Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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Reflection on a Visit to LCB
and Louisiana Tech University's PDRIB

by Jagdish Chander

Jagdish Chandler
Jagdish Chander

From the Editor: Jagdish Chander is a doctoral student in disability studies at Syracuse University. He has also taught at the University of Delhi and is working to establish a school in India at which students with and without disabilities learn together. This is what he says about his experience in Ruston, Louisiana:

I arrived in Ruston, Louisiana, on the evening of July 21, 2003, and was received by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, my host and advisor, who had facilitated my visit. I started my first day with a tour of the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) and an introduction to some key people working in the center. I had lunch and dinner with a visitor from Utah there to learn about the operation of the center. The first morning I was picked up by Jim Omvig, the author of Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment, who introduced me to Matt Lyles, a master's student from Yale, who was working in Ruston for the summer.

Matt spent the whole day giving me a tour, and I discovered a lot about the center and collected taped literature, including Mr. Omvig's book. I finished reading the book in two days during breaks in completing several graduate school writing assignments. It was such a light and interesting read that I turned to it for pleasure. However, despite being written with simplicity and clarity, the book was practically a bible on rehabilitation of the blind. Having read the book and gotten to know the author, I concluded that this book should be translated into various languages with minor adaptations to take account of culturally relevant values and omitting some discussions specific to the United States.

So why did I want to spend almost a month in Ruston, Louisiana, during the hot and muggy months of July and August? I attended my first convention of the National Federation of the Blind in July of 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky. The convention was an amazing experience. I had never attended such a large assembly of blind people, almost three thousand. What was most astonishing was that the activities were conducted by blind people themselves. Never in my life had I seen blind people functioning so independently.

Because of this convention experience, I became interested in learning more about the NFB and its philosophy. That July I vacationed in Colorado, where I visited the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) in Littleton, near Denver. That's when I started learning about the NFB training centers for the blind. The CCB, LCB, and BLIND, Incorporated, are the three privately operated training centers modeled on the Iowa Commission for the Blind, which was designed and developed by the late president of the NFB, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. I could not have found a better place than one of these three centers to interact with and learn about blind people in the United States.

In addition to the LCB, the other major attraction in Ruston is the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness (PDRIB, referred to familiarly as the Institute) affiliated with Louisiana Tech University. From the phrase "research institute on blindness," one might assume this was a facility attempting to cure blindness or perhaps a rehabilitation studies center. Being a graduate student of disability studies—a discipline that looks at blindness or any other mental or physical disability as a social construction—I found the Institute on Blindness and the LCB the best place I have observed to conduct research on the sociological, political, and historical aspects of blindness in the context of the NFB's radical, alternative philosophy of blindness.

Recognizing the importance of the LCB and the Institute on Blindness, I spent four weeks in Ruston, primarily to achieve two objectives: (1) to observe closely the activities of LCB and (2) to identify the relevant literature on civil rights of the organized blind movement in the United States. The former goal was to enrich my personal knowledge about LCB and the experiences of blind Americans, while the second allowed me to identify and collect literature to add to the literary treasure of the Disability History Museum project aimed at developing lesson plans to teach the history of disability at the high school level in the United States. My school, Syracuse University, is involved in developing lesson plans for this project, and I happened to be one of the graduate students working on the project. With the guidance and support of Dr. Ron Ferguson and his wife Jan, I was able to identify immensely valuable literature on this topic. This collection includes little-known, unpublished literature highlighting the contribution to the blind civil rights movement of Dr. Newel Perry, the mentor of NFB founder Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. In addition to enhancing the Disability History Museum project, I intended to use this literature to highlight the contribution of the blind civil rights movement prior to the growth of the broader disability rights movement begun in the late 1960's and early 1970's. By the end of my trip I had read and identified immensely rich literature on the civil rights movement of the blind in the U.S.

