The Braille Monitor                                                                                       April 2003

(back) (next) (contents)

Effective Dialogue in Albuquerque: A Positive Beginning

by Melody Lindsey

Melody Lindsey
Melody Lindsey

From the Editor: Sometime last year word began to circulate that the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) was going to sponsor a conference focusing on residential training centers for blind adults. This is a subject about which a growing number of Federationists know a good deal and about which many of us hold rather definite opinions. Not surprisingly, when the call for papers went out, a number of those who expressed interest in making presentations were staff members at programs that have been influenced by the Federation's philosophy of rehabilitation.

I decided that this conference was going to be an event to watch. I asked Melody Lindsey to provide a report to the Braille Monitor about what happened. But even before I heard from her, I began picking up all sorts of comments. Mostly these were to the effect that this had been the most productive conference people had ever attended. But a very few were grumbles that the person had had to listen to a lot of presentations that did not reflect the speaker's views about rehabilitation. I understand that RSA Commissioner Joanne Wilson, upon receiving such a complaint, commiserated with the complainer by saying, "I know what you mean; I have been attending conferences and feeling that way for years."

The pendulum now seems to be swinging in the other direction, and the result is fresh air and new thinking in this very important area of blindness rehabilitation. Melody Lindsey is the director of the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center. She is a longtime Federation leader and a dedicated blindness professional. Here is her report of the Albuquerque conference:

In Ecclesiastes 3 King Solomon says in part, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven--a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." On November 13, 14, and 15, 2002, rehabilitation counselors, teachers, and other professionals gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to participate in the first-ever conference sponsored by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) for residential training centers for the blind. The purpose of this conference was to give professionals the opportunity to present and discuss effective strategies and controversial issues surrounding training center policies and practices. It was a time to speak of philosophical approaches to rehabilitation and a time to keep silent and listen to others who had different views. It was a time to seek understanding of why we do what we do and a time to lose misconceptions about specific training programs.

In the fall of 2001 at the biannual meeting of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB), Commissioner Joanne Wilson announced that RSA had been approached by many individuals who work with the blind about the possibility of a national forum to engage in dialogue about the various approaches to rehabilitation of the blind. In the spring of 2002 a planning committee made up of representatives from five state agencies for the blind, five private agencies for the blind, and two general state rehabilitation agencies began its work. The states represented were Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, and Washington. The five private agencies were BLIND, Inc., from Minnesota; Carroll Center for the Blind from Massachusetts; Colorado Center for the Blind; Foundation for the Junior Blind from California; and Lions World Services for the Blind from Arkansas. The general agencies were represented by Georgia and Mississippi.

The mission given to the planning committee was to recruit presenters and develop an agenda that would educate, challenge, and motivate participants to enhance the methodologies used in their training center programs. The title for the conference was "Cutting Edge Practices-�Expectations, Empowerment, and Employment: National Conference for Residential Training Centers for the Blind." We could call this the three E's of rehabilitation for the blind.

Approximately eighty submissions were received and considered for conference presentations. After the selections were made, we were on our way to an exciting and stimulating meeting in Albuquerque.

According to the participant list that each of us received at the conference, over 200 people were in attendance, representing thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. The conference opened on Wednesday morning with an inspiring and passionate address from Commissioner Wilson. In her speech, which was entitled "Empowerment through Personal Conviction: The Foundation of Effective Residential Training Programs for the Blind," she talked about the three components of the conference�-Expectations, Empowerment, and Employment. She also told the audience that she wanted to have participants talk about the controversial and difficult issues associated with rehabilitation training of the blind. She said she hoped that people would take issue with the topics brought up at the conference, for only through confronting the issues and conducting constructive dialogue could we ever hope to improve and strengthen the quality of rehabilitation for the blind and promote training that incorporates high expectations and individual responsibility.

Commissioner Wilson got her wish! I have been to several meetings where people tiptoed around controversies. In the words of the old saw: no one was talking about the elephant sitting in the living room. At this conference several elephants were openly debated: the role of sleepshades/occluders in the rehabilitation program, informed choice in the determination of an individualized program, the inclusion or exclusion of consumer organizations in the rehabilitation process, determining the length of stay at a training center, blind mobility instructors, and various approaches to teaching mobility and other skills.

