[nfbmi-talk] Requested NFB Speech

Terry D. Eagle terrydeagle at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 2 11:44:18 UTC 2013

Thanks Kim.  You made my Labor Day, as I need not labor searching for it

-----Original Message-----
From: nfbmi-talk [mailto:nfbmi-talk-bounces at nfbnet.org] On Behalf Of Larry
D. Keeler
Sent: Sunday, September 01, 2013 11:04 PM
To: Kim Mohnke; NFB of Michigan Internet Mailing List
Subject: Re: [nfbmi-talk] Requested NFB Speech

Thanks Kim.
----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Kim Mohnke" <kitties_kimmy at yahoo.com>
To: "'NFB of Michigan List'" <nfbmi-talk at nfbnet.org>
Sent: Sunday, September 01, 2013 9:54 PM
Subject: [nfbmi-talk] Requested NFB Speech

At our last board meeting everyone requested a speech that explains what a 
agency for the blind should do. Here's the one I have.

Kim Mohnke

What We Can Expect From a Commission for the Blind
by James H. Omvig

>From the Editor: This paper was originally presented by Jim Omvig at a 
convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan at which 
there was a discussion concerning the Michigan Commission for the Blind. The

paper was reprinted in the Braille Monitor in 1983 and was updated in July 
of 1996. Jim Omvig is a long-time leader in the National Federation of the 
Blind, and since its first publication this article has been a popular and 
useful compilation of Federation thinking about the importance of the 
commission model for service delivery to blind consumers and the most 
effective methods for carrying out rehabilitation. We thought that it would 
be helpful to reprint it now that the super-agency model is threatening to 
undermine such progress as has been made in improving the quality of 
rehabilitation in a number of states. This is what Jim says:

I am extremely pleased to be here today and to have the opportunity to speak

with you concerning what blind consumers should reasonably expect from the 
Michigan Commission for the Blind or, for that matter, from any other state 
agency for the blind.

First, let me provide you with a thumbnail sketch of my background since it 
will demonstrate that the opinions which I am about to express are not 
hypothetical or fanciful but based upon considerable experience and proven 

As most of you know, I am blind and have been for thirty years. I was a 
client of the Iowa Commission for the Blind and a student in its adult 
orientation and adjustment center. Therefore, I have had the experience of 
receiving services from an outstanding state agency. Following my experience

as an orientation student, I attended college and law school as a blind 
student. Then I experienced the struggle of finding a good job as a blind 
person. I was the first blind attorney ever employed by the National Labor 
Relations Board. I worked for that agency in both Washington, D.C., and New 
York City.

Then I returned to Iowa to enter the field of vocational rehabilitation for 
the blind. I worked for the Iowa Commission for the Blind for the next nine 
years, first as a rehabilitation counselor and then as Director of the 
Orientation and Adjustment Center, in which I had previously been a student.

Finally I served as Assistant Director for Staff Development for the entire 

In 1978 I left the Iowa Commission in order to become Director of the new 
Handicapped Employment Program of the Social Security Administration in 
Baltimore. I am working primarily to create greater employment opportunities

for the blind and disabled within SSA itself.

In addition to this formal background and experience, I have been attending 
and speaking at NFB state conventions now for the past fourteen years. I 
have visited most states and have had the opportunity to become familiar 
with most state programs for the blind, both the good and the bad.

By visiting the states, incidentally, one can conduct quite accurate and 
meaningful surveys and studies. There is only one way properly to assess the

effectiveness, or lack of effectiveness, of a given program for the blind. 
Just take a look at what has happened to the blind people who have been 
served by the agency! Are they employed in meaningful jobs, jobs which are 
commensurate with their abilities and qualifications? Are they successful? 
Are they full of self-confidence, and can they function efficiently and 
independently? Can they travel well, going where they want to go when they 
want to go there? Are they active in their families, their churches, and 
their communities? Are they happy?

If these and other similar questions can be answered, "Yes," then the 
services are good no matter what the agency structure may be, and if the 
answers are "No," then the services are bad, no matter what the agency 
structure is.

