Challenge: Both Blind and Sighted people share misconceptions about the abilities of the Blind.

Historically, disability is not a new term in the English language. However, people with disabilities are still considered second-class citizens in this society. When carefully observing a disability one may realize it simply means different ability. According to the 2000 Census 49.7 million people with disabilities reside in the United States (age 5 and above). Just over thirty million people with disabilities are between the ages of 21 and 64 years old; this is primarily the working-age population. Census figures indicate that 57% of the disabled are employed.

Blindness is viewed as a minority within the disabled population. Today 70% of the blind are unemployed in our country. Consider that the National Federation of the Blind reports that of the 30% who are currently working 95% are Braille readers. This indicates a strong correlation between reading ability and achieving employment. What of the 70% who have not found employment? Might simply learning to read and write be the answer to changing perceptions about whether the Blind can contribute effectively on the job?

For an individual the loss of eyesight is not a major problem –yet, the negative feelings toward it are contagious. When sighted people close their eyes all they can imagine is helplessness and darkness. Even today blindness is considered as dangerous as cancer. There is no doubt that blindness is an inconvenience. With proper training and a positive attitude it can be reduced to little more than a nuisance. The sighted pretending to be blind for 5 to 10 minutes is not the reality of blind people. Here the problem is preconceived notions about the capabilities of the blind being ingrained in the minds of human beings. How then might a sighted employer dare to hire a blind candidate?

Safety! Safety! Safety! Who is responsible for the safety of the Blind? This question is often pondered by hiring authorities and frequently raised in the interview. Why? Perhaps the rarity of interaction between blind and sighted, in everyday social settings, makes it difficult for a sighted individual to see past her/his own fear and focus on actual safety issues.  Consider that the overlapping authorities of those who are responsible for workplace safety are typically developed and enforced by sighted people; corporate risk management, insurance companies, OSHA, local fire codes, etc… Again we come back to the question; how might they dare to not apply their own fears to the blind job seeker? It must be recognized that many of the blind themselves buy in to this perception.

All workplaces evolve within a system of overlapping safety authorities which have their own needs. To resolve this outmoded perception we must take a systematic approach to educating both the sighted and the blind about the true boundaries of this disability.

Interrelationships

To understand the challenge before us we must map the terrain we will be fighting on. We know that several entities either directly or indirectly influence the environments which encourage the problem to continue. These entities can be classified as stakeholders of this issue. For example; individuals, families, communities, cultures, local government & schools, state government, the federal government, vocational rehabilitation agencies, the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, etc… Understanding how these entities influence, compete with, or reinforce one another will be crucial to our task.

The majority of these stakeholders strongly believe that the blind should be protected; they must be sheltered and taken care of. This co-dependency attitude toward the blind is shaped by others and is passed on to the blind. Therefore, the problem keeps circling around like a merry-go-round because the blind are also components of the public at large.

Social Networks

Individuals, families and communities are social networks. Individuals create families; families establish communities. As they grow and gather information, the same information is diffused within the network; therefore they are automatically interconnected due to their natural make-up. For example a blind child is born, grows up in the family, and becomes a member of the community. While growing up he/she is like a tender plant that is fed by the social network’s beliefs and standards. Such nested relationships (individuals-> families-> communities-> social networks) are the best ground for seeding an open mind about the true capabilities of the blind. Yet we must always take account for how social networks are embedded within a culture, and that culture will have rules which must be respected.

Action

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 ourselves. After analyzing various stakeholders behind this issue, bottom-up and top-down, two systematic approaches are applied below.

Bottom-up

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, libraries should be persuaded of the value in both collecting and displaying publications like the Braille Monitor, Braille Forum, and Future Reflections.

Top-down

A top-down approach will focus on working with institutions like schools and local government, state government, vocational rehabilitation agencies, and the federal government. Primarily the trend of custodialism 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. 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 at the regular age will qualify for bracket increases in their pay scale.

The services provided by the vocational rehabilitation agencies have been operating like a revolving door for decades. What could be done to stop this systemic behavior? First, the case workers who have been working in the field will attend workshops and seminars (earning them continuing education credits) focused on understanding the capabilities of the blind. This training will be provided by successful blind professionals. Secondly, their clients will face a timeline to remain on the caseload. 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 caseload, 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.

Conclusion

Systems thinking obviously emphasizes the big picture through being involved at each level in order to see how the different parts of a system operate as a whole. The issue discussed herein identifies layers of social systems where the human elements are the starting points for mapping the common ground. We need 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 carec 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, who have been in the system for decades, 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 with various agencies for the blind and visually impaired around the country 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 consumers. Thus systems thinking becomes imperative for future leaders to distinguish detail from dynamic complexity.

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