "professionals" from this state had shown up en masse to oppose the proposed policy.

     These were the type of professionals the blind have come to know all too well--those who exude arrogance and condescension toward the blind and who belong to that elite corps of specialists who vehemently tell us, "Don't trouble us with the facts; we know what is best for you!" These are the people who have actually convinced themselves that there is a new, complicated and very sophisticated science involved in the routine tasks of work with the blind. It seems virtually to be a disease which runs rampant among them.

     "We know what is best for you." It was this tiresome and oppressive concept, then, which was on my mind as I was developing the presentation for the New Mexico agency staff. And then the apparent contradiction struck me: The good agencies or the good educational institutions or the good specialists for the blind really DO know what is best for the client or student--they have to. For the student or client who is new to the system has no reason to know and truly has no idea what kind of service or training is needed.

     Think about it! The new student or client doesn't know about the wide range of possibilities which exist for the blind who have had proper training. He or she must be taught and often persuaded by someone who does know. The new client or student doesn't know why it is so very important in the adjustment process to use the word "blind" rather than some inane and injurious word or phrase such as sightless, unsighted, hard of seeing, or visually impaired. He or she must be persuaded by someone who truly knows and understands the importance of the client's acceptance of blindness. The newly blinded adult doesn't know that prevocational training in a residential orientation center is always preferable to training in a daytime-only program.

     This blind individual who is new to the system does not know why it is important to use the long, white cane; why sleepshades are necessary for the partially blind person during training; or why Braille and other alternative techniques are so important. Someone who really knows and cares must convince the blind person of these and a myriad of other facts and truths.

     All of the foregoing is the way that it is. And often, of course, all of this persuasion and convincing must be accomplished in spite of the stubborn resistance of the blind student or rehabilitant involved.

     So there you have the apparent conflict. What is the difference between the proper action I have described here and the attitude of the professionals who say, "We know what is best for you?" Clearly there IS a difference--an enormous difference! As I wrestled with this question, I came up with two explanations. I decided, though, to put it on hold and to raise the question with the New Mexico staff as a part of the training presentation.

     We had quite a discussion. We decided first of all that one factor in the difference had to do with the source of the information which was being provided to the blind student or client. The ideas about training which work most effectively are those which have been developed and tested by the blind themselves. Therefore, we agreed that these concepts would tend to have much more validity than those conjured up in some university laboratory and that it is proper to present these ideas forcefully to the client or student.

     We finally agreed, though, that the major ingredient involved in the difference has to do with the actual motive of the educator or rehabilitator. If the intention of the specialist is truly and solely to help the blind individual achieve success, then the action or attitude is proper.

     It was Dick Davis of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind who put it all into perspective for us. "It has to do with the difference between power and empowerment," explained Mr. Davis.

     This statement made it all come crystal clear. When the pseudo-scientists who like to call themselves "professionals exercise their "we know what is best for you" attitude, they do so for the sole purpose of exerting power over the blind and maintaining intact their superiority and new-found science. They could care less what actually happens to the blind person.

     On the other hand, when the good educator or rehabilitator works vigorously to convince the blind person to get involved in proper training and positive thinking, he or she is acting correctly where the effort is for the sole purpose of empowering the blind person.

     I checked the dictionary for the meaning of empowerment, and I wasn't totally satisfied with what I found. It says, "To give power or authority to." This is all right as far as it goes, but I believe that in today's usage the meaning is broader.

     I think that, for the blind, the meaning would probably be something like this: A service provider may be said to "empower" the blind individual to the extent that that person is equipped with the tools--the knowledge, the skills, the motivation and the self-confidence--which are necessary to enable him or her to take charge and to make sound judgments and decisions based upon fact, skill and ability so that the blind person can be the best that he or she is capable of becoming. The quality program knows what it takes, and it also knows how properly to involve the blind individual.

     In trying to achieve this desired objective, if the specialist approaches the blind only for the purpose of exercising power, then this is always wrong no matter what the outcome. On the other hand, if the specialist does what he or she does honestly for the sole purpose of empowering the blind person, then it is always right no matter what happens.

     The New Mexico agency is on the mark and, as a result, blind people in that state are on the move. I earnestly hope that we are approaching that day when the vast majority of those in work with the blind will truly act only for the purpose of empowerment—no axes to grind, no pseudo-science to which to give validity, no wounded pride to protect.

     All persons who are blind should have not only the right but also the essential tools with which to take charge. The quality agency or school knows how to make all of this happen.

     No, there is no contradiction in thinking about the role of quality service providers. But there surely is a monumental difference between those who would exercise power and those who seek to empower.

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