by Anil Lewis, Alexa Posny, and Gaeir Dietrich
From the Editor: Anil Lewis is one of the most charismatic and enthusiastic people I know. This may be one of the reasons he currently serves as the director of Strategic Communications or the reason he has been a member of the national board of directors or perhaps the reason he was elected for several terms as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia.
In the panel presentation that follows, Anil speaks frankly about his personal struggle with education, the key to his success (the success he wishes for all blind people), and the way he thinks we can build relationships to increase the chances of achieving it. He then introduces Alexa Posny for her remarks. The third presenter is Gaeir Dietrich, whose first name rhymes with fire. We begin with what Anil says:
Good afternoon, my Federation family. Dr. Maurer talked briefly in the introduction to this panel about my history--about where I come from--but I want you to know that I now have my dream job. I hope that everyone has an opportunity to hold a dream job, a job that you would readily do free, but one that you get paid for: a job that you can wake up to every morning, recognizing that the things you do that day are going to change the lives of thousands of people across the country. Thank you guys for the privilege of serving in this capacity. (Applause)
Today my responsibility is to moderate a panel about education. Before I bring the presenters up, I'd like to share a personal story.
When I was asked to do a bio as a member of the board, I decided to disclose something I had never shared before. When I was a third grader, I was diagnosed as educably mentally retarded. My mom, God bless her, could have done one of two things: she could've argued with the diagnosis, or she could've passively accepted the diagnosis of the professionals, who supposedly knew something about this disability called blindness, and accepted their misconceptions about my ability. And the result of the second would have been that I would not be standing before you today. But my mom did something wonderful: she said, "Okay, I accept this, but now you have to provide services for my son so that he can overcome his disability as educably mentally retarded." My mom was able to get her children into free summer school; we had tutoring and afterschool programs. The bottom line is that I had to work harder than all the other students just to stay even, but my mom didn't make any excuses for me. She made sure that I understood that it was my responsibility to work longer and harder to be where I needed to be, and I thank God that she did.
After only a few years of this intensive education, I went from the diagnosis of educably mentally retarded to gifted. (Applause) My point is not to say that I'm no longer educably mentally retarded, but that labels mean nothing in this context. If we focus on providing the services that students need in order to learn, they will learn. We must set high expectations for learning, regardless of the diagnosis, if we intend to achieve success.
You might be asking right about now, "What does all of this intellectual disability have to do with blindness?" I’ve told you my story about having to work harder than the other kids because I believe it is relevant to students today. Most blind kids have to work harder than other students. I had to get additional services that other students didn't get. Like me, most of our blind students have to get additional services that other students don't need or get. We need Braille; we need O&M instruction; we need training in the alternative skills of blindness. But this doesn't make us inferior. It is simply a recognition that we need intervention to make us competitive so we can be successful. We in the Federation set high expectations for success because we intend for blind students to achieve nothing less than success.
I was lucky to have had this experience when I came to be the president of the NFB of Georgia because one of the things I recommitted myself to was programs for youth. Many of the things we did in Georgia revolved around young people in the education environment. When I started going to IEPs for many of our students, my eyes were opened to the blatant discrimination to which our blind children are being exposed. I remember specifically going to one IEP where I learned that many blind students were being encouraged to pursue a special-education track. They were being discouraged from seeking regular high school diplomas they could use to extend their careers into areas where they could obtain competitive wages. I had the pleasure of being on an IEP team--you know the kind of team I'm talking about, in which you have me, the student, the parent, and about twelve people from the school. This isn't much of a team if we're supposed to have democracy and are going to vote. Given the system, I was always tempted to try bringing in about twenty members to balance the scale.
I remember in one IEP meeting a young lady pursuing the special-education path was told, "If you pursue the special-education track, as you are now, you won't have to take algebra."
The student's immediate reaction was, "Oh, I don't want to take algebra. Sign me up for this special-education track."
At this point I interrupted and said, "Oh no, you're going to take algebra, and you're going to be successful." I'm pleased to tell you that the young lady graduated with a high school diploma, and she did pursue a college education.
I remember another instance in which I served as one of two advocates. The other was not affiliated with the NFB but knew a good deal about the Americans with Disabilities Act. we were joined by the student, her parents, and the rest of the IEP team. In this discussion the parents were complaining that their daughter was staying up until 10:00 or 11:00 at night because she had to finish her homework assignments. They said the homework consisted of fifty mathematics problems and that doing them was so time-consuming that they were asking for an accommodation. The other advocate said, "Yes, as long as the homework is a representative sample of the things that the student is supposed to demonstrate the ability to do, then you can reduce her assignment to twenty-five problems."
