The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  July 2005

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Beginnings and Blueprints:
Early Education, Empowerment, and the Jernigan Institute

by Mark A. Riccobono

                From the Editor: Mark Riccobono is director of education at the NFB Jernigan Institute. Below is his report on an exciting conference that occurred at the Jernigan Institute in early May:

               In one of the early Kernel Books, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan discusses beginnings and blueprints (giving that Kernel Book its title). Dr. Jernigan says that he is not sure when beginnings become blueprints. Had he been present for the first conference on early childhood education for the young blind child held at the NFB Jernigan Institute on May 6 and 7, 2005, we can feel confident that he would have had no doubt that it was a fine blueprint for building a brighter future for blind children.

            To provide some background, in August 2003 the Federation held an education summit at the National Center for the Blind. One of the clear themes that emerged from that meeting was the need for the Federation to find ways to train parents and professionals working with the youngest blind children. The group assembled recognized that too often parents are not empowered with the knowledge and confidence to be their child's first teacher. Moreover, parents are led into the trap of low expectations and negative attitudes about blindness, which needlessly limit and shelter their blind children rather than encouraging and empowering them to explore new horizons. Imagine the possibilities if parents raise their blind children under a new, positive philosophy that empowers parents and ultimately children from the beginning rather than having to make up for lost time in the teenage years.

The Walker family from Pennsylvania in the hallway at the Jernigan Institute
The Walker family from Pennsylvania in the hallway at the Jernigan Institute

            The NFB Jernigan Institute used the work of the 2003 NFB Summit on Education as the basis for establishing an early education initiative. A work group of experienced individuals was put together to assist in the development of the initiative. The work group spearheaded a survey that was distributed at the 2004 NFB national convention by Heather Field, a member of the work group. Along with information collected in the survey, individual work group members drafted documents from their own individual experiences that provide perspectives on “The Top Ten Things Parents of Blind Children Need to Know.” Finally, in the summer of 2004, a special issue of Future Reflections (Volume 23, Number 2) was released focusing on the early years. This issue is available from the NFB Materials Center or on the Internet at <http://www.nfb.org/fr/fr14/fr04setc.htm>.

            In order to begin the process of disseminating and refining the NFB's approach to early education, plans were made for the 2005 Beginnings and Blueprints Conference: Meeting the Needs of Blind Children in the Early Years, 0 to 8. Because parents are central to the NFB's approach to early education, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children is a strong part of the Institute’s work group, and NOPBC played a leading role as a partner in the conference. The initial concept was to focus the conference on Maryland, so the Institute called on the outstanding early childhood professionals from the Maryland School for the Blind's Early Childhood Program. Karen Frank, the skilled supervisor of the program at the Maryland School, was actively involved in the planning and execution of the conference, and many of her staff provided support and expertise.

            Sixty-seven people attended this two-day conference, including parents and family members of blind children, early childhood professionals, Head Start workers, teachers of blind students, orientation and mobility specialists, and a number of other people representing related professions. Families and a number of professionals took advantage of sleeping accommodations at the National Center for the Blind. Those accommodations were needed because, like many other Federation events, there were many out-of-town guests. By the time of the conference, word had spread beyond Maryland, and the registration list included individuals from surrounding states, the West Coast, and Canada.

            The evaluations from the conference were extremely positive. The major improvement recommended by attendees was more, more, more! More time to network, more time for breakout sessions, and more interaction between parents and professionals.

            Each day of the conference was advertised as having a slightly different focus (Friday for professionals and Saturday for families). There was a lot of overlap between the two, allowing for lively and productive discussion. The evaluations showed what we have known for many years--that interaction among professionals, parents, and blind adults is valuable and desired, rather than having separate tracks in which parents and professionals do not interact and share perspectives.

            The agenda was packed with a variety of important topics. To kick off the conference, Dr. Marc Maurer greeted the group and set a positive tone by articulating the NFB's commitment to early education for blind children. The session then moved into a keynote panel led by Heather Field, an early childhood consultant who has been blind all her life, and Carla McQuillan, the executive director of Main Street Montessori Association and a member of the NFB board of directors. I had the opportunity to participate as part of this panel, and together the three of us discussed various perspectives on building a nonvisual framework. The blend of personal and professional experiences, high expectations, and positive attitudes about blindness provided the conference attendees with an inspiring and thought-provoking start to their day. The next presentation discussed the legal and systemic frameworks that influence the services young blind children receive. Two individuals presented and answered questions on this topic from their perspectives. The first was Lisa Wright, who is the statewide low incidence VI consultant for the Maryland Department of Education. The second was Leslie Margolis, an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center who serves as an advocate for children and families.

            After learning about the state and national legal frameworks, the audience enjoyed an energizing presentation by Carla McQuillan about the inclusion framework. This presentation was highly praised by those in attendance. Carla's presentation demonstrated how the Montessori principles reflect what we know today are some of the most effective teaching strategies, even though Montessori developed her approach long before the notion of research-based practices and No Child Left Behind. Carla's presentation also demonstrated that integrating a blind student into the general classroom need not be as complicated and frightening as many believe and that, with the proper philosophy and multi-sensory materials, all students can effectively participate in the classroom community.