Now let me turn for a moment to some comments about blindness and a 
philosophy about it. In this area the National Federation of the Blind has 
learned well what some professionals in the field either cannot or will not 
understand at all. The NFB has learned the shocking truth that blind people 
are normal people, simply a cross-section of society at large, and that 
blindness is merely a normal, physical characteristic like hundreds of other

human traits, no more nor no less.

Like other characteristics blindness sometimes has its limitations. Very 
often, of course, it does not. It all depends upon what you are going to do 
in a given situation. In those few instances where limitations because of 
blindness really do exist, alternative techniques can be used to overcome 
those limitations. An alternative technique is simply a method of doing 
without sight what you would do with sight if you had it--Braille, long-cane

travel, etcetera.

We of the Federation have come truly to understand and believe with our 
emotions as well as with our minds that blind people are normal, ordinary 
human beings who, given proper training and opportunity (and these are large

provisos), can compete successfully with sighted people. We can compete 
successfully on the job, and we can compete and participate fully in the 
affairs of family, community, state, and nation.

And, finally, we have learned another fundamental truth: namely, that it is 
not our blindness but rather society's attitudes about it which have kept us

down and out through the years. In other words, blindness is primarily an 
attitudinal problem, a social problem, not a physical one. To be perfectly 
blunt about it, most people--blind and sighted alike--still think of us as 
helpless and hopeless and unable to compete or even participate in the real 
world. Most people continue to think of us as beggars and rug-weavers rather

than as lawyers, machinists, chemists, or college professors.

It is this attitude, then, and not the physical fact of blindness which we 
must face and overcome. And, since those who are now blind and those who 
will become blind have involuntarily assimilated the negative public 
attitudes about blindness, this attitudinal problem is what must be 
addressed by an agency for the blind if it hopes to be effective in working 
with its clients. The blind have the right to expect that the agency knows 
what it is doing and can give proper service.

With all of this background in mind, let me turn to a discussion of the 
agency for the blind--what should it be? What agency structure is best? And,

most important of all, what do the blind have the right to expect from the 

Turning to structure, experience has shown over and over that blind people 
have the best chance for good services from a separate agency or commission 
for the blind. Funding is always better. There is at least the possibility 
of developing a staff which becomes expert in blindness, there is at least 
the possibility that responsibility can be pinpointed, and staff members and

administrators do not get themselves sidetracked on other issues or in other

areas of personal interest or preference.

On the other hand, I am not aware of a single case in this nation in which 
blind persons get a fair shake under the so-called super-agency structure or

where the blind are served in the same agency with all other disabled 
people. We are such a small minority in the disabled community that we 
always get the short end of the stick. No emphasis is given to programs for 
the blind or to our unique rehabilitative needs, and administrators are 
quite often interested in some other disability group. Also it is simply not

reasonable to expect that a general rehab counselor can be expert in all 
areas, including blindness. Therefore the separate agency always offers the 
best possibility for successful rehabilitation.

But we must always be mindful of this: There is no magical formula which 
says that services from a separate agency will always and automatically be 
what they should be. You can have the best structure in the world and still 
have service which is not only poor, but borders on being criminal, if the 
agency continues to be administered and staffed by some of the great minds 
of the eighteenth century!

Attitude and philosophy are everything! The agency must believe in blind 
people, believe that it is respectable to be blind, and it must be willing 
to do as much work as it takes to pass on that positive belief to its blind 
consumers and to the community at large. Therefore, to have superior service

you must have both the proper philosophy and the right governmental 
structure, and the blind have the right to expect both.

Now I want to turn specifically to a discussion of those ingredients which 
have brought success in good programs for the blind--ingredients such as a 
proper agency philosophy, a committed board, a knowledgeable and committed 
staff, a willingness to advocate for its clients, and a quality adult 
orientation and adjustment center.

1. The agency must have a constructive and positive philosophy. It has been 
said that, "Philosophy bakes no bread." But it has been said with equal 
wisdom that, "Without a philosophy, no bread is baked." Incredible as it is,

I know of some agencies for the blind in this country which proudly proclaim

that they have no philosophy about blindness and whose only apparent 
philosophy seems to be "to serve the blind." How? What are its goals and 
objectives? What hope does such an agency offer blind clients?

