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                                  THE SECRET IS EMPOWERMENT
                                                                                               A BOOK REVIEW
                                                                                                                 H HARRIS

     Available at no cost, except for a fee of $5 for shipping, from the Regional Rehabilitation Continuing Education
     Program at University of Arkansas, P.O. Box 358, Hot Springs, AR 71902. Telephone: (501) 623-7700. The entire
     book is also available online, at: www.nfb.org/books/books1/free.htm.

     James H. Omvig’s book, Freedom                 Omvig concludes that the problem       the root of the unemployment prob-
     for the Blind, which was commis-            is not with the people who are blind.     lem: Too many VR programs or
     sioned by the U.S. Department of            The evidence that properly trained        residential orientation and adjust-
     Education’s Rehabilitation Services         blind people can live independent,        ment (O&A) centers have also
     Administration (RSA), has just been         successful, competitive, normal and       unwittingly embraced society’s nega-
     released. According to Omvig, the           happy lives and can assume their right-   tive view of people who are blind
     book offers ”a non-traditional per-         ful position of full membership in        and have perpetuated these myths
     spective on the methods and issues          society is too overwhelming to con-       and misconceptions in the minds of
     that a truly successful employment          clude that, as a class, people who are    their VR customers or students, and
     training program for the blind              blind are inherently incompetent.         those customers have been the los-
     should embrace.”                            Therefore, Omvig reluctantly and cau-     ers. Such programs have utilized
         Freedom for the Blind points out        tiously draws the conclusion that the     what one might call the enabler
     that, as America begins the 21st cen-       problem has been with the blindness       model of service delivery.
     tury, between 70 and 80 percent of          system itself — that educational and          However, Freedom for the Blind
     its working-age blind people are un-        vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs   contends that there is good news! The
     employed. Of those who are                  for people who are blind historically     age of enlightenment is here, and a
     employed, far too many are severely         have not been what they could and         new model — a proven cutting-edge
     underemployed or are destined to be         should be.                                formula for success — exists. It is the
     locked in at entry-level jobs for a life-      Also, he says that the blind have      empowerment model.
     time. Omvig asks, ”Why?”                    been thought of by society — and             The book proffers the view that ev-
         The author contends that, putting       have learned to think of themselves       ery blind person — man or woman,
     to one side all of the rationalizations,    — as a group apart, a helpless and        young or old, educated or not —
     there can be but two possible expla-        hopeless lot, having neither the          needs personal empowerment to be
     nations for this dismal statistic: First,   right nor the ability to work for their   whole; and with empowerment
     either people who are blind, no mat-        daily bread or to earn their self-re-     comes the freedom people who are
     ter how thoroughly trained and              spect. As a group, people who are         blind have the right to expect. It sug-
     adjusted to their blindness they may        blind have thought of themselves          gests that every progressive VR
     be, are inherently incompetent; or,         not as unemployed but as inferiors        program or residential O&A center
     second, there is something inherently       who are unemployable: He sums it          should therefore adopt the empow-
     wrong with America’s blindness sys-         up by describing the blind as a ”vis-     erment model and do its best to
     tem — the complex of programs for           ible minority!”                           empower every VR customer or stu-
     educating or rehabilitating people             Omvig believes that there are ad-      dent whom it serves. In regard to
     who are blind.                              ditional facts and circumstances at       O&A centers, Omvig says that a resi-

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dential training center’s overarching              cess exists and is available for the tak-
purpose should be to function as an                ing. The blind customer who has re-
”empowerment station.”                             ceived cutting-edge VR services has
    The empowerment-station model                  a markedly higher chance for voca-
of an O&A center is one that recog-                tional success than the norm, accord-
nizes that all offered services must be            ing to Omvig.
aimed at teaching its students a new                  The book details the philosophies,               The
and constructive set of attitudes about            training techniques and the methods
blindness and ”unlearning’ prevailing              that go into the empowerment model
views that are wrong and harmful.                  and also explains the role a state’s
Further, such a center will help each
blind student strive to achieve the
                                                   separate agency for the blind could
                                                   play in the process. Given the right
following four personal objectives:                kind of training, the average blind
• The person who is blind must come                person — not merely those whom
    to know emotionally, not just                  some observers mistakenly perceive
    intellectually, that he or she can truly       as the ”superblind” — can compete                   customer who
    be independent and self-sufficient.            on terms of true equality with his or
• The person who is blind must learn               her sighted peers and can become a
    and become competent in those                  taxpayer rather than a tax user.
    skills — the alternative techniques
    of blindness — that will make it
                                                   Omvig believes that, far from want-
                                                   ing to whimper, ”I wonder what it
                                                                                                       has received cutting-
    possible for him or her to be truly            would feel like to be free,” the em-
    independent and self-sufficient.               powered blind person will want to
• The person who is blind must learn               climb the highest mountain and
    to cope on a daily basis with the              shout, ”I am free! I know what it feels             edge VR services has
    public attitudes about blindness —             like to be free!”
    how he or she will be treated by                  Omvig is a blind attorney and re-
    other people because of their                  habilitation professional from
    misunderstandings and
                                                   Tucson, Arizona. He spent most of
                                                   his professional career working
                                                                                                       a markedly higher
• Even when the individual who is                  with the blind, and in retirement he
    blind has adjusted emotionally to              continues to do consulting, evalu-
    blindness, mastered alternative                ating, writing and teaching in this
    techniques and learned to cope                 field today.                                        chance for vocational
    effectively with the demeaning                    He became blind as a teenager
    things other people do or say, the             due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (a degen-
    person who is blind must also                  erative, retinal disease referred to as
    learn to ”blend in” and to be
    acceptable to others in order to be
                                                   RP). After several years of struggling
                                                   with extremely limited vision while
                                                                                                       success than the
    successful. He or she must be                  in the public school system, he trans-
    punctual, reliable, neat and                   ferred to a residential school, the
    appropriate in appearance and                  Iowa School for the Blind. He gradu-
    possessed of good social and table             ated from high school in 1953.                      norm, according
    manners and the like. Thus the                    Eight years of idleness followed
    schools and agencies must do the               Omvig’s high school graduation.
    best that they can to achieve this             Then, in 1961, he became one of the
    desired result.
Omvig’s thesis is that freedom should
                                                   early students in the Adult Orienta-
                                                   tion and Adjustment Center newly
                                                                                                       to Omvig.
be accessible to everyone and that it              created and directed by Dr. Kenneth
is possible, with a willingness to think           Jernigan at the Iowa State Commis-
outside the box, for the traditional VR            sion for the Blind. He went on to
program to learn to empower and to                 complete college and law school, and
move its customers toward success-                 then he worked in Washington, D.C.,
ful, high-quality employment and in-               and New York City as the first blind
creased integration into society. A                attorney ever hired by the Na-
proven cutting-edge formula for suc-               tional Labor Relations Board.

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