by Fred Schroeder
(This article by Fred Schroeder entitled "From the President," appeared in the Spring/Summer, 1986 issue of The Blind Educator. As Federationists know, Fred Schroeder is the President of the National Association of Blind Educators. He is also Director of the New Mexico State Commission for the Blind and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind.)
As blind people, we have come to regard discrimination as an ongoing condition which threatens to deny us both social and economic opportunities. We have learned that the real problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight, but the attitudes of society. We have also come to learn that we too are members of society and therefore can also become subject to the same beliefs and misconceptions about blindness which threaten to keep us isolated from true participation.
For this reason, it is necessary to examine the ways in which we as blind people can effectively combat the conditioning of society. True integration is the goal and simply put, blind people seek this goal in two distinctly different ways. There are those who believe that acceptance by the majority can be gained through a denial of our differences. This kind of thinking leads to an emphasis on the use of residual vision and techniques which avoid addressing blindness as a reality. There are those who feel that traveling without a cane and avoiding Braille by relying heavily on memory make blind people appear more natural and better able to fit in. In truth, this approach can only result in placing the blind at a disadvantage, thereby reinforcing sterotypic misconceptions about blindness. It is not surprising that this approach is widely regarded as the "sensible" way of dealing with blindness. Whenever members of a minority group act out the sterotypes of society there inevitably results a level of acceptance. This type of acceptance arises from the unspoken agreement between society and the member of a minority group not to question the beliefs and attitudes about the capabilities of those in the minority. In other words, if the blind go along portraying themselves as society expects them, society will reward the blind person through kindness and goodwill.
Although being the easier path, it is not possible for this type of acquiescence ever to lead to real equality. The other path therefore is one which requires that blind people cast off the stereotypic view and demand first-class status through full and meaningful participation. This can only be accomplished if we the blind learn to regard ourselves as equal members of society able to function competitively on terms of true equality. The difference is the conception of blindness which we ourselves hold. If we can regard blindness unemotionally as simply another characteristic, then we can develop pride in ourselves and the confidence to hold our own in a competitive world. It is this conception of blindness which enables us to regard the tools we need as symbols of equality rather than symbols of inferiority. Carrying a cane and reading Braille are tools which enable us fully to participate. If we regard blindness as respectable, then the tools of blindness become symbols of our equality.
The issue of training in alternative techniques is really a question of the conception of blindness which we hold. There exists a widespread belief within the orientation and mobility profession that young blind children should not be taught cane travel. Instead, the orientation and mobility profession believes that young blind children should be taught a series of "precane techniques" which not surprisingly are rooted in age-old stereotypes about blindness. Precane techniques are nothing more than standardized methods whereby the blind feel their way timidly, shuffling their feet to find stairs and using their hands to find a clear path. They are rooted in stereotypes about blindness which can be traced back into antiquity. The belief that blind children should be taught cane travel is widely opposed since it arises from a belief that blind children can cast off the bonds of non participation and integrate themselves actively and fully with their peers. The issue of teaching blind children cane travel is not a question of professional theory and methodology but in truth is a question of beliefs and attitudes about blindness. The real threat to the orientation and mobility profession is that if blind children become proficient at cane travel then they will have violated society's image of the blind as unable to compete.
The article "Growing Up with Independence: The Blind Child's Use of the White Cane" (which appears elsewhere in this issue of the Monitor ) discusses the need for blind children to acquire effective travel skills not as a technical discussion of efficiency but as a philosophical conviction that blind children must develop a sense of pride in themselves as blind people and with it the belief that they can achieve real integration and true equality.