From the Editor: On Wednesday morning, July 8, 2010, Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, moderated a panel presentation discussing the failure of the educational system to prepare blind students effectively. The item was one of the most energizing and thought-provoking of the entire national convention. Panel participants were Sheila Amato, EdD, university teacher trainer; Noreen Grice, founder and president of You Can Do Astronomy, LLC; Laura Webber, newly elected president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children; and Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas, parent and advocate. This is what they said:
I am honored and challenged to be speaking before all of you today. This is a time of transition in our field of education and in my life. One week ago today I retired from my day teaching position after serving for thirty-eight years as a teacher of children who are deaf, deafblind, and blind. Let me tell you, it was an agonizing decision to make. It was not the decision that I had always dreamed of making. I anticipated wonderful thoughts of future trips and activities. However, it was a decision made with nightmares of abandoning my students and concerns for their future education.
I had the most wonderful students and parents in the world. Together we shared some amazing experiences. My students had their artwork selected for display in the Helen Keller International Art show. They participated in Braille Readers Are Leaders. My public school district hosted a regional Braille Challenge during each of the past three years, and each time we sent at least one finalist to compete in Los Angeles as one of the top twelve participants in his or her age group. I should have been able to retire with the laurels of success on my head and shoulders. Instead I retired with much concern, concern for the quality of the future education of my students. Whoever comes aboard as their teacher will walk into a position where, among other tasks, he or she will have to transcribe trigonometry, honors Italian, and chemistry into Braille for my blind student who is a high school junior. Challenges, we all face them every day.
When Mark Riccobono invited me to participate as a panel member for a topic related to education of blind students, I was intrigued. When he asked me to focus on innovations that are needed in the preparation of teachers of blind students and what we still need to learn about it, I was in! However, I need to admit to a level of discomfort sitting here before you on a panel for which the title is "The Failure of the Education System in Meeting the Needs of the Blind." As a teacher I would not want my career and my efforts to be thought of as a failure. But after some intense discussion with Mark and others, I have come to realize that this is not a personal reflection on any one teacher, but on a system. The words "failure" and “education" should not be uttered in the same sentence. Yet they often are. I'm here because I believe that the challenges we face together and the solutions that we can develop together have the potential to make the education system one which can and will prepare future teachers to meet the educational needs of our blind students.
In July 1989 more than twenty years ago, Dr. Susan Spungin spoke before a very similar audience at the national convention of the NFB in Denver, Colorado. In her speech she provided her perspectives on why we have increased numbers of illiterate blind people. She grouped these reasons into eight categories. With respect to the time allotted to me for my comments today as well as the request that I focus on the preparation of our future teachers, I will deal with only some of these—those that involve teacher competence and teacher training in Braille, my areas of passionate interest and involvement.
In 1989 Dr. Spungin said that "University teacher-training programs for teachers of visually handicapped students have given lip service to teaching Braille and have over the years graduated less-than-proficient Braille instructors as teachers." In the 1990s, most university programs had only one required Braille course, and 20 percent of them didn't even touch Nemeth code. Now programs have two or even three Braille courses. In addition to the literary code, programs now incorporate Nemeth code, music, foreign language, and computer codes as well as methods and strategies for teaching reading and writing by using Braille and Braille-related assistive technology. A research study has recently been completed that gathered data on how university instructors teach Braille to future teachers. The results of this study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. I eagerly await these data. AER, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind, has just formed a work group to discuss the establishment of national standards for university Braille courses. This work group will convene in two weeks at the biennial AER convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of the topics that will be discussed within this work group is the National Certification in Literary Braille competency test. I have been involved in the test-development process through all of its iterations over the past two decades. This NCLB test is a solid assessment tool to measure the Braille transcription skills of the minimally qualified candidate for entry-level teachers. I am hopeful that discussion will involve the potential for endorsement of this test at the university level and that creative solutions to work out administrative issues among all parties will be developed. We should not allow our university students to take their place as teachers in the classrooms of our children without meeting these standards.
Dr. Spungin also talked about the existing service-delivery models in schools serving blind children, and how, through the concept of least restrictive environment established in PL 94-142, they have favored itinerant and teaching-consult models of services. This model limits the time spent with students because of large caseloads and geographic regions served. While sighted students learn literacy skills throughout the day, our blind children learn Braille perhaps two or three (or five) hours a week while their teachers often spend more time in travel than in direct instruction.
When I was teaching a university Braille course in one of the Midwest states, I had a parent--a mother--in my course, which was designed for teachers. I asked her why she was taking this course, and this was her response. She told me that she had a six-year-old blind son. They lived on three generations of family farmland in a very rural area. She was not willing to send her six-year-old son several hundred miles away from his family to the state school for the blind. The itinerant teacher of the blind could only get to the school to work with her son twice a month and only if the Cessna plane that would bring this teacher to the school was not being used for crop spraying. Thus, if her son was going to learn Braille, it would be up to her to teach him. So here she was.