Some of the ideas developed by early NFB leaders like Dr. Perry and Dr. tenBroek were far advanced, even radical, in the pre-civil-rights era in the U.S. Dr. tenBroek described three key concepts in his 1948 NFB banquet address: equality, opportunity, and security. These ideas were radical concepts during this period. Similarly Dr. Jernigan's frequently quoted 1963 speech, "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic?" is an important philosophical and analytical piece challenging the traditional meaning of blindness as defined through the negative attitudes of the public. The approach to the problems of blindness outlined in this historic 1963 lecture is embraced today by scholars of disability studies who adhere to the social model of disability, under which disability is understood primarily as a social construction along the lines of gender and race.

What did I learn during my visit to LCB and the Institute on Blindness? Before visiting Ruston, I did not understand many NFB rehabilitation concepts. I regarded some of these ideas as the products of a misguided philosophy. My observation of LCB activities and discussion with the students and staff of LCB and PDRIB significantly increased my understanding of some of these ideas and concepts. Here are several examples of myths I was able to dispel as a result of my findings during my visit to Ruston:

1. Braille is too cumbersome and slow a method of reading to be efficient, and the NFB over-emphasizes the importance of Braille literacy.

2. Blind mobility instructors cannot teach travel safely.

3. It makes no sense to ask a person with residual vision to use sleepshades during training.

4. Blind students should never be discouraged from walking with a sighted guide or maintaining contact with a blind friend while walking together or in a group.

I will address these four issues, one by one.

1. To my amazement I discovered that some blind people can read Braille at more than two hundred words a minute--a speed at which many sighted graduate students read. With practice a person can read Braille really quickly. To my astonishment, I met a Louisiana Tech graduate student, Brook Sexton, who could read Braille at up to five hundred words a minute. I had always understood the importance of mastering Braille, but I had no idea that it could be read with a speed comparable to that of sighted people reading print.

2. Having been trained by sighted mobility instructors, I always believed it would be difficult for me to feel safe going through O and M training under the guidance of a blind instructor. However, in Ruston I observed blind mobility instructors who have trained many blind students with no injuries or accidents attributable to the blindness of the instructor, and the graduates of this program are both confident and competent independent travelers.

3. From a layperson's point of view, it sounds strange to discourage blind students from using their residual vision while they are undergoing life-skills training. However, after interacting with the staff and students at LCB, I could understand more clearly that blind people can learn to lead normal lives through the use of alternative techniques more quickly and efficiently when they are not straining to use failing vision. Moreover, poor vision usually gets worse, and, if people do not learn to adapt to their blindness using sleepshades, it is harder, slower, and more depressing for them to adapt their alternative techniques to their loss of vision.

4. I have blind friends who resist taking the arm of a sighted guide under any circumstances. Having studied Dr. Jernigan's 1993 speech "The Nature of Independence," I have come to recognize this insistence as a stage (rebellious independence) on the way to complete and well-adjusted independence. It is important for blind people to be confident in their travel skills and competent to meet any situation. But there are times and places when, if sighted assistance is available, it is less obtrusive and more responsible to accept it. Getting to this point of maturity requires much work and training, and students must courteously insist on working through travel problems independently in order to gain the experience they need to travel with full confidence and safety.

In short, my interaction with LCB staff and students and the Institute on Blindness staff, and my observation of the activities of LCB, helped me resolve these myths and convinced me of several facts: Braille can be read as fast and efficiently as print, and all blind children and adults should be encouraged to make good use of it. Blind mobility instructors can be just as effective and efficient as sighted mobility instructors. It is desirable to wear sleepshades during life-skills training to discourage the use of residual sight and to teach students confidence in their ability to manage their lives efficiently without sight. And, finally, it is appropriate for students to avoid using sighted guides during training in order to sharpen their skills of independence.

Thus my visit to Ruston helped me accomplish my twin objectives of observing the LCB program and identifying relevant literature about the civil rights movement of the organized blind. But my visit also helped me dispel certain myths about NFB philosophy and life-skills training in the centers established by the NFB.

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