Braille Monitor                                                   February 2010

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Participation in Extracurricular and Nonacademic Activities
The Blind Student Perspective

by Larry E. Streeter

Larry StreeterFrom the Editor: Larry Streeter, a longtime Federationist, earned his PhD in education leadership from the University of Idaho in May 2007. He presently serves as an administrator at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis, Indiana. Prior to assuming his current post, Dr. Streeter was assistant principal at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in North Carolina. Before leaving Idaho, Dr. Streeter was the dispute resolution coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education, and he served as president of our Idaho affiliate from 2000 to 2005.

The following article is a revised and abbreviated version of Dr. Streeter's doctoral dissertation on the correlation between the involvement of blind students in extracurricular and nonacademic activities and their educational experiences. It has been rewritten to appeal to the general readership of the Braille Monitor. Because certain portions of his paper have been omitted, specific details and some explanatory analysis that shows the relationship between the identified problems and his recommendations have been omitted from this document. Dr. Streeter's assumptions and conclusions have clearly been influenced by the Federation's perspective on blindness. In publishing his work, we hope that professionals and informed parents will adopt his recommendations for greater inclusion of blind students in all aspects of the educational journey. Here is what he says:

Blind people have long combated misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination from the public at large. These battles have been all too frequent. Many of the conflicts have taken place in the extracurricular and nonacademic arena at the high school and college levels. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in 1965 explained the challenges of being blind:

When an individual becomes blind, he faces two major problems: first, he must learn the skills and techniques which will enable him to carry on as a normal, productive citizen in the community; and second, he must become aware of and learn to cope with public attitudes and misconceptions about blindness—attitudes and misconceptions which go to the very roots of our culture and permeate every aspect of social behavior and thinking.

The vast majority of blind high school students are now educated in public schools as opposed to residential schools for the blind. Although numerous blind students have overcome obstacles and soared to great heights by successfully pursuing extracurricular activities during high school and college, many others are isolated or insulated. They have been denied the chance to develop self-esteem and to experience teamwork, health and fitness, and sportsmanship. The lack of understanding and the misconceptions noted by Dr. Jernigan contribute to the barriers for blind students and may divert them from participating in various activities.

Involvement in extracurricular activities has a number of social and academic benefits for both blind and sighted students. Those so engaged tend to have greater satisfaction with school compared to those who are not involved. Engagement in sports, fine arts, clubs, or organizations promotes citizenship, develops positive school spirit, substantially decreases the drop-out rate, and adds educational value—which often influences student achievement. Athletic activity, for example, may not help, but does not obstruct the academic achievement of students; direct results of athletics include goal setting, physical fitness, self-discipline, and teamwork.

The Study

This dissertation examined one question. What are the supports in high school and college that influence and the constraints that impede blind student participation in extracurricular and nonacademic activities in three categories: organized sports and intramurals, clubs and organizations, and performing arts? The researcher contacted and provided information to consumer organizations of the blind, rehabilitation agencies, and schools for the blind. Eight male and eight female full-time college students from various collegiate settings and majors were selected to participate in the study. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Individual profiles were drawn up and a group depiction developed. We identified the following five themes and three codes for each theme and analyzed them for similarities and recurrences:

1. Barriers are anything that restrains or obstructs progress. Barriers can be self-imposed, resulting in a lack of self-belief. Environmental concerns include difficulty or inability in accessing materials, technology, or transportation. Public attitudes encompass all levels of society, where expressed attitudes range from acceptance to discrimination.

2. Engaging is knowing how to react and what actions to take when overcoming barriers is critical. How engaged is a blind student willing to be? The student may be unwilling to participate. The challenge may be too great, or the student may lack knowledge of how to proceed. A student may decide to seek help but needs assistance to achieve inclusion in an activity. Self-advocacy occurs when the student knows what he or she wants, seeks the information without assistance, and arrives at the given activity ready to participate fully.

3. Influence is the process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, and opinions of others. Success for the blind student is influenced by interactions taking place within the family, school, and community. For any child, parent and family influence from birth is the most critical. The way family members adjust and react to the child is of primary concern. School personnel play almost an equally important role. Community influence involves interactions with friends, peers, and employers.

4. Skills are the alternative techniques of blindness—Braille, independent travel, assistive technology, and techniques of daily living. The underlying issue is the level of training the student has reached. A blind student may have been excluded from the opportunity to learn the techniques or is just now receiving initial training because of the recent onset of blindness. As training occurs, the student moves toward becoming proficient. The final phase is reached when the student achieves and maintains a confident and competent level in a given skill.

