Future Reflections Convention Report 2011
by Dr. Alexa Posny
Introduction by Anil Lewis: The first person I'd like to introduce is Dr. Alexa Posny. She is the assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services for the U.S. Department of Education. She was formerly the commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, and in 2007 she served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. I find that spectacular--not only is she serving in the Obama administration, but she served in the Bush administration, too! This is the type of collaborative person we need on our team. We need to make sure that this type of individual embraces the philosophy of the Federation and recognizes us as colleagues.
I am honored and grateful to be part of this distinguished panel. Before I begin today I would like to congratulate the National Federation of the Blind for successfully advocating for the U.S. Treasury to produce the Louis Braille commemorative silver dollar, the very first coin ever minted with readable Braille. It's wonderful to know that proceeds from the sale of this coin will be used to promote Braille literacy programs. [Applause]
It is a great honor and privilege to serve with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He has said over and over again, "No belief is more damaging in education than the misperception that children with disabilities cannot really succeed and should not be challenged to reach the same high expectations as other children." I think everyone here today agrees that issues of access and high expectations for all children and adults, including those who are blind or visually impaired, is not only a moral obligation, but it is critical to the success of our nation. Anyone who has heard President Obama speak about education in the past two years, or who has listened to Arne Duncan speak since he became the secretary of education, knows how important education is to this administration. Early on, President Obama made it clear that education is a top priority. He made it his goal that by 2020 America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
Secretary Duncan has said that too many children show up for kindergarten already behind, and many never catch up. I couldn't agree more. We must ensure that all children with disabilities, especially infants, toddlers, and young children, are identified early, begin receiving services as soon as possible, and have access to high-quality learning options so that they do not start kindergarten at a disadvantage. Toward this end, Secretary Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a new, unprecedented 500-million-dollar state-level grant competition as part of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund. This competition will reward states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development for all students, including students who are blind and visually impaired. [Applause]
We also know that as part of the U.S. Department of Education's 2012 budget, the authorization of IDEA is probably the only part of the agency that did not receive a decrease for 2012, but they have even asked for an increase--$200 million more for IDEA and $50 million to fund Part C. There isn't any other part of the agency that can speak to the same level. That is the commitment that Arne and the president have to working with kids with disabilities!
We know as well that students must also have the tools needed to attain a world-class education that prepares them for success in college and careers. For students who are blind or visually impaired, this includes early mastery of the alternative skills of blindness. Those of you who have visited the great state of Kansas know that it is a very rural state. For this reason, often the best place for a student who is blind to access the skills he or she needs is the Kansas State School for the Blind (KSSB). As commissioner for Kansas I visited KSSB a number of times and observed students as they learned alternative skills such as Braille, orientation and mobility, and the use of assistive technology. I remember observing orientation and mobility training for a three-year-old and remarking how natural and easy it was for him to walk with a cane and navigate his environment. I was humbled as I watched him. He was so comfortable. I reminded myself that it wasn't remarkable; it's expected. [Applause] The school for the blind expected the acquisition of these and other skills early in their students' lives.
The bottom line is this: no matter the educational setting, be that the school closest to home or a specialized school for the blind, we must consider paramount the individual needs of each student and concentrate on providing strong, high-quality instruction and skills training so that students who are blind and visually impaired will achieve true independence.
Learning doesn't stop with early childhood. It continues in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary school. We need to do a better job making sure that students with disabilities, including students who are blind or visually impaired, complete college. As is true for all students, not having a college education will prevent students with disabilities from getting that great job with a good salary, buying a home, and supporting themselves and their families. In 2008, almost 60 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school with a diploma. This is in comparison to 67 percent of all other students who graduated with a diploma. According to the National Longitudinal Study, the second version, about 39 percent of high school graduates with disabilities enroll in some level of postsecondary program annually, typically in a community college setting. While the percentage of youths with visual impairments enrolling in some form of postsecondary education, 78 percent in 2005, is higher than for most other disability groups, barriers remain that prevent students with print disabilities from keeping up with their classmates. These roadblocks continue to frustrate and discourage students who are blind or visually impaired, pushing them further away from postsecondary goals instead of helping them to reach them. If we are going to reach President Obama's 2020 goal, we need to do a better job of making sure that more students with disabilities graduate from high school, enroll in a postsecondary institution, and complete a degree program.