The agency must have a strong, positive, constructive philosophy about 
blindness, and it must be committed to that philosophy. The blind have the 
right to expect that the agency will develop a philosophy best equipped to 
put hope and meaning into their lives.

The only philosophy about blindness I know of which really works is that of 
the NFB. I have spelled it out above in some detail. I know of no other 
constructive philosophy which an agency could adopt and espouse. The sad 
fact, of course, is that even those agencies which say they have no 
philosophy really do. Although not expressed, by all that they do they tell 
their blind clients that blindness is an unmitigated disaster, that blind 
people are helpless and incompetent, and that blind people can never expect 
to compete successfully or participate side-by-side with sighted people, but

that we should be grateful anyway for what they have given us.

2. The commission board of directors must be a meaningful part of the 
program. (In the commission form of agency, the governor typically appoints 
a policy-making board which hires the director, and the director then hires 
the staff.)

While it is true that the board should meet periodically to set broad policy

for the agency, good board members will also take the time to learn about 
blindness and to develop a real understanding about philosophy and services.

Board members should be willing to use their time and personal contacts to 
help sell the program to the general public and elected officials and to 
talk with employers about hiring qualified blind people. I think that it is 
appropriate for a board member to lean a little on a business associate if 
doing so might get a job for a blind person.

3. The staff must consist of persons who truly believe in the blind and who 
are committed to doing whatever it takes to pass on that belief to others. 
In other words, the staff members must have the proper philosophy about 
blindness, and they must recognize that the sole purpose for their jobs is 
serving the blind, not protecting their vested interests.

At the Iowa Commission we developed some extremely sound and interesting 
practices for building and training a staff. If a blind person wished to 
join the staff, he or she must first have successfully held some other job 
in competitive employment to demonstrate, both to that individual and to 
others, that regular, competitive work is possible for the blind. Because of

this experience such a blind staff member was in the best possible position 
to give real help and guidance. He or she could then serve as a role model 
for blind clients and was much more credible when advising blind students.

I tell you of this unique Iowa policy knowing full well that most agencies 
send some bright young blind persons to school, help them get master's 
degrees, and then hire them to help others. I shudder to think of the help 
such inexperienced professionals will give.

I suppose I don't need to tell you what chance for employment at the Iowa 
Commission any blind person would have had if he or she continued to be so 
ashamed of blindness as to refuse to carry a cane, use Braille or other 
alternative techniques, or even refuse to admit to being a blind person. 
None! Again, we were selecting a staff to serve the blind, not to provide 
employment for those who couldn't get jobs some place else.

Sighted staff members had to be willing to undergo training as blind 
persons--sleepshades, cane travel, and all. They had to come to understand 
blindness and to know from personal experience that NFB philosophy really 
works. In addition, when they were practicing cane travel alone on the 
streets of Des Moines, members of the sighted public assumed they were blind

and treated them accordingly. It was helpful for them to experience and cope

with the things that happen to us every day. And, of course, both blind and 
sighted staff members were given extensive philosophical training before 
they ever came into contact with a blind student.

4. The agency, from the board and director on down, must be willing to 
listen to what blind consumers have to say and to work in a spirit of 
partnership with the organized blind. We are the ones affected by the 
services, and we have the right to a voice in what those services will be. 
Through our collective experience we know well what works and what doesn't, 
what is good and what is bad.

Again, as bizarre and outdated as it is, some agencies continue to operate 
on the worn-out theory that, "We know what is best for you." This type of 
thinking should have vanished along with the nineteenth century.

And when I said that the partnership should be with the "organized blind," I

meant exactly that. Some agencies refuse to listen to us, preferring to get 
their consumer information from blind individuals specifically not 
affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind. While one can elicit 
expressions of any attitude or opinion desired through careful selection of 
the respondents, such a practice has no place in an agency with the best 
interests of the blind at heart. There is no reason for unaffiliated people 
to have any useful knowledge of what the entire range of blind consumers 
need. Meaningful information and opinion can be gathered only from those who

have had the good sense to join together and to share ideas and 
experiences--the organized blind.

5. The good agency must be an advocate for the civil rights of all blind 
persons in the state. It must be willing to become involved and to have 
confrontations if necessary. However, it must be mindful of the fact that it

does not represent anybody. Only those elected by the group in question can 
do that.

