The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _June 1997

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[PHOTO/CAPTION: James Omvig]

What We Can Expect From a Commission for the Blind

by James H. Omvig

From the Editor: This paper was originally presented by Jim Omvig at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan at which there was a discussion concerning the Michigan Commission for the Blind. The paper was reprinted in the Braille Monitor in 1983 and was updated in July of 1996. Jim Omvig is a long-time leader in the National Federation of the Blind, and since its first publication this article has been a popular and useful compilation of Federation thinking about the importance of the commission model for service delivery to blind consumers and the most effective methods for carrying out rehabilitation. We thought that it would be helpful to reprint it now that the super-agency model is threatening to undermine such progress as has been made in improving the quality of rehabilitation in a number of states. This is what Jim says:

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

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

As most of you know, I am blind and have been for thirty years. I was a client of the Iowa Commission for the Blind and a student in its adult orientation and adjustment center. Therefore, I have had the experience of receiving services from an outstanding state agency. Following my experience as an orientation student, I attended college and law school as a blind student. Then I experienced the struggle of finding a good job as a blind person. I was the first blind attorney ever employed by the National Labor Relations Board. I worked for that agency in both Washington, D.C., and 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 nine years, first as a rehabilitation counselor and then as Director of the Orientation and Adjustment Center, in which I had previously been a student. Finally I served as Assistant Director for Staff Development for the entire agency.

In 1978 I left the Iowa Commission in order to become Director of the new Handicapped Employment Program of the Social Security Administration in Baltimore. I am working primarily to create greater employment opportunities for the blind and disabled within SSA itself.

In addition to this formal background and experience, I have been attending and speaking at NFB state conventions now for the past fourteen 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 and studies. There is only one way properly to assess the effectiveness, or lack of effectiveness, of a given program for the blind. Just take a look at what has happened to the blind people who have been served by the agency! Are they employed in meaningful jobs, jobs which are commensurate with their abilities and qualifications? Are they successful? Are they full of self-confidence, and can they function efficiently and independently? Can they travel well, going where they want to go when they want to go there? Are they active in their families, their churches, and their communities? Are they happy?

If these and other similar 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 agency structure is.

Now let me turn for a moment to some comments about blindness and a philosophy about it. In this area the National Federation of the Blind has learned well what some professionals in the field either cannot or will not understand at all. The NFB has learned the shocking truth that blind people are normal people, simply a cross-section of society at large, and that blindness is merely a normal, physical characteristic like hundreds of other human traits, no more nor no less.

Like other characteristics blindness sometimes has its limitations. Very often, of course, it does not. It all depends upon what you are going to do in a given situation. In those few instances where limitations because of blindness really do exist, alternative techniques can be used to overcome those limitations. An alternative technique is simply a method of doing without sight what you would do with sight if you had it--Braille, long-cane travel, etcetera.

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

And, finally, we have learned another fundamental truth: namely, that it is not our blindness but rather
society's attitudes about it which have kept us down and out through the years. In other words, blindness is primarily an attitudinal problem, a social problem, not a physical one. To be perfectly blunt about it, most people--blind and sighted alike--still think of us as helpless and hopeless and unable to compete or even participate in the real world. Most people continue to think of us as beggars and rug-weavers rather than as lawyers, machinists, chemists, or college professors.

It is this attitude, then, and not the physical fact of blindness which we must face and overcome. And, since those who are now blind and those who will become blind have involuntarily assimilated the negative public attitudes about blindness, this attitudinal problem is what must be addressed by an agency for the blind if it hopes to be effective in working with its clients. The blind have the right to expect that the agency knows what it is doing and can give proper service.

With all of this background in mind, let me turn to a discussion of the agency for the blind--what should it be? What agency 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 people have the best chance 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, there is at least the possibility that responsibility can be pinpointed, 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 in which blind persons get a fair shake under the so-called super-agency structure or where the blind are served in the same agency with all other disabled people. We are such a small minority in the disabled community that we always get the short end of the stick. No emphasis is given to programs for the blind or to our unique rehabilitative needs, and administrators are quite often interested in some other disability group. Also it is simply not reasonable to expect that a general rehab counselor can be expert in all areas, including blindness. Therefore the separate agency always offers the best possibility for successful rehabilitation.

But we must always be mindful of this: There is no magical formula which says that services from a separate agency will always and 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 borders on being criminal, if the agency continues to be administered and staffed by some of the great minds of the eighteenth 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 its blind consumers and to the community at large. Therefore, to have superior service you must have both the proper philosophy and the right governmental structure, and the blind have the right to expect both.