5. Freedom is the right to enjoy all the privileges of citizenship in a community and is characterized by the ability to exercise choice. Denial occurs when the blind person does anything to avoid being identified as blind and refuses to deal with blindness as a subject or use the techniques associated with blindness. Adjusting to blindness occurs when the individual begins to confront the condition through challenging daily experiences. As the blind person continues to read, discuss, and exchange ideas, a philosophy of blindness emerges.

Participant Reflections

Students in this study candidly discussed their involvement in various extracurricular activities and identified positive and negative forces in their quest for equal opportunity to participate. The researcher identified two of several exemplary participants, Sarah and Jason, who set the standard for others to follow.

Sarah was a member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish Club and participated in tandem cycling, choir, and voice. In college she joined the choir and the Spanish Club, participated in rock climbing, and served in student government. As a triplet, she had great support from her family. She recalled:

Literature is always an interesting thing. I’ve always been an avid reader. I’d read historical fiction or something and there would be somebody blind mentioned—a blind beggar or something like that. For some reason it didn’t bother me because I always thought, “Well, I don’t have to be in that position.” With my family being so supportive, it just didn’t seem like an option. I mean, I was in school; I was in all these activities. My family always told me that I could do things that I wanted to do, and they taught me how to do things. Sometimes we would all get frustrated, but that’s just part of life in general, I think.

During high school Jason participated in swimming, judo, karate, track and field, and band. He was also active in several clubs. In college Jason was active in rowing, debate, and rock climbing. He joined a fraternity. His philosophy was that blind people can compete with the sighted in the world as partners and equals, relying on hard work, effort, confidence, and competence. Jason stressed that socialization is critical for success. He explained his college rowing experience like this:

The team initially had problems with me participating. Blindness was equated with weakness, and some members of the team thought that I wasn’t physically fit to do it. A lot of that just broke down from my being assertive. The people in charge of the activity were skeptical, so had it not been for my own desire to become just as involved as anybody else, I think I would have just sat around and done nothing.

For Sarah and Jason inner strength and determination prevailed. Other participants shared facts of their encounters in attempting to integrate successfully. The comments that follow are a small sampling of many stories.

Christina was mostly inactive in extracurricular activities in high school and college, but she had wanted to throw the discus or javelin during high school. Her dreams were in vain because no one listened to her pleadings, and she was not strong enough to follow her aspirations. She ultimately gave up. She said:

During my sophomore year I talked to every coach that I could. Then, when a coach left, I went to their replacement and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about this event. I was told by the last coach that they would watch and see if it’s too visual an event, and they’d try to make some adaptations for me. I suggested using my cane as a line to the last coach. Would you watch your event and see if it’s too visual or if it can be adapted?” They just said, “Well, if the last coach didn’t know if it could be adapted, I don’t know if it can be.” I replied, “Well, why don’t you let me participate in the practices just to see if something is too much, because I did track in elementary school. I have a history of track and field.” I figured academics would take up a lot of my time, so I didn’t really worry about it, but I was pretty irritated.

In high school Samuel was on the wrestling team and joined the Spanish Club. His college activity was limited to being a member of the student government. He questioned each time he went to wrestling practice if he was being treated fairly and whether expectations were lowered to allow him in. He reflected upon his journey as a blind student and discovered fair treatment does not always exist:

So it was a pretty big team. I was generally put with a lot of freshman, a lot of underclassmen, even as an upperclassman. Other experienced people would take turns with the varsity wrestlers at their weight and stuff like that. This practice was just lowering the bar, I think.

The oldest participant, Lauren, was fully engaged in numerous activities in high school and college. Band, orchestra, choir, dance, judo, drama, and track and field took up her high school hours. She expanded her interests and talents during college by participating in ice-skating, rowing, rock climbing, yearbook, kayaking, tandem cycling, and student government. She articulated what it takes to be successful:

If you’re not a confident person in general, I think you need to develop confidence enough in your abilities to be able to advocate for yourself. Some people out there won't believe that you can do what you want to do. So you need to have enough belief in yourself. Confidence would be the first quality that you need to possess. Self-advocacy would be the next quality or characteristic that I think is really necessary for success. Also a lot of flexibility and imagination is required. You might want to do something, and you might not even know how you’re going to do it, but you have to have the creativity to figure out how to do it.

For years Scott had difficulty dealing with and adjusting to his blindness. Nevertheless he played football, wrestled, and competed in track and field in high school. In college he joined a political club, worked out lifting weights, and formed a band. His major obstacle was accepting and using a cane. His road to victory was long and challenging, but he ultimately prevailed. He recalled:

I didn’t like going around with a cane. Back when I was twelve or thirteen, I delivered papers on a paper route. My mom said, “Look, if you’re going on your paper route, you’re walking with a cane.” I said, “Fine, good."  I’d walk out, get down the block, cross the street, fold it up, and put it in my newspaper bag. She got onto that and gave me a straight cane. Then I would walk down, cross the street out of sight, shove the cane down my pants and into my shoe, and walk around like that.