Commissioner Wilson's keynote address was followed by a plenary session entitled "Residential Training Programs: Perspectives and Practices." Panelists from BLIND, Inc., the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Lions World Services for the Blind, and the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness discussed the purpose of rehabilitation training, various philosophical approaches, and the implementation of those approaches in the training provided.

Thursday and Friday saw two more plenary sessions. On Thursday the panelists for the plenary session dealt with the topic "Traditional and Progressive Approaches to Independent Cane Travel." Edward Bell, Dr. Ruby Ryles, Dona Sauerburger, and Dr. Bill Wiener engaged in a lively and interesting discussion of issues including safety and liability, using visual and nonvisual techniques for travel, the use of sleepshades, the structured discovery method and point-to-point instruction, the certification of blind travel instructors, the performance competency level of instructors, and teaching group mobility.

As the director of a training center with some staff members who would like to do group mobility and other staff members who believe that group mobility is an activity with significant implications for liability, I found the question-and-answer part of this discussion very helpful. Dr. Wiener said that, if the agency policy or expectation promotes the use of group mobility when appropriate, he would have no problem supporting that agency if an incident occurred that did not involve gross negligence.

Later one of my staff members who attended the conference said to me that he didn't know Bill Wiener believed that blind people could teach mobility and that he would have to rethink his own position on this issue. During his presentation Dr. Wiener said that many years ago he had opposed the concept of blind people teaching orientation and mobility. However, after observing and undergoing instruction with occluders from a blind mobility instructor in Nebraska, he had begun to understand that blindness in and of itself does not preclude someone from being a skilled and competent mobility instructor. Currently Dr. Wiener strongly advocates for opportunities for blind people to participate in AER-approved university training programs. This acceptance of blind mobility instructors is not fully embraced by everyone in the field, as evidenced by some of the postings on the orientation and mobility listserv. It was clear from this plenary session that much more needs to be done to educate current and future professionals in the orientation and mobility field about the issues and changing philosophy concerning instructional strategies.

On Friday the plenary session addressed the topic "But We've Always Done It This Way: The Challenges and Rewards of Change in Training Centers for the Blind." The panelists in this plenary session were all at various stages of facilitating change in their organizations. Dave Eveland, Services for the Blind in Hawaii; Dr. Deana Graham, Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center�-Texas Commission for the Blind; Susan Ruzenski, Helen Keller National Center (HKNC); and Dr. Pearl Van Zandt, executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, discussed the cutting-edge changes they are making in their own programs and how these changes will improve the quality of training their blind consumers receive. They also talked about the challenges they are encountering as they implement changes in policies and philosophical approaches.

In his presentation Dave Eveland described the challenges they face in Hawaii. He told the audience to imagine being in Hawaii at the training center for the blind. You are sitting in a lounge chair on the veranda with the warm breeze blowing gently. It is eighty degrees and the sun is shining. In the distance the waves are gently rolling onto the beach. Suddenly you hear a bell announcing that it is time for classes at the training center to begin. What are you going to do? This, he said, sets the stage for the most significant challenge they face-�motivating students to go to class.

He also described their movement toward the use of sleepshades in all aspects of their program. Group instruction has become the norm. Students used to choose when and how often they came to class. Now the expectation is that students will participate in classes five days a week. The manual arts program is being revitalized. Dave stressed the importance of providing training to raise staff expectations of students. The center in Hawaii invited Joanne Wilson to talk about what components should be in a quality training center program. After these activities were completed and staff had a greater understanding of the direction management wanted to take the center in, they then began to develop a timeline and action plan for identifying and implementing their goals.

Deana Graham described the changes being made at the Criss Cole Center in Austin, Texas. They are in the midst of a major transition from a custodial model to an educational one. Based on their experience, Deana advised that management must create a sense of urgency. Staff are not likely to change unless they understand why change is necessary.

The second step was to develop a philosophy. My experience has been that rehabilitation professionals hesitate to discuss their philosophy of blindness. When I was a student at Florida State University taking education courses, we were required to write a paper in which we described and defended our philosophy of education. To my knowledge no one balked at this requirement. However, in the field of rehabilitation training for the blind, many professionals maintain that it is not necessary to have a "philosophy of blindness." In fact, a professional once said to me, "I don't have a philosophy of blindness; I just do the best job I can." I was very pleased to hear someone from another training center say that articulating a philosophy is a painful yet necessary step in raising expectations and improving the quality of services for the blind.

