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Winter 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

"You've Got Mail!"

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

I can't believe I've already forgotten when the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) initiated e-mails as a standard way of doing business. Three years ago - maybe four? I do remember, though, how excited we were. Our staff members who are blind could get information at the same speed as all other employees without the aid of readers; meetings could be set without multiple phone calls; and important messages from other parts of the country could arrive in minutes rather than days. We could even log on from home if we thought the office would fall apart without us.

My enthusiasm for this 20th Century technological miracle and the doors it opens for people who are blind is still high, but I came face to face recently with a few of its shortcomings that have made me an occasional skittish and somewhat recalcitrant convert. Example: Yesterday I realized I'd spent a half hour composing a response to a message that could have been handled in five minutes over the phone. Last week I was further enlightened about the limitations of e-mail. It started when my computer told me I had mail from a familiar name - a former co-worker I hadn't talked to in years. Then another popped up from a friend. Both messages were full of concerns and questions about an e-mail I'd sent to a few people earlier in the week sharing a fact sheet prepared at Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center about our steps to take the agency's philosophy of Texas Confidence Builders to its next level.

Because e-mails have become a habit, my first impulse was to write a response, but I quickly realized the impossibility of fully explaining in an e-mail message a philosophy that has been developing for three or four years. It would take days to type it. When a third message arrived, I picked up the phone. It was apparent that an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation was needed with a few key people. Since these were my colleagues and allies in the fight to reduce the incidence of unemployment among people who are blind and to increase their level of independence, continuing e-mails back and forth was definitely not the answer!

The "next level" of Texas Confidence Builders raising my e-mail popularity was a fact sheet I'd shared with a few people about future classes at Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center. The announcement said that the Center's regular curriculum for all consumers choosing to receive services at the Center would in the future include basic blindness skills and confidence building activities using nonvisual techniques. Even though the fact sheet said that consumers who have remaining vision are provided a low vision evaluation, referred to the low vision clinic if appropriate, and provided with training in visual efficiency and use of low vision aids and devices once they have mastered the nonvisual techniques, there was a lot of concern about asking consumers with usable vision to take nonvisual training because it meant using a blindfold or not working with their guide dog in a particular class as they worked on skills.

For those of you unfamiliar with our premier rehabilitation center in Austin, all consumers attending CCRC must meet the state's definition of blind: a person having not more than 20/200 visual acuity in the better eye with correcting lenses or visual acuity greater than 20/200 but with a limitation in the field of vision such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees. In simpler terms, blind can mean individuals who see nothing at all, individuals who can see light and shadows, and individuals with some limited vision.

If you are a long-time reader of SEE/HEAR, you may remember my Spring 1999 article, "Choosing to Carry a Full Golf Bag: An Informed Choice," in which I said that choosing the right iron for the distance in golf equates in rehabilitation terms to choosing the right skill to do a particular job. The chances of a blind person achieving his or her best are greater with instruction, practice, experience, and a full set of skills from which to choose to travel, read, write, communicate and take care of personal needs. This is why, after years of study, we are convinced that if a person chooses CCRC training and completes their courses as we've redesigned them, there are fewer challenges ahead for which that person has not been prepared, including those individuals with some vision. If a person can read 20 words a minute with optical aids, we feel that adding the skill of reading braille at 60 words a minute is a plus, not a minus. Which skill to use is up to the person and occasion. There is nothing from which to choose, however, if the person sticks to the narrower path.

The course we are following in Texas Confidence Builders was not built overnight. The agency's top management team averages well over 20 years with TCB and in the field of blindness. Key managers have visited with every organization of and for the blind in Texas extensively over the last five years and regularly meet with national groups. We have been studying how to counteract the discouraging trend of individuals coming back into the rehabilitation system time and time again after finding themselves without the skills and confidence to thrive as a blind person in an increasingly competitive environment. We are also studying how to counteract the negative reaction to the word blind itself when blind basically means that your visual acuity is within a certain range and you use alternative ways of doing many things. There's no easy solution to either issue.

The main thing about the Commission is that we are not afraid to tackle tough assignments. We are also not afraid to admit when something isn't working and try another way, because we are in a field that is worth the time and effort. We really believe what Congress says: Disability is a natural part of the human experience and the goals of the Nation properly include the goal of providing individuals with disabilities with the tools necessary to achieve equality of opportunity, full inclusion and integration in society, employment, independent living, and economic and social self-sufficiency.

I was asked recently what the agency's philosophy of Texas Confidence Builders means to the children served by our nationally recognized Blind and Visually Impaired Children's Program (BVICP) and Transition Program, and whether nonvisual skills will be the primary focus in these two programs. In actuality, our philosophy is much broader than this one issue. Both of these programs have been full participants these past two years in providing confidence-building activities for parents and children. We're committed to working as a team with parents and our educational colleagues to ensure children get the best possible education. In collaboration with our educational and local organizational partners, a multitude of special projects were held. Many of you have participated in such events yourself - summer camps, family workshops, and similar activities. Additionally, our BVICP and Transition staffs work individually with families to help them give their children lots of opportunities to develop healthy self-esteems and positive "can do" attitudes.

Our primary job with children and their parents is to support the parents in their quest for knowledge and understanding about their children's eye conditions and to provide supplemental services to the educational system and other state programs. The Commission plans to continue being a productive member of each child's team, advocating that the child who is blind gets the best possible education. As part of that, we will encourage parents and educators to fully use the child's functional vision evaluation and learning media assessment to determine if the child is learning a reading medium that will result in his being a proficient reader. Going back to my previous article, if a child can read print but fatigues easily or reads very slowly, or has a progressive eye condition that will eventually lead to him needing to know braille, we would encourage the team to consider teaching braille so that the child can maintain literacy. The same principles apply to other areas, such as travel and technology.

What you will consistently hear from us is to explore all possible alternatives for your child, including nonvisual techniques. Talk to adults and groups of adults who are blind. Find out what worked and did not work for them. Get excited about the options and the future!

As I'm writing this, a new year has begun. I wish each and every one of you SEE/HEAR readers a wonderful 2001. And by the way, I and my e-mail service are at peace once again.


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Last Revision: September 3, 2003