Future Reflections       Special Issue on Low Vision       TRAINING

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The Hierarchy of Sight

by Eric Guillory

From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind operates three adjustment-to-blindness training centers: the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, Colorado; the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, Louisiana; and BLIND Inc. (Blindness: Living in New Dimensions) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Each of these centers hosts summer programs for blind children and teens as well as year-round training for adults. Unlike most other blindness training programs, the NFB centers require students with low vision to learn nonvisual skills while wearing lightweight blindfolds called sleepshades. Although this practice is regarded as controversial by many professionals in the blindness field, staff and students at the centers feel it is highly effective.

The director of youth programs at each of the NFB centers has contributed an article to this issue of Future Reflections. Taken together, the following three pieces show why sleepshade training is used and how it helps students build skills and confidence. The first article is by Eric Guillory, who serves as director of youth services at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.

A teenage boy wearing sleepshades stirs cookie dough.I have been blind since birth due to optic nerve hypoplasia. While I have some vision, it goes without saying that said vision is extremely limited. I didn't have to be taught to make use of the little sight that I have. Humans are equipped with a stunning capacity to cope and adapt. Long before I can remember doing so consciously, my brain was directing me to view people and objects better by tilting my head or making other adjustments in an attempt to compensate for not possessing 20/20 vision.

I am grateful that my parents and teachers realized the critical role Braille would have in my life. There is no doubt that Braille proficiency has played an indispensable part in my success. However, the importance of using nonvisual techniques to travel independently and to accomplish myriad other tasks was not heavily emphasized until I attended the Summer Training and Employment Project (STEP) at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) at age fifteen. This eight-week program, like programs at LCB's sister centers, the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) and BLIND Inc. (Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions), instructs students in utilizing the alternative techniques of blindness. The programs teach students that, by using the proper skills, they can compete on terms of equality with their sighted counterparts.

In addition to the long white cane (which is regrettably scoffed at by some in our field as being too long), the NFB centers prescribe the use of sleepshades (blindfolds) by students in training. Sleepshades are used if a student has any residual vision, including light perception.

As I said earlier, I did not have to learn to use the vision I have. However, I intentionally had to unlearn some of the bad habits I had acquired over time, such as trying to use my very small amount of vision far too much. The use of sleepshades was paramount in that unlearning process. In moments of apprehension or fear, it is easy to lose one's nerve and try to rely on the sense that is most unreliable to the blind--vision. Sleepshades take that option off the table and compel a student to trust his or her instructors, cane, and skill sets. The student learns to navigate his or her environment and to get things done much more efficiently, building a significantly higher degree of confidence. There is nothing quite like facing fears and using newly acquired skills to achieve things once thought out of reach.

"Misery loves company!" Sometimes I hear this remark from opponents of sleepshade use; they claim that this is why the NFB likes to "subject" students with vision to sleepshades. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that society's horror of blindness and low expectations about the capabilities of blind people can easily infiltrate a student's educational and other life experiences. The attitudes he absorbs can make him hold fast to visual techniques that do not serve him well. Reliance on sight may lead to inefficiency and, in some instances, may even put his safety at risk.

The three NFB training centers also believe strongly in the power of positive blind role models--both those who are totally blind and those with low vision who model the use of sleepshades. With help from these role models, students come to understand that the "hierarchy of sight" is a destructive social construct--one that promotes stereotypes and diminished expectations. When I was introduced to the NFB as a teenager this was a critical lesson for me. For the first time I realized that I truly could expect to succeed in life as a blind person. I could succeed thanks to the independence that would be mine through the nonvisual skill sets I acquired through sleepshade training.

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