Taking a Gap Year for Adjustment-to-Blindness Training

By Justin M. H. Salisbury, MA, NOMC, NCRTB, NCUEB

Justin Mark Hideaki Salisbury is Coordinator of Educational Programs at Associated Services for the Blind, Incorporated, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Abstract

Blind students in or approaching higher education often consider taking a gap year from higher education to receive comprehensive adjustment-to-blindness training at a residential center. This article seams together existing bodies of literature and explains how and why such training can be a helpful and productive option for a gap-year experience for blind students, especially when that training is provided under the Structured Discovery model. Many of the features of Structured Discovery training in a residential environment have already been designed in ways that preempt the common fears about gap years. Training at a Structured Discovery center fosters personal development, which pays dividends in career development. This article also discusses factors influencing the decision to go to training and the benefits of seeking training as early as possible in the career process.

Keywords

blindness, adjustment, training, higher education, gap year, Structured Discovery

Introduction

With increasing frequency in the United States, students consider taking a gap year before, during, or after college (Bierer, 2014; Tenser, 2015). This can be to explore another career pathway, reassess their goals, or simply escape from the intensity of higher education. A gap year, in the context of this manuscript, can also occur before, during, or after graduate school. Wellons (2013) described the gap year as a period of time taken away from formal education for experiential learning. Blind people often choose to take time away from their academic or career paths in order to attend a comprehensive adjustment-to-blindness training program at a residential training center. This manuscript will discuss how an adjustment-to-blindness training program anchored in the Structured Discovery model can provide a valuable gap-year experience.

The Gap Year

There are some fears about negative outcomes from gap years, but these fears do not align with the realities of residential Structured Discovery programs. There is often a fear that the students will not only be away from education for that initially expected time period, that one semester or year turns into two, which turns into ten, or that students will simply suffer a loss of momentum. Bozick and DeLuca (2005) found that students who delayed postsecondary enrollment had lower rates of bachelor’s degree completion than on-time enrollees. Bierer (2014) reported that many parents worry that their children will become distracted and simply never attend college. Some students are advised not to take a year away from cumulative subjects, such as mathematics (Packard et al., 2012). There can be a fear that they will be unable to resume their progress, as if their skills, knowledge, and commitment will atrophy. To some extent, all education builds upon previous education, and degree paths are sequenced by necessity, as one course is a prerequisite for another. Mavriplis et al. (2010), in a study on women taking gap years as career breaks, found that having children produced a significant effect, so that women with children were less likely to take a gap year. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to delay enrollment in college for the pursuits of personal development where they design and plan their encounters; instead, they tend to use that time to care for family members or work to generate more income for their household (Rowan-Kenyon, 2007). For medical withdrawals, the need for which are commonly viewed to be outside the student’s control, Meilman et al. (1992) wrote that students are generally advised by counselors to take a full year off. Especially in scenarios at academic institutions where course sequencing is based on some courses being taught exclusively in the fall while others are exclusively taught in the spring, the student is likely to struggle with course sequencing if they take only one semester off.

Haigler (2005) discusses the value of taking a year off in order to attend a set year-long program before or during college. This vantage point appears to consider the gap year as an opportunity for accelerated growth and preparation for life. Bierer (2014) explains that some students are simply burned out and need a break from education, or they want to learn more about themselves as they prepare for college. Some parents and students worry that colleges may look unfavorably upon the decision to take a gap year. In fact, many colleges support or even encourage students to take a gap year, with Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Middlebury College, Princeton University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Yale University most notably among them (Bierer, 2014).

Tenser (2015) studied the progress of twelve gap-year students as they transitioned into college. Students who had taken a gap year showed evidence of sovereign engagement—a heightened sense of self-authorship—which allowed them to make thoughtful and authentic choices during their transition in their first year of college. They were more active in community leadership and pursued their goals with more individual agency than students who did not take gap years. Encounters involving independent problem-solving, participating in multigenerational relationships, and immersion in new cultural settings were particularly influential. Measuring their academic performance by examining their grades produced some variability. This was not deemed a valid measure of their success, though, because the students had learned to pursue experiences that were more personally meaningful. Thus, if getting good grades was not necessarily the most personally meaningful goal for a given student, that student would not devote as much time and effort to getting good grades. Gap-year students showed more authenticity in relationships, which led to spending time with people that would benefit them. Through this investigation, Tenser (2015) derived the Gap Year Impact Model, which indicates that the significant outcomes of taking a self-designed gap year are more developmental rather than academic.

