Future Reflections Spring 1992, Vol. 11 No. 2
EDUCATION OF BLIND CHILDREN SPOTLIGHT ON IDAHO
by Ramona Walhof
[picture] Ramona Walhof and baby Jessica (both are blind) get aquainted at an NFB Idaho Western Chapter Christmas party
Editors' Note: The following article is reprinted from the Fall, 1991, Gem State Milestones, the newsletter of the NFB of Idaho.Ramona Walhof is president of the NFB of Idaho, and a member of the national board.
Education of blind children underwent a major shift in the 1960's. There was a change from educating blind children in state residential schools to enrolling them in local public schools so they could live at home with their families. This phenomenon hit federal law in the mid 1970's with the passage of 94-142. This law provides that local school districts are responsible for the education of all children in the district, including the blind. By 1992 school districts will also be required to provide educational services to disabled preschool children, so that the children will be better equipped to enter kindergarten at age five.
This responsibility has been frightening to some educators and some school administrators, but most are genuinely trying to do what is best for the children, in spite of limited funding and personnel.
In 1974 or 75, the State of Idaho funded ten positions for itinerant teachers of blind children to be supervised by the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind. Six of these teachers work with school age children (5-21), and four work with preschool children. They are based in Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Gooding, Meridian, Moscow, and Coeur d'Alene.
The time has come to consider whether or not changes are needed. Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho are receiving an increasing number of requests for advice and help with the education of blind children. If changes are decided upon, it does not mean that anyone or any institution is bad. Even when people are doing their best, it is possible that needs are not being met. Greater expectations and/or a change in approach may require adjustments.
Itinerant teachers of blind children work with anywhere from 20 to 40 children enrolled in as many different schools. These schools may be spread over an area requiring an hour or two of travel from one to the next. Young blind children need Braille instruction and cane travel instruction daily. These are specialized skills. Most certified teachers of blind children are not prepared to teach both Braille and cane travel. Only two school districts in the State (Coeur d'Alene and Boise) hire teachers who can meet these needs.
In Boise this year there are three blind children who need individual Braille instruction in early elementary school. Classroom aids are being taught a limited amount of Braille in order to reinforce the Braille instruction of the special teacher. The special teacher must provide some instruction to a number of other children besides these three, and he cannot meet with each of them every day. The itinerant teachers may see young children as seldom as once a week. Often no one in the local school districts is equipped to work with a blind child. If a classroom aid is hired, training for that person may not be readily available.
Last spring I received a call from the mother of a two-year old. The mother had been informed that, when her child started to school the itinerant teacher would probably meet with the child once a week. This mother was horrified. How can any child learn to read and write with one lesson a week?
Another mother called me to say that her blind four year old was learning Braille letters and was motivated to keep right on going. This mother felt unable to help her child continue to learn Braille. She also questioned whether the school could provide adequate instruction in Braille for the child in kindergarten and first grade. The school shared these concerns.
I received another call regarding a child who was assigned a teacher's aid during the first few years of school. (When an aid is assigned to a classroom where a blind child is enrolled, this person should assist the teacher with the entire class and not be assigned primarily or exclusively to work with a blind child.) The child in question had become a discipline problem and felt it was his right to have an adult assigned to him. This attitude and dependence must be undone. Classroom teachers need to learn how to work with a blind child in their classroom, and a classroom aid can be important however, blind children, like other children, learn to take advantage of situations when given the opportunity.
Federal law 94-142 provides that parents must meet with school representatives in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) conference yearly to plan special support and education for a blind child. However, many parents and many schools do not know what is reasonable to expect from a blind child or from the school. Furthermore, many parents and many schools have very little information about how to get what is needed.
In Idaho the School for the Deaf and Blind is supervised by the Board of Education. Public schools are not. The Department of Public Instruction has more questions than answers about how these schools relate to one another. Public schools often do not know what is reasonable to expect from the itinerant teachers. The most convenient thing for them would be to let the itinerant teachers provide all the special instruction needed by a blind child. This is impossible, as shown above.
As a consequence, I have dealt with high school students who could not write Braille with a slate and stylus, which is the same as a sighted student who could not write with a pen or pencil. I have dealt with many students who can read neither small print nor Braille, but depend on a print enlarging machine and tape recorders to read. This puts them at a huge disadvantage both in school and in other activities.
The National Federation of the Blind of Idaho passed a resolution last spring at its 1991 convention recommending that two statewide consultants be hired by the Department of Public Instruction to help local school districts arrange for and provide appropriate education for blind children. Obviously, the intention of this proposal is that the work of these consultants would help to coordinate the work of the local school districts and the itinerant teachers from the Idaho School for the Blind.
A number of people in Pocatello have requested that the school district should hire a full-time teacher of blind children as is done in Boise and Coeur d'Alene. The need is there, but no teacher has been hired.
We need to establish standards for the instruction of Braille and cane travel and provide the resources to make it possible to meet these standards. With the current arrangement in Idaho nobody has the responsibility to do this. No regulations specific to blindness have been passed in this state, and Federal law is not designed to be specific to every state.
In other words, education of blind children in Idaho appears to be somewhat disjointed. If the parents are able to carry a great deal of the load, it is possible for a child to get the skills and support needed. Parents cannot be expected to be experts in the education of blind children. Therefore, many blind children are not receiving what they need in school.
Blind children should have as much chance to learn to read and write Braille as sighted kids to learn print. Independent travel with a white cane should be taught to every child beginning in kindergarten or before. Blindness is a low incidence disability. There are not so many children that we cannot provide them with a good education. With a good education, blind children will become productive, self-supporting adults. Without it, they won't. We must work together to improve opportunities for the blind children in Idaho.
Membership of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho passed the resolution (printed below) at the 1991 convention. Taking the step outlined in this resolution could certainly provide needed information to parents and public schools. The NFBI continues to look for information and ideas to improve the education of blind children in Idaho. If you have problems, solutions, and/or interesting experiences with blind children-- please contact me, Ramona Walhof, at the NFB/I office in Boise. Your ideas and experiences can help. Also, study the resolution that was passed. We would like feed-back on it.
WHEREAS, there are 12 teachers working with blind children in Idaho: 4 itinerant preschool teachers, 6 itinerant teachers working with school-age children, and 2 teachers hired by the Boise and Coeur d'Alene school districts to work in those districts, and
WHEREAS, there is a small residential program for blind children in Gooding, and
WHEREAS, none of these teachers have responsibility for advising public schools where blind children are enrolled regarding the best ways to meet the special education needs of these blind children, and
WHEREAS, a consequence of this lack of consultants in the education of blind children means that public schools have inadequate information about the needs of blind children and what they can do to meet these needs, and
WHEREAS, many (if not most) blind children enrolled in the public schools throughout Idaho have inadequate instruction in the reading and writing of Braille and in independent travel, and
WHEREAS, this inadequate instruction is not brought about by incompetent teachers, but rather by the lack of anyone to advise and consult with public school systems, and
WHEREAS, paraprofessionals can be hired by local school districts to reinforce instruction of itinerant teachers working with children in early elementary school, and
WHEREAS, no training is available in Idaho for teacher aids working with blind children.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, by the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho in convention assembled April 14, 1991, that we call upon the state of Idaho to add two positions in the Department of Public Instruction to hire two consultants to provide training for paraprofessionals and advice to parents of blind children and to local school districts regarding the special needs of blind children and alternative methods of meeting those needs, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that it shall be the policy of the State of Idaho that every blind child shall have the opportunity for quality instruction in reading and writing Braille and independent cane travel,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that if necessary, legislation shall be sought by the 1992 legislature.