6. The good agency must operate on the presumption that all blind people are

capable, that everybody can do something, and that blind people have 
sufficient intelligence to choose wisely what we can and want to do. 
Incidentally, like sighted people we should also have the freedom to choose 
unwisely. The agency's role should be to help the blind person develop 
sufficient self-confidence and skill that the individual can decide what he 
or she wishes to do. Once the blind person makes this decision, the agency 
should help the person prepare for the employment objective. Frankly, who 
cares what the agency thinks an individual can or should do. Therefore 
testing and evaluation should be kept to a minimum.

7. The heart of any good rehabilitation program for the blind is an 
effective orientation and adjustment center. The purpose of a good center is

to assist blind people to become independent by teaching self-reliance and 
self-confidence; by teaching needed skills; and by teaching the students 
what the social attitudes about blindness are, why they are what they are, 
what will happen to them every day because of society's erroneous attitudes,

and how to cope effectively with the unjust or painful things said or done 
to them.

This center should be pre-vocational in nature. That is, it should be a 
place where individuals can learn how to be blind. Later vocational training

should be purchased or provided wherever sighted people receive it. This 
vocational training must be integrated with that provided to sighted 
students since, presumably, blind graduates will work alongside sighted ones

for the rest of their lives.

Such a center must be an attitude factory, a place where blind adults from 
across the state can come to live for some months to build hope and 
self-confidence, to learn that it is respectable to be blind, and to learn 
basic skills and alternative techniques. The atmosphere must be such that, 
twenty-four-hours a day, seven days a week, the student is being told, "Come

on, you can do it, you can do more." And blind staff members must be 
available who can serve as role models and who, when a student says, "I 
can't do it," can say, "Look, my friend, I'm as blind as you are. I know 
what can be done and how it can be done, so don't say you can't; just do 

The goal is to help the student get to the point where he or she can say, 
"Yes, I am blind, so what? I like myself, and I'm OK! I can do anything I 
want to do." If an adult rehabilitation facility does not build 
self-confidence and self-esteem, then nothing else it can do will make any 

Incidentally, training facility staff should call students "students." Some 
rehabilitation facilities refer to trainees, clients, or even patients. It 
is important to use the most positive word possible--"student." It's much 
easier for a blind Iowa resident to leave his home to be a "student" at the 
"school" in Des Moines than to be a patient or client in some state 

I have listed the objectives of a good orientation and adjustment center. 
How can these objectives be accomplished? The answer to this question is 
simple if you understand that the problems connected with blindness are 
primarily attitudinal, and if you really want to do something constructive 
to solve these problems.

Everything done in such a center must be related to this constructive 
philosophy. Here are some of the ingredients which are absolutely essential 
in any good center:

(a) Blindness must be discussed, and the word "blind" must be used and 
stressed. If we are ever to accept our own blindness, we must first admit 
that we are blind, and the agency that simply reinforces and perpetuates 
denial of the fact is useless. Like black people of another generation who 
attempted to solve their problems by pretending they were white, blind 
people who pretend they are sighted are fooling only themselves and are 
ducking the central issue of their lives. Blacks ultimately worked to solve 
their problems by making it respectable to be black,and we will solve our 
problems only when we make it respectable to be blind. Therefore, such 
phrases as "unsighted," "sightless," "hard-of-seeing," or "visually 
impaired" should not be used when referring to people who are legally blind.

Frank individual and group discussions about blindness must take place. 
Students must intellectually learn the positive philosophy about blindness 
through discussion. Then, to transform those ideas into belief and 
conviction, students must be required to do all kinds of things which will 
teach them emotionally that they really can function and that a normal, 
happy, and productive life really does lie ahead. In Iowa we used such 
varied techniques as water skiing, grilling steaks, running power tools, and

cutting down trees to supply wood for our fireplace.

(b) The center must be located in a busy, urban area. I know that many 
centers are currently found in secluded locations, away from people and 
possible danger. However, if the purpose of the center is to help blind 
students become a part of society, then training should be where the action 
is. The facility should be near enough to restaurants, stores, theaters, 
churches, and bars so the students have reasons to leave it. Much 
confidence-building can be achieved simply by going out into the world.

