Braille Monitor                                                                                                   June 2004

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Striving for Excellence: The Role of Technology and More

by Joanne Wilson

From the Editor: Dr. Joanne Wilson is the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. Before joining the Bush administration, she established and directed the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She was president for many years of the NFB of Louisiana and a member of the NFB board of directors. Her commitment to delivering effective services to blind people and other people with disabilities is the hallmark of everything she does. On the second morning of the technology conference she delivered the keynote address. Here is a summary of what she said:

Joanne Wilson, commisioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, delivers the keynote address for the April 8 conference session.   President Maurer stands behind her.
Joanne Wilson, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, delivers the keynote address for the April 8 conference session. President Maurer stands behind her.

A professor walked to the front of the lecture hall carrying a big jar. He began placing large rocks in it until no more would fit. He then asked the class if the jar was full. The students said that it was. Then he pulled a jar of pebbles out from under the table and poured a number into the jar. Again he asked if the jar was full, and again he was told that it was. Then he produced a jar of sand and poured it into the rocks and pebbles until it reached the top. He asked a third time if the jar was full, and was told that now it really was filled. Finally he produced a pitcher of water and poured it into the jar and said, "Now the jar really is full."

When he asked the students what the point of this demonstration was, they offered platitudes like "you can always fit a bit more into your schedule," or "a busy person can always find time to do something more," and other such lessons. But the professor said that none of these had been his point. He wanted them to remember that, if the big rocks had not been put in first, there would never have been space for them once the pebbles, sand, and water had been added.

So why are we here today? Dr. Jernigan told this story illustrating the importance of priorities years ago, and his point is still true today. We need to decide what the big rocks are in the blindness field today. What do we need to be doing differently to make rehabilitation more effective? We are meeting today in one of the answers to this question. The Jernigan Institute is going to provide new answers--some of the rocks that need to be put in first when we think about rehabilitation and training for the blind. This building, dreamed of and built by blind people, will be a center where knowledgeable people will be thinking and talking about education and training and research and technology for blind people in new ways. For the first time in history blind people will be able to shape their own destiny and determine the most effective ways for programs and research to affect the lives of generations of blind people to come.

As many of you know, in the past much of the programming and technology for blind people has been designed and executed by well-meaning sighted people, usually with little or no participation by blind people. With the Jernigan Institute that will change, and this facility will be a real asset and treasure. You are here because you are interested in technology, and technology is a very important part of the future outlook for blind people.

When I became commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, I had to decide where to start. I began listening to the people we serve. I asked them what they liked and didn't like about the rehabilitation they receive. How could it be more effective? I had learned from my experience with the National Federation of the Blind that it was important to listen to the people we serve before making policies or developing new programs. By taking part in this conference, you are benefitting from the distilled wisdom of blind people, for that is what this institute offers you.

As I listened to people, I began to develop a set of principles that I believe should guide the rehabilitation world. Let me articulate these principles--the rehabilitation rocks that belong in our jar--as they apply to blind people. My first principle is that blind people can lead independent lives and can hold down high-quality, competitive employment in integrated settings. In other words, they can lead normal lives and share in the American dream.

For the first twenty years or so of the rehabilitation program in this country, no one believed that blind people had any employment possibilities. The rehabilitation program really wasn't meant for them. In fact, if we look at the statistics for the rehabilitation program during those first twenty years, an average of 4.5 blind people per year per state were becoming employed.

Then things began to change because blind consumers themselves began to object. They said that blind people could work, and gradually the law began to change. Concepts such as "most significant disability," "high-quality employment," "comprehensive services," "full potential," "individualized services," "emphasis on wages," and "civil rights" entered our vocabulary. The law began to change, not because a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington decided that it should, but because they began listening to blind people.

In the 1950's no one had ever run a mile in less than four minutes. Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke that barrier; he ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Six months later someone else broke that record. Within a year several more people had broken the barrier of the four-minute mile. It took one person to believe that things could be different to raise the bar of expectation for everybody.

