Of Little Faith: A Troubling Trend with Blindness Professionals

Five tweenage children with long white canes are shown walking together side by side, some with arms around each other. PC: The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children

Attending college courses in my special education major as a Deafblind person was a bit of a trip. I was always the only one who was disabled in my classes. I would sit there and listen to third-person descriptions of people like me, Deafblind or otherwise disabled people, as my face turned flush and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I could feel people averting their gaze away from me. The class grew silent and uncomfortable if I disagreed too vocally. At the same time, I had to fight for a semblance of professional belonging. I had to carefully balance my strong urge to speak up on behalf of my disabled peers while trying to maintain a professional distance in order to fit in and not be the gimp with “a chip on her shoulder.”

So, I listened as I was told that blind and deaf people could only ever become literate at an average of a 3rd grade level. That we faced certain isolation, depression, anxiety and low quality of life. Most of us — or “them” in the vernacular of my classes, “those people” — would live a life below poverty level, be un- or underemployed and only be able to live independently with lifelong services and supports from “professionals.” It was very bleak for “them,” but how wonderful it was that there were saviors like us! We were the Very Special People who were going to come in and intervene and improve the lives of this poor lot. They were to be pitied, and we were to perform “interventions” to improve them. Once I sat through a guest lecture from one of these saviors. She was a teacher of the vision impaired (TVI) who was hailed as a wonderful, special person who was helping the blind in her district so much. At the same time, I was volunteering in a mainstream organization that focused on adult literacy. I was asked by the organization to work with one of her former students. He was 18 years old, couldn’t read, spell, dish up a plate or tie his shoes. He was not cognitively disabled; he was very intelligent and well read using talking books. I taught him how to read and write Braille in six months and how to tie his shoes in 15 minutes. No one had ever taught him before, he said. This was when I learned to be critical of every single thing I learned in college.

The content of the courses that earned me a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in special education were not totally without merit. I did learn some things. I learned about statistics, standard deviations, assessments, and basal and ceiling scores. I learned about laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and how to comply with its required tedious IEPs. I learned some useful skills like how to break down a task into its smallest components and how to make a multimodal communication system for nonsymbolic or nonverbal communicators. I learned about methods of functional assessment and positive behavior supports for students with violent and difficult behaviors. Some of this was worthwhile and has been useful over the years.

What I didn’t learn, at least from my college courses, was anything useful about actual kids and adults with disabilities. All the descriptions of 3rd grade reading levels and poverty rates and the prevalence of depression may have been statistically true, but the implication was that this was just inherent to the disability itself. The pathology of disability was that it was bad, a deficit that could be mitigated somewhat but never completely overcome. There was only so much anyone could do to really help a blind person. Those few really successful disabled people we knew about were the outliers. Supercrips who had through sheer grit and incredible talent had achieved amazing things such as having a career, a family, an independent lifestyle. Basically, what is considered average for everyone else was considered outstanding for the disabled.

A Disturbing Trend

My partner and I teach adults with vision loss and sometimes other disabilities to use assistive technology. Many of our clients are older, private pay clients who do not qualify for state services because they are retired. Newly blinded, they wish to stay independent and maintain their homes and relationships. Some of them are not tech savvy, but they tend to learn quickly. We also have contracts with many different organizations to teach working-age blind people the assistive technology that will help them become employable again. Some of these clients are newly blind due to accident or disease. Others, have grown up with vision impairment and came out of the special education system.

We started to notice a bit of a pattern. The ones who came out of the school system and grew up blind were more likely to lack a fundamental level of proactivity and…I’ll call it “wherewithal” with their skill building. Now, some will say learning is easier for those who used to be able to see…and there is truth to that. Having some visual references, even if fuzzy and long ago, does help when communicating learning material in a visual world. It can take more effort, more descriptive language, more tactile interventions and other strategies to teach a visual concept to someone with no visual experience. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a lack of initiative, a dependence on task analyzed lists and steps and the TEACHER to turn to at every instance of frustration. (Of course, this is a generalized observation; a trend. Of course there are people who have been blind since birth that don’t display these traits.)

At first, I thought this was a mistake in teaching method — an over emphasis on task analysis and an under-emphasis on problem solving. Task analysis is the method of breaking down a task into very specific subtasks and providing step-by-step instructions to each one in a rigidly sequenced routine. This can be a very effective method to teach some students with developmental disabilities who need really concrete and consistent instruction. It can also help in the initial learning of brand new unfamiliar material to get started up the learning curve. Learning how to create task analyzed learning programs is BIG in special education programs. Maybe, I thought, the use of task analysis has been overgeneralized to the extreme with students with vision impairments.