Under no circumstances should an orientation and adjustment center be housed

together with a sheltered workshop for the blind. Where this is done, the 
work of a good center is lost. You can present the best philosophical 
training in the world in the center, but the blind students will see and 
identify with the blind people who have been beaten down and placed in the 

When a center is being constructed or renovated, center personnel should 
contact and work with state officials to have the center exempted from 
accessibility requirements such as those calling for detectable warnings at 
the top of steps, etc. Blind students must learn to rely on the white cane 
to give them needed information about steps or other obstacles. The 
creation, in the name of safety, of an artificial environment in the 
training center will actually place students at greater risk when they are 
traveling and working in the real world. If the training has been done 
properly, students will be perfectly safe in the world as it is.

(c) The students should be treated like adults, not children. Therefore, 
there should be no hours or curfews at the center, nor should there be bed 
checks. Adults come and go as they please.

(d) The same training should be required for all students at the center. 
Some centers have one kind of training for the totally blind and another for

the partially blind. If you understand that the major problem of blindness 
is attitudinal and if you intend to teach positive philosophy, then all 
students must have the same training.

All students at a blindness training and adjustment facility, regardless of 
the amount of their residual vision, should be required to use long, 
non-folding canes at all times. In some centers canes are used only during 
travel class. However, students who wish to travel well and to become 
independent must use the cane over and over until its proper use becomes a 
reflex action. In addition, use of the cane helps to build self-confidence 
and helps students admit and accept the fact that they are blind since, by 
using it constantly, they are telling the world that they are blind. Denial 
is eliminated as a method of coping.

(e) The blind students with some remaining usable vision should use 
sleepshades during all training. The great temptation for students with some

vision is to attempt to use that vision even when it is inadequate. These 
students are also tempted to pretend that they are sighted by using sighted 
techniques. The reason for this is simple; people yearn to be normal. They 
believe it is normal to be sighted. They fear that, if they use blindness 
techniques, they will not be seen as normal. False logic, but that is how 
our minds work until someone intervenes with the truth that normality is not

defined by visual acuity.

Those who are blind enough to be at the center are blind! Their limited 
vision will not be useful in many situations. Therefore such students must 
learn blindness techniques, learn that they work, learn not to be ashamed of

using them, and learn during training to use the combination of blind and 
sighted techniques best suited to their individual visual limitations. 
Having received this type of training, the student with residual vision will

forever after be in the best position to know when to use sight and when to 
use a blindness technique. Putting this another way, when sleepshades are 
used, the partially blind student can actually learn for the first time how 
to use his or her remaining vision efficiently.

(f) All students must be trained to use Braille. While some students with a 
little vision may argue that they don't need Braille, everyone should be 
exposed to it. The student may well learn that it is more efficient than he 
or she had thought and that reading large print at twenty or thirty words a 
minute isn't particularly efficient.

(g) Proper practices must be established concerning meals and eating. No, I 
don't mean spreading butter, cutting meat, and pouring cream. To assume that

all students need classes in good manners and etiquette is insulting and 
demonstrates a negative philosophy rather than a positive one. Sometimes 
students do need help in this area, particularly students who have come from

residential schools for the blind. When this occurs, staff members should 
work with this individual quietly and privately.

I am referring to a particular problem and an interesting Iowa policy: Many 
newly blinded people feel conspicuous eating in front of sighted people. 
Therefore they are quite content to have someone serve them in the seclusion

of a group dining room. To solve this problem, at the Iowa Commission we had

a public cafeteria, where the students could buy their breakfasts and 
lunches if they wished. They went through the line themselves with the other

customers. However, we closed the cafeteria during evenings and weekends. 
Moreover, we had a rule that students could not cook in their rooms, nor 
could more experienced students bring meals to the new ones. The obvious 
intent of this practice was to get students out into the public to find food

and to get used to being seen. The only way to overcome the fear of moving 
and eating in front of others is to do it over and over again until one 
feels comfortable.

(h) The good center should have no psychologists or psychiatrists on staff. 
Students should be assumed to be mentally fit. The intent of the program is 
to overcome stereotypical thinking about blindness. Society is already 
filled with negative attitudes about psychologists and psychiatrists--"Only 
crazy people see them." So the student who is forced to see one on a daily 
or weekly basis quickly concludes that things are even worse than he or she 
had thought.