Now I want to turn specifically to a discussion of those ingredients which have brought success in good programs for the blind--ingredients such as a proper agency philosophy, a committed board, a knowledgeable and committed staff, a willingness to advocate for its clients, and a quality adult orientation and adjustment center.

1. The agency must have a constructive and positive philosophy. It has been said that, "Philosophy bakes no bread." But it has been said with equal wisdom that, "Without a philosophy, no bread is baked." Incredible as it is, I know of some agencies for the blind in this country which proudly proclaim that they have no philosophy about blindness and whose only apparent philosophy seems to be "to serve the blind." How? What are its goals and objectives? 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 blind have the right to expect that the agency will develop a philosophy best equipped to put hope and meaning into their lives.

The only philosophy about blindness I know of which really works is that of the NFB. I have spelled it out above in some detail. I know of no other constructive philosophy which an agency could adopt and espouse. 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 blindness is an unmitigated disaster, that blind people are helpless and incompetent, and that blind people can never expect to compete successfully or participate side-by-side with sighted people, but that we should be grateful anyway for what they have given us.

2. The commission board of directors must be a meaningful part of the program. (In the commission form of agency, the governor typically appoints a policy-making board which hires the director, and the director then hires the staff.)

While it is true that the board should meet periodically to set broad policy for the agency, good board members will also take the time to learn about blindness and to develop a real understanding about philosophy and services. Board members should be willing to use their time and personal contacts to help sell the program to the general public and elected officials and to talk with employers about hiring qualified blind people. I think that it is appropriate for a board member to lean a little on a business associate if doing so might get a job for a blind person.

3. 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 the sole purpose for their jobs is serving the blind, not protecting their vested interests.

At the Iowa Commission we developed some extremely sound and interesting practices for building and training a staff. If a blind person wished to join the staff, he or she must first have successfully 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 was 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 when advising blind students.

I tell you of this unique 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 inexperienced professionals will give.

I suppose I don't need to tell you what chance for employment at the Iowa Commission any blind person would have had if he or she continued to be so ashamed of blindness as to refuse to carry a cane, use Braille or other alternative techniques, or even refuse to admit to being a blind person. None! Again, we were selecting a staff to serve the blind, not to provide employment for those who couldn't get jobs some place else.

Sighted staff members had to be willing to undergo training as blind persons--sleepshades, cane travel, and all. They had to come to understand blindness and to know from personal experience that NFB 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 the things that 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 student.

4. The agency, from the board and director on down, must be willing to listen to what blind consumers have to say and to work in a spirit of partnership with the organized blind. We are the ones affected by the services, and we have the right to 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 nineteenth 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, preferring to get their consumer information from blind individuals specifically not affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind. While one can elicit expressions of any attitude or opinion desired through careful selection of the respondents, such a practice has no place in an agency with the best interests of the blind at heart. There is no reason for unaffiliated people to have any useful knowledge of what the entire range of blind consumers need. Meaningful information and opinion can be gathered only from those who have had the good sense to join together and to share ideas and experiences--the organized blind.

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

6. The good agency must operate on the presumption that all blind people are capable, that everybody can do something, and that blind people have sufficient intelligence to choose wisely what we can and want to do. Incidentally, like sighted people 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 skill that the individual can decide what he or she wishes to do. Once the blind person makes this decision, the agency should help the 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 kept to a minimum.

7. The heart of any good rehabilitation program for the blind is an effective orientation and adjustment center. The purpose of a good center is to assist blind people to become 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 them every day because of society's erroneous attitudes, and how to cope effectively with the unjust or painful things said or done to them.

This center should be pre-vocational in nature. That is, it should be a place where individuals can learn how to be blind. Later vocational training should be purchased or provided wherever sighted people receive it. This vocational training must be integrated with that provided to sighted students since, presumably, blind graduates will work alongside sighted ones for the rest of their lives.

Such a center must be an attitude factory, a place where blind adults from across the state can come to live for some months to build hope and 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, twenty-four-hours a day, seven days a week, the student is being told, "Come on, you can do it, you can do more." And blind staff members must be 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!"

The goal is 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'm OK! I can do anything I want to do." If an adult rehabilitation facility does not build self-confidence and self-esteem, then nothing else it can do will make any difference.

