The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  March 2005

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A Review of Rehabilitation in America:
Reflections of the Past, Observations of the Present,
and Speculations about the Future

by Danika Taylor

Danika Taylor
Danika Taylor

From the Editor: Danika Taylor is NFB copy editor. In the following literature review she lays out the history of rehabilitation efforts in the United States, describes the present situation, and speculates a bit on what the future may hold. It's a valuable compilation of what we know and an indication of the direction the NFB is urging the field to go. This is what she says:

Most blind people of working age in the United States come in contact with the rehabilitation system, and a number of older blind Americans beyond working age are also affected by it. As a result, the rehabilitation system is of vital importance to blind Americans. In some instances it has made a dramatic difference in the lives of its clients. However, at times rehabilitation programs have failed utterly.

What is the history of rehabilitation services in America? How did these services come into being, what are they, what should they be, and how did they get to be what they are? In programs to serve the disabled, rehabilitation may be defined as any activity that elevates individuals with disabilities from dependence to independence. Accordingly schools for the blind are a good starting point because education is basic to gaining freedom, empowerment, and true independence.

The first school for the blind in America, the New England Asylum for the Blind, was chartered in 1829 by the Massachusetts legislature and opened in 1832. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe was chosen to be the director of this Watertown-based school, which is known today as the Perkins School for the Blind. The New York Institution for the Blind was chartered in 1831; the Philadelphia-based Overbrook School for the Blind was founded in 1832; and the Tennessee School for the Blind, founded by James Champlin, was established in 1844. By 1910, when the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired came into being, most states had schools for the blind.

A few residential schools for the blind have closed. According to Dr. Kay Alicyn Ferrell (2003), the increasing number of blind children being educated in the public school system caused a diminished interest in schools for the blind. Since the 1950's the proportion of blind students educated in separate environments from their sighted peers has decreased significantly. The percentages dropped partly because of the considerable increase in the number of children who survived premature birth and who were blind as a result. In fact, "The known count of children with visual disabilities in the United States grew 158 percent from 1950 to 1960, and another 50 percent from 1960 to 1970, after the rubella epidemic of the mid-1960's" (Ferrell 2003). As these children got ready to attend their residential schools, school officials realized that they did not have the means to support so many children at one time. So, rather than allowing their children to remain uneducated, parents decided to enroll them in public schools.

Statistics published on the University of Colorado Web site by Dr. Ferrell show that 88.4 percent of blind children were educated in residential schools in 1950. Dr. Ferrell also cites research that this number dropped "to 46.6 percent in 1960, [and] to 31.5 percent in 1972" (by Ferrell 2003). Finally, according to statistics published by the American Printing House for the Blind, "by 1999 the number of children with visual impairments being educated in separate school environments had dropped to 15 percent" (by Ferrell 2003).

From the beginning of programs for the blind, significant problems have existed with education and rehabilitation. The majority of problems stemmed from low expectations, which were shared by the public, held by a number of administrators of programs for the blind, and often even by the blind themselves. According to Dr. C. Esco Obermann, author of A History of Rehabilitation in America, the negative attitudes about blindness originated before biblical times, when blindness was considered a blemish and was commonly believed to be punishment "inflicted upon the sinful and the ungodly" (1965, 328). Dr. Obermann wrote that these "Biblical laws and pronouncements have powerfully influenced the attitudes in our Western culture. They have helped to prepare the conditions and roles of blind people and have helped to define some of the problems related to their vocational rehabilitation" (1965, 328). Consider the problems that persist to this day in the unemployment and underemployment rates among the blind and the discrimination that endures because of misconceptions about the capabilities of blind people. With these facts in mind it is not difficult to comprehend that Dr. Obermann's words, although published in 1965, are still relevant in 2005.

Samuel Gridley Howe, the first director of the Perkins School for the Blind, stated a main objective of his school to be "to train blind young people to be able to take their places in the social and economic life of their communities." The 1833 Address of the Trustees of the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind [now Perkins] to the Public recognized that a properly trained blind person could "attain as much excellence in mathematical, geographical, astronomical, and other sciences as many seeing persons, and that he can become as good a teacher of music, language, mathematics, and other sciences, yet all this, and more can he do."

