American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

(back) (contents) (next)

Why Blind Students Need to Complete All Fifty Math Problems

by Anil Lewis

Anil LewisFrom the Editor: Many issues are involved in the troubling unemployment rate among blind and low-vision persons of working age. In this article, Anil Lewis examines some of the factors that contribute to keeping blind job-seekers out of the workforce. Anil Lewis serves as executive director of blindness initiatives with the National Federation of the Blind.

As members of the National Federation of the Blind, we are committed to developing innovative programs and projects that assist blind people to live, learn, work, and play as fully participating citizens. For years competitive, integrated employment has presented the organized blind with a tremendous challenge. The rate of unemployment/underemployment for blind people has hovered around 70 percent for decades. Although this statistic has motivated the allocation of resources in an effort to increase the competitive, integrated employment of the blind, there is yet to be any significant progress.

Many employers and educators mirror society's conviction that blind people lack the capacity to be competitive. This fundamental misconception remains the most significant barrier to the successful employment of blind people. The lived experiences of successful blind people demonstrate that projects and programs must provide training in the alternative skills of blindness that enable blind people to function successfully. They must set the expectation that blind people can accept the fundamental responsibilities expected of every citizen. Unfortunately, many educational and vocational programs designed to assist blind people do not recognize this fact.

Blindness Skills: A Critical Need

One example of the denial of training in blindness skills is the lack of commitment to teach blind people Braille in schools and rehabilitation programs. An often overlooked study reveals that, of the 30 percent of blind people who are employed, 90 percent know Braille. Although the research does not assert that there is a causal relationship between Braille and employment, it is reasonable to make the inference that knowledge of Braille plays an active part in the employability of blind people.

The NFB successfully advocated for the introduction of the "Braille Presumption" in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). However, despite this researched opinion on the importance of Braille as it relates to employment and the regulatory requirement to provide Braille instruction, fewer than 10 percent of blind and low-vision students are taught Braille today. The denial of the fundamental tools for employment contributes to unemployment.

Exceptions, Not Accommodations

When blind people are denied basic training and excused from meeting the fundamental responsibilities of other citizens, they are ill-prepared for the real world. The problem is exacerbated when exceptions are presented as accommodations. Exceptions may be subtle, and their negative impact may go unrecognized. The following is one example of this phenomenon. 

A class has been assigned to complete fifty math problems for homework. Parents complain to the teacher that their blind child takes longer to complete assignments than his sighted peers do. The teacher offers an "accommodation," allowing the blind student to complete only twenty-five of the problems. The teacher is making an exception for the blind student, not providing an accommodation. Exceptions like this one cause blind students to experience significant problems.

First and foremost, if students are excused from completing the entire assignment, they will not receive the re-enforcement of learning provided to the other students through the repetitive processing of the math problems. 

The argument is that if the blind student can demonstrate an understanding of the concept, this understanding will be sufficient. However, simply demonstrating the understanding of a math concept reduces the opportunity for the student to practice the application of the concept. Through practice students increase their retention and become better able to utilize the concept that is being taught. After all, this is why the fifty problems were assigned in the first place.

Furthermore, with the lightened assignment the blind student will be less likely to acquire and implement the problem-solving and alternative blindness skills needed to be competitive with sighted peers. In order to compete on terms of equality at school and, eventually, in the workplace, blind students must master the alternative skills of blindness. These skills may include reading and writing Braille, using low-vision devices, using access technology, developing orientation and mobility skills, and all of the other strategies that help blind people perform tasks effectively. Building these skills calls for a serious commitment of time and effort. Unfortunately, the United States has a shortage of qualified professionals who can provide the proper training. Moreover, the custodial attitudes of some parents and professionals work to "rescue" the blind student from the sometimes frustrating process of learning these skills, which are deemed unnecessary or obsolete.

A good example is the common misconception that it is too difficult for most blind students to learn Braille, and that Braille is no longer a necessary skill. The lack of qualified teachers of blind students prohibits many blind students from being exposed to this fundamental tool for learning and communication. The simple truth is that learning to read Braille is as difficult, or as easy, as learning to read print. Braille is as essential to blind people as print remains essential to those who are not blind. Braille reading speed and comprehension improve with practice, just as print reading speed does for print readers. Interestingly, with proper instruction, many blind and low-vision students master both print and Braille while successfully navigating the same curriculum as their peers who are not blind. 

The blind student should not be rescued from the process of learning important skills, even when that process seems frustratingly difficult. In the years ahead, these problem-solving skills will help the student compete in the workplace.

Moreover, exceptions will not be made when the blind person tries to enter the competitive world of work. If they cannot do the amount and quality of work expected from other employees, blind job-seekers face a barrier to obtaining gainful employment.

In the example of the fifty math problems, the exception perpetuates low expectations and a false sense of entitlement for the blind student. It assumes that the blind student cannot complete the assignment in a reasonable amount of time. Indeed, this may be true, until the blind student becomes proficient in the necessary alternative skills. Blind students have proved themselves quite capable of equaling or even surpassing their sighted peers in completing academic tasks when they have the skills they need. When we set the bar lower for the blind student, the blind student internalizes this lowered expectation as being reasonable.

Blind students may assert that modified assignments are within their right to fair treatment. The blind student who expects to receive full credit for performing a representative sample of the work will be ill prepared to meet the expectations of competitive, integrated employment. In the real world of work, a blind person will not receive full compensation for completing a representative sample of the work-related tasks. The notion that blind people cannot do competitive work lies at the root of the segregated subminimum wage work environments that have plagued blind workers for decades.

Accommodations, Not Exceptions

Some people erroneously assert that offering a blind student additional time to take tests creates similar problems. They contend that extra time gives the blind person an unfair advantage. In general, providing blind test-takers with extra time does not give them an unfair advantage. Extra time is a genuine accommodation. Depending on the alternative skills the student uses, the additional time may be insufficient to provide a fair opportunity for the blind student to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter. 

With the proper training, a proficient Braille reader taking a properly designed test should be able to complete the test within the same amount of time offered to others. Unfortunately, producing accessible tests and providing appropriate accommodations for blind students continues to be problematic. Therefore, it is a reasonable accommodation to allow the blind student extra time to problem solve when taking an exam. The test may not be formatted correctly; the test may be designed and presented in a manner very different from the way the student has been taught; the test may have poorly designed tactile graphics. Any number of other deviations may complicate the testing experience for blind students.

Problems also may arise when the blind student uses a human reader or depends on access technology. The testing accommodation often presents an added cognitive load on the blind test taker that the provision of additional time does not necessarily offset. In many instances blind students find themselves being challenged to access the test questions themselves while being tested on their knowledge. The provision of additional time is an attempt to mitigate a barrier and is not an unfair advantage. 

A Wealth of Possibilities

While many in society present blindness as a deficiency, the National Federation of the Blind promotes a blind person's exceptional ability to evaluate people, data, and things under a different "nonvisual" lens as a value-added proposition to any employer. Blind people develop and use unique problem-solving skills to remain competitive with their peers, and these skills can benefit everyone. There are many examples of workplace accommodations implemented to make a job site accessible for a blind employee that created increased efficiency for all employees.

The blind student who is encouraged to complete all fifty math problems will internalize the idea that it requires time and practice to develop competitive skills. It may take the blind student a little longer to complete some tasks, but there will also be tasks that blind students can complete more quickly than their peers. Through the mastery of the alternative skills of blindness, the blind person will be armed with the tools to be competitive and equipped to accept the fundamental responsibilities expected of every citizen.

(back) (contents) (next)