/Third, and final, in this series…
Problems innovate solutions. To attack the social challenge of both the sighted and blind sharing misconceptions about blindness a systematic approach has to be implemented. Where to begin? The simple answer is within our selves. After analyzing various stakeholders behind this issue, bottom-up and top-down, two systematic approaches are applied in this paper.
A bottom-up approach will engage at a grassroots level such as individuals, families, and communities. A necessary first step will be to increase the literacy rates among the blind –starting at a young age. This effort will necessarily include the family, and hopefully, the community. Such experiences will facilitate the understanding that although blindness does mean limits on a person’s senses, it does not have to mean that the individual is limited. Beyond this first step other skills will be vitally important, such as; social and life skills, the ability to use technology properly, confidence with either a white cane or guide dog for independent travel, etc… A further step will be to help the community understand the need for high expectations of the blind individual –rather than the typical desire to “care for” them.
To make the bottom-up strategy work successfully for individuals, families and communities they need to be informed about consumer organizations like the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. Families must be introduced to community resources such as the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Next, to strengthen the ties between blind individuals and the community, public libraries should be persuaded of the value in both collecting and displaying publications like the Braille Monitor, Braille Forum, Future Reflections, etc…
A top-down approach will focus on working with institutions like schools & local government, state government, vocational rehabilitation agencies, and the federal government. Primarily the trend of custodialism (“care-for”) toward blindness still exists through the governmental services and programs. For example, blind high school students are permitted to remain in the public school systems until they are 21 years old. This practice provides an unspoken incentive for both the student and the school administration to tolerate “drift” in their academic progress. How can we change this pattern? One of the strategies is tracking these kids either into academics or trades based upon their interests and performance. As a result the students are prepared to graduate at 18 and have a path to follow for stepping out into the world. The blind students who accomplish high school graduation at the age of 18 will receive scholarships for further education and be eligible for paid internships. The teachers who support the blind to graduate this way will qualify for bracket increases in their pay scale.
Accepted practices of the vocational rehabilitation agencies have been to operate like a revolving door for their clients. What could be done to stop this systemic behavior? First, the case workers who have been working in the field will attend workshops & seminars (earning them continuing education credits) focused on understanding the capabilities of the blind. This training should be provided by successful blind professionals. Secondly, their clients will face a timeline for remaining in the case-load. If they are not gainfully employed within 3 years their case will be closed. Third, when the professionals continuously achieve maximum placement rate with their case-load they will qualify for bracket increases in their pay scale.
By implementing the top-down method we are hopeful that new blood will be attracted to enter this profession which should enhance the field with their fresh ideas, open mindedness, and creativity. We are certain that this strategy will definitely reduce the recidivism for the client population.
Systems-level thinking obviously emphasizes the big picture through being involved at each stage in order to see how the different parts of a system operate as a whole. The issue discussed in this paper identifies layers of social systems where the human elements are the starting points for mapping the common ground. This paper proposes to change the established practice of defining the needs of a blind individual according to the capabilities of the social service system, which are; delivering services, providing care and encouraging dependency on the system. My experience leads me to the conclusion that the primary needs of blind individuals are self-respect gained through personal achievement and a culture that communicates high expectations for everyone, including the blind. This is the “inclusiveness” which will strengthen both the individual and the community. When they are treated like everyone else they start believing in themselves.
I understand that this is an ambitious project, so I must begin by detailing the complexities as I observe them. The current leadership in services for the blind tends to see caring as their first priority, but collectively they seem to have done very little to study the capabilities of the blind. Any attempt to bring in new mind-sets will have to accommodate a period of transition from the existing leadership –who must be respected– to the new leaders who must find a new way to knit together our institutions, communities, families and clients. This knitting must shift the focus from services that are help-oriented to services which are empowerment driven.
Of course the same conflict will arise between the legacy client culture and those coming into the system now. From those who are accustomed to being managed to those who (we hope) will seek to be empowered. My consulting work around the country, with various agencies for the blind and visually impaired, proved to me that case managers feel conflicted when I tell them to expect more from their clients; that they may shift responsibilities from themselves to the clients. Yet they are reporting now that their placement rate has improved when they do demand more from their clients. Thus, systems thinking becomes imperative for future leaders to distinguish detail from dynamic complexity.