Picture of James H. Omvig

James Omvig

Proper Training for the Blind:

What Is It?

The Fourth Ingredient

by James H. Omvig


From the Editor: In 1961 Jim Omvig was a student in the newly created Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center in Iowa directed by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. He then went on to college and law school and worked in Washington, D.C., and New York City as the first blind attorney ever hired by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Following successful legal work with the NLRB, Jim changed careers and entered work with the blind. He directed the Iowa Orientation and Adjustment Center and served as the Commission's Assistant Director; directed a program established by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in Baltimore to develop greater employment opportunities for the blind and disabled within SSA itself; and finally directed the Alaska Center for Blind and Deaf Adults, before retiring to Tucson because of ill health.

Therefore Jim's knowledge of the factors essential to proper training for the blind is based on a broad range of experiences--as a blind student at a residential school for the blind; as a state agency vocational rehabilitation client; as a blind adult orientation center student; as a blind college and law school student; as a competitively employed blind attorney; and as an orientation-center teacher and director. But perhaps the most compelling experience he brings to his advocacy work today is the practical understanding he has acquired over nearly forty years as colleague and friend to thousands of blind people from across the nation, members of the National Federation of the Blind.

The following is a paper presented by Jim at a training seminar conducted for vocational rehabilitation professionals, but it is equally relevant to educators of the blind.


For nearly sixty years the National Federation of the Blind has proclaimed the simple yet profound truth that, "Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person can do the average job in the average place of business, and do it as well as his or her sighted neighbor."

Every day thousands of properly trained blind men and women work successfully as farmers and factory workers, machinists and maintenance men, college professors, public school teachers, chemists and other scientists, attorneys, mechanics, insurance or real estate agents, business men and women of all types, cooks, dishwashers and laborers, and legislators. Through the years the proper-training truth has sometimes been abbreviated something like this: "With proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance or inconvenience." No matter how you state it, though, it must be understood that the word "proper" is the operative concept in this fundamental truth.

As an aside, before turning to a full discussion of proper training, let's take a look at how some of the opponents of the organized blind distort the truth of what we are saying. In purportedly restating our philosophy, they say something like, "Those people in the Federation say blindness is just a nuisance...," or that "Blindness is no big deal; blind people can do anything."

However, careful examination reveals that these detractors either mistakenly (because of their ignorance) or intentionally misstate our philosophy in order to ridicule us or to create the impression that Federationists are a bunch of kooks. They misstate the truth by conveniently leaving out that all-important operative concept, "proper training."

"So," you ask, "What's the big deal about this word "proper"? Can't we really state the same truth by simply saying, "Given training and opportunity, the average blind person..., etc."

I earnestly wish that it were so, but I can assure you that we cannot. Distressing as it is, I personally know thousands of blind people who could be said to have had training, but no one could reasonably argue that these individuals are independent, self-sufficient, or successful blind people. Far from it! The facts are that, even though they have had some type of training, the training wasn't any good; it wasn't proper. As a result blindness for them is much more than a nuisance or inconvenience. Blindness, without proper training, can be a veritable hell.

What then is this proper training? It sounds simple: proper training is that combination of training techniques which empowers--training which enables the average blind person to become truly independent and self-sufficient. But, while this statement of outcome may seem simple, the ingredients essential to the achievement of true independence and self-sufficiency cannot be taken for granted or viewed casually. Here is where real knowledge and expertise enter the mix.

For many years those in the Federation seriously involved in the education of children or the rehabilitation of adults have pointed out that there are three fundamental ingredients, three things every blind person needs in order to achieve that desired goal of true independence and self-sufficiency. And, since these three things are needed by every blind person for true independence, we have said it naturally follows that educational programs for blind youngsters or orientation and adjustment centers for blind adults must undertake to provide these three elements as a routine part of their services. Here they are:

(1) The blind person must come emotionally, as well as intellectually, to know that he or she truly can be independent and self-sufficient;

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

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

As I say, perhaps for as long as thirty-five years I have pointed out that these three ingredients are absolutely essential to any really good educational or orientation and adjustment program for the blind. But today, based upon a lifetime of work and thought in this field, I'm also going to discuss a fourth ingredient--one which I have come to understand is just as important as the three I have always discussed.

