Future Reflections                                                                                     Spring/Summer 2004

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A Brighter Future for Blind Children
The 2003 NFB Summit on Education Helps Shape Programming for the NFB Jernigan Institute

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark Riccobono
Mark Riccobono

Editor’s Note: Mark Riccobono has recently been appointed to coordinate educational programming for the NFB Jernigan Institute. Last August a number of Federationists with interest and expertise in education for the blind gathered at the National Center for the Blind to do the groundwork on setting educational policy and establishing program priorities for the Jernigan Institute. Mark Riccobono led the discussion and here reports on the work of that group:

The work of the National Federation of the Blind improving opportunities for blind children is very near the top of our list of priorities. With the impact on regular education of the new focus on standards, the changing classroom environment because of technology, and the endless battle over school budgets, is it any wonder that our concern about the education of blind children is growing? But the problems facing us are not as simple as addressing what is new in regular education. In addition we must consider the trends and activities in special education, particularly with teachers of blind students and orientation and mobility instructors. Because of the critical role the National Federation of the Blind plays in ensuring that blind children receive appropriate training and opportunity, and with the coming development of innovative programs in the NFB Jernigan Institute, leaders in the NFB came together to discuss the education of blind children.

On August 22 and 23, 2003, NFB leaders, educators, and parents of blind children met at the National Center for the Blind to discuss the current status of the education of blind children in the United States. This 2003 NFB Summit on Education was part of the effort to address our growing concern that the current educational system is not providing appropriate instruction to blind children and, furthermore, that the system lacks the innovation to attain successful outcomes for these children. Twenty-one Federationists came together for two days of discussion and brainstorming about the education of blind children. This important meeting, however, was simply one piece of the process. Much more must be done to ensure that every blind child receives an appropriate education based on high expectations.

Before reporting some of the highlights of the 2003 NFB Summit on Education, we should review the role the NFB has already played in the education of blind children. After all, we have already made a significant difference. Consider just two examples from the last twenty years or so. First is our successful effort to get canes into the hands of blind children as early as possible. We began publishing Future Reflections in October of 1981, and from the beginning many of its articles focused on the importance of having child-size canes for youngsters to begin using as soon as they could walk. The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children came into being at the 1983 national convention, and shortly thereafter the NFB produced the video, Kids With Canes. Today many professionals have begun to teach blind kids to use the long white cane at an earlier age. Moreover, our literature and expertise on the subject are gaining increased acceptance.

Second is our strong leadership in meeting the Braille literacy crisis in this country, which led to the adoption in thirty-two states of Braille bills based on our model legislation as well as our successful work to pass the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that provide Braille instruction to all blind students unless, after an evaluation assessing the child’s current and future reading needs, the IEP team determines that Braille is not appropriate. Our efforts have continued to secure timely access to materials (the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act) and at the local level to establish educational programs such as Braille Is Beautiful and to expand the Braille Readers Are Leaders programs. While these examples are significant, they represent only a fraction of the positive impact the NFB has made since 1940. Yet even in these areas, cane travel and Braille literacy for blind children, our work is not nearly complete.

How then do we begin to tackle the problems that still exist in the education of blind children? That is what the participants in the 2003 NFB Summit on Education worked on in late August. We had much lively discussion with a number of themes emerging by the end of the two days. Seven of these, in no particular order, were:

•  Changes and innovations in the delivery system for serving blind children. We spent considerable time discussing the emphasis in the field on the shortage of qualified personnel, which is often cited as the major problem facing the field as a whole. However, with our unique perspective and collective experience of blindness, we disagreed with this analysis. Summit participants concluded that the shortage of trained professionals exists only if one assumes that the current philosophy behind educating the blind and the method of delivering services to blind children are effective and efficient. We agreed, however, that they are not effective and that this appalling shortcoming is the most serious crisis facing blind children today. The philosophy underlying the delivery of instruction and the approach to providing services are the problems that must be addressed immediately.

•  Infusing a positive philosophy as early as possible. Participants discussed their conviction that the profound lack of strong early-intervention programs based on high expectations and positive approaches to blindness puts blind children at a significant disadvantage from the start. All too often parents of blind children are confronted from the beginning with negative stereotypes and low expectations for their children by the professionals with whom they deal. Children who lack opportunities and expectations early on are labeled as slower, and a general acceptance of this lag grows out of the misguided notion that “It just takes these children longer.” The summit concluded that the NFB must stimulate cultivation of intensive, excellent early childhood programs based on our effective philosophy and approach to blindness. We must do everything we can to encourage parents to take an active, even leading part in teaching and enabling their blind children to keep up with their peers.

•  Strategies for demystifying the education of blind children and infusing positive literature and resources into the system. We discussed a number of ideas for specific programs and products to assist parents trying to prepare their blind children for success. Some of these programs, like the science camp which Dr. Maurer announced in his 2003 Presidential Report and which is highlighted later in this issue, are already on our radar screen, but others will need to be developed.

•  Better educational programs for parents, paraprofessionals, and teachers. As the voice of the nation’s blind, we are in a unique position to train others to assist in providing needed support and educational services. Using our knowledge and experience with training programs, we can expand our reach to encourage people interested in providing a truly appropriate education for every blind child. Consistent with the NFB Jernigan Institute’s mission to drive innovation in the field of blindness, the NFB Online Education Program will be central to this training.  The first course in the program, “Introduction to the Education of Blind Children in the Regular Classroom,” was launched as one of the inaugural projects of the NFB Jernigan Institute at the grand opening celebration on January 30.

