Future Reflections  Summer 2006

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Making It Work: Educating the Blind/Visually Impaired Student in the Regular Classroom

by Carol Castellano
A review by Deborah Kent Stein

Deborah Kent Stein“Life as a blind person need not be any more frustrating or stressful than life with eyesight--as long as blind/visually impaired children are taught the skills and given the tools they need to accomplish tasks with independence and with success,” writes Carol Castellano. “If the adults in the child’s life have positive attitudes about blindness and the abilities of blind/VI people and a basic understanding of the skills the child is learning, they can help move the child along and bring the day of independence closer and closer.” This statement captures the spirit of Making It Work, the latest offering in the Critical Concerns in Blindness Series, edited by Ronald J. Ferguson of Louisiana Tech University. Making It Work is a manual for the classroom teacher who has a blind student in his or her class. It is packed with information and advice on how to integrate a blind student into a regular elementary or secondary school program.

As Castellano points out, some U.S. cities began to integrate blind students into regular public school classrooms more than a century ago. Although these programs were quite successful, mainstreaming did not become widespread until the 1950s. Today about 85 percent of all blind children attend public schools. Despite this long history, few teachers and administrators have had any experience with blind students. The news that a blind child will be enrolling in the program is often greeted with anxiety. A host of problems seem to loom, and the teacher is assailed by a swarm of doubts and questions. How can I teach a child who can’t read the printed word? he wonders. How can a blind child understand maps and charts, work in science labs, create art projects, and take part in industrial-arts class? How will a blind student travel from classroom to classroom, negotiate the cafeteria line, and play safely on the playground? Making It Work provides answers to these questions and many more. It assures the teacher that, with the necessary skills and tools, the blind child can participate on an equal basis with her sighted peers in every aspect of school life.

In her opening chapters Castellano calls on the teacher to examine her attitudes about blindness and blind people. She points out the “sighted bias” that pervades much of the mainstream and professional literature about blindness. This bias presents blindness as helplessness and blind people as inferior to people with eyesight. Burdened with unimaginable difficulties, the blind person who goes about the business of living is regarded as brave and indomitable. Castellano challenges the assumption that it takes courage to live as a blind person. “Blind/VI children are simply doing what all children do--living and learning and developing and growing,” she explains. She adds that “We adults can certainly make a blind/VI child feel lacking and inferior and inadequate. We can also choose to make the child feel whole, equal, and competent. It is our attitudes that will shape so much of the blind/VI child’s experience.” Armed with a “can-do” attitude, the teacher will be able to tackle problems and create a stimulating learning environment.

Carol CastellanoIn order to succeed in school and in life, the blind child needs to acquire certain critical skills. According to Castellano these include efficient methods for reading and writing, and the means for moving about freely and safely. For a child who cannot read and write print efficiently due to blindness or visual impairment, Braille is an essential tool. Independent travel is possible when the child develops skill in the use of the long white cane. Castellano explains the basics of Braille and cane travel, demystifying these tools for the uninitiated classroom teacher. She emphasizes that the teacher must encourage the use of these skills and tools so that the blind child can flourish.

In a variety of areas pertaining to the blind child’s educational needs, Castellano provides concrete suggestions. The book discusses the process of writing an individualized education plan (IEP) to set appropriate goals. It explores ways to adapt course materials and to help the blind child gain the information that sighted children absorb from pictures. One chapter is devoted to the role of the classroom aide. Castellano is adamant that the blind child must not be allowed to become dependent upon the aide, and recommends that by third or fourth grade the aide should largely be occupied with preparing Braille worksheets and other materials in alternative formats.

The importance of good social skills is mentioned frequently throughout the book, but the primary emphasis is on academic success. Sadly, some blind students in good academic standing retreat from public school because they feel socially isolated. In order to insure the child’s success at school and beyond, teachers must find ways to facilitate healthy, age-appropriate social interaction. A full chapter on social skills would have been merited. It is surely a critical concern in blindness; perhaps some day it will be granted a volume of its own.

The final chapter of Castellano’s book consists of a series of short essays by teachers and administrators who have worked directly with blind students. Their stories give life to the ideas Castellano has expressed. Some of these educators had misgivings when they found out they would be teaching a child who is blind, but they were open to the new experience. In the end each learned from his/her blind student, and felt that the student’s presence enriched the entire class.

Making It Work is a slender book, aimed at teachers who have little or no prior knowledge about blindness. The information is basic, and many of the suggestions tend to be general. The extensive list of resources at the back of the book will prove valuable as the teacher searches for specific ways to meet day-to-day challenges. Two excellent books listed in the Resources section will amplify the ideas Castellano sets forth. A Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Duffy, and Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei are compendia of suggestions for “making it work” at every level of a child’s education.
As an epigraph to this book Castellano quotes bioethicist and lifelong Federationist Adrienne Asch. “Why the regular school?” Asch asks. “Because there is not a ‘sighted world’ with blind people living outside it, but one world in which the blind person also lives. The blind person belongs; schools are for her or him, too, the same schools, the same world, the same kind of life.” The implication of these words is profound, yet wonderfully simple. May they shape the thinking of the teachers who read this book, and frame the way they welcome blind children into their classrooms and their lives.

Making it Work: Educating the Blind/Visually Impaired Student in the Regular School, by Carol Castellano, copyright 2005, Information Age Publishing, Inc., is available in regular print and on CD:

Print: $25 plus shipping and handling
CD: $25

The book may be ordered from:

* Information Age Publishing at www.infoagepub.com
* The National Federation of the Blind at www.nfb.org (click on Aids & Appliances, Books, Education)
* Parents of Blind Children-NJ at www.blindchildren.org.

Letters, calls, or e-mail inquiries about the book may be directed to the author, Carol Castellano, President, Parents of Blind Children-NJ, 23 Alexander Avenue, Madison, New Jersey 07940; (973) 377-0976; <center@webspan.net>.

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