Future Reflections May/June 1983, Vol. 2 No. 3

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an address delivered at the 1982 convention of the
National Federation of the Blind of Michigan
Traverse City, Michigan
November 6, 1982

by James Omvig

Reprinted from the March, 1983 Braille Monitor

I am extremely pleased to be here today and to have the opportunity to speak with you concerning what we should be able to expect, reasonably, from the Michigan Commission for the Blind, or from any other state commission for the blind.

First, let me provide you with a thumbnail sketch of my background since it will indicate to you that the opinions which I am about to express are not merely hypothetical or fanciful ones, but are based upon considerable experience and proven practices.

As most of you know, I am blind and have been for 30 years. I have been a client of the Iowa Commission for the Blind and a student in its Orientation and Adjustment Center. Therefore, I have had the experience of receiving services from an agency. Following my experience as an orientation student, I attended college and law school as a blind person. I was the first blind attorney ever hired by the National Labor Relations Board. I worked for that agency both in Washington, D.C. and in New York City.

Then, I returned to Iowa to enter the field of vocational rehabilitation for the blind. I worked for the Iowa Commission for the Blind for the next 9 years, first as a rehabilitation counselor, then as Director of the Orientation Center (in which I had previously been a student) and, finally, served as Assistant Director of Evaluation and Staff Development.

In 1978, I left the Iowa Commission to become the Manager of the new Handicapped Employment Program of the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, Maryland.

In addition to this formal background and experience, I have been attending state NFB Conventions, now, for the past 14 years. I have visited most states and have had the opportunity to become familiar with most state programs for the blind -- both the good and the bad.

By visiting the states, incidentally, one can conduct quite accurate and meaningful surveys. There is only one way properly to assess the effectiveness of a given program for the blind: just take a look at what has happened to those blind persons who have been served by the agency. Are they employed in meaningful jobs? Are they successful? Are they full of self-confidence, and can they function independently? Can they travel well? Are they active in their communities and families?

If these and other questions can be answered, "yes," then the services are good, no matter what the agency structure may be. And if the answers are, "no," then the services are bad, no matter what the structure is.

Now, let me turn for a moment to blindness and to a philosophy about blindness. In this area, the Federation has learned well what some professionals in the field either cannot or will not understand at all. Blindness is simply a physical characteristic like hundreds of other human traits. Like other characteristics, blindness sometimes has its limitations. Very often, of course, it doesn't. It all depends upon what you are going to do.

In those few instances where limitations actually exist, "alternative techniques" can be used to overcome the limitation. An alternative technique is simply a method of doing, without sight, what you would do with sight if you had it.

And we of the Federation have come truly to understand and believe, with our emotions as well as with our minds, that blind people are ordinary normal human beings who, given proper training and opportunity (and these are large provisos), can compete successfully with the average sighted person. We can compete on the job, and we can compete and participate fully in the affairs of the family and the community.

We have learned that it is not our blindness but, rather, society's attitude about blindness which has kept us down and out through the years. In other words, blindness is an attitudinal problem, a social problem, not a physical one. To be perfectly blunt about it, most people still think of us as helpless, hopeless and unable to compete or participate in the real world. More people continue to think of us as beggars and rug weavers than as lawyers and college professors.

It is this attitude, then, not the physical fact of being blind, which we must face and overcome. And, since those who are now blind and those who will become blind have involuntarily assimilated the negative pubic attitude about blindness, it is this attitudinal problem which must be addressed by an agency for the blind if it hopes to be effective.

With all of this background in mind, let me turn to the agency for the blind: What should it be? What structure is best? And, most important of all, what do the blind have the right to expect from the agency?

Turning to structure, experience has shown over and over that blind persons have the best opportunity for good services from a separate agency or commission for the blind. Funding is always better. There is at least the possibility of developing a staff which becomes expert in blindness, and staff members and administrators do not get themselves sidetracked on other issues or in other areas of personal interest or preference.

On the other hand, I am not aware of a single case in this nation where blind persons get a fair shake under the super-agency structure. We are such a minority among persons who are disabled that we always get the short end of the stick --no emphasis is given to programs for the blind, and administrators are usually interested in some other disability group. And, it is simply not reasonable to expect that a general rehab counselor could be expert in all areas, including blindness. Therefore, the separate agency always offers the best possibility.

