I’m currently reading chapter VIII of the book Freedom for the Blind: The Secret Is Empowerment by James H. Omvig. The chapter is about emotional adjustment. It is written from an NFB point of view on blindness, and that’s noticeable in some negative ways, but others are very correct and I’m sad they’re not that commonplace here.
Blindness specialists who are truly interested in full empowerment and freedom for their customers—those with the empowerment motive—must do the exact opposite. They must see to it that blindness is routinely discussed and that the word, “blind,” is used over and over. This word must become normal and commonplace (comfortable) for the customers of the program. Denial must be eliminated as a method for coping with blindness if true empowerment is to be the objective!
By “blind”, Omvig of course doesn’t just mean the totally blind, but also those with low vision who will benefit as much from the use of alternative techniques as the totally blind do. I feel that in the Netherlands, and in Europe in general, the word “blind” is far too often used to mean “totally blind”. In fact, the European Blind Union, who made a differentiation between “partially sighted”, “very low vision” and “blind”, say that you’re only blind if you can’t see the difference between day and night. A more liberal definition is that of not being able to orient to light, ie. true light perception only or no light perception. Then there is a Dutch term meaning something similar to how the American term “legally blind” is used out of legal situations, befined as vision no better than 20/400 (or something about one’s field, I assume), but this term is not commonly known: in fact, I didn’t know about it till Kira mentioned it last week. “Braille-bound” is another statement – don’t yell at me for the negative connotation, in Dutch it’s a little less negative but still somewhat bad -, meaning the same as the educational word “functionally blind”. Often, this is my favourite distinction, because of the assumption that “blind” means “totally blind”. I’d love to see that change. It’s something some blindness professionals and blind people begin to recognize, like the one in 1998 who said I had to accept blindness. She didn’t mean total blindness, after all, she also said that I could still see the doorknob. She just meant I had to admit to and accept needing the same alternative techniques the totally blind use, and hence, to be comfortable using the word “blind” to refer to myself. I think the word “blind” has to be used much more routinely by people working in the blindness field, but I’m not sure where the line lies: it shouldn’t be a way of denying residual vision.
Another approach, related to this topic and to the discussion on meeting challenges in the next section, that in my opinion has positive effects is to acknowledge that blind people – including the totally blind – can meet many “normal” challenges. One of the very negative sides to the rehab centre I attend, here, is the differentiation between the partially sighted in team three and the blind/very low vision in team one. (Team two refers to those that also have Dutch as their second language.) This does not bother me as much in the general rehabilitation, because in team one non-visual techniques are used to accomplish many “normal” activities, and also clients in team three learn to use alternative techniques like braille and cane travel. I further don’t disagreee that partially sighted people have to find a balance between visual and non-visual techniques – just as much as they have a “blind side”, they have a “sighted side”. However, what I disagree with is the differentiation between what activities people are exposed to. On November 30 and December 1, we’re going on a two-day event meant at being challenging. We’re team one, so we’ll do different things from what team three did. Why? I don’t know if it’s done with that idea in mind, but it sends the message that as blind/very low vision people we can’t do the same things the partially sighted can. In some ways, this is true, of course – we can’t paint, while some partially sighted people can -, but does it mean we can do less “normal” things? I don’t agree, and that’s one reason I’ve always hated the rigid distinction between team one and team three: I know someone who, judging from her vision, should’ve been a student in team three but who started in team one, and she didn’t miss out on ways of helping her find the balance between vision and non-visual techniques. I did/do some things with only partially sighted people, and I don’t see a problem with that.
The NFB centres and centres with a similar philosophy, tackle the problem of overemphaiszing vision or sending the message that blind people can do less than those with low vision, by blindfolding people who are partially blind during training. This has some advantages in that it teaches that even without vision, a person can live a “normal” life. I know its usefulness in this way and for that reason, have forced myself to do things with closed eyes. The comment Ellen made about the facing people, for that reason, bothered me: the fact that I couldn’t direct my face accurately with closed eyes, says nothing about the value of my residual sight, it just says I haven’t learnt to do so without sight yet. This, however, is not just about emotional adjustment, for which other factors are just as important, but also about doing things at night, for instance, when I’m functionally blind. Blindfolding is also useful in the teaching of alternative techniques. People at our centre have to do typing with a black screen, for instance, and they cannot look at the braille they write or read. People who are night blind will also learn to travel while wearing darkened glasses or they’ll truly travel at night, because they need to learn to use the alternative techniques they’ll need when vision fails.
However, it is also important that people with low vision learn to balance between using visual and non-visual techniques, and blindfolding will only turn off vision, not allow a person to find that balance. I think it’s more important to learn strategies of functioning as a person with the vision or lack of vision you truly have. Therefore, of course, it’s important to learn alternative techniques and to explore the effect using your vision has on you (it may cost you much more energy than using an alternative technique), and therefore I’m really happy that people in team three also learn braille, for instance, so they have the choice of what technique to use.
Omvig further stresses the importance of positive role models and frank discussion of blindness. It is one advantage of my being a residential student at rehab, even though I live nearby: I have the ability to exchange experiences outside of class. Even though I’m considered far along on the journey, I know that in some ways I’m not and even some recently blinded people can offer very helpful support. There’s a woman in the vocational rehab programme who was blinded in January, 2004 and yet still truly appears to be so well-adjusted – and she doesn’t seem to be in denial or whatever, like I suspect some folks to be. She was able to give me some helpful tips a while back and the way she copes gives me the idea that I, too, can do so. There are also, of course, the blind rehab workers who send a positive message about what blind people can accomplish. You see, even though I’ve been blind all my life, I’ve not often met successful blind adults before I went to rehab, since there were hardly any blind teachers at the schools for the blind.
I think emotional adjustment is also about getting used to appearing or presenting yourself in a certain way. Even though my views on the connection between what I call myself and my emotional adjustment are somewhat paradoxical, I think that it does help to realize that appearing blind is not a problem, if, of course, that’s not appearing blind in a stereotypical way. I seem to appear pretty much blind in a sterotypical way, which I never realized until people like Kira and Ellen pointed it out last week, which is not a way in which I want to appear. Still, I don’t have a problem with telling people that I’m blind and I’ll carry a white cane everywhere I go. It used to be that I felt that being seen as blind is a form of “collateral damage”, but I’ve come to realize that it’s also helpful and regardless of that, I’m used to the idea. I don’t see, therefore, why forcing long, solid, white canes would promote emotional adjustment. A person will get used to the idea, but it is in no way a “quick fix” for those in denial or mourning. Adjustment is about seeing that as a blind person, you can be competent, and my starting to use a white cane in 2000 didn’t get me to understand this at all. Seeing that I can go to the shopping centre, get what I want and return in a reasonable timeframe, does.
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