            The conference then took a break for lunch in the Jernigan Institute's Members Hall. Besides lunch participants enjoyed visiting the NFB book and literature tables, looking through their conference materials, and networking. In fact the lunch discussions were so enthusiastic that lunch was extended to accommodate the networking taking place.

            After lunch on Friday three concurrent sessions were available. The first session, offered by Joel Schneider, president of Audio Description Associates, discussed the visual made verbal and how descriptions can be used to enrich presentations of visual material. In the second session parents, professionals, and blind adults came together to offer their perspectives on the benefits of active learning. The principles of active learning are extremely valuable for blind children, particularly those with multiple disabilities. The variety of perspectives offered in this session was useful in teaching participants about the approach. The third session was presented by Joe Cutter, an experienced orientation and mobility specialist who continues to push innovation in early movement and cane use for blind children. Joe’s extremely thought provoking presentation, “Promoting Travel and Independent Movement in Blind Children” (aptly named after his upcoming book), questioned the application of adult-centered practices to movement and travel for young blind children. This presentation ran overtime with questions and certainly promoted a broader blueprint for blind children.

In this conference break-out session, the audience listens intently to pediatric o & M specialist Joe Cutter
In this conference break-out session, the audience listens intently to pediatric O & M specialist Joe Cutter.

            The concurrent sessions wrapped up the first day of the conference, but opportunities were available to tour the Jernigan Institute and the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind and to shop in the NFB Materials Center. Many participants stayed for the tours or spent more time networking in Members Hall. On Friday evening special activities were scheduled for families staying at the National Center for the Blind. Individual attention from Joe Cutter, Heather Field, and other mentors provided families with an opportunity to expand their blueprints and establish a solid foundation for their children, not to mention get to know new friends and have a few laughs in true Federation fashion.

            The second day of the conference included some new faces and many participants from day one. The Saturday session began with a presentation from Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, who told the families, “We built this Institute for your children and their future.” After Dr. Zaborowski’s inspiring opening remarks, Heather Field and Carla McQuillan again provided a one-two punch on the topic of “The Importance of Beginnings.” With personal stories, professional experience, and practical wisdom, Heather and Carla built upon the foundation they had provided on day one of the conference.

            Karen Frank then presented the blueprint of the expanded core curriculum or, as we often say in the Federation, the skills of blindness. Karen discussed the various aspects of skills such as Braille, cane travel, and daily living skills and how those skills integrate with the traditional academic subjects. Karen’s presentation led nicely into a presentation by Joe Cutter entitled “Beyond the Four Walls of Your Home.” Joe’s presentation captured the full attention of the audience, and his experience, examples, and video clips demonstrating the bottom up approach in action expanded the audience’s imagination of what their children or students would achieve.

            In order to tie the morning together and focus the audience on the future, a panel entitled “Blueprints: Our Personal Experience” presented a variety of unique perspectives. This panel included Brigit Doherty, a special educator; Nikos Daley, a senior at Loyola High School in Baltimore; and Christopher Danielsen, editor of the Voice of the Nation’s Blind. These blind speakers provided information about the things that have helped them to be successful and also what barriers were put in front of them by well meaning individuals.

            During lunch a number of exhibitors were on hand to share information with conference attendees. An opportunity was also available to visit the NFB Materials Center. After lunch everyone returned to the auditorium for a brief presentation by Lisa Wright, which expanded on her presentation from the previous day. Before going into the afternoon breakout sessions, all of the mothers in attendance received flowers in recognition of Mother’s Day.

            The afternoon concluded with four breakout sessions that were extremely popular. These included “The Importance of Play and Friendships,” “Active Learning and Your Child with Multiple Disabilities,” “Developmental Orientation and Mobility,” and “Teaching Your Child Self-Advocacy Skills.” As with Friday, a number of attendees wished there had been time to attend multiple breakout sessions. However, each attendee was supplied with a thick conference packet, which included handouts from each session and a wealth of articles and resources compiled by the NFB. These conference packets will keep the attendees well armed with information long after the conference.

            At the end of the two-day conference, attendees gathered in the Jernigan Institute auditorium to discuss the conference and its impact. The attendees wanted to see more programming of this type offered by the Institute and more resources made available describing and outlining the approaches discussed at the conference. Many conference attendees asked for copies of the audio recordings from the conference, and those will soon be available through the Jernigan Institute.

            Without question the Beginnings and Blueprints Conference was a great success. The foundation has been laid to reach out and improve opportunities for the youngest blind children. Additionally a partnership with professionals in the field has been forged. The professionals articulated their need and desire for quality information to help them empower parents and reflect on and improve their own practices. But probably the most important success of this conference was the young blind children walking with their white canes and exploring their environments. These are the future leaders, the future dreamers, the future inventors; and their early start is helping them to build a clear blueprint for success. These children, along with their parents, are the reason we have an early childhood initiative; they are the reason a conference like this is critical. If you are asked about the work of the Jernigan Institute and why it is important, just remember the children who were influenced by our Beginnings and Blueprints Conference and the children we will affect in the months and years to come.

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