But, we must always be mindful of this: There is no magical formula which says that services from a separate agency will automatically be what they should be. You can have the best structure in the world and still have service which is not only poor but which borders on being criminal if the program continues to be staffed by some of the "great minds" of the 18th century.

Attitude and philosophy are everything! The agency must "believe" in blind people, believe that it is respectable to be blind, and it must be willing to do as much work as it takes to pass on that positive belief to blind persons and to the community at large. Therefore, to have superior service, you must have both a proper philosophy and a proper structure. Now, I want to turn specifically to a discussion of those ingredients which have proven to be successful in any good program for the blind:

There must be a proper agency philosophy! It has been said that, "philosophy bakes no bread." But, it has also been said with equal wisdom that, "without a philosophy, no bread is baked." Incredible as it is, I know of some agencies in this country which proudly proclaim that they have no philosophy and whose only apparent philosophy seems to be to "serve the blind." How? What is the goal? What hope does such an agency offer blind clients?

The agency must have a strong, positive, constructive philosophy about blindness, and it must be committed to that philosophy. The only philosophy about blindness which works that I know of is that of the NFB. (I have already spelled it out in some detail.) I can think of no other philosophy which an agency could adopt. The sad fact, of course, is that even those agencies which say they have no philosophy really do. Although not expressed, by all that they do they tell their blind clients that blindess is a disaster, that blind people are helpless, and that blind people can never expect to compete successfully with sighted people; but that we should be grateful, anyway, for what they have given us.

The commission board must be a meaningful part of the program. While it is true that the board should meet periodically to set broad policy, good board members will also take the time to learn about blindness and to develop a real understanding of proper philosophy. Board members should be willing to use their time and personal contacts to help sell the program to the general public, to elected officials, and to talk with employers about hiring the blind.

The staff must consist of persons who truly believe in the blind and who are committed to doing whatever it takes to pass on that belief to others. In other words, the staff members must have the proper philosophy about blindness and they must recognize that their purpose for being is to serve the blind, not simply to protect their own vested interests.

At the Iowa Commission, we developed some extremely sound practices in building and training a staff. If a blind person wished to join the staff, he or she must first successfully have held some other job in competitive employment to demonstrate both to that individual and to others that regular, competitive work is possible for the blind. Because of this experience, such a blind staff member would be in the best possible position to give real help and guidance. He or she could then serve as a role model for blind clients and was much more credible in what was told to blind clients. I tell you of this Iowa policy knowing full well that most agencies send some bright, young blind persons to school, help them get Master's Degrees, and then hire them to "help others." I shudder to think of the "help" such a person is equipped to give.

I suppose I don't need to tell you what chance for employment at the Iowa Commission a blind person -- partial or total --would have where that individual continued to be so ashamed of being blind that he or she refused to carry a cane, use Braille or other alternative techniques, or even refused to admit to being a blind person. Such a person would have no chance whatever. Again, we were selecting a staff to serve the blind, not to provide employment for someone who couldn't get a job some place else.

Sighted staff members had to be willing to undergo training as blind persons, sleepshades, cane travel, and all. Again, they had to come to understand blindness and to know, from personal experience, that the philosophy really works. In addition, when they were practicing cane travel alone on the streets of Des Moines, members of the sighted public assumed they were blind, and treated them accordingly. It was helpful for them to experience and cope with those things which happen to us every day. And, of course, both blind and sighted staff members were given extensive, philosophical training before they ever came into contact with a blind client.

The agency, from the director on down, must be willing to "listen" to what the blind have to say and to work in a spirit of partnership with the organized blind. We are the persons affected by the services, and we have the right to have a voice in what those services will be. Through our collective experience, we know well what works and what doesn't --what is good and what is bad.

Again, as bizarre and outdated as it is, some agencies continue to operate on the worn-out theory that, "we know what is best for you." This type of thinking should have vanished along with the 19th century.

And, when I said that the partnership should be with the "organized blind," I meant exactly that. Some agencies refuse to listen to us but get their input from blind "individuals." While you can always get an expression of the attitude you want through careful "selection," this practice has no place in the agency which has the best interests of the blind at heart. Such "individuals" have no reason to have any knowledge about what is needed. Meaningful information and input can be gathered only from those who have had the good sense to join together and to share ideas and experiences --the organized blind.

