by Paul H. Olson
(Editor’s Note: Paul H. Olson is a longtime member of the North Dakota Association of the Blind. He holds a master of arts in education from the University of Northern Colorado. He spent most of his career working as a mobility specialist with children and adults before becoming superintendent of North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind in 2013. Paul currently serves as the president of the Council of Schools and Services for the Blind.)
This is an open letter to all who are dedicated to better services and improved outcomes for children and adults who are visually impaired or blind. These comments are my personal opinions and in no way represent the opinions of my employer or any organizations with which I am affiliated.
This commentary is from the perspective of a sighted professional. I am writing with a desire of bringing about more harmony and cooperation among the agencies and organizations serving people with blindness and visual impairment across the country. Like most professionals, I feel a deep obligation to improve upon our current state of service delivery and be a part of creating better outcomes for individuals. That begins with listening and working with the students, families, adult learners and the consumer groups — all of whom are stakeholders. As an individual I do not profess to know what is best for anyone. That is reserved for the children and their families, as well as the adults who have low vision or are blind themselves. I would like to offer opinions about what might be best in building stronger relationships and partnerships, however.
I have witnessed the absolute best in humanity, many great successes and, unfortunately, a number of disappointing failures during my career. This could be said of our whole human experience, but within our somewhat elaborate microcosm of blindness-related services and organizations this dichotomy is very evident. What I find most disheartening is that among our organizations we are burdened with what I believe is a sad and unhealthy atmosphere of competition and distrust at times.
A sense of identity within professional or consumer groups is certainly positive. There is much to be gained when people belong to a group where individuals share similar values and provide real encouragement and support. Groups can accomplish goals that individuals could never achieve alone. I would also admit that affiliation with a consumer group brings benefit on multiple levels. There is so much power knowing that people within a group intimately understand the experiences of other members. Those of us who are sighted and work within education or rehabilitation will never entirely get it. I always say we may become competent and skilled practitioners, but we are not the true experts, nor will we understand some issues as deeply.
There is something to be said for friendly competition between groups; we can learn from each other through competition. This diversity can also drive innovation. Notwithstanding these positives, there seems to be a dark side to the intense rivalries that exist. We would be hard pressed to find any of our stakeholders that do not express some wariness toward people belonging to what might be considered rival groups or organizations. We are all aware of both the subtle and overt disparagement that occurs. It is not an exaggeration to say that at times it is more than a little unprofessional and often a bit mean-spirited.
The message I am hoping to send with all of this in mind is that we are all on the same team! When one group has a win, it does not mean another has to lose. Every player and every team can win because there is no “one size fits all” model for creating opportunity. It is also not productive to dismiss the priorities and actions of another organization as simply wrong. Priorities can diverge without one party being wrong or misguided. Parallel priorities can exist. Up to this point I have been very general in my statements, but I will be specific about one thing that I feel strongly about. Both of the big consumer groups do great things, but badmouthing each other is not an ethical practice; it puts service providers and organizations that attempt to be neutral in a bind.
I am hoping for another 10 years or more in my chosen work. During that time, I would like to be witness to more trust, kindness and friendships. I feel very positive about the energy and passion that abounds. I have such great respect for people in both consumer groups and our major professional organizations. We have the talent and dedication to do better when we work together. Perhaps I am a bit of a naïve optimist, but I would rather lean that way than become cynical and think that we will make little or no real progress in improving relationships and meaningful collaboration.
Friendships and some collaboration between individuals and organizations already exist. We just need to let our guard down a bit and be a little more vulnerable to realize significant improvement. There is a model being employed in the U.S. dealing with reducing polarization within political parties that aims to bring people together. If you have not read or heard about the “Better Angels” movement, I encourage you to seek out information about it. Their website is www.better-angels.org. This organization aims to diffuse anger and help people understand each other. My experience with this movement is minimal, but I think this model could work to bring our organizations together as well. The concept of bringing out our “better angels” was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:
“We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I hope that every member of every organization will think about how we all can support each other despite historical and current differences. Can we politely acknowledge that some differences exist while focusing on where we have common goals and values? Can we all agree that we are a family of organizations and it is the best interest of all to support each other? I hope and pray that we can.