by Carol Castellano
From the Associate Editor: Carol Castellano is the president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. She is one of the most eloquent voices today advocating for the right of blind children to grow up independent and competent. She was the final panelist addressing the education needs of blind children on Wednesday morning, July 8. This is what she said:
A four-year-old child has entered preschool. He is highly sensitive to light and glare. His 20/400 vision makes it difficult for him to make out the print on the page in front of him. If he wears his sunglasses so that he can tolerate the indoor light, he can no longer see the page. The school principal demands at an IEP meeting to know exactly how many light bulbs she must remove from the ceiling fixture in order to accommodate the boy’s sensitivity to light. “If it gets too dark in the classroom,” she warns the boy’s mother, “we’ll be out of compliance with state regulations for the rest of the children.” When this little boy walks from place to place in the school, an aide provides a constant flow of verbal information—be careful, there’s a desk in the hallway; slow down, the janitor’s bucket is in our way; watch out, here come the stairs. When he steps outside for recess, he is blinded by the daylight. The aide holds his hand so that he does not fall off a curb or trip over a tree root. There are no Braille and no cane in this child’s life because--he is not blind.
A girl sits in a fourth-grade classroom, an aide by her side. The aide retrieves the child’s books, reads to her, accompanies her in the hallways, and eats lunch with her in the school cafeteria. Why does the aide walk with her and read to her, I ask. The mom explains, “Well, those things are very visual.” There are no Braille and no cane in this child’s life because--she is not blind.
A fourteen-year-old high school freshman is having difficulty navigating the hallways and stairwells of his new school. Someone has suggested placing bright yellow tape at the top of each stairway. Another recommended hiring a full-time aide to keep the boy safe and also to take notes for him since he cannot see the board and can’t really read his own handwriting. The deliberations of the school team and parents are slow and cautious—especially in view of the nervous breakdown the boy had at the beginning of the school year and his subsequent hospitalization for anxiety and depression. There are no Braille and no cane in this boy’s life because--well, you know, he is not blind.
A twenty-four-year-old sits at home angry and depressed. Unable to complete college and not working, he has no goals and doesn’t believe he can accomplish anything. When I mention the possibility of his getting training at one of our centers, his mom immediately stops me. “Oh, no, he doesn’t need that. He hasn’t ever spent time with that kind of person. He doesn’t think of himself as visually impaired.”
These stories are real—only identifying details were changed. When the parents of these children called, they wanted me to understand that their child WAS NOT BLIND.
Frank is a child with albinism, a second grader. He uses the vision he has very well, but his mother recognizes that it might not work for him later when the print becomes smaller and more dense. When she suggested at a school meeting that Frank learn Braille, the teacher of the blind responded, “Oh, I’d hate to do that to him.” She went on to explain to the school staff that Braille is not a quick thing to learn, that poor Frank would have to learn all different grades of Braille and then would have to learn another code for math and even another system for music.
When it came time to discuss mobility, Frank’s mother related how Frank tripped over small rises in the terrain, used his foot as a feeler in unfamiliar places, and had run headlong into a glass sliding door at his aunt’s house. The mom thought Frank should learn how to travel with a cane. The O&M instructor explained that Frank didn’t qualify for cane use and, what’s more, he needed to trip over things so that he would learn to pay more attention.
At the end of the meeting the director of special services contributed her expert opinion—though they’d never had a visually impaired student in their school district before. She’d done her research, she told us, contacting directors in other school districts. “Nobody,” she proclaimed, “was giving Braille to kids who could see.” “And,” she continued, “I found out Frank would read the Braille with his eyes anyway. They’d have to blindfold him to get him to read the Braille with his fingers. I just can’t get that image out of my mind,” she cried, “that poor little boy sitting at a table blindfolded.” Then, turning coldly to the mother, she hissed, “I just don’t understand why you would want to make that child blind.”
In that statement lies the crux of the resistance to providing training in nonvisual skills to children with partial sight. Contrary to the sentiment expressed in a favorite slogan of ours, to most of the general public it’s still bad to be blind. Current research continues to find that the public fears going blind even more than they fear their own death.
So I guess it’s natural—or at least predictable—that, when parents hear from the professionals that their child is not blind, they feel relieved. “Thank goodness she’s got that little bit of vision,” the doctors say. “You’re lucky,” the teachers tell them. “She won’t have to learn Braille.” “He’s got a lot of travel vision. He won’t need a cane.” The child is encouraged to use his remaining vision and is rewarded by making Mom and Dad happy when he is able to see.
Another component of the resistance to teaching nonvisual skills to partially sighted people is the school of thought that holds that truly the needs of the visually impaired are different from those of the blind. One proponent of this thinking is Sam Genensky, the Harvard- and Brown-University-trained mathematician who invented, back in the late 60s, the closed circuit TV. Too frequently, says Dr. Genensky, the visually impaired are given the same services as the fully blind, preventing them from making good use of the sight they have remaining. Why offer the visually impaired only Braille, he says, when many of them could read a book with large enough type? I think we can fairly say that intelligent people of good will fall on both sides of this debate.
A third aspect of the resistance to providing training in nonvisual skills is the way in which most of our teachers of the blind are trained. The approach seems to have grown out of both the idea that visually impaired people really do need different skills and the negative emotional reaction to blindness.