Again I found myself saying, "No, no, no. You cannot, because we don’t want the world to reduce its expectations for blind people and then deny us jobs because we can’t compete." I made some enemies during that meeting; the parents were really upset with me because I was able to convince the school system not to lower its expectations. I got a call a month later from those parents because they finally understood exactly what I had been trying to do. Their daughter was able to be successful and competitive with her sighted peers, and no longer did she labor under the false expectation that the world had to change for her.
I think it's important to recognize that, contrary to what some people would say, this organization is committed to our membership. Our strength does not come from legal expertise; our power does not necessarily come from the money we raise. The real power of this organization is love: the love in this room, the love that motivates us to succeed, and I'm glad I'm able to participate in this loving family of Federationists.
In order for us to be successful in our efforts to educate, we have to make sure that we become partners and influence those who must make quality decisions for our blind students. It is a pleasure for me today to introduce two individuals who are committed to our effort of setting high expectations for our blind students. Before I bring them on, I want to do one thing. My Federation family, I charge you to get active in the way I just described: be active in IEP meetings; be a part of the team; operate from a position of respect and knowledge. You don't have to know everything about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to be a viable proponent in making sure that students receive a quality education. All you have to realize and understand is that it is respectable to be blind.
The first person I want to introduce on this panel is Dr. Alexa Posny. I would like to refer to her as Alexa, first, because I think the name is very pretty, and, second, because I want to establish an informal relationship so that from this point forward we can positively influence the educational policies affecting our blind students across the country. So, my Federation family, the first person I'd like to introduce to you is Alexa, who is the assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services for the U.S. Department of Education. She was formerly the commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, and what I find even more impressive is that she served in 2007 as the director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. The reason I think this is so spectacular is that, not only is she currently working in the Obama administration, but she previously worked in the Bush administration. This is the kind of collaborative person we need to have on our team. This is the type of person we need to be sure embraces the philosophy of the Federation and comes to know us as a collaborative partner and, even more, a power to be reckoned with--a partner who can help her push the administration's policies that are going to affect the lives of our blind students positively. My Federation family, please welcome with love and respect my new friend Alexa.
Good afternoon, and yes, Anil, I consider you a good friend. Thank you for that very kind introduction. And thank you Marc for inviting me to be here today. I am honored and grateful to be part of this distinguished panel. Before I begin, though, I’d like to congratulate the National Federation of the Blind as you successfully advocated for the U.S. Treasury to produce a commemorative Louis Braille silver dollar, the very first coin printed in readable Braille. [Applause] Let me also say that it’s wonderful to know that the proceeds from the sale of this coin will be used to promote Braille literacy programs. Great work!
It is such an honor and privilege to serve with Secretary Arne Duncan. He has said over and over again, “No belief is more damaging in education than the misperception that children with disabilities cannot really succeed and should not be challenged to reach the same high expectations as all children.” I think everyone here today agrees that the issues of access and high expectations for all children and adults, including those who are blind or visually impaired, is not only a moral obligation, it is critical to the success of our nation. [Applause]
Anyone who has heard President Obama speak about education during the past two years or has listened to Arne speak since he became secretary of education knows how important education is to this administration. Early on, President Obama made it clear that education is a top priority. He made it his goal that by 2020 America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. But to get there we need to start early. Secretary Duncan has said, “Too many children show up for kindergarten already behind, and many never catch up.” I couldn’t agree more. We must insure that all children, especially infants, toddlers, and young children with disabilities are identified early, begin receiving services as soon as possible, and have access to high-quality learning options so that they do not start kindergarten at a disadvantage. Toward this end Secretary Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a new, unprecedented 500-million-dollar state-level grant competition as part of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund. This competition will reward states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clear learning standards, and meaningful workforce development for all students, especially students who are blind or visually impaired.
