Braille Monitor

January, 1990


by John Rowley, Ph.D.

From the Associate Editor: We in the National Federation of the Blind remind ourselves often that we are changing what it means to be blind in America, and it is most certainly true. But some things seem to take more time to alter than others. We successfully work for the passage of a law, and the conditions affected by that law change relatively swiftly. We persuade one educator teaching blind children of the importance of early Braille and cane instruction, and those youngsters are immediately better off. We establish one training center that bases its instruction on a sound philosophy of blindness, and suddenly the blind of the entire area receive a new lease on life.

But some things take a very long time indeed to change. When attitudes are involved, when an individual or a family must struggle to find the private courage to take a difficult course of action, then we are reminded just how slowly progress is made. Nearly fifty years ago Dr. Jernigan was told by his rehabilitation counselor that his ambition to be an attorney was not feasible. Twenty-five years ago I was told that Advanced Placement high school English would be too difficult for me. Fifteen years ago a Federationist in Ohio, who did not then know about the NFB, was denied enrollment in an advanced college chemistry course which she needed for a pre-med major. And it still happens every day all across this country.

Experts, friends, family, and blind people themselves conduct well-intentioned campaigns to protect blind youngsters from the strain and stretch of serious challenge. Social work, teaching blind children, rehabilitation: these are today's safe occupations the ones that make sense for blind people. In fact some people are gifted in these areas, and some such individuals happen to be blind. But it is no accident that most of the blind engineering and science majors who have applied for Federation scholarships in recent years have had a good bit of residual sight.

It is desperately important that we not close off the options for blind children before they have a chance to determine for themselves whether or not they have what it takes in the vocational fields they find attractive, whatever they are. Dr. John Rowley, who addressed the 1989 convention of the National Federation of the Blind on Saturday afternoon, July 8, made this point very clearly when he said that anyone interested in science had better want to do science and be prepared to work hard at it, but that he saw no reason why blind students should not pursue such careers if they had the dedication to do so. He knows what he is talking about.

A scientist and engineer for many years before the onset of blindness, John Rowley returned to the Los Alamos Laboratory after completing several months of hard work at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in October of 1988. He was given his choice of several projects and chose one that required his special combination of scientific and engineering skills. He was charged with moving to Las Vegas, Nevada, for about two years to establish and strengthen the management office for the High Level Waste Project conducted by the University of California Los Alamos National Laboratory on the west side of the Nevada test site. The Department of Energy's project here is supported by the University of California, and Dr. Rowley's task is to hire staff, establish the office, compile large technical documents, and generally bring to bear his expertise to get the project started efficiently. When he finishes this project late in 1990, he will be assigned another trouble- shooting job. Here is what he had to say about his work as a blind scientist:

What I want to talk about I have titled Reflections at the Interfaces. There are really two interfaces I want to talk about. One is the type of science I practiced for a third of a century (well, actually, forty years is probably closer), and the second one, of course, is the interface between sight and blindness. I'll try to touch on two other questions in the meantime. Should young blind people consider a career in science, and is blindness an important issue in studying for being a scientist? I will assert the answer to those two now, and then I'll try to convince you, through my example, that indeed I would encourage young blind people to go into science, but only under certain conditions. You must really want to practice science. You must prepare yourself thoroughly, and you must be prepared to work very hard. I don't believe and I think I can speak from experience that blindness is a very important issue at all in practicing science. Here I must be very careful because I've only been practicing science for about a year as a blind person. Actually I think it's added a little bit of spice to the game. Some people might say challenge, but science is enough challenge already, so I think really spice might be a better term. The first interface I want to talk about had to do with the type of science I practiced. Probably it's true that scientists and engineers (and I'm both) do as many different things as there are individuals. By the way, there aren't many of us scientists. I think there are only a half a million or so (maybe a little more) in the country. It's a pretty specialized trade. One of the things that I tried to do when I was young was to learn everything there was about science. My parents just thought I couldn't make up my mind, which actually was the truth. You know, many young people can't decide exactly what it is they want to do. But I hid that very nicely by studying chemistry and mathematics and chemical engineering and physics and I've forgotten what all else. As a graduate student I worked on many applied projects. I found applications of science that is, engineering quite fascinating. So I really trained myself in a lot of areas during that process of not being able to make up my mind.

When the time came to look for a job, I found it very difficult because it turns out the job market in physics, chemistry, and many other fields of engineering is really very narrow, and that wasn't my game. So I looked around the country (this was in about 1955), and I found a place which takes concepts, ideas, findings, discoveries that is, the research aspects of science and converts them into hardware prototypes, working models. That happened to be the Los Alamos National Laboratory. I've practiced that interface between the two areas that is, research discovery (findings if you will) and the application of these for a third of a century.

Now I'd like to talk about the other interface, which is a more recent one the interface between blindness and sight. I perhaps was quite fortunate. When I was a teen-ager before the second world war, I had an ophthalmologist who very carefully explained to me the risk factors to my vision. I was very, very near sighted, and I used an alternative technique all those years. I used glasses refraction, you know. And I actually had no problem. My retinas did not detach, which was one of the risks. And I did not avoid all the things he said not to do. I enjoyed football, parachuting, and a number of other activities. But he also mentioned that maybe, later on in life, the retinal material would deteriorate, although he suggested (and the literature I read at that time suggested) that I might outlive all that or die before it happened. And so I really didn't ignore it; I think I was forewarned and prepared.