A current textbook, Foundations of Low Vision: Clinical and Functional Perspectives, copyright 1996 and reprinted in 2007, includes the Bill of Rights for Persons with Low Vision. Number four is the right “to develop an identity as a sighted person who has low vision.” The authors are careful to state, however, that “the person for whom the use of vision is not preferred, not desirable, or too stressful must be respected for this choice” and “If a person…feels more comfortable functioning as a person who is blind, that choice should be respected.” What happened to just functioning as a human being?
In arguing against the use of the term “legally blind,” this same book states that by using this term we are blinding people by definition. Legally blind children, the authors tell us, can be “psychologically affected by being considered blind by teachers and relatives.” And—this is my favorite—“To call a person with severe vision loss `legally blind’ is as preposterous as calling a person with a severe illness ‘legally dead.’”
With that kind of attitude underlying the textbooks from which our teachers of the blind are learning their trade, is it any wonder that our students with partial sight are being denied Braille? Research has been done to assess teachers’ attitudes toward Braille. The conclusion was that we can rest easy—teachers love Braille. But the researcher failed to ask the salient question. What about Braille for partially sighted children? It turns out that teachers are strongly in favor of Braille, but only for those for whom they think Braille is appropriate and that would be for those they call “functionally blind.” Now I do understand and believe that no teacher ever got into the business so that she or he could deny a child a good education. The decisions being made in regard to reading medium are made not with evil intent but with seriously misguided thinking.
One particularly insidious element of the training teachers of the blind receive involves what is called the learning media assessment, a process which is meant to determine objectively whether or not a child needs Braille. For the most part the learning media assessment came into existence in direct response to our success in getting the right to Braille into state and federal law.
Many fundamental and serious problems pervade the learning media assessments in use today. I will focus here on just a few. The assessment most commonly used today—and referred to as the Bible and the gold standard—describes itself as objective, deliberate, systematic, documented, structured, careful, data-driven, and evidence-based. Ironically, an assessment can be all of these things and still be wrong.
Bias toward print and the use of vision is evident on almost every page. And, though the assessment claims to be evidence-based, there is absolutely no research to back up either the approach or the conclusions drawn using it. They do indeed collect data, but is it the data on which a decision on reading medium should be based? The approach is to observe the student doing ordinary activities and to note whether the child does them using what they call “the visual channel,” “the tactual channel,” or “the auditory channel.” If you ask me, the whole thing is more like the science fiction channel.
When the observations are complete, the teacher adds up all the Vs and Ts and As and identifies what they call the child’s “preferred sensory channel.” The authors inform us that this is also the channel through which the child receives information “most efficiently.” Then, based on whether the chart has the most Vs, Ts, or As, the child is determined to need print or Braille. Well let me tell you that for the partially sighted child being assessed in this manner, the channel turns out to be visual and the reading medium turns out to be print.
To be fair, I should say that there is a section in the manual called “Benefits of Braille Reading and Writing.” It consists of five bulleted items and is a total of eighty-two words—counting a, an, and the period. In a book of 220 pages, eighty-two words on the benefits of Braille.
It’s a difficult task even to begin enumerating the problems inherent in this approach. But I’ll try. Were there lots of visual channel answers because lots of visual items were presented? Why did the child use a particular channel for a particular task? Did the child look at that picture visually because no tactile picture was offered? Did the child use vision instead of touch because he has always been encouraged to use it and rewarded for using it? Could it have been the only one he was allowed to use? Is the so-called preferred sense necessarily the most efficient? And what’s the definition of efficient, anyway?
And since when do we make serious decisions on our children’s behalf according to their preference? Nah, I don’t want to do that long division; I prefer recess. Mmmm, I don’t think I’ll eat those vegetables; I prefer M&Ms. What is preferred by the child is not necessarily what is best for the child.
Drawing conclusions about whether or not to teach Braille based on an approach so fraught with defects reminds me of the story of the scientist who was researching what happened when you pulled the legs off a bug. He pulled the first leg off and yelled, “Jump!” And the bug jumped. He pulled the next leg off and told the bug to jump, and the bug jumped. The experiment continued with the scientist pulling off the legs and the bug jumping until the scientist pulled off the last leg. “Jump!” he demanded. “Jump!” he said again. But the bug just lay there. “Ah ha!” the scientist concluded. “I have just proved that when you pull all the legs off a bug, the bug becomes—deaf.”
During this convention you’ve been hearing Dr. Maurer and our other speakers bringing a lot of attention to the problems with the education of blind children, and, when we decide to put the might and the money and the mind-power of the National Federation of the Blind toward a problem, you can bet we’ll get results.
Here are just a few of the exciting areas we are working on in addition to our ongoing programs and initiatives:
I am so excited about these initiatives because they have the potential to remedy these very real problems in the field.
When I was preparing for this convention, I was looking for a middle-school-age speaker for our youth panel. I called one of our families in Illinois and asked the mom if her son might like to be on the panel. I told her the speech would have to be written out and that he should practice reading it. “He’d love to,” the mom replied. “But could you just ask him questions instead of his reading? He just started learning Braille [after a two-year battle, I might add] and can’t see to read a speech in print.” So, while the schools ask us “Why do you want to make that child blind?” I’m asking why would anyone want to make a child illiterate and unable even to read a simple speech?Our work and initiatives, ongoing and new, are creating a new reality, one in which claims will be backed up by research; one in which every blind child learns the tools that enable him to keep up with peers and perform to his maximum potential; a reality in which every blind child has the opportunity to be competent, confident, competitive, and empowered. Fellow Federationists, I couldn’t imagine a more meaningful calling in life than to be doing this important work with all of you.