But then, when I started working with and watching TVIs more closely, I started to realize that they weren’t overusing task analysis as a learning strategy. Instead, they were task-analyzing skill sets because they themselves only knew the skill on a very basic, step-by-step, look-at-the-user-manual level. Most TVIs and orientation and mobility instructors seem to only have a cursory or very basic knowledge of the skills they are teaching. Because THEY are only at a sort of beginner’s step-by-step level with blindness skills, that is how they teach them. There is no teaching to full expert mastery at a problem-solving, synergistic level because they never got there themselves. (Now again, this is a trend I see. I also know both blind and sighted TVIs that are highly skilled at what they teach and have achieved mastery and automaticity with blindness skills.)

Blindness Skills: The Building Blocks to Success

When you are blind, not a day goes by when you don’t get told that what you do is amazing and no one knows how you do it! There is no way they could EVER do what you do! The flip side of that is that also not a day goes by when you’ve done something normal like gone to the store, cooked dinner, gotten dressed, whatever, and you get told that you couldn’t have done that by yourself. Where is your sighted caregiver that helped you? You need a sighted person! The skills of blindness are just not truly trusted or believed in by most sighted people. Many sighted people have only had just seconds or minutes of experience under nonvisual conditions and have had no instruction in blindness skills. TVIs and O&M instructors often have had only a few hours or days. Its not surprising that the skills are not well understood. But it is difficult, that unlike other unique skills, people often refuse to take your word for your competence in them and the effectiveness of them.

Think of a skill that is a little unusual to have. Maybe its being able to figure skate well enough to do some jumps and spins, or playing a piano or running a marathon. Most people realize that these skills take years of practice, but if you put in the time, they are not impossible. Sure, only an elite few will get to the Olympics in figure skating, but at any local public rink, you will find figure skaters who can skate impressively and do jumps and spins. The same goes for playing the piano or running a marathon. These skills take time, dedication, good instruction and commitment. But if you put the time in and have a good coach, it is not surprising that you will become very good at them.

The same is true for blindness skills. People with good blindness skills have put in lots of time and practice and have often had very good coaches and mentors in other blind individuals. It’s a skill set that not a lot of people have, but anyone could acquire blindness skills with practice, practice, practice. Traveling around town without sight is not especially amazing and superhuman. It is not foolhardy and scary, either. It’s just a skill you learn with some work and dedication. Give yourself 6–12 months without sight and with lots of good practice and instruction, and you are going to be a decent traveler. Keep working on it a few more years? You will be an expert. It will become so second nature, you will not think about it.

Those Who Can’t, Can’t Teach Well

Here is an example. Braille is probably one of the best skills for literacy, employability and learning out there. There are two basic parts to learning braille, there is memorizing the code and there is building up tactile awareness and speed. (Of course, for pre-readers, there is also learning phonetics and reading comprehension to go along with that.) In many TVI programs, teachers learn to read visual braille. This is a print version of braille that completely ignores the part in which you have to feel the code, keep track of where you are, develop a flow, understand braille syntax, etc. Maybe they have a class where they try their hand at tactile braille for a day or so, maybe they read a chapter about how to teach it, but they never master this skill. (To their credit, some TVIs have gone on to master Braille on their own, but most cannot read braille much past visually looking at the code.) It is very discouraging to be a student and to be the only one you know who reads braille, INCLUDING YOUR TEACHER! It would be a powerful mentorship moment to be able to ask your braille teacher to read braille and have her just sail away on it. But when asked, most TVIs cannot read braille with their fingers with any speed. This matters.

Independent travel, too, is one of the most powerful equalizers for blind people to work and be included in their communities. But many orientation and mobility instructors only have very limited experience traveling on their own. The most dangerous thing I have noticed that travel instructors sometimes do (unintentionally, I’m sure) is to instill such a level of anxiety in their students about travel that the students literally develop what appears to be not unlike an anxiety disorder or phobia in regards to travel. Blind kids don’t usually start this way, they learn it from everyone constantly telling them how unsafe it is for them to go anywhere without lots of tedious instruction or sighted escort or preapproval. If you don’t know — really KNOW — that these travel skills can and are trustworthy and effective, you cannot instill that confidence in your students. Travel skills are almost entirely in your head. Both as a problem solving exercise (which direction am I going? What are the clues around me to give me information about my surroundings? Where do I need to go next?) and more importantly having confidence in the ability to travel safely without sight. No one will ever say that traveling without sight is as easy as having sight. It takes more thought, attention, and ability. But it is not unsafe or unreliable. Many O&M instructors task analyze travel so much that blind students get afraid to go anywhere that hasn’t been approved and routed out with explicit directions and deemed safe by their sighted instructor. This makes for a very limiting existence.

