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Standing Tall Before the Librarian: A Dignified Discussion of Individual vs. Institutional Memberships to RFBD

by Jim Marks

Editorís Introduction: Jim Marks directs Disability Services at the University of Montana-Missoula. Jim, who is blind, and a Federationist, counsels students and professionals on best practices in accommodating blind and visually impaired students in higher education. Jim serves as the Chairman of the Special Interest Group on Blindness and Visual Impairments, a committee of the Association on Higher Education And Disability. In this article, he discusses the importance of blind student autonomy in regards to RFB&D memberships at colleges and universities. Here is what he has to say.

The first time my four-year-old daughter used her library card to check out a picture book, she was oh so proud. There she stood, book tucked under arm, her small frame puffed up, and her arm stretched to hand her library card to the librarian so that she could check out her very own book from the library.

Now contrast that warm image with that of the blind college student borrowing talking books for class work. Imagine the blind student passing the library card to the librarian when, all of a sudden, a third party swings into the image. The third party, the college Disability Service (DS) officer, snatches the card away from the blind student and gives it to the librarian. The librarian hands the officer the books, who then hands it to the blind student. Where there were two people conducting a simple transaction in a dignified manner, now there are three: The blind student, the librarian, and the DS officer. Why in the world should this be?

Blind college students ought to be able to do what my four-year-old daughter did when she borrowed her book from the library. That pretty much says it all. Blind students are perfectly able to borrow their own books independently. If we let a middleman intervene, we succumb to a level of custodialism that would irritate the dignity of a four-year-old.

OK, I admit it. I abhor the RFBD institutional membership. Try as I may, I can't come up with a single good reason why the DS office should sandwich itself between the borrower and the library.
It used to be that blind students would borrow directly from the source, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. But these days, many colleges require blind students to borrow RFBD books from the DS office. Sure, the student gets the books either way. So what's wrong with getting the books from the DS office?

Higher education pundits say that college is like a jigsaw puzzle for all students, and that students are clueless about what the final picture looks like. College is, therefore, a process of discovery and development. It would be arrogant to box and wrap up the final picture since its ultimate form and substance varies from individual to individual, but we sure can talk about what the jigsaw pieces look like. Couple this process of discovery and development with the guidance of the National Federation of the Blind, and we can do most anything we put our minds to.

Institutional memberships came about when RFBD made the decision to start charging user fees for its services. RFBD wanted to move away from its roots as a philanthropic to a more business-like organization. Before the change, only individuals could borrow from RFBD.

Many schools, including grade and high schools, as well as colleges, pressured RFBD for the privilege of being able to borrow RFBD books. Schools wanted institutional memberships in order to lend talking books to students with disabilities who weren't sure that talking books would be of any help. These students were mostly students with learning disabilities, not blind students. Instead of going through the hassle and expense of arranging for individual memberships, schools could let students try out the books to see if they were of any value to the student.

Civil rights laws require that schools take responsibility for making textbooks as accessible for students with disabilities as they are for those without disabilities. The legal concept, which is called "effective communication," means that schools also wanted to protect themselves against civil rights complaints by making sure that students with print disabilities can read their schoolbooks in an alternate format. RFBD always has and always will play a major role in assisting schools as they meet their compliance obligations.

In the mid 1990s, RFBD began offering institutional memberships to schools. Individual memberships remain available, but many schools now employ the institutional membership routinely.

As a DS Director, I went along with the trend to acquire institutional memberships from RFBD. I wanted a cost-effective way of administering my university's legal obligations. But I also knew intuitively that the institutional membership was custodial. I loathed the idea of getting between students and the library. This guided me to make arrangements with my campus library for the distribution of RFBD books. My office paid the bill and told the library who was eligible to borrow the RFBD books, but the library ordered the books and loaned them to the students. This way, blind and other print disabled students could enjoy a natural relationship with a bona fide library. Instead of going through the DS office, these students enjoyed pretty much the same privileges enjoyed by other patrons of our campus library.

But after a while, my staff and I began to wonder about a few things. For instance, the institutional membership seemed fairly expensive. We wondered whether we could save money by dumping the institutional memberships and replacing them with individual ones.

Besides cost, there were other reasons that made us uneasy about the institutional memberships. For one thing, the state vocational rehabilitation agency was let off the hook through institutional memberships. This contributed to the isolation of vocational rehabilitation counselors from what it means to be blind or otherwise disabled. When a partner isn't held accountable, bad things start to happen. Clearly, vocational rehabilitation agencies should pay for RFBD memberships for individuals as part of their responsibilities in the Individual Plan for Employment.