Incidentally, training facility staff should call students "students." Some rehabilitation facilities refer to trainees, clients, or even patients. It is important to use the most positive word possible--"student." It's much easier for a blind Iowa resident to leave his home to be a "student" at the "school" in Des Moines than to be a patient or client in some state institution.

I have listed the objectives of a good orientation and adjustment 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 these problems.

Everything done in such a center must be related to this constructive philosophy. Here are some of the
ingredients which are absolutely essential in any good center:

(a) Blindness must be discussed, and the word "blind" must be used and stressed. If we are ever to accept our own blindness, we must first admit that we are blind, and the agency that simply reinforces and perpetuates denial of the fact is useless. Like black people of another generation who attempted to solve their problems by pretending they were white, blind people who pretend they are sighted are fooling only themselves and are ducking the central issue of their lives. Blacks ultimately worked to solve their problems by making it respectable to be black,and we will solve our problems only when we make it respectable to be blind. Therefore, such phrases as "unsighted," "sightless," "hard-of-seeing," or "visually impaired" should not be used when referring to people who are legally blind.

Frank individual and group discussions about blindness must take place. Students must intellectually learn the positive philosophy about blindness through discussion. Then, to transform those ideas into belief and conviction, students must be required to do all kinds of things which will teach them emotionally that they really can function and that a normal, happy, and productive life really does lie ahead. In Iowa we used such varied techniques as water skiing, grilling steaks, running power tools, and cutting down trees to supply wood for our fireplace.

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

Under no circumstances should an orientation and adjustment center be housed together with a sheltered workshop for the blind. Where this is done, the work of a good center is lost. You can present the best philosophical training in the world in the center, but the blind students will see and identify with the blind people who have been beaten down and placed in the shop.

When a center is being constructed or renovated, center personnel should contact and work with state officials to have the center exempted from accessibility requirements such as those calling for detectable warnings at the top of steps, etc. Blind students must learn to rely on the white cane to give them needed information about steps or other obstacles. The creation, in the name of safety, of an artificial environment in the training center will actually place students at greater risk when they are traveling and working in the real world. If the training has been done properly, students will be perfectly safe in the world as it is.

(c) The students should be treated like adults, not children. Therefore, there should be no hours or curfews at the center, nor should there be bed checks. Adults come and go as they please.

(d) The same training should be required for all students at the center. Some centers have one kind of
training for the totally blind and another for the partially blind. If you understand that the major problem of blindness is attitudinal and if you intend to teach positive philosophy, then all students must have the same training.

All students at a blindness training and adjustment facility, regardless of the amount of their residual vision, should be required to use long, non-folding canes at all times. In some centers canes are used only during travel class. However, students who wish to travel well and to become independent must use the cane over and over until its proper use becomes a reflex action. In addition, use of the cane helps to build self-confidence and helps students admit and accept the fact that they are blind since, by using it constantly, they are telling the world that they are blind. Denial is eliminated as a method of coping.

(e) The blind students with some remaining usable vision should use sleepshades during all training. The great temptation for students with some vision is to attempt to use that vision even when it is inadequate. These students are also tempted to pretend that they are sighted by using sighted techniques. The reason for this is simple; people yearn to be normal. They believe it is normal to be sighted. They fear that, if they use blindness techniques, they will not be seen as normal. False logic, but that is how our minds work until someone intervenes with the truth that normality is not defined by visual acuity.

Those who are blind enough to be at the center are blind! Their limited vision will not be useful in many situations. Therefore such students must learn blindness 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 their individual visual limitations. Having received this type of training, the student with residual vision will forever after be in the best position to know when to use sight and when to use a blindness technique. Putting this another way, when sleepshades are used, the partially blind student can actually learn for the first time how to use his or her remaining vision efficiently.

(f) All students must be trained to use Braille. While some students with a little vision may argue that they don't need Braille, everyone should be exposed to it. The student may well learn that it is more efficient than he or she had thought and that reading large print at twenty or thirty words a minute isn't particularly efficient.

(g) Proper practices must be established concerning meals and eating. No, I don't mean spreading butter, cutting meat, and pouring cream. To assume that all students need classes in good manners and etiquette is insulting and demonstrates a negative philosophy rather than a positive one. Sometimes students do need help in this area, particularly students who have come from residential schools for the blind. When this occurs, staff members should work with this individual quietly and privately.

