The Braille Monitor                                                                              August/September, 2003

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Orientation and Mobility,
Competence and Hypocrisy

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred Schroeder addresses the convention.
Fred Schroeder addresses the convention.

From the Editor: On Thursday, July 3, Dr. Fred Schroeder, former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and currently a research professor at San Diego State University, addressed the convention. He took the opportunity to set the record straight with respect to one segment of the recent history of the blindness field. This is what he said:

An old adage says, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I have always assumed that this was an admonition to take care to attend to history's lessons, but I had never really thought about the fact that another and perhaps more insidious way of ignoring the lessons of history is by rewriting history and thereby losing its lessons entirely.

A year or so ago I heard for the first time that some well-known leaders in the orientation and mobility field had been saying that the profession has never discriminated against blind people seeking to become certified to teach orientation and mobility. As you know, this is a subject with which I have some familiarity. Since the history of discrimination against blind people seeking entry into the orientation and mobility profession is so well known, I assumed that the individuals making these statements must represent a tiny minority; they must be an aberration not to be taken seriously, but to my surprise the statements continued. Sometimes the claims were bold denials that the field had ever discriminated, and sometimes the statements were carefully framed to be technically true, while deliberately mischaracterizing the facts.

For example, as you may know, for most of its history the certification process was administered by the professional organization--first the American Association of Workers for the Blind and later the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Just over three years ago, in January 2000, the certification process was given over to a new body known as the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (Academy). I have recently heard it said that the Academy has never discriminated against blind people seeking orientation and mobility certification. Well, given that the Academy is so new, and given that it has in fact certified a small number of blind people, it can be truthfully said that it has never refused to certify a blind person on the basis of blindness. Yet such statements are clearly intended to give the blatantly false impression that the profession as a whole has never discriminated against the blind.

Last November, at a national meeting to discuss residential training centers, I heard a leader in the orientation and mobility field, speaking of a recently-certified blind person, describe the blind person as being the latest in the "long, proud history" of the profession certifying blind people. At best the profession has certified only a handful of blind people, and its history is neither long nor proud.

So what are the facts? Certification of orientation and mobility professionals started in the late 1960's with the adoption of certification standards by the American Association of Workers for the Blind. The standards included graduate level training from an approved university program and of course normal visual acuity. In 1977 the visual-acuity standard was replaced with a functional standard that purported to be a nondiscriminatory measure of an instructor's ability to perform the essential functions of the job.

What prompted the change from an acuity standard to a functional standard? Not a change in attitudes about the ability of blind people--no, certainly not. On May 4, 1977, the U.S. Department of Education published regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. For the first time blind people and others had protection from discrimination on the basis of disability in institutions that received federal funds. That meant that the universities could no longer keep the blind out. Now the profession was faced with the prospect of having blind people graduate from approved university programs and apply for certification. So how did the profession react? It adopted the functional standards that it claimed only measured essential abilities. And what were those essential abilities? One was the ability to monitor a student from a distance of 375 feet. Why 375 feet? Because it would allow the fully sighted to pass and would exclude the blind.

I believe it can be said without fear of honest contradiction that the objective was to continue the practice of keeping blind people out of the profession. Parenthetically, you may find it odd, but recently, when discussing the shameful history of blind people's being denied certification, a leading figure in the field felt it important to point out that it was not just blind people that the profession kept out--it barred people with all types of disabilities. I suppose this distinction is intended to make us feel better, knowing that we were not singled out for discrimination, but were discriminated against on a basis of equality along with others, the profession being an equal opportunity discriminator.

So why do I bring this up? Isn't this all ancient history? Doesn't the orientation and mobility profession now accept blind people? The technical, legal answer is yes, but the real answer is a much more qualified yes. In fact, in my view so qualified that the answer by any honest standard is truly, no. It is true that today a blind person can apply to a university program in orientation and mobility and know that his or her right to do so is protected by the law. Upon graduating, he or she may, in fact, be granted certification. Today a small number of blind people have been certified by the Academy. However, far from being a long-standing, venerable practice, the inclusion of blind people into the profession is startlingly recent.

How recent? When did the profession finally begin certifying blind people? 1997. Yes, 1997--no long, proud history of certifying blind people. And the change was not universally embraced. Many, many of the most prominent leaders in the field resisted opening certification to blind people. In 1996, writing in opposition to certifying blind people, a recognized pioneer in the orientation and mobility field, Bruce Blasch, Ph.D., said:

As an O&M specialist, I believe we must advocate for the safest and best possible O&M instruction for all visually impaired clients. To date, there has been no evidence that a totally blind individual can provide the systematic O&M instruction that is taught in the university programs and certified by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).