Am I saying that I am opposed to all psychologists or psychiatrists? Of 
course not! Rarely a student may develop emotional problems. When this 
occurs, that student should be sent to a competent professional. Care should

be taken to choose the professional wisely. If this has not been done, the 
professional will most likely try to help the student adjust to blindness in

a manner which will help no one. If the orientation staff can't tell the 
difference between a normal fear of blindness and a real emotional problem, 
the staff had better be replaced. But don't use such a problem as a reason 
for bringing in the psychologists or psychiatrists.

(i) There should be no house mothers or baby sitters in the center. The 
students' time is valuable, and they should have competent staff members 
available to work with them during evenings and on weekends. Therefore staff

members should be available at all times to help solve problems, give 
counsel, and talk about blindness. I know that in most centers this does not

occur, and house parents are on hand. I must say that I was particularly 
dismayed when I learned last night that the Michigan center has nurses on 
duty to care for the trainees. This practice can only lead to a belief on 
the part of students that they are sick patients in some kind of state 

(j) The students should be exposed to organizations of the blind and to 
successful blind persons. This point surely speaks for itself and needs no 

8. Now let me take a few minutes to round out what I believe the blind have 
the right to expect from a good agency.

(a) Competent home teachers and rehabilitation counselors who truly believe 
in the blind and who can motivate blind people from across the state should 
be on staff. They must be persistent. That is, if a newly blind person 
refuses to accept services from the agency after only one or two contacts, 
they should keep returning and trying. Of course this effort should not be 
confused with trying to force the blind person to accept services which he 
or she truly does not want. Very often, however, people who are newly blind 
will mistakenly assume that there is no hope and that nothing useful can be 
done. A person has the right to informed choice, but such a choice can be 
made only after the individual has learned enough to be informed.

(b) Then there is the matter of vending facilities. Blind vendors should 
truly run the businesses. In many states the agencies actually run the 
facilities and in reality the blind are only glorified cashiers. If agency 
personnel truly believe that the blind can function competitively and 
independently, they should be permitted to run the businesses. Let them do 
their own hiring, firing, purchasing, price-setting, bookkeeping, etc.

(c) The state library for the blind should be part of the state agency for 
the blind. Experience has shown that the service is much better and more 
coordinated when this is the case. The rehabilitation agency gets referrals 
through the library, and vice versa. Also Federal rehabilitation dollars can

be put into the state library when it is a part of the state agency.

(d) Finally, let me speak briefly about employment. Suitable job placement 
is the final step in the rehabilitation process. Job placement is handled in

two different ways around the country. In many states a job placement 
specialist is assigned specifically to work on placements. In others, 
including Iowa, the counselors do their own placements. Since I know that 
this system works well, I guess I favor this model.

Agency rehab counselors (or placement specialists) should spend a good part 
of their time in getting to know business owners, personnel officers, 
department heads, etc., within their territories. These counselors should 
work to create a positive atmosphere so that, by the time the individual 
blind consumer is ready for employment, interviews and possible jobs will 
already be available. The ultimate objective in any state should be that any

blind person who wants to work and who is willing to undergo proper training

can get a suitable job.

The second major part of the job placement issue has to do with employer and

public education. In Iowa, virtually every day of the year (and often many 
times a day) a Commission employee or the center students were speaking and 
presenting programs for Lions and other civic organizations, churches, 
schools, business men's associations, fairs, etc. The effort of the agency 
must be to create an atmosphere in which blind citizens are accepted as 
normal people and can find good jobs when their training has been completed 
and they are ready for employment.

These, then, are some of my thoughts concerning what blind consumers should 
be able to expect from a good agency for the blind. Since the best 
governmental structure is known, since the proper philosophy is known and 
proven, and since the best teaching and rehabilitation service techniques 
are known, tried, and tested, I believe that the expectations outlined here 
are reasonable. I hope these opinions and experiences are helpful as you 
assess the value of a Commission for the Blind in the upcoming session of 
your state legislature.

The Braille Monitor June 1997
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