Future Reflections Sept./ Oct./ Nov.1984, Vol. 3 No. 4

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THE VAN ETTINGERS: PARENTS OF COURAGE AND DETERMINATION

Bob and Ruth VanEttinger are parents who live and work in Great Falls, Montana. Like most of our readers, they have a child (seven-year-old Trisha) who is blind. Again, like many of us, good information about blindness and support services have not been readily available to Trisha, not because it wasn't there (which is still too often the case for many blind children and their parents) but because the "professionals" had a negative view of blindness and lower expectations for Trisha.

Because the VanEttingers are caring and determined parents, a clash was inevitable. It is not easy to enter into a conflict, especially when you are up against professionals and experts in a well-established bureaucratic setting. But the VanEttingers believed that if they did not fight for what they believed was right for Trisha, then Trisha would be the one to suffer-perhaps for a lifetime.

The NFB Parents of Blind Children Division became involved with their struggle when the VanEttingers asked if we knew someone who could provide an independent evaluation for them. It was a complex situation that involved grade placement (kindergarten or first grade) reading mode (print or Braille) and school placement (local school, school for the blind, or other). We could, and we did arrange for such an evaluation with a highly respected nationally known educator of blind children.

Later, the VanEttingers sent us copies of newspaper articles (their conflict with the educational system was on local T.V., in the newpapers and on radio) and their own comments about what happened and why. The VanEttinger's story and a newspaper article are re-printed below.

Though we would like it otherwise, the painful truth is that many of the so-called professionals in work with the blind are very custodial and demeaning with very little respect or belief in the abilities of the blind.

The VanEttingers are fine examples of parents who realize this truth, but do not let it defeat them or destroy their daughter's chance for an equal, quality education. The VanEttingers also know the value of organized efforts. They are members of the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division, and have attended two national NFB parent seminars.

Surely their daughter, Trisha, will not only get a better education because of her parents efforts and determination, but will be a stronger, better person; able to stand up with her blind brothers and sisters and fight for her own rights as an adult.

From Bob And Ruth VanEttinger
May 1, 1974

After just having completed a very difficult and time consuming encounter with our local blind school and school district we feel we should share some of our feelings with other parents.

The staff of the Blind School apparently feels that vision is the most important aspect of a blind child's life. Our child, whose vision is 5/200 in a small portion of one eye, is able to interpret 3/4 inch letters at nose and cheek distance. We had been attempting to have familiarity with Braille, blocks with Braille, simple tracking, etc. from the age of 3. Although the school disagreed with this concept of Braille, initially they made attempts in this area. At about 4 years of age Trisha discovered the small amount of vision she has. At this point the school stopped all pre-Braille skills. We felt convinced enough at this point to learn the rudiments of Braille, but still trusted the experts at the school to some degree, and their explanation of how complex and limited in use Braille was.

Between ages 5 and 6 Trisha became very upset over the continous demand at the school for the use of vision. And one night, shortly after her 6th birthday, Trisha piled all of her visual books in the middle of the room, tore up 7 or 8 totally, and went to sleep on the pile. We luckily interpreted the message correctly and started teaching Braille, using the adult Braille instruction manual. Later we added some outdated pre primers in Braille supplied by a friend. Within 30 days she was able to read at a level that satisfied her intense desire to be a reader. She was even able to translate this ability to puzzling out written words when the letters were 1 inch high and held within 1 inch of her eye.

Trisha entered public kindergarten that fall, where they insisted on only visual training. In October the state blind school started providing the Patterns Braille Reading Series to us, while insisting that Trisha did not need Braille. At that point we started teaching Braille in a more formal manner. Since then she has completed 3 Pre-primers and over half of the Primer in a 7 month period. Trisha now reads most of the books that come in the mail from the Library of Congress Braille Service. She also read a Braille letter that arrived at the house. She is quite satisfied with herself and her ability to read.

Recently Trisha began asking how to do math in Braille and wanted to specially know the plus, minus and equals signs in Braille. We obtained An Introduction to Braille Mathematics by the American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, Kentucky, 1978. Upon looking through it, we realized the power of this communication mode and how it will serve her however high her academic achievements become. The versatility of Braille outstripped our knowlege and abilities in mathematics.