Adjustment-to-Blindness Training

Adjustment-to-blindness training under the Structured Discovery model is prevocational, meaning that it prepares people generally for employment, even if they end up attending higher education immediately after training (Davis, 2008). It does not specifically prepare blind people for a certain profession, but it gives them a solid foundation so that they can pursue the proper credentialing for their chosen profession alongside their sighted peers (Omvig, 2005). Training encompasses travel with the cane, daily living skills, braille and technological literacy, confidence-building activities, and frank discussion about what it takes to be a blind person in sighted communities. Much of the instruction is focused on building self-efficacy. According to Bandura (1977, 1997), self-efficacy is the belief in one’s own ability to complete a task or meet a challenge. This process involves mastery experiences (overcoming challenges), vicarious experiences (role modeling), managing physiological arousal (managing stress), and social persuasion (other people expressing the belief that the person can succeed). Students begin by learning and practicing specific skills to the point of automaticity (Mettler, 1995/2008; Salisbury, 2017). As the skills become automatic, then problem-solving can become more automatic as well (Maurer et al., 2006), and whole problem-solving mental algorithms can become automated (Maurer, 2011). As they become more automatic, they also become more dependable, and the students come to realize that they can depend on themselves to accomplish more demanding tasks. Students learn to confront the vast misperceptions and low expectations that exist in society. They build a sense of identity with the blind community, a visibly identifiable minority group, and they need to gain experience overcoming discrimination and accessibility barriers (Jernigan, 1997; Silverman, 2015). This emotional adjustment, the keystone of the rehabilitation process, pays great dividends in preparing students for life and work after training.

Consumers who attend programs anchored in the Structured Discovery model achieve better employment outcomes than those who attend programs anchored in what Riccobono (2017) described as the vision-centered approach (Bell & Mino, 2015; Bell & Silverman, 2018). Recidivism at a training center can interrupt a person’s academic or career development, so it is valuable for students to choose the Structured Discovery model because of its lower recidivism rate (Bell & Silverman, 2018). In Structured Discovery programs, instructors are frequently talking with students about their career goals and discussing with the students how the daily projects that they are undertaking relate to their long-term goals (Tigges, 2004). For example, if a student is resisting the idea of learning how to tie a necktie, an instructor might remind him that he needs to have this skill for when he interviews for a job or perhaps gives a professional presentation. Students in training ideally gain some work experience related to their employment goal (Newman, 2014), which can come in the form of an internship in conjunction with classes during the latter part of training. Structured Discovery programs are designed to end, so they focus on pushing students out the door and onto the next challenges so that students do not end up coasting and lingering unnecessarily around the training center. Since they have to go somewhere, and they are being pushed back into the mainstream world as part of their career path, it helps them to transition back into school or work.

Another central part of training that deserves extra highlighting is the process of learning to make decisions for oneself (Salisbury, 2018). Taking a gap year is a big choice. Families and the vocational rehabilitation agency can help students learn about educated decision-making and making major commitments prior to the return to the standard academic path by encouraging them to go to training. Having more individual agency is a central benefit of training, a central part of the success of a blind person (Jernigan, 1993), and a common benefit of students who take gap years from college. It makes school more fulfilling, but it also makes life more fulfilling. Tigges (2004) explained that, as students gain confidence and positive attitudes about blindness, they raise their own expectations about their own capabilities, producing vocational goals that are more fulfilling and more likely to be achieved. Since the consumer is operating at higher levels of fulfillment, he or she will be able to benefit maximally from every dollar spent by vocational rehabilitation.

Adjustment-to-blindness training is not a medical process; instead, it is an educational process (Omvig, 2005). Though the medical withdrawal described by Meilman et al., (1992) can be used to justify a student’s departure from the linear academic path to attend training, it is important that those parties involved in the decision to seek adjustment-to-blindness training understand that it is not a medical treatment. This training is an intervention that helps people who happen to have some kind of medical condition causing blindness to deal with the socially constructed barriers that blind people face. Very few practitioners in adjustment-to-blindness training have any medical training whatsoever, and none of them need it as a qualification for their job. If they have it, it is likely the result of past career interests and experiences prior to their arrival in the blindness field. Adjustment-to-blindness training is not a medical process, nor is the need caused by medical problems; the real problems addressed in adjustment-to-blindness training are not medical at all.

The Value of Urgency

As people advance through college, the work only gets more difficult and more complex, and it stands upon more complex foundations. Those foundations need to be built with the modalities closest to the ones being used at that level. For example, consider a blind student who has aspirations for a career in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM); business; or some other field with a lot of numbers. Bell and Silverman (2019a) wrote that the Nemeth Braille Code was very important for students to learn, and Bell and Silverman (2019b) emphasized the importance of teaching braille math codes to students early in their academic processes. If a blind student with such career goals needs to take a year off to seek adjustment-to-blindness training, the Nemeth Braille Code must be a major focus of that student’s training, and mastery of the Nemeth Code should occur as early in the student’s academic process as possible. That student is best off using Nemeth from the very beginning. If the student waits until the mathematical work is so complex that he or she can no longer handle it visually, then learns Nemeth, and then tries to begin using Nemeth with content that is highly complex, this is not a formula for optimal success. Also, if students care to look back at old notes from earlier classes, those notes will not be in the Nemeth Code because the student was not using Nemeth at that time. This situation then requires translation and creates both more work and more opportunities for human error.

Additionally, if a student needs to learn a certain blindness skill set, he or she should be doing it with content that is cognitively stimulating. Returning to the example of the Nemeth Braille Code for science and mathematics, imagine that a student with advanced mathematical skills decides that this is the time to learn Nemeth. If the student is bored to tears with the basic mathematics because he or she is at intellectual equilibrium handling far more complex material, there is a disconnect between what their blindness skills allow for productivity and require for development, what their mathematical skills require, and what their attention span requires for optimal stimulation. On the other hand, if a student learns the Nemeth Braille Code from the beginning of studying mathematics, the growth of the two skill sets can develop simultaneously, so that they are essentially one skill set, causing no cognitive imbalance.

