Future Reflections         Summer 2010

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EQUAL STANDARDS FOR BLIND CHILDREN

by Matthew Maurer, PhD

Dr. Matt Maurer stands at a podium while his brother, Dr. Marc Maurer, is seated beside himFrom the Editor: Dr. Matt Maurer teaches instructional technology at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. The brother of NFB President Marc Maurer, he has a longstanding commitment to improving educational opportunities for blind students.

We say we are as good as the sighted, able to compete with them on terms of equality. We say that we deserve all of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, and that we are capable of exercising them. We say that it is respectable to be blind. When the time comes that a majority of us know for a certainty within ourselves that these things are true (know it so surely that we act and live it every day and do not even need to think about it or question it), our battle will largely be won.
--Kenneth Jernigan, July 4, 1985

The words of Dr. Jernigan often give us inspiration and direction. The field of education has much to learn from the ideas he offered at the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Among the many goals we should hold for the education of blind children is that they learn to see themselves as respectable, able to compete, and deserving of the rights and privileges of citizenship. Educators should instill these beliefs to the point that blind students do not need to think about them or call them to question.

We need to ensure that our children are treated in ways that foster this outcome. We need to guard against policies and behaviors that might put it in jeopardy. Unless parents are vigilant, the outcome we desire can be endangered by an insidious pattern of accommodation.

The granting of "extra time" is one of the most common accommodations that is placed on a blind child's IEP. Many blind children are allowed extra time to take tests, to complete assignments, and to get from place to place. This accommodation is so frequent, in fact, that it often becomes part of the IEP "boilerplate." Before this accommodation is added to a child's IEP, however, parents and teachers should ask some serious questions. Does the child really need more time? If so, why is this the case? Is the child being offered extra time to take tests because his reading speed is low and his work habits are poor? Does a child need extra time to get to class because she has poor travel skills? Does a blind child need extra time because he/she lacks confidence in his/her ability to complete a task? Accommodations given for these reasons are ultimately harmful to the child. If a child has a low reading speed, poor work habits, or limited travel skills, these problems should be addressed directly in the IEP. We must look for ways to build a child's confidence instead of reinforcing shaky self-esteem.

The lighter workload is another accommodation commonly found in the IEPs of blind students. If the rest of the class is assigned to do twenty problems, the blind child may be assigned only ten. If the class must write a ten-page paper, the blind child may be asked to write a shorter one. Again, we must ask ourselves if this accommodation is necessary, or if it is simply the short-term solution to a deeper learning problem. Does the child need to work on writing speed? Do the teachers need to focus on his/her work habits? Perhaps a lightened workload may be appropriate for a while, but perhaps it is not. Certainly it is not appropriate to consider a slow writing speed or poor work habits to be inevitable for a blind child. If a blind child cannot do the same amount of work as sighted peers, less work may be appropriate while he/she is developing better skills, but it is not appropriate as an ongoing accommodation. The IEP must focus on improving the child's skills so the accommodations can be removed. To do otherwise is to send a lasting message that the child is not as good as his or her sighted peers. This message is potentially very detrimental to the child. Guarding against it must be a primary focus for everyone who cares about the child's education.

Dr. Matt Maurer and a young boy play a Brailled board gameThe purpose of education is to prepare our children to go into the world as active, engaged members of society. How do accommodations such as extra time and lighter workload serve that purpose? What employer will be interested in hiring a worker whose habits are poor and whose production is low? If slower speed and lower work output are school standards, is it any wonder that the unemployment rate for blind adults is so dismal?

Parents must also watch carefully the assessment of their child's work. Is poor work being judged as acceptable? Is mediocre work being judged as exceptional? Teachers may not make these inaccurate judgments at a conscious level. If a teacher is unfamiliar with blindness, he/she may find the most routine performance from a blind person to be remarkable. Such a false picture may have an impact when the teacher assesses the child's work.

Dealing with issues around accommodation can be difficult because parents are often forced to act against their child's wishes. Just as children tend to resist eating vegetables, they generally oppose doing homework. What child wouldn't prefer a lighter assignment? What child fights to receive a low grade when he/she turned in shoddy work? Parents often must take on the unpleasant duty of watching out for their children's long-term best interest. Parents must insist that blind children are held to the same standards as their sighted classmates. When a child cannot meet these standards, parents must insist that the educational program focus on the reasons why he/she is not more capable. Those reasons should be eliminated as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

As parents work through these tasks, they must help the blind child understand why the easier path is not always the best one. As Dr. Jernigan explains, "We could be grateful for whatever we get and accept the stereotype--but the price is too high. Such conduct translates into exclusion from employment, custodial treatment, and second-class status; and it also blights the spirit and shrivels the soul--for whatever we live and believe, that we surely become."

It is a rare child who welcomes more work or lower grades, no matter how much parents insist that they are teaching a lesson on freedom and equality. Nevertheless, parents must persevere. Parents must persist, not only for their own children, but for other children to come. Dr. Jernigan gives us powerful insight when he says, "What the blind believe about themselves, they teach to the public; and what the public believes conditions the blind. Not only individuals, but also organizations may have negative impact and mistaken attitudes."

When we insist on equal standards and teach our children why such standards are important, we begin to break the cycle Dr. Jernigan warns about. We lessen the negative impact and mistaken attitudes of teachers and schools. It is a tall order, but our effort means the freedom of our children and the freedom of the children of future generations.

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