Why are you here at this conference? Because you believe that technology is one of those things that can open the future in a new way for blind people. Used right, it can raise the bar and change things for blind people for the rest of history. But bars will be raised and programs will be changed only when we listen to blind people--listen to what consumers are saying.

My second principle is that the major barrier preventing blind people from getting high-quality employment and leading independent lives is not blindness itself but the misconceptions and the stereotyped notions people hold about the disability. These notions exist in blind people themselves, in providers, in family members, in employers, even sometimes within the rehabilitation profession; and the resulting misconceptions and low expectations are often the major barrier to blind people's achieving full integration into society.

The other day a member of my senior management team came to me having just had cornea transplant surgery. He was sighted, but he needed this surgery. He was really having trouble with his recovery. The surgery had not gone well, and he was having problems getting around and reading. Using the computer was giving him real trouble. I suggested that we have adaptive software loaded onto his computer temporarily at least. He had been working for rehabilitation for years. He had seen lots of blind people, including me, working effectively within our system. But he refused point blank to accept the help that was available for him, and he continues to refuse the equipment.

Why does my colleague have such trouble taking this step? The answer is the same thing you face when you begin working with blind customers in the technology field. It was his attitude; he was embarrassed to be thought of as a blind person and to use the equipment that could make him productive. We all have areas in our lives in which we harbor low expectations for ourselves. In these areas we sell ourselves short.

I often tell the following story. In the rehabilitation center I ran that Dr. Maurer referred to earlier, I was working with some of the students, moving some furniture around. We had a big desk to move into another room. I said that we couldn't do it ourselves because we could not get it through the doorway. The students disagreed. They pointed out that, if we just took off the door, we could get it through easily. I immediately called the sighted shop instructor to have him take the door off the hinges for us. But the students said, "No, no, we can do the job ourselves; we don't need J.D." They showed me how to pull out the pins and remove the door. We carried the desk through, put the door back on, and replaced the pins. There was nothing to it. I had sold myself and these blind students short. I had believed that, because we were blind, we couldn't do that task. Lots of us do that kind of thing. Whether it's touching a computer or doing day-to-day tasks, we can sell ourselves short because of misconceptions about our disabilities.

When I first became commissioner, I decided that I just had to figure out why disabled people were having such trouble getting jobs. I called in some folks from Cornell University, where they do lots of research about people with disabilities. I asked them to tell me the secrets revealed by their studies about why some people with disabilities become employed and some do not. They cited one study of blind people preparing for employment. They asked them at the beginning whether they expected that their blindness was going to be a barrier to getting a job. Two-thirds of the participants said that they expected blindness to be a barrier. By the end of the study, 80 percent of that group were unemployed.

When they looked at the results for the third who had said that they did not expect blindness to be a barrier to employment, they found that 80 percent of that group were employed. I asked how the second group had absorbed the healthy attitude about employment. The answer was that some force in their lives--a family member, a teacher, a rehab professional--had convinced them that blindness would not be a barrier. The National Federation of the Blind is such a force, and as you go out to teach technology across this country, you also have the opportunity to be such a force in the lives of your students.

Why do people come to rehabilitation agencies? Maybe they want a college education or a particular piece of technology. Those are the surface reasons, but mostly they come because they see us as the experts on blindness. They believe that we can give them the answers about how they are going to be able to live independently and to go back to work. They are looking for hope from us. It's not just our job or the job of this new institute to provide information or equipment; part of our job is to help consumers deal with the adjustment to their disability, to give them real hope, to teach them a defined philosophy about blindness.

We must help them to sort out their emotions about blindness and to discover which of their notions are true and which are not true. Someone once told me that whoever controls the circumference of your mind controls the circumference of your being. Unless we help people to stretch their minds and build a healthy philosophy about blindness and the possibilities open to them, all the equipment and technology training and tips about daily living will have only a limited effect on their lives. This new Jernigan Institute will offer hope, and if you choose to, you can be the conduit for it.

