Next week, a team of us from the Institute on Blindness will travel to New Orleans for the 2013 AER International O&M Conference. As I’ve prepared for the session that we’re co-leading with folks from Florida State and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, I’ve come to realize that this conference is world’s apart from any other AER event in the past 15 years…in a good way.
I’ve become accustomed to the “icy feel” in the room, cold stares, and even others getting up from the table when I’ve gone to sit down, but never before have we been involved in helping to direct conference programming and logistics, as we are this year.
In 2003, I remember sitting in a meeting room at an AER event and discussing with a colleague in the field who was citing Kenneth Jernigan on independent travel: “Independence is the ability to go where you want, when you want, without inconvenience to yourself or others.” Then, not 15 minutes later, as I and a group of other blind people walked toward the lobby doors on our way to dinner, our canes hit a rope stanchion. This colleague—who’d just told us that she didn’t believe in artificial barriers and that blind people shouldn’t be guided around—came running up to us saying, “Careful! Careful! There’s a rope there! I’ll move it for you.” Obviously we knew a rope was there and were walking around it without incident, yet she came to rescue us anyway.
She and those of us who teach and research at Louisiana Tech were miles and generations apart in terms of how we viewed and understood what the true nature of independence means. Extremely low expectations about the capabilities of blind people kept her from understanding the depth of Jernigan’s words.
Fortunately, that was my experience in 2003. I know that 2013 will be different.
My hat is off to Mickey Damelio of Florida State University who asked us to present our structured discovery method to cane travel. In our 3-hour program, each university will have time with rotating, small groups to teach their models and give students time to practice and ask questions. It’s not an “us versus them” situation. Rather, this is an opportunity—the first of its kind in my memory—for those of us here at Louisiana Tech to be equal partners in sharing our unique approach to the mobility experience. We all do this differently, but with the same goal in mind: to give independence to the blind of our country. Today, unlike ever before, we are considered far more to be colleagues and not competitors or enemies.
The reason for this attitudinal change that we’re seeing, I think, is two-fold. For one, we’re not going away. We’ve participated in these conferences for 15 years, and even when others shunned us, we kept going back to learn what we could and to teach what we might. That we’re on an equal footing today with programs that have been around for 50 years or more is remarkable, and it’s a testament to what happens when people begin to recognize good models. Secondly, as the younger generations become a larger part of these meetings and take on leadership roles, they don’t have the political baggage of their predecessors. These professionals are able to look at us with an open mind, and—as many have said—”What you’re doing makes common sense, and clearly you’ve been doing this long enough to be legitimate.”
I sincerely believe that fear and ignorance drives discrimination. When we can all seriously come around the table and have equality of thoughts and opinions, progress can happen for everyone…most importantly for the blind men and women we teach.
After all, the goal of O&M is just as Jernigan described: “the ability to go where you want, when you want, without inconvenience to yourself or others.” We here at Louisiana Tech University are proud to be an ever-increasing leader in that process.