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Vision impairment service provider agencies:

The manifest and latent-function paradox

Focus: School Years

Topic: New Service Models

Mike Steer & Rod Beattie

Senior Lecturers (Vision & Hearing)

Renwick College/Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children

University of Newcastle

North Rocks, NSW, 2151


61 (02) 9872 0303

rcms@cc.newcastle.edu.au & rbeattie@mail.newcastle.edu.au

The study of organisational behaviour (OB), as will be well known to many of the professionals who perhaps constitute the majority of ICEVI members, focuses on the ways people behave in organisations and the ways in which entire organisations behave (Sage & Burrello, 1994). Insights gleaned from a study of OB can apply to all types of systems, including networks of organisation, for example the social policy related mega-departments of Federal or State Governments; Departments of Education, Health, Community Services, which de facto, sometimes appear to operate much as though they were together, a unitary organisation. Insights from a study of OB apply not only to discrete service provider agencies (e.g., the American Foundation for the Blind or the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Britain), or such of the myriad voluntary associations and special interest groups. Take for example Blind Citizens Australia or the National Association for the Visually Handicapped in New York. These groups are not only concerned with particular aspects of community service and support, but also to entire service delivery systems within the vision impairment policy sector. Similarly, one may consider various other disability service fields; mental retardation, psychiatric disorder, deafness and hearing impairment and so forth and the professional associations within them, for example, AER and CEC.

In our Australian multiculture, like others, services to people with sensory impairments or other disabilities are shaped and driven by a broad framework of policies, processes, and practices that appear to be remarkably consistent across local government areas, provider agencies, and the many involved professional fields like psychology, social work, or education. This broad framework is what we shall call the disability services “metastructure.” It might also be conceived by the philosophical, in this context as a “meta-paradigm” (Hoyningen-Huene & Levine, 1993), that is, an overarching collection of thoughts and interactions that are widely believed to be genuine knowledge. Service systems for people with disabilities as whole entities, of which those with specific or combinations of sensory disabilities form part, seem in much of their behaviour, much like individual agencies and organisations.

One of the reasons that these sorts of metastructure are relatively consistent across all their parts and subsets, is that they strongly reflect the larger culture (or multiculture) within which they operate. It might in fact, be persuasively argued that there has been such a convergence of cultural patterns world wide in the past 20 or 30 years that even the human services of distinct and separate “western” or industrialised nations reflect the same defining and controlling influences.

One of the things that all human groups and organisations have in common is a tendency to function unconsciously (Wolfensberger, 1992). Despite the rhetoric reflected in their policy documents, they may in fact operate in ways of which their constituent membership (and quite commonly, also program reviewers and consultants) are completely unaware. Further, within such groups, an intramural language of convenience might develop which then transfers to its policies and procedures manuals and actually proclaims precisely the opposite of what is going on, day by day. This “refractive” process then deepens the unconsciousness that pervades the prevailing organisational service delivery realities.

The OB, sociology and psychology literature, in an attempt to define agency process realities, thus speaks of “manifest” and “latent” organisational functions (Hess, Markson, & Stein, 1995). Manifest organisational functions are those which are “up front”, apparent, obvious, and generally stated in organisational procedure manuals and sometimes in annual reports. These manifest functions project an image of the agency as a “helping” organisation (Oliver, 1999). Broadly speaking, the highly visible, manifest functions of disability services consist of the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of peoples’ problems. The scope of these problems can of course vary widely. Agencies establish and maintain the importance of their several functions by devising or constructing specialised terminology, treatment modes, staffing models, and agency goals (Flynn & Aubrey, 1999). These are the goals that service organisations publicly proclaim. They are the fodder of brochures and media advertisements, and yes as mentioned before—annual reports. In them, schools and hospitals claim to educate and heal, other therapists restore damaged tissues, residential associations habilitate (in some instances rehabilitate), and counsellors and social workers mend broken souls and fractured families.

In contrast, latent functions are those which are implicit, or underlie, or are hidden, or are unproclaimed, rather than explicitly stated. Very often those working in our Nation’s many disability service agencies, or in one or other of our disability-related service fields, are totally unconscious that their organisation or field has and plays-out these latent functions, even though they are sometimes of a very real and overarching proportion.

The proposition is, that in many instances of service provision to people with sensory disabilities, it is not the manifest functions of an agency that are proclaimed by almost everyone as its real or major function which prevail, but the latent ones. Moreover, that the proclaimed manifest functions may be entirely untrue or contain only elements of the everyday reality, is a daunting proposition for program evaluators, planners, and some decision-makers. Indeed it is the latent functions in disability service provision agencies that often carried out, sometimes with devastating consequences—an unproclaimed mission on behalf of the larger society, or perhaps a powerful, controlling sector of it.