Being blind does not mean being limited in education. We had almost succumbed to the philosophy of the so-called experts. We know that Trisha will be able to soar to whatever educational goals she sets for herself in the future. At times the doors may be closed but it is up to us as parents to follow our instincts and get the doors open at whatever amount of work it takes.

BOARD DENIES BRAILLE LESSONS FOR GIRL

Reprinted with permission from the Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana March 20,1984

by Lance Lovell, Tribune Staff Writer

The Great Falls school board Monday refused to provide Braille instruction to a near-blind kindergartner whose parents wanted her to receive the special instruction at Meadowlark Elementary School.

Trustees unanimously rejected a request from Robert and Ruth VanEttinger to overrule a committee recommendation against providing Braille to their 7-year-old daughter, Trisha.

Trisha is blind in her left eye, but can see out of a small portion of her lower right eye, which has 1/200 vision. She can read extremely large letters by pressing the printed material closer to her eye than the end of her nose.

She has been using a special closed circuit television that enlarges print so it's easier for her to read print material.

But the VanEttingers referred to two reports from medical specialists that stated Trisha could develop severe headaches from straining so hard to see.

They also said Trish destroyed the family's children books because she is frustrated by not being able to read. They say Braille would relieve her frustration.

Mrs. VanEttinger has been teaching Trisha Braille at home.

The VanEttingers say federal law states public schools must provide equal education to all students in the least restrictive environment appropriate.

They have said they question whether Trisha is receiving an equal education at Meadowlark without Braille instruction.

Moreover, they have consulted several education and vision specialists who say that Trisha should be taught Braille.

Ray Beck, director of special education and spokesman for the special education committee, said the committee concluded Trisha should be taught Braille in a higher grade, and that she should receive her Braille education at the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind.

In addition, Beck said the team recommends that Trisha attend Lewis and Clark Elementary School, which is close to the MSDB campus, instead of Meadowlark.

Trisha attended the MSDB for three years before entering Meadowlark, her parents said. But they took her out of the school because they believe she was not getting a good education.

They say Trisha should attend her neighborhood school, Meadowlark, with her neighborhood friends.

"Trisha will never in her life be enrolled (again) at the school for the deaf and blind." Robert VanEttinger said.

The VanEttingers have retained Helena attorney Jim Reynolds to represent them, and have said they will take their case to court if necessary.

They now will take their request to Helen Loney, Cascade County superintendent of schools. If she also denies their request, they will take the matter to the state Office of Public Instruction.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

On April 20, 1984, the Great Falls Tribune, carried another story entitled, "Braille Compromise Reached," by Lance Lovell, Tribune staff writer. The article announced what the VanEttinger's considered a victory. It said, in part:

"An emotionally charged dispute between the Great Falls school system and a near-blind kindergartner's parents who sought public Braille instruction for their daughter at her neighborhood school ended Thursday in a compromise.

Robert and Ruth VanEttinger, 1730 Alder Drive, have agreed to enroll their 7-year-old daughter, Trisha, at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. She will be taught Braille there by teachers from the nearby Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Officials have agreed to allow Trisha to return to her neighborhood school, Meadowlark Elementary School, after she attains a reading skill equal to that of a third grader's at midyear.

At that reading level, Trisha will have sufficiently mastered the mechanics of Braille and could participate in regular classroom reading activities, officals said.

The compromise was orchestrated by Ray Beck, director of special education. He said the agreement means Trisha will be taught Braille in a public school at no extra cost to taxpayers.

"Everything should be just fine now," Mrs. VanEttinger said Thursday shortly after the agreement was signed."

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you have not read the Future Reflection article, "On Blindness and Experts," in the October/November 1982 issue, you should. If you did read it, you may want to re-read it. These comments, delivered by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan at the 1982 NFB Parents Seminar in Minneapolis, Minnesota, help clarify and put into perspective experiences such as those of the VanEttingers.

To order that article just send your request for the October/November 1982 Future Reflection to Barbara Cheadle, Editor Future Reflections, P.O. Box 1947, Boise, ID 83701.

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