| After I graduated from
college, I worked for two years with the Portland Public
Schools as an equipment designer for handicapped children.
One of the boys I worked with was named Bobby Smith. Blind
since birth, Bobby was about to start attending a new
school. In Portland at that time, most of the students
with disabilities were being integrated into the regular
schools. My task was to help the District's Mobility Expert,
Mr. Thompson, teach Bobby how to get to and from school
and around the school grounds on his own.
We started out by meeting Bobby and his mother at
their house. It was a small, older house on the east
side of Portland on a quiet street about four blocks
from the school. The route Bobby would have to learn
to negotiate was straightforward and looked fairly safe
to me. I saw that the sidewalks were well kept and clear,
the intersections were regulated by stop signs, and
traffic on the streets was pretty light. I told Mr.
Thompson that it seemed like it would be relatively
easy to teach the route to Bobby, and he should be getting
along on his own pretty quickly. Mr. Thompson just smiled.
Mrs. Smith greeted us at the door and took us into
the kitchen to meet Bobby, who was just finishing his
morning snack. Bobby got up from the table and walked
up to his mother as we all said "hello." Mrs. Smith
put her arm around Bobby and walked with him into the
living room so we could sit down and talk. As Mr. Thompson
mapped out his strategy and schedule for working with
Bobby, I sat back and observed.
Bobby behaved much like most blind kids that I'd seen.
He listened a while, weaving his head around and sitting
close to his mom on the couch. Soon he became bored and
started to reach for things to play with. He first played
with a throw pillow, feeling the textures and edges. Then
he reached towards the coffee table to find something
else to play with. His mom gently reached over, found
his hands and held them in her own in her lap. After awhile
he began to play with the edge of her sweater and then
went back to the throw pillow.
| Bobby said,
"What's a ceiling?" Mrs. Smith said from the doorway,
"I guess we never talked about it, so he doesn't
know what it is."
Mr. Thompson began to ask Bobby some questions. He
asked if he knew who his teacher would be and if he
was excited about school. Bobby was very excited about
school but didn't know the name of his teacher. Next,
Mr. Thompson asked Bobby to walk over to him. He got
up and walked around the coffee table and over to the
chairs where we were sitting. Then, we asked him to
go to the kitchen and back. He went to the kitchen table,
turned around and came right back. While he was doing
this, Mrs. Smith had gotten up and walked over to the
doorway to watch him.
Mr. Thompson asked Bobby to stand in front of him
and asked him to point to the door. Bobby turned and
pointed to the front door of the house. He then asked
him to point to the doorway to the kitchen. After some
hesitation, Bobby pointed towards the kitchen, but a
little to the left of the doorway.
"Where is the wall?"
Bobby pointed towards and above the couch.
"And how about the ceiling?"
Bobby said, "What's a ceiling?"
That hit me. Bobby's pointing had been skewed and
not what I would have expected from a sighted child,
but surely he knew what a ceiling was. Mrs. Smith said
from the doorway, "I guess we never talked about it,
so he doesn't know what it is."
Mr. Thompson then asked Bobby to run to his room and
back. "We don't allow running in the house," said Mrs.
"Where can he run?"
"In the back yard, on the lawn," she said.
"Sometimes we run together at the park, but usually
we play on the swings."
"How about the slide?"
"I like the slide!" Bobby piped up.
"I help him," said his mother.
"Where does Bobby play on his own?" I asked.
"Usually in his room or in the kitchen, if I'm there
"I heard you say it was against the rules, but does
he ever run in the house?"
"No, it's just too risky."
"We'll have to change that," said Mr. Thompson.
The next few months we all worked with Bobby to help
him explore his world. Being fairly tall, I was called
upon to lift him up to the higher places like the ceiling
and the rain gutters. Mrs. Smith started to let him
take greater risks, but she wanted to pad all the doorways.
She soon found that that was not really needed because
Bobby was a cautious explorer.
It was hard to get Bobby to let go of our hand when
we started to explore outside and to rehearse the route
to his school. He had his cane to help "look" in front
of him, but he still wanted to be in contact with a
guide, usually someone with him, or a wall or fence.
We managed to get him to a point where he could make
it all the way around the block without holding onto
someone or trailing his hand along the fences or hedges.
Crossing the street was another thing. Mr. Thompson
taught him to listen for the cars and to raise his cane
so the drivers could see that he was blind. We'd practice
by having one of us cross with him while the other drove
up in our car. He became very adept at letting us know
when we could cross, but he just would not let go of
his guide and cross on his own.
Bobby was already going to school while we were working
with him. His mom guided him to and from or just drove
him to the front drop-off. He could make it from there
to the school entrance, but he was very tentative. Inside
the school, he always went down the halls trailing a hand
along one of the walls until he found his classroom.
| I hoped
that play would accomplish what we had not been
able to do up to this point, to get Bobby to venture
away from his known guides.
During recess he played on the jungle gym, the swings
or the slide, but he was not running around with the
other kids. He tried to play tag but wouldn't stray
very far from the walls or the fences. He was developing
some new friends, though.
One day I had an idea. I found a stuffed ball and
a beeper. Putting the beeper in the ball and closing
it up with Velcro, I had a toy that Bobby could use
to play with his friends. It would occupy both his hands
so he would have to let go of his 'guide' to be able
to play, and it was soft enough that he wouldn't be
hurt by it. I hoped that play would accomplish what
we had not been able to do up to this point, to get
Bobby to venture away from his known guides.
Bobby was thrilled! He and his mom played with the
ball for much longer than she wanted in their back yard.
The next day he took it to school to show to his class.
That afternoon Bobby returned home with a slight black
Apparently, when he was playing with one of his friends,
he dropped his ball when a friend had tossed it to him.
They both ran to get it and bumped heads. As Mrs. Smith
was tending to his eye, she couldn't help but notice
his excitement as he told her all the details of the
She asked him, "Didn't it hurt?"
| I wonder
how to tell the Mrs. Smiths elsewhere that a few
black eyes won't kill the patient.
He said, "I guess so, but, Mom, I ran! I ran right
into Chris! And then we started laughing. He says we
can play soccer now! Can I? Is that okay? Please?"
"I guess we'll have to find a way, won't we."
And they did. Bobby played soccer, and he played other
sports too. Mrs. Smith had to let go of her own anxiety,
and to her credit she did. So did other parents whose
children, whether blind or disabled in some way, were
integrated into playtime at the school. You could see
at first they were scared to let their children go,
but they helped each other to accept the risks of letting
go, and eventually they shared in the joy their children
I often think about this episode as I manage projects.
The main part of the job seems to be managing the risks,
weighing the safe choice against the more risky one.
Whenever I think of the new worlds of doorways, ceilings
and soccer that Bobby found by taking more risks, I
wonder what I might find if I take, or allow my team,
to take more risks. On the other hand, I also wonder
how to tell the Mrs. Smiths elsewhere that a few black
eyes won't kill the patient.
- Overprotecting the weak often serves to protect
only the protector. Ideally, protection enables the
weak to develop gradually by increasing their exposure
Do you have your own example or metaphor that shows how
"zero failure equals zero progress"?
Search by lesson to find more on:
Maclise is currently the manager of the Integrated
Systems Health Management Systems Engineering Team
at Ames Research Center. He has managed a wide variety
of projects from a high-resolution digital imaging
payload on the Pathfinder solar-powered aircraft
to the consolidation of five different chargeback
databases into one common database. He was also
the co-manager for the database consolidation project,
Consolidated Chargeback Systems, that combined seven
legacy, business-tracking databases into one.