DSS Offices and the Age-Old Lure of Custodialism:
Are We Going Back?

by Peggy Elliott

From the Editor: Now that college students are younger than my children, I find myself and my educational experience being dismissed by my young friends. They are tactful and polite, but I can all but hear the thoughts going through their minds: "You developed Braille-writing speed taking college class notes with a slate and stylus? We depend on laptop computers and electronic note takers." "You had to retype a clean copy of papers to turn in? Thank God for the computer and spell check!" "You found, trained, and paid your own readers? What was life like without disabled students services?"

I remember asking my mother if she had ever traveled in a covered wagon. Now I know how she felt. But contrary to the assessment of many of today's students, the fundamentals have not changed very much. Personal skills and competencies are still the foundation of success. Computers have added a few competencies to those a successful student must have, but aside from the great value of accurate typing in the old days, I can think of no skill that I developed doing things for myself in college that is not still of critical importance to academic and employment success today.

Yet the movement on campuses since the rise of disabled student services and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act has almost entirely been away from independent student management of disability-related matters. The lure of custodialism has always been strong; for today's students it is proving well-nigh irresistible, confused as it has now become with the suggestion that it is nothing more or less than disability rights.

This danger is not recent. Six years ago NFB Second Vice President Peggy Elliott wrote a letter to a college official in the state of Iowa warning of the threat and suggesting the way universities should be dealing with it. That letter has sat in my computer all this time waiting for me to find an opportunity to print it. With the appearance of Jim Marks's article, "Thanks, But No Thanks," that opportunity has now come. I asked Peggy to write a companion piece to his from the perspective of a savvy blind adult outside the halls of ivy. Here it is, beginning with her letter to the college official:

Grinnell, Iowa

June 28, 1994

Dear Dean:

When we talked the other day, you mentioned that there is quite a bit of discussion about universities' having trouble providing books for blind students. Having been a blind undergraduate and a blind law student, I am quite familiar with the book situation. Here are my thoughts. I would appreciate any response you might have.

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and now under the Americans with Disabilities Act many believe that universities are required to provide books in alternative media for blind students. You mentioned a recent court case on the subject. I take a different position: the law should be interpreted in the way most conducive to helping blind students, and that is not university provision of books.

The law as interpreted may or may not make such a requirement. Universities on behalf of their blind students have a strong interest in the law's being interpreted so that universities do not have this responsibility. This is not to be cheap or mean; it is to provide the blind student with a full learning environment.

Even if it is not now, the law should be interpreted in such a way that its ends and the university's are served. The end of the law is to create opportunity; the end of the university is to educate. There is a way to do both.

Here are some considerations I use in reaching my conclusion:

1. The university's job is to educate. This means education, not only in specific disciplines, but in one's general preparedness for living. If the university misses this second mission, it fails the student even if it graduates a perfect specimen in the chosen discipline.

For blind and sighted students alike this means learning how to handle the responsibilities of adulthood. Everyone at a university is taking on new challenges, learning new directions. For the blind student this must necessarily include learning how to handle blindness-specific issues. One of these is learning how to handle the demands of acquiring information when most information is presented in ink print.

Look at the issue this way. The blind student who can rely on others to locate his or her books, handouts, and tests in an alternative medium in college will get a rude shock when offering his or her services to a potential employer. No matter what the law seems to say, every employer has the right to watch its bottom line and to hire the most efficient workers it can get. The blind student who can rely on a college service to get a book cannot rely on an employer to get a report in an alternative medium. What does the former blind student and now the blind employee do when information is available only in print and must be digested, analyzed, and used in his or her job by Monday? Can the former blind student explain to the employer that someone else has to arrange to transcribe or record it? No. At that rate the blind employee will soon be a former employee.

Providing services in the university setting should always take into account the student's need for education. In the case of getting books, material, any form of information, the blind student should be treated like other students--expected to gather and use the information for himself or herself. Disabled student service offices do their best work for blind students when they give students the freedom and the incentive to learn information-gathering for themselves before a paycheck is riding on having the skill. Without the knowledge of how to gather and use information under all circumstances, the blind person is likely to spend a lot of years being a potential employee instead of an employee.