Before discussing this fourth ingredient, however, let's review the three we have always advocated. First, the blind person must come emotionally, not just intellectually, to understand that he or she truly can be independent and self-sufficient. It's easy to get the student to know this truth intellectually. Just get him or her to memorize the phrase and repeat it a few times.

But, of course, this little intellectual exercise will have nothing whatever to do with the adjustment of the emotions. It takes real expertise and a lot of somebody's time to help the blind person come to understand emotionally that true independence and self-sufficiency are possible for him or her.

In order for school or orientation and adjustment center personnel to deal effectively with this critical piece of the training program, they must first understand themselves that society's incorrect attitude about blindness, not blindness itself, is the real problem which must be addressed through proper training. A good training program should be an attitude factory. To be blunt about it, most people believe that blindness means helplessness, inferiority, total dependency, and incompetence. And, since the broader society holds these mistaken views, the blind students with whom we are working--mirroring as they do the attitudes of the broader society--will hold these same views. Something or someone must intervene and direct the student toward more healthy and constructive thinking and feelings.

I don't have space in this paper to lay out the entire training plan, but I'll discuss a sample of the key factors involved in reaching and stirring the emotions. First, you must get the individual to admit and accept the fact that he or she is blind. A basic truth on this point is that, no matter who you are, your problems will never be resolved if you insist upon denying their existence, and the school or orientation center which actively participates in perpetuating the denial can't be of any use whatever.

Incidentally, throughout this paper, when I use the word "blind," I don't just mean people who are totally blind. Included within my definition are those who are so blind that they can't function in a significant number of life's daily activities as sighted persons.

Part of acceptance is simply learning to use the word "blind" comfortably--to use it with neither shame nor embarrassment. Also it is learning to carry the long white cane everywhere you go, without shame or embarrassment. It is learning Braille and the other alternative techniques of blindness and then being willing to use them as needed wherever you are (including in the presence of others) without shame or embarrassment.

Another part of adjusting the emotions is accomplished by exposing students to activities which at first blush appear to the student to be difficult, if not impossible for the blind--running power tools, traveling alone with the long white cane in both familiar and unfamiliar surroundings, water skiing, rock climbing, cooking on a grill, sewing complicated patterns, etc. The student must learn that he or she can handle these or similar challenges competently, with or without vision.

If the student is only partially blind, then these and other class activities are performed using blindfolds called sleepshades. Otherwise the partially blind student will try to use his or her limited vision constantly, even when it is not efficient to do so. And, even more important (since we are discussing proper attitudinal adjustment in this section), the student will continue falsely to believe that the only reason he or she can do anything at all is because of the remaining vision.

Another piece of this attitudinal adjustment is handled simply by having students engage in everyday activities: going shopping, going to fashion shows, going to fairs, going bowling or horseback riding or to dances, etc. In my Iowa days we all got ourselves dressed to the nines and went to inaugural balls, to the theater, and to similar social events.

The purpose in all of these and like activities is to help the student come to understand that he or she is a normal person who can do what normal people do. I once had a young, newly blinded father exclaim, after he had stayed up and had a good ride on water skis, "By God, if I can do this, I can get a job and support my wife and my kids!"

Along the way, but as a routine part of the program, it is also essential for students to get to know and mingle with well-adjusted, successful blind adults. Good role models are invaluable in the adjustment process.

A final piece of coming to know emotionally that you're OK has to do with the concept of giving back by doing for others. In the beginning, of course, the student can't do much of this since a poor man doesn't have anything to give. But, as the student begins to grow and develop, an important step is serving as a role model and helping other blind people. The student can progress greatly by experiencing the joy and personal satisfaction which flow from real service to others.

The object of all these elements of the first ingredient is to get the student to the point where he or she can honestly say, or, more accurately, honestly feel emotionally, "I'm blind, so what! It's OK! I can have a normal, successful, and gratifying life--good vision isn't what makes for success or happiness. Blind or sighted, I really can be independent and have a good life. It is respectable to be blind."

The second ingredient involved in proper training doesn't need much discussion: The blind person must not only learn but also master those skills of blindness absolutely essential to independence and self-sufficiency--Braille, long-cane travel, typing and computers, homemaking and personal grooming skills, etc. It doesn't pay to talk about being independent and self-sufficient if you aren't.

