Future Reflections Convention Report 2011
by Anil Lewis
From the Editor: At a general session of the 2011 NFB convention, Anil Lewis moderated a panel on the challenges of education for blind people in today's world. He began the discussion by talking about his own educational experience and looking at the experiences of blind children growing up today. Anil serves as director of Strategic Communications of the National Federation of the Blind. He has been a leader in the Federation since 1992, has been president of the Georgia affiliate, and has served on the national board of directors.
Today my responsibility is to moderate a panel about education. Before I bring the presenters up, I'd like to share a personal story.
When I was asked to write a bio as a member of the NFB board, I decided to disclose something I had never shared before. When I was a third grader, I was diagnosed as educably mentally retarded. My mom, God bless her, could have done one of two things. She could have argued with the diagnosis; or she could passively have accepted the diagnosis of the professionals, who supposedly knew something about this disability called blindness, and accepted their misconceptions about my ability. As a result of the second choice I would not be standing before you today. But my mom did something wonderful. She said, "Okay, I accept this, but now you have to provide services for my son so that he can overcome his disability as educably mentally retarded."
My mom was able to get her children into free summer school; we had tutoring and after