However, in 1982 I noticed my right eye was clearly starting down hill, and I lost my peripheral vision. By 1984 I believe I was essentially blind. The testing was a little nominal, but I gave up driving at that time. And soon thereafter, I had to start making a decision. At first I thought it was simple. In my laboratory, as far as I'm able to determine, everyone who was blinded or had gone blind before had retired. It turns out that our laboratory has a very generous medical retirement program and, quite frankly, has a very, very tough safety program. Ours is a very hazardous workplace. By the way, we're also extremely safe people. The two go hand in hand, I might add. So everyone else prior to my case (I use the word lightly, although my view of it was a little tougher than that) had retired. So I thought I would retire. Maybe that was the alternative to take. But you know, I really liked work. In fact, I wasn't really bothered by the second interface although I was having a little trouble getting to work, and my productivity was dropping. I found myself doing different kinds of work still interesting, still productive in some ways, but certainly not with the amount of reading and writing that I was used to. So what did we do?

Well, my wife Mary and I went to a nice retirement seminar two days delightfully done by our laboratory. At the end of those two days, I was totally convinced I didn't want to retire. Now, how does one manage? What is the tactic? Well I started getting books out of the library on blindness. I opened a notebook on retirement on the one hand; I opened another notebook on blindness on the other hand. And I found you can learn Braille. So I signed up for a correspondence course. I got hold of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. An itinerant teacher came up and said, Why you know, there's orientation and mobility. (You see, I got the buzz words right away, too, and I got a white cane.) By the way, I got some literature about the National Federation of the Blind at the same time, I might add. I went down to the drugstore and got a pair of sleepshades because, even now, I have a little bit of vision in my left eye, and I started practicing. After a few months of that, I figured that it might take five years if I worked rather diligently at it, and I was starting to work quite diligently. So clearly that wasn't a very good way to get from where I was across this interface. I wanted to be a working scientist, but how to do it? Well, pretty soon my supervisor got worried, and with good reason. I was bumping into things, particularly in unfamiliar areas. I was having trouble in low-light conditions. My productivity in reading and writing (even though I tried to divert some of my activities away from that) was getting lower. Fortunately, he brought up the issue of safety. I was clearly a safety hazard to my laboratory. What was to be done? I must say I was a little bit upset about that, but on the other hand, I realized they really were talking about liability (although, of course, that issue never really came up). However, I thought, there must be a way around this. Then it dawned on me that our laboratory has a policy that will pay for safety training. I don't believe they're allowed to pay for rehabilitation training access, accommodation, all kinds of things, but not rehabilitation. So I explored the possibility of getting orientation and mobility training at the laboratory. I thought, well I'll take a month or two off, I'll get somebody good in here. They'll take me all over the lab and my home area all that. And I'll be safe. I started calling around the country, and I was very, very fortunate in contacting, among other people, Mary Ellen Reihing (at that time) on the staff at NFB Headquarters. And she said, It's an interesting idea. I'll try to find you an O&M instructor.

How lucky I was that she didn't find one! She also said in her own very persuasive (well, not too subtle but very persuasive) way, Really you need six to nine months or perhaps a year of good rehabilitation training if you're going to do what you want to do. I was convinced. I admit that I think I was very receptive. I have never in my life believed that blind people couldn't do what they wanted to do. I find out now there are many people who do. I was fortunate, so what to do next? I made many phone calls, talked to many institutions, and finally I heard about the Louisiana Center for the Blind. To make a long story short, I called Joanne Fernandes. In November of 1987 we visited the Center around Thanksgiving time, and I'm very thankful I might add. We found it precisely as described.

One of the criteria that I established at that time was that I wanted instructors who were blind. I was anxious for that. I've trained myself in many, many areas before. I've also trained many other people. And I'm firmly convinced that's the absolute best way to go. I found the Center to be exactly as represented. I felt it would totally satisfy my needs. It did, absolutely. I spent from January to July last year, 1988, at the Center; and I believe I graduated with some honors. I really enjoyed that experience. I've heard it called a boot camp. Now let me tell you that if you do go through a boot camp, you're going to know precisely what it is you want to do along with being able to do it. So, if you have any hesitation about one of the centers, please come and speak to one of the graduates. I assure you that this has changed my life because I think I probably would have had to retire had I not gone to that center.

What happened when I returned to my laboratory? Well there is some indication you can be a nice senior science advisor you know, kind of a soft nice job demanding in a way, but not too taxing. After a few months, however, they offered me a position in Las Vegas to solve a very tough problem. I couldn't resist. I have solved lots of problems in the last third of a century from my laboratory. But what a delightful challenge this was, what a blessing. Here I had to do all those things that Joanne and her staff had taught me. I had to find an apartment. I had to cook for myself, and the cane travel! I must confess, I've tried to reach as far out into Las Vegas as I can. The strip is a thing you wouldn't believe. I must say, I could tell you a few stories well never mind. That's a fascinating thing to do. I've been able to extend every one of my skills and use it. The only one I'm deficient in still is Braille, and I'm going to get back at that. But I suspect it's going to take me perhaps another year to complete solving this problem. We've hired a number of people, got the office set up, and the projects moving. We're starting to produce deliverables. The science is coming together. The people are coming together. And soon, I think, we'll close this one. Could I have done that without the NFB? No way! There is no way. I've looked back and said, Oh, I could have learned all that. There is no way. And I certainly want to thank you all.

I want to share in closing one small bit of philosophy that I think we share in common: scientists and the NFB. That is the old, time- honored phrase: You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Thank you.