As students are making important life decisions about which path to follow, which course to study, and which career goal to pursue, those decisions are made as a function of the person’s emotional adjustment to blindness. It is a function of the person’s existing skills and existing beliefs and attitudes about blindness. It is not sufficient to allow the person to read a book or hear a few speeches about blindness, which may help with the intellectual understanding of blindness. It requires real-life experience, which is attainable at a residential Structured Discovery adjustment-to-blindness training program. Tigges (2004) explains that training raises students’ expectations for themselves, which leads to vocational goals that are more fulfilling and more likely to be achieved. After training, students are more informed about their blindness, their interests, and their identities, which makes them more informed consumers of vocational rehabilitation services who can make more informed choices. Omvig (2005) argued that the vocational rehabilitation customer who is new to the blindness system has no foundation upon which to make an informed choice about anything dealing with rehabilitation. Only once the customer has come to understand what blindness is and what it is not can they begin to make truly informed choices.

If students receive their boost with an emotional adjustment later in their academic and career development, they may then encounter the decision to stay on course or move forward with what they really want to do. The desire to recover sunk costs is a well-documented barrier to good decision-making (Bickner, 1980; Davis, 2005; Leahy, 2000; Steele, 1996; Strough et al., 2016). Reputation concerns can impact a person’s reaction to sunk costs when it comes to consumption, since others may interpret their abandonment of sunk costs as a manifestation of a lapse in judgment (McAfee et al., 2010). Since vocational rehabilitation case managers generally want to ensure that their time and resources are spent wisely, a blind consumer may be tempted to stay on a path set by previous purchases longer than they may otherwise desire to avoid or delay reputation damage. Additionally, since the human ability to learn declines as people age, students may be reluctant to experiment with new career fields as the time they have left to learn shrinks, even if they are incompletely satisfied with their current field. Students who have fewer sunk costs will have fewer temptations to recover them.

If students in need of adjustment-to-blindness training linger too long in the mainstream academic setting, it can give them the experience of failing or struggling unnecessarily. Some students wait until they simply cannot survive in school any longer by the time they finally come to training. For example, they may be literally failing out of school or placed on academic probation, or falling below the grade point average threshold at which their vocational rehabilitation counselor has agreed to support their educational pursuits, so that they are basically forced out of school. This negative momentum and related experiences can be harmful to a blind person and negatively impact their adjustment-to-blindness and rehabilitation processes. If a person gets into a rhythm of giving up or learning to not believe in oneself, that pattern is difficult to break. If the student could have attended training before those problems arose, then the pattern could have been more positive. Some blind students begin to engage in self-destructive behaviors as part of their reaction to their unnecessary struggles in school, and those behaviors can yield consequences that may linger and, again, negatively impact the adjustment and rehabilitation processes.

Implications for Practitioners and Families

Doing it sooner is better than doing it later. Once they recognize that it is right for them, blind consumers should not delay their acquisition of comprehensive adjustment-to-blindness training at a residential center. It is an opportunity to learn about life and oneself, become more confident, and have more individual agency. Adjustment-to-blindness training in a residential Structured Discovery program prepares blind people for a full and meaningful life, including, but not limited to, employment and higher education. Taking a gap year within one’s academic or career path may require some sacrifice, but the payoff is immense and yields a high return on investment; the sooner the investment is made, the greater the cumulative return on that investment. Students may be told to fear a loss of momentum or an atrophy of academic skills, but existing literature reveals that gap years can make students more successful and focused. The approach taken at Structured Discovery adjustment-to-blindness training programs is conducive to a productive re-entry into society and into one’s rehabilitation process, making it unlikely that training will derail their long-term progress.

Implications for Future Research

Future research could document the specific outcomes of taking gap years for adjustment-to-blindness training. Qualitative research could collect and document insights from the individuals themselves who took the gap year either before, during, or after college. Documenting the reasons, in their own words, for taking the gap year to seek training, as well as benefits or pitfalls, could help shape the conversations about and delivery of these services. Perspectives of families and support networks surrounding the decision, the experience, and the results, could also help in the same arena.

Additional research could investigate factors that may predict how students are advised when it comes to taking a gap year for comprehensive adjustment-to-blindness training. It may be possible, for example, that a lower grade point average is associated with a higher likelihood of being advised to take the gap year to seek training. In reverse, it may be that students with a high grade point average are more likely to be advised against taking the gap year. Additionally, it may be that people in different roles respond differently to learning that a blind student is interested in taking a gap year to attend adjustment-to-blindness training. It may be that vocational rehabilitation counselors, for example, are offered incentives under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act or other policy instruments to keep transition-age students in formal education rather than adjustment-to-blindness training. This could make them more likely to advise against the gap year for training. A family member, on the other hand, may not be subject to those incentives and may respond differently. These incentives related to different roles in the blind person’s life could be covered in future studies.

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