Factors that Contribute to the Success of Blind Adults
Mary Ann Goodwyn, Ph.D. Edward C. Bell, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Professional Development and Research
Louisiana Tech University Institute on Blindness
Louisiana Tech University
Caitlin Singletary, B.S.
Department of Psychology & Behavioral Sciences
Louisiana Tech University
Two focus groups comprised of successful blind adults were convened to define “success” and
to identify factors that contributed to their own successes. Seven aspects of “successful” and 13 factors that supported their becoming successful were identified, and these constitute a sound basis for future training and rehabilitation efforts.
Factors that Contribute to the Success of Blind Adults
“It’s difficult to be a successful blind person. We all know that expectations are not the usual ones for us, really, but higher because everybody’s looking for us to fail, so we’ve got to be on top of it. Knowing that being blind is difficult but OK is part of being successful.” (focus group participant)
The literature is silent with regard to how successful blind adults, of whom there are many, build their successful lifestyles. A few studies have examined important factors for youth rehabilitation training, such as important aspects of curriculum in specialized schools for the blind (Lohmeier, 2006) and participatory action methodologies needed to overcome transition barriers and training dropout (Powers et al., 2007). Much of the focus in the blindness literature, however, has been on adult work experiences and how to secure and maintain successful employment (Crudden & McBroom, 1999; Kirchner & Smith, 2005; Leonard, D’Allura, & Horowitz, 1999). Given current statistics that describe a high rate of unemployment among blind individuals (Golub, 2003; Leonard, D’Allura, & Horowitz, 1999; O’Day, B., 1999), this focus is justified and welcome. Our focus, however, is to identify factors that support a more successful outcome. If we can identify, clarify, and deepen the understanding of these factors, this will in turn inform and help define the focus and structure of training and rehabilitation programs.
Early success experiences, as well as thought and behavior patterns that all individuals develop over time but may not be aware of, predate successful training and the subsequent attainment of satisfying jobs and establishment of careers. It is likely that global self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977; Bandura, 1997) and task-specific efficacies (Bandura, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 2001; Betz, 2000; Gianakos, 2001; Hackett, 1995; Prideaux & Creed, 2001) underlie individuals’ motivation for training and pursuit of a satisfying and successful lifestyle (Luszczynska, Gutierrez-Dona, & Schwarzer, 2005; Spieker & Hinsz, 2004; Strauser, 1995).
The purpose of our study was to identify factors that support, perhaps even determine, a blind adult’s efficacy and ultimately his or her success. Two specific goals were identified for this initial study: (1) to determine what it means to be a successful blind adult, and (2) to determine the specific factors and influences that contribute to and support success.
We decided that the best way to initiate our investigation was to go to the source and directly ask successful blind adults to discuss success, and to follow whatever thoughts arose from their discussion. With the exception of the study in which Young (1995) convened a focus group of successfully employed blind adults to discuss factors that made them employable, listening to successful blind adults is a unique research format in the field of blindness rehabilitation. There can be no better resource to understand success, however, than a number of successful blind individuals themselves. Two focus groups comprised of successful blind adults were convened to discuss definitions of success in general and, more specifically, personal factors that each participant believed contributed to his or her own success(es).
A convenience sample of 14 successful blind adults was selected from seven states in the U.S. to participate in one of the two focus groups. All participants were blind adults who were identified as successful by a predetermined set of criteria and who were willing to travel to a designated focus group location. Eight focus group participants resided in northern Virginia and one each resided in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Utah:
Age: All participants were between the ages of 35-62 years, M = 49 years.
Sex: The sample of 14 participants consisted of 7 males and 7 females.
Race: Participants included ten Caucasian Americans, two Hispanic Americans, one African American, and one Asian American.
Education: Five B.A. or B.S. degrees, seven M.A. or M.S. degrees, and two Ph.D. degrees defined the participants’ highest levels of education.
Employment: All participants were full-time employed and many were engaged in additional volunteer work. One participant was completing a graduate degree and actively exploring employment venues commensurate with her new education level.
Economic success: Half of the participants endorsed an annual income of “between $35,000-$75,000” and half endorsed “above $75,000.”
