by Denise M. Robinson
From the Associate Editor: Denise Robinson, PhD, is the coordinator of programming for blind and vision impaired students in the Yakima Valley School Districts of Washington State. Dr. Robinson has cultivated a friendly relationship with Federationists in our Washington affiliate, and she administers the programs under her direction with a progressive educational philosophy emphasizing high expectations, academic competitiveness, and age-appropriate social goals for her students. Dr. Robinson was invited to share her recipe for success and approach to education with delegates attending the national convention on the morning of Wednesday, July 8. Here is what she said:
Good morning. Albert Einstein once said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With a 74 percent unemployment rate and an 80 percent illiteracy rate among the blind, I would say we need to do different things and have different results in the school's instructional methodology for blind and low-vision students to alleviate these distressing statistics. Some people say the figures are not that high. Okay, is it more acceptable if a 60 percent unemployment and 60 percent illiteracy rate are determined to exist for America's blind students? Is a 40 percent rate in these categories more acceptable? With society screaming at 8.5 to 10 percent unemployment among the sighted right now, how can we say a higher rate is more acceptable for the blind population?
Shouldn’t the statistics for unemployment be the same for blind and sighted people if everyone is taught the same and has the same abilities? Everyone, however, is not taught the same, and the blind consistently lack employment opportunities because of poor instruction and low expectations in today’s schools and society. These statistics have not changed in decades for many reasons: inadequate numbers of teachers in the field; teachers without Braille or technology skills; differing views on teaching Braille and, if Braille is taught, at what age to begin instruction; a focus on using only residual vision; and a myriad of other factors.
Having watched good and bad techniques applied in the blindness education field since the early 1990s in Michigan, where I began my career, I have formed drastic ideas and made changes to the typical instruction for the blind in America, or at least in my neck of the woods. The culmination and success of these ideas came together in a small program I formed when I moved to a school district north of Seattle, Washington, in 1998 as a teacher of the blind. These ideas and successes continued and grew when I became teacher and coordinator of all blind programming in central Washington State at an educational school district overseeing twenty-five school districts. I’m convinced that the components of this program reflect our special education laws, enabling blind children with varying visual acuities to become independent and successful.
In the program that I run, the question is not a matter of print or Braille; it is both. Any child who struggles with seeing information that is close up is taught Braille, access technology, and other blindness skills commensurate with the vision loss, including orientation and mobility. At present not 10 percent but, of the sixty-five students enrolled in our program, 60 percent are learning Braille, technology, print, and other blindness skills. Every skill possible is taught to enable these children to become independent. In addition to this instruction, training classes for all paraprofessionals employed in our program to become Braille- and technology-literate occur weekly. Family nights are set up for families to gain other information about educating their blind children throughout the year. This also gives the families time to meet and talk with each other.
Ideally we get the children as young as possible. I like to call it “coming from the womb.” I go to the child’s home and help the parents learn techniques to work with their child, teaching pre-Braille, pre-cane, and tactile skills. At three years old children in our program begin preschool, and I also work with the staff at the child's first school. Then I can begin formal Braille and technology training, just as the sighted kids are learning their literacy skills. Children this young can usually do fifteen- to twenty-minute lessons five days a week. They can do more if their parents follow through with home-based instruction on weekends. This amount of time may seem short, but you would be amazed at what can be accomplished in fifteen minutes. Ideally I like the families to follow through at home, reinforcing the lessons I teach the child. I encourage them to use real-life lessons too: going for a walk and having their blind child pick up sticks, stones, and leaves along the way; smelling flowers while walking; playing spelling games as they travel; and having the child help cook, clean, and do the daily activities that they must learn in order to survive on their own later in life.
When I am doing lessons with little children, the language I use helps them see how Braille and print relate to one another. When working on a Braille lesson, I ask the child, “How is that spelled on the computer?” When working with a computer screen reader, I ask, “What is the Braille contraction for that word?” Seamless flow occurs between the lessons, and, by the time the children enter kindergarten, they know all their Braille letters, dozens of contractions, all the letters on the keyboard, and a plethora of talking software commands. By the time they enter kindergarten, they are as far along in their literacy skills as their sighted classmates.
This strategy enables blind children to keep up easily with their sighted peers. In this ideal program a paraprofessional is present but not in the room, helping the child do everything or, worse, doing the work for the child. Instead the paraprofessional is adapting the work so that it is ready when needed, allowing the child to have it at the same time as his or her sighted peers. The paraprofessional is with the child only to help integrate Braille and technology lessons throughout the day.