Please also know that, as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2012 budget, the authorization of IDEA is probably the only part of the agency that did not receive a decrease for 2012, but they have asked for an increase: 200 million more for IDEA and 50 million dollars to fund Part C. There isn’t any other part of the agency that can speak to the same level. That is the commitment that Arne and the president have towards working with kids with disabilities. We know this as well: students must have the tools needed to obtain a world-class education that prepares them for success in college and careers. For students who are blind or visually impaired, this includes early mastery of the alternative skills of blindness. Those of you who have visited the great state of Kansas know that it is a very rural state. Because of this, often the best place for a student who is blind to access the skills he or she needs is the Kansas State School for the Blind. As commissioner of Kansas, I visited KSSB a number of times and observed students as they learned and mastered the alternative skills of blindness such as Braille, orientation and mobility training, and the use of technology; I remember experiencing orientation and mobility training for a three year old, and I remarked how natural and easy it was for him to walk with a cane to navigate his environment. Let me tell you, I was humbled as I watched him. He was so comfortable. I then reminded myself—it wasn’t remarkable; it was expected. [Applause]
The Kansas State School for the Blind expected the acquisition of these and other skills early in their students’ lives. The bottom line is this: no matter the educational setting, be it the school closest to home or a specialized school for the blind, we must consider paramount the individual needs of each and every student and concentrate on providing strong, high-quality instruction and skills training so that students who are blind or visually impaired will achieve true independence. Of course learning doesn’t stop after early childhood; it continues in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary school. Indeed we need to do a better job making sure students with disabilities, including students who are blind or visually impaired, complete college because, as with all other students, not having a college education will prevent students with disabilities from getting that great job with a good salary, buying a home, supporting themselves and their families.
What we know is this: in 2008 almost 60 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school with a diploma. This is in comparison to 67 percent of all other students who graduated with a diploma. According to the national longitudinal study, the second version, about 39 percent of high school graduates with disabilities enroll in some level of post-secondary college annually, typically in a community college setting. While the percentage of youths with visual impairments enrolling in some form of post-secondary education (78 percent in 2005) is higher than most other disability groups, barriers remain that prevent students with print disabilities from keeping up with their classmates. These roadblocks continue to frustrate and discourage students who are blind or visually impaired, pushing them further away from their post-secondary goals instead of helping them to reach them. If we are going to reach President Obama’s 2012 goal, we need to do a better job making sure that more students with disabilities graduate from high school, enroll in a post-secondary institution, and complete their degree program.
In today’s world access to technology is critical in this effort. According to the 2006 IES (Institute of Educational Sciences) study, post-secondary education is now a goal for four out of every five students with disabilities who are exiting high school with a transition plan. We know that, for students without disabilities, technology makes things easier, but, for students with disabilities, technology makes things possible. [Applause] It’s so nice to be talking to the choir. So we must ensure that each and every student going to college can access academic material once they get there. It’s as simple as this: students who are blind or visually impaired must be given meaningful access to comprehensive assistive technology instruction. So, when particular groups and individuals are denied access to technology, it’s important to take a stand. Last June the Department’s office for civil rights issued guidance to elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher ed on their legal obligation to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of technology--the infamous Kindle letter. This guidance is a critical step in the department’s ongoing efforts to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal access to their educational benefits and service provided by their schools, colleges, and universities.
The bottom line is this: technological devices must be accessible to students with disabilities, including students who are blind or have low vision. [Applause] Toward this end you have probably heard of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities. We really refer to it as the AIM Commission. I am proud and honored to serve as a member with people like Geair [Dietrich], who will follow me and who chairs the commission, and Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute. Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” I believe that this commission has the potential to open doors and break down barriers for students with print disabilities. It is the first commission in history charged with examining accessible instructional materials for post-secondary students with disabilities. I know Geair will go into more detail about the commission shortly, so I’m not going to say much more, but I want to assure you that it is my intent to use the principles of universal design for learning as the commission’s work progresses.
We know that many learning problems are resident, not in a child, but in the medium of instruction. For example, for students who are blind, who have physical disabilities, or who have reading disabilities, textbooks impose barriers rather than opportunities for learning. UDL (Universal Design for Learning) enables, motivates, and inspires all students to achieve, regardless of background, languages, or abilities; and I am happy to say that UDL is a cornerstone of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan.
In addition to ensuring the technologies and content are designed for universal access, we must also ensure that assessments are properly designed so the opportunity to learn is maximized for all students. We must improve our assessments so they measure what matters and improve students’ learning experiences and to connect teachers so they can learn from each other and to meet the needs of all learners--students with special needs included. With that charge forty-three states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core Standards, internationally benchmarked standards that reflect the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. But the potential of these standards will not be realized unless assessments measure whether students are reaching them. That’s why the next generation of assessments being developed under the department’s Race for the Top competition will be a game changer. When these new assessments are used in the 2014-2015 school year, millions of children and parents will know for the first time if students truly are on track for success in college and careers. And many teachers will finally have the assessments they have longed for--tests of critical-thinking skills and complex learning tasks that are not just multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills.
Legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi, once said--and yes I was born and raised in the great state of Wisconsin, so I know him well--Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort-- that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” I happen to agree totally and completely with Coach Lombardi. I truly feel that, through better technology and access skills, we can and we will absolutely improve access and accountability for people who are blind or visually impaired, mastering alternative skills of blindness, guaranteeing access to technologies, implementing appropriate assessments--all of this is vital to ensuring that all students, including students who are blind or visually impaired, have access to a complete and competitive education from the day they are born to the day they begin a career. If we can do this successfully, we will be sure that all students are contributing fully to the president’s goal for America to graduate more young people from college in 2020 than any other country in the world.
