by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a leader in the National Federation of the Blind, a former scholarship winner, and a trained professional currently employed in the field of rehabilitation. He thinks a lot about the transformative role rehabilitation should play in the lives of those it serves and the role it should play in helping blind people embrace the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.
In what follows, Justin has written what some might call a fable in order to explore the conflicting messages sent to students and teachers in the rehabilitation field because of the relative proximity of various programs. It is told not to call out any particular agency or administrator, but to make us examine the messages and resulting conflicts that we may not be aware we are sending to students learning how to navigate in their new world of blindness. The conflict he sees is not just in rehabilitation. Sometimes we wrestle with this in deciding where to hold Federation meetings, in deciding when it is appropriate to help other groups, and in deciding whether to react to publicity that may accurately reflect the life of one blind person but suggests that a problem or an attitude about it reflects the way the blind community feels. Here’s what he has to say:
Imagine a place called Ziklag, where the state agency serving the blind claims it believes in the capacity and equality of blind people. The agency in Ziklag operates an orientation center with a residential program where clients of the agency can become students for adjustment to blindness training.
For one dollar per year, this agency rents out two-thirds of its building to a subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. The sheltered workshop operates a “meals on wheels” program for seniors and people with disabilities, including blind people who lack the proper training and wherewithal to feed themselves. Each day the food for the meals on wheels program is produced in such large amounts that there is excess. In order to use the excess food and to increase the profit from it, the sheltered workshop operates a cafeteria where it sells very inexpensive lunches to the general public. Since the sheltered workshop does business with the general public, and since its part of the building resides on a much busier street than the rest of the state agency serving the blind, the people of Ziklag generally believe that the blind rehabilitation programs are a part of the sheltered workshop.
As the employees of the state agency and the students at its orientation center approach the building every day, they walk past the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. To some students, it may serve as motivation to work harder in training so that they will be treated with more dignity than the people in the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. For other students, especially the ones who are still unfamiliar with the positive philosophy about blindness espoused by the National Federation of the Blind, it might detract from their sense of self-worth. For some staff, it may be a motivator; if they do their jobs well, their students will have an opportunity to live a life free from limitations based on blindness and will have a sufficient understanding of their own equality so as not to accept subminimum-wage work. For other staff, especially those still unfamiliar with a positive understanding of blindness, commuting past the sheltered workshop may mean nothing out of the ordinary and may be accepted as a natural reality of disability.
In Ziklag the rehabilitation counselors are encouraged by their superiors to place clients in the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. After all, the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop offers employment services to people with disabilities. They offer classes, and when their students graduate from these classes, they advance to being a normal client of the sheltered workshop. Is that really a graduation at all? They may even be told to think of themselves as interns or employees.
The state agency appears on paper to be separate from the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. The workshop is a tenant of the agency’s building, albeit for one dollar per year. The state agency contracts with vendors for maintenance and grounds keeping services. It just so happens that the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop provides these services, and it just so happens that they are the vendor used by the state agency. When the agency needs its floors waxed, the workshop does it. Somebody needs to remove fallen leaves from the courtyard of the agency. The employees of the sheltered workshop love running around the courtyard of the agency with leaf blowers, sometimes for five or six hours at a time. The agency employees know that it would be more efficient to pick up the leaves by hand, and there are, of course, many alternatives on a spectrum of efficiency between the leaf blower tournaments and the hand-picking of leaves. When the agency employees lose a day of productivity because of the day-long leaf blower tournaments taking place outside their offices, they often look out the window and observe the teams of disabled employees followed by able-bodied caretakers. What they are doing is obnoxiously inefficient and imposes a negative externality on the state agency with the overpowering noise. The disabled employees are functionally a burden on the state agency and are modeling a lack of productivity that perpetuates low expectations.
The sheltered workshop claims that it has highly specialized employees who work with the disabled. Many of them come to work at the sheltered workshop because their able-bodiedness qualifies them for a supervisory-level position. Their primary credential, of course, is the simple fact that they are able-bodied. At the sheltered workshop, they call themselves “caretakers,” but their résumés and business cards call them supervisors.
Because the agency serving the blind of Ziklag wants to demonstrate its belief in the Randolph-Sheppard program, it has a space in the building set aside for a blind vendor to operate a snack shop. He does good work, but he operates in a relatively low-traffic area. Thankfully, many of the clients of the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop visit him frequently to buy snacks. The caretakers at the sheltered workshop often bring the clients over to the snack shop and give them money to buy snacks. That snack money is often more than most of the disabled employees’ paychecks. Sometimes the supervisors even let the clients walk to the snack shop by themselves.
When it comes time for lunch, some of the rehabilitation counselors go next door to the cafeteria in the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. They praise the food and the low prices. They walk around the agency office telling everyone about the great lunch they scored for such a good price. After all, people should know about a good deal. They often invite students at the orientation center to join them in the cafeteria for lunch, and the students often oblige. Other employees at the agency occasionally visit the cafeteria for lunch as well.
During work hours there is an expectation that employees of Ziklag uphold a positive philosophy about blindness. This means endorsing the concept that blind people are normal, capable people worthy of equality in society. These words are spoken during work hours. It is difficult to conceive how this understanding could be mutable. Can a single cognitive schema enable someone to, during work hours, operate according to a productive belief system about blindness and then leave that understanding at the door of their office when they set out to eat a lunch prepared by blind employees earning pennies per hour?
The students at the orientation center are told during class by their instructors that blind people are normal, that they should expect to achieve normal jobs, and that they deserve to be treated normally by the general public because blindness is a normal characteristic. Since the students have a normal level of intellect, they are able to take notice of these contradictory behaviors, not all of which come from the same staff members. There are those instructors who communicate a positive philosophy about blindness and who have never even ventured inside the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. There are those who never discuss an empowerment model of blindness rehabilitation and who visit the cafeteria enthusiastically. There are also those who do some of each; they attempt to send empowering messages during work hours and then contradict those messages outside of work hours. The students indiscriminately consider the agency employees to be blindness professionals; after all, they work for the agency providing services to the blind. Since there is no unified and consistent message about blindness demonstrated by the staff of our fictitious agency, the students struggle to navigate the muddy waters toward the promise of emotional adjustment to blindness. If the agency truly intends to empower blind people to see themselves as normal people capable of competing on terms of equality with their sighted counterparts, the employees have to believe it themselves. If they do not believe it, how can they ever create that belief in their students?
We hope these students can identify with the employees who promulgate a positive philosophy about blindness with minimal contradiction. Nobody can escape the negative messages of misconceptions and low expectations in society, but increasingly more of us are joining the National Federation of the Blind in realizing the truth about blindness. Who we choose as role models has great implications for our future, and this is just as true for blind students at orientation centers as it is for anybody else.The National Federation of the Blind is helping us all imagine a world in which this story is clearly a fable, a testament to times long past. For decades, the National Federation of the Blind has been training blindness professionals and raising expectations. If we can remain diligent and vigilant, we can continue to shape the face of blindness rehabilitation, enabling us as individuals and as a movement to chart our own future. We, the organized blind movement, take the initiative and responsibility to cultivate our own belief in our own normality, and, by always believing, we can also raise the expectations of others.