There can be little doubt that many people become human service workers and join our organisations in order to take part in agency processes which will truly “help” people who are, for example blind or vision impaired, deaf or hearing impaired, or perhaps deafblind. Program evaluators, planners, and administrators must, however, continually look beyond the “helping” notion and scrutinise disability service agencies and systems within the context of society’s reaction to “deviant” people (Wolfensberger, 1992). Keel’s (1999), notion of labelling theory, for example, suggest that in a standard “reaction response” to disability, many members of society attempt to distance themselves from those whose appearance, behaviour, or social status they judge negatively. Society accomplishes the reduction of this threat by relying on formal control measures and mechanisms. An unconscious (therefore latent) role of many traditional disability service agencies, has been historically to function as a highly successful control mechanism by removing, containing, and isolating societally “unwanted” or difficult people (Wolfensberger, 1992).

As a general proposition, the renowned American educator Burton Blatt pointed out almost 25 years ago that some disability service provider agencies have traditionally operated within a political, social, and economic framework that rewards practices that increase the dependency of societally unwanted (devalued) people on the human service sector (Blatt, Bogdan, Biklen, & Taylor, 1977). It might be possible, therefore, to successfully argue that social control (or social hygiene) is a function, which has been predominant in shaping many of our field’s agencies as “helpers” of people with certain types of disability.

Disability service agencies, as was pointed out 20 years ago, enact their role as agents of social control by addressing themselves to four overriding tasks:

  1. Pinpointing the deviant characteristics of people through specific labelling procedures, for example, this person is a “spastic” and can, therefore, be served by us, this person is, however, blind or deaf, or merely poor and must therefore be served by someone else. (The process, as Scott pointed out in his classic 1969 text, assures society that containment is warranted. In 2002, has the situation changed for a relatively large number of Australians, Americans, or Europeans with sensory or multiple disabilities?)

  1. Keeping many deviant people (those widely perceived societally to have negative images) isolated, so that society experiences neither the burden nor the embarrassment of caring for such persons in our regular communities.

  1. Keeping deviant people under control so that society can continue to socialise new members to the accepted boundaries of traditional values and norms. And…

  1. Perpetuating deviance by teaching people to conform to their deviant status and to willingly accept the controls on their lives. (McCord, 1982)

The pursuit of these latent goals invariably compels the service provider agency towards an insular orientation. Managers direct their staff to problems that threaten agency control and numbers, at the expense of sustained efforts to achieve client development goals.

It follows that the more complex the agency and its social system, the less consciousness prevails within and about it, and the more do its agents and minions voice inaccurate beliefs about the nature, function, purpose, mission, and outcomes of the organisation.

Seymour Sarason, the eminent Yale psychologist, writing in 1972, commented on the social context and atmosphere of service “settings” to the effect that the beliefs and purposes that prevail when a setting is first created (whether these are conscious or unconscious) will shape that setting for the rest of its existence. From a human service planner’s perspective, therefore, sensory disability service provider organisations can only really be understood if one understands the contingencies that prevailed when they were founded. Consider, for example, the several remaining large State operated and euphemistically named Training Centres in Australia for people with mental and/or psychiatric disabilities. If they were founded at a time (as many of them were) when their clients were widely perceived as threats to the wellbeing of society, then all sorts of vestigial service patterns and physical monuments will remain to reflect the original perspective. How common are high walls and fences, locked doors, bars on windows, prison or hospital-like shift routines for staff and clients, and anachronistic client definitions? As a result, perhaps over a century and a half later, in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania, as well as in other countries, the “spoor” or tracks of this early philosophy and concomitant practice linger on even if the clients are no longer perceived as menaces. Indeed philosophy and practices may linger on when the building is used by an entirely different client group and staffed by people who have no idea of what the initial precepts were. For example, a very senior medical officer in the Victorian (Australia) Police Force is still formally titled the “Police Surgeon” even though the duties of his position do not require him to actually be a surgeon. It is likely that successive incumbents have used the title since the 1850’s.

Because latent functions are a major organisational driving force, they are also a major source of distortion and trouble to service planners and evaluators. Thus a major goal when planning or evaluating the organisations that are intended to support people with vision impairments should be to identify the latent goals as they result from a dispassionate analysis of agency rhetoric and routines. A secondary goal should be to design strategies with a view to gaining conscious control over the latent goals, so that these do not continue as vehicles of organisational control.