A crisis exists in the United States because of the shortage of competent teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired. There are approximately forty college- or university-level teacher-training programs in the USA today. Collectively these programs graduate approximately 250 new TVIs per year, this in a field in which we are presently 5,000 TVIs short to fill the existing need. Some states do not have a teacher-training program, while other states have two or three within close proximity.
One solution to the lack of access to teacher-training programs has been online education. While teaching online Braille courses, I experienced the freedom one gains when one realizes that the world is the true classroom and that learning is not bound by four walls and one instructor. As the world becomes their classroom, students begin to add valuable members of the field to their personal and professional networks. Guest speakers can be integral parts of online courses, and they help build community as they share their expertise and experiences via discussion boards. My students have the benefit of learning from and then being able to contact Dr. Abraham Nemeth, creator of the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics, to ask questions, and he is always delighted to speak with them about his life's work. Thank you, Dr. Nemeth.
Another benefit of the online model is that it allows educators to reach students in diverse geographic areas without the requirement of travel. Although the online model is designed to allow flexibility and eliminate the cost and time required to travel to a classroom, many students still juggle jobs, families, and other courses. Time-management skills, organization, and self-discipline are prerequisites of studying Braille online. I have on several occasions said to a student, "Perhaps this is not the best time in your life to be taking this challenging course."
Another question of time is the duration of the course. Is the fourteen- to fifteen-week time frame of a university semester too short to gain true competence in learning Braille? The majority of our regular education teachers are themselves educated in print-rich environments. Yet we expect our future teachers who are learning Braille to be highly qualified in less than four months of instruction. Instead of positive attitudes and love of Braille, some of my students leave with frustration and distaste due to the speed in which they have had to proceed through their lessons. Will these future teachers advocate that their students use Braille if they themselves have not had a personally rewarding experience while learning Braille? And some of my students simply do not pass the Braille course. Last year I had a 40 percent failure rate. While we are in desperate need of more teachers for our students, enabling less than qualified teachers to enter the field as teachers of our blind students is not the answer.
The online method of instruction poses challenges in demonstrating or observing mechanics such as the skill of proper hand position on a Perkins Brailler. In the same way that technology cannot replace Braille, online Braille-simulation software cannot replace the experience of pressing keys while learning to use a Braillewriter. Online Braille instructors need to be able to provide opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate their proficiency with Braille software and the Perkins Brailler without face-to-face interaction. This is yet another way in which we can collaborate to make such learning opportunities available.
And a last-but-not-least comment on the accessibility of online instruction—full and independent access for university students who are blind or visually impaired is not yet assured in the online Braille courses I teach, often due to limitations of computer hardware and software, and sometimes due to lack of owner/operator skills.
Two hundred years after the birth of Louis Braille, I am teaching a new generation of university students who have grown up to view technological gadgets as extensions of their bodies. They are captivated by multitasking: they talk, listen, and text in a synchronized and natural manner. They have instant access to communication and have come to expect that the world will join them in philosophy and practice. The educational model familiar to most instructors preparing teachers in the field of visual impairment has changed, and these shifting paradigms in education have led educators to continually identify new challenges in search of solutions.
In conclusion I would like to share with you a brief story that I wrote. It was written in honor of my grandfather, a carpenter, and my aunt, a retired TVI, who was my first Braille teacher.
When a carpenter goes out to build a house, he has many tools at his (or her) disposal. Although the hammer is a common tool, it comes in various shapes, sizes, and weights, and at varying prices. While it is a tool that is relatively easy to use, a carpenter cannot build a house with a hammer alone.
So the carpenter starts to assemble tools for his toolbox. He can purchase or borrow tools, and some are given to him as gifts. New tools are always coming out on the market, so the carpenter needs to be aware of all of this newfangled technology so that he doesn't get left behind and get a reputation for being the old or obsolete or incompetent or slow carpenter. He needs to learn how to use all of these tools, by either going to a trade school or program or being an apprentice, or working collaboratively with more experienced carpenters. He learns to measure twice, cut once because accuracy is critically important in his trade.
He may never need to use all of these tools in his toolbox, but the choice of which tool to use is up to him, only if he knows how to use them. Otherwise, valuable tools may go untouched at the bottom of his toolbox, and he will never achieve his potential as a carpenter. Not knowing how to use all of these tools could be okay as well. It depends on what he wants to build. If he wants to build a small bench, then a saw and a hammer might suffice. But, if he dreams of building a castle, he would have to be competent in using all the tools to build the castle of his dreams.
How do the tools and skills of a carpenter relate to teaching Braille? Teachers need to teach skills and strategies so that their students will have choices in their educational and vocational careers. In our world some students will learn uncontracted Braille, and they will label their CDs. Some will learn contracted Braille, and they will go to college and earn a degree that is challenging. Some students will surpass us in their knowledge of technology and become our teachers and mentors.