My third principle is that I really believe that blind people have the right to choose their own employment outcomes: what they want to do with their lives, what kind of jobs they want to have, who they want to have provide the services they need. This is really important in technology. People have a right to understand what is available and decide what will fit their needs.

How do individual people make those choices? When I go to the NFB convention, I spend time in the exhibit hall. If you ever go to the convention, you will see the same thing. People move around, looking at the displays and listening to what the vendors have to say. They begin nudging each other and asking the more experienced users how well particular equipment has worked for them and how well they like using it. Before they commit to a purchase, they ask around the convention, gathering information and advice from other blind people. That is how people come to an informed choice. We need to help blind people come into contact with other blind people. That's how most of us make the big purchase decisions in our lives: we get perspective from others who have already made such choices and will share their experience. The Institute will provide this perspective for blind people and give them the information that will allow them to make informed choices.

My fourth principle is that the real purpose of the general rehabilitation program and the technology training you will be doing is to empower blind people by giving them the training, the services, the equipment, and the education they need; but beyond all of that they need confidence and high expectations for themselves--the conviction that they truly can become fully integrated and contributing members of their communities. All this takes time, and it isn't cheap or easy. But once we have empowered people, we have truly changed their lives.

I remember reading a little piece in the Reader's Digest when I was in high school. One woman in a small town was the envy of all her neighbors because she always had the very best household employees in the community. When she was asked about her ability to hire people who would do a wonderful job, she explained that she used the broom test. Before a job applicant arrived, she would lay a broom on the ground just outside her door. Candidates who simply stepped over the broom on their way in received no consideration. She made her choices from among those who bent down and picked up the broom so that they could prop it in the corner, out of the way. They were the folks with that little something extra.

In my rehabilitation center I conducted a class a couple of times a week in which we discussed all kinds of things. I used to ask the students this question: if you were an employer, and you had two employees who were in every single respect equal except that one was blind, which one would you hire?

The question always resulted in lots of discussion even though no two candidates are ever exactly equal except for one characteristic. Mostly the students decided that they would hire the blind applicant. Then they were shocked when I contradicted them. I pointed out that, if all other characteristics were in fact equal and one person was blind, any good business person would hire the sighted person. The students would be furious. "What do you mean that you wouldn't hire a blind person? How do you ever expect us to get jobs if even you wouldn't hire us?"

My answer was simple: "You are going to get jobs because you are going to work so hard that things will not be equal." Blindness is a problem with many employers and on lots of jobs. The job of effective rehabilitation training is to make sure that graduates have more skills, a better work ethic, a better personality, whatever it takes so that blindness becomes the characteristic tenth or eleventh down the list of factors to be weighed in the hiring decision. Teaching your students technology is one of the factors that will make a difference, but it is only one of many factors. That's why you can't just settle for teaching technology. Our blind graduates have to be superior to their sighted competition, not just equal. This new institute brings the collective voice and experience of blind people into this effort as part of what you can offer your students.

The final principle I want to talk about today is this: I believe that true rehabilitation, the actual changing of blind people's lives, comes not just from technology experts or blindness professionals like me but from our working in partnership with consumer organizations. Consider the general business picture. When you look around at ordinary companies, you will see that some are just getting along and some are thriving. What makes the difference between these two groups? The successful businesses are able to reach beyond the standard resources that we think of: products, personnel, technology, and financial resources. They are tapping into hidden resources that have been under-used. The evidence shows that they are looking to their consumers, the people to whom they provide services. They invite consumers to join their boards and to take part in analysis of their products and services. In short, they are listening to consumers.

I was on a plane the other day and listening to a program. A man from an organization called Redhead Technologies was being interviewed. He explained that the company had not been doing very well. They looked at their corporate structure and discovered that they had a lot of inbreeding. So they began consciously listening to the people who used their products and making decisions based on what they learned. When they began involving consumers, the business took off. This is what the rehabilitation world needs to do. We can tap a valuable resource if we will partner with the organized blind in doing training and rehabilitation and education. We have vastly under-used that resource. We have maintained a wall between rehab professionals and "those wild blind consumers." Sometimes we're practically at war--we certainly don't value the other's opinions or cooperate, much less do things together. We have always viewed doing so as unprofessional, and the result has been that we have lost a valuable group of experts on blindness. This does not make any sense. The business world has discovered that it doesn't make sense, and we in rehabilitation need to discover that it doesn't make sense.

We must tap the resources you have seen here today--the commitment, the expertise, and the role modeling; these can be made available to our customers. As professionals you can do some of what I have talked about here, but you are busy. You are at your desk or trying to sell or teach technology. But you can't do it all, and you can't do it alone. The National Federation of the Blind is a valuable resource. The National Center and the Jernigan Institute are here for you to use, and NFB members can help instill confidence in your consumers and speed their adjustment to blindness.

Those of you who have been in this field for a while or who are blind yourselves, you know what happens when one blind person meets another who has mastered the skills and has the confidence to succeed. A bond is established because someone else understands. People begin going off to conferences and conventions and observing other blind people. They say, "I don't want to be like that blind person, but I sure would like to be like this one." They get perspective and begin to understand just how far they can push themselves. They see blind people doing things they never thought they could do, and they find that others have already articulated the fuzzy thoughts floating around in their own minds. All this helps them define their personal philosophy about blindness.

Not only do they learn about resources and opportunities, but they learn to advocate for themselves. They come to recognize that there is strength in numbers and that they are not alone. They come to understand that together they can change the world, and this discovery is energizing. They discover help and support for themselves when they are facing hard times, but they also find a group to which they can contribute.

I believe passionately that we must break down the barriers and find a way to use the thousands of volunteers who are out there ready to help us do the real rehabilitation, education, and training of blind people if we are truly going to change the system and make a real difference.

I will conclude by telling you a bit about my own life because it is not just my story, it is the story of most blind people. I grew up with RP [retinitis pigmentosa]. I knew I was going to become blind, but I had no one to tell me the truth about blindness. My family and I drifted along, doing the best we could, but I was surrounded by attitudes of pity and protectiveness and low expectation. No one knew what would become of me. As a teenager I remember crying myself to sleep at night, thinking that my friends would leave home and get jobs, marry, and have children; but what future did I have? Like everyone around me, I assumed that I would always be dependent on my family.

Eventually I went off to the public rehabilitation program in my state. It was the Iowa Commission for the Blind, run by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. For the first time I actually saw professionals and consumers working together, and it changed my life. I met professional staff members who truly believed in me as a blind person. They taught me new attitudes, and they pushed me to learn new skills. Very simply they made me a different person. Why? Because they themselves had positive attitudes about blindness, a new philosophy about blindness, and high expectations for blind people. Their beliefs were different from those of most blindness professionals because they had been around blind people. They had immersed themselves in the writings of blind thinkers and gone to conventions and taken the time to really listen to what blind people and consumer groups of blind people thought and hoped and dreamed. Moreover, they had hung around with blind people and had made friends with them.

The result of all this was that they had a different attitude about blindness. And they conveyed that attitude to a young blind kid from a small town in Iowa. They had me read the material written by the organized blind, they pulled me into discussions that helped me sort out my thoughts about blindness, they encouraged me to attend conferences where I could gain a healthy perspective on my blindness, and they had me hang around with the kind of blind people who could serve as role models and give me hope and encouragement. All this taught me that I could advocate for myself and others, that I should have high expectations for myself, that I had a right to the American dream. They taught me a defined philosophy and gave me a support group that I could give back to. All this made a huge difference in my life. Because of those experiences the big rocks were put into my jar. After that the rest just fell into place.

That is why I am very glad that I was invited to come to talk to all of you today. I believe that all this is your job, and I sincerely ask you to be vehicles for putting the big rocks into the individual lives of the people you work with, but also into the rehabilitation, education, and training professions. Those big rocks are the healthy attitudes, the beliefs, the new truth about blindness, and the recognition that we can partner with the Jernigan Institute, with the National Federation of the Blind, and with other blind people to carry out our jobs and make a difference in the lives of blind people.

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