Discussion: SCIENCE EDUCATION FOR THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED

Discussion section to: SCIENCE EDUCATION FOR THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED

It is difficult for anyone almost anywhere to live on $623 a month. In order to live it is sometimes necessary to find other sources of income. At such times, the client returns to the vocational counselor. Because the need is pressing, a low-wage job is located and the vocational rehabilitation counselor goes on to other things. This is the audience this study seeks to reach, viz., vocational rehabilitation counselors as resources for assisting individuals who are blind in their job search. The message is that a strategy for long-term career planning that includes STEM careers is inevitable.

Occasionally a reminder of how far the disability and vocational education community has come is that in 1973 the “eminent economist, Eli Ginzberg, of Columbia University declared in a lead article in the Teacher College Record that the expenditure of public funds to rehabilitate severely disabled persons was a policy of dubious validity in an era of marked unemployment among the nondisabled.”

The complex issues involved in serving people who are blind on a day-to-day basis can be seen, for example, on Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Service’s web page. Services include orientation and mobility instruction, rehabilitation teaching, and independent living for the older blind program.

The 2000 Bureau of the Census ten-year count of the population of the United States defines individuals who are blind and visually disabled as having a “sensory disability.” The definition derives from one of the questionnaire items (15b), which asks respondents for a yes or no answer to whether they had the “longlasting” condition of “blindness, deafness, severe vision, or hearing impairment.”

Figures on blind or visually impaired children (or even the wider definition of sensory disability) in elementary and high school are difficult to obtain. According to Castellano, “There are approximately 100,000 school-age blind and visually-impaired children in the United States (less than .2% of the school age population, or about 1 in 500), making blindness/visual impairment in children a low-incidence disability.” Castellano cites Spungin and D’Andrea (2000) for computing these figures from a U.S. Census Department Report for 2003.

The situation of Iraq war veterans who are blind is a good example of an area where precise numbers would be helpful. A large number of people who are blind are over the age of 65, a number that is increasing as the population as a whole ages. For many in this age group long-term vocational planning is impractical.

An analysis of people with sensory disabilities by age shows that most individuals who are blind in the population are over 21 years old. Of a blind total population of 3.4 million individuals, 1.3 million are 65 and over.

While older potential workers deserve the same opportunities as younger ones, the reality is that better-paying jobs and plans for long-term STEM careers require education prerequisites. With 72.4% of the work age population (age 16 to 64 years) having no bachelor’s degree and not being enrolled in college, then the vocational counselor has to face the reality that the benefits of STEM careers for the blind represents, on average, a minority of the population he or she serves. In addition, adequate, on-going benefits from STEM careers require considerable effort. The author argues that the effort is worth it, among other things, because of the long-term benefits, but daily caseload management and related problems makes it difficult for the counselor to be convinced or to remain convinced amidst distractions.

Today’s rehabilitation counselor may not receive the intensity of the long-lasting counselor-client relationship of old. Tiffany Medina, a graduate student in psychology who has been blind since birth, spoke at length (Medina, T., personal communication, telephone, July 27, 2007.) about how the bulk of her vocational support came from her on-going relationship with the two VI counselors her school system provided, noting how fortunate she was that the school system she attended was excellent, turnover was low, and years after her high school graduation, she still meets with her VI counselor for lunch on a regular basis.

Tiffany talked about how hard her mother worked to get her into the school system she attended. The opportunities to form lasting relationships with mentors who provide assistance in mastering a variety of skills may come from a variety of sources and organizations.
The vocational counselor/rehabilitation teacher continues to represent the kind of support system individuals with visual impairment problems require. As efforts to provide individuals who are blind with stable, long-term STEM careers, the role of the vocational counselor will change, challenging the current vocational rehabilitation network—a network that is slow to change and which is currently facing major changes as large numbers of personnel are retiring. As the turnover continues, clients may have to be more aggressive about identifying and obtaining the support services they require.

An even stronger problem is why the community of those professionals concerned with individuals who are blind or visually impaired (VI) do not involve themselves more in working for more precise definitions and more accurate numbers.

Note: Declining Braille literacy rates are a concern. Consider that 85% of individuals who are employed and who are blind are Braille literate.