This same document also stressed "the superiority of the blind to seeing persons as teachers of the blind; [saying] we agree with Dr. Howe, that no person can so well understand and overcome the difficulties which a blind child has to encounter in learning, as one who had to encounter and overcome them himself." The document goes on to quote Dr. Howe as saying, "A school for the blind without blind teachers is necessarily imperfect."

However, within a few years of the opening of the school, the trustees of Howe's school reported that his efforts to place students in the academic life of the community were failing. The majority of students were not obtaining meaningful employment upon graduation, and many returned to the school to seek further assistance. The annual report published in 1848 reveals that these goals had not been realized: "It must be confessed, however, that the hopes once entertained of the blind being able to turn their talents and acquirements to account by teaching other branches than music have not been fulfilled" (7). And considering that in 2005 the unemployment rate among capable blind people is estimated to be between 70 and 80 percent, it is safe to say that Howe's progressive objectives still remain to be realized.

Despite the enormous task before him, Howe continued to promote governmental support for programs to help the blind. His 1837 petition to Congress to establish a library for the blind was unsuccessful. However, Howe never lost his determination to secure books for blind readers, and he continued to urge government to help in their production.

On March 3, 1879, the first federal act benefiting blind students was passed. The Act to Promote the Education of the Blind provided funding to the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) for printing embossed books and producing apparatus for blind students throughout the country. Congress allocated $10,000 a year for books for the blind through a grant administered by APH, and this appropriation was later increased. The Act to Promote the Education of the Blind was expanded in 1946 to include large type, and the APH Large Type Department was established.

Today the American Printing House for the Blind provides special educational materials for visually impaired students, offers advisory services for consumers, and conducts applied research. The Act to Promote the Education of the Blind provides funds to APH through a direct appropriation. In fiscal year (FY) 2004 the federal appropriation was approximately 60 percent of APH's $27,850,000 budget. The federal appropriation was used to "provide free educational materials to approximately 57,500 persons with visual impairments at an average per student allotment of $212.23. It also supported initiatives to improve technical assistance and outreach services related to products produced through the Act and to conduct a wide variety of continuing and new research projects" (FY 2005 Budget Summary 2004).

Dr. Tuck Tinsley, president of APH, tells us about a few projects that have been budgeted for 2006. The organization is planning to "design instructional and self-help materials and printing guides to help blind students and adults develop the ability to print legibly; to develop and update instructional materials to help blind students develop skills in sewing, home maintenance, and personal management; and to develop materials to assist blind high school and transition students with decisions about post-secondary education and occupational development."

APH also sponsors an ongoing training program, holds various instructional workshops throughout the year, provides a list of blindness-connected research, promotes studies of product development for the blind, and provides other services intended to help blind people become better educated and more independent.

The Pratt-Smoot Act, which provided for the production of embossed books for adults, was enacted on March 3, 1931. The Librarian of Congress "was authorized to arrange with other libraries to serve as local or regional centers for the circulation of such books, under such conditions and regulations as he may prescribe." The next day Congress passed a joint resolution appropriating $100,000 for FY 1932 "to carry out the provisions of the Act to provide books for blind adults, and the program that would become the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH) was established" (NLS Factsheets 2004).

By 1934 the Talking Book had been developed, and in 1935 President Roosevelt allotted $211,500 to the Works Progress Administration for the construction of 5,000 Talking Book machines. The Library of Congress then loaned the machines to various libraries around the country. By 1946 the Library of Congress was fully committed for the first time to providing machines from its own appropriation (NLS Factsheets 2004). The Pratt-Smoot Act was amended in 1952 to allow for the production of books for children as well as adults. As Dr. Obermann notes, "the increase in books that resulted from the Federal laws greatly expanded the training and vocational rehabilitation possibilities for blind people." (1985, 48)

Although Samuel Gridley Howe had some progressive ideas about improving the lives of blind people in America, his work was by necessity experimental, and he was affected by some negative attitudes about blindness. Howe stated that "the school will offer education that is similar to what seeing children receive, except that music and crafts will be emphasized." In other words the blind would receive an "equal" education, but they should be taught to work with their hands. Students in schools for the blind came to expect training in what became known as "blind trades": tuning pianos, caning chairs, making brooms, and weaving rugs. In the economy of Howe's day, handwork was common. Apparently Dr. Howe believed that blind students needed more intense training in developing handwork skills than the sighted. Because the blind who possessed these skills were not accepted in the employment market, sheltered shops were established in which blind employees often earned only a few cents per hour performing these menial tasks.