Deana then outlined critical questions that will be asked and must be answered in order to encourage and nurture change. Why is change important? Why now? What is this new way of thinking? What does this mean to me and my job? Are you saying I have been doing things wrong all these years? Deana then made a profoundly significant statement. She said, "We ask our students to change every day; yet we ourselves are unwilling to change and find it difficult to do." Deana referred to this as the "bleeding edge" because change can be painful. It requires personal transformation.

If effective change is to occur, it is absolutely imperative to identify and share with staff and other stakeholders this new vision. Everyone has to understand and support the new vision. Deana said that in Texas they needed to assess staff and management attitudes about blindness. They discovered three groups: those opposed to the very idea of change, those willing to make changes but unsure of the level of their commitment, and those in complete agreement with the proposed changes. Staff opposing change were usually those who had been in the business the longest.

Management found that training was key. They met staff members where they were and tried to understand why they believed what they did. As a manager, Deana said that she had to empower others to act. They made a point of recognizing every advance, no matter how small. The staff must understand that this is how we are going to do things now.

Susan Ruzenski talked about the exciting transformation HKNC continues to undergo. She said that change must be grounded in mutual respect and high expectations. The American Association of the Deaf Blind (AADB) has been a vital agent for change. In 1990 HKNC went through a shift in infrastructure. They now view themselves as a work in progress. They use the person-centered philosophy when developing student plans. In the past, assessments were used to determine a student's deficits; now assessments focus on determining abilities. They are now asking the question why not rather than why. Working with mentors has become a crucial part of the program. They have begun to examine practices to see which ones promote self-determination and which ones do not. HKNC now runs a two-week summer program for kids that focuses on self-determination and abilities. This philosophy is the cornerstone of the program at HKNC.

Pearl Van Zandt discussed the challenges and outcomes of change in Nebraska, which she says are ongoing. They continually examine what they do and why they do it that way. In seven years 67.5 percent of full-time students have achieved employment; 22.5 percent are in academic endeavors. Only 10 percent are not fulfilling their expectations. Both consumer organizations participate in strategic planning for the agency. The training center has a basic curriculum that all students are required to take. Because field staff are the ones who introduce many consumers to the rehabilitative process, they take very seriously their responsibility to educate and prepare consumers for the expectations of a comprehensive adjustment to blindness program and the process of learning to deal with blindness.

In addition to the three plenary sessions the conference sponsored concurrent breakout sessions and evening issues forums. Altogether thirty presentations took place in the breakout sessions and the evening issues forums. Here are some of the presentation titles:

* Marketing Blind Rehabilitation Beyond the VR Agencies

* Philosophical Approaches and Ethical Considerations for Providing Services Effectively to Minors in    an Adult Training Center

* Consumer Organizations as Partners in the Rehabilitation Process

* Building Braille Speed for Braille Readers Who Learn the Code as Adults

* Issues around Informed Choice within the Residential Center

* Diversity of Clients: Secondary Disabilities-�How Do We Cope?

* Whose Life Is This Anyway? Boosting Self-Confidence and Self-Determination through Summer    Programs for Deaf Blind Teens

* Home Management-�It's Not Just for Survival

* Cognitive Learning Theory and the Structured Discovery Approach

* A Legal, Philosophical, and Pedagogic Look at Liability, Negligence, and Safety Issues in Orientation    and Mobility

* Adaptive Technology Training Services in the Classroom and Online

* The Leadership Challenge: Transforming the Organization toward Empowerment

* Work Experience as Part of Rehabilitation and Employment: The Pot of Gold

* Challenges of Providing Comprehensive Rehabilitation Training for the Legally Blind Senior    Population: Experiential Learning and Integrating Community and Residential Instruction

* Switching from a Dormitory to Apartments as the Way to House Students at the Washington State    Department of Services for the Blind Orientation and Training Center

* The Effect of Medicare Funding on VR Services

* The ABCs of ABE (Adult Basic Education)

These are just a sample of what was offered.

