Competing on Terms of Equality as Blind Students

By Fred Schroeder

EDITOR'S NOTE: In gearing up for this edition of The Student Slate, I was looking back through the student archives at prior issues. To my delight, I came upon an article published in the Fall - Winter 1987 Student Slate, written by Fred Schroeder, who at the time was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, and was also the Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Today, Dr. Schroeder is the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. The article is valuable and timeless, and seemed like the perfect way to kick off this new edition of the Student Slate. It is here reprinted in relevant part, and I hope you enjoy the article's rediscovery as much as I did.

We are all familiar with the words of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind, who told us that, given proper training and opportunity, the blind can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. The truth of this statement has been affirmed time and time again through the achievements of blind persons in virtually all fields and professions. Blind persons work as lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists, computer programmers, secretaries, independent business persons, and in each case, perform at levels comparable to their sighted peers. The question, therefore, becomes not whether the blind can compete, but rather how the individual blind person can best equip him/herself to function on terms of equality.

Far too often, we as blind persons are led to believe that functioning on terms of equality means nothing more than producing an equivalent product. This thinking leads to the assumption that if a project is placed before us, we are functioning competitively if we are able to complete the product adequately. For the blind student, this concept is often applied, since the nature of university training is frequently outcome-based. The university instructor routinely gives reading assignments and assigns various projects and term papers, each with a deadline for completion. For this reason, the blind student may grow accustomed to assessing his or her ability to function competitively solely in terms of whether he or she is able to complete assigned work within the prescribed time period. The problem with this way of thinking is that it overlooks the need to function competitively within the process. It is not enough simply to be able to produce a high quality term paper. The process by which the paper is research, organized, and eventually written and produced is of equal importance.

When I was in college, I knew a blind student who maintained a 4.0 grade point average. However, to maintain this average, this individual told me that he never took more than six to nine hours each semester. This fellow did not know Braille. When I asked him how he took notes, he told me that he recorded every class session, and later at home hooked two tape recorders together so as to make an edited or condensed copy of the lecture material. Since this process meant that for each class hour it was necessary to spend an additional hour to hour and a half to edit the tape, nine class hours during the week would require an additional nine to fourteen hours in preparing recorded notes. To make matters worse, this fellow told me that he handled textbook material in the same manner. He would order texts on cassette from Recording for the Blind (RFB), and hooking two tape recorders together, would make a condensed version of the portions he felt to be most important.

This example highlights a variety of problems, both technical and attitudinal. It is clear that the method used by this student was, at best, cumbersome and inefficient. Nevertheless, from a purely outcome-based perspective, his system seemed to work. That is, he maintained a 4.0 grade point average, albeit taking in excess of six years to earn a baccalaureate degree. I could not help wondering whether upon graduating from college this fellow would realize that his methods of functioning placed him at a real disadvantage. I am sure that he did not consciously think that an employer would happily assign him half as much work as his sighted peers or, alternatively, that he would expect to work twelve to sixteen hours a day to produce at the same rate as his co-workers.

I suppose if the problems were merely technical, then my friend the student, intelligent as he was, could surely have been made to understand that process and product must be taken together as a whole. I believe that the real problem faced by my friend was, in truth, related to his attitudes and beliefs about blindness. He had never taken the time to learn Braille. Not because he was too dim-witted to learn it, rather, I suspect because Braille is associated with blindness and he was reluctant to regard himself as a blind person. If a person believes that blindness necessarily encompasses inferiority, then the individual will predictably avoid thinking of him/herself as a blind person. The tragic twist in this example is that, in an effort to avoid thinking of himself as blind, my friend rejected the skills that would have made him competitive in lieu of techniques which in practice made his performance inferior.

During the era I was in school, portable cassette recorders emerged on the scene and were heralded as the fundamental tool by which blind students could function competitively. No longer were blind students encouraged to use the slate and stylus; instead, we were told that with a tape recorder in class, we could no longer risk missing vital information. With this reasoning, we cashed in a note-taking device, which would have us ending each class period with a half-dozen pages of concise notes, for a device which consolidated nothing, providing us merely with a verbatim record of the hour's lecture. Mostly, I found that I never got around to listening to all the tapes I made during a semester. Therefore, rather than making me more competitive, the tape recorder resulted in my performance declining. I am ashamed to admit that had I been honest with myself, the real reason I cashed in my slate and stylus for a tape recorder was that I did not truly believe that as a blind person I could compete on terms of equality and, therefore, I was willing to settle for an inadequate system which placed me at a disadvantage.

Of course, tape recorders serve a purpose and, when used properly, can result in efficient use of time. The problem comes in when a tape recorder is used so that an individual can put off learning the skills of blindness which, in the final analysis, will allow him/her to truly function on an equal footing with others.

For the current generation of students, a new panacea has burst onto the scene. I refer to the current fascination and preoccupation with computer technology. As with the cassette recorder of a decade and a half ago, the computer is touted as the single most significant tool for today's blind students. I do not mean to suggest that computer technology is not useful. In fact, this article is being prepared on an IBM PC. The computer is terrific for editing text, revising drafts, checking for typographical errors, and so on. However, I think we should be careful to keep the computer in perspective.

Today, there are blind students who, like my friend of years ago, do not know Braille; and, like my friend, many of today's students who do not know Braille will argue that Braille is bulky, tedious, and in a word, antiquated. They contend that speech technology gives them technological literacy without the long hours of study necessary for good Braille reading and writing. When I said that a computer should be kept in perspective, I suppose the best way to look at it is in terms of whether the computer is being used to avoid dealing with blindness or thinking of yourself as a blind person. It is necessary that as blind people, we do not sell ourselves short, nor do we settle for inadequate training, placing us at a disadvantage.

For blind students, the measure of effectiveness needs to be whether you are functioning competitively both in terms of outcome and process. If you believe that blindness makes you inferior, then you will settle for inferior methods of functioning. You will come to believe that a tool that allows you to do more is good rather than considering whether a variety of tools applied correctly might enable you to perform on an equal basis with your sighted peers. Functioning better is not good enough. We, as blind people, must insist on the training which will allow us to function equally with the sighted.

It is vital that blind students seek training in the skills of blindness before pursuing academic training. Once the student is proficient in cane travel, the use of Braille, and other techniques used by capable blind persons, then he/she will be able to keep in perspective the other tools that become available. The skills of blindness not only allow you the techniques to function fully, but provide enough means through which true self-confidence can be established. Before an individual can function as a whole human being, he/she must believe that he is a whole human being. Conversely, to truly believe in yourself as being equal with others, you must have the skills to put your beliefs into action. I have been told by ambitious blind students that they cannot afford to interrupt their studies to acquire training in the skills of blindness. The cost of this decision is often paid through settling for less than adequate techniques and, worse, through assuming that you cannot be expected to function at a level comparable to your peers.

Computers are valuable tools as are cassette recorders, but it is the skilled craftsman who knows both the abilities and the limitations of each tool and when best to employ their use. Perhaps the single best means for learning the skills of blindness is through participation in the National Federation of the Blind. The skills of blindness were not given to us by the educational or rehabilitation establishments, but rather come to us through the collective experience of tens of thousands of blind men and women. The techniques, together with an attitude about blindness which assumes full participation, are necessary to be able to truly compete on terms of equality. Thousands of blind people will meet at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. It is in this setting that real progress for the blind in society can be realized. As a part of the National Federation of the Blind, you will have the opportunity to join with us and promote both the training and attitudes necessary for full participation so that we, as blind people, will be able to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that we can compete on terms of equality.