The first so-called employment programs for blind adults were established on the campuses of residential schools for the blind. The Perkins Institution, as it was then called, established a sheltered workshop in 1850 to employ former students and other unemployed but capable blind people. After the establishment of this sheltered workshop in Massachusetts, many states followed with their own sheltered shops, thus helping to solidify the notion that blind people could not compete in the mainstream job market with their sighted peers, a problem that persists to this day. Therefore, although these pioneering institutions were established with good intentions and did some exceedingly valuable work, they sometimes felt it necessary to compromise in their support of the blind. Sometimes the compromises negatively affected public perceptions of blindness. Few of their graduates lived up to their full potential--they certainly did not receive all that rehabilitation might have been able to offer.

Following the establishment of schools for the blind, many states organized commissions for the blind to meet the social, medical, psychological, and economic needs of blind adults. Again Massachusetts was a pioneer in this endeavor, opening the first state commission for the blind in 1906; and other states followed. States that do not have separate commissions or departments specifically for the blind rely on other departments of state government to oversee the blindness division, which is sometimes buried too deeply within the larger umbrella agency to get the public attention required to stimulate resourcefulness and effectiveness.

Rehabilitation for the blind was almost exclusively based in state government or private effort until the twentieth century. As already mentioned, a federal law to support the publication of books for the blind became effective in 1879, but no other federal legislation to promote rehabilitation of the blind existed at that time.

Vocational rehabilitation (VR) aims to provide recipients with the skills needed for employment. VR did not receive federal support until the end of World War I, which had created thousands of veterans with disabilities. VR became a serious national effort because of this war; many people believed that veterans with some disabilities could be helped to gain or regain employment.

In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Fess Act into law, the first federal legislative support for programs for adults with disabilities. Under this act the federal government reimbursed 50 percent of the direct cost of VR services (vocational guidance, training, occupational adjustment services, and job placement) provided by a state to physically handicapped individuals. When first established, the federal VR program was not permanent, so Congress voted periodically to reauthorize it. Until 1943, however, blind citizens were left out of the public rehabilitation program because blind people were assumed to be too disabled for meaningful rehabilitation. The notion of feasibility relating to an individual's ability to engage in employment first appeared in the 1943 regulations implementing the amendments to the 1920 VR legislation. Over the years the notion of feasibility was used interchangeably with the notions of an individual's "employment potential," "employability," and "ability to benefit from VR services." The method by which these terms were to be interpreted and applied to individuals applying for VR services was changed in the 1990's.

Prior to the 1992 amendments, the individual had to demonstrate that he or she was feasible for VR services (i.e., he or she was employable). In this context the burden was placed on the individual. Amendments adopted in the 1990's turned this paradigm upside down, with the statutory presumption that the individual was feasible for VR services (i.e., was able to benefit from VR services with an employment outcome). With this presumption the burden was shifted from the individual to the agency. In order to rebut the presumption of benefit, the agency had to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that, because of the severity of the disability, the individual was not capable of benefiting from VR services with an employment outcome.

The Social Security Act of 1935 contained provisions to support aid for the blind with federal money. Prior to the adoption of this act, state or local governments had provided whatever government aid was available to the blind for living expenses. Social Security put more money into the hands of needy blind people than had previously been available. However, the act did little to encourage vocational rehabilitation. The Social Security Act, according to Dr. Floyd Matson, "introduced a battery of conditions and requirements which often bound the blind recipient more tightly than ever in dependency and red tape" (1990, 9).

