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Expectations: The Critical Factor in the Education of Blind Children
by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
The following address was delivered at the eighth International Conference on Blind and Visually Impaired Children in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Dr. Fredric Schroeder
Perhaps no issue has been more hotly debated than the question of which educational placement or array of services represents the best alternative for blind children. We tend to view this debate as a contemporary issue—full inclusion versus residential placement. Yet this debate is not new in character or substance. In 1865 at the laying of the cornerstone of the New York State Institution for the Blind at Batavia, Samuel Gridley Howe stated:
I am constantly applied to by teachers to know how to proceed with a blind child; and I always encourage them to keep it at home, and let it go to the common school as long as possible. (1866, in Blindness 1865, p. 185)
While Howe suggests that public school education is preferable to residential placement, his lifetime devotion to establishing schools for the blind reflects his understanding that neither system is wholly adequate to meet the educational needs of blind children. Perhaps the real difficulty in the debate stems from the complexity of its issues. Residential schools have certain natural advantages in designing and implementing programs for blind children. With the students concentrated in one place, curricula can be adapted and special media prepared, allowing for instruction comparable to that available to sighted children. Residential schools offer Braille libraries and are generally noted for their athletics programs. Additionally, by being in an environment with other blind children, the blind child has better prospects for social interaction than is often the case in public schools.
Alternatively, inclusionists put forward the compelling argument that segregation from society fosters separation and isolation. They believe that blind and other disabled children are part of a diverse society and should not be separated from it. They assert that our educational system can and must be available to all and must adapt itself to varying needs rather than excluding those with differences.
There is a tendency to view the individual placement as responsible for the blind child’s positive or negative experience. Yet the quality of the individual child’s experience is not fully explained by the placement model itself. Children going through the very same program frequently have dramatically different feelings about the education they received. Individual children bring with them individual human characteristics. Some adjust readily to change, while others have great difficulty. In other words, the particular placement is only part of the equation.
I believe that the debate over residential versus integrated placement asks the wrong question. There is no one structure or particular type of program placement that is best for blind children. All models and all systems will inevitably succeed with some children and fail with others. What is needed, therefore, is not the refinement or fine tuning of this system or that. Instead, all systems must be premised on a fundamental belief in the ability of blind children to compete—each system must begin with this belief and translate it into expectations.
Without a clear vision of what can be achieved by blind children, no reasonable planning can take place. Without certain fundamental values, no overarching philosophy can emerge. Since its founding the National Federation of the Blind has embodied a clear philosophy of blindness rooted in the basic belief that the blind can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. Marc Maurer, President of the Federation, has stated:
In 1940 we organized to speak for ourselves through the National Federation of the Blind We have replaced the ancient terms of negativism with a new language of hope, and society has increasingly come to accept us for what we are—normal people with normal aspirations and normal abilities. (1990, in Walking Alone and Marching Together, p. 718)
I administered a public school program for five years. What distinguished our program was our fundamental belief in blind children. When I speak of a fundamental belief in blind children, I mean just that—a shared personal conviction that our children are inherently normal and capable of assuming an active role in society, a belief that they can grow up and marry and have jobs and raise families and live a normal life, a belief that they will have strengths and weaknesses and, if encouraged to build on those strengths, can excel, establishing for themselves a place of real equality.
It is important to distinguish what I call a fundamental belief in the ability of blind children from the less-defined, generalized belief which exists throughout our educational system. Certainly teachers as a whole seek to train and encourage their students to learn and achieve. What separates a fundamental belief in the ability of blind children from a generalized belief is the matter of clear expectations.
In the program I administered we strove to put into practice our fundamental belief in blind children. We believed that, given the right training, our students could compete in all subject areas on terms of real equality. We were not satisfied with the methods we used to teach the students unless they met this criterion. For this reason we concentrated intensively on the basic skills needed by blind children.
We instructed them in Braille reading and writing, cane travel, typing, handwriting, and use of the abacus. These core skills represented the natural expression of our philosophy of blindness. We believed that our children could compete and therefore gave them the tools necessary to put that belief into action. By giving them skills and holding high expectations for them, we enabled our students to develop the self-confidence to participate fully, both socially and academically.