The second part of this ideal program involves children who come into school districts when they are older than three to five. Getting these children started on Braille, technology, and O&M immediately is essential. I do this by integrating actual curriculum from the classroom into the lessons with the children so that, when they get back in class, they are already using the same materials as the rest of the students. The first year can be a huge struggle for students who enter the system later than kindergarten. They are already playing catch-up if they begin after the age of five. By the second year of instruction in Braille, technology, and O&M for these older students, they are flowing along in their learning. They may be at the bottom or the middle of the rest of the reading groups because they are still gaining the Braille and technology knowledge, but by the following year they are caught up.
I have discovered that children learn technology quickly. Within two weeks (less for junior high and older students), blind children in our program can master the whole keyboard and enough talking software commands that they can produce material faster than their sighted peers. Using this combination of Braille and technology training, I have children reach the top of their reading groups and score the highest on their state tests in their grade level. I have to emphasize here that it takes a well-trained paraprofessional adapting all materials before the student needs them and following through on lessons given by the teacher of the blind every day to accomplish this. In addition these paraprofessionals make sure that the regular education teachers are following through with keeping the blind children independent. We emphasize to the classroom teachers that they must apply the same standards and expect the same amount of work and the same level of achievement for the blind or low-vision child as they do for the sighted child.
Paraprofessionals are not allowed to hold the blind child’s hand when walking somewhere with them, nor are paraprofessionals permitted to do their work for them. Students need to be using their canes and doing their own work so that they can learn how to compete and act in the same manner as their sighted peers.
Teaching in this ideal fashion was easier in the one district I previously had north of Seattle, where I taught a small student case load. I was able to see all of my education students every day, and I was quickly able to adapt or modify the program to perfect instruction for each of them; however, when I took a new position as coordinator and teacher over the whole part of Washington State, I had to incorporate new strategies.
Five years ago, in an area that encompassed twenty-five school districts and forty-two children at the time, I was the only teacher of the blind. The paraprofessionals were doing the work for most of these children, and teachers gave the blind students good grades no matter what they turned in. I had students in honors classes who did not know sentence structure. Some of my blind students Brailled from the top left-hand corner of the paper to the bottom right-hand corner of the sheet with only three periods interspersed throughout the page. They read their Braille to the paraprofessional with one hand at fifteen words per minute, and the paraprofessional wrote it out and gave it to the teacher in the paraprofessional’s edited format. These blind students also had only basic math skills. They were getting As in all of their classes. The pity these children were given was stifling and nauseating. I know the regular education teachers thought giving good grades for poorly completed work was love and kindness to these poor, poor blind children. Really this was a death sentence to their futures.
Many of the regular education teachers still do not get this. They think I am cruel when I tell them to grade the students according to their work and expect the same quality of work from them as they do from their sighted peers. These teachers do not think about what will happen when these students graduate and have to compete with people who actually worked for their grades and achieved success. One of the slowest processes is changing people’s minds about the capabilities of these children. It can sometimes be slow and painful, but it’s worth the fight. My whole team works at this daily. Fewer of our teachers now are giving good grades just because the blind child got up in the morning, walked to the class independently, and emailed them a copy of their homework. They actually expect the child to work for the grade given.
Unfortunately we still have some teachers passing students along whether they do work or not. But slowly and surely the attitudes are changing. We’re getting there. Like the persistent drop of water, we will penetrate the Stone-Age thought pattern that the blind need to be pitied and given things whether they work for them or not. We will change the thought pattern of the blind child himself, eliminating his idea that he needs help with everything and replacing it with the idea that, when given the right instruction and tools, he can do it by himself. This is occurring now. The children are gaining confidence in their own abilities.
Five years ago, when I began with so many school districts and so many children, I knew I needed to get paraprofessionals trained as fast as humanly possible. But first I needed to get all the districts onboard supporting this new idea I had about programming. I went to the special education directors meetings and showed them videos from my previous school district north of Seattle of these incredibly independent, fully functioning children at school, successfully competing with their sighted peers. They were amazed and awed at stories of children reading assignments from their Braille books, then turning to their computers and outputting work faster than their sighted peers, of students using different types of technology and tools to achieve their goals, of students scoring at the top both in their classes and on state tests. The special ed directors truly had no idea that blind children could work and be independent. So, when I asked them to release their paraprofessionals during the work day for training, they agreed. When I asked that the paraprofessionals get paid for their training hours, they also agreed. When I asked for the thousands of dollars it would take to order equipment to begin the program, they got onboard. I also assured them that I could not only operate all this equipment, but I could also support and fix it. So they trusted that it would not be ordered and then be put in a closet to collect dust.