No one can accuse Dr. Blasch of being afraid to speak his mind. He believed that we could not teach other blind people to travel using a white cane. He believed that we should be kept out of the profession. So why did the profession open certification to blind people? Because it was compelled to. The change in the certification standards did not represent an awakening, an emerging enlightenment about the ability of blind people; rather it was a response to changes in the law. First section 504 and later the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) required reasonable accommodations, so in response the standard was altered to allow for the use of accommodations in the teaching of orientation and mobility.

In the same article, writing about the idea of blind people using reasonable accommodations to teach, Dr. Blasch said:

I have seen this topic revisited many times. In 1959 the focus was on the needs of clients; in 1996 it is on the rights of totally blind instructors. Current discussions center on making lists of possible reasonable accommodations to permit totally blind persons to teach O&M or finding parts of the O&M task that blind persons could teach. The emphasis has been on employing individuals who are blind rather than on maintaining the best possible instructional programs for all persons learning O&M. No one has evaluated, in a scientific way, the impact and potential detrimental effects these modifications could have on O&M clients. The focus on what works best for totally blind instructors instead of what is safest for clients shows almost total disregard for the integrity of the O&M curriculum and for the learning opportunities it should present.

Of course Dr. Blasch is only one person expressing his beliefs, his opinions. He certainly does not speak for the entire field, the profession as a whole, and, however long in coming, the profession did change its standards, allowing blind people to become certified. Dr. Blasch's views did not prevail. The criteria for certification were changed in spite of his objections, showing that the orientation and mobility profession has evolved and today recognizes that blind people can teach cane travel. Or does it?

While blind people have been eligible for certification since 1997, it is important to remember that the change in the certification standards came in response to changes in the law requiring reasonable accommodations; accordingly, the revised certification standards presumed that blind people require accommodations to teach. What does that mean? It means a presumption that the blind orientation and mobility instructor requires a sighted assistant.

So what has really changed? In my view, very little. The profession has moved from believing that the orientation and mobility instructor has to be able to see to believing that a blind instructor has to have an assistant who can see. The profession can take no pride in this change. It is not a thing that shows a change in perspective, a change in attitudes about blindness and blind people. It is not symbolic or illustrative of a progressive, mature view of blindness. No rewriting of history, no recasting of the facts can change the truth.

In my view the profession has missed the point. Blind people do not need sighted assistance to teach cane travel. We only need sighted assistance in order to teach the way the sighted teach.

I have taught cane travel, but I am by no means the only blind person to have done so. There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blind people who have taught others to travel, formally or informally. The techniques we use are not remarkable, not mysterious, not supernatural; they simply do not require sight.

Leaders in the orientation and mobility profession can undertake to rewrite history, to deny that discrimination ever took place, but that will not change the facts and, more to the point, it will not further the full integration of blind people into society. It will not change the negative attitudes that comprise the foundation of denied opportunity. And it will not further an understanding of the way blind people teach cane travel.

To ignore history is bad enough; to rewrite it--to deny that discrimination ever took place--makes real progress impossible, makes honest self-examination impossible. Inclusion of blind people in the profession has not been an ongoing, natural part of the profession's history. The blind have been systematically kept out--deliberately excluded. Unfortunately, today far too many in the profession continue to operate from the same set of assumptions. The profession is willing to consider including blind people only to the extent that accommodations allow us to teach in the same way as the sighted teach. Nonvisual methods are at best suspect--assumed to be less reliable, less effective, less safe.

Of course not everyone in the profession believes that the blind are inherently less safe and less effective in teaching cane travel. A number of leaders in the field, among them some of the most notable, have been real heroes, real allies in the progress blind people have made. Yet this does not change the fact that the profession as a whole has not believed and in my view still does not truly believe in the ability of blind people to teach cane travel.

Discrimination against blind people in the orientation and mobility profession is part of our history. But of course, discrimination notwithstanding, the orientation and mobility profession is not closed to the blind. No discriminatory practices will keep us out. The blind can teach, are teaching, and will continue to teach other blind people to travel. The profession has a choice. It can learn how blind people teach and incorporate these methods into its curriculum, or it will be left behind--it will make itself irrelevant while it waits for evidence, proof that the blind can teach.

How much better it would be to join with us, to help speed the day when the blind no longer face discrimination in the orientation and mobility field and in other fields. How much better to help build the future, to contribute to real progress. How much better to build a truly proud history, a history in which the profession joins with the blind to learn from the blind and to encourage blind people to enter the profession, a history in which the profession openly acknowledges its honest doubts, its honest misgivings, and yet commits its collective will, imagination, and experience to furthering opportunities for the blind in the orientation and mobility profession. We ask the profession to commit itself to being a part of the history in which true equality is realized rather than sitting on the sidelines, defending the status quo, waiting for others to make the changes and build the future, and then rewriting history to recast resistance and prejudice as boldness and courage.

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