The Braille Monitor                                                                        November 2005


The Role of the Consumer in the Education of Blind Children, from the Perspective of an Educational Program for Teachers of the Blind

by Kay Alicyn Ferrell

Dr. Kay Ferrell
Dr. Kay Ferrell

From the Editor: Dr. Kay Ferrell is executive director of the National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities and a professor in the School of Special Education, College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. She was the third speaker on this panel. We have waited a long time to hear someone from the professorial establishment acknowledge the role of consumers in the education struggle on behalf of blind children. This is what she said:

Thank you, Dr. Maurer. It is indeed an honor to be here. And good morning, Federationists. Thirty-four years ago, a blind man changed my life. First he hired me as his legal secretary after he graduated from Harvard Law School. Then he told me I should be a teacher of the blind--because, he said, I would be "hard on blind kids."

I never asked him what he meant. I think what he meant is that I would have expectations for blind children, that I would see the possibilities and potential of blindness, and that I would know that blindness was no impediment to success. He certainly taught that. He expected me to pass it on. He was my first experience with blindness, and I have never forgotten what I learned from him.

I completed my training as a teacher in the mid-1970's. It was a rude awakening. The emphasis in my master's degree program was on low vision and vision stimulation. It did not take long for me to figure out that the curriculum approached blindness as a problem. Thus Braille was a compensatory skill for reading; Nemeth was a compensatory skill for mathematics (although there wasn't a Nemeth course in the curriculum); and all of the other methodologies we were taught were meant to compensate for the loss of vision. The approach, as is so often the case in special education, emanated from a culture of care, of doing good deeds. My training seemed strikingly different from my experience. Blind people do not need care--they need skills.

I try not to perpetuate that negative attitude at the University of Northern Colorado. Instead of teaching compensatory skills, we talk about alternative skills. We have three Braille courses, one created especially for teaching second-language learners. We try to choose our words carefully because the words we use often reveal our presumptions and prejudices about blindness.

For example, I have never understood why we try to second guess parents of newly identified blind children by interpreting their actions as a stage of the grief process. Why do special educators think that a process associated with death applies to the experiences of families, or why is grief even used as a metaphor? After all, there is no empirical evidence that parents go through a grief process upon learning that their child is blind. Even if you acknowledge that there is some sort of coping strategy going on, why make the analogy to death, the ultimate loss? What does that say about our feelings about blindness?

If you know the facts--in this case, that assumptions are not supported by research--you have to act.

So we did, by changing our views and the language we use and by teaching that blindness is a different way of doing things–not a lesser way, or a second choice, but simply different. I try to avoid what I call visual cultural imperialism, where vision is viewed as the standard and all other experiences are secondary to it, where people with so-called normal vision force their experiences, their perspectives, and their choices on others. Just as history is more than the experiences of white men with power in western civilizations, education is more than the experiences and opinions of sighted people. Visual cultural imperialism is equally oppressive, inherently unequal, and potentially damaging to the education and self-determination of children and adults with visual disabilities.
If you know the facts–how insidious prejudice can be–you have to act.

But what does that have to do with the role of the consumer in the education of blind children? Everything. We need you. We need you as teachers, guest lecturers, role models, and dreamers. We need you to keep us honest, to keep imagination alive. We need more of you to infiltrate the system, and the only way to do that, especially given the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, is to become a certified teacher. There is simply no finer way to change the system.

We also need your advocacy. Too many blind children are being left behind due to good policies implemented poorly. For example, both the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 require that teachers be highly qualified for the subjects and grade levels they teach. That's sort of a "duh." Of course teachers should be highly qualified.

But even this affects blind children. At least two states have exempted teachers at specialized schools for the blind from meeting state standards for highly qualified teachers. This is mind-boggling. Blind children need highly qualified teachers just as much as other children do.

If you know the facts, you must act. Don't let this happen!