It's all about choice and about having the skills and knowledge to make the correct choice. We teachers and teacher trainers need to assure that the choice is theirs and not the result of the impact of our not teaching the skills they need to know. Thank you.
by Noreen Grice
Twenty-six years ago I was a college student majoring in astronomy. It was the summer of my senior year at Boston University. I had just started a new part-time job in the planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science.
Not long after I started working at the Museum, a group of blind students stood in line for one of my planetarium shows. I was nervous and asked the planetarium manager what I should do. "Just help them to their seats; that’s all you have to do," he said. So I helped these students to their seats and welcomed everyone to the planetarium and pressed the button to start the show. It was a prerecorded show, so I just sat in the console, and at the end of the show I got back on the microphone and thanked everyone for visiting the planetarium.
If you've heard my story before, you know what happened next. The audience walked past the console toward the exit. I wondered what these blind students thought of the planetarium, so I walked around the booth and asked them. They told me bluntly, "The show stunk," and then they walked away.
That moment changed my life. I vowed to make astronomy accessible. I didn't know how to do this, but I was determined to figure it out. Over the years I created tactile astronomy images to accompany all of the planetarium shows and wrote several accessible astronomy books:
I also designed the tactile graphics for The Solar System Radio Explorer exhibit at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Visitor Center, the tactile Carina Nebula poster for the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the tactile maps in the new NASA Touch the Earth book.
To help other educators learn how to make their programs and facilities more accessible, I established my own consulting company called You Can Do Astronomy. I am sighted, and I became a member of the National Federation of the Blind in 2003, when Barbara Cheadle asked me to come and present a couple of accessible astronomy sessions for students at the national convention in Louisville. Since then I've been here at national conventions presenting astronomy programs and participating in a variety of workshops. You’ll find me with the folks from Connecticut.
Beyond the conventions I've been an astronomy instructor for two Circle of Life Academies, one Junior Science Academy, and two high school Youth Slams. I’ve worked with students who are blind or have low vision. Whether they explored tactile star patterns, modeled the seasons and moon phases, measured craters, imaged telescopic views of the night sky by touch, or any of the other many astronomy activities, these students fully participated in each experience without barriers.
Last summer the Slammin’ in Space class at the Youth Slam went on a moon mission at the Maryland Challenger Center. If you are not familiar with Challenger Centers, these are teaching facilities sponsored by the spouses of the astronauts who died aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. Each Challenger Center has a very realistic mission control room with specific stations for crew that includes Navigation, Life Support, Science, Engineering, Communications, Data, and Medicine. A nearby room is a reproduction of the interior of a space laboratory station with work areas for the mission control counterparts. So the navigator in Mission Control communicates by radio with the navigator in the space station. The engineer in Mission Control communicates with the engineer on the space station, and so on. The students must rely on each other to accomplish the mission.
About a week before the students arrived for the Youth Slam, I traveled to the Maryland Challenger Center with Mary Jo Hartle and my co-instructor Ben Wentworth. I took photos and made careful note of the exact requirements for each crew station. For example, the navigation stations in Mission Control and on the space station required the crew to view images on a computer to decide which method was best to achieve orbit. The engineering crew in the space station needed to build a probe from a visual graphic display as the engineer in Mission Control described which components to connect first. The medical crew on the space station had to monitor the space station crew’s health by taking their vital signs while other crew members needed to complete a visual chemical test to check the cleanliness of the space station's water and classify the geology of lunar samples. No problem. I created tactile diagrams and 3-D models, attached Braille labels, and substituted talking medical and chemical instruments. There wasn't much that could not be made accessible. Steve Booth and the staff at NFB headquarters produced Braille versions of the crew manifest.
And what do you think happened on the day of our mission? The students went to their assigned stations, communicated with each other, conducted experiments, corrected an oxygen emergency leak, and successfully landed on the moon. It was great! As we left the Challenger Center and headed back to campus, we talked with the students, and they said the moon mission was one of the most exciting things they had ever done.
I never understand why people assume that students who have low vision or are blind cannot be just as successful as their sighted counterparts. That assumption is just not true. Is it possible for a blind person to become an astronomer or astronaut? Of course! And, when I think of the first blind astronauts, I know two great candidates who are NFB members, students Chelsea Cook (from Virginia) and Terry Garret (from Colorado).
Going back to the story about my experience at the Museum of Science, while I developed astronomy tactile images, I started to think about other ways to make the planetarium more accessible. With grant funding we were able to install an assistive listening system with volume amplification for people who are hard of hearing and also a modular captioning system for deaf visitors. The captioning system, it turns out, was often requested by visitors who spoke English as a second language. They had no problem hearing but told me that it was easier to understand English by reading rather than listening. I was also able to relocate wheelchair-accessible seating from one area to several locations within the planetarium. This allowed people to sit with their friends rather than requiring everyone in a wheelchair to be herded together like cattle.
