Freedom for the blind the secret is empowerment

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By James H. Omvig

This publication was developed under a contract with the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The content of this publication does not necessarily represent the official views of these agencies and no endorsement by the Federal Government should be inferred.

The contents of this publication (except those for which reprint permission must be obtained from the primary sources) may be freely reproduced for educational/training purposes. All reproductions should include the following citation:
Freedom for the Blind, by James Omvig.

Region VI Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program.

University of Arkansas, 2002.
Reprinted in 2005 by

National Federation of the Blind

1800 Johnson St.

Baltimore, MD 21230

This book is a research project of the:


Louisiana Tech University

Member of the

University of Louisiana System

Ruston, Louisiana

The Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness is a collaborative endeavor between the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) and Louisiana Tech University, a member of the University of Louisiana System. While the revolution in work with the blind began in Iowa--that is, while the Iowa Commission for the Blind created the first state-operated orientation and adjustment center employing the civil rights-based empowerment model--the first such private, nonprofit center in the country was LCB. In Ruston, the revolution of civil rights-based services for the blind has been taken one step further: it has been introduced into a university program for professionals instructing the blind and has become the very foundation of that new program.
The Institute was established in 1999 to provide leadership in the creation of high-quality professional development programs and to conduct research that recognizes the socially constructed assumptions underpinning the current structure of the blindness system. Scholars and professionals operate from a theoretical framework that takes into consideration the socially constructed beliefs about blindness, thus viewing blindness from a positive perspective. As a result, the Institute provides alternative programs and research project findings that expand the boundaries of the field of work with the blind.
The mission of the Institute is to advance this entire field by providing the blind and the blindness professionals serving them with innovative educational and rehabilitative programs built upon the civil rights-based empowerment model and also by conducting meaningful research that will empower blind people to live independent and productive lives.
This book is the second in the Series.


"Jim's memoirs and experiences enrich the presentation and illustrate the message. Life has taught him well. Now he seeks to share the freedom he has achieved with every blind person in America .... Mr. Omvig believes that the age of enlightenment in working with the blind is at hand. Let us hope and pray that he is right."
Alan Myklebust

Arizona School for the Blind

Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind
"My only concern is that it (the book) is not uninteresting and abstruse, so students may refuse to take it seriously. It is, however, about as serious and important as any book can be that deals with the possibility of giving blind people back their lives and dignity."
Barbara Pierce

Blind Consumer Advocate

"The assumption by Omvig that the public embraces and acts from the socially constructed misconceptions about blindness is what will be accepted or rejected by the readers of this book. This book is filled with common sense and wisdom. I would highly recommend it for anyone who lives with or works with blind people."
Ronald J. Ferguson

Louisiana Tech University

"The 'empowerment circle' and the importance of an organized consumer base is something that needs to be read and read again. This circle is a very powerful concept and can lend much to the changing of unemployment and underemployment, as well as a lack of literacy for the blind ...."
Ed Kunz

Texas Commission for the Blind

"Jim Omvig has captured the essence of successful rehabilitation of the blind in a thought-provoking work that challenges traditional values, roles, and practices of rehabilitation professionals .... It is a 'must read' for all rehabilitation professionals and practitioners."
Suzanne Mitchell

Louisiana Rehabilitation Services

"I have often lamented the absence of a basic philosophical work which could be used in staff training. Freedom for the Blind, at last, fills the gap that has existed....I enthusiastically recommend Freedom for the Blind by Jim Omvig as the most significant newly written material available to the blindness field."
Allen Harris

Iowa Department for the Blind

"Mr. Omvig's book is a clear, concise recipe for any private or public agency wishing to operate an effective orientation and adjustment center. If there is an RSA suggested reading list, this book should be at the top ...."
Vito J. DeSantis

New Jersey Commission for the Blind


Visually Impaired

"Mr. Omvig's book makes a major contribution to the need to address attitudes of ALL people, those without disabilities and those with disabilities .... I recommend that this book be 'must' reading not only for professionals in the field of blindness but also for consumers, including parents, students and any of those who consider themselves to be advocates for persons who are blind .... This book will be a benchmark that will be used in all future writings on the topic."
Ralph E. Bartley