We held a fundamental belief in the ability of our students and translated that belief into action. We believed that our children could compete and gave them the skills necessary to make this belief a reality. When they were given the skills to meet our expectations, they developed confidence and learned to achieve. By succeeding and believing in themselves, they began the process of internalizing our belief in them. In time our expectations of them became their expectations of themselves; our fundamental belief in their inherent normalcy became their own.
What blind children lack is not access to services, but access to high expectations. Society holds only minimal expectations for blind people. Consequently the blind child is rewarded for virtually any level of performance. Even the most forward-looking people rarely hold more than tenuous and uncertain expectations for the blind. It is not surprising, therefore, that blind children lack a clear image of their own potential. To develop a real sense of their own ability, blind children must be in an environment with clearly defined expectations.
When I began administering a public school program, I found a lack of clear expectations for blind children. The staff certainly had good intentions for their students and were doing their best to train and motivate them. Yet they had a generalized rather than fundamental belief in their students. None of the children used canes, and therefore they were at a real disadvantage in getting around the school. They had been taught to trail walls and use their feet to find steps. Blind children were allowed to start out five minutes early for recess so that they could get to the playground before the other children. By and large, partially sighted children were responsible for leading the totally blind ones. At lunch time they went early to the cafeteria and sat together while the cafeteria workers brought them their trays. They were integrated primarily into non-academic subjects, except for those students who had enough vision to use print. This program was not, and is not, uncommon. Personnel in these programs did not have bad motives, were not poorly trained, and were not lazy. In fact, they had the very best of intentions. In other words, they had a generalized rather than fundamental belief in their students.
In restructuring our program, we began by integrating a new philosophy about blindness. Our fundamental belief in blind people expressed itself through high expectations.
We believed that, if blind children were to compete, we must first demonstrate (through our actions) our belief in their ability. We stopped the practice of having partially-sighted children lead the totally blind. Rather we taught children to use white canes and encouraged them to walk quickly and confidently. Wall-trailing went by the wayside. We stopped releasing our children early for recess, believing that, if we treated them as though they were vulnerable, they would learn to act as though they were vulnerable and would begin to believe it.
School personnel had some initial difficulty adjusting to these changes. I remember the principal’s telling me that we needed to build a sidewalk leading from the main building to the swings. She said that our students liked to swing during recess; but, since we no longer let them go early, the swings were all taken by the time they arrived. She thought a sidewalk would help them find the swings more quickly. When I asked how the children were currently getting to the swings, she told me that they had been taught to trail the fence around the perimeter of the playground. At the point closest to the swings, a rag had been tied into the chain-link fence. When they found the rag, the children were to stand with their backs to the fence and walk straight out to find the swings. No wonder our children were always the last to arrive at the swings.
I told her that what the children needed was not a sidewalk across the playground, but more practice orienting themselves in large open spaces. When leaving the building, the children should head out across the playground in the general direction of the swings. Over time they would learn to recognize certain natural landmarks such as other playground equipment and slopes in the ground. With practice they would get better at judging the distance and direction to travel. Additionally, since swings are a high-interest activity stimulating much competition, our students would have to be quick if they were to nab a swing.
The principal was apprehensive at the prospect of a half dozen blind children running at top speed with their canes in a crowd of three hundred youngsters. What she had not considered was that, when the recess bell rang, there were three hundred children running at top speed, but they were all running in the same direction—from the building onto the playground. Expecting that the blind children in our program could compete on terms of real equality and giving them the tools to make it possible, we found that they met and surpassed our expectations. When the blind children in our program first learned to use canes, we did not teach them to run. They taught themselves to run because they felt a compelling need to get to the swings first. When they were released early from class, they walked slowly and carefully—those with some sight helping those with none. They had no need to run and no belief that they could. When they learned to use canes and went to recess with everyone else, they found a need to run and hence learned to do so.
But this was only the beginning. Sometimes they weren’t fast enough. Sometimes the swings were all taken when they got there. Consequently, they looked for other things to do. They found and used other pieces of playground equipment. They met other children and made new friends. They began to believe that they were normal children; acted accordingly; and, as a result, were viewed by others as normal.
