Future Reflections Convention Report 1997, Vol. 16 No. 3
by Deborah Prost
[PICTURE] Deborah Prost
Editor's Note: The following presentation was made on Tuesday, July 1, 1997, at the Annual Meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Mrs. Deborah Prost, this year's winner of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award, is a blind woman who has taught blind children for 17 years. The quality of the speech reprinted below is ample demonstration of why she was selected this year's award winner. Here is what Mrs. Prost has to say about teaching blind children:
It is a real honor for me to have received the 1997 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award because I know that the National Federation of the Blind wants the best for blind children, and therefore has high standards and expectations for their teachers. I will continue doing all I can to meet these standards and expectations for the good of my students. I thank the Federation again for the award. I also thank God for the ability to find creative ways to teach my students the skills of blindness and for the love He gives me for each student as a unique individual.
First, I want to let each of you know how important your role is as a parent in your child's life. You have a special ability to help your child become independent and successful that no one else possesses. You know your child better than anyone. There are areas in which you can teach your child far more effectively than I, or any teacher. I would like to discuss some of these, as well as ways in which we as parents and teachers must work together so that blind children can really succeed in life rather than just "get by."
Let me describe the ways in which my parents and my grandmother were the key positive influences for me as a child. These will illustrate areas where you can be the main influence in your child's life. As parents, you don't need any degrees or professional skills. You just need common sense and the qualities of real interest in, involvement with, and, most of all, love for your child.
When I was a child, my mother and grandmother stressed the importance of good grooming and a neat personal appearance. They expected no less from me in these areas than they would have if I had been sighted. If I looked unkempt or anything was amiss with my grooming or dress, they would let me know. Sometimes I would resent this, but now I'm thankful that they expected the best from me. They made shopping for clothes fun. They let me know what kinds of clothes were in style, what colors looked good on me, and what clothes and accessories went well together. It was not assumed that, because I was blind, I would be uninterested in color and style. They did not tell me to buy all white blouses or solid colors because it would be easier to match outfits. Instead, they both came up with ways for me to identify and match clothing. For example, my mother bought tags, each of which had a string on the end. I would (and still do) write a description of a particular outfit on one of the tags, tie it to a hanger, and use that hanger for the particular skirt and blouse, pants and top, or dress. My grandmother would sew buttons or tags that I had Brailled inside blouses or sweaters that were alike except for color. My mother and grandmother would always tell me all of the colors in a particular outfit, and I would (and still do) find features of each outfit that are easily identified by touch. I remember what color that outfit is and identify it by its particular tactile features.
As a child, my parents didn't allow me to develop habits that would set me apart from my sighted friends. For example, I would put my fingers in my eyes. My parents didn't let me get by with this just because I was blind. When I would do this, my mother would quietly knock on a table or other surface nearby as a signal to me. When I started rocking back and forth, she told me that this was not normal, did not look good, and that other children didn't do it. I immediately stopped. This approach may sound cruel to some people, but to me, love must sometimes be tough. You are helping your child more by being honest with him or her. I really appreciated my parents' approach to such habits when I was in graduate school and attended a get-together with some friends on a Saturday night. We were discussing mainstreaming, and a blind man who was there said, "Blind people are no different from anybody else, and blind children should be mainstreamed." Since I was standing beside him, I knew that he was rocking back and forth during that whole conversation.
My parents allowed me to simply be a kid. Our family would go to the beach every summer where my grandparents had a cottage. My parents taught me the basics of swimming, and arranged for me to have lessons. I loved swimming in the ocean, and a friend and I would have contests to see who could float the longest and who could go out deeper into the ocean.
I participated in all family activities, including chores. It is important that you as parents teach your blind child to do household chores just as you would teach your sighted child.
My parents didn't let me get away with inappropriate behavior, but disciplined me when necessary just as they did my brothers. For example, I once was quite upset when my mother forbade me to use the telephone for several days, and ordered me to call one of her friends and apologize for making a crank call to her house at four o'clock in the morning. It just didn't seem fair that my friend who was making crank calls with me could still use the telephone and didn't have to call anyone and apologize.
Good grooming and personal appearance, lack of inappropriate habits, and full participation in every aspect of family life are areas in which you, as a parent, are your child's real teacher. They are just as important as the skills your child gains in school.
In order for your child to learn the alternative techniques for successful living as a blind person, you also have an important role. You must work with teachers and, if necessary, the school administration to ensure that your child receives this instruction. These techniques include Braille, cane travel, keyboarding, and use of appropriate computer technology.
As a parent, you are a full-fledged participant by law in your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP). This means that you have ultimate control of the skills your child will or will not be taught. In order to take this control, you must know what skills will ultimately help your child throughout life, not just during the school years. When deciding whether or not your child needs specific alternative techniques of blindness, you must consider three important factors:
First, you must think about what skills will promote long-term independence for your child. For example, your child may be able to read print now, but have a deteriorating eye condition. Your child may be able to read print for very short periods of time, and then his or her eyes may tire. In both of these situations, the child will benefit from instruction in Braille. It is better for the child with deteriorating vision to learn Braille so that no matter what happens, he or she will be able to read. Some teachers of the visually impaired disagree with this approach, saying that it is better to wait until the child is totally blind and to concentrate now on use of residual vision as much as possible. I feel that there is a problem with this view. It would be more traumatic for the child to not be able to read at all for a while after becoming totally blind. There would be times of discouragement and frustration that could be avoided by learning Braille first. After becoming totally blind, the person who had previously learned Braille, even as a secondary reading medium, would make an easier adjustment from reading print to reading Braille, without going through a time of not being able to read anything. The child who can read print for short time periods may be able to do quite well in the early grades with regular and/or large print, but will have difficulty when required to complete long reading assignments in late elementary, middle, and high school. The child in this scenario who learns Braille will have the choice to use Braille or print, depending on task requirements. Braille could be used for reading novels and notes for oral book reports, while print could be used for reading labels and mail.
The second important factor is practicality. The child who can read print for short time periods could benefit from a closed circuit TV. However, this aid is not portable. Will the child have one at home and one at school? What happens to the child in middle or high school who is required to travel throughout the school building to change classes each day? It seems that Braille is an important part of the solution to this problem.
The third factor you must consider is that the skills your child learns must enable him or her to function most efficiently and to meet the same standards as other children of the same age and in the same grade. Your child must have all the tools necessary to work on an equal level with sighted peers. A child who writes all work in print by hand, uses print and low vision aids alone for reading, takes twice as long to complete work as sighted students, and does not enjoy reading for pleasure because reading is tiring— this child is definitely not working on an equal level with sighted classmates. A child who can get around independently only during the day or only with a certain type of lighting is not functioning on an equal level with sighted peers.
In summary, you as a parent have the most important role in your child's life. You can play a major part in laying the groundwork for him or her to become a contributing member of society. Ideally, the teacher of blind children will work with you in laying this groundwork by teaching the alternative techniques of blindness.
You have the ultimate authority in terms of what instruction your child receives. In order to take this authority, you must make sure that this instruction promotes long-term independence, is practical, and enables your child to compete on terms of equality with sighted peers.
You must also be knowledgeable about the IEP process, and always be an active participant in your child's IEP. To obtain the knowledge you need, you have an excellent resource in the National Federation of the Blind.
We can all work together in this organization to help blind children obtain the skills necessary for real success in life.