Why She Walked Out On Me

by Zach Shore

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: As the president of a state affiliate, I get lots of telephone calls from people with problems. Some of them are folks hoping to get rid of a young dog by giving it to a blind person to act as a dog guide. At the opposite extreme are those blind people so depressed and damaged by their perceptions of blindness that there is very little anyone can initially do to help them. Most, however, are people urgently in need of someone to listen and understand what they are going through. I can listen; I hope I can understand; and when I can, I help.

          The following article, which appeared in the fall, 1990, edition of Insight, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of South Dakota, reminded me painfully of two calls I received this past week. The first was from a woman who became blind rather suddenly last February. She and her husband have two sons about to enter their teens, so she has many responsibilities in her home and no current interest in getting a job. Right now she does not believe that blind people can hold down jobs anywhere, but then she herself is also prey to the stereotypes. She does not even believe she can go up or down stairs without the strong probability of falling. She needs rehabilitation and has established her eligibility to receive it with the state, but she has been calling her counselor for months to beg for training. Mostly he does not return her calls, but this week he told her--or at least so she says--that she could not have any training because she does not want to work outside her home. I am now trying to get to the bottom of that misunderstanding, but in the meantime, I found myself talking to her about ways of moving about safely and easily in her home.

          The other call was similar. This woman was sent to her local rehabilitation center for training of various kinds last winter. She was given some cane travel training, but the instructor based his teaching heavily on use of her remaining sight. She questioned him about what would happen if she lost that bit of vision, and he told her to think positively. She woke up one morning seven weeks ago to discover that she was totally blind. She called the agency that had given her the original training, but they told her that her case was closed and there was nothing they could do. In desperation she called the Federation. One of our members drove to her home to give her a usable cane and stayed to work with her a little. She was calling me because she was veering badly and could not safely cross streets. She is about to be married and does not want to be a prisoner of blindness in her own house. I found myself giving her advice about what causes veering and how to correct the problem.

          I wonder what the professionals who so violently disapprove of the blind helping other blind people with cane travel would have had me do. Granted, I was not out on the street with either of these women, but if I had been close enough to them, I would have been. That would have been far more helpful to them than my telephone instructions. Of course I can help to see that both of them get the cane travel lessons they need, but simple humanity demands that I pass on to them the information I have and they so desperately need.

          Zach Shore is one of our most dedicated and talented younger leaders. Having graduated last spring from the University of Pennsylvania, he has now moved to Seattle, Washington, where he is an active member of our Washington affiliate. Here is what he had to say at the South Dakota convention last May:

          I have been speaking before large groups since my high school days. Over the years I have made people laugh, cry, and get excited. Some I have even put to sleep. But not until I spoke in Rapid City at the state convention of the NFB of South Dakota had I ever given a speech which angered anyone to the point of leaving the room.

          What I said in that presentation was so offensive, so morally reprehensible, and so emotionally disturbing to one woman that she could not even remain in the room to hear the whole of my remarks. What did I say to evoke such a response? Did I attack any agencies or blaspheme against any groups? Not at all. Did I mock or insult this particular woman? Not at all. Did I use profanity or make obscene gestures? Certainly not.

          What, then, could I have said to prompt such an emotional reaction? It is very simple. I told the convention how I went with Andre, a twelve-year-old blind student, to his new middle school and gave him his first cane lesson. Most people in the audience seemed pleased to hear about Andre's success. This irate woman, however, would hear none of it. Why not? This rehabilitation counselor and mobility instructor felt compelled to walk out because she believes it is wrong for me to instruct anyone in cane travel when I am not certified to do so.

          This counselor is correct about one thing: my college degree is not in education, and I am not a certified mobility instructor. To some degree her distress is understandable. Credentials are generally important and meaningful. I would not want someone to perform surgery on a child if that person had not graduated from medical school and obtained the necessary certification. And, if mobility instruction really required a master's degree and an official certificate of approval, I would refuse ever to teach any blind person cane techniques until I had obtained the necessary documents. But of course this is not how it is.

          I believe that the incensed counselor, and many other professionals like her, are outraged by something much deeper than our lack of certification. They believe that blind people are truly unsafe and therefore are endangering another's life when we teach travel. Many people, both sighted and blind, espouse this view. When they say it, they reveal their lack of belief in the blind. If they do not believe that blind people can travel well enough to teach the techniques, then how can they believe that the blind can ever be safe, efficient travelers at all?

          When Andre first began exploring his new middle school with a long cane, he was uncertain and sheepish, but he caught on quickly. He stopped staring at his feet and started looking forward. Negotiating stairs no longer seemed like an obstacle course. Finding classroom doors became easy for the first time. He moved faster and with self-assured strides. After only 30 minutes Andre was feeling comfortable and much less frightened. That was when we met his vision teacher.

          This woman explained that she would arrange for all of Andre's classes to be located on the same floor. She also assured him that he would get plenty of extra time to get from one class to the next. As she recited her incantation about how difficult it would be for him to navigate the school building, all of Andre's newfound confidence melted away. The more she talked, the more Andre's demeanor mimicked her defeatist words. I tried to counteract her spell by saying that Andre might be a bit slower at first; but, if he were pushed to keep up with his classmates, I was certain he would do just fine. Unfortunately for Andre I was unable to convince her.

          Blind people are teaching other blind people to travel independently every day, and they are doing it without certification. They cannot obtain certification solely because the Association of Educators and Rehabilitators of the Blind (AER) refuses to certify any and all blind mobility instructors. But these blind mobility instructors will go on doing their jobs while irate professionals wave their degrees and stamp their feet. None of this is to suggest that all professionals are bad or against us. That is not true. The blindness system, however, is predominantly out of touch with the realities of what the blind can do.

          This is not an issue of safety or of certification. It is simply a matter of fact that blind people can both travel and teach travel safely, whether professionals choose to believe it or not. The angry counselor does not believe the blind are as capable as she, and this is why she walked out on me. It is for that very same reason that we cannot, must not, walk out on Andre.

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