2. Why do blind students not know this? All of them came through high school as blind students or have recently lost their sight. Neither group currently has the skills. Those who grew up as blind students know only that someone else always got their books for them. That's convenient; it worked in high school. So who's going to do it in college? The answer from the university should be: You are. We'll help you learn. We won't do it for you.

3. On a job the blind person must be able to compete. He or she must have the skill to get and use information and the confidence that, no matter the situation, he or she can handle it. This confidence comes only from having successfully done just that in college. The skill involves working out your own mix of taping material ahead of time, finding already-taped or Brailled material, Brailling it yourself, and using readers.

This last item is vital for blind students to learn. The world is not predictable. All of us who work get unexpected things on our desks or assigned to us. You have to be situated to respond to whatever comes. No employer wants someone who can only do the expected, the predictable, the pre-planned. Employers hire brains and initiative and creativity; at least employers of college graduates purport to do so. Colleges that provide all necessary information to blind students squelch this ability in the student--not meaning to, intending to follow the law, believing they are helping the blind student. Not true.

Negotiating test rules with professors engenders self- confidence and flexibility--the professor doesn't always want to do what you want. Fending for yourself in the case of sudden handouts in print develops creativity and use of initiative. Adding an unannounced book or switching editions does the same. Let the blind student learn how to do these things. Help him or her; don't do it for the person.

4. As I am sure is obvious by now, I think that disabled student service offices have a role in assisting blind students very different from the role many play. Their role should be to facilitate the blind student's learning how to do things for himself or herself, not doing them for the blind student. This concept is fully developed by Marci Page, an employee in a disabled student service office. [See the January, 1993, issue of the Braille Monitor.] I have attached a copy of her article with this letter.

5. I know that these are not the usual ways of looking at this problem. Service providers faced with what appear to be crises or impending crises are oriented to solve the immediate problem as fast as they can. Interpretations (what I think are misinterpretations) of laws press in the same direction, all unwise. I think it is time to add the dimension of time to this analysis, deliberately to look beyond the immediate problem to the consequences of the apparent solution, and to be guided by this longer measurement. Aristotle would agree.

Let me know what you think. As a blind student myself and as the friend of many blind students now working through these issues, I am vitally interested in how people react to these thoughts and vitally interested in finding ways of making them the prevailing wisdom. We in the blind community have worked out these ideas for ourselves; now we'd like to reach a meeting of the minds with others.

One of the unintended consequences of this immediate problem-solving orientation is that colleges mentally classify the blind as subject to different rules. If you get your books through the school and if the school has not gotten the books, then the student cannot be held responsible for being behind in class. Nonsense. The student is a student and is there to learn. While learning the subject, the blind student is also learning how to learn, how to manage information. He or she should be held to the same standard of promptitude and completeness as other students and should be glad of it. Likewise, when a blind student can blame others for not producing so-called necessary help, the message is sent to the blind student's colleagues that the blind are subject to a different and softer standard. Bad for employment in the future--college colleagues are future employers; the blind student, too, comes to expect a softer standard and cannot fend in the real world when it hits.

Reactions? Do you feel the urge to say I am unrealistic? Am I one of those exceptions who can handle the rough and tumble where most blind students can't? I have answers for these and other reactions. I would welcome a dialogue.

Sincerely yours,
Peggy Pinder Elliott

I wrote the foregoing letter in 1994. Sadly I received no reaction from the dean who requested it and none from the colleagues to whom he said he was going to distribute it. I concluded at the time that my thoughts were so far removed from those of the dean and other recipients that they simply had nothing to say.

In the intervening six years my opinions on the subject of DSS offices have only deepened. Here are a few thoughts in addition to those already mentioned:

1. I perceive more and more reliance by blind people on the Americans with Disabilities Act as the cure for blindness. I don't mean that the ADA literally gives us sight. But its provisions are seen by all too many blind people as the appropriate trade-off for sight. It's never said this way; it's only thought. But the thought is poisonous to our independence. The thought is: Someone else is responsible, must take the actions I as a blind person cannot, and is available for blame when things don't go right.

