Braille Monitor                                                                  July 1985

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The Blind Teacher and Liability

by Peggy Pinder

(Note: The following is the keynote address presented at the Western Regional Conference of the National Association of Blind Educators on Thursday, April 12, 1984, in Sacramento, California. It is reprinted from the Fall/Winter, 1984, issue of The Blind Educator.)

It's a pleasure to be in California and it's a pleasure to have an opportunity to speak to a conference of blind educators. I want to begin by saying that I believe that everyone, including myself, who is in this room today has something in common with every person who holds a teaching credential and every person who aspires to teach. What we have in common is an interest in blind people and an interest in the aspirations and achievements of blind people.

Before discussing the blind teacher and liability, I want to discuss some of the things I think precede the specific issue of a blind teacher in a classroom or a blind teacher out on the recess grounds; and that is what we as blind people have as a history, what we as blind people have as a future, in the area of education.

First of all, every single one of us in this room has a common history, because the entire country has a common history of treating blind people differently from sighted people. We all have experienced, or have known people who have experienced, lack of opportunity as a blind person.

Lack of opportunity as a blind person comes about in one of two ways. One is that we suffer discrimination (I'll talk about that more fully when I get to the question of liability) and the other is that we very often place ourselves in a position of lowering our expectations, of not believing that we can do what we really can do. We often discriminate against ourselves as blind people. What do I mean by that? What I mean is this. I am currently serving as the chairman of the National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Comittee, and as the chairman of that committee I have received many, many applications from blind students all over the country. Those of you who come to our national convention this summer are going to be delighted and pleased with the quality of blind students in this country and the variety of things that blind students are doing. You're going to be delighted just as I am with the achievements and the distinctions that blind students display. But there's another thing that blind students have displayed in the applications that I have received, and to me it's a sad thing and a disappointment. Blind students in this country, based on the applications that I have gotten, predominantly want to go into the field of teaching and counseling. If you take the student population as a whole in this country, it's not true that aspirations run to teaching and counseling at the same level that it does for blind people. We the blind, far more than the general population, seek to go into one of these two fields of teaching or counseling the blind. What does that say about us as blind people and about our aspirations? Expectations, as indicated by blind students around the country, are that the best thing we can do with our lives is to teach other blind students.

The fact that so many blind applicants want to teach and to work with blind people indicates not a dedication to the blind community, but a genuine and deeply held belief that we aren't welcome elsewhere and that if we try, we're going to fail, we're going to get hurt, and so we may as well not even make the effort. That's the first thing that I wanted to say to this conference of blind educators, and that is we ourselves cannot afford to restrict ourselves to teaching ourselves.

Blind people in this country have talents and abilities and aspirations and something to give to our entire community, state, and nation. We shouldn't simply start out and expect that the only thing we can do is to teach one another. That, in a nutshell, is what the history of the National Federation of the Blind in California with regard to blind educators has been. The National Federation of the Blind of California began in the early 1950's to open up teaching opportunities for blind people beyond teaching at the school for the blind. The first thing our organization did in this state was to focus on the absolute bar laid down by California law that you had to be able to see to teach. The credential requirements were 20/20 or near to that with correction. The National Federation of the Blind worked to eliminate the vision requirement from the teaching credential and was successful because many of us in California hold teaching degrees. That was the first step, and if you think about it, that was right about the time that I was coming into this world. When I was born, there were people in California barred from teaching because they couldn't see, and that wasn't that long ago. The absolute bar against teaching in the state of California was removed because the National Federation of the Blind convinced the state of California that vision was not a requirement of good teaching. Sight or blindness is not related to the quality of work in a classroom. The blind people of California led the way in eliminating sight as a requirement for teaching, but sight in the minds of principals, administrators, or those in the position of hiring is often an essential characteristic for a teacher.

After the National Federation of the Blind of California eliminated the sight requirement the next thing that we had to deal with was the fact that we weren't getting the jobs anyway. We could get the credentials, but what happens next? There were a few blind teachers here and there in the public schools, but nowhere near the number that our population would suggest. The National Federation of the Blind of California conducted a survey which conclusively showed that blind people, in fact, can and do teach.

I come from the state of Iowa, and I can tell you that over the years that I've been active in the National Federation of the Blind it is clear to me that something happened in the history of California that never happened in any other state. We have had blind teachers in Iowa, now and again, but nowhere near the level and the variety of blind teachers as in California. California dedicated itself to creating this particular opportunity for blind people. The survey, which was distributed widely, proved to the entire state that the blind can teach and do teach. What effect did this have? It had two. One is that principals and administrators all up and down the state had before their eyes statistics and numbers showing that blind people could teach and were teaching.

Second, and much more important, was that many blind people suddenly realized that they, too, could pursue careers in teaching. The major difference between California and other states is that the blind in California knew they could teach in every conceivable setting. This started in the 1950 's when the "see to teach requirement" was finally eliminated. The National Federation of the Blind in California must make certain to continue that kind of dissemination of information that the blind can and are doing whatever other teachers are doing. Now I want to get to a more specific kind of discussion about blind teachers and how to get a job and how to keep one.

The President asked me to deal with the question that always comes up concerning whether a blind person can function safely in a teaching situation. We now have credentials and we have aspirations, but the next step is to get a job. In order to get a job we as blind people have to be willing to go onto that school campus and just plain do our share.