I live in New Britain, Connecticut, and am an active member of the NFB Central Connecticut Chapter. We meet once a month at the Plainville Library. Recently I borrowed a library book called Accessible Connecticut, which details accessibility resources at many Connecticut museums. I found that most children’s and many science museums offered hands-on activities, but accessibility was extremely limited at art and history museums. I found that out of thirty-seven museums in Connecticut, twenty were described in this book as not being very accessible to a person who is blind,while the other seventeen museums had some accessible, hands-on components. However, these seventeen museums often required advance notice of a week or more that a blind person would be visiting, with the idea that the staff could gather some hands-on materials. Any deaf visitor who required an interpreter needed to give two weeks notice. And I have to wonder, why?
Why can’t a person with a visual or hearing impairment have the same access to a museum at any time as a person with full vision or hearing? Not only does this not seem fair to me, I find it personally outrageous. Making a museum accessible is good for all visitors. For example, many sighted people have different learning styles and do best with tactile materials. Accessibility also helps the museum's bottom line with higher attendance.
I think it takes more effort to make excuses why museums and classes can't be made accessible than it is to simply make them accessible.
I no longer work at the Boston Museum of Science, but I have to tell you about the very last planetarium show I gave. It was Christmas Eve Day 2009, and as usual I was taking tickets for the planetarium show. Visitors handed me their tickets, and I ripped off a portion and handed them back a ticket stub. A mother with her husband and children approached the planetarium entrance and handed me their tickets. When I handed her back the ticket stubs, she said "thank you" in a way that sounded to me as if she was deaf. Without thinking, I said, "we have captioning for this program," and she replied, "You have captioning? We need captioning!" A few minutes later I had the captioning system set up at their seats.
I stepped into the console, welcomed everyone to the planetarium, and pressed the button to start the prerecorded holiday program. During the show I noticed the dim flicker of the captioning display and the silhouette of the family reading the illuminated text. After the show the audience walked past the console toward the exit. As this family approached, I came around the booth to ask them how they liked the planetarium show. They smiled, and the mother joyfully said "What a wonderful thing--captions in the planetarium! We’ll be back.”
As they walked away, I could not help thinking how a planetarium or any museum could transform from an inaccessible place to a destination that could be enjoyed by all visitors--anytime--without advance notice, and regardless of visual, hearing, or physical abilities.
I still wonder why every classroom and museum can’t be an accessible and welcoming place for all because I know it is possible.
by Laura Weber
When Mark asked me to speak to you today about the failure of the educational system in meeting the needs of the blind, my first question was, “How long will I have?” I could stand here all day enumerating the flaws in the current system, but I’d be preaching to the choir. This crowd, more than any other I could address, understands the problems our children face. Some of you have blind children. Some of you were blind children. Some of you teach blind children. Many of you have experienced the failure of the educational system in meeting the needs of the blind, and those who haven’t experienced it certainly have heard about it.
I too have experienced this failure. People may look at me and the other parents on the boards of Texas Parents of Blind Children and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and think, “Wow. These parents really have it together. They’re part of the NFB. They know what it takes for a blind person to be successful. I’ll bet their kids are getting the best services available.” Wrong. Knowing what your child needs and getting what your child needs are two very different things. We’ve had and continue to have our challenges. Let me give you just a few examples:
One national board member has a daughter in elementary school. Kendra was in the first grade last year. She’s incredibly bright and reads at a fourth-grade level. She reads Braille faster than 86 percent of sighted first-grade students nationwide read print. Yet Kendra’s parents were told that she didn’t qualify for the gifted program, in spite of having standardized test scores ranging from the 96th to the 99th percentile for first graders. After two months of trying to use logic and the law with the school system, Kendra’s parents requested a mediator. At that point the district decided that maybe Kendra did qualify for the gifted program after all, but should it have been that hard?
This is an example of blatant discrimination in general education. Would a sighted child with the same reading level, reading speed, and standardized test scores be denied acceptance into the school’s gifted program? No. Kendra’s parents knew that. But knowing wasn’t enough to prevent the problem.
Another national board member has a son in junior high. David began missing school during fourth and fifth grades for headaches that his parents were told were due to sinus infections. A couple days at home each time seemed to solve the problem. In the sixth grade the problem worsened. A few days off now and then no longer helped, and the headaches were constant. David lost about three months of school that year.
The diagnosis didn’t come quickly. David’s parents consulted numerous specialists, and he underwent MRIs, CAT scans, a lumbar puncture, and drug treatments. Finally a doctor correctly diagnosed the problem. David had occipital neuralgia. This is what the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says about this condition:
Occipital neuralgia is a distinct type of headache characterized by piercing, throbbing, or electric-shock-like chronic pain in the upper neck, back of the head, and behind the ears, usually on one side of the head.… The pain is caused by irritation or injury to the [occipital] nerves, which can be the result of trauma to the back of the head, pinching of the nerves by overly tight neck muscles, compression of the nerve as it leaves the spine due to osteoarthritis, or tumors or other types of lesions in the neck.
