According to the 1995 census there are over two million people in the U.S. whose visual impairment is severe enough to cause significant impact on the course of their daily living. Specifically they cannot drive or read standard print, and their ability to move around may be compromised. About twenty-five percent (25%) of that group is totally blind or without usable vision. World wide, the visually impaired population is estimated to number in excess of 37 million people (World Health Organization, 2003).
In the U.S. around seventy-five percent (75%) of working age blind adults are unable to maintain gainful employment (American Foundation for the Blind). In the population of children born with blindness that number rises to about ninety percent (90%). Without employment, it may be impossible to acquire the means and resources to participate fully and productively in the world community, resulting in isolation and poverty. This costs the U.S. government over 4 billion dollars annually (Prevent Blindness America). The remaining twenty five percent (25%), however, do obtain employment, often finding secure, respectable careers in nearly every field.
The achievement of that small percentage suggests that the dual problems of under employment and lack of community participation do not appear to arise strictly from reduced vision. We implicate lack of access to societal resources and lowered expectations and standards on the part of society, and often of the visually impaired themselves as critical barriers to full participation in the world community.
Society functions primarily through the smooth exchange of goods, services, and companionship. However, information and resources are made most readily available to the eye. The societal infrastructure and exchange network are designed to optimize the freedom, functioning, and enjoyment of sighted people - facing the blind with exclusion from this network.
The world is full of dangers and wonders which society assumes the use of vision to avoid or appreciate. Interactive sports, nature's pastimes such as backpacking and rock climbing, extreme sports (e.g. mountain biking or power skating), leisure pastimes such as books and video games, and community programming such as scouts and little league activities are often closed to the blind a priori, or are only made available provisionally with restrictions that may severely compromise the purpose and enjoyment of the activity.
Still more threatening than being cut off from commerce and societal exchange is the negative state of general world consciousness regarding blind people. Popular belief has always contended that blindness leads directly to deficiency and incapacity. Consequently, blind people are often cast in a role of helpless dependence difficult to escape ("The Making of a Blind Man" by Dr. James Goodman), and "The Blind Need Not Apply" and "Seeing Beyond Blindness" By Dr. Ronald Ferguson. In addition to pervading general public consciousness, these views of deficiency in blindness have cast their sobering influence over all education and rehabilitative service professions, often resulting in the application of approaches that fall short of preparing and motivating blind clients to reach their full potential.
Children even more than adults tend to rise to the expectations set for them. Research has shown that low expectations tend to foster low achievement. For every time blind children are told they can do something, they are far more often warned they cannot or should not.
To varying degrees under various circumstances, blind people face significant challenges in accessing the world in the following three areas:
1. The physical world - refers to interaction with the physical environment. How does one know what and where things are and how to obtain them? How does one understand where one is or how to get where one wants to go?
Blind individuals may be disinclined to move freely and comfortably or, out of apprehension, society restricts movement of the blind individual. Research shows that in the case of children, this is likely to impede many areas of development that can ultimately result in unemployment, lack of participation in the community, social isolation, psychological maladjustment, and a host of physiological infirmities.
Intentional, self-directed movement is regarded as one of the more challenging areas faced by blind people. While lack of sight is often compensated by enhancing other senses, social barriers and mechanisms of over protection often hamper the perceptual development and development of functional movement in blind people.
Approaches to address the movement challenges of blind people have traditionally regarded these challenges from a "deficit" perspective, and have sought to remediate these perceived deficits by reducing the movement process into discrete skills, and attempting to reconstitute this process by teaching clients these skills. The efficacy of the results have been questionable.
2. The symbolic world - refers to the representation of language and exchange of ideas and information through symbols, including the written word and pictures. Society uses presentation of information through symbols to facilitate the exchange of goods, services, and ideas. This exchange provides the principal conduit for commerce, social contact, staying connected with world events, accessing resources and opportunities, warning of danger, providing direction, and managing day to day affairs. Symbols used by society are typically presented only to the visual system, so people with impaired vision are partly or totally excluded from this network of information exchange. Attempts to address the matter of disrupted information exchange have only focused on small pieces of the problem, and have often done so without input from blind people. They have often relied on the clemency of public agencies and corporations to accommodate blindness needs, but response to these needs has shown itself to be very limited and grudging.
