Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1990, Vol. 9 No. 1

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by Jana Moynihan

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the August, 1989, Braille Monitor. It was originally published in the the January, 1988, Blind Missourian, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri. Jana Moynihan is a long-time, active Federationist from Missouri. Here is what she has to say.

When we talk about alternative techniques which enable blind persons to function effectively and efficiently, we usually speak in concrete terms. We speak about methods, skills, devices, or the latest technology. We discuss Braille, Optacons, taped or recorded material, talking calculators, computers that communicate through Braille or voice, white canes or guide dogs, Visualteks, etc. I believe that before we get to the concrete discussion of alternative techniques, every blind person and every parent of a blind child should give some thought to the philosophy applying to our selection of alternative techniques--when and how they should be used, and which ones will be best for which blind person. We should also consider how they are presented to blind children or newly blinded adults, and how their use is encouraged and taught.

Basically alternative techniques mean, to me, any method, skill, device, or technology which allows me as a blind person to perform a given activity or task effectively and efficiently in the predominantly sighted world. But there are some alternative techniques which a blind person must develop which are really not skills or knowledge or methods or devices. Actually it might be better to call these things associated techniques because they are more mental than physical. Besides knowing all the necessary skills,

a blind child or adult needs, I believe, to develop creativity, flexibility, and a certain degree of assertiveness to make the skills, methods, and tools he or she acquires really work as alternative techniques.

Why flexibility? The blind person should be familiar with a wide range of methods, skills, and equipment so that he or she can be in a position to know which ones will be best in a given situation. One reason is that all the options are not always readily affordable and available to the blind person, the school, the employer, or even the rehabilitation agency. For example, I would like a small portable computer with a voice output, which I could use as a word processor to write up interviews with witnesses in my job as an investigator for a federal civil rights agency. This device would cost about $25,000.00. Much as my supervisors would like to purchase this equipment for me, due to budget cutbacks it isn't practical right now. Since I have a reader who goes into the field with me and can write up the interviews to be signed on the spot by the witnesses, the equipment I want isn't crucial to my doing my job. It would make me more independent and would mean that my reader and I wouldn't have to push so hard when we are in the field, but my ability for detailed recall and experience in working with a live reader allow me to do what is required.

I once had a friend who was applying for a job in telephone sales or collection. He had been legally blind since childhood -- that is, he had what the experts call "some usable vision." He lost most of this vision rapidly about the same time he lost his job. He did get some Braille training and review and was probably competent enough for his own purposes when he began his job search. How Page 6 ever, he had been bitten by the technology bug. He heard of the "VersaBraille," a device which converts Braille into print in combination with a regular printer. It costs several thousand dollars. He decided he just had to have this great piece of equipment in order to do the kind of work he had in mind. So according to what he told a number of us, he always specified in job interviews when employers wanted to know what special equipment or assistance he might need...he said that he needed a "VersaBraille." Naturally he never seemed to be the candidate chosen for the job. It never seemed to occur to him that he could have done those jobs adequately by Brailling information from his phone contacts on a Braille writer and typing it up for the information of any sighted persons who needed it. While it is true that Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act does require an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to otherwise qualified handicapped persons, it was not reasonable for this blind person to expect the type of small business operations to which he was applying to provide an expensive piece of equipment when he could do the work using much less expensive equipment, standard office equipment, and basic Braille and typing skills. By not being flexible, he lost chances for several jobs.

Why creativity? The blind person needs to be able to analyze a problem and determine which alternative techniques will best solve it. Sometimes this means developing new methods or combining known skills or negotiating acceptance of doing things in a different manner. In college I had to take art history. It was required. At first I wondered how I was going to pass since we were being shown a lot of pictures and slides of various works of art and were supposed to note the techniques or advances for which each artist or painting was important. I decided that since the lecturers and required texts didn't adequately describe things so that I could clearly answer questions about the artists and their works in the detail our instructor wanted, I would just have to have read to me everything available on the individual artists which time permitted. I went to the book store and library and lined up my readers. At the end of the course, I had the highest marks not only for that particular class but for all students in art history for that term.

Now for assertiveness! I can imagine some people reading this who are inwardly cringing at the word. To a lot of people it means arrogance, rudeness, and argumentiveness. That isn't what I mean. I believe that every blind child should be worked with to develop what my mother called "backbone," the strength (as politely and firmly as possible) to stand up for one's rights --the strength to believe in one's ability and not give up. I believe that the need to sometimes be assertive should also be stressed to every blind adult. I know too many blind people, including myself at times, who have backed away from something we really wanted to do because people said it wasn't possible for a blind person to do that. Showing self-confidence and being able to indicate that one has a plan in mind for handling the situation or doing the job doesn't always eliminate the prejudice or open the doors, but it goes a lot further than saying, "What's the use in trying...they are probably right...I am blind so I probably can't do that."

