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Spring 2000 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

The Importance of Reality-Based Services

By Terry Murphy, Executive Director, Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind)

In an e-mail message floating around recently was a list of things high school and college graduates "should have learned in school but didn't." Although the message I received attributes the sayings to Bill Gates, the more likely source of the original list is probably Charles Sykes, the author of "Dumbing Down our Kids." I haven't read the book, but it's said to talk about how feel-good, politically-correct teachings have created a full generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept sets them up for failure in the real world.

Regardless of who wrote them, two items from the list are similar to what I've said to my son and daughter over the years. Item 4 says, in part, "If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss...." Item 8 says, "Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades; they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life."

More than a few people would say these messages are too cynical or discouraging for kids, especially kids with disabilities. I think they are good, tough-love pieces of advice for every young person who has the potential of being in the job market some day. It's true in real life, employers don't provide unlimited opportunities for you to get the job done, and 60 may not be a passing grade.

About the same time I received the e-mail, an interesting article hit the newspaper in which Erica Goode of The New York Times reported on a Cornell University research project conducted by a Professor David Dunning and a graduate student. The research found that most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent, adding that people who do things badly are usually supremely confident of their abilities---more confident, in fact, than people who do things well. One of the reasons, Dunning says, is that honest feedback is generally absent. Social norms prevent most people from blurting out "you stink!" - truthful though this assessment may be.

The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) comes into contact with people from all ages, all walks of life, for whom blindness is a fact. Our important job is to weave a good dose of reality into the fabric of our services lest we become guilty of encouraging false confidence and incompetence. It's equally important, however, to be positive. This dual responsibility often requires our staff to walk a verbal tightrope as they strive to be tough, yet optimistic, and honest, yet encouraging.

Tough means saying to a teenager and his parents that blindness is not a characteristic that all potential employers understand, so he may have to work harder than a sighted person to sell himself. Optimistic means saying to them that we know two people with similar goals who six months ago went to work making a good living and one has already earned a raise. We know it can be done.

Honest means telling someone who has been blind all her life that a promotion is probably escaping her not because she is blind but because she steadfastly refuses to learn the additional skills it takes to adjust to today's faster-paced work environment. Encouraging means telling her at the same time that thousands of people who are blind have learned braille or computer skills to boost their potential for better positions. We know it can be done.

Being tough and honest isn't always easy. It sometimes places you at risk of being called insensitive. A parent wrote a while back to complain that his daughter's college counselor was insensitive because the counselor had said to his daughter that she needed to be in class rain or shine. The parent was astounded that anyone would expect his blind daughter to walk to class in the rain. The counselor's tough-love approach had been to say, "Walking in the rain isn't my idea of fun either, but you can't pass this course if you are not in class. Let's see if there is an alternative route that would give you more cover to your classroom, and you might want to buy a bigger umbrella." I'm happy to say that the loving parent and student did eventually embrace the reality that a future employer will also expect her to come to work rain or shine. The last I heard she had really blossomed into an independent traveler (with an umbrella in her backpack).

Some of the most independently functioning people I've known in my years with the Commission have shared with me that part of their independence grew from parents who were not reluctant to lovingly expect as much from them as their sighted siblings. One friend said that when he gave in to the temptation to use his blindness to get out of household chores or school, his parents never once flinched or gave in, and he soon got the message. He said that the confidence they had in him resulted in his having confidence in himself as he conquered task by task alongside his brothers, who as typical siblings weren't exactly disinclined "to tell him it like it is."

In our business, we see the gamut of skills coming through our doors in both consumers and employees who are blind. One of the most frustrating aspects of our job is to work with an untrained, incompetent traveler and get excited about the added potential better skills would provide, only to be met with the brick wall of "I get around just fine." Equally frustrating is seeing the untapped potential of a person who refuses to see the value that braille can add to their productivity. "I never have to take the notes in meetings --- why should I learn braille?" What do you say to people like this? Yes, you're doing great? No. Avoiding reality may rob this person of his or her highest potential, so you dig deep into your bag of communication skills and find a way to be tough and honest, yet optimistic and encouraging.

All this is no easy task, but we have found that patience, understanding, and a healthy dose of reality go a long way toward replacing false confidence with competence. For those of you who may be interested in the rest of the e-mail, here's the whole list of recommendations.

MESSAGES ON LIFE

Rule 1 Life is not fair; get used to it.

Rule 2 The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3 You will not make 40 thousand dollars a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice president with a car phone, until you earn both.

Rule 4 If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure.

Rule 5 Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping; they called it opportunity.

Rule 6 If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7 Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try "delousing" the closet in your own room.

Rule 8 Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades; they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This, of course, doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9 Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10 Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11 Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.


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