The good agency must be an "advocate" for the civil rights of all blind persons. It must be willing to become involved and to have confrontations. However, it must be mindful of the fact that it does not "represent" anybody. Only those elected by others can do that.

The good agency must operate on the "presumption" that all blind people are capable, that everybody can do something, and that we have sufficient intelligence to choose wisely what we can and want to do. (Incidentally, like sighted persons, we should also have the freedom to choose unwisely.) The agency's role should be to help the blind person develop sufficient self-confidence and skills so that the individual can decide what he or she wishes to do. Once this decision is made by the blind person, the agency should help that person prepare for the employment objective. Frankly, who cares what the agency "thinks" an individual can or should do. Therefore, testing and evaluation should be at a minimal level.

The heart of any good program is an effective Orientation Center. The purpose of a good Orientation Center is to assist blind persons in becoming independent: by teaching self-reliance and self- confidence; by teaching needed skills; and by teaching the students what the social attitudes about blindness are, why they are what they are, what will happen to you because of those social attitudes, and how to cope effectively with those things which are done or said to you.

This center should be "pre-vocational" in nature: That is, it should be a place where individuals can "learn how to be blind." Vocational training should be provided wherever sighted persons get theirs, after the orientation process has been completed, and the training should be integrated with programs for sighted persons since, presumably, the blind will work alongside the sighted for the rest of their lives.

Such a center must be an "attitude factory." It must be a place where blind adults from throughout a state can come to live on a residential basis to build hope, self-confidence, to learn that it is respectable to be blind, and to learn basic skills and alternative techniques. The atmosphere must be such that, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the student is being told, "come on, you can do it. You can do more." And there must be blind staff members available who can serve as role models and who, when a student says, "I can't do it," can say, "Look, my friend, I'm as blind as you are. I know what can be done and how it can be done so don't say you can't; just do it."

You have to help the student get to the point where he or she can say, "Yes, I am blind. So what! I like myself and I am okay. I can do anything I want to do." If you don't build self-confidence and self-esteem, then nothing else you can do makes any difference. So, these should be the objectives in any good Orientation Center. How can these objectives be accomplished? The answer to this question is simple if you understand that the problems connected with blindness are primarily attitudinal, and if you really want to do something constructive to solve those problems.

Everything you do in such a center must be related to the proper philosophy. Here are some of the ingredients which are absolutely essential in any good center.

Blindness must be discussed and the word "blind" must be used and stressed. If we will ever accept our blindness, we must first admit that we are. Like black persons who attempted to solve their problems by pretending that they were white, blind persons who pretend that they are sighted are fooling themselves and are cop-outs. Blacks solve their problems by making it respectable to be black, and we will solve our problems by making it respectable to be blind. Therefore, such phrases as, "visually impaired, visually limited, or sightless" should not be used. There must be frank, individual and group discussions about blindness. Students must learn the proper philosophy in their heads through discussion. Then, to set those feelings into honest emotions, students must be required to do all kinds of things which will teach them that they really can function. In Iowa, we used such techniques as water skiing, grilling steaks, running power tools and cutting wood for our fireplaces.

The center must be located in a busy, urban area. I know that many centers are in secluded locations away from people and possible danger. However, if the purpose of the center is to help the students become a part of society, then training should be where the action is. The facility should be near enough to restaurants, stores, theaters and bars that the students have a reason to leave it. Much confidence building can be achieved simply by going out into the world.

The students must be treated as adults, not children. Therefore, there should be no "hours" at the center. Nor should there be bed checks. Adults come and go as they please.

The same training should be required for all students at the center. Again, some centers have one kind of training for the totally blind and another for the partially sighted. If you understand that the problem is attitudinal, and if you intend to teach a proper philosophy, then all students must have the same training.

All students--both partial and total--should be required to use canes at all times. Again, in some centers canes are used only during travel class. However, if you wish to travel well and to be independent, you must use the cane over and over until it becomes a reflex action. In addition, use of the cane helps to build confidence and helps the student to admit that he or she is blind since, by using it constantly, you are telling everyone around you that you are blind.