Meanwhile, the definition of “disabilities” has come under increased scrutiny, as economists like Dr. Mitra point to the quality of life improvement when a disabled person gets a good job. By comparing individuals with the same kind of physical disabilities, the benefits of meaningful employment serve to liberate the employed person from the feeling of being disabled that the unemployed report.

A changing definition of disability is desirable when it focuses on achievement rather than impairment. There is also an expanding literature indicating that counseling can effectively solve problems and change the focus away from disability-related issues and more in the direction to recognizing and developing talent.

This direction can be seen in such publications as the Journal of Disability Policy Studies, where Sopie Mitra’s article “The capability approach and disability” describes the impact of work on an individual’s view of oneself as disabled or not disabled and how that affects views of self-worth. On the other hand, this direction can be seen in Mississippi State study series on “Barriers to employment for the visually impaired.”


Commentary

One cannot help feeling overwhelmed when one considers the complexity of blind/VI service requirements, the number of organizations and individuals involved in providing them, the variety of customer requirements (starting, for example, from blindness occurring at birth to blindness occurring late in an individual’s life), the expanding role of assistive technology, and the challenge dedicated and often overworked professionals face in a society where, as on-going studies at the Mississippi State

point out, visual impediments continue to carry mythology that serves no useful purpose.

Counselors today might take heart from five areas where counselors, especially vocational rehabilitation counselors, can feel optimistic about their long-term efforts to help individuals who are visually-impaired:

  1. Academics require more precise data to improve the quality of the tools they use in empirical studies. Better data means on-going work with the Bureau of Census, Labor Statistics, and the Department of Education. Counselors should be comforted to know that scholarship will become more accurate and help their clients.
  2. A better understanding of the demographics of blindness/VI will make it easier to target services and develop paradigms for successful achievement.
  3. STEM careers offer clients the potential for stable and secure employment doing work which reinforces a positive self-image.
  4. Assistive technology, from computer software that sends and receives emails to probes for chemical testing, is empowering individuals with VI in new ways.
  5. Vocational rehabilitation counselors are experiencing increased appreciation for long-term solutions to the problems from their clients who have blindness/VI.

 

From the perspective of this paper, empirical studies must be done on a credible basis to develop vocational counseling efforts that are most successful. As one Mississippi State study found, “The perceived failure of the education system to provide adequate training in job readiness skills and basic adaptive techniques is another barrier to competitive employment.”         Editors of especially significant peer review publications have failed to produce additions to the knowledge base on the subject of people with disabilities. Absence of disability literature and findings has created a situation where the reader is recommended to find answers from the extensive information system that exists for individuals who are blind that is not based on rigorous empirical testing.

Professional books on subjects, such as learning Braille, are very useful in understanding the environment. Peer review publications need to recognize that researchers in the field require empirical studies of value. We need to know more about the problems of the blind, for example in their efforts to learn science.

The final guiding direction of our efforts must be: (a) elimination of poverty among the blind and individuals with visual impairment problems; (b) radically reduce unemployment rates among blind people who want to work but are unable to find jobs, and (c) focus and follow through thoroughly in an effort to combine their efforts with vocation rehabilitation services early in the child’s life, and (d) create the infrastructure required to help in a multi-departmental effort to train students who are blind to work in STEM careers.

 

Appendix: Tables

 

Table 1. Individuals with disabilities

 

  Age 5 to 15 Age 16 to 20 Age 21 to 64 Age 65 and Over Total
Sensory disability 238,498 123,910 1,690,283 1,327,266 3,379,957
One type of disability 2,080,569 1,713,785 16,205,168 6,704,088 26,703,610
No disability 42,518,748 16,956,275 127,577,748 19,368,508 206,421,279

Note: Figures from 2000 U.S. Department of Census


Table 2. Employment, and poverty status for individuals who are blind

  Percent enrolled* college or graduate school Not enrolled/no bachelor degree Employed* percent Poverty* percent
Sensory disability 14 % 72.4% 47.2% 18.7%
With any disability 13.9 % 73.2% 37.5% 21.1%
No disability 21.8% 56% 74.4% 11.3%

Note1: Figures from American Community Survey for 2005, U.S. Department of Census

Note2: Enrollment ages 18 to 34 years, total population 64,647,330.

Note3: Employment ages 16 to 64 years, total population 188,041,309.

Note4: Poverty status is for ages 5 and over, total population 266,588,142.

–30–

— Just call me “Joel”.

Copyright 2016 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

 

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