Before I go, I would be remiss not to take the time to acknowledge one of the most successful programs providing employment to business owners who are blind, and I wish a very happy seventy-fifth anniversary to the Randolph-Sheppard vending facility program. [Applause] For seventy-five years this program has fostered many talented and creative individuals who are blind who acquire the management training and business skills necessary to realize the American dream and a lifetime of economic opportunity, independence, and self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. With proven ability approximately 2,500 blind and visually impaired entrepreneurs have challenged preconceived notions about disability and have provided exceptional customer service to federal and state employees, the armed forces, and the general public; so happy birthday, Randolph-Sheppard.
In closing, I would like to share a quote from someone you’ve probably heard of. I had the great opportunity to fly on a plane with him to Athens last week. Stevie Wonder once said, “We all have ability; the difference is how we use it.” Use yours wisely. Thank you very much.
From the Editor: Gaeir Dietrich chairs the Federal Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Post-Secondary Education. She is the director of the High-Tech Center Training Unit for the California Community Colleges.
Thank you, Anil. My joy in being here is the fact that I am absolutely passionate about Braille literacy. [Applause] I like to joke that I learned Braille before there was dirt. [Laughter] But after the dirt came the dinosaurs, and some of those dinosaurs are still saying that we don’t need Braille, to which I respond, “Ah, so then why do the sighted kids need to learn to read print?” [Applause]
I developed a three-day training for the California Community Colleges because, when I started ten years ago, we were training alternate media specialists to create Braille with a wonderful program called Duxbury, which essentially allows someone who does not know much Braille to produce it. I had a commitment that not only would I train my system to be able to create the Braille, but I wanted these sighted individuals who were not Braille transcribers to be able to read what they were creating. So I put together a three-day training course for sighted people to learn to read Braille. We refer to it as Braille boot camp. In those three days they learn uncontracted Braille (Grade I Braille) and Grade II (contracted) Braille. I’ve trained over 250 sighted people now working in this field to read Braille. But what I really train is a passion for Braille because it’s a beautiful system, and I am vehemently opposed to creating an illiterate society.
So, as I said, even though I was invited to be here for other reasons, that is what gives me great joy in being here. I have to say on another personal note, when I am at home in my state of California, I know so many of the blind people there that, whenever I see a cane or a dog coming my way, I always look to see who is at the other end because I probably know the person. But, within about five minutes of arriving at the hotel last night, I found myself completely overwhelmed. Suddenly I am surrounded by hundreds of people I don’t know, and I really wish that I could. I’m so glad that Anil is referring to me as his friend, because I would like to be a friend of the Federation. [Applause]
Before Dr. Maurer pulls out his cane to shoo me off the stage, let me actually start talking about what I was invited here to speak about. I am the chair of the Federal Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Post-Secondary Education, and, as Alexa said, we refer to it as AIM, or the Post-Secondary Commission because it has the unfortunate acronym of AIMPE. Some of you have worked it out--so we don’t refer to it as AIM-PEE. Instead, we refer to it just as AIM. As Alexa said, under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, we have been charged with reporting to Congress on the barriers to access for individuals who have print disabilities and to recommend a systemic strategy for changing that.
Our first meeting was at the end of September 2010, and we have exactly one year to complete that report. I’m told it’s a very short time frame. Since this is the first time I have ever done anything like this, I don’t have any basis for comparison. But I can say that getting a nineteen-member commission from diverse backgrounds and differing desires and agendas onto the same page to write this report has been an interesting challenge. I want very much to thank Mark Riccobono for the support of the National Federation of the Blind because the NFB staff has made some really wonderful suggestions that will get incorporated into the final report.
In particular the commission has been asked to look at the issues of timely delivery and quality. I worked for a number of years in publishing before I took the job that I am currently in. In publishing we always knew there was this tradeoff between the amount of time you spent on something and the quality of whatever you were working on. I’m now speaking with my publisher hat on. We knew that we could make a perfect product, an error-free book, but the amount of time it would take for us to do that was prohibitive. Given that trade-off, you can do it quickly and inaccurately, or you can do it completely accurately and take a long time. So we have decided to try to provide instructional materials that are as good as those the publishers themselves are providing in print.
