Future Reflections Special Issue: Blind Children with Additional Disabilities
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by Natalie Shaheen
From the Editor: Originally from Ohio, Natalie Shaheen is both a special education teacher and a teacher of blind students. She taught in a wide variety of settings before moving to Baltimore in 2009 to work at the NFB Jernigan Institute as an education program specialist. Because she is blind with some residual vision, she did not receive instruction in alternative techniques when she was a child. Today she advocates passionately for all blind children to learn the skills of blindness.
My path to becoming a teacher of blind students differs from that of some other educators. I have spent the last thirteen years working, in some capacity, with students who have autism. Before I left high school I was mentored by a fabulous special-education teacher. Throughout my pre-service training and my first year of teaching I continued to encounter educators who helped shape my personal theory of teaching and learning.
I believe that all children have the capacity to learn. It is my job to work tirelessly to find the teaching methods that best support my students' needs, allowing them to achieve their fullest potential. This theory has been the basis for everything I have done in my career.
I was teaching in the field of autism when the teacher who had mentored me since high school suggested I investigate teaching blind children. I didn't know any blind people or any teachers of blind children. I had received some services in school as a "low-vision" student. The idea of providing such services seemed rather dull compared to the exciting things I was doing every day in my classroom at a charter school for children with autism. Yet, because I had always looked up to the teacher who presented this idea, I took her advice. I enrolled in the local university and began working toward my master's degree while I continued to teach. As I progressed through my coursework I realized that being a teacher of blind students entailed much more than providing the services I had received when I was in school. The field was far more interesting than I had expected.
Degree in hand, I decided to leave the charter school. A part of me was sad to say goodbye to my students with autism. They had challenged me every day to be creative and to improve my pedagogy. At the same time I felt elated by the opportunity to teach Braille and the other alternative techniques of blindness.
When I started my new job I eagerly reviewed the IEPs of the blind students on my caseload. I discovered that many of them had additional disabilities. For me this discovery was exhilarating. I would have the chance to combine my experience as a special educator with my recently acquired knowledge of how to teach blind students. During the next few years I encountered dozens of blind children who had autism. I would like to share some of the ideas I evolved over those years of teaching.
In the National Federation of the Blind we often remind people that the real problem of blindness is not the loss of vision but the attitudes and misconceptions of others. The same holds true for blind children with autism. Far too many educators assume that the existence of a concomitant disability means that a child cannot learn the alternative techniques of blindness. These children fall through the gap that exists between teachers of blind students and special educators who work with autistic children. Some teachers of blind students write off blind kids with autism because they don't have the knowledge of best practices used with autistic students. At the same time, special educators do not know what to do with these children because their knowledge of blindness is so limited. Consequently, the system often fails to educate students who are both blind and autistic.
As a teacher, I often felt the most important role I played was that of public relations manager. My blind students with autism were not well liked. Their aggressive behavior was generally cited as the reason they were so unpopular with professionals. Colleagues repeatedly made comments about my students that broke my heart. My students were treated as second-class citizens within the school community. Most of them had never received instruction in Braille or cane travel, despite many years of education. The only useful skill many of my students had learned at school was how to manipulate the adults around them. They knew exactly how to use negative behavior to get what they wanted.
Armed with my theory of teaching and learning, I set out to change the attitudes of the professionals in the schools where I worked. I knew I had to change their thinking if my students were ever going to receive a quality education. I spent a great deal of my time publicizing the accomplishments of my students. I displayed their work on bulletin boards in the halls. I wrote a weekly newsletter that I distributed as widely as I could. I praised my students for their real accomplishments, not just because they showed up at school. My methods were not revolutionary, but my message certainly was.
At first my PR work backfired. When people learned that I was teaching Braille, abacus, and other alternative techniques to students who were blind and autistic, they criticized me harshly. "Bobby can't attend to anything other than music for more than five minutes!" I was told. "You think you're going to teach him Braille?"
I wasn't entirely sure how to teach alternative techniques to my students, but I refused to believe it was impossible. For answers I turned to the educators who had mentored me. I bounced ideas off the teachers at the charter school where I had taught. They didn't know anything about Braille, but they were well-versed in the best practices of autism. I contacted other professionals in the blindness field to get their feedback on the strategies I intended to implement. I also read everything I could find about educating blind students with additional disabilities. After gathering a wealth of information and feedback, it was time to put my plan into action.
Phase One required me to create a classroom environment that would allow the students to be successful. I had to provide all the supports commonly found in the classrooms of sighted students with autism. I developed a schedule for the class that was as consistent as possible. I translated this schedule into a tactile form, using the tactile symbols that already existed in the school. The students could not yet read their names, so I assigned each child a personal tactile symbol. The symbol appeared on all of the student's belongings next to his/her name in Braille.
I incorporated positive behavior supports as a part of the classroom management plan. The classroom was free from clutter. The various learning areas in the room were well defined so the students could more easily predict the activities that would take place in each area.
Phase Two of my plan occurred almost simultaneously with the first phase. I felt it was imperative that the students no longer be deprived of Braille. I acquired Braille in every format I could. I gathered Braille books and put them on shelves in the reading corner. Everything that appeared in the classroom in print also appeared in Braille. Nearly every surface in the room was adorned with a Braille label or a tactile symbol. I brought Braillewriters into the room and placed them where the children could reach them easily.
The students had no literacy skills, so my instruction started with the most basic concepts. I wrote stories about my students' favorite school activities. I Brailled the stories and illustrated them with homemade tactile graphics, often including real objects. I read the stories with the students and they placed their hands over mine as I read. The students also became acquainted with the Braillewriter. They started with scribbling as a means to discover how the machine worked.
I knew that forty-five minutes of language arts each day would not allow the students to catch up on their Braille skills. To provide more learning opportunities, I tried to incorporate Braille into other parts of the day. Each of the students had reward systems that incorporated a token board. The board had six tactile circles, set up like a Braille cell in two columns of three. Each time the student earned a token for appropriate behavior, she/he placed it in one of the circles. The children counted their tokens according to the numbering system for the Braille dots. Consequently, the dot numbers of the Braille cell were reinforced dozens of times each day. I often included literature in math lessons, which also gave the students increased access to Braille.
The first two phases of the plan were the most important and the most effective. Other phases of the plan included acquiring orientation and mobility assessments for the students, teaching appropriate social skills, teaching the beginner abacus and other basic math skills, and teaching simple social studies concepts. The plan was not perfect, and I made adjustments as problems surfaced.
As the school years passed, my colleagues gradually came around. They began to work with me on improving the education of our blind students with autism. The more I was able to collaborate with my colleagues, from related-service providers to administrators, the more refined and effective the plan became.
Leaders in the blind community must work with educators to eliminate misconceptions about all blind students, including those with additional disabilities. All students possess the capacity to learn, and students with multiple disabilities are no exception. In order for a blind person to be successful he/she must acquire the alternative techniques of blindness. We must fight for the rights of all blind children to learn alternative techniques throughout their years of compulsory education.
Finally, we must not give up when traditional teaching methods are not successful with a particular student. It is the job of the educator to find the proper strategy to teach a child; it is not the job of the child to conform to traditional methodology!
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