In today's world, access to technology is critical in this effort. According to the 2006 Institution of Educational Sciences study, postsecondary education is now a goal for four out of every five students with disabilities who are exiting high school with a transition plan. We know that for students without disabilities technology makes things easier, but for students with disabilities technology makes things possible. [Applause] It's so nice to be talking to the choir! [Laughter]
We must ensure that every student going to college can access academic material once he or she gets there. It's as simple as this: students who are blind or visually impaired must be given meaningful access to comprehensive assistive technology instruction. When particular groups or individuals are denied access to technology, it's important to take a stand. The department's Office for Civil Rights issued guidelines to elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education on their legal obligation to provide students with disabilities with equal opportunity to access technology--the “infamous” Kindle Letter. [This letter of protest to Amazon was composed by the NFB and supported by a coalition.] This guidance is a critical step in the department's ongoing effort to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal access to the educational benefits and services provided by their schools, colleges, and universities. The bottom line is this: Technological devices must be accessible to students with disabilities, including students who are blind. [Applause]
Toward this end, you have probably heard of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities. I am proud to serve as a member, and I am honored to do so with people like Gaeir Dietrich. She chairs the commission, and Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, serves on it as well.
Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." I believe this commission has the potential to open doors and bring down barriers for students with print disabilities. It is the first commission in history charged with examining accessible instructional materials for postsecondary students with disabilities. I want to assure you that it is my intent to utilize the principles of universal design for learning as the commission's work progresses. [Applause]
We know that any learning problems are resident not in the child but in the medium of instruction. For example, for students who are blind or have reading disabilities, textbooks impose barriers rather than offer opportunities for learning. UDL, Universal Design for Learning, enables, motivates, and inspires all students to achieve, regardless of background, language, or abilities. I am happy to say that UDL is a cornerstone of the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan.
In addition to ensuring that technology and content are designed with universal access, we must also ensure that assessments are properly designed so that the opportunity to learn is maximized for all students. We must improve our assessments so they measure what matters and improve students' learning experiences, to connect teachers so they can learn from each other, and to meet the needs of all learners, students with special needs included. With that charge, forty-three states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core Standards, internationally benchmarked standards that reflect the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. The potential of these standards will not be realized unless assessments measure when our students are reaching them. That's why the next generation of assessments being developed under the department's Race to the Top competition will be a game-changer. When these new assessments are used in the 2014-2015 school year, millions of children and parents will know, for the first time, whether students truly are on track for success in colleges and careers. Many teachers will finally have the assessments they have longed for--tests of critical thinking skills and complex learning tasks that are not just multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills.
Legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, once said, "Individual commitment to work and effort--that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." I happen to agree totally with Coach Lombardi. I truly feel that, through better technology and access skills, we can and will absolutely improve access and accountability for people who are blind and visually impaired. Mastering alternative skills of blindness, guaranteeing access to technologies, implementing appropriate assessments--all of this is vital to ensuring that all students, including students who are blind or visually impaired, have access to a complete and competitive education from the day they are born to the day they begin a career. If we can do this successfully, we can be sure that all students are contributing fully to the president's goal for America, to graduate more young people from college in 2020 than any other country in the world.
Before I go, I would be remiss not to take the time to acknowledge one of the most successful programs providing employment to business owners who are blind. I wish a very happy seventy-fifth anniversary to the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Facility Program. For seventy-five years this program has fostered many talented and creative individuals who are blind to acquire the management training and business skills necessary to realize the American Dream, a lifetime of economic opportunity, independence, and self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. With proven ability, approximately twenty-five hundred blind and visually impaired entrepreneurs have challenged preconceived notions about disability and have provided exceptional customer service to federal and state employees, the armed forces, and the general public. Happy birthday, Randolph-Sheppard!
In closing I'd like to share a quote from someone you've probably heard of. I had the great opportunity to fly on a plane with him to Athens last week. Stevie Wonder once said, "We all have ability; the difference is how we use it." Use yours wisely. Thank you very much.