Lifestyle: All participants resided in homes and family constellations for which they were responsible; eleven participants were married, ten of whom had children, and three participants were single.
Service: All participants endorsed involvement with family, a national blindness organization, and one or more social, civic, religious, political, sports, or singing organizations in their community.
Half of the participants were congenitally blind and the other half had lost all vision by 21 years of age (four during childhood, two during late adolescence, and one at age 21 years.) Ten participants reported having received rehabilitation training at a center, and four reported informal training by self or others at home or in various non-center settings.
Participants were initially contacted by telephone to determine their interest in joining the investigators for a day-long focus group discussion about successful blind adults. Twenty potential participants were contacted and 14 of them were both interested and available. A consent form was emailed for them to read, sign, and return. The consent included a brief, written overview of the project goals, an explanation of the data collection methods, information about participant expense reimbursement, and the assurance of voluntary participation, anonymity, and a friendly, focused, non-coercive, day-long discussion within a group of other blind adults.
The first focus group of seven participants met with the primary investigators in Arlington, VA. The second group met in Des Moines, IA. Each focus group began with the same stated overview of project goals: to help the investigators define the term “successful” from the participants’ point of view, and to identify and elaborate specific factors that influenced and supported their own achievement of success. The investigators had prepared a series of questions to stimulate discussion, but in each group we found that participants were ready and able to conduct a thorough discussion with minimal prompting. In fact, investigators quickly learned to simply sit back and facilitate transitions from one topic to another, summarize what had been said and ask for clarification, and announce breaks. An audio recording documented each group’s day-long discussion, and professional transcriptions were made of each one.
Each investigator independently extracted success definitions, contributing factors, and important themes from each transcript. Selections were limited ahead of time to include only those discussed by at least three participants within the same group. The exact wording and context for each definition and factor were extracted from the transcripts. Investigators met to compare lists of success definitions and factors from the first group, then later for the second group, then a combined list was compiled during a third meeting. Each participant was contacted by telephone to review the findings. Participants were asked to rate each definition and each contributing factor on a 10-point Likert scale, with 1 = not important in my life and 10 = very important in my life.
There was very high between-group similarity in participants’ success definitions and contributing factors. After extraction of factors was completed and investigators compared their lists, a 90% overlap existed between the three lists from each focus group. In other words, although discussions were different in each group, the success definitions and contributing factors identified by participants’ in each group were highly consistent, as were the three investigators’ lists of extracted definitions and factors. For these reasons, the final compiled lists are considered reliable.
Seven aspects of a full definition of “successful,” including both extrinsic and intrinsic characteristics, were identified by group participants. Group mean ratings for each aspect of the success definition, and the combined overall mean ratings and standard deviations, can be found in Table 1. Standard deviations for each definition are small, supporting the use of means to represent the ratings. The seven definitions are listed below in descending order of mean ratings. Illustrative but not exhaustive examples of participants’ comments (direct quotes extracted from both transcripts without identification of the speakers) are provided as a glimpse into the discussion context:
“Success is ...
Achieving happiness and life satisfaction: (M = 9.50; SD = .65) ...being happy and feeling good about the person that I am.” ...doing things that I want to do and that make me satisfied inside.” ...being in control of my own life, and being able to determine what I want to do, where I want to work, where I want to live, and the type of family I want to have.”
Giving back to others: (M = 8.89; SD = 1.44) ...being in a position to be able to give back, helping others along in an area that I’ve been successful in, and having the opportunity to be able to help somebody else be successful.” ...doing something positive that someone is benefiting from.” ...it’s all about giving back to others.”
Living a dignified, well-rounded life: (M = 8.36; SD = 1.76) ...the satisfaction of having a well-rounded life, of finding a niche in the world and creating a life in it.” ...living a life with dignity without the presumption of helplessness on my part or society’s part.” ...feeling like I’ve developed some sense of quality about the kind of person I want to become.”