Rebecca competed in track and field events, was a member of the National Honor Society and student council, and participated in drama and choir. In high school and college she served on the yearbook staff. From the onset Rebecca was determined to work on her high school yearbook in some capacity. She commented:

In high school I did the yearbook, just because we didn’t have a newspaper. I did it during my junior and senior years. I can remember people on staff questioning whether I could really participate. I didn't know how I was going to do it. I knew, however, that I would figure something out. Taking matters in hand I said, “Look, obviously I’m not going to be much good with the pictures because I can’t see them, but if somebody can describe them to me, I can do captions. I can definitely write for you.” So that’s what I did. I worked with a friend who identified the pictures while we both wrote the captions. I also wrote the whole story part of the yearbook.

Matthew became extremely involved in the computer and business clubs and ran track during high school. In college his primary interest focused on his involvement in a fraternity, but he also made time for lifting weights. In making his final fraternity selection, Matthew looked at several on his campus and selected the one that made it clear that he would not get a free ride based on his blindness. He expressed his desire for freedom:

I joined that house because, of all the houses that I visited and all the recruiters that I talked to, those in the house I chose said, “You’re blind, but you know we’re going to expect you to do everything that everyone does here. If that’s going to be a problem, we don’t actually want you.” One house told me they’d exempt me from chores because I’m blind and obviously wouldn’t be able to do them. That’s what they told me. I said, “Well, I’m sorry. Is the door straight ahead, because I think I’m out.” I just left. Those people liked me, but I wasn’t about to let someone have that low an expectation of me.

Discussion

The results of this qualitative study were not surprising. The extent of participation in extracurricular activities correlates with the way students cope with and confront barriers. Although barriers may obstruct participation, they are not insurmountable, whether internal, environmental, or attitudinal in society. The drive and motivation to be involved is critical. The blind student must reach a level of self-advocacy where he or she is able to stand and do battle if necessary, even against overwhelming odds. The participants concurred that positive support and influence must emerge from a variety of sources—family members, teachers of the blind, and members of the broader community. The greater the support, the more likely the student is to succeed. Students voiced the opinion that quality skills and positive attitudes are guiding forces that help to emancipate the blind person. They agreed that, generally speaking, in the long run society will not tolerate incompetence from the blind. Therefore blind students must consistently demonstrate their talents and abilities.

This study contained other noteworthy findings. At the college level, female participants were more actively involved in extracurricular activities than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, male students joined fraternities at a greater rate than females joined sororities. Approximately 75 percent of the participants became actively involved in a consumer organization of the blind, most notably the National Federation of the Blind. Much of the energy normally attributed to extracurricular activities on the college campus was channeled into the activities of the organized blind movement. As a point of interest, of the sixteen participants only one used people-first language during conversation with the researcher.

Conclusion

Educators of the blind must accurately assess the needs of students and encourage and teach alternative techniques. Mastery of these alternative techniques must be the default learning method for blind students. Too many students, specifically those with some residual vision, have been deprived of learning alternative techniques. Each student is entitled to receive quality training to be successful in a competitive society. Expectations must be elevated in order to bring about positive outcomes for students.

Throughout our society attitudes about blindness must change, but no single area needs more attention than university programs to train teachers of the blind. The traditional approaches, beliefs, and assumptions observed in education and rehabilitation programs, often based on the concept of the hierarchy of sight, must be cast aside if young people like those interviewed for this study are to have a fair chance to succeed. A philosophy which embraces and combines skills training and attitudes (as ably demonstrated in the NFB training centers) must be launched in all teacher-training programs. Course curriculum must include literature and philosophical viewpoints from blind consumers, open and honest discussions involving blind role models, mandatory use of sleep shades, assignment of mentors to teacher candidates, and attendance by trainees at state and national conventions of the blind. Frequent opportunities to observe, discuss, and interact with a single mentor or thousands of blind people can shape the attitudes of future teachers and change what it means to be blind.

Kenneth Jernigan declared throughout his advocacy career that blind people are normal, ordinary people who simply cannot see. The blind, he said, constitute a minority group with all of the implications that the word implies. According to Dr. Jernigan, the physical condition of blindness is a normal human characteristic that, when combined with others, shapes each person into a distinct human being. With training and opportunity blindness is not a tragedy and can be reduced to the level of an inconvenience. These few lines by Kenneth Jernigan are correct and true principles. Those who have come to understand and apply these principles have been successful and individually changed what it means to be blind, but the battle still remains to be won for our community as a whole.

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