So what does this have to do with the education of blind children? Well therein lies the cause of David’s problem. Because he was blind, his teachers saw no reason why he shouldn’t be seated facing a wall instead of facing forward like the rest of the class. Their reasoning was that it prevented the cords from his equipment from going across the floor and creating a hazard for the other students. He didn’t need to be seated by the corded equipment, but they thought it would be more convenient. David had to turn his head constantly to face the front of the class. After several years of this he developed occipital neuralgia, which caused him constant pain and months out of school.
This is another example of discrimination and ignorance in general education. Would a sighted child be expected to sit in a desk facing the wall? No. David’s parents knew that. But knowing wasn’t enough to prevent the problem.
A Texas board member has a daughter who just graduated from high school and is currently receiving training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind before she starts college in January to pursue a degree in teaching. Kayleigh did well in high school. She was an honors student active in choir and drama. She’s the secretary of the Texas Association of Blind Students. She’s also an NFB scholarship winner. She must have received the very best services, right? Wrong.
When Kayleigh graduated, her visual reading rate was around 160 wpm. Most seniors in high school read between 250 and 350 wpm. Her Braille reading rate was 40 wpm. This may sound slow until you realize that she didn’t receive any Braille instruction in school until she was a senior in high school. For years Kayleigh and her parents knew she needed Braille. She even began teaching herself Braille through a Hadley course. But her teachers wouldn’t listen. To borrow from the theme of Carol Castellano’s wonderful speech at last year’s convention, the teachers said, “This child doesn’t need Braille. This child is not blind.”
This is another example of ignorance–this time in special education. Would a sighted child who read more than a hundred words a minute less than her peers be denied services that would help her increase her reading speed? No. Kayleigh’s parents knew that, but knowing wasn’t enough to solve the problem.
What’s really scary about these examples of ignorance and discrimination in the education system is that they’re true stories about the children of parents active in the NFB. These parents have the attitude, the information, the support, and the mentors that their kids need, and they still have to fight tooth and nail, year after year, to ensure that their kids get a quality education. What about the other parents out there who’ve never even heard of the NFB? What about the parents who don’t know what their kids need? What kind of services are their kids getting? I can’t tell you how many parents I meet who are thrilled to have found the NFB but who are filled with regret over the years that have gone by that their child didn’t have a cane. Or wasn’t learning Braille. Or didn’t believe that it was okay to be blind.
The current educational system is failing to educate too many of our blind students. My fellow panelists and I have given many examples of this, and I’m sure there are dozens more examples that the people in this room could give. We know there’s a problem. But knowing that isn’t enough. We need action.
To solve the problem, we need to understand the root cause, and here’s where it gets a little tricky. Humans love to assign blame. We say, “If blind kids aren’t learning, the teachers are to blame.” But there are some excellent teachers out there, and we all know that those who are not are usually teaching only what they’ve been taught. Okay, then we say, “Teacher preparation programs are to blame.” But again, there are good programs out there, and you really can’t blame a program. Someone developed the program. Someone decreed that it was sufficient. So are they to blame? How about the people who established the curriculum? Or set the standards? Or prepared the materials? Are they to blame? I’d like to propose that we not blame anyone, but instead that we step up to the plate and do something about it.
When I started researching for this speech, I found a wonderful article in an old Future Reflections magazine that really stood out to me in its simplicity in listing nine specific things that constitute a good education for blind children. I’d like to read that list, slightly abbreviated, to you now:
1. Given the proper training and opportunity, blind people can compete on a basis of equality with their sighted peers. This should be the basic philosophy for any programs, standards for programs, or evaluation of programs for the blind.
2. It is respectable to be blind. "Blind" should be restored to the vocabulary of educators and used frequently.
3. All blind children (including legally blind children who have some vision) should learn to read and write Braille.
4. All Braille users should learn to use the slate and stylus as early as possible and be required to use it regularly.
5. Teachers of blind children should be required to demonstrate proficiency in reading and writing Braille.
6. All blind children should be given a long white cane and instruction in its use upon enrollment in school [if not before]. The cane should be with the child throughout the day.
7. Sleepshades (eye covers) should be routinely used when alternative techniques, such as cane travel or Braille, are being taught to children with partial vision.
8. Educators should work with the organized blind to expose blind children of all ages to competent, knowledgeable blind adult role models.
9. Special education teachers of the blind should be required, as a part of their professional growth and continuing education, to attend conferences or conventions of blind consumers.
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? We may all have one or two things we’d like to add to that list, but I think we can safely say that, if we want our blind children to succeed, that list of nine things is a pretty good start. So there you have it--problem solved. But before we pack it up and go home, here’s a sobering fact. That list was written by my friend, mentor, and long-time president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, Barbara Cheadle, in 1985. That list was written twenty-five years ago. We knew then what our kids needed. We knew what constituted a good education for blind children. Yet the educational system is still failing too many of them.