Michael Gandy from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, who served on the planning committee for the conference said, "We didn't know if this was a one-time deal. Therefore we would rather have too much to offer than feel that we should have provided more opportunities for learning and sharing." Commissioner Wilson said that she was impressed and gratified to see people participating enthusiastically in the evening issues forums after a long day of meetings.

In the closing address of the conference on Friday morning, Dr. Fredric Schroeder talked about "fundamental versus incremental change." He said that it is important not to focus on skills as independent from attitudes. Universities today do not prepare teachers to deal with social attitudes about blindness. He also talked about the fact that some people make a virtue of low expectations. He believes that no blind person should have to go to work in a sheltered workshop because of believing that is the only opportunity available.

We need to teach the skills that will support positive attitudes about blindness. In our programs we must challenge the limitations imposed by the external environment. We must constantly ask what message our behavior sends to our students. Staff must truly believe in the capabilities of and possibilities for their blind students. Is what we're doing really working? Is it giving control back to the blind person? Is it leading people to live normal lives after they leave our programs? We left the conference pondering all these questions.

All conference participants received copies of a book written by James Omvig, entitled Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment. It lays out the components of a successful rehabilitation training program for the blind. I would encourage everyone who works at a training center to read this book. One of my staff members commented after reading Mr. Omvig's book, "I can't find anything in there with which I disagree. This is exactly what we need to be doing here." The conversations that we now have at our center revolve around questions like these: How do we get students to stay longer so that they gain the confidence and the skills to be in control of their lives when they return home? How do we get students to use sleepshades more effectively in their training? What adjustments can we make in our classes to facilitate greater achievement of independence and responsibility?

This conference gave professionals from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to network and develop resources that will affect the services we provide. "This was an excellent conference. I met many people who were willing to discuss issues of blindness. All of us were exposed to other ways of thinking and of doing things," said Joyce Scanlan from BLIND, Inc. Joanne Wilson said that she was impressed by the enthusiasm and the genuine interest people showed in learning about other programs. "You don't see this at too many conferences."

Ken Metz, who served on the planning committee from the Foundation for the Junior Blind, expressed his appreciation for the conference by saying, "The fact that people were talking and information was disseminated back and forth was a real plus for this conference." Pam Allen, executive director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, observed, "We all learned a great deal by networking with other centers. It was refreshing to see all of the agencies having an open dialogue with each other and sharing ideas which will result in better outcomes for the consumers with whom we work."

After reviewing the evaluations of the conference, the planning committee has recommended to RSA that conferences for residential training programs for the blind be conducted biennially. They also indicated that the next planning committee may want to look at the possibility of holding the next conference in a city where a residential training center for the blind is located.

As a Federationist I was proud to take part in this conference, both as a presenter and as a listener. What I saw was what Dr. Jernigan talked about in his 1997 banquet address, "The Day after Civil Rights." He said, "We must be willing to give to others as much as we want others to give to us, and we must do it with good will and civility." I think everyone at the conference would agree with Dr. Jernigan's belief that "what we need is not confrontation, but understanding, and understanding that runs both ways. This means an ongoing process of communication and public education."

I believe that communication and the beginning of understanding took place and characterized the conference in Albuquerque. As I was leaving, I heard Dona Sauerburger say to Commissioner Wilson, "We need to have more of these conferences, and more professionals need to be involved in the discussions. I know my eyes have been opened, and I think others need to have exposure to the same ideas I have heard this week."

Yes, it was a time for sharing and a time for maintaining convictions. There was a time for agreeing and a time for confronting. The time had finally come in Albuquerque to move beyond differences and look at ways truly to empower our students to be in control of their futures. After participating in this conference, I could not think of a more appropriate maxim for what we do at training centers than the motto we have at the Michigan Commission for the Blind: "Changing Lives--Changing Attitudes."

Have you considered leaving a gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will? By preparing a will now, you can assure that those administering your estate will avoid unnecessary delays, legal complications, and substantial tax costs. A will is a common device used to leave a substantial gift to charity. A gift in your will to the NFB can be of any size and will be used to help blind people. Here are some useful hints in preparing your will:

     — Make a list of everything you want to leave (your estate).

     — Decide how and to whom you want to leave these assets.

     — Consult an attorney (one you know or one we can help you find).

Make certain you thoroughly understand your will before you sign it.


For more information contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

(back) (next) (contents)