Kentucky School for the Blind


A. A Contrast Concerning Freedom, or, Why Write This Book?

B. Take the High Road and Look for Positive, Constructive Information

C. Let's Build a Temple Together
CHAPTER 1. WHO IS BLIND, AND WHY USE THE WORD "BLIND"?........................ 1

A. Who is "Blind"?

B. Why Use the Word "Blind"?

A. The "Iowa Experiment"

B. An Agency "Defined Philosophy" About Blindness

C. Why a "Defined Philosophy" About Blindness?

D. Why Use the Word "Normal" in this Defined Philosophy?

E. Why Refer to the Blind as a "Cross-Section" of Society?

F. Why Refer to Blindness as a "Characteristic"?

G. Why Talk of "Alternative Techniques"?

H. What Do You Mean by the "Hierarchy of Sight"?

I. Can Blind People Really Learn?

CHAPTER 4. EMPOWERMENT THROUGH AN "INDEPENDENT," SEPARATE STATE AGENCY ................................................................ 21

A. Background

B. Why a Separate, "Independent" Agency for the Blind?

C. All Rehabilitation Is Alike, Isn't It?

D. Who is "Responsible" in an Independent Agency?

E. We Need Experts in Blindness

F. There Is Also a Human Element

G. Accountability

H. Direct Legislative and Gubernatorial Contact

I. Will Lumping Everything Together Save Money?

J. A Wise Investment

K. How Can You Get and/or Keep an Independent Agency?

L. Separate and Independent "Is" Best!

M. In Summary

CHAPTER 5. THE NATURE OF EMPOWERMENT ........................................................ 33

A. A Possible Conflict in Thinking

B. The "Empowerment Motive"

C. What is "Empowerment"?


A. Some Vocational Rehabilitation History

B. The History of "Informed Choice"

C. The Problem with Choice

D. The Solution to the Problem--The "Empowerment Circle"
CHAPTER 7. "PROPER TRAINING": WHAT IS IT? ........................................................... 45

A. What's in a Word?

B. A Definition of Proper Training

C. Expectations

D. Independence

E. Specialized Training Units for the Blind

F. Proper Training and Educational Programs

G. Orientation Centers as "Dumping Grounds"


AND SELF-SUFFICIENCY ....................................................................................................... 61

A. "Acceptance" of Blindness

B. Meeting Challenges

C. Sleepshades and Emotional Adjustment

D. Facing Routine Life Experiences

E. White Canes and Emotional Adjustment

F. Frank Discussions about Blindness

G. Role Models

H. Paying Back

I. Emotional Adjustment Takes Time
CHAPTER 9. MASTERING THE SKILLS ......................................................................... 75

A. Braille Reading and Writing

B. The Long, White Cane

C. Keyboard and Computer Skills

D. Homemaking and Personal Grooming Skills

E. Additional Skills

F. "Life-Coping Skills" and the Ubiquitous "How"?
CHAPTER 10. "COPING" WITH BLINDNESS ................................................................. 88

A. Routine Putdowns

B. Beyond the Bounds

C. Discrimination

CHAPTER 11. BLENDING IN .............................................................................................. 98

A. The Problem

B. A Different Approach

C. Jernigan Knew

D. Reliability

E. Common Courtesy

F. Appearance, and What Things Look Like

G. The Blind are Judged by One Another

CHAPTER 12. BRAILLE--THE GREAT EQUALIZER ................................................. 106

A. My Personal Experiences

B. The Illiteracy Crisis

C. From Bad Philosophy to Bad Policy

D. The Problem

E. Solutions to the Problem

CHAPTER 13. THE MODEL STATE AGENCY ............................................................... 113

A. An Independent Structure

B. The Defined Philosophy

C. The Independent Agency Board

D. The Independent Agency Staff

E. A Relationship with Consumer Organizations

F. Advocacy

G. Presumed Competence

H. The Orientation and Adjustment Center

I. Field Personnel

J. The Vending Facilities Program

K. The State Library

L. Job Placement

M. In Summary

CHAPTER 14. IF YOUR HORSE IS DEAD, DISMOUNT! .............................................. 126

A. Back to the Beginning

B. "Consumerism" and a Fanciful Analogy

C. Go to the Source

CHAPTER 15. A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE ".................................................................. 133

A. Freedom and the Realization of "Self-Esteem

REFERENCES ........................................................................................................................... 139