The blind students with some vision should use "sleepshades" during all training. The great temptation of students with some vision is to attempt to use that vision, even when it is completely useless. They also like to try to pretend that they are sighted through the use of sighted techniques. The reason for this is simple: People want to be "normal." It is normal to be sighted. Therefore, if you use blind techniques you are not normal. False logic, but that is how minds work. If you are blind enough to be at the center, you are blind. Vision will not be useful in many situations. Therefore, the student must learn blind techniques, learn that they work, learn not to be ashamed of using them and learn, during training, to use the combination of blind and sighted techniques best suited to that individual. Following this kind of training, the student will be in the position of knowing when to use sight or when to use a blind technique.

All students must be trained in Braille. While some students with some vision will argue that they don't need Braille, everyone should be exposed to it. The student may just learn that it is more efficient than he or she thought and that reading large print at 20 to 30 words a minute isn't so hot after all.

Proper practices must be established regarding eating. And, no, I don't mean "techniques of daily living." Assuming that all students need classes in techniques of daily living is insulting and teaches a negative philosophy rather than a positive one. Sometimes you do find a student who needs help in this area. Very often this is a student who has come out of a residential school for the blind. When the situation occurs, staff members should work with this individual quietly and privately.

When I refer to earing, I am talking about this Iowa policy: I know that many newly blinded people are embarrassed to eat in front of the sighted. Therefore, they are quite content to have someone serve them in the seclusion of a group dining room. At the Iowa Commission, we had a public cafeteria in which students could get their breakfasts and lunches (they went through the line themselves). However, we closed the cafeteria for evenings and weekends. Along with this, we had a rule which said that students could not cook in their rooms, nor could more veteran students bring their meals to them. The obvious intent of this practice was to make students go out into the public to find food and to be seen. The only way to overcome the fear of eating or functioning in front of others is to do it until you feel comfortable.

The good center should have no psychologist or psychiatrists in it. Students should be assumed to be mentally fit. If you are trying to overcome stereotypical thinking on the part of students, and since there is a severe stereotype about psychologists and psychiatrists in our country --only crazy people see them, the student who is forced to see one on a daily or weekly basis will simply believe that things are worse than he or she thought.

Am I saying that I am opposed to all psychologists or psychiatrists? Of course not! On rare occasions, a student may develop emotional problems. When this occurs, send that student to a competent professional (be careful, though, that you have chosen the professional wisely since, if you have not, the professional will most likely try to help the client "adjust" to blindness in a manner which will help no one). If the orientation staff can't tell the difference between fear of blindness or real emotional problems, the staff had better be replaced: Don't use that problem as a reason for bringing in the psychologists or the psychiatrists.

There should be no house mothers or babysitters in the center. The students' time is valuable, and they should be able to have someone to work with them nights and weekends. Therefore, there should be staff members available in the center at all times to help solve problems, give counseling, and talk about blindness. Again, I know that in most centers this does not occur and house parents are on hand. I must say that I was particularly dismayed when I learned last night that the Michigan Center has nurses on duty to "care for the trainees." This practice could only lead the student to feel that he or she is a patient in some strange kind of institution.

The students should be exposed to organizations of the blind and to successful blind persons. This point surely speaks for itself.

Now, let me take a very few minutes to round out the picture of a good agency. There should be competent home teachers and rehabilitation counselors who truly believe in the blind and who can motivate blind persons from throughout the state. They must be persistent: That is, if a newly blinded persons refuses to accept services from the agency after one or two contacts, they should keep returning and trying. Of course, this should not be confused with trying to force the blind person to accept services which he or she does not want, a practice which should never be allowed. Very often the newly blinded individual will assume that there is no hope and that nothing can be done.

Then, there is the matter of vending facilities: The blind vendors should truly run the businesses. In many states, the agencies really run the vending facilities and, in reality, the blind are only cashiers. If you truly believe that blind persons can function competently and independently, then let them run the businesses. Let them do their own hiring, firing, purchasing, price setting, bookkeeping, etc.

Finally, the State Library for the Blind should be part of the agency for the blind. Experience has shown that the service is much better and is much more coordinated when this is the case. In addition, Federal rehabilitation funds can be put into the library when it is part of the agency.

These, then, are some of the thoughts which I have concerning what the blind should be able to expect from a good agency. I hope these opinions are helpful as you assess the value of the Michigan Commission for the Blind in the upcoming session of the Michigan legislature.

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