Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired
Orientation and Mobility Division
Lawrence E. Blaha Award

Presentation to

Dona Sauerburger, COMS

July 15, 2004 -- Orlando, Florida

Acceptance speech

Thank you so much, Bill, and thank you to the O&M Division Awards Committee for this award. I feel tremendously honored to be one of only 20 Blaha Award recipients in the 50-year history of our profession. Being among the likes of people on this podium like Bill, Beezy and Gala is scary -- and feels awesome, in the true meaning of the word awe.

Passion and compassion
I'm so fortunate to have stumbled onto a profession that could keep my passion for all these years, and which has so much compassion. I was the recipient of that compassion several times when I went through some trying times, such as dealing with the DC sniper, and a house fire. Last night I spoke with an O&M specialist who told me that when she was going through her training at Texas Tech, she was hit by an incredibly difficult crisis in her family that required all her emotional and physical energy and resources. She said that Nora Griffin-Shirley and the Texas Tech folks gave her the support she needed to get through that before resuming her studies. This is unusual, but not surprising -- our profession is filled with compassionate people.

And the profession has many enthusiastic people who are as passionate about their job as I am. One of these people is a friend with whom I talked two nights ago. She said she gets the inspiration she needs from talking with the leaders and experts in the field, including Russ Williams and Warren Bledsoe when she visited the O&M archives. However she feels that she hasn't accomplished much because she hasn't published, hasn't developed herself as an expert, and hasn't given presentations.

But it is practitioners like her, serving people to the best of their ability with passion, which gives O&M the excitement, vitality, energy that makes this profession great, and which inspire me and make me glad I'm part of this profession.

I remember the first time I ever gave a presentation. It was not until I had taught O&M for 19 years. I gave the person introducing me my resume, which included all the courses I'd ever taken -- she thought I had PRESENTED all those courses, and I had to interrupt the introduction to correct her and say this was my first presentation!

Tragic inspiration
It took a tragedy to inspire me to present. It happened one bitterly cold Monday night in January 1988, when many of us were on our way home from the American Foundation for the Blind's rapid transit conference in DC. The Past President of our AER chapter and his wife, a braille instructor at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind -- both of them blind -- were on their way home from dinner. They got off the bus and crossed where there was no traffic control. Just as they reached the third and last lane of their crossing, both of them and the dog guide were struck by a car and killed.

Many of us were devastated with the news, both because of personal friendships and because they were killed traveling independently, which is something we teach people to do. One O&M specialist, Linda Sussman, felt badly enough to want to leave the profession, which she did several years later. Another Blaha Award recipient, Rick Welsh, organized a grieving session for us to try to deal with it, which helped a lot.

Meanwhile, I dealt with it by obsessing on how such a tragedy could have happened. We were taught and our textbooks all say that it's safe to cross when quiet, and I wanted to know if that was true where the couple had made their last crossing.

Apparently 50 years ago, it WAS always possible to hear the cars from far enough away, so when it was quiet and you heard nothing coming, it was always clear to cross. Stanley Suterko, one of our first O&M specialists, told me that the newly blinded soldiers often would worry about crossing streets where there was no traffic control since they couldn't see the cars, and the instructors routinely convinced them that it was always safe to cross whenever it's quiet by timing their crossing, and then timing how long it was from the time they heard a car until the car arrived. Stanley said they never once found any situation where it wasn't clear to cross when quiet.

As a result, when our profession advanced to the point where the body of knowledge was codified with textbooks and articles, this truth -- that it's always safe to cross when quiet -- was documented and taught to generations of O&M specialists and our consumers. I remember once about 25 years ago convincing a blind woman that this was true, because I believed it myself.

Questioning the "truth"
But the deaths made me question this truth. And because I had so much "windshield time" while driving between clients and because I could think of nothing else, I developed a procedure to try to analyze the situation to see whether it really was true. I went back to the intersection where they had been killed, and discovered that when it was quiet there, it wasn't possible to hear some of the cars until they were only 3 seconds away.

I was alarmed at the implications of what this meant to our consumers: at least at some places, when it was quiet, it isn't necessarily clear to cross. Linda Sussman analyzed various intersections with her clients, and discovered that the two-lane residential street which some of them needed to cross was another place where it was not possible to hear the cars far enough away to know if it's clear to cross (click here to see video of this intersection).

We were both shocked and incredulous that such a thing could be. I wanted to bring this problem to the attention of our colleagues, so I videotaped Linda and her consumer and used it to put together a presentation in New York at the O&M Division Day of AER's regional conference.

It was my first presentation ever, and I practiced giving the talk to my steering wheel enough times that I could present it professionally without choking up when talking about my friends who had been killed. The presentation went well, the audience was attentive, and I went through the entire presentation very professionally until the question-answer session, when I responded by saying what I would have told the blind couple if I had been asked. Thinking about them ended the professional demeanor -- I broke down and started crying, I had to go into the hall and sob.