Achieving goals and expectations: (M = 8.21; SD = 1.37) ...achieving and vigorously pursuing challenging goals, having a direction and a purpose in life.” ...knowing that it’s not so much how you do something, for example, taking the metro versus a cab, it’s that you do it, for example, getting to work.” ...asking myself ‘is this where I should be in my life?’ And if not, asking myself ‘what exactly are my goals now?’”
Having meaningful employment: (M = 8.07; SD = .92) ...having a job that satisfies me.”
...being out in the public in a position that has responsibility attached to it feels successful to me and also puts out a public message of success.” ...doing meaningful work, supporting myself, and being part of the community.”
Establishing economic self-sufficiency: (M = 8.00; SD = 1.62) ...being comfortable in life, not having to worry, and having enough money to do the things I want to do.” ...making a lot of money, and being able to provide for myself.” ...economic success is necessary but not sufficient for happiness, but it gives me the choice to do what I want to do and do it successfully.”
Mastery of skills (blindness-specific and general life skills): (M = 7.79; SD = 1.19) ...having options in my life because I have the skills, not being limited by blindness in my daily living.” ...mastering special blindness skills, for example, mobility around my office and in public and grappling with specific challenges without circumnavigating them.”
Participants identified 13 factors that they believed supported and/or helped determine their successes. Table 2 displays mean factor ratings by group and the combined overall mean rating and standard deviation for each factor. Standard deviations are variable but small (except for “fear of failure”) supporting the use of means to represent the ratings. Factors are listed below in descending order of mean ratings, and quotes from participants are provided to illustrate the discussion context:
Role models and mentors: (M = 8.93; SD = .92) “I had role models for different aspects of my life … as a child, for example, I spent Saturdays with this blind gal up the road who had two children and was a homemaker, and she showed me how she labeled everything. Then later on many successful blind folks were role models for me.” “Early on there were little things that leaders did, for example, they served themselves in buffet lines, traveled competently, etc.”
Positive blind identity: (M = 8.93; SD = 1.49) “It’s all about my identity and how I feel about myself. If there’s standing room only on the bus and I stand rather than be allowed to sit down, it’s a matter of feeling equal with everyone else. Dealing with low external societal expectations and not letting those become part of my identity is crucial.” “I tell people I was really fortunate that I finally lost the rest of my vision. It was much better. That little bit of vision was a problem, and I found that it made all the difference to identify myself as a blind person.” “It’s very good to be told early in life that it’s respectable to be blind, because positive identity as a blind person is critically important.”
Membership and participation in a national consumer organization for the blind:
(M = 8.72; SD = 1.33) “I try to surround myself with positive thinking people who I want to be like or emulate in my life, and they’re there in [my organization].” “I think sometimes you have to surround yourself with people who really push you, and that’s part of what happens for me in [the organization].” “The people I was around in [the organization] energized me to the point that I could say, ‘you know what, I’m going to tackle this, I’m going to go for this, and I’m going to come out ahead on this.’” “It wasn’t until I met folks in the [organization] that I really found people who truly believed in me.” “Getting to the annual convention was an awakening, because I realized then that there were many people out there who were doing a great job in whatever career they were in which gave me the strength to pursue my career.” “I think what really keeps me going is the network that I have in the [organization], knowing that I’ve got a support system out there that I can tap into at meetings, the conventions, etc.” “I can still remember sitting in that first meeting more than 30 years ago, watching all those competent blind people and just feeling so happy that I’d found them.”
Blindness-specific skills training: (M = 8.50; SD = 1.29) “What you really need to do is learn how to read Braille first; you’ve got to have those basic skills. I couldn’t have done the mathematics I’ve done without Braille, and it helped lead to my advanced degrees.” “I think that using the cane was probably my first acceptance of the idea that it’s OK to be blind, the defining moment of acceptance of blindness for me. It started raising my expectations for myself.” “The defining moment for raising my expectations was going to a training center and having people say to me, ‘OK, you read 160 words a minute, you can do better than that.’ If they hadn’t said that to me and then worked with me to show me how to do it, I probably wouldn’t have expected that for myself.”
Strong work ethic: (M = 8.43; SD = 1.28) “In my family we had a strong work ethic, and there was a great value for education; those gave me enough of a thirst to go out and search for bigger things.” “I had role models that helped me, for example, my mother’s work ethic.” Going to the Lions camp and working there as a counselor instilled that work ethic in me.”
Problem-solving and critical thinking skills: (M = 8.29; .99) “Figuring out my strengths and how to get paid for using them, in other words, maximizing the skills I have was what I had to learn.” “We need to get where we want to go by problem solving, figuring it out without making excuses.” “The thing that defines good training centers and trainers is building critical thinking and problem solving into the training. You can recognize the people who’ve had it. I think those are the core elements, I really do.”
Internal traits and characteristics: (M = 8.29; SD = 1.20) “Toughness and tenacity, that’s part of being successful ...having that at your inner core, and the willingness to take a risk, and then challenging and pushing yourself.” “We have to take that extra step to challenge ourselves because we’re blind, and maybe that’s what makes us successful.” “We have to be on the ball, know when we’re limiting ourselves, constantly monitor ourselves, and challenge ourselves to be successful.” “It’s the desire and will to succeed. There are times when I say ‘I just don’t want to do this anymore’ and I have to say to myself, ‘I don’t care if you don’t want to do it anymore, it’s what you’re doing, do it!’”
Active learning: (M = 8.29; SD = 1.38) “Knowing how to look at your environment with your hands and being encouraged and allowed to do this from a young age is so important. I would make sure that any blind child was encouraged to explore the environment with his hands, and I would put Braille on the refrigerator.” “Early experiences of exploring and getting into that mindset of being unfettered, having freedom to run around out in the community, all of that was so much a part of my upbringing.” “I know for myself, I have to be active in learning. Even if I’m traveling with my wife, she might be driving the car, but I’m the navigator, and I’m telling her what she has to be looking out for. I know where we are because I ask questions. My confidence goes up when I do those things.” “Active versus passive learning may be one of the main factors that differentiates successful from not-as-successful blind individuals.”
Goal setting: (M = 8.14; SD = 1.46) “By my late teen years, I had quite a determined sense of what I wanted to do. That didn’t make me optimistic, but it gave me a goal.” “Learning how to set a particular goal, and believing that I can attain that goal no matter how long it takes me to get there, as long as I get there, has been really important for me.” “I’m determined to live my life as I would if I were sighted, for example, getting to work by taking the metro, walking into work independently, and pushing through the extra challenges to get there.”
Early expectations and encouragement from family and friends: (M = 8.00; SD = 1.36) “Early family experiences were important factors for me. My mother was somewhat overprotective, although not tremendously so. I think I got the message that I would go off and take care of myself. It’s an early message.” “When we were growing up, my mom would always say, ‘life is what you make it,’ and she had equal expectations for us blind kids, too.” “Many times my parents encouraged me with words, but more than that, they encouraged me with their actions by just putting me out there and expecting me to do something, and it helped me to succeed.” “One of my teachers told me, ‘if you want to do something for people, you need to do it for yourself, you need to get out there and go to college,’ and she threw me out of the nest.” “I had three uncles and one aunt who were blind in my family, and I saw both sides of being blind: that you can do a lot with your life or do nothing with your life, your choice.”
Experience of success: (M = 7.79; SD = 1.37) “Jobs that I’ve had have been an important factor for me. I’ve always, always, always worked, and I think that’s been a significant source of my experience of success.” “My high school track team was divided into sighted & blind teams, but my sighted friend and I practiced together on the track, and we came out equal and that made me feel better. It proved to me that I didn’t have to be limited because I was blind. Just the feeling of success when I won a race… when I tasted that, I wanted to go back and do it again. That taste of success was addictive!” “We need to have experiences of success, real ones and not just ones that people try to set up for us.”
Social skills: (M = 7.65; SD = 1.95) “Overall life and blindness skills are so important, but I emphasize learning how to get along with people, that’s far more important than the academic skills” “Things like dressing yourself and asserting yourself are really important social skills. For me, being socially assertive meant getting what I needed. One of the social things you need to know is that the sighted world doesn’t realize what you need.” “Good people skills have been essential to me, for example, I learned that when you talk to someone you need to look at them.”