When I attended college, the college was willing to waive my physical education courses. I am not a track star, I don't like basketball, I don't care for athletics or exertion of any kind, but when someone tells me that I can 't do something, then you can be sure that it is the one thing I will do.

You have to be willing to go into a school, go onto a campus, and say, "I'm going to do what everyone else does. I'm going to take the responsibility of supervising recess, the lunchroom, supervising my classoom, and maintaining order." You have to be willing to do all the things that other teachers do that may sound difficult and impossible. How are you going to maintain order during lunch or in your classroom. This is one set of issues that every teacher had better be prepared to answer. The other is how are you going to deal with the question of liability and of exposing the school to higher damages because you're blind.

These two general topics are going to be in the mind of every administrator that you talk to, and if you aren't prepared to deal with them, then you will have a problem. If the questions don't come up voluntarily and you leave the job interview with the feeling thta it went well because you talked about your credentials and qualifications, I can tell you every single time that has happened, the person does not get the job. No matter what else you talk about in a job interview, if blindness doesn't come up, then you're not going to get the job, and the reason is blindness is right there at the top of everybody's mind when you walk in with a white cane or with low vision. You better be able to put that person's mind at rest that you know how to deal with blindness. This is true, not only of an initial job interview, but true for every blind person for as long as he is employed. What we have in common as blind people is that the sighted constantly draw adverse inferences about us based on our blindness. We have to continually educate the sighted. Because you obtained the job doesn't mean you're going to keep it. You have to continue your education and keep up your image as capable and competent, and do things that aren't comfortable or pleasant. You have to pull your weight and do your share.

You have to be able to answer those questions about recess, about the lunchroom, and about liability. First of all, what about insurance rates? Liability insurance for a school is determined in one of two ways. Experience rating is based on what has happened in the past and the school's insurance premium for their coverage is set on its own history. The other is if the school or institution has not had a long enough existence for liability coverage to be statistically based on that school's own experience, then the school's insurance rates will be set based on a community wide experience. The fact that you're sitting in the principal's office and could be an employee the next day cannot literally affect insurance rates, because insurance rates are set by history.

Let me also bring up another point on insurance coverage. Across the country we have become more and more aware that blind people as individuals suffer discrimination on the basis of insurance.

We are more and more coming to have protection against discrimination. The National Federation of the Blind is now working very hard in Congress to pass H.R. 4642, which would prohibit insurance discrimination against the blind.

If we are succesful in getting this bill passed, then insurance companies will not be able to charge blind people higher rates or refuse coverage without producing statistical evidence to show we represent a higher risk.

No evidence currently exists (nor is it likely ever to exist) to show that blind people should be treated differently for the purposes of insurance.

For this reason it cannot be shown that blind teachers represent any greater liability in schools. Liability is determined by what the damage is. If a child gets hurt and requires $3,000.00 worth of medical bills, that's the amount that the child can recover in a lawsuit whether the teacher was blind or sighted! Its going to be $3,000.00 because that's what the harm was! What about punitive or exemplary damages? The parent's claim may be that the child's injury was related to having a blind teacher supervising. Therefore, the school was negligent in its responsibility to care for the child's safety. That's a very powerful argument, and what do you do with that? Judges and juries are just like everybody else and may think that blind people cannot be responsible. What do you do when somebody says it's because the blind teacher was supervising? The answer is this: All the principal or administrator has to do is to look at the record. When the principal looks at the record of successful and nonharmful teaching by blind people, he has performed the duty he has to a child. He's made sure that this person is a safe teacher.

Once the principal has looked into the history, then he has not shown reckless disregard for the child. If any blind teacher is ever in a courtroom where he is being charged with harming a child due to the fact that he's blind, and punitive damages are being sought, all of us who are blind and who have taught can walk into that courtroom, one after another, then we can get our principals to walk in behind us, one after another, and we can show that there is a long and honorable history in this country of blind people teaching without incident and harm to children. We can show that it is not recklessly disregardful of the child's safety and therefore, we can show that blind people are safe teachers and should not be excluded from teaching because they will cause greater liability. So you have an answer to any question that a principal or administrator might ask about increasing insurance rates. You have an answer to any question that anyone might ask about blind people being competent and capable, and we can show it goes back to the early 1950's. What does all this really mean? All this talk about doing our share, and about protection of blind people, and about insurance. What it really means is blind teachers, just like every other class of blind workers, need the support and the encouragement of other blind people through the National Federation of the Blind. Whatever it is that you want to do, we as your fellow blind people believe in you and believe that you can do it. We need the support and the encouragement, as well as information, from our fellow blind citizens, but most of all what we need is somebody, and a lot of other somebodies, who will stand up with us when our rights are violated; who will stand up with us to create new opportunities; who will stand up with us no matter what and say this person is blind, this person is capable, step aside.

Those three things--the information we provide each other, the support and encouragement that we provide each other, and the willingness to stand up and engage in concerted action with one another--those three things are the National Federation of the Blind. There's no other organization in this country with which I'm acquainted that has the kind of history, that has the kind of current programs, that has the kind of future that the National Federation of the Blind has.

I know one thing, that my life has been improved, and I know that the lives of every single one of you have been improved by the work and by the dedication of the National Federation of the Blind. The National Association of Blind Educators, as a division of the National Federation of the Blind, will continue to work to improve the future and to improve opportunities for blind people, and I'm sure that every person who's in this room agrees that information, support and encouragement, and willingness to take concerted action, those three things are what we in California must continue to do around the country.