For another thing, RFBD is a life long service for many of us. How can we ever be expected to use RFBD if we can't master the finding and ordering of books on our own? Most institutional memberships mean that someone else is responsible, that a third party does for us what we can do for ourselves. In anyone's book, that's custodialism in its most virulent form. Trouble was, though, blind students weren't even aware that it was custodial. They never got the chance to stand on their own legs because, while in grade and high school, the vision teachers always took care of it. So it was no big thing for the kindly DS Coordinator to do the same. What would happen when the student finally graduates and goes out to tackle a job or advanced studies? Would it mean that the student would stand around with a worried look on his or her face while waiting for a helper type to come along? Would it mean that the learned helplessness would somehow ingrain itself in our social consciousness so that we learned to believe that blind people aren't as competent as sighted peers? As we say in Montana, you bet!

The DS office I direct dumped the RFBD institutional membership. And you know what? Our expenses went down. We pulled vocational rehabilitation back into the process. And students got their books on time. Sure, some had trouble, and it was necessary to show them how to order their books. But if the books didn't show up, the students had only themselves to blame. That's the essence of first class citizenship, which includes equal parts of responsibility and rights.

Many blind students face difficulties with securing the right and responsibility to borrow directly from RFBD. The first and perhaps the most critical difficulty is the lack of awareness that the institutional memberships are a problem. We've got to get the word out so that blind students learn that they can do for themselves when it comes to getting talking books from RFBD and other talking book libraries. It may sound simple, but try talking with today's incoming college freshmen about this. Unlike my four-year-old daughter, borrowing books directly from the library is so utterly foreign that they can't even get mad at how out of the mainstream they are.

To overcome the ignorance of just how custodial RFBD institutional memberships can be, blind students should be exposed to individual memberships while still in high school. Parents of blind children of high school age and the blind students themselves should insist that their education plans include instruction and practice in the use of RFBD. This way, students learn how to use RFBB independently before college. High schools tend to be even more aggressive about doing for students what they can do for themselves than even college DS offices are. It's a shame how our education systems set up blind students for a life as the object of someone else's good work. But just doing something as simple as ordering books from the library on your own can break the cycle. Not much of a bar, is it?

Another barrier to self-determination is the state vocational rehabilitation agency, although this is nothing new. Blind people must be informed and assertive when negotiating the elements of their plan for employment. One may have to be relentless in getting what's necessary from the agency, but it can be done. And every time one of us climbs up the vocational rehabilitation mountain, we clear the way for those who come behind us. Getting the agency to pay for an individual membership, which involves a $50 one-time application fee plus a $25 per year user fee, fits well within the scope of vocational rehabilitation and the agency's budget. Mostly it's just a matter of remembering to include the service in the plan, that's all.

The next barrier lurks in the DS office. Please sit down for this bit of news if you will. DS offices don't know that much about blindness. They do know about learning disabilities, though. The sheer numbers alone necessitate this. For every blind student standing at the DS door, there are 40 or more learning disabled students. That is not an exaggeration. At my university, my office serves 7 blind students out of the 700 students enrolled. Of the 700, 350 have learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. It should be no surprise that the DS office will then make the mistake of treating blind students just like those with learning disabilities. Interventions appropriate for students with learning disabilities can be very harmful to those who are blind. The RFBD institutional membership is a case in point. Arguably, institutional memberships may open doors for some students, although I do hold professional reservations about this that I won't go into here. My point is that blind students cannot afford to expect the DS office to pay attention to the particulars of accommodating blind students in higher education. The expert is the blind student, wise enough to listen to and employ the principles of the NFB, and blind students should never forget this pearl of wisdom.

Blind students who can't get vocational rehabilitation agencies to pay for RFBD memberships may want to ask the DS office to pay. However, there is no good leverage in asserting that the membership purchased by the DS office should be individual as opposed to institutional. While civil rights laws do honor the accommodation preferences of disabled college students, the laws also give colleges the ability to provide equally effective accommodations. So long as the accommodation provided is as effective as that preferred by the student, then the college is free to do it its way. The issue insofar as the civil rights go is access to information. Institutional memberships can and will provide equally effective accommodations when compared to individual memberships. We may argue that colleges should think about the long term, but they really don't have to follow anyone's best practices when the learning environment is accessible. In short, colleges may dig in their heels and say, "Damn the long term; we're just trying to get you through college!"

The consequence is that blind students may have to buy their own individual memberships. If you think about it, it just isn't that big a deal. Remember that the annual fee is a very reasonable $25 per year. The one-time application fee of $50 may sound steep. But compare the cost of RFBD books to the cost of print textbooks. College students spend hundreds of dollars each academic term on books. Surely the $25 for as many books as you want strikes even the most pitiful as reasonable. Twenty-five dollars per year buys one access to much of the information and the power to borrow directly from the library. It's a chance to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," to the DS office that assigns a lower priority to your self-determination than it does to saving money and controlling the college's legal obligations.
Do think about asserting your personal dignity by insisting on an individual membership to RFBD. This piece of the jigsaw puzzle will help make your big picture bigger and better.

For more information on RFBD, go to http://www.rfbd.org/, or to contact Jim Marks, send e-mail to marks@mso.umt.edu.

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