The news isn’t all bad. The NFB has made huge strides in the twenty-five years since that list was written, including:
These are only a few examples of what the NFB has done and is doing to improve the education of our blind students. And we’ve seen results. Many of our blind kids succeed due to excellent services or in spite of poor services. This year’s class of scholarship winners is living proof of that. But we want that success for all. We want the right to equal opportunity for each and every one of our blind children. My daughter Lindsay will turn eight in two days. I want a good education for her, and I know that it’s not guaranteed. That’s one of the reasons I recently changed careers. After working seventeen years as a biomedical engineer in the aerospace industry, I rethought my priorities, and I’m now in the last class of my master’s program in special education. I hope to follow that by being certified as a teacher of blind students.
I was honored to be part of an educational reform task force which met in Baltimore in June. I can assure you there was hope in that room. And not just hope, but conviction. Dr. Maurer committed the power of the NFB to solving this problem now. He made it very clear that knowing what our blind children need isn’t enough. We need action. No longer will we be content to chip away at the problem, solving one issue at a time or helping one family at a time. No longer will we stand by while the system continues to fail so many of our children. We are waging a battle here, and the National Federation of the Blind has decided that it’s time to go all out. The military has a name for the kind of attack we’re planning: shock and awe. It’s “shock-and-awe” time. We’re coming at this problem from all directions: teachers, training, standards, curriculum, policy, assessments, research, and leadership development. We’re developing a multi-level systemic approach to initiate wide-ranging and long-lasting change in our educational system.
We’re taking action. We will reach families of blind children and the professionals who serve them earlier. We will find more good teachers and more good programs--and if we can’t find them, we’ll make them. We will form relationships with professionals in the blindness field, and we’ll get them to our trainings and our conventions as part of their professional development. We will raise expectations and standards for all blind students. The road will be long, and there will be obstacles, but we didn’t choose this fight because it would be easy. We chose this fight because knowing what our blind children need isn’t enough. We won’t rest until they get what they need.
Thank you, Mark. Some of you may also know me as “Vejas’s Dad” or “Petras’s Dad.”
As a parent I can attest that many systemic challenges still exist in the current educational system of blind and visually impaired children. I will start with several illustrative anecdotes.
When we started our Braille journey thirteen years ago, Braille books for very young children were virtually nonexistent. Thus we bought some popular story books from the children’s section of our local bookstore, and my wife Rasa started adding Braille to them. When she had questions, she turned to our first TVI, but it quickly became clear that our teacher was not proficient enough to reliably answer even relatively simple questions about Braille contractions.
Later, as we started to ask VI professionals inquiring questions such as “how does a blind person do this or that,” too often there was a telling pause, before they came up with an answer. We were shocked to realize eventually that the reason many TVIs and O&M instructors weren’t sure was that they either didn’t know, or interact socially to any significant degree with, successful, independent blind adults.
A few years ago I attended an O&M lecture geared towards professionals on grade-level-appropriate O&M instruction. At one point an O&M instructor in the audience voiced her perspective: if her students didn’t learn concepts on her watch, it was OK with her because, as she put it, “there’s always rehab.” Based on the discussion that followed, it was clear that many of the other professionals held that same view rather than accepting responsibility for teaching from a paradigm of equal and age-appropriate expectations.
A few months ago a colleague in my field contacted me for advice. After extensive evaluation their ten-year-old was diagnosed with visual field defects. He can see the beginnings and ends of longer words but not the middle portion. He is bright and has been able to fill in the literal blanks based on context, but his desire to read books and his reading fluency and comprehension have dropped slowly the last few years. Having seen how well my boys are doing, the parents wondered about Braille as a possible solution. Their son was very excited about the proposal, and within four weeks, with minimal formal instruction, his fingers were reading at forty to fifty words per minute. Now I wish that were the punch line, but unfortunately it is not. Their school district then requested a formal assessment from one of the regional schools for the blind. The educator who performed the assessment stated essentially: “We use large print for all kids with visual impairments because kids who have vision don’t need Braille; Braille is not as fast.”
When our eldest son transitioned from the preschool to the elementary school system, our TVI at the time told us that we were too involved and informed us that we would have to back off and let the educational system take over. Statistics at the time showed that nationally only 45 percent of blind or severely visually impaired, but otherwise capable, students graduated from high school and that of those only 16% went on to earn a college degree. Ladies and gentleman, these statistics and the subsequent employment statistics were sobering, for they highlighted the huge discrepancy between the academic accomplishments of sighted and blind children and the undeniable shortcomings of the education process in this country.
Some may claim that more recent outcomes or local outcomes are much better. If so, where are the actual data? How accurate are they? And who collects them? I am under the impression that academic performance statistics of Braille readers and large-print readers are not well tracked, if at all--locally, statewide, or nationally. How many programs and states can proudly show data on subsequent employment statistics and career choices of their prior students? Without current and accurate statistics, how can parents justifiably be asked to back off and to put their full trust--their child’s future, their life--in the system?
