The Electric Fork Test

Every few years, I get a terrific idea that I simply must share (inevitably, the idea turns out to be ten years old and there is an entire profession dedicated to addressing the issue). In the quest to share my genius, I occasionally call The Smith Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco. Smith Kettlewell has a team of engineers working on translating new technologies into useful stuff for the blind. The Kettlewell rehabilitation engineers are blind themselves; they get a lot of calls from enthusiastic sighted guys like me.

On one occasion, I got a great idea for a talking bar code reader. I figured that with not much effort it should be possible to get speech output from a bar code reader so that when a package was scanned the machine would say "Raisin Bran." (It turns out that this idea is ten years old, and there is an entire stadium full of people working on it). Anyway, I called Smith Kettlewell and spoke with a rehab engineer who tried real hard to be nice to me. I said "Hello, this is Doug Baldwin in Saginaw, Michigan. I'm a mobility specialist, and I have a terrific idea to help blind people read cereal labels. "Just a moment," he said. Forgetting to put his hand over the mouth piece of the phone, he humorously remarked to a colleague (I could hear them chuckling) "There's this guy on the phone with a great idea for another electric fork for the blind."

I imagine it works like this. The electric fork scoops peas off a plate and then gracefully crams a mouthful into the blind ladies surprised face. We all know (us sighted folks) that if you're blind it must be hard to locate your mouth while eating.

The curriculum we design for blind children must embrace new technologies. But we must not lose sight of the abilities of the greatest "machine" ever created, the human being. Blind individuals can become amazing navigators with no help from technology. With a twenty five dollar cane, they can move through space with little fear. Blind students can learn adaptations, activities of daily living, non-verbal communication skills, and social skills, without the aid of expensive, complicated technologies. Teaching mobility with the cane, and teaching navigation, remain, at least over the next decade, the top curricular goals of the school based mobility specialist.

Do we need talking telephone poles? Magnetic strips on the floor that guide the blind traveler to the bathroom? Talking plates? Electric forks? Technology is available now to invent a plethora of electric utensils. The Smith Kettlewell gurus know that many well meaning people in the world are working on the equivalent of electric forks for the blind. In the profession of orientation and mobility we need to apply the "electric fork test" to emerging technologies. Our task is to decide as best we can which technologies need to be pursued. It is important to be aware that technology is not the answer to all things.

Global changes

Marshall McLuhan's global village is a reality. Corporations are multinational, the world is economically interdependent; we have global telecommunications, environmental interdependence, and we have the information super highway. Individuals have access to more information and at a faster rate than at any time in history, and the pace is accelerating.

Several metaphors are used to describe this phenomenon. In one version, the earth has become a giant brain. We have linked the data bases of the world's universities and libraries. We have created a world wide public forum for the sharpest minds in every field of endeavor to share their research or insights. We are in a revolution that is creating an integrated, planetary intellect. In evolutionary terms, we are "hard wiring" human consciousness. In computer parlance, we are linking the computers of the world into a giant hard drive, the ultimate motherboard, the penultimate in parallel computing. In another analogy, the internet is called a giant loom, weaving knowledge together; a magic carpet for the mind.

This globalization will have profound consequences on the way human beings use tools, solve problems, and socially interact. It will affect education, vocation, recreation, and the way we perceive time and space. This revolution can be one of the richest times in human history, or it could be a wasteland far worse than television, with Orwellian overtones. What it becomes depends upon you and me, how we organize our profession to make use of the new tools.

We must now teach our students, and we must accept ourselves that a more sophisticated world view is in order. Our professional and consumer organizations, already moving in an international direction, will have to further open minds to the global perspective.

One of the most significant changes occurring is the empowerment of individuals. It is now possible for individuals to become their own "one person international agency". Each person can create a web page on the information superhighway. This web page will be an individual statement of the person's interests. It will be a forum for the discussion of issues from a single individual perspective. Furthermore, a person's unique web page will be a publishing center where individual expression can be posted. The poets, musicians, artists, movie makers, and writers of the world will be able to by-pass the old "publishing" hierarchies.