James H. (Jim) Omvig is a blind attorney and rehabilitation professional from Tucson, Arizona. Before his retirement, he spent the major part of his professional career in work with the blind, and he continues to do consulting, evaluating, writing and teaching in this field today.
Jim Omvig became blind as a teenager due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (a degenerative, retinal disease referred to as RP). After several years of struggling with extremely limited vision while in the public school system, he transferred to a residential school, the Iowa School for the Blind. He graduated from high school in 1953.
Eight years of idleness followed Jim's high school graduation. Then, in 1961, Jim became one of the early students in the Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center newly created and directed by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan at the Iowa State Commission for the Blind. He went on to complete college and law school, and then he worked in Washington, D.C. and New York City as the first blind attorney ever hired by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Following his successful legal career with the NLRB, Jim changed careers and entered the field of work with the blind professionally. He directed the residential Orientation and Adjustment Center operated by the Iowa Commission for the Blind and served as that agency's Assistant Director; established and directed a program created by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in Baltimore, Maryland, to develop greater employment opportunities for the blind and disabled within SSA itself. Finally, he directed the Alaska Center for Blind and Deaf Adults, before retiring to Tucson.
Jim is also a well-rounded family man who, in addition to his working career, has been heavily involved for a lifetime in church, civic, political and advocacy activities wherever he has lived. He has also provided staff training and development programs and performed evaluations for numerous schools and private and state agencies for the blind around the country. Perhaps, most significantly, he has been an active participant along with other blind people in the organized blind movement for nearly forty years.
Therefore, Jim's knowledge of those factors which get to the essence of how best to empower blind customers is based upon a broad combination of factors--experience as a blind student first in the public schools and then at a residential school for the blind; as a state agency vocational rehabilitation client; as a blind adult orientation center student; as a blind college and law school student; as a competitively employed blind attorney; and as an orientation center director and federal official.
Even so, the knowledge about the best practices for empowering blind persons presented in this monograph is not Jim's, alone. It reflects the pooled and distilled wisdom and thinking of the thousands of blind men and women of the National Federation of the Blind developed and honed over the past sixty years, and the invaluable knowledge Jim has gained from his nearly forty years of personal association and interchange with the thousands of blind people involved in the organized blind movement.


This monograph is dedicated to my teacher and mentor, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and to the thousands of blind men and women who have come to know that all-empowering truth:


I am especially grateful for the help and support of many people whose encouragement, philosophical suggestions and countless hours of proofreading and reading aloud have made this book what it is. First among these is my wife and soul mate, Sharon. I also wish to thank Joanne Wilson of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Diane McGeorge and Julie Deden of the Colorado Center for the Blind and Joyce Scanlan of Blind Incorporated for discussing the latest proven training techniques. And I wish to thank Christine Brown, Phyllis Feragne, Phyllis Soth and Charlotte Langford for hours and hours of reading and for calling my attention to areas needing expansion or clarification.
This book owes its existence to my extended family-the men, women and children of the National Federation of the Blind and the U.S. Department of Education.
I particularly wish to thank the Louisiana Center for the Blind and Louisiana Tech University for having the wisdom and insight to establish The Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, and for creating this Critical Concerns in Blindness series. I am honored to be among its early contributors.
Finally, I am grateful to those professionals in work with the blind who took their precious time to be official reviewers of this book for the U.S. Department of Education. They are:
Dr. Ralph Bartley, Superintendent, Kentucky School for the Blind, Louisville, Kentucky;
Mr. Vito J. DeSantis, Manager, Joseph Kohn Rehabilitation Center, New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Newark, New Jersey;
Dr. Ronald J. Ferguson, Senior Research Fellow, Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana;
Mr. Allen Harris, Director, Iowa Department for the Blind, Des Moines, Iowa;
Mr. Ed Kunz, Director, Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, Texas Commission for the Blind, Austin, Texas;
Ms. Suzanne Mitchell, Blind Services Executive Director, Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, Baton Rouge, Louisiana;
Mr. Alan Myklebust, Principal, Arizona School for the Blind, The Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, Tucson, Arizona; and
Mrs. Barbara Pierce, consumer advocate and Editor, THE BRAILLE MONITOR, Oberlin, Ohio.
James Omvig has made yet another important contribution to the field of Vocational Rehabilitation through his latest work, FREEDOM FOR THE BLIND. In this book Mr. Omvig brings together the best of rehabilitation practice with the wisdom and experience of countless blind people who, through their own lives, faced and overcame the social and economic barriers arising from myths and misunderstanding about blindness. His book speaks eloquently to the point that the renaissance in the rehabilitation of the blind is not the product of our technology nor of our science, but rather has emerged out of the collective will of tens of thousands of blind people to live full, normal, productive lives.
Rehabilitation is not something that is done "to" a blind person or "for" a blind person, but "with" the blind person. Mr. Omvig does not lay the need for action solely at the feet of the rehabilitation professional but stresses the responsibility of the blind person to take charge of his or her own rehabilitation. The empowerment model Mr. Omvig offers recognizes the need for thorough training in the skills of blindness, the importance of the rehabilitation system encouraging and supporting the individual, and the understanding that both, the blind person and the rehabilitation counselor, are partners in the struggle to change society's attitudes and assumptions about blindness. Laced with charm and humor, FREEDOM FOR THE BLIND offers a rarely told description and analysis of the relationship between the development of confidence and skills. The reader will find knowledge, for Mr. Omvig offers a wealth of information, insight into the social context in which the rehabilitation of the blind takes place, and, perhaps most profound, a heartfelt, earnest, and frank discussion of the need for genuine partnership between the rehabilitation professional and blind people themselves.
Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder, Former Commissioner