We also stopped the practice of letting the children go early to lunch. We taught them how to get in line with the other children and use their canes (gently) to keep track of the person in front of them. We taught them how to carry a tray while using a cane and how to find an empty seat. Finally, we taught them to bus their own trays on their way out of the lunchroom. By being part of the crowd, they naturally ended by sitting with a variety of students, which contributed to expanded circles of friends.
In academic areas we applied the same fundamental belief in the basic equality of our students. When I was in graduate school, the concept of social integration was very popular. The basic concept was that placing blind children in an age-appropriate setting, we were assured, would facilitate social integration. Yet this concept was incompatible with our overall philosophy. If we believed that blind children were normal and that, given proper training, they could compete on terms of equality, then social integration would send a contradictory message. If blind children are in classrooms and unable to perform the same work as the other students, how can they learn to believe that they are equal?
We determined, therefore, to concentrate first on the skills of blindness and mainstream children only in those areas in which their skills allowed them to function competitively. This meant that our children received intensive training in Braille reading and writing, as well as training in typing, handwriting, use of the abacus, and of course cane travel. As children were able to read at grade level, they were integrated into language arts and social studies.
As they became skilled in the use of the abacus, they were integrated into math. Consequently, they were able to perform competitively and thereby internalize a vision of themselves as inherently normal.
Let me reiterate that the key was not the educational placement; the critical element was our belief in their essential normalcy and the tangible demonstration of our belief through our actions. By believing in blind children and having high expectations for them, we enabled them consistently to reach and surpass our expectations.
One day one of our students came to his teacher to complain that his friends had begun playing tag during recess. When playing tag, one child is “it,” and his or her objective is to tag or touch another child, thereby making the other child “it.” Since none of the children wishes to be “it,” the game moves at a fast pace. The problem for a blind child is that it is difficult to know who “it” is at any given moment and, more important, where “it” is. This blind child complained that, since he didn’t know where “it” was, he didn’t know which way to run and thus spent much of the game being “it.”
We had spent considerable time and energy convincing our children that they were normal and could compete on terms of equality. We had taught them through our words and deeds that, given the right training, they could function competitively with their sighted peers. We now had a seven-year-old putting our philosophy to the test. In the game of tag he didn’t feel very equal, yet he had an expectation that he was capable of full participation, so he came to us in the absolute certainty that a technique must exist which would allow him to compete. After considerable soul-searching, we determined to talk to the youngster and explain to him that the world had been constructed largely by the sighted with sight in mind, and after all there are some things that the blind cannot do (such as driving) because the activity itself is premised on the ability of the driver to see. We hoped we could explain to him that tag was like driving—constructed by the sighted for the sighted and that it did not mean that he was inferior. We hoped that we could explain, in a way that a seven-year-old would understand, that the blind were not less capable merely because there were some activities in which sight was an overwhelming advantage.
In the meantime this young fellow had grown tired of waiting for us to come up with a solution. He believed he was as capable as anyone else and believed that full participation was a product of having or thinking up the right technique. He realized he could not see, but, rather than feeling bad about it, he had learned to meet the situation head-on. Soon thereafter, before we had a chance to talk with him, he came to school with a small glass jar. At recess he put a few pebbles in it and replaced the lid. He told his friends that, when they were playing tag, whoever was “it” had to shake the jar; and, if he or she did not, the tag did not count. He still did not know who “it” was, but at least he knew where “it” was.
All of us with our master’s degrees and years of experience were prepared to sell a seven-year-old blind child short—not out of malice, poor training, or even lack of imagination. Presumably as a group we had at least average powers of creativity. What limited us was a subtle, almost unrecognizable, internalization of society’s diminished view of blindness. Even though we actively worked to promote a positive philosophy of blindness, we were subject to the negative conditioning of society. No matter how hard we fought it, we were still ready to accept partial participation while intellectually wishing to believe in full participation.