But just learning those basic, specific skills which are common to all and essential to any blind person's independence and success isn't enough. The quality training program will also teach the student how to figure out other techniques which will become necessary throughout the routine activities of ordinary, daily life whenever new situations arise.

Even though not much discussion is needed here on the topic of skill training, I should point out that there are two troublesome aspects deserving comment. First, far too many in the field of work with the blind harbor the mistaken belief that learning the skills is all that is involved in proper training. Then, second and equally damning, far too many educators and rehabilitators also mistakenly believe that many of the alternative techniques used by the blind are too difficult for lots of blind people to learn, so they don't bother to teach them at all.

The third ingredient is a bit more complex: teaching the student how to cope with negative and erroneous public attitudes about blindness. Because of these negative and mistaken attitudes, lots of strange and unsettling things are said or done to blind people every day. These experiences run all the way from being treated as a tiny and helpless child to being thought of as incredibly marvelous--if, for example, you do something as simple and ordinary as slicing a tomato without cutting yourself.

Have you ever been around blind people who carry large chips on their shoulders? They never learned about this third ingredient, and they cannot be said to have adjusted to their blindness, no matter how well they have handled the first two ingredients. And they usually aren't very successful either.

In order to deal with this issue, the program must include a lot of discussion about society's negative and mistaken attitudes about blindness. The student must first learn just what those attitudes are; then he or she must do lots of thinking and talking about why they are what they are. And in these discussions the student must also search deeply into his or her own attitudes in order to learn to separate fact about blindness from fiction.

Eventually, as the student gains real knowledge about social attitudes about blindness and as he or she simultaneously begins to approach that emotional understanding that independence and self-sufficiency are really possible, it will get easier and easier to cope. By and by one learns simply to smile and say, "Thank you," when a well-meaning citizen grabs an arm and tries to drag you across a street, or when a waiter in a restaurant asks one's sighted companion, "What would he like?"

Finally, let me discuss what I'll call the fourth ingredient. Actually I've been aware of this issue for a long time and known that school programs and orientation and adjustment centers should be addressing it specifically, but it was only recently that it occurred to me that we should discuss and address it as one of the essential ingredients integrally involved in proper training. This fourth ingredient has to do with self-discipline, with reliability, with proper appearance and grooming, and with a healthy work ethic. It has to do with the reality that, whether we are educators or rehabilitators, our business is helping the blind prepare for eventual adult employment--successful employment. The fact is that no matter how well adjusted and well trained the blind adult may be, service providers also have to do what reasonably can be done to be sure that the blind adult is the kind of prospective employee a good employer will be eager to hire.

Why do I raise this issue in a discussion of proper training? Because I have observed far too much of the following: Blind kids in schools are not expected to perform on a par with sighted kids. They are often passed on from grade to grade, whether or not they can read or write or spell or even think. They are permitted to come into classes late or to leave early. They are given more time than their sighted peers to complete the same amount of work. They are permitted to dress poorly or to practice poor hygiene. It almost seems as if the attitude of some schools and teachers is, "Since poor little Johnny is blind, he won't ever be able to do much of anything anyway, so why bother with his personal discipline, his lack of a work ethic, or his appearance?"

You would think that adult orientation and adjustment centers would do better, and a few do, but far too many across the country really don't. Many of these can best be described as happy homes for the blind rather than places where proper training can be had. They have the same low expectations and low performance standards as many of the schools I just talked about. These are places where the blind can receive training, but not proper training.

I know of centers in which the students (and even the instructors) may or may not show up on any given day, but nobody cares. Students are continually late for class, but nothing is done. Come in late and leave early seems to be the norm. Students are permitted to look like bums and are dirty and poorly groomed, but nothing happens. There are no discipline, no structure, no expectation, and no notion that the student will ever go out and put in a hard day's work in someone's place of business.

I have observed another truly troubling problem in both schools and adult centers--students are actually taught dependence as a part of the program! One must understand that these students are people who have generally already been taken care of and taught dependence by family members and others around them--"Just sit here; I'll get it." "You can't do that; you'll hurt yourself," etc.

Take the school in which kids are waited upon hand and foot by special education teachers or aides. For example, if a student and an aide are working together and something is needed from a student's locker, the aide will say, "You just wait here. I'll get it for you." Apparently it has never occurred to such an aide that sending the blind student to the locker is just one more lesson in independence, and getting the item for the student teaches dependence.

Or consider this example. In supposed adult centers I have seen students assigned specific seats for meals. When meal time comes, the student simply takes a seat--probably having been led there by somebody--and a sighted staff member brings the student his or her food. Again, without thought, such a center is teaching dependence.

These are only two specific examples of a gigantic problem used here to illustrate what I mean. A student, whether in a school or adult center, must learn to pull his or her own weight as a part of the process of achieving true independence. To my mind it is nothing short of criminal for the educational or training program to foster dependence rather than to teach independence.

Let me contrast all of this with the training I received and the circumstances in which I found myself in Kenneth Jernigan's Orientation Center. First, it was residential and full-time. Our day began at 6:00 a.m. with men's gym class. If we accidentally overslept, we were unceremoniously rousted out.

Following a shave, shower, and then breakfast in a cafeteria where we selected our own food and carried our own trays to a vacant seat, our other classes began at 8 o'clock, promptly. If we were late, the issue was addressed. Regular classes ended at 5:30, but for those who wished to do so extra night classes were available from 6:30 until around 9:00 (our dinner would have been eaten in a public, downtown restaurant). I took advantage of all of these optional night classes. Then two other students and I (we were playing catch-up with too many wasted years of our lives) practiced Braille together until around midnight. At 6:00 the next morning we began again. And promptness was the rule for all classes.

In addition there was a dress code; cleanliness and good grooming were required; the courteous treatment of others was a must; and evening and weekend activities were scheduled. I soon learned that whatever happened during a given twenty-four-hour period was to be looked upon as a class.

Clearly, even though we never discussed it, Dr. Jernigan understood well that a fourth ingredient was a part of the proper training equation. His purpose was to provide us with all of the tools--the proper training essential to independence and real success. He wanted to make sure that, in addition to adjusting to our blindness and learning the skills which we would need to get along, we would have self-discipline and that we would have the kind of appearance and work ethic which would make it possible truly to succeed either in school or on the job. Putting this quite simply, he wanted to do everything possible to make certain that we would be the kind of quality employees a good employer would want to hire.

It goes without saying that I created the same type of atmosphere in the centers I directed. I firmly believe that, if we want to be truly independent, self-sufficient, and successful either in employment or in other of life's important activities, we must be reliable, socially acceptable, and competent--we must be able to fit in.

The questions of reliability and promptness don't need much discussion here. These are learned habits which will stand us in good stead whatever activities we pursue as adults. The point in raising the issue in this paper is that good educational programs for kids or proper training programs for blind adults must be mindful of teaching good, not bad, habits in this area.

Appearance must be discussed in a little more detail. Appearance--appropriate to the occasion--is important! Some wise person once said, "It is not just what a thing is, but how it sounds and feels that gives the value." While a person is not a thing, this concept is pretty much on target as we discuss the acceptance and full participation (the complete integration) of blind people into adult society.

In fact, not only personal appearance, but also what things look like must be examined, particularly for young blind children or for adults who were born blind but who have never received proper training. In his article, "The Barrier of the Visible Difference," Dr. Kenneth Jernigan addresses this topic. He discusses the fact that blind people are not less competent than others of their age and circumstance and that blind persons are not slow learners or inept. The point is that sometimes something which can be seen at a glance by a sighted person must be learned a different way by a blind person. The learning can be just as quick and just as effective, but it won't happen unless somebody thinks to explain it--to help either the blind child or the longtime blinded adult who has never received proper training.

The fact is that the blind child (or long-time-blinded adult) must either be unusually persistent or have somebody at hand who thinks to give needed information. Otherwise, insignificant details will multiply into major deficits.

More than anything else--at least, unless one is aware of it and thinks about it--meaningless visible differences can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Sometimes these visible differences can even lead to misplaced feelings of superiority or inadequacy.

Let me briefly address one last point on the topic of appearance--what have come to be referred to as blindisms. Again, this problem specifically deals mainly with young blind children or with adults who were born blind but who have never experienced proper training. Rocking, twisting the head, rubbing the eyes, etc., are bad habits which can detract markedly from a proper and desirable appearance.

Many theories have been put forward through the years in an effort to identify the cause of this unacceptable behavior. I believe that most of it, at least, is pretty simple. All young children engage in a variety of unacceptable physical activities. If little Johnny is sighted, most parents or teachers will simply say, "No, you may not do that," and they will keep at it until the bad habit is forgotten.

But if little Johnny is blind, far too many are afraid to keep at it until the bad habit is broken--after all, "I can't be mean to a blind child."

I believe that this entire problem can be corrected when it is addressed early and consistently. I can also speak from experience and tell you that these bad habits are difficult to break if they have not been corrected before the young person enters an adult center for training.

Some blind people have tried to convince me that appearance makes no difference, but this, of course, is plain nonsense. We live in a world structured for the sighted, since sighted people make up the vast majority. Therefore, if a blind person intends to get along and compete on terms of equality, he or she must learn how the sighted feel and what they think is acceptable, beautiful, or attractive. This has nothing to do with pretending to be sighted or with competence, innate loveliness, or quality. It is simply a critical factor to consider in achieving acceptance, integration, and success.

From one point of view, of course, the people who claim that appearance makes no difference are correct. The substance of a thing or person is certainly more important than its appearance, but often we as fallible humans don't take the time to explore the substance unless the initial appearance is attractive or at least acceptable.

So educators or rehabilitators, help your students adjust properly to their blindness, and by all means help them develop their marketable talents, but also help them learn, as National Federation of the Blind President Marc Maurer recently wrote, "We must have talent, but we must also have the appearance of talent."

As an aside I want to let you know that the best textbook I've ever read on the topics of appearance and what things look like is Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses. It is the fourteenth in the NFB's series of Kernel Books.

This fourth ingredient also includes a special admonition which must be made to the students we serve. It involves an appreciation by the blind job seeker of the fact that, whether we like it or not, we as members of a visible minority are not judged merely as individuals but, rather, are judged each by the other. This is one of the side effects, one of the nuisances or inconveniences, of being a member of a visible minority.

To illustrate, a sighted man can go to an employer for an interview and show up half an hour late. He can be dressed badly, act stupidly, conduct himself rudely, and as a result fail to get the job. However, since he is not a member of a minority, his bad first impression will affect only himself. The employer won't judge anyone else by his poor conduct and appearance.

But let a blind person show up and perform just as badly (no matter how qualified he or she may be), and it won't result only in that person's failure to become employed. It will hurt the chances of other blind applicants to be considered seriously since that employer will tend to judge future blind applicants by the one who presented such a bad impression of the blind as a whole.

On this issue, too, I have heard blind people say that this should make no difference and that it isn't fair to involve them in the larger picture. They say, "I have enough trouble being responsible for myself, so I don't want to be held responsible for anyone else's success."

Unfortunately, these sad souls don't have the luxury of consulting their personal preferences, and they don't have the slightest choice in the matter. This is simply the way it is. And, since this is so, I believe we should teach our students to take advantage of the situation and go out of their way to present a positive impression of blindness.

These, then, are the four ingredients which nearly forty years of experience have taught me are absolutely essential to that proper training which can predict vocational success and a satisfying and gratifying life, that training which enables the average blind person to become truly independent and self-sufficient. I urge those of you who are education professionals to insist upon this kind of training in your schools.

I urge those of you who are rehabilitation professionals to help your clients understand that programs which offer proper training are the ones which should be selected as they exercise their informed choice. Before you can give this valuable assistance, however, you need to understand the concept of proper training completely yourselves, and you must understand the importance of each of these four ingredients as they relate to true vocational success.

In conclusion I also urge those of you who administer educational programs for blind children or who direct or work in orientation and adjustment services for blind adults to examine your policies and practices thoroughly. Be sure that none of these four essential training ingredients falls through the cracks.

I began by saying: "Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person can do the average job in the average place of business and do it as well as his or her sighted neighbor." This statement is the absolute truth, and the techniques for providing proper training have been tried, tested, and proven. Insist upon proper training for those whom you serve.