The Braille Monitor                                                                                                 April 2005

(back) (next) (contents)

The Characteristics of an NFB Orientation Center

by James H. Omvig

James Omvig
James Omvig

From the Editor: For some time now we have needed a fairly concise statement of what constitutes an NFB training center and why it does the most effective job of rehabilitating blind people. Dr. Jernigan addressed this question from time to time, and Peggy Elliott described the NFB approach to training blind adults in a speech she delivered in Milan, Italy, in October of 2002 (see the December 2002 issue of the Braille Monitor for the full text of this speech). But in the article that follows, James Omvig, a recognized authority on effective rehabilitation and author of Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment, distills his thinking into a few pages of explanation. Here it is:

The National Federation of the Blind's concept of what a cutting-edge residential orientation and adjustment center for the blind can and should be is an idea whose time has come round at last. The concept is sweeping across America, and more and more centers--both public and private--are capturing the vision of the NFB's civil rights-based programs. This, of course, is a very good thing since our NFB centers offer real hope and inspiration for rank-and-file blind people, freedom and true empowerment for the blind students who choose to attend them and are willing to work hard enough to take advantage of what is offered.

However, some confusion is creeping into this otherwise encouraging movement: Some say, "We want to do what you do, but we'll just call it something else." Or they say something like, "The results you achieve are undeniably terrific, and we want to do exactly the same thing and get the same successful outcomes you do, so we'll use your model, but we'll just leave the NFB--its philosophy, its literature, its people, and its meetings--out." This is delusional and wrong-headed thinking, and it is pure nonsense. Precisely because the NFB--in all its aspects--is at the very heart of our centers, we achieve the dramatic results we do. There can be no substitute.

Let me offer a word about the kind of success a high-quality residential center should have. It is not at all difficult to make a fair and valid assessment about whether any program is a success. Just look at the graduates of the program in question. Are they content with their blindness? Are they empowered? Are they free? Are they happy and fully integrated into their communities? Are they performing the kind of work and family and community activities for which they are suited? In other words, are they the best they can be? If they are, then the program is successful, no matter who is running it or whose model is being used.

Because our NFB training model is becoming so popular across the country, I have decided to comment briefly upon the issue to set the record straight on what an NFB orientation and adjustment center really is and of course what it is not. First, however, let me offer a bit of history. By the mid 1950's the NFB had developed its basic philosophy about blindness, and we had also become critical of the traditional, medically-based training systems and methods. Our criticism was not nihilistic but constructive--we did not wish to destroy, but to reform and to offer viable alternatives. The medical model was not working, and we believed that, if we were to introduce the truth about blindness into the adjustment-to-blindness process, our alternative might make a real difference.

The first attempt at infusing NFB philosophy into an orientation center occurred in California in 1951 when the new California Orientation Center for the Adult Blind was established and several NFB members became part of the staff. Our own Kenneth Jernigan taught in that California center from 1953 to 1958.

However, the first true NFB center was established in Iowa when Dr. Jernigan moved to that state from California in the spring of 1958 to become administrator of Iowa's failed Commission for the Blind. He had gone to Iowa with the express intention of proving the soundness of the NFB's philosophy by integrating it into every aspect of the programs of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. He inaugurated an adjustment-to-blindness program with five students on

November 2, 1959, even though the Commission was still operating out of the shabby basement rooms of a condemned high school building it had been occupying when he arrived in Iowa. He moved the Commission's programs into the seven-story building many of us know in downtown Des Moines on February 1, 1960. He knew that the traditional medical model didn't work, and his new program was based upon an understanding that blindness is a social problem and a civil rights issue. The success of this program is world-renowned, and it has served as the model for countless others. The program was, of course, state-operated.

The first program actually to be designated publicly as an NFB Center was established in Ruston, Louisiana, by Joanne Wilson in 1985 when Joanne and the NFB of Louisiana created a private program called the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Before long Diane McGeorge and the NFB of Colorado established the Colorado Center for the Blind in Denver, and in Minneota Joyce Scanlan and the NFB started Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions in Minneapolis. Each of these centers has built an enviable track record, and countless blind people have been the fortunate beneficiaries of their innovative work. Through the years other public and private agencies have moved toward the NFB model.

So what are NFB centers? How will you know one when you see it? Before we turn to the five specific NFB center characteristics, some general statements about blindness are in order. We in the NFB understand that blind people are told in one way or another from infancy that they are inferior--blindness means inferiority. In other words, we are a minority group in every negative sense of that term. Therefore the problems associated with blindness are not unlike those experienced by members of other minorities. Our problems are social and attitudinal, and they are wrapped up in civil rights issues.

We recognize clearly that services for the blind--no matter what they are--must teach the blind students a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness based upon an awareness that prevailing views are wrong and harmful. The rank-and-file blind person has involuntarily assimilated society's mistaken attitudes and assumptions about blindness and will set expectations for himself or herself at extremely low levels based on this incorrect information. The rehabilitation system--if it is to be of real benefit--must do what it can to replace these myths and superstitions with the truth. As Dr. Jernigan has put it, "A high-quality orientation and adjustment center must be an attitude factory."

Just what is this truth about blindness? It is quite straightforward too. Blind people are nothing more than normal people who cannot see, and blindness is a normal human characteristic like all of the others which, taken together, mold each of us into a unique person. We are a cross-section of humankind with the same strengths and weaknesses, the same hopes and desires, and the same human frailties as everyone else. As Dr. tenBroek was fond of saying, "We are normal human beings, or, at least, as normal as human beings are." The quality service program for the blind must get the customer or student to embrace and internalize these truths. The real problem of blindness is not our blindness at all; it is to be found in the misunderstandings, myths, misconceptions, and superstitions that exist about it.