These laws and regulations are silent about special education teachers of blind and deaf students, apparently believing that they are consultants to the classroom teacher rather than primary instructors. Yet these teachers work differently from other special education teachers. If the highly-qualified-teacher standards require that you be certified in the subjects you teach, where does Braille instruction fit in? Is it merely a medium, like print, that anyone can teach, or is it reading? If it's reading, do teachers of the blind need an endorsement in reading? Would classroom teachers then need an endorsement in Braille? What about Nemeth code? Where does the code leave off and the mathematics begin? And what happens to the itinerant teacher who is highly qualified to teach her blind students when they are in elementary school but not highly qualified when those same students progress to secondary school a few years later?
Frankly, I worry that urging you to infiltrate the teaching profession is in reality sentencing you and every other teacher of students with visual impairments to perpetual professional development and a life of split personalities, where you are highly qualified one year and not highly qualified the next.

If you know the facts, you have to act.

Because the reason the highly qualified teacher issue is not receiving much attention is that the prevalence of blindness and visual impairment is considered so small that it is inconsequential. According to the U.S. Department of Education, children with visual impairments comprise only 4/100ths of 1 percent of the school-age population. However, because the federal policy requires that children can be counted in only one category, the vast majority of children with visual impairments do not officially exist because they are counted in other disability categories such as deafblind and multiple impairments. In comparison, the American Printing House for the Blind, using the more restrictive criterion of legal blindness, has twice that number registered for annual federal quota funds. In Colorado alone the number of children with visual impairment is three times the number reported to Washington. But officially the U.S. Department of Education believes there are only 26,000 children with visual impairment between the ages of six and twenty-one in the entire country.

Twenty-six thousand children is small and seems insignificant in the larger scale of all children with disabilities. The Department of Education has shown no interest in an accurate count of children with visual impairment. While it does sponsor a separate count of children with deafblindness–which, by the way, consistently finds ten times more children than are reported in the annual IDEA count–calls for an accurate count of children with visual impairments go unheeded.

Visual impairment affects how you learn, not what you learn or how much you learn. Once identified, under the law a child must receive appropriate special education and related services. If a child is never identified, the services do not have to be delivered. You can almost be assured that children who are not identified as visually impaired will never acquire the alternative skills they need for future success.

If you know the facts, you've got to act.

Because, while we all had high hopes for the No Child Left Behind Act, it doesn't necessarily mean great things for blind children. Even though No Child Left Behind requires every child to participate in annual standardized testing, the law allows 5 percent of children with disabilities to be excluded from the report. Obviously, if visual impairment officially comprises only 4/100ths of 1 percent of the school-age population (or 45/100ths of 1 percent of all children with disabilities), it is relatively easy to exclude, especially if their scores are not high. So the promise of No Child Left Behind may actually result in MORE children left behind.
If you know the facts, you must act.

Why should you even care? We consistently hear from the Department of Education that the special education longitudinal studies show that children with visual impairments are doing well, much better than other children with disabilities. At first glance that seems to be true. But if you dig deeper, you find that blind children were not included in some of the studies and that the only children with visual impairments who were included were those who were print readers.

Furthermore, if you examine the state assessment data of those states that report scores by disability category (only twelve), you find that children with visual impairments almost invariably do better than the entire group of children with disabilities. But they are still more than twenty percentage points behind children without disabilities. Knowing as we do that the children identified as being visually impaired are probably not those who have additional disabilities, twenty percentage points behind is nothing to brag about.
If you know the facts, you have to act.

Because in this high-stakes environment children who are blind are at risk. They are too small in number to count, and if they don't count, nothing will change--not that any educator or administrator knowingly excludes blind children. It is simply relatively unimportant to them. It's the politics of scale. They need to hear it from you, the organized blind, about what the issues are, why they are important, and why change is needed.

If you know the facts, you must act.

You must. Washington needs to know that you expect it to pay attention and to take action on behalf of the next generation of blind children.

My husband, a sixties activist and organizer, suggested that I end my speech today with a phrase from a Chilean protest song that he felt captured what I told him I wanted to say to you:

"The people united will never be defeated!"

Have you heard that before?

"The people united will never be defeated!"

As usual, my husband is right. This is truly the way I feel about the role of the consumer in the education of blind children:
"The people united will never be defeated!"

Education needs blind consumers. Christa McAuliffe said, "I touch the future; I teach." You touch the future every time you become involved with a blind child. Keep it up.