Fear of failure: (M = 5.36; SD = 2.41) “Achievement for me, for a long time, was driven by my concern that I would fail. I was so concerned that I would fail, every time I did something I had to find within me ways to work harder and get better and try to overcome this inner fear. I tended to turn that energy and concern into trying to be successful.” “All of us have a comfort zone, and we all have pushed beyond it. A lot of times fear pushed me out of my comfort zone. I think people you see who really are successful are those who are willing to take the risk and move on, get out of that comfort zone and not just sit there.”
Young (1995) used focus groups to explore employability, but to the investigators’ knowledge, this is the first study in which blind adults were asked to explore out loud their own success trajectories and to identify specific factors that helped them achieve their current successful lifestyles. The unanimity of information obtained in the two separate, day-long focus group discussions was noteworthy. The investigators believe that these success definitions and contributing factors provide a solid and coherent foundation for future research on blindness issues and contribute a sound basis for future training and rehabilitation efforts.
Factor ratings which reflect the importance that participants’ placed on each one in their own lives are interesting but not our main focus. All of the success definitions and contributing factors received high ratings (except for “fear of failure”), and this was expected given that each was repeatedly emphasized during discussions. Fear of failure was introduced and emphasized by four of the seven males but none of the females, and this accounted for its larger variability in their subsequent ratings of this factor.
Prior to obtaining the participants’ factor ratings, investigators informally predicted among ourselves a very different order of importance from that given by participants, indicating to us that going directly to the source (blind individuals) vastly improved the content validity of success definitions and contributing factors. Based on the literature, for example, we had thought that “meaningful employment,” “economic self sufficiency” and “skill mastery” would be the top ranked aspects of participants’ definition of success, whereas participants rated those 5th, 6th, and 7th out of seven. “Achieving happiness and life satisfaction” and “giving back to others” were the participants’ top rated definitions of success, reflecting their emphasis on its intrinsic aspects.
“Early expectations and encouragement from family and friends” is generally believed to be one of the most important contributions to success, yet participants rated it 10th out of 13 factors. Early family experiences were discussed extensively in both focus groups, but its relatively low importance rating can be understood in terms of the nature of the discussion which was not entirely positive. For example, several comments shared within the groups reflected negative family messages: “Negative family expectations and lack of family communication about blindness were very negative influences on me that were only later rectified by blind role models, social friends, and successful experiences,” and, “I figured out that if I was truly going to be independent, I couldn’t live at home. When my mother was home, I wasn’t allowed to use the stove. So, it was a real mixed message. My father said that he believed if there were a God, I wouldn’t be blind. And so there you are, that kind of summed it up for him. My mother figured that whatever the school taught me was what I would learn. I think she really didn’t know how to teach me things.” Non-familial “role models and mentors,” “establishing a positive blind identity,” and “affiliation with a national consumer organization” were the participants’ top rated contributions to their success(es), and these factors reflect the importance of later modeling and external positive influences.
From these data, it seems clear that training models need to include a balance of skills training and self-efficacy building practices. Acquiring and mastering the large set of skills necessary for daily and professional functioning as a blind person was identified as an important part of being successful. It could be argued, however, that building a skill set is efficacy building. More than simply mastering skills is necessary for a person to develop a positive identity, a strong work ethic, and tenacity in the face of challenge and barriers. Opportunities and encouragement for active participation in the learning environment (see O’Donnell & Livingston, 1991, for a review of studies with young children with low vision) and for practicing problem-solving and critical thinking skills were identified by our study participants as being fundamental to success as well as to an internal sense of self-efficacy. Interpersonal, psychosocial, and identity issues are paramount to skill building and to the development of an underlying sense of self-efficacy, both of which are fundamental to a successful outcome (see Eccles & Wigfield, 2002, for a discussion of beliefs, values, goals, and expectancies for success). Even the benefits offered by affiliation and participation in a national consumer organization can be subsumed under the concept of ‘group efficacy.’ In future research, the investigators will further examine the construct of self-efficacy and its contributions to success within the context of blindness skills training and the successful mentoring of children, adolescents, and young adults.
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