A 1939 amendment to this act enforced even stricter requirements governing public welfare, and many blind people were left out altogether. The assumption of control by the government brought reaction from the blind. It was the leading topic on the agenda at the founding convention of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. As Dr. Matson puts it in Walking Alone and Marching Together, "The nationalizing of welfare led to the nationalizing of the organized blind movement" (1990, 10)

The Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936 gave preference to blind people to operate vending stands on federal property, but in the beginning few blind people were able to secure stands under this act. The Randolph-Sheppard Act was amended in 1974 to include the operation of vending facilities, adding cafeterias and later military mess halls to the program. In FY 2002, according to documents released by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, a total of 2,681 blind vendors operated 3,129 vending facilities located on federal and other property. The program generated $453.6 million, and the average vendor earnings amounted to $37,323, slightly below the median U.S. income of just over $40,000.

The Wagner-O'Day Act of 1938 required the federal government to purchase certain products from workshops for the blind, in an attempt to expand employment opportunities in those workshops. This act was amended in 1971, when it received the title Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act. It extended purchase authority to workshops for people with other severe disabilities in addition to blindness.

The first act of Congress that specifically included the blind in vocational rehabilitation was the Barden-LaFollette Act of 1943. It expanded eligibility for vocational rehabilitation to include, among other disabled groups, the blind. Before this act, the blind were not generally considered eligible for services under the federal-state vocational rehabilitation program, although there was no stated prohibition to serving the blind.

In 1975 Congress adopted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, but in signing it the president expressed doubts about its value. On December 2, 1975, President Gerald Ford made the following statement: "Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill--educating all handicapped children in our nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective" (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum Web site 2004).

In 1990 this act was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The act states that all children with disabilities must have available to them a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living. With its current budget of 10.1 billion dollars, IDEA provides funds to assist states in the education of students with disabilities and requires that states ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected. IDEA also assists states in providing early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. IDEA authorizes a one billion dollar increase for its FY 2005 budget. If granted, this request would provide an average of "$1,612 each for about 6.9 million children with disabilities" (FY 2005 budget summary).

"At this level of funding," according to the FY 2005 budget summary, "the Federal contribution would equal about 20 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure for all children" (FY 2005 budget summary 2004).

In 1998 the Assistive Technology Act authorized state grant programs and protection and advocacy systems to address the assistive technology needs of people with disabilities. The act also authorized the development of alternative financing mechanisms to assist people with disabilities in purchasing assistive technology. This act is important to rehabilitation because it is necessary in today's workforce to be computer literate and to have access to technology.

To this point this article has been a summary of the history of legislation and other actions dealing with education and rehabilitation of the blind. We began with schools for the blind, moved to the establishment of sheltered workshops, observed the growing importance of reading for the blind, described employment programs in vending facilities, contemplated broad-range rehabilitation, and finally returned to public education of the blind. We must still ask about the current state of rehabilitation for the blind in America.

The idea of having a residential orientation and adjustment center to train and empower blind adults is relatively new. Father Thomas Carroll Jr. was a pioneer, if a sometimes misguided one. Father Carroll was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1909 and ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1938. He was assigned to the position of assistant director of the Catholic Guild for All the Blind, in Newton, Massachusetts, and subsequently held several positions that would involve him in work with the blind. Father Carroll worked with blinded veterans during World War II; he served as auxiliary chaplain of Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital, the U.S. Army's Experimental Rehabilitation Center in Connecticut; he held a similar position at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; and he became director of the Catholic Guild for All the Blind in 1947.

In 1952 Father Carroll introduced to the Guild (later renamed the Carroll Center) the idea that, after receiving proper instruction, blind people could travel safely with a cane. Father Carroll established the St. Paul's Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in 1954, a year after the establishment of the California Orientation and Adjustment Center, which was the first effort to ground an adult training program for the blind in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. So the St. Paul's program was actually the second "civilian [facility] that provided comprehensive rehabilitation for the newly blinded," according to a statement on the Carroll Center Web site. Father Carroll did not use the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, and many of his ideas were not particularly effective in empowering and teaching independence. He believed that blindness is a tragedy that can be mitigated but never eradicated. In fact, in his controversial book, Blindness: What It Is, What It Does, and How to Live with It, Father Carroll states that blindness is "a dying" (1961, 13).