Two more general observations must be made. First, NFB centers are primarily intended to be prevocational. That is, their principal purpose is to teach people how to be blind. We believe that--after satisfactory acceptance and adjustment have occurred--blind people generally should pursue their vocational or professional training where sighted people get theirs. In fact blind people should be integrated into programs with sighted when it comes to preparation for work as a precursor to ultimate, complete integration into the broader society.

Second, NFB centers teach their students or customers that they have the right to take control of their lives and to make choices. Far too many of us have been taught that our role is to let others do for us or even speak for us. We have generally been taught that we don't have the right even to ask for things that we might find interesting or valuable.

Having made these general observations, let me turn specifically to those five characteristics of any cutting-edge program and the backbone of our centers:

(1) The NFB center helps the student to come emotionally, not just intellectually, to understand that he or she truly can be independent and self-sufficient and can compete with others on terms of complete equality;

(2) The NFB center helps the student master, not merely be introduced to, the blindness skills essential for him or her truly to be independent and self-sufficient;

(3) The NFB center teaches the student to learn to cope comfortably with public attitudes about blindness, that is, to cope unemotionally with the strange, unusual, or demeaning things other people will do or say because of their lack of accurate information on the topic;

(4) The NFB center helps the student learn to give back by becoming an active and contributing member of the organized blind movement; and

(5) The NFB center helps the student learn to blend in to the broader society by becoming acceptable to those around him or her--particularly to employers.

I will not take the time or space in this article to elaborate on each of these essential ingredients, but a brief explanation of each may be helpful to those unfamiliar with the civil rights-based empowerment-model of orientation and adjustment center developed and honed by the NFB.

1. Emotional adjustment to blindness: 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 NFB center over a six-to-nine-month period by seeing that the student learns to accept the fact that he or she is blind and to learn that the word "blind" is respectable by meeting difficult challenges in woodworking shop; on travel lessons; by rock climbing, water skiing, and the like; by using sleepshades during training when appropriate; by facing routine life experiences; by consistently using the long white cane (which cannot be folded up and hidden); by engaging in frank discussions about blindness; by being exposed to good blind role models; and by being willing to invest the time it takes to get it.

2. Mastering the alternative techniques: The civil rights-based NFB center does not merely introduce students to the skills of blindness but helps them strive to master those skills in order to achieve competence and competitiveness. The student (using sleepshades to prevent use of residual vision) 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 to devise alternative techniques to use life-long in situations in which center training cannot foresee the need. Finally, the student must master life-coping skills and respond effectively to the ubiquitous how--how can a blind person do this?

3. Coping with blindness: As a routine part of empowerment training at the NFB center, the student must learn unemotionally to handle the strange and unusual things other people do or say because of their misunderstandings and lack of accurate information about blindness. The student must learn to handle routine putdowns, treatment that goes beyond the bounds, and discrimination. He or she must also learn how to become a role model that conveys a positive image of blindness to improve conditions for other blind people.

4. Paying back: NFB centers argue that, unless the student learns to pay back by becoming actively involved in the organized blind movement, he or she is missing out on a key part of effective rehabilitation. Students need to join together with other blind people for many reasons. First, students need an authentic way of gaining perspective on blindness and valuable services for the blind rather than bad ones. They must spend time with effectively trained and successful blind people, who can provide accurate information about what training is and is not needed. The student must learn to experience the satisfaction of making a valuable contribution and of giving back, which necessarily develops feelings of worthiness. Finally, when the student leaves the orientation center, experience shows that significant backsliding can occur if the graduate doesn't have ready access to a support group, and the local NFB chapter offers the logical venue. In my book on empowerment, Freedom for the Blind, I argued that the contact achieved through participation in the organized blind movement completes the process of personal empowerment, which serves to close the loop on the empowerment circle.

5. Blending in: As a final, routine part of training for personal empowerment, the NFB center helps students learn to blend in and to be acceptable to those around them. Students master such things as punctuality and reliability, common courtesy, and appropriate dress for all occasions. They learn what things look like and how to deal with so-called blindisms. They also learn that, since the blind are a minority group, we are often judged by one another, which has much to do with the way individuals conduct themselves in the broader society.

NFB center staff members too must come to know and emotionally accept the truth about blindness. Only by knowing the truth can they set appropriate expectations for their students. If they do not understand this simple fact, their expectations will be far too low, and the blind students will suffer accordingly.

Staff members must also be passionate about what they do, and they must be willing to give and give and then give some more. Such staff members also must have the capacity to love their students even when their activities or behavior is not particularly lovable.

In summary, a quality orientation and adjustment center is the heart of any good vocational rehabilitation program, and every VR counselor should work to make each new customer aware of the enormous benefits to be gained through enrollment and participation in such a program. The VR customer who has received personal empowerment from a cutting edge NFB center has a markedly higher chance for vocational success than the norm. He or she has the knowledge necessary to make sound life choices and the power to make those choices stick. Given proper training, the average blind person--not merely those some observers mistakenly perceive as the superblind--can compete on terms of complete equality with his or her sighted peers and can become a tax-payer 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!"

These then are the principal characteristics of what have come to be called NFB centers. We invite all blindness professionals who truly have the best interests of the blind at heart--that is, those who operate from the empowerment motive--to join with us in the revolution of personal empowerment. But I encourage you to go all the way if you wish to revolutionize your program and adopt the NFB model. Don't try to adopt the model and then cut the very heart out of it. Don't try to bypass the National Federation of the Blind. It won't work, and your blind customers will be the worse for it!

(back) (next) (contents)