3. The social world - refers to the quality of interaction between blind people and the social environment. An impaired ability to get around and function well in the world, together with substantial barriers to conventional forms of reading and writing are likely to compromise the ease and freedom of interaction between blind and sighted people. Healthy, constructive interaction is further impeded by blindness myths and stereotypes, negative expectations and perceptions, lower standards, and fears or apprehensions residing in both the sighted and blind people. Traditionally, social programming have segregated blind people into "blind sports", relegated blind participants to menial positions, or imposed contrived roles that impose artificial disadvantages on sighted participants.
The public sector appears to lack a sound comprehension of the unique strengths and challenges facing blind people in a world that is sight dominated, and how to address these challenges effectively and respectfully. Assistive technology and adaptive strategies are currently sparse, poorly supported, and expensive. In addition, they are often developed and designed without a solid understanding of the non-visual perceptual system. Finally, they are often developed in isolation from other endeavors, leading to redundancies, and inefficient use of resources. Availability of public funding to provide assistive technology and instruction in the use of adaptive strategies is scarce.
Our Aim Toward a Solution
The Perceptual Mobility approach of World Access for the Blind to address this compromised access to the world by blind people is primarily based on an integration of modern neural science, perceptual theories and practice, ecological psychology, developmental theory and application, positive psychology, and Occupational science. It is rooted in the recognition of blindness as a condition of gain requiring adaptation, rather than loss requiring remediation or compensation per sé. We view the movement process as one of freedom and fluidity to be learned in a holistic, contextual, discovery based fashion. We propose that, given conditions of mutual respect and regard of equality, adaptive mechanisms are free to activate, enabling the blind individual to achieve optimal levels of functioning and personal accomplishment. Our approach is three-fold:
- First, we develop and use specialized techniques and assistive technology to improve access of blind individuals to personal resources. We improve mental skills, such as cognitive mapping, memory, and attitudes about self; and physical skills, such as perceptual-motor functioning, speed, and coordination. With improved access to personal resources, blind individuals can face and surmount the challenges before them from a position of strength, purpose, and authority.
- Second, we work to improve access to the world environment by offering information, perspective, and specialized perceptual expertise to influence positively the efficient development of effective, respectful technology and strategies. We do this by infusing development efforts with knowledge of nonvisual perception, and by facilitating collaborative development efforts.
- Third, we mobilize resources and garner public attention by raising public awareness of the issues relevant to blind people. We bring the strengths and potentials of blind people and the true challenges they face into the public eye. By improving the ability of blind people to access the world and by helping to bridge the immense gaps in understanding between sighted and blind people, it is expected that blind people will gain self direction over their achievement capacity through access to societal resources.
World Access for the Blind has determined that modern, state of the art sensor systems developed with the benefit of today's rapid innovation in computer-human interface technology make possible the production of affordable, effective, and user friendly sensor devices to extend perception by alternative means. We favor a person centered system the functioning of which does not rely on specialized infrastructure or public clemency, but rests completely in the control of the user. Vision is simply a sophisticated piece of biotechnology developed by nature over millions of years to perform specific functions.
World Access for the Blind stands on the frontier in guiding the development of modern technology and strategies that emulate the functions of vision. For example, the application of echolocation and sonar systems to the enhancement of blind movement have already found fruition and can be brought to market for wide spread availability within the foreseeable future. Portable, fully integrated magnification systems can be readily designed from off-the-shelf video technology for the partially sighted in short order. Preliminary research into optical and radar systems have similarly shown exciting promise of unprecedented access to the physical and symbolic environments for blind and partially sighted people.
In this connection World Access for the Blind is laying the ground work and conceptual framework for the coordination of an interdisciplinary, applied research task force among top scientists to design, in short and long term, high definition sensory systems for blind use. We are also mobilizing specialized expertise and knowledge to develop curricula and instructional approaches to enable blind students to make full and effective use of these devices and gain much improved access to the world at all levels.
We are also developing and implementing specialized instructional methodologies to optimize the use of low tech devices, such as the cane or simple tactile compass, as well as natural means of perception and function, such as organically produced sonar signals, and the strategic use of tactual-kinesthetic processing. This is particularly relevant to very young children, and populations in developing countries and underserved regions.
Extensive research of blinded veterans shows that visually impaired people who are secure and capable in their movements are better adjusted psychologically and have an easier time maintaining gainful employment. We have found that they are more socially accepted by their sighted peers, and they are more likely to participate in commerce and in a wider range of recreational and social activities.
The positive impact of effective and safe movement can change lives. It engenders confidence and knowledge of self-worth which is critical to making a cogent difference in the total quality of life for blind people. It will open the way for the blind to participate in recreational and social activities with the sighted community and will give blind people the confidence and motivation to learn skills and expertise that will better enable them to maintain gainful employment.