For blind students in college today this poisonous thought has its roots in today's misapplication of the full-inclusion approach to the education of blind children--familiarly known as mainstreaming. While not opposing full inclusion itself, I observe that its products--and most of the handful of students educated by other systems as well--all too often arrive at the doors of colleges, technical schools, or rehabilitation agencies without life-coping skills. Someone else has always gotten books, arranged classes, overridden inconvenient obstacles, and produced tests and handouts for them. In elementary and middle school this makes sense. But high school students should be moving toward handling these tasks for themselves to the same degree that their sighted peers do and even more so. Blind people will always access information differently, and we need to learn early and skillfully to acquire and process it for ourselves. Today this move is uncommon.

The reason seems to be largely a management issue. It's easier to do things for a student than to take the time to teach him or her to do it. Teachers and administrators aren't around when the student hits college with no coping skills. But the DSS office is.

Under the pressure of the perceived provisions of ADA, of human kindness, and of managing a situation to solution, colleges often replicate the system students are accustomed to. Provide, manage, accommodate, graduate. Again the college officials aren't around when the blind person seeks employment--if the blind person seeks employment, that is.

2. Colleges using this approach in serving blind students are graduating men and women without coping skills. Everyone feels that success has been achieved when the diploma is awarded. Everyone, that is, except the blind person, who in a deep secret part of the soul knows that something is missing. Unfortunately, what is missing is life-coping skills, and many blind graduates never quite grapple with the employment market, feeling somehow unprepared.

I'd hate to tell you how many times I have counseled blind graduates, full of professional and technical knowledge, who ultimately confess poor travel skills, poor literacy skills, poor information-gathering skills, and so on. The college graduate is baffled and puzzled by this lack of coping skills and unsure what to do about it. The answer, of course, is blindness training which includes life-coping skills as a necessary part of the training. But the college graduate is often reluctant to admit to himself or herself that there are still areas needing work. After all, sighted graduates are stepping into jobs, getting paychecks, buying homes, and getting on with their lives. The blind person doesn't feel ready and isn't sure why.

Before ADA and the DSS office most of us who got through college had a system of coping skills by the end of the triumph or ordeal of graduation. It wasn't always easy. But college was an effective training ground.

I would of course never maintain that we blind students back then got or that blind students today get the appropriate kind of support from vocational rehabilitation that this federal-state partnership program should provide. My point is that, without DSS and with minimal services from V.R., we blind students back then were forced to find methods for coping that began with reliance on ourselves. We used the basic principle I tried to explain to the dean: educational institutions are there to educate, and rehab is there to provide blindness-specific tools and support. Mixing the two makes no sense. I hear people today say things like "My rehab counselor says I have to get all my services from the college under ADA" and "That student would have done fine if his DSS office had only provided him the proper support." This is just another version of the same poisonous thinking that can rob a blind person of the chance for true self-sufficiency. It's also a shameful proof of the point Federationists have made for years that vocational rehabilitation is not doing its job.

Why on earth anyone would think that an institution of higher learning should be in the job of rehabilitation, I don't know. But that's what is happening. Blind students today are told that they should get computers and readers and books in alternative media from their institutions, which in effect turns the college into a rehab agency. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and rehab has certainly left a vast amount of vacuum to abhor in its alleged provision of services to blind students. Think of it: Congress passes ADA as a civil rights law to end discrimination against the disabled, and the next thing we know the ADA has been transformed into a mandate that colleges must provide readers! In reviewing this twisted logic, keep in mind that, if rehab had been doing its job all these years, there would be no need for colleges to contemplate providing sighted guides to take blind students to class or human note-takers to fill the literacy gap.

Back to the main point: the job of educational institutions is to educate. We as blind students should interact with our colleges in the same way that other students do--registering for classes by ourselves, working out details of classroom performance ourselves, completing assignments or flunking for ourselves, and solving the myriad of tasks all sighted students are expected to perform on the way to graduation, just as they do. On the way we learn those same coping skills that sighted students learn. Don't forget for a minute that sighted students are doing the same thing. They fail to get instructions right, fail to get to the library to get the reserved material assimilated, don't know where a classroom is before they first go to look for it, take notes for themselves or do not as they decide, learn to perform all the tasks or to take the consequences. It's part of the educational process. Blind students should be doing the same thing; and, to the extent that we need different tools like computers or readers, we should be getting them from the rehab people, not the education people.

So rehab doesn't work? You can't get enough reader time or the computer you need from rehab? Then beat on rehab! Find other students to do it with you. Recruit graduates (otherwise known as adult blind people) to serve on your team. Make rehab justify every refusal, every failure to function, every excuse and temporization. After all, rehab is the government. They work for whom? For us! Let us not permit their failure to be transformed into such a smothering safety net for the blind that none of us can ever truly succeed.

On the subject of teamwork Dr. Jernigan once said: "Even animals in the jungle have sense enough to hunt in packs. The blind ought to be at least as intelligent." Instead we have permitted rehab's failures and the misinterpretation of the ADA to yield the current system: Each blind student functions alone without a team of fellow blind supporters and gets rehab from educational institutions that results in no coping skills upon graduation. I might add that learning how to hunt in packs and succeed is a life-coping skill in and of itself.

The circumstances in which blind students find themselves, however, are different in one important respect from those facing other disabled students. People who use wheelchairs must have institutional commitment to get rid of stairs. No amount of rehabilitation will achieve that goal. People with many other disabilities face circumstances similar to those of people using wheelchairs. Blindness is the only disability I know for which the real or perceived barriers are wholly in the minds of blind people ourselves and the minds of the educators with whom we deal. And we are the only disability group for whom proper rehabilitation is a sufficient answer.

But because we are disabled, we get swept into the DSS movement. Educational institutions have been told to handle the disabled appropriately, and in many cases the handling must be institutional. We're the only ones that don't fit the model. But this fact is overlooked by institutions and ignored by all too many blind students glad for an extra hand, a ready-made way to get things done that seems easier than doing it oneself. The thing such students forget is that, when someone puts a floor beneath you, preventing you at all costs from failure, that same person prevents you from succeeding. In order to have the possibility of success, we must also have the possibility of failure. All too many of us see the ADA as our promise from Congress that someone else will do the hard stuff, as our guarantee against failure. It all too often is. At the same time it guarantees against success.

Here is the last little bit of poison from the ADA: the concept that all disabled people are alike, can be handled alike, can be fit into the same box and helped through college. While other disabled people need specific, tangible institutional help, that help is guaranteed to withhold the very skills and the very possibility of failure from blind people that we most need.

3. Which leads me to the final point. When I talk to students today, I often feel a disconnection. Blind students today listen politely, murmur about the importance of independence, and change the topic as soon as possible. It's clear that many blind students privately think I don't know what's happening on today's campuses, don't understand today's world as seen by them. They're going to classes, doing fine, using DSS offices for a wide variety of services, and feel great about the subject. Why disturb a good thing? They're okay.

I just keep trying, as I am doing here, to explain that I do very much understand what is going on on today's campuses. It's what's always gone on everywhere a blind person shows up. The ADA has only made it more systematic and changed its name from custodialism to what is perceived as a right. Right under the law or not, custodialism is still custodialism, and failure to learn coping skills is still failure to learn coping skills.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: Whenever a blind person is tempted to say the words "Americans with Disabilities Act," that blind person should pause, take a deep breath, do a little mind-emptying exercise, and then focus on the real question which is "How am I myself--this very person and no one else--going to get this job done?" Any temptation to duck, wangle, or permit others to do our coping for us should be firmly resisted.

This is good Federation practice, teaching others that we can be successful in the little as well as the great things. But, most important of all, it is just plain selfish in the sense that all of us need to teach ourselves that we can do things. This teaching of ourselves translates into self-confidence, and that self-confidence translates into first-class citizenship and into jobs.

When a DSS office does it for us, it translates into failure to learn coping skills. So say it nicely, say it with kindness, say it with firmness, but say it! "I'll do it myself." And make it stick. Make it stick with the DSS office, and make it stick with yourself. When you do, we're all winners. We win when we discover self-reliance, when we build our own dignity, when we learn to handle tasks for ourselves without even thinking much about it. In other words, we win when we find out who we are and reject the trappings of custodialism, however they are dressed up and disguised. In a very real, very practical sense that is exactly what Dr. Jernigan meant when he said: "We know who we are, and we will never go back."