Who will take up the mantle?
At that time I considered myself "just a practitioner," as my friend felt the other night, and I thought I needed to hand this information and these ideas over to our profession. I figured our leaders and experts would also be alarmed when I brought the problem to their attention. They would refine or develop the procedures for analyzing situations or, better yet, come up with procedures of their own, and come back to us practitioners and tell us how we should teach our consumers in view of the fact that our "tried and true" strategies no longer worked.

However, that never happened. Sixteen years later, we have made little progress in teaching people how to recognize situations where they can't hear the approaching vehicles well enough to know it's clear to cross even when it's quiet, and textbooks and some universities continue to teach that it's safe to cross whenever it's quiet.

I believe that the problem is that we have two driving needs that are in conflict with each other --
1. the need to consider new ideas and strategies, especially with the environment changing so drastically; and
2. the need to establish and follow best practice, especially with our justified concern about liability.

  • Considering new ideas and strategies

    First -- new ideas, and challenges to the established "truths." Considering changes isn't easy -- I've been told that significant changes and innovations usually take a generation to catch hold, and that they are almost always ridiculed and then rejected before finally being accepted as being self-evident. Many of the things that we take for granted today went through this process of ridicule and rejection, such as pasteurization, the need to keep wounds sterilized and germ-free, and even having medical personnel wash their hands between patients.

    I understand this very well -- I myself have strongly resisted many ideas which were different from what we've always done -- ideas which now are fully accepted and which I fully embrace. One great example is when Lukas Franck came up to me about 15 years ago and said that the only way he could think to address the problem of actuated traffic signals was with Accessible Pedestrian Signals. I scoffed, chastising him severely for even suggesting such a thing. Today, I've turned completely around on this issue -- thank goodness he had the self-confidence and determination to ignore my advice and pursue this issue.

    The story of the development of phacoemulsification is a great example of an innovative idea having to go through many years to gain acceptance within a service profession -- in this case, it was the profession of ophthalmology. Universities taught ophthalmologists to extract cataracts by making an incision large enough to pull the lens out intact. This took a long time to heal and often led to infections. One innovative ophthalmologist, Dr. Charles Kelman, tried breaking up the lens and then pulling it out through a tiny hole the size of a large needle.

    This procedure went through the same process of ridicule and severe rejection before it was considered best practice. My husband Fred was the first resident at Georgetown University to use the procedure before it had gained the blessing of the old guard. It was not accepted by the American Academy for Ophthalmology, and so those who used this procedure started their own organization with their own conferences to share ideas and refine and develop the technique. I'm proud to say that my husband Fred attended most of these meetings. He even made a videotape showing how he was able to transfer from using the standard procedure to using the new method without jeopardizing the safety of his patients. Twenty five years later, this procedure is now considered "best practice" and Dr. Kelman was presented one of the first awards for inventors by the American Academy of Ophthalmology at their last conference, shortly before his death.

  • Best practice -- the challenge to new ideas

    I think the main reason that accepting change is so difficult is the need to follow "best practice." Very few people will do as my husband did and consider new ideas like phacoemulsification if the "established" profession doesn't embrace them -- even if they know that the ideas would enhance the safety and welfare of their consumers. It takes a brave O&M specialist to establish or follow new procedures to deal with new environmental situations when the textbooks and universities continue to teach us to use the standard, tried-and-true practices.

    So how can we establish "best practice" when the environment and situations require a change? To begin with, who even alerts us to the problems that require new strategies to address? And once the need for change has been accepted by the profession:
  • how do we go about establishing what is best practice for dealing with these new situations?
  • how can we consider new ideas without opening ourselves up to liability for not following whatever has been accepted, established best practice? And finally
  • who decides what is best practice? Some have suggested it should be the universities and researchers, but they aren't out on the street in real life with visually impaired travelers applying the strategies. Some say it should be the practitioners, but they don't have time or resources to objectively study these issues.

    I think it should be a combined effort:

    The practitioners should provide guidance about what should be studied and reconsidered, and what should be taught to future O&M specialists, based on what we're experiencing out in the streets with our consumers.

    The researchers and universities should seriously consider any challenge to what we've always believed to be true, and study it objectively and thoroughly.

    And of course the consumers themselves take what we teach and go out into the world and discover what works, what doesn't, what they wish they had learned, what was a waste of time, and we need to be open and invite them to give their input.

    It is the combined perspective of everyone in the profession -- the practitioners, the researchers, the university folks -- as well as the consumers -- who should make the ultimate decision as to what is best practice.

    And I believe that it is the organization of O&M specialists, our cherished O&M Division, that is in the best position to establish procedures to routinely look for new ideas to consider, and to establish best practice.

    The work could be assigned to existing committees to do three things:

    1) push for research on new ideas
    The universities / researchers need to hear from the practitioners about what are the questions, what are the burning issues, what needs to be researched.

    We (the O&M Division) can:
  • establish a procedure for eliciting topics that need to be addressed, and concepts or ideas that should be investigated;
  • establish a list that prioritizes these questions and issues;
  • share that list with programs that do research or fund research, including graduate programs whose students need research projects, advising them as to the needs for research in our field.

    2) position papers We just approved our first 3 position papers. We need to continue our efforts to establish position papers that have the overwhelming approval of the O&M Division members.

    We can:
  • elicit topics that need to be addressed,
  • follow our procedures for position papers, which are outlined in our Policy Manual

    3) disseminate best practice

    Every few years, have a small conference organized by a committee that reviews the current "state of the art" and invites innovators to a special conference; take the proceedings of that conference; have it extensively peer-reviewed; then publish it.

    In short, I hope that we all will be open to consider new ideas and to deal with new challenges, and that our O&M profession will take a leadership role in establishing best practice that
  • incorporates appropriate innovations that are researched and
  • addresses new problems presented by our changing environment and our consumers' needs.

    I will close with some words of wisdom which I heard by coincidence precisely when I needed some inspiration. Exactly four weeks and 2 hours ago our house was struck by lightening and burned. I went through the remains of the room where we kept our video editing equipment. I hoped that the heat and the massive water had not destroyed the videotapes I'd assembled over the years but I had no equipment to try them on. There on the floor, which was soggy and black with ashes and fallen charred rafters, lay a white audiotape that looked dry and intact. I had no equipment to try the videotapes so I decided to try playing this audiotape in my car -- if it worked, then the videotapes that were on the shelf were probably safe too.

    The audiotape turned out to be one of Bill Jacobson's tapes on hypnosis that I bought years ago when I attended a session like the one some of you attended yesterday morning. Bill, I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't listened to it since I bought it, but I played it in my car. One of the first instructions said don't listen to this while driving a car! But once I started I couldn't stop, it was very inspiring and helpful to me at a time when I had been wrestling with what I'd say when receiving this award, considering what little progress we've made 16 years after the death of two people and a dog guide alerted us to a problem and pondering how our profession can more efficiently and effectively address the need for changes in our best practice.

    So I hope these words will inspire you to think about addressing innovations and new ideas in view of our fears about liability and our fear of changes in what we consider best practice.

    He said release your negativity and leave your fear and worry behind, leaving a clear path before you so that your body, mind and spirit join together in dedication to create greater self-confidence, inner strength, compassion and understanding. Always be open and receptive to the wonder and joy of life, free yourself to choose how you perceive things, and choose to look for the positive. Joyous new ideas are circulating freely within you, and all is well. Accept these suggestions ... this is the new reality.

    Afterword (May 2009):

    By the time I received this award, I had struggled with the issue of crossing streets where there is no traffic control for more than 16 years (click here to follow my Journey to Understanding).

    The occasion of receiving this award inspired me to think about how to address the way we teach people to analyze and cross these streets. Shortly afterwards I vowed to follow my own advice, as outlined in the speech. A lot has happened in the years since then:

    1) push for research on new ideas: Dr. Robert Wall Emerson and I conducted research on the ability of blind people to hear approaching vehicles in various situations with no traffic control. The article was published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness in December, 2008.

    2) position papers: The Environmental Access Committee of the O&M Division of AER developed a position paper regarding best practice for teaching these street crossings. The AER O&M Division approved the paper in 2008.

    3) updating the O&M profession: In 2007 I contacted the organization that certifies O&M specialists, the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals, asking them to consider requiring that their certificants take a minimum of professional development regarding crossing streets with no traffic control. They have not publicized any decisions.

    4) disseminate best practice: This remains a challenge. Although the O&M Division position paper outlined what is considered best practice regarding this issue, little or nothing has been done to publicize it. I continue to give presentations and workshops, and information is posted on my website regarding this topic, but informal surveys I've done at conferences indicate that very few O&M specialists are comfortable with addressing this issue with their consumers. Hopefully some day soon each visually impaired person who receives O&M training that addresses street crossings will become prepared to analyze and cross streets with no traffic control.

    POST Afterword (August 2010):

    picture shows Dona looking amazed while reading the book
    After reading the book Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers last Fall, I FINALLY understand why it has taken so long for the profession to change, and what we can do about it. We still have a long way to go (see "Changing Best Practice - Centralize O&M Innovation?"), but our O&M profession has made a lot of progress specifically with regard to teaching crossings with no traffic control.

    Today, information about how to teach students to recognize "situations of uncertainty in gap judgment" at these crossings is now provided in textbooks, websites and workshops. This information is in:
  • the latest edition of the Foundations of Orientation and Mobility textbook and is being incorporated into other textbook revisions;
  • a web-based Self-Study Guide which is now being required by some university O&M programs;
  • day-long workshops.

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