Importantly, how can we effect change and measure impact if there is no mechanism for accurately recording the current conditions and progress, or lack thereof, over time? One possibility is to consider an approach being used to answer important questions in medicine, a national electronic outcomes registry, which could track local, regional, and national outcomes in real time across a wide range of academic areas and blindness skills for informational, comparative, and accountability purposes. Such a database could even include fields for yearly justification of why a given child is not being taught Braille. The performance and accountability data could be used to motivate state and local VI program administrators to shift their paradigms from one driven more by making sure that minimal legal requirements are met to one that emphasizes quality, true success, and what is in a given child’s best interest.
Federationists, the ultimate goal of the educational system should be simple and clear: By the time students graduate from high school, they should not only have met the general academic curriculum requirements, but should also have acquired the blindness skills needed to pursue their post-high-school dreams. You would think that the norm for a child who has been receiving quality O&M training and VI services for fourteen to eighteen years would be that he or she would have learned the skill set and have confidence to be able to travel and live independently. Yet unfortunately such an accomplishment is the exception rather than the rule. Too many kids turn eighteen without attaining the age-equivalent skills of their sighted peers, putting our youth at an immediate, avoidable disadvantage as they start college or join the workforce. Let me be blunt; in many cases the educational system is responsible for creating functional handicaps where they need not and should not exist.
The reality is that the scope of skills that blind children need to master is ballooning. Currently each blind child’s fate is to a large degree delegated to that child’s IEP Team. In reality the Team is not a static entity, but rather the Team consists of a series of transitional teams that pass the child and family on to the next level, from preschool to elementary school to middle school and then high school. Each team focuses on how to get through the few years that they are responsible for before they pass the baton. There is no long-term memory for prior struggles and successes nor a vision for the future beyond that particular year or two. Teams tend to focus only on the academic portion of the curriculum. Importantly, because there is no clear legal obligation, the education system is not taking responsibility for assuring that a child learns all the additional blindness skills needed to function independently.
Technology is undeniably leveling the playing field in the workplace. Education too is shifting more and more towards technology-based and Web-based learning. In fact, at a conference this spring, the manager of specialized media of the California Department of Education stated that within five years school textbooks for all children in California will be provided in electronic format. Early last school year I received a lot of grief when I requested supplemental e-text files of my son’s seventh grade embossed textbooks because I was told that the files, which the TVI could download from the Department of Education Website, were not student-ready, for they were not clean enough. Yet at the national and state level there does not appear to be a clear proactive plan to ensure that Braille-reading students will be provided across the board with clean transcriber-proofed e-text. Clean Braille and graphics aside, how prepared are school districts, TVIs, and young students for this transition? How are kids in elementary and middle school going to access and process their academic materials proficiently, given that many of them don’t currently have the right tools—the notetakers, the technology skills, the accessible software for both school and home use, and the Braille fluency skills?
Before Vejas started preschool, I came to the realization that an alarming number of TVIs and O&M instructors were not particularly comfortable or proficient with basic blind technologies. Subsequent experience has only further confirmed that impression. In the twenty-first century it is no longer acceptable that students in TVI- and O&M-teacher preparation programs be superficially taught about screenreaders, Braille notetakers, and GPSs. This exposure-level instruction in these areas, and even something as simple as the slate and stylus, leaves teachers uncomfortable with these concepts, which they then incorrectly perceive as difficult and therefore difficult to teach. Such lack of true familiarity and comfort translates into a natural tendency to delay introduction of skills under the guise of saying the kids are too young or not ready. It seems self-evident that individuals who have chosen to make the education of our children their life-long profession should be expected to demonstrate true proficiency in all these areas.
But, as we know, proficiency problems are not just limited to technology, but to other basic skills, like the slate and stylus and to Braille itself. Too many TVIs are not proficient in Braille. Some don’t have any Braille readers on their caseloads, which means that, if they are sighted, their Braille skills get rusty over time, and that may very well make them less likely to suggest Braille because they will then have to relearn it to teach it. Unfortunately, those teachers and administrators who are the most proficient in blindness skills, the blind themselves, are underrepresented in both academic teaching programs and local VI programs.
In order for kids to reach their full potential, the bar of expectations for blind students—and their teachers—needs to be raised to one of performance equal to that of sighted peers. California has taken a step towards this by being the first state to adopt formal grade-level-equivalent Braille math standards and Braille reading standards, which even include instruction in slate and stylus. These standards have already served our family in very real and practical ways. This adoption is commendable, represents a significant leap forward, and should be modeled in all states and beyond. Having acknowledged this, the standards do not go far enough. Reading-fluency standards need to be added as well.