He used instruction in fencing to teach travel. He believed that the skills of fencing would help blind people develop the balance, dexterity, and coordination necessary for cane travel. Many, many thousands of blind people have learned to travel without being taught to fence. Although fencing is a fine sport and anyone who wants to learn it should do so, there is little evidence to support the notion that fencing is necessary to travel with a cane.

"Visualization" or "videation" was another skill taught at the Carroll Center. Visualization was based on the notion that a newly blinded adult "is a sighted person in his whole physiological make-up, and he will suffer the complete disruption of his ingrained way of learning about and experiencing reality unless he can continue to operate according to such a visual pattern" (Carroll 1961, 119-122).

Father Carroll believed that newly blinded adults could learn to visualize their surroundings based on memories from when they had sight and that this visualization would help them maneuver more easily. One obvious problem with this method is that it excludes people who are congenitally blind. Also we now know that properly trained blind people can travel quite well without developing visualization skills. Dr. Jernigan wrote in the January 1988 Braille Monitor that "This concept [visualization] violated everything I thought I knew about how to teach blind persons to live in the normal world" (1988, 49).

Dr. Jernigan made this comment after a visit to the Carroll Center. He was not impressed with their methods, which included guided walkways, dormitory doors with no locks (apparently for the safety of the blind students, who were adults), a six-week course on how to pour liquid into a cup, and a no-cane policy in the lunchroom so that the students' resting white canes would not impede other diners as they sauntered through the designated traffic pattern in the room (Jernigan 1988, 50).

Certainly the Carroll Center's methods continue the stereotypes that blindness is a tragedy and that blind people are less capable than others, as Dr. Jernigan put it, and the center does not teach the truth about blindness (1988, 50). But while Father Carroll may not have been correct in all of his methods, teachings, and philosophy, he believed in the rehabilitation of blind people before many others in the field.

He also believed in educating the public. He devoted an entire chapter of his book to this very notion. He states the importance of doing away with "the whole idea of the blind as helpless, dependent, pitiable people who are somehow �different' from the rest of...society" (1961, 244). He states, "Blind people are individuals of all kinds and types...with a handicap that can be overcome so as to make normal active living not the exception among blind persons but the general rule" (1961, 244).

A few years after Father Carroll established his rehabilitation center in Massachusetts, Dr. Jernigan began a revolution in work with the blind when he became director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1958. He had been a member of the faculty at the California Orientation and Adjustment Center from 1953 until he left for Iowa. He created a residential adult orientation and adjustment center that used the principles of the National Federation of the Blind. The experiment was dramatically successful, and the Iowa model, or the civil rights-based model (as the techniques employed in Iowa came to be known), was recognized all over the world as the most effective and progressive blind service program.

While results in Iowa were overwhelmingly successful, the fact remains that the fundamental undertaking of the program (changing students' point of view) is a daunting challenge, and the techniques employed must be as dramatic as the change being sought. To some the ideas taught at the Iowa Commission were radical. Although the Iowa model was never wholeheartedly adopted by a majority of training programs in the United States, its importance was felt throughout the rehabilitation system, and despite the doubts some people felt about it, its positive effects were clear.

In 2005 every state has some form of training program for blind adults. State agencies are funded partially by Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants, which provide funds to state vocational rehabilitation agencies to help people with disabilities become gainfully employed. Funds are distributed according to a formula that takes into account population and per capita income. Currently the federal budget for VR state grants is just over 2.5 billion dollars, but the budgetary request for FY 2005 is around 2.7 billion dollars. This request, an increase of 113.5 million dollars or 4.4 percent, would "help state VR agencies increase the participation of individuals with disabilities in the labor force" (Vocational Rehabilitation 2003).

Of the existing adult residential training centers, fewer than ten use the civil rights-based Iowa model. Some states have general VR agencies, umbrella agencies that serve people who have any type of disability, and some states have separate agencies specifically for the blind. Because the needs of the blind are unique, a separate, independent agency is best according to many experts in the field, including Jim Omvig, who devoted an entire chapter of his book Freedom for the Blind (2002) to this notion.

Around "one hundred residential programs for persons who are blind in the United States that provide vocational, pre-vocational, and independent living services to consumers of the Title I Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program" exist today (Vaughan 1998, 818). Of this number three are independent, privately run centers that implement NFB training philosophy and the Iowa model: the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), and Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND, Incorporated) in Minnesota. Like the Iowa Commission under Dr. Jernigan, these centers have proven to be very effective. Dr. C. Edwin Vaughan (1998) conducted a study of these three centers. The study, "An Organizational Approach to the Evaluation of Rehabilitation Outcomes: Assessing Three Private Rehabilitation Agencies," praises these centers as "offering remarkably effective residential rehabilitation programs" (1998, 833).

Dr. Vaughan observes, "There is a pervasive, upbeat atmosphere which would be hard for any student to ignore. From the board of directors, director, staff, and students there is a strong commitment to the values and importance of these rehabilitation centers. Almost everyone sets high expectations, and everyone wants each student to succeed" (1998, 833). Obviously these centers are promoting high expectations, teaching independence, and empowering blind adults.

In addition a few state-run centers are currently using the civil rights-based model for their programs. These state centers are in Hawaii, Nebraska, and New Mexico. Dr. Pearl Van Zandt, executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, says, "In Nebraska we have used the techniques of sleepshades, blind instructors in every area, and structured discovery for thirty years. It is a very successful model, with excellent results for clients."

Greg Trapp is the executive director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, which was established in 1986. The agency adopted the civil rights-based model from the beginning. Mr. Trapp notes that there is a "clear lineage that can be drawn from Kenneth Jernigan to Dr. Fred Schroeder, who was a student of Dr. Jernigan and the first director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind."

"To create more opportunities for blind children and adults," says Mr. Trapp, "more professionals in the field must recognize the models and the programs that work and engage in a concerted effort to replicate them."

But in the final analysis it isn't the obvious aspects of an agency that make it effective. It isn't the use of sleepshades, although they should be used. It isn't the hiring of blind instructors, although a good center would no doubt employ some blind instructors. And it isn't the implementation of the structured-discovery method, although structured discovery has proven to be the most effective teaching method so far. The difference between a program that works and one that does not is the active participation of the National Federation of the Blind. The fighting spirit of the Federation must be visible within an agency serving the blind in order for it to be truly effective.

A state program for the blind cannot easily reach beyond the borders of the state to take advantage of resources in other parts of the country and to employ the talents of individuals who are engaged in thriving businesses and other energetic activities. Furthermore most programs for the blind would find it difficult to exert pressure on state government or business--pressure that can create opportunities for blind clients and pressure that the NFB often brings to bear. The excitement of the Federation must be infused into the program; without excitement the program is likely to be dull, and the results will be unsatisfactory.

Residential centers around the country employ a variety of professionals. Some are agency trained. They are qualified because of their valuable firsthand knowledge and experience. Others have university degrees that validate their status as professionals in rehabilitation. While having a degree from a university is beneficial, that degree is not much help to the clients if the graduate holding it does not have high expectations for the students in the program. A number of university programs do not teach empowerment and high expectations. As a result the professionals completing these programs do not instill a set of positive beliefs in their students.

Currently nineteen universities have programs that specialize in the instruction of rehabilitation professionals, and these programs are usually part of the institution's department or school of education. They typically offer degrees in orientation and mobility and teaching the visually impaired. In addition some programs offer a degree in rehabilitation counseling. According to Dr. Fred Schroeder, former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and currently a research professor at San Diego State University, training programs offered by universities are sometimes insufficient. "Many programs teach medical aspects [of blindness] and theory, but they don't get to the heart of what is needed," says Dr. Schroeder.

One of the newest university programs training professionals in blindness is the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness [the Institute], a department in the College of Education at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. The Institute was established by the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 1999 and became a department at Louisiana Tech University in October 2001 with Dr. Fred Schroeder serving as its first director.

"The purpose of the Institute," says current Institute director Ron Gardner, "is to provide leadership in creating programs and conducting research that recognize the socially constructed assumptions underpinning the current structure of the blindness system and research being done on blindness."

"Louisiana Tech University is unique for two specific and very important reasons," Mr. Gardner says. "It is the only university that requires every graduate student to participate in an immersion experience in blindness at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. And it is the only university program that prepares blindness professionals in the structured-discovery method for skills training."

