Future Reflections         Summer 2009

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Beginnings and Blueprints

by Mary Jo Thorpe-Hartle

Instructor Amy Phelps leads Marc Fass of New Jersey and his son Andrew on a cane walk at “Beginnings and Blueprints.”From the Editor:  Mary Jo Thorpe married Jesse Hartle this summer. Longtime friends, both work at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland. Mary Jo is the Education Program Manager for the NFB’s Jernigan Institute and Jesse is the NFB’s Government Program Specialist, which finds him often in Washington, DC, explaining the Federation’s point of view.

Through work with early intervention specialists; educators of the blind; and, most importantly, parents of blind children, the National Federation of the Blind aims to identify and address the most critical issues affecting young blind people and to develop priorities for the NFB Jernigan Institute. A theme that emerges over and over in this area is the lack of positive, appropriate early education for families with blind children. This is especially disturbing because research in early childhood education shows that the family has the greatest impact on child development. Parents are frequently told that their children are incapable of developing age-appropriately because of their blindness, encouraging parents to lower their expectations and creating a vicious circle of learned helplessness. Because this cycle can be overcome with effective early education, the Institute has made early childhood education a primary initiative.

In order for parents to help their children reach their highest potential, they need a clear blueprint for success. This blueprint and the tools for its construction were presented to a group of parents of young blind children at the 2009 NFB Beginnings and Blueprints Early Childhood Conference. The conference was held in May at the NFB Jernigan Institute, which sponsored it jointly with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. It included a number of resources in the early childhood field and served more than thirty parents of blind children.

Dinah Little shows tactile representations of the planets to families at “Beginnings and Blueprints.”Families from several states filled their toolboxes as they attended a number of panels and breakout sessions. Such topics as play and exploration, early Braille, orientation and mobility instruction, and developing the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) filled the agenda. Attendees agreed that the panel of blind adults was one of the highlights of the conference. "What I Wish My Parents Had Known about Blindness" helped answer a lot of parents' questions and provided examples of how they would like their children to act as adults. The conference also included visits to the Independence Market, tours of the National Center, a cane walk, and an exhibit hall. It provided something for everyone, as blind children and their sighted siblings participated in exciting child-care activities led by positive blind role models. These included a rousing game of goalball, hands-on art projects, and a visit to the Jacobus tenBroek Library. Having the children on site also allowed for great interaction between families and presenters. There was lots of one-on-one instruction for parents with their children in orientation and mobility and active explorative play. It was wonderful to witness toddlers getting their hands on a cane for the first time.

Beginnings and Blueprints was the second such conference the NFB Jernigan Institute has held. Like most of the Institute's projects, this program aims to be a model for other states and regions interested in providing similar conferences. The education team at the NFB Jernigan Institute hopes to make many of the sessions and PowerPoint presentations from this conference available online through its early childhood initiative page. The team also hopes to be a resource to states interested in facilitating their own early-childhood conferences. To learn more, view pictures, or read comments from participants, visit <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Parents_and_Young_Children.asp>.

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