Who should use the alternative techniques available to the blind --such as Braille, cane travel, etc.? I feel very strongly from personal experience that all blind persons with vision of 20 over 200 or less or with a substantially limited field of vision should receive at least sufficient training in these skills so they can use them adequately for their own purposes. I know that it is common practice nowadays among teachers of blind children with what the professionals call "some usable" vision to stress reading print with aids, such as the Visualtek, and supplemented by recorded materials. However, the fact is that for most legally blind persons using sighted techniques (however they may be enhanced and enlarged) is not as efficient as reading in Braille. Working with tapes and live readers is also fine, but some things just can't be done easily or independently that way.

I feel very fortunate that my parents insisted and even fought for my local school system to have me receive Braille instruction in school and also insisted and persisted until I agreed to receive instruction in the use of the white cane before going to college. Although several surgeries prior to my third birthday had given me some of that usable vision during my school years and I could read large print and some regular print materials with the help of very thick reading glasses, I could never really read efficiently or without strain.

Then, just after getting my first job, I began losing the sight I had through glaucoma resulting from scar tissue left from my surgeries. Within a short period I had no useful reading vision left. If I hadn't learned Braille I would probably have had to quit that job as behavioral therapist and teacher for developmentally handicapped children. My job required that I keep detailed progress notes and graphs on each child. I had to present both a written and an oral summary of the progress of each child in each of several specific areas at periodic staffings. When I first started working I kept all records in print form. After about six months, with the glaucoma, I could no longer do this. Because of the Braille training my parents had insisted the school provide, I was able to switch without any problem or break in employment.

My husband and I know many blind people who had (or still have) some vision. On the whole, those who had even some Braille training as children are doing much better than those who didn't get it. Those who didn't learn Braille often later have lost what vision they had or have found that they simply could not rely on reading print and keeping up with the demands of college or their jobs, or effectively keep personal records. The ones who hadn't been given the chance to learn Braille as children also often had some trouble learning it and using it later because many of them seemed to have acquired the feeling that it was inferior to reading print and that they were inferior because they had to use it.

This brings me to my final point. I believe it is most important (especially when teaching alternative techniques to children) that we take care how we present these techniques. Many of us have heard teachers or parents say things like "Now, Mary has some sight so she can read print but John is totally blind. He has to read Braille." Some parents have gone so far as to say to children things like "Now you're with us so you don't need to use that cane. So put it away." Or they may say: "My son doesn't need Braille. He can see some. He isn't blind."

Now children take all of this in. They process it, and what they come up with (regardless of anything else said to them) is that being sighted is okay. Being a little sighted is inferior to being sighted, but it's better than not having any sight -- that being totally blind is the pits. It also tells the child with some usable vision that the closer the alternative techniques he or she uses are to those used by the sighted, the better they are.

These children (especially by the time they reach adolescence) would rather do almost anything than use techniques that totally blind kids use because they want to look sighted. They'd rather risk being hit by a car or be considered a snob when they don't respond to visual greetings from classmates in the hall or on the street than they would carry a white cane. They would rather take poor grades or suffer from headaches and hours of laborious print reading than open a Braille book in front of their classmates. It's hard enough for blind children with some vision to resist doing this even when they have been taught alternative techniques and these techniques have been presented positively to them.

I know because I tried to act sighted for a while myself, even though my family had always been very positive in their attitudes toward my blindness and had insisted I read Braille. Once I got my reading glasses (in about the seventh grade) and could read some regular print, I started neglecting Braille, opting for print every chance I got. I didn't get a lot of my math problems right because they were miscopied. It took fifteen minutes to read a page. I got a lot of headaches, and teachers passed over me for oral reading because I read so slowly and disjointedly that even well-behaved students were bored to the fidgets. Never mind! I was reading print from the same books as my friends used.

My mother got the clue about the end of my eighth grade year what was going on since I never read Braille any more. She tried explaining how important it was. I didn't listen, so that summer (before I could do anything else) every morning I had to sit down and read out loud to her from a Braille copy of the Bible which I had been given a couple of years before. It sounded like the pioneers but since I wouldn't order Braille books from the library it was all she had handy. I think it took about a month (somewhere in the middle of Leviticus) before the message finally sank in that I could read much faster in Braille and could also read orally as well as anyone else.

I hope some of these thoughts about alternative techniques are of assistance to other blind persons and to parents of blind children in helping them work with their children in a positive manner to learn and use effective and efficient techniques which can help them successfully compete in school, on the job, and in daily life.

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