Mr. Gardner stresses the importance of immersion: "The immersion experience takes place under sleepshades," he says. "This is designed to demonstrate to the graduate students that the skills needed to be employed and to participate meaningfully in society can be used efficiently and effectively through nonvisual means."

He adds, "The Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University is the only university program that prepares blindness professionals using the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind." Much of the Institute's curriculum is based on the writings, speeches, and research of leaders in the National Federation of the Blind.

The Institute's O and M program instills a positive expectation for independent travel and the technical skills and knowledge to support this belief system. The program stresses nonvisual instruction, structured-discovery learning, and well-developed travel skills. Students in this program are expected to demonstrate proficiency teaching the skills and attitudes of O and M as defined under the structured-discovery learning model.

"By using the empowerment model discussed in Freedom for the Blind by James H. Omvig," says Mr. Gardner, "our graduate students learn to teach nonvisual skills and remove attitudinal barriers. The result is that their clients will move from dependence to independence."

Another distinctive feature of this program is that graduates will be competent in Braille. In addition to the thirty-nine-hour O and M concentration, the Institute offers a forty-five-hour program in TBS, or Teachers of Blind Students. To earn the TBS degree concentration, graduates must read ninety Braille words per minute because the program recognizes that "Teachers of blind children must be Braille literate before blind children can be literate" (Professional Development 2005). Institute students can choose between these two programs, which will provide graduates with a master's degree in educational psychology with a concentration in O and M or TBS. Students may also choose to enter both programs and pursue a double concentration.

Students who complete the O and M degree at the Institute are eligible to apply for the National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) assessment offered by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB). The NBPCB was created to certify qualified specialists in work with the blind. The NBPCB's stated mission is "to provide the blindness field with certified professionals who believe in the normalcy of blind persons and who possess the knowledge and the skills necessary for the empowerment of blind persons."

The first organization in work with the blind to offer certification for O and M instructors was the American Association of Workers for the Blind, now known as the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Because of long-standing misconceptions AER certification is not offered to agency-trained specialists, and it was not originally offered to blind travel teachers. In fact, most university O and M programs were closed to the blind, and some still argue that O and M instructors need to be sighted.

With some persuasion from both the National Federation of the Blind and the Americans with Disabilities Act, these prohibitions have technically been eliminated. Some blind people have been allowed to enroll in university programs and are certified, but in some cases the traditional training programs and the certification process continue to revolve around sight and to emphasize visual techniques for instruction. A number of years ago AER transferred its certification process to an entity established by a number of AER members. The entity is called the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP). This organization, often called the Academy, does not carry all of the AER baggage, but some of the approaches favored by AER appear to remain in the new certification body.

The creation of the Institute at Louisiana Tech stimulated the need for a new certification. The Institute was designed to be an alternative to traditional university programs. At Louisiana Tech all qualified students, whether blind or sighted, are welcome. Some traditional university programs endorse the principle that blindness is a colossal loss or a tragedy and that no amount of training will enable a blind person truly to compete on terms of equality with sighted associates. The Institute's programs promote the philosophy that blind people are as normal and as capable as anybody else.

Receiving a university degree and passing a multiple-choice test qualifies candidates for AER/Academy certification. Candidates for the NBPCB's NOMC must pass a performance-based certification, which ensures that recipients are well trained in practical O and M skills. As of today Louisiana Tech is the only institution of higher education in which one can obtain this certification.

Until 1992 no requirement existed that state institutions hire counselors who had formal training in rehabilitation counseling. The Comprehensive System of Personnel Development (CSPD) changed this; it mandated state agencies to hire qualified counselors. State agencies must develop standards consistent with the CSPD provisions for all professional and paraprofessional staff employed by the state agency. One way to be qualified is to obtain a master's degree in an appropriate subject from an accredited university. The law does not require additional certification for rehabilitation counselors, as long as they have an appropriate university degree, but professional certification does exist. The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) oversees this certification process, and, according to the organization's Web site, CRCC has certified over 30,000 counselors since 1974 (CRCC 2001). Despite the recent emergence of certifications, standards, and performance-based tests, a piece of paper does not necessarily guarantee that the professional in question is a good role model for his or her clients. Unless the counselor has been trained truly to empower clients, that professional is doing a disservice to consumers and to the field in general. Many professionals in rehabilitation have given attention to implementing methods for empowering clients. Though this trend appears to be relatively new, it promises tremendous advances.