During this process, which unfolded over several months, I followed up with personal visits with the directors in the districts, forming bonds that I knew would be important in continuing support for this type of programming. It worked; it worked very well. And they all know they can call me with any question about their student, and I can answer it. Close contact and good communication are essential in building a program like this. Once I got the support, I set up bimonthly training classes in which I taught Braille and technology to twelve people. It took about a year and a half for them to get Braille-certified and only a few months to get them comfortable with the technology and to start outputting the large quantity of work the students needed in their classrooms daily. As you know, getting books on time is sometimes a challenge, but when we had the paraprofessionals adapting all the materials that we could not get, every student had the work in the room when the teacher was going to use it. Now, in situations where the paraprofessionals are learning Braille right along with the students, I can no longer do the ideal of using the classroom curriculum to teach the students Braille. Instead we use a well-known Braille curriculum from the Printing House for the Blind called Patterns. Whenever I come in to teach the student a Braille lesson, the paraprofessional sits right with me and learns right along with the students. The students learn exponentially faster and soon pass the adults. I then continue to have the adult lessons separately because the adults learn so much more slowly.
New Braille classes start every year, and, because I have another Braille-certified person able to teach them, we can now have weekly classes. About ten more people are now ready to take the Braille certification exam. We also have three people we call Braille specialists who have Braille certification, and they can also teach the technology component, but they just do not have a formal college degree in special education. They help implement programming so the students can reach that one-to-one intense instruction time each day for one to two hours and help integrate these skills throughout the day along with all our certified paraprofessionals. So the students are continually using their blind skills. I constantly stress with the paraprofessionals and parents the importance of independence and the necessity of the children doing their own work. They must do their own chores at home. They must walk independently using the cane when going somewhere. More than anything these children are redefining within themselves who they are and what they can do. They too had no idea they could be so successful and independent.
Unfortunately, the later children start Braille, technology, O&M, and daily life skills, the harder it is for them to internalize the idea of independence. They have gained many bad habits and have become accustomed to others doing everything for them. The majority of my students who began this program in high school still only read about seventy words a minute and fight cane use like the plague. All children say they want to be just like everyone else. In the most loving way I try to explain why these skills are so important and what the consequences will be if they do not learn them. Some get it. Many do not because they have started their training so late. A huge majority of those who start late have progressive eye conditions, but at least they know enough Braille that they can get going with it later on when they desperately need it. Of course there are great centers for the blind, where they could gain more training later.
But over and over I have found that the later you start instruction with blind children, the slower they are to learn and accept the skills and to understand the true definition of independence. The earlier children start, the faster they learn and retain it. Even if they stop using certain skills in their high school years because they happen to move to a district where a low-vision child uses large print only, they can still pick it up again later on more quickly and use it. After they graduate and realize they really need the Braille, they can pick it up again much faster than if they had never started at all.
Since I oversee twenty-five school districts, I encounter various scenarios, many of which are not ideal. I have one school district that just does not use their money wisely, so they have budget issues every year, and all of their children suffer. To save money, they are trying to have one paraeducator teach their blind children, but they have agreed to a teacher of the blind to oversee the program. I have another district that rarely gets its paperwork done on time and so has faced lawsuits for not keeping up with the rules and regulations even though the children are getting exceptional service.
The recession has decreased available monies for additional equipment, so we have relied more on donated computers in order to continue instruction so that every child also has a computer in the home. In four short years going on five, our program has made great progress. We will soon have (we are hiring another) four full-time teachers of the blind, two of whom are also certified in orientation and mobility, plus another one that comes in monthly. We have three highly qualified Braille specialists, who are skilled in all areas of blind education but just lack the formal college degree, and ten Braille-certified paraprofessionals and six more ready to take the Braille certification test. Half a dozen parents are also working towards certification, taking the weekly Braille classes. The students have excelled using their newfound skills. Because they use these skills throughout the school day, they have made dramatic improvements. With Braille-certified paras, students’ materials are ready, and they are included in the classroom instruction all day long. Constant integration of these lessons through the day is the key.
So here are the results: With the administrator supporting the ever-increasing and changing requirements to enable blind children to rise to their full potential, with a growing number of teachers who expect their blind students to hand in quality work and receive grades according to their efforts, with parents who have started to dream dreams again about the potential of their children, and with blind students who are independent and realizing their own potential, we are in the process of changing that 70 to 80 percent unemployment and illiteracy rate. We are in the process of changing the world’s idea of what it means to be blind.