This means that colleges need help. We can’t do it all on our own. At least we have strategies for dealing with hard-copy books. If we can’t get a file from the publisher that we can use as a starting point, at least we can scan it and use that as a starting point. But when the colleges are confronted with digital materials that are completely inaccessible, there is nothing we can do because we are not able to get inside the technology and create something that is equally effective—which is what the law requires. The law doesn’t guarantee success, but it does guarantee an opportunity for success. Unless digital materials are created with accessibility in mind from the beginning, there is no way for us to retrofit them. We can’t do it. That’s the issue that people like Chris Toth [plaintiff in an NFB lawsuit against Florida State University] are facing. It has to be designed with accessibility in mind. That is not a technological challenge; that is a human consciousness challenge.
The work of the Federation is so important because you raise awareness. The general population has the perception that digital equals accessible. Every person in this room knows that’s not true, but, if you talk to the general public, they just assume that, if it’s on the computer, blind people can read it. So a lot of education needs to be done here, and, when we come out with this report, I intend not just to have information specifically about the materials and how to deal with them, but the fact that we need to change the way that we educate engineers and computer scientists. We need to make sure that accessibility is not some small branch of rehabilitation engineering, but that in every engineering course and every web design course people are taking this into consideration. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take a long time. What is hard is retrofitting. That’s why those of us who are on the commission are going to take a really hard stand on digital materials and recommend to Congress that they must be made accessible from the beginning. There is no other option. It has to be that way, and the only reason it is not is that people are not making it a priority. It won’t cost more; it’s not harder. It just has to be done from the beginning. Only when that happens will you have the same quality text that the publishers provide the sighted.
One of the things that the commission was charged to look at is whether there should be a standardized electronic file format like that used in K-12 with the NIMAS format and the NIMAC repository. At this point the commission is saying, “No.” Let me tell you why. We don’t want a line drawn in the sand that will become a position around which there is a lot of fighting. Those of you who have been following the NIMAS and NIMAC debates know that, even though we have had this in place for a while now, our blind kids are still not getting their materials. It’s not working because there is so much focus on creating a certain thing rather than a standard for how to create accessible materials. So the commission is going to propose that we establish standards for formatting, headings, page numbers, and navigation. We don’t care if it’s called DAISY. We don’t care if it’s called EPUB3. What we care about is that it is as easy for blind college students to access their materials as it is for sighted students. [Applause]
When we looked at the idea of the clearinghouse, the repository, again we made a decision that this was not the best choice. A better choice was finding some way of having a federated search, where you would be able to go online and search across all the current repositories to find the materials that you need in one place. That would mean going to one place to search and being able to search Learning Ally (which used to be RFB&D), Bookshare, APH, Project Gutenberg, and Access Next repositories so that you know whether the materials are already out there or you have to create them yourself. We’re also looking at possible market-based solutions. The reality here is that, as Alexa was saying with universal design, until you design something that is useful for the mainstream market, it’s just not going to happen. So what George Kerscher is doing with helping to combine the DAISY and EPUB standards is really crucial in this effort Because it will mean access to these books from the beginning in a format that will work for everyone. When I do DAISY 101 presentations, sight-dependent people come up and say, “When will we get to have this?” That’s what we want them to be saying, because that’s what’s going to drive the market.
That’s part of the idea of universal design. I think sometimes there is some confusion around universal design. One of the things that I like to remind able-bodied people is that those elevators, those automatic doors in the grocery store that let you go in and out without worrying about the cart, those wonderful ramps that you use when pushing baby strollers aren’t intended for you. Those are available because of the ADA and Section 504. The needs of the disabled are the needs of all of us. [Applause]
Finally, the commission was asked to look at issues around low-incidence, high-cost materials. Braille certainly falls into this category, but there is another class of instructional materials for college that falls into this category. That is those obscure works that graduate students need, for which only one person in the entire country may need an alternate format. That’s an area where we’re going to recommend that subsidies still be appropriate.
Anyone who would like to contribute anecdotes, particularly at the higher-ed level: about challenges you have, your students have, your friends have in accessing materials at the post-secondary level, I want to give you the website. It’s pretty easy to remember. It’s <firstname.lastname@example.org>. We don’t want this to be a dry report for Congress to read. We want this to be full of your stories so that, when a congressman or congresswoman reads this, they will get the flavor of what it’s really like to have these barriers, and they will want to help solve the problem.
In conclusion, following what others have said this morning, disability rights are civil rights, and, taking a line from civil rights, separate but equal never is. [Applause] Last, I want to quote from the dear colleague Kindle letter, “Requiring the use of inaccessible technology is discrimination.” I don’t want to live in a society where we’re discriminating against people based on their ability or disability. I want us to have an equal playing field for everyone with the ability to play on that field. Thank you. [Applause]
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