Consumers will express their new power every time they make an online purchase. Why buy a cane from a local supplier if you can get one for fifteen dollars cheaper from a warehouse in Hong Kong (for example). The voice of consumers will also be heard more. Parents and consumers will become vocal on the listserves of professionals, challenging long held beliefs, seeking help, asking penetrating questions. Orientation and mobility practitioners will talk among themselves, with professors, parents, manufacturers, and with professionals from other disciplines. Ideas will flow faster, collaborations will flourish, hopefully beneficial (and creative) changes will reach consumers at a quicker rate. "Everyman" is now empowered.

For the profession of orientation and mobility, a new global consciousness will bring new responsibilities. We will have to locate and monitor data bases that have relevance to our field, and to the consumers we serve. We will need to organize information into useful packets, and get it in the hands of the people who can make best creative use of the new knowledge.

For our blind students, global consciousness has far reaching implications. They will need to understand that a revolution is going on. They will need to know the consequences of the changes that will impact their lives.

Demographic changes

We know that the numbers of purely blind individuals, those with no secondary handicapping conditions, are declining in the industrial world. We also know that outside the industrial nations are Third World countries where blindness is epidemic and where the causes of blindness are disorders like cataract and malnutrition; disorders easily remedied with modern medicines and surgery. These trends impact our profession and they obviously affect the lives of blind individuals.

If we continue to see a decline in cognitively and physically able blind students in schools, the value of mobility to the public will decline. Fewer mobility specialists will be hired full time. The few blind students needing full attention will get only indirect services, through a contractual system. We could continue to serve multiply handicapped students who are blind, but the services we offer would be limited. Severely visually impaired, multiply handicapped students often don't have the coordination to learn cane skills, nor the cognitive ability to orient in space, or to move safely outside and across streets. The argument will be that paraprofessionals can teach limited skills to the multiply impaired population.

To counter this trend, mobility specialists could, as I discussed earlier, redefine their profession as a field addressing navigation. In this way, we could teach community travel to a larger special education population. A redefined profession could serve the small population of totally blind students, as well as the larger population of children with navigation problems.

In this interconnected world, the profession of orientation and mobility also has a responsibility to consider the plight of blind people in developing nations. Addressing the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, Dr. Rita Sussmuth stated that "in the countries of the Third World, the onset of blindness spells the complete disruption of the individual's private life, because rehabilitation for blind adults is the exception rather than the rule." I would add that women and children are special victims in this tragedy, what little rehabilitation exists, is designed for adult males.

Other professionals, notably optometrists and ophthalmologists, have elaborate, ongoing international programs that address the suffering in the Third World. We will come of age as a profession when we shoulder our responsibility and join in this global effort.

Simply looking at something as obvious as demographic trends, seeing the decline in blind students in the developed world and the increase in preventable blindness within the emerging nations, allows the profession of orientation and mobility to reassess the highly significant issues of mission, and of moral responsibility. It also raises two curricular questions: What kind of lessons are appropriate for non- categorical students?; and What kinds of services might mobility specialists offer blind populations in the Third World?

Other questions are raised as well. In a school setting, no one is teaching activities of daily living to blind children in the real world. Is this a role that mobility specialists need to embrace? Also, in the public schools, there is a large population of students with acuities around the 20/200 range. This is the acuity of peripheral vision, the rod system. The population is so high because the main etiology causing vision impairment at this age level are optical dystrophies that affect central, but not peripheral vision. Should mobility specialists broaden their service range to embrace this population? If so, what curriculum do we offer? Finally, if we become navigational specialists, which non-categorical students do we serve, and how do we write curriculums for each unique impairment? The needs of physically impaired students, for example, differ considerably from the needs of trainable mentally impaired students.

We can also expect a more crowded world with more cases of blindness (most in the Third World), more people on the sidewalks and on public transportation, bigger cities, a larger population of multiply impaired blind students, more elderly blind, and whole new categories of blindness as technology unfolds (as artificial vision develops, for example, or as optical aids begin to be transplanted).


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