•  Establishment of standards for blind youth in blindness and life-coping skill areas. Another important discussion occurred around the notion of how we know whether or not blind youth are meeting appropriate standards. Individualized planning for blind students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, as enshrined in federal law, is intended to ensure that every child receiving special education services will be taught according to team decisions made especially and solely for that student. While the intention of federal law is to help each child appropriately and individually, the effect on blind children has been devastating. This practice has resulted in education being provided to each blind student as though this were the first blind student ever taught. The effect is most damaging in the teaching of blindness and life-coping skills. This means no standards by which school administrators, both regular and special education, can assess the progress of the blind student in learning or the effectiveness of the teacher of blind children in teaching blindness skills. On the other hand, those same teachers, particularly those providing good instruction, have no standards to use in convincing their administrators of the appropriate amount of instructional time required to properly teach those blindness and life-coping skills. Worst of all, the blind student has no way of measuring his or her mastery of blindness skills, and most blind students emerge from high school certain that they are doing splendidly until the reality of college and employment shows them otherwise. The NFB’s knowledge and experience and our ability to pool the two in collective, thoughtful analysis as well as our long record of trying to make the current system work, uniquely suit us to provide valid criticism of the status quo and to forge solutions that will change the world for America’s blind youngsters. That means real standards against which age-appropriate progress can be measured. The obvious place to start is to learn what today’s blind students are actually doing in key blindness areas and then use that information to fashion standards for performance against which individual student performance can be measured.

•  Pursuing meaningful research that will drive better instruction for blind children. A number of critical research and data questions were raised. These range from improving Braille literacy to tracking the performance of blind children in order to measure the effectiveness of the services they receive. These research ideas are unlike the research currently being done in the blindness field. The questions we raised are grounded in the unique perspective of blind people and are better characterized, in the words of Dr. Fred Schroeder, as “advocacy research.” Undoubtedly such research questions will be a part of the work of the NFB Jernigan Institute. Certainly the question of effective and age-appropriate use of access technology has already registered concern across the Federation, and more research will need to be done on how and when to introduce blind children to keyboarding, electronic notetakers, and computers with speech and screen-enlargement programs.

•  Developing partnerships with key programs and innovators in education to create model programs and practices based on positive Federation philosophy and the latest research on child development and learning acquisition. Where possible, we need to create relationships and work closely with those in the blindness field and beyond who can assist us to develop new programs for blind children. A number of ideas for accomplishing this were generated and will be incorporated into our future work.

Our discussion was just one step in the process of building an educational program within the NFB Jernigan Institute that will dramatically improve the opportunities and resources available to blind youth and those concerned with their education. The notes from the 2003 NFB Summit on Education have been compiled into a form which will allow the NFB Jernigan Institute to track and update our progress on the strategies identified at this initial meeting. Many of the priorities and concerns discussed at the Education Summit will be incorporated into the Strategic Plan for the Institute, so we will all be able to follow program development in the months and years to come.

We must not stop with the 2003 NFB Summit on Education, and in true Federation spirit readers must not simply follow the progress of our educational programs. As we continue efforts in the Federation and in building the programs of the NFB Jernigan Institute, our innovative ideas, rooted in our experience and understanding of blindness, must be our driving force. In no other place are these innovations being cultivated in the way we will establish them, and this perspective is the critical element that makes the Federation the leader it is in the blindness field.

All of us then have a role in devising ideas and developing the resources to make the ideas work. While the Education Summit generated a number of useful strategies that we can use as a springboard for the Institute, we continue to need discussion and innovation. Members of the Federation working in local communities to improve conditions for blind children are essential. Your ideas and innovations must be part of the NFB Jernigan Institute. These ideas will necessarily evolve and change, but each idea has an important role in shaping our initiatives based on a positive consumer approach to blindness.

As we build our educational programs, we will need to know about successful programs and resources across the country. While the Institute will leverage our experience with blindness, it will also allow us to create powerful partnerships with those professionals who get it. We will welcome learning about any positive efforts in support of blind youth. Our 2004 NFB Science Camps are a perfect example of the partnerships and innovations we will try to cultivate through the Institute.

Will blind children continue to be left behind? Will their parents continue to struggle to receive barely mediocre services? Will valuable educational resources continue to fall through the cracks or be needlessly reinvented? Will general educators learn the truth about blindness and how to deal positively with a blind child in the classroom? Fortunately our answers to these questions based on our experience embody great hope. The positive force for change evident in our work today is the same one that was born in 1940. It led the way to improved expectations and opportunities for blind children, and it is now establishing the research and training programs which will forever change the face of education for blind children. The National Federation of the Blind is not a new trend in education. Rather it is the voice of reason and experience and power with a growing track record of success. Let us work together to ensure that no blind child is left to face life without the confidence and independence he or she can achieve.

Please contact Mark Riccobono with your thoughts, ideas, and information about innovative programs for blind children. He can be reached at the National Center for the Blind (410) 659-9314 or by email at <mriccobono@nfb.org>.

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