This student solved his own problem primarily because he believed in himself. The critical factor was his own expectation and fundamental belief in himself as a blind person. He believed that he was equal and acted accordingly. He would not settle for a lesser role but thought and questioned and tried until he had an answer. Our challenge is to develop a clear vision in ourselves of what we believe about blindness. We must replace our generalized belief in blind children with a fundamental belief. This represents an overarching philosophy guiding our programs but, more important, guiding our expectations. If we have a clear vision of what blind children can achieve, they will invariably reach and surpass our highest expectations for them.
Inevitably our programs and services develop from our beliefs, explicitly and implicitly reflecting our expectations. The real problem with today’s programs for blind children is their lack of an effective philosophy. Education of the blind has become trapped by its own thinking, which has resulted in a system in which children are encouraged to progress from where they are, without a vision of where we want them to be. We have become complacent, using progress as our measure of success. We have taken this lack of clear vision and embraced it as a virtue. We have become the champions of individualized programs without clearly defined expectations. Yet doing better today than yesterday is simply not good enough. By using progress as the measure of success, we mislead ourselves into believing that our educational systems are working effectively. The real problem of a generalized belief in blind people is that it lacks definition. The progress measure of success rewards forward movement irrespective of whether it is constructive.
Today’s Braille literacy problem did not emerge from a negative view of blindness, but rather from a lack of any specific view at all. If a child has some sight and is struggling to read print and if he or she begins to read better by using a CCTV or stronger magnifier, the goal of progress is achieved. The child is reading better, which is of course what we want. This satisfies our generalized belief in blind children. The progress standard is not so much wrong as incomplete. A child’s making progress is good, but only if it is progress toward a worthy goal, premised on a fundamental belief in the ability of blind people to compete. I believe that blind children are fundamentally normal, so I expect that they can become literate. Since I believe that they are normal, my expectation for their literacy is that they will read and write like their sighted peers. For this reason I am not satisfied by a child’s progressing from reading ten words per minute to twenty or thirty words per minute if this is the best that he or she will achieve, given a particular medium.
Progress is not enough. It must be coupled with expectation. If a child is trained to read Braille knowing that it is reasonable to expect that child will learn to read at a rate comparable to that of his or her sighted peers, then progress takes on a new and positive dimension. Progress in response to substantive expectation is progress worth applauding. Progress from a position of inferiority to a position of less inferiority, without the prospect of full participation, is not only insufficient but damaging because it erroneously teaches the child that, due to blindness, he or she is less capable. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind, expressed it best:
We have learned that it is not our blindness which has put us down and kept us out, but what we and others have thought about our blindness. (1990, reprinted in Walking Alone and Marching Together, p. 428)
As educators, teacher trainers, and parents we must actively work toward developing a strong and positive conception of blindness within ourselves. This can only be accomplished by spending time with blind adults who can help us reshape and redefine our expectations. Ruby Ryles, a nationally recognized teacher of blind children in the United States, pointed out:
The average VI teacher [teacher of blind children] has had little or no contact with competent blind adults and therefore does not imagine, cannot imagine, the tragic results of the omission of basic skill training. (June, 1989, in the Braille Monitor, p. 308)
We must strive to replace our generalized beliefs with fundamental beliefs in the capacity of blind people. With these fundamental beliefs our philosophy of blindness will guide us intuitively to do what is right. Through our philosophy we will naturally hold high expectations for our students and replace undirected progress with that which is goal-driven. We will automatically know whether a decision or strategy is the right one by the degree to which it accomplishes the objective of full participation for the child.
But, most important, a personal fundamental belief in the ability of blind people will result in the passing on of this belief to our children. If we believe in them and demonstrate that belief in all that we do, they too will learn to believe in themselves, internalizing our expectations. The skills we teach are not a complete package, but a starting point. If our children learn to believe in themselves, they will draw from these skills, applying them in new ways and in new situations. They will build on this foundation and integrate themselves into society. No master’s-level educator will have to teach them the correct method for playing tag. By believing in themselves and assuming that they can function competitively, they will automatically look for the techniques to put their beliefs into action. The critical factor is expectations—expectations stemming from an overarching philosophy rooted in a fundamental belief in the capacity of blind people to live full and productive lives.
Dr. Schroeder is a research professor at San Diego State University and a former Commisioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration.