Braille Monitor                          January 2019

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Of Elvis and Structured Discovery

by Karl Smith

Karl SmithFrom the Editor: Karl Smith is a longtime member of the National Federation of the Blind, is a major pillar in our Utah Affiliate, and runs a successful business selling assistive technology. Karl loves to discuss history and philosophy, and this month he treats Monitor readers to reflections that combine those and some rather interesting personal experiences while on a trip. Here is what he says:

In recent years Federationists have become quite familiar with the term Structured Discovery. It is the method used by each of our three training centers in Louisiana, Colorado, and Minnesota. At these centers blind students are taught skills that help them familiarize themselves with their environment and through careful inspection learn to navigate and function fully in normal activities of daily life such as cane travel, shopping, holding a job, and more. The roots of Structured Discovery run deep throughout the history of our movement back to Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and many other early leaders.

Today highly qualified blind instructors routinely teach cane travel, cooking, and woodshop, along with other skills using the Structured Discovery method. It hasn't always been so. In the early 1980s a young student named Fred Schroeder was refused certification as a travel instructor by the AER (Association for the Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind) even though he had completed his university studies and was in every way qualified. Why? Because he was blind, and of course the professionals knew that it was dangerous for a blind person to teach another blind person cane travel.

As foreign as this attitude is to those of us who received training from highly skilled blind instructors, it is still very prevalent among the so-called professionals in the field including both teachers and administrators. They seem unable or unwilling to be convinced despite the evidence to the contrary that Structured Discovery taught by a teacher, blind or sighted, results in the most consistent long-term positive outcomes.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I witnessed a real-world example of Structured Discovery used by someone who had likely never heard the term. It was during an extended international trip through New Zealand and Australia with my family along with Harold and Joanne Wilson. It happened on Christmas day of 2009 in of all places Christchurch, New Zealand, at the International Antarctic Center, a scientific complex and museum funded by a number of nations including the US. It is from here that most Antarctic expeditions leave for the South Pole and its environs.  The museum features a lot of interesting and fun activities. These included a ride in a Hägglund, a large, tracked vehicle used to drive over the Antarctic ice.  It can climb up and down hills at up to a forty-five-degree angle and tip from left to right up to thirty-five degrees.  It can also float if necessary, as it did during part of the ride.  The water actually came up above the windows at one point before we drove up the opposite side of the river. There is also a very large deep freeze with 50,000 tons of snow and ice inside where you can go and be blasted by an Antarctic storm.  This room also features an igloo, a big slide made of ice, and a wind chill machine capable of producing temperatures of 50 below zero. Joanne and I did go down the slide, and fortunately I believe the incriminating pictures no longer exist. My two daughters hid inside the igloo during the storm.

The exhibit which made the greatest impression on me was the penguins. These are known as second chance penguins because they have been rescued after sustaining injuries from predators, being hit by cars, or being cut up by boat propellers.  These are the lucky ones who would not have lived long in the wild in their condition. One of these penguins, Elvis, was blinded by a predator. His handler told us that he uses his beak as a cane, checking out his location and using his sense of smell to find things.  She also said that as soon as he hears the rattle of the fish bucket he knows it’s feeding time and will come out of his burrow for dinner.

On this day Elvis decided not to come out when he heard the bucket. Someone asked if the handler would take the food to him.  Her answer was very interesting:  she said that she wouldn’t take the food to him because it is best for penguins to eat in the water. If she took the food to him rather than requiring him to find his way out to it, he wouldn’t learn to be independent.

How about that—naturally teaching the Structured Discovery method of orientation and mobility to a penguin.  She thought it was just common sense.  Wouldn’t it be nice if this sort of sensible thinking was the norm throughout the blindness system?  Wouldn't it be refreshing to know that the professionals knew that blind people are at least as smart as penguins? I say, go Elvis!

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