Rehabilitation Services Administration

U.S. Department of Education
As America enters the twenty-first century, statistics show that between seventy and eighty percent of her working-age blind people are unemployed (Kirchner, 1999). Of those who are employed, far too many are severely underemployed or are destined to be locked in at entry-level jobs for a lifetime. WHY? How can this be, particularly at a time when America's unemployment rate is the lowest it has been for nearly thirty years, and when employers are begging for reliable and quality employees?
Putting to one side all of the bogus rationalizations, there can be but two possible answers to these questions. First, either blind people as a class, no matter how thoroughly trained and adjusted to their blindness they may be, are inherently incompetent and lacking in the most basic human abilities; or, second, there has been something inherently wrong with the blindness system in America--the complex of programs for educating or rehabilitating people who are blind.
The answer is simple, if distressing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the blind as a class of people! There simply is too much objective proof to the contrary among the blind who have received proper training to support this view. However, until recently there has been something inherently wrong with the blindness system. The system has been flawed in three areas: First, too many specialists involved in the education of blind children have not understood blindness and thus have not learned what it takes to provide proper training. They have not come to understand that the blind are a minority and that adjustment services, no matter what those services may be, must be aimed at teaching the blind a new, constructive and positive set of attitudes about blindness. Second, too many people involved in providing Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and related services for blind adults have shared the same deficiencies. Third, certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been misinterpreted and have served to make many blind people helpless and dependent rather than independent and self-sufficient. The lure of custodialism has become blurred with the issue of disability rights.
Putting it very directly, the inherent problem is that too many of the people running and working in most of the programs have been thinking, living and teaching in the past--they have not learned to think and dream and teach outside of the box. They have not captured the vision of new and enlightened training philosophies, practices and techniques. Therefore, they have failed properly to train and empower the blind. To compound this problem, while the blind themselves-working through the National Federation of the Blind-have experimented, studied and learned the secrets to full empowerment and freedom for the blind, too many of the specialists in the field have failed to work with and learn these known secrets from the blind. It is this resulting lack of knowledge about proper training and education which has primarily been responsible for our inordinately high unemployment rate.
To be fair about it, I must hasten to add that the schools, the public and private agencies and the misinterpretation of the ADA have not been completely at fault for the high unemployment rate. Although the blind are not primarily responsible, I might briefly point out here--detailed explanations will follow--that the blind themselves are what might be referred to as a secondary part of the problem. Being a minority group in every negative sense of the word, the blind as a class have fallen into the trap of social conditioning and have bought into the erroneous concepts of the hierarchy of sight and vision dependency. Therefore, the blind have contributed to the high unemployment rate because they typically have sold themselves short and have not reached their full potential.
Then, too, while the ADA has many redeeming features, the misinterpretation of certain of its provisions and purposes has only served to exacerbate this already troublesome situation. Far from being the help it was intended to be, for many blind college students, certain provisions of the ADA have become a devilish wolf in sheep's clothing. The result is what some refer to as "learned dependency."
The present, appalling unemployment statistics should outrage the sincere devotee of quality services for the blind. What this dismal statistic indicates is that the educational and VR programs and the ADA historically have simply failed the blind. In more than a century of educational programs, in the fifty-seven years since the blind were included within VR programs, and in the ten years of ADA protection, the vision for the future and the secrets to empowerment and freedom have eluded many specialists in the blindness system. They have not come to know and passionately embrace the proven formula for success!

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