Sadly, with respect to Braille, very significant perceptual barriers still exist amongst both general education and VI education professionals. While quality data regarding Braille fluency is needed, one real concern is that studies of childhood reading fluency might in fact reflect and inappropriately validate current lower reading rates. We need published research that documents what can be achieved with early Braille immersion, appropriately high expectations, and quality training. One additional approach to consider is to create a You-Tube type menu of a variety of children and adults reading aloud. Skillfully edited video snippets with clear concise messages of individuals reading fluently and engaging in other activities would send a very persuasive, strong, and difficult-to-refute message to educators, parents, and the public, emphasizing what is possible.
In my professional life I am an academic clinical researcher. In my search to understand the basis for the philosophical beliefs in the VI/blindness field, I have been dismayed to come to the realization that there is a lack of high-quality prospective research in the area of childhood VI and O&M. Studies that have been done too often fail to differentiate the abilities of children who have been blind from birth, from those who became blind at a later age, low-vision children, those who are functionally blind, and children who have fallen behind due to delayed introduction of Braille and other blindness skills. Studies also don’t adequately address differences in age groups: teens, pre-teens, elementary school children, preschoolers, toddlers, and infants. Furthermore, most studies of blind kids are not well-designed; study groups are too heterogeneous or contain too few subjects and are thus not statistically sound, for they lack adequate power to draw firm conclusions. Yet conclusions are often inappropriately overstated, if not by the studies’ authors, then by those who quote the studies to defend their positions. The cumulative effect is that much of what is presented as fact is to a large degree drawn from personal experience, based on small non-generalizable studies, or extrapolated from adult experiences.
Along these lines another fundamental problem is that O&M training programs apply an adult rehab model to the setting of children. This is inherently flawed: kids are not just little adults. Few people would argue that there are significant differences in the approach to teaching the same set of skills to adults, compared to toddlers. Preschoolers and high schoolers--and even middle schoolers--are a breed of their own. This reality is not reflected in current O&M programs which lack a childhood developmental approach. Specialization in childhood O&M needs to be formally developed as a field, rather than the current post graduation learn-as-you-go, on-the-job training.
Mr. Chairman, Dr. Maurer, Federationists, and guests, the challenges, both philosophical and functional, that exist in the educational system in 2010 remain significant, but not insurmountable. My children’s accomplishments and successes are due to a team effort, a team that extends well beyond the bounds of our home and our local system--one that involves critical input from the NFB and others in the blind community. By attending a variety of conferences and by reading articles such as those in Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor, we began the process of learning about blindness-related issues. We began to meet, and continue to meet and interact with, other parents, educators outside our local sphere, and, importantly, with members of the blind community--in particular with our extended NFB family. From there it has been like a ripple effect. Our family has encountered many hurdles along the way, but we have developed an extensive support system, a resource network of acquaintances, teachers, role models, mentors, and friends, who provide us with critical perspective and insights and who are living examples of what is possible and what is in fact happening around the country and around the world. Through this intense learning process we came to realize that the boundary between what is possible for a blind individual and for a sighted individual is not all that much different. This has become our operational paradigm. While there are exceptions, this paradigm is unfortunately not held by far too many in the current academic blindness/low-vision field.
To educate and prepare a blind child optimally for life, a child’s team needs to involve a more direct interface with the blind community itself. There also needs to be more direct interaction between academic training programs and the blind community. I sense that the younger generation of student professionals and teaching-program graduates are curious about and are in fact dabbling in the alternative approaches and techniques of the NFB. It’s time to go mainstream and actively step out into the academic community and education forums, such as putting together more NFB-sponsored formal programs at regional, state, and national educators’ conferences. I urge O&M professionals to be more vocal on the O&M listservs and TVIs on the TVI-oriented listservs. Also consider the possibility of formally inviting some traditionally-trained student O&M and student TVI professionals-in-training to next year’s national convention, where they can participate in the activities and interact with blind people from all walks of life. The experience of immersion with the successful blind is sure to be a life- and perception-altering experience and will surely generate some thought-provoking classroom discussions when they return to their programs. The ripple effect may be surprising.
I’m going to wrap up with the following thoughts. Behind every truly successful blind child is an involved parent. In fact, show me a parent of a young Federationist, and you will be showing me someone who is supportive, invested, and informed. Along with many other parents, I would like to see educational professionals--TVIs and O&M instructors--actively collaborate more closely and interact more frequently and meaningfully with parents and the blind community. By working together, we can synergize our efforts for the most effective impact.
Federationists, I urge you to intensify efforts to reach families much earlier on, for early exposure to the NFB philosophy represents true, meaningful, and life-altering early intervention. The impact of such an investment of time and resources will pay off many-fold, for, as you well know, today’s young children are the NFB’s future--the membership and leadership of tomorrow.
I would like to conclude by sharing that, having had the privilege to meet and interact with the members of the NFB’s Educational Reform Taskforce, I am reassured that there is in fact inspired vision, conviction, and hope for positive reform.Thank you.