Assistive technology is another area where I see this. A low vision specialist told my partner a “funny story” about how she was teaching a student about using Blind Square, an app that assists with mobility and mapping using GPS. When with a student, she got lost in a downtown area. What a great opportunity to model problem solving to get re-oriented! But instead, she panicked and called her husband (this was after hours during a night walk lesson.) And her husband was able to find her using HIS phone’s tracking technology and came and rescued them. My partner said to her, “you know if you just shake your phone, Blind Square will tell you where you are, right?” No, she had no idea. She did not know the app well enough. Not only does this show a lack of tech knowledge, but a lack of faith in the ability to use real, solid skills (both high and low tech) to get yourself out of a fix. This is one of the most important skills a blind person needs for independent travel.

And this is also where I see a dependence on task-analyzed steps instead of thinking through problems and using a variety of different skills to solve them. Many adaptive tech instructors we see only have a basic understanding of the tech they teach, and thus can only teach at the level of very scripted steps in a sequence. Its ok to start here, but to really get comfortable and competent with tech, you need a teacher that is really comfortable and competent with tech, and believes in it instead of seeing it as a frustrating substitute to sighted methods. Tech is ever changing and quirky. And there are always 5 ways to do things. Knowing these five ways gets you out of messes. If you only know how to use a limited set of scripted steps, tech is going to be so frustrating as to be almost useless. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen parents fight for the purchase of a piece of technology, only to have it sit on a shelf because no one knows how to use it.

Those Who Can Have Faith that Their Students Can, Too

The TVI and O&M professions would be richly enhanced by including more competent blind instructors in their ranks. Historically, blind professionals have been excluded from the profession. Just a couple of decades ago, the official policies of professional and licensing organizations explicitly excluded professionals with vision impairments. It was a powerful statement on the outlook and expectations by the profession responsible for the education of our blind youth that they did not believe any blind person was competent enough to teach blind people. Though laws and lawsuits made explicit policies illegal, it is still extremely difficult for blind individuals in some blindness professional programs today. I recently heard of a program that could not accommodate a blind student in their Braille class because all of their braille instructional materials were in printed braille and they did not know how to translate all of those graphic representations of braille to braille. I’m not even making that up. In another instance, blind students complained to a university office for students with disabilities about poor blindness accommodations in TVI programs with testing and written material. The office as well as the state agency for the blind offered to assist the TVI program to step up their accessibility level, but they were declined and the students continued a constant struggle through the program. A program that purported to teach future TVIs to accommodate blind students couldn’t accommodate their own blind students. If they saw the irony, they did not admit to it. There has been a level of tension through the years between blind and sighted professionals in the field to the point where a conspiracy theorist might wonder if these programs weren’t intentionally making it difficult for blind professionals to get through the program.

But I don’t discount that sighted teachers can have the ability to become highly competent teachers of the blind with high expectations and outcomes for their students and strong faith in the skills they teach. I have met many such TVIs and O&M instructors over the years. These instructors have often taken it upon themselves to go the extra mile to really learn and understand blindness skills. They spent hours under blindfold learning skills on their own, often with the help of the blind community. They brush up on their blindness skills on a regular basis and keep up with technology trends. They spend time with blind leaders and professionals, go to self advocate conferences and get to understand the issues in the community. These teachers have gotten past the learning curve and have knowledge and faith in the skills and students they teach them to.

A large part of the resistance to learning blindness skills under blindfold for a adequate period of time seems to be, at its base, that doing so is hard and scary. Well, sure, at first. But if a professional can’t get past this, maybe its time to ask themselves whether it then will be fair and effective for them to expect their students to. Or whether their fear and trepidation might rub off on their students in a negative way. Maybe another profession might be a better fit for their skills. There is really no substitute for really knowing and experiencing what you teach.

University programs and also employers could help to facilitate this by providing opportunities for long-term blindness skills training at immersion centers or by creating their own semester or year-long full-day immersion experience. Employers could support sabbaticals to these centers and provide funding or at least time off and CEU credits for self-advocate conferences and opportunities. There is no real reason why sighted instructors should be teaching chopsticks to a pianist who dreams of playing Rachmaninoff. It is not too much to expect that teachers know how to play Rachmaninoff as well. With work, mentorship and time, anyone — blind or sighted — can become highly competent at navigating the world without sight.

Lisa Ferris lives with her husband, 3 boys, 2 guide dogs and 3 guinea pigs in Portland, Oregon. She is co-owner of an adaptive technology company.

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