Why Structured Discovery should be grounded in justice

***Content Warning: this article discusses sexual and verbal abuse.

Carley Mullin is a certified blind cane travel instructor who works with children and adults. In this article, she argues that supporting survivors of sexual assault is not only crucial but in line with the principles of the National Federation of the Blind.

Why Structured Discovery should be grounded in justice

By Carley Mullin

As a survivor of sexual abuse and a cane travel instructor trained in the NFB’s approach to blindness skills training, I feel compelled to express my thoughts about what I see as the absolute need for NFB-trained blindness professionals and the NFB as a whole to stand up for survivors. I hope this article makes clear that if we really believe in empowering blind people, we cannot choose to ignore the problems of sexual violence and other abuse that the NFB faces.

The NFB struggles internally with how to respond to survivors’ accounts of sexual violence, as well as of racial, sexist, homophobic, and other verbal abuse. These accounts have included experiences at training centers, national and state NFB conventions, and other events. I describe what the NFB is experiencing as a struggle because there are vehement opinions on both sides:

Survivors and allies argue that the NFB must make serious changes to end a culture that encourages and enables the above issues.

Opponents counter that focusing on survivors’ accounts and the resultant press around them threaten to permanently tarnish the NFBs reputation and cause the organization to divert resources away from its core mission and principles.

One such principle is Structured Discovery. In this article, I describe what Structured Discovery is (and is not) and I demonstrate that if we as Federationists truly believe in Structured Discovery, then we must whole-heartedly support survivors and hold the proper people accountable.

Broadly, Structured Discovery is a series of principles underpinning who and what the NFB is. These principles have been articulated over decades by blind people, most notably among them blind leaders involved in training other blind people in nonvisual skills. Not surprisingly, Structured Discovery is most often talked about as a teaching philosophy, which is utilized at the three training centers run by the NFB, among other places.

However, you can see Structured Discovery within the NFB as a whole. For example, Structured Discovery argues that nonvisual skills are on par with visual skills in terms of effectiveness and legitimacy. This is why the NFB promotes and uses braille at National Convention. And why the National Parents of Blind Children division promotes early braille instruction for blind children, even those with significant residual vision. It’s also why children and instructors in the NFB’s Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) program all wear learning shades, which block out any vision they may have. This practice, which is also used at the adult NFB training centers, has been conflated with actual mistreatment in newspaper articles discussing survivors’ stories.

However, learning shades are not inherently abusive or harmful. As a cane travel instructor, I can tell you how effective learning shades are for blind people with residual vision, because it allows you to focus on your nonvisual skills. By doing so, you can hone these skills and use them reliably as opposed to having to rely overwhelmingly on your limited (and thus unreliable) vision.

Both adults and children agree to wear the shades as part of their participation when signing up for these NFB programs. Problems occur when people struggling with the fear of learning to do things nonvisually are shamed for having such struggles by instructors or other students. These struggles are simply a normal part of accepting one’s blindness. Therefore, we as Federationists should not scorn blind people struggling through the misconceptions and negative thinking that society subjects all of us to. We need to support each other in our journey. If not, then why bother even being in an advocacy organization of and for the blind?

Another huge part of Structured Discovery is developing agency and confidence for blind people, regardless of who they are or where they are in life. This is why NFB encourages blind people to attend conventions independently, learning to navigate spaces on their own. Summer youth programs encourage blind students to participate in STEM fields. And it defends blind parents facing the prospect of their kids being taken from them by the state simply because they are blind. For those of us considered blind role models and mentors, we strive to cultivate this agency and confidence in blind students and mentees.

Since Structured Discovery dictates we encourage this agency and autonomy, it’s crucial the Federation support survivors.

Based on what Structured Discovery embraces, I present these questions:

If we, as Federationists , believe that blind people deserve dignity, independence, and the support of the blind community, then why are we not uniformly horrified by the many accounts of sexual violence brought to light by survivors and calling for perpetrators to be held responsible?

If we detest agencies for the blind that neglect and underserve their clients regardless of the consequences, then why do we not call for those that knew about this sexual abuse and did nothing to protect others be held accountable, regardless of what power they hold?

If we believe in the right of blind people to be free from discrimination and prejudice, then why are we not united in our dismay over the many instances of folks weaponizing it to shame and demean others?

Structured discovery demands that we empower blind people, so we must empower survivors to seek justice. Structured discovery demands that we set the standard for blindness skills training, so we cannot tolerate harmful, neglectful, or abusive behavior from training center staff. Structured discovery demands that we champion the rights of all blind people, so we must support all blind folks in overcoming the multi-layered obstacles blind people face each day.

If we as the NFB truly represent all blind people, then we need to be able to stand up for the most marginalized among us. If we truly believe in blind people, then we will stop abdicating our responsibility for these issues of abuse and discrimination and do the hard work to address them directly. And if we truly believe in the National Federation of the Blind to innovate and grow, then we need to hold accountable those responsible for perpetrating and enabling these issues to continue, something we have barely done at all.

It will not be easy, but if we are really the voice of the nation’s blind, then we need to unequivocally speak up on the side of justice for all.

By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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