I am referring to a particular problem and an interesting Iowa policy: Many newly blinded people feel
conspicuous eating in front of sighted people. Therefore they are quite content to have someone serve them in the seclusion of a group dining room. To solve this problem, at the Iowa Commission we had a public cafeteria, where the students could buy their breakfasts and lunches if they wished. They went through the line themselves with the other customers. However, we closed the cafeteria during evenings and weekends. Moreover, we had a rule that students could not cook in their rooms, nor could more experienced students bring meals to the new ones. The obvious intent of this practice was to get students out into the public to find food and to get used to being seen. The only way to overcome the fear of moving and eating in front of others is to do it over and over again until one feels comfortable.

(h) The good center should have no psychologists or psychiatrists on staff. Students should be assumed to be mentally fit. The intent of the program is to overcome stereotypical thinking about blindness. Society is already filled with negative attitudes about psychologists and psychiatrists--"Only crazy people see them." So the student who is forced to see one on a daily or weekly basis quickly
concludes that things are even worse than he or she had thought.

Am I saying that I am opposed to all psychologists or psychiatrists? Of course not! Rarely a student may develop emotional problems. When this occurs, that student should be sent to a competent professional. Care should be taken to choose the professional wisely. If this has not been done, the professional will most likely try to help the student adjust to blindness in a manner which will help no one. If the orientation staff can't tell the difference between a normal fear of blindness and a real emotional problem, the staff had better be replaced. But don't use such a problem as a reason for bringing in the psychologists or psychiatrists.

(i) There should be no house mothers or baby sitters in the center. The students' time is valuable, and they should have competent staff members available to work with them during evenings and on weekends. Therefore staff members should be available at all times to help solve problems, give counsel, and talk about blindness. 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 can only lead to a belief on the part of students that they are sick patients in some kind of state institution.

(j) The students should be exposed to organizations of the blind and to successful blind persons. This point surely speaks for itself and needs no elaboration.

8. Now let me take a few minutes to round out what I believe the blind have the right to expect from a good agency.

(a) Competent home teachers and rehabilitation counselors who truly believe in the blind and who can
motivate blind people from across the state should be on staff. They must be persistent. That is, if a newly blind person refuses to accept services from the agency after only one or two contacts, they should keep returning and trying. Of course this effort should not be confused with trying to force the blind person to accept services which he or she truly does not want. Very often, however, people who are newly blind will mistakenly assume that there is no hope and that nothing useful can be done. A person has the right to informed choice, but such a choice can be made only after the individual has learned enough to be informed.

(b) Then there is the matter of vending facilities. Blind vendors should truly run the businesses. In many states the agencies actually run the facilities and in reality the blind are only glorified cashiers. If agency personnel truly believe that the blind can function competitively and independently, they should be permitted to run the businesses. Let them do their own hiring, firing, purchasing, price-setting, bookkeeping, etc.

(c) The state library for the blind should be part of the state agency for the blind. Experience has shown that the service is much better and more coordinated when this is the case. The rehabilitation agency gets referrals through the library, and vice versa. Also Federal rehabilitation dollars can be put into the state library when it is a part of the state agency.

(d) Finally, let me speak briefly about employment. Suitable job placement is the final step in the
rehabilitation process. Job placement is handled in two different ways around the country. In many states a job placement specialist is assigned specifically to work on placements. In others, including Iowa, the counselors do their own placements. Since I know that this system works well, I guess I favor this model.

Agency rehab counselors (or placement specialists) should spend a good part of their time in getting to know business owners, personnel officers, department heads, etc., within their territories. These counselors should work to create a positive atmosphere so that, by the time the individual blind consumer is ready for employment, interviews and possible jobs will already be available. The ultimate objective in any state should be that any blind person who wants to work and who is willing to undergo proper training can get a suitable job.

The second major part of the job placement issue has to do with employer and public education. In Iowa, virtually every day of the year (and often many times a day) a Commission employee or the center students were speaking and presenting programs for Lions and other civic organizations, churches, schools, business men's associations, fairs, etc. The effort of the agency must be to create an atmosphere in which blind citizens are accepted as normal people and can find good jobs when their training has been completed and they are ready for employment.

These, then, are some of my thoughts concerning what blind consumers should be able to expect from a good agency for the blind. Since the best governmental structure is known, since the proper philosophy is known and proven, and since the best teaching and rehabilitation service techniques are known, tried, and tested, I believe that the expectations outlined here are reasonable. I hope these opinions and experiences are helpful as you assess the value of a Commission for the Blind in the upcoming session of your state legislature.