Very few organisations, (as the Federal and State Governments in Australia have recently discovered during major disability services policy reforms), ever really come to grips with their latent functions, partly because the costs (in the widest sense of the term) of doing so are so great. The process might require confronting a very painful reality, disturbing powerful (and well-meaning) members and patrons, making conscious decisions to continue highly literal but less-than-noble goals. As a classic example, one leading Australian charitable agency concerned with blindness in adults (and quite renowned nationally for its good works), recently surveyed a very large group of its clients and discovered that a great many of them had become increasingly vision limited through advancing age. Almost all of those who responded to the agency survey pointed out that the one word they feared in their dealings with the agency, was “blind”, and their being personally, with increasing age, associated with the word. Yet the word features prominently in the agency’s title and as a word, is an enormously successful generator of public sympathy and charitable giving. The salient question for the agency is, should it drop “Blind” from its title and risk the consequent loss in annual fund raising revenues? Or should it keep the word at the risk of affronting those it seeks to serve? These sorts of very real issues introduce dissension, division, and even separation within the group; and agencies will resist this.

It is precisely because the true and major functions of social systems and organisations serving people with sensory disabilities are typically not widely perceived and in some cases remain completely unrecognised, that planners, evaluator, and managers should be warned that one cannot identify the true purposes, goals, and procedures of an organisation through an examination of organisational rhetoric. That is accurately evaluating an organization… from what an organisation says about itself, through its leaders and spokespeople, or its documentation and other forms of public “utterance”. Instead, the only reliable way of learning what is really taking place and what its true goals, purposes, and procedures are, is by observing it over a period of time and noting what its actual behaviour and output is. Planners, managers, and evaluators must, therefore, do three things.

  1. Look at human services in their entirety, or at least in the context of the entirety of the policy sector to which they belong. In particular, they should not be distracted by examining only specific agencies and locales.

  1. Look at what an entirety of services actually accomplishes.

  1. Not be distracted by what is said or written by politicians, service agencies, professional organisations, individual human service workers, leaders, or even the law or regulations.

If planners, managers, and evaluators do these things and are not misled by “savouring the rhetoric” there might be answers that have to be well chewed before swallowing, since they could be shocking and unpleasant enough to be indigestible. It is imperative, for example, that those in positions of organisational power realise that one of the real, true, but latent functions of a great many service agencies in our field (even perhaps of our disability metaparadigm as an entity) is not merely to meet client needs, to heal, restore, rehabilitate, but to employ people. Employing people to demonstrate a smug moral imperative from agencies or government. Employing people to enhance the power, material welfare, and other interests of the privileged (and almost invariably non-disabled) classes. Employing people to maintain equilibrium or keep the economy moving in the Keynsian economic model, which still appears, at least in Australia, to underpin the national wellbeing. Under these circumstances, doesn’t the exploitation of natural resources, unfettered population increase and economic growth, unbridled technology, increasing urbanisation, maintain the necessity of a certain level of employment?


Blatt, B., Bogdan, R., Biklen, D., & Taylor, S. (1977). From institution to community. In E. Sontag et al. (Eds.). Educational programming for the severely/profoundly handicapped. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Flynn, R. J., & Aubrey, T. D. (1999). Integration of persons with developmental or psychiatric disabilities: Conceptualization and measurement. In R. J. Flynn & R. A. Lemay (Eds.), A quarter century of normalization and social role valorization: Evolution and impact. Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press.

Hess, B. B., Markson, E. W., & Stein, P. J. (1995). Sociology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hoyningen-Huene, P., & Levine, A. J. (1993). Reconstructing scientific revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s philosophy of science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keel, R. O. (1999). Ethnomethodological perspectives. In C. Bryant. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of criminalogy and deviance. London: Taylor & Francis.

McCord, W. T. (1982). From theory to reality: Obstacles to the implementation of the normalisation principle in human services. Mental Retardation, 20, 247-253.

Oliver, M. J. (1999). Capitalism, disability, and ideology: A materialist critique of the normaization principle. In R. J. Flynn & R. A. Lemay (Eds.), A quarter century of normalization and social role valorization: Evolution and impact. Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press.

Sage, D. D., & Burrello, L. C. (1994). Leadership in educational reform: An administrator’s guide to changes in special education. Sydney: Paul H. Brookes.

Sarason, S. (1972). The creation of settings and the future society. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Scott, R. A. (1969). The making of blind men: A study of socialisation. New York: Russel Sage.

Wolfensberger, W. (1992). A brief introduction to social role valorisation as a high order concept for structuring human services (rev. ed.). Syracuse, NY: Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Change Agentry and Leadership.

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