Two different models of rehabilitation are taught on college campuses. Evidence shows that the structured-discovery method of travel is considerably more effective than any other. Rehabilitation programs should examine the evidence and should consider teaching the structured-discovery model to blindness professionals. Proper training leads to empowerment, and empowerment leads to freedom. Highly trained, competent, and motivated blindness professionals who possess the proper attitudes are an essential part of the future for blind people who want to change the myths and misconceptions about blindness and who want to improve the dismal unemployment rate for blind workers.

Louisiana Tech has inaugurated a program with a new discipline that produces astonishing positive results. Those who have graduated from the program have made substantial contributions to the blindness field. "These graduates," says Dr. Schroeder, "can demonstrate in their careers that better strategies exist and that there are better ways to create employment opportunities. These graduates may later start programs of their own [based on the techniques learned at Louisiana Tech]. The traditional programs aren't all necessarily wrong; many are just incomplete."

RSA Commissioner Dr. Joanne Wilson says that she wants to help professionals who either work in the program or are training to work in the rehabilitation system to "develop a philosophy of high expectations and then to give them the tools and the go-ahead to use those high expectations."

Dr. Wilson became the federal RSA commissioner in 2001, when President George W. Bush appointed her to the position. As a former consumer of the vocational rehabilitation system, founder and director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, former chairperson of the Louisiana State Rehabilitation Council, and a previous national and state leader in the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Wilson has seen the rehabilitation system from all perspectives. In all of her roles, she has promoted and emphasized the importance of communication and collaboration between blind consumers and RSA.

According to Dr. Wilson the primary role of the rehabilitation system is "to empower individuals with disabilities by providing the information, skills, training, education, confidence, and support services they need to make informed choices which will lead to truly meaningful employment and independence." The role of consumer groups in this effort is crucial to success. Representative groups, such as the National Federation of the Blind, offer "services that can really make a difference in the effectiveness of the rehabilitation system," she says.

Mentoring and role modeling are among the services that consumer organizations can provide. Dr. Wilson says, "Consumers come to the rehabilitation system because they want the experts on disability to tell them that there is hope for their lives. Who better to give that kind of hope than consumer organizations?"

With respect to blindness Dr. Wilson also believes that residential training centers for the blind must work with the organized blind. Members of the blind community can "help to build up our adjustment-to-disability components in the rehabilitation system through active participation on advisory and policy boards, at local and national conferences, and in volunteer efforts as mentors and successful role models for other blind persons."

Dr. Wilson leads by example, demonstrating how blind consumers can help to improve the rehabilitation system at multiple levels. Members of consumer organizations, through their own expertise and life experiences, can do much to improve the rehabilitation system through active involvement; and, rehabilitation programs throughout the country can significantly enhance their resources and success by inviting participation by people with disabilities in the rehabilitation process.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." With this in mind, members of the organized blind must be active in promoting the changes that need to occur in education and the rehabilitation field in order for blind people across this country and the world to have more opportunities and to continue to change the misconceptions that still exist about blindness. The unemployment rate among capable blind people must be reduced. Some professionals in the rehabilitation field do not hold high expectations for their blind clients, but an increasing number do. More programs to challenge the blind to excel must be built, and those that currently exist must be encouraged. How the laws are interpreted, how policies are made and implemented, and how the rehabilitation programs are operated are not a matter for speculation.

The blind have the opportunity and the responsibility to determine the future of rehabilitation. In the past officials in the rehabilitation system told the blind what was good for them. However, the blind of the U.S. have become partners in the process--sometimes welcomed, sometimes tolerated, sometimes feared. Rehabilitation is a vital element in the future of all blind people, and it must welcome the blind as partners. The blind also have a responsibility to build and support quality rehabilitation programs. If we work together with our colleagues in the programs established to serve the blind, nothing can prevent us from building a bright future.


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