The Braille Monitor                                                                                       November 2002

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Orientation Centers as Cutting-Edge Empowerment Stations

by James H. Omvig

James Omvig
James Omvig

From the Editor: The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is publishing a relatively short book which contains the distilled wisdom and experience of James Omvig about what constitutes constructive and successful rehabilitation for blind people. Jim, who is a lawyer by training, an adult adjustment center administrator by experience, and a Federation leader of many years' commitment, has poured all of his expertise and experience into this volume. RSA officials have assured those eagerly awaiting its publication that it will appear in November, so we are publishing the presentation summary of the text written by Jim Omvig as well as a brief review by an experienced educator of blind children. As I commented in my own brief review of this important text, "My only concern is that it [the book] is not uninteresting and abstruse, so students may refuse to take it seriously. It is, however, about as serious and important as any book can be that deals with the possibility of giving blind people back their lives and dignity." Here is what Jim Omvig has to say about this volume:

As America enters the twenty-first century, statistics show that between 70 and 80 percent of her working-age blind people are unemployed (Kirchner and Schmeidler, 1997). Of those who are employed, far too many are severely underemployed or are destined to be locked in at entry-level jobs for a lifetime. Why?

Putting to one side all of the rationalizations, there can be but two possible explanations for this dismal statistic: either, first, blind people as a class, no matter how thoroughly trained and adjusted to their blindness they may be, are inherently incompetent, or, second, there has been something inherently wrong with the blindness system in America—the complex of programs for educating or rehabilitating people who are blind.

The problem is not with the blind themselves. The evidence that properly trained blind people can live independent, successful, competitive, normal, and happy lives and can assume their rightful position of full membership in society is too overwhelming to conclude that the blind as a class are inherently incompetent. Therefore one must reluctantly and cautiously draw the conclusion that the problem has been with the blindness system itself—educational and Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs for people who are blind have historically not been what they could and should be.

Then, to compound the problem, the blind have been thought of by society—and have learned to think of themselves—as a group apart, a helpless and hopeless lot, as having neither the right nor the ability to work for their daily bread or to earn their self-respect. The blind as a group have thought of themselves not as unemployed but as inferiors who are unemployable: the reality is that the blind are a visible minority.

To round out the facts at the root of the unemployment problem, too many residential orientation and adjustment (O&A) centers also have unwittingly embraced society's negative view of the blind and have perpetuated these myths and misconceptions in the minds of their students, and those students have been the losers. Such centers have utilized what one might call the enabler model of service delivery. However, there is good news. The age of enlightenment is here, and a new model—a proven cutting-edge formula for success—exists. It is the empowerment model. Incidentally, the notion that only private centers, not those which are state-operated, can adopt and promote cutting-edge training practices and techniques is absurd on its face. All centers—both private and state-run—can and should embrace state-of-the-art practices and join what has been called "the revolution of personal empowerment."

The empowerment station model of an O&A center is one which recognizes that all offered services must be aimed at teaching its students a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness based upon an understanding that prevailing views are wrong and harmful. Further, such a center will help its blind students strive to achieve four personal objectives (Omvig, in press). They are:

(1) The blind person must come emotionally, not just intellectually, to know that he or she truly can be independent and self-sufficient;

(2) The blind person must really learn and become competent in those skills—the alternative techniques of blindness—which will make it possible for him or her truly to be independent and self-sufficient;

(3) The blind person must learn to cope on a daily basis with the public attitudes about blindness—with those things which will be said or done to him or her because of other people's misunderstandings and misconceptions; and

(4) Even when the blind individual has adjusted emotionally to blindness, even when the alternative techniques have been mastered, and even when he or she has learned to cope effectively with the demeaning things other people do or say, the blind person must also learn to blend in and to be acceptable to others. He or she must be punctual, reliable, neat and appropriate in appearance, and possessed of good social and table manners and the like. Since the ordinary blind person needs to learn to blend in and to be acceptable to society for maximum success, the schools and agencies must do the very best they can to make sure that this desired result is achieved.

Freedom should be accessible to everyone! It is possible, with a willingness to think outside the box, for the traditional O&A center to become an exciting empowerment station and to move those students who choose to attend it toward successful, high-quality employment and increasing integration into society. A proven cutting-edge formula for success exists, and it is available for the taking. A brief summary of these training center best practices is as follows:

* Emotional Adjustment: Helping the student come to understand and feel at the gut level, not just intellectually, that true freedom, independence, and normality are possible for him or her is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the entire adjustment-to-blindness process. It is achieved at the empowerment station over a six-to-nine-month period by seeing to it that the student is helped to accept the fact that he or she is blind and to learn that the word "blind" is okay; by meeting difficult challenges; by using sleepshades for the partially blind; by facing routine life experiences; by using the long white cane constantly; by engaging in frank discussions about blindness; by being exposed to good blind role models; by learning the importance of paying back; and by being willing to invest the time it takes to get it.

* Mastering the Skills: The empowerment station will not merely introduce students to the skills of blindness but help them strive to master those skills in order to achieve competence and competitiveness. The student (using sleepshades for those who are partially blind) must master Braille reading and writing; hone long white cane use to reflex perfection; develop effective keyboard and computer skills; and acquire usable homemaking and personal grooming habits. In addition the student must learn how to think up alternative techniques for the rest of his or her life in situations where center training could not foresee the need. Finally, the student must be able to master life-coping skills and be able to respond effectively to the ubiquitous how.

* Coping with Blindness: As a routine part of empowerment training, the student must learn to handle unemotionally the strange and unusual things other people will do or say because of their misunderstandings and lack of accurate information about blindness. The student should learn to handle routine put-downs; treatment which goes beyond the bounds; and discrimination.

* Blending In: As a final routine part of training, the empowerment station will help the student achieve what it takes to be able to blend in and to be acceptable to those around him or her. The student will master such things as punctuality and reliability; common courtesy; personal appearance, and what things look like; learn that the blind are judged by one another; and work to eradicate blindisms.

A quality O&A center is the heart of any good VR program. In Chapter XIII of Freedom for the Blind, I outline twenty individual characteristics the quality center should have. The student who has received personal empowerment from a cutting-edge residential O&A center has a markedly higher chance for vocational success than the norm. Given the right kind of training, the average blind person—not merely those some observers mistakenly perceive as the superblind—can compete on terms of true equality with his or her sighted peers and can become a taxpayer rather than a tax user. Far from wanting meekly to whimper, "I wonder what it would feel like to be free," the empowered blind person can climb the highest mountain and shout, "I am free! I know what it feels like to be free."

Kirchner, C. and Schmeidler, E. (1997). Prevalence and employment of people in the United States who are blind or visually impaired. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 91 (5), 508-509.

Omvig, J. (in press). Freedom for the Blind: The Secret is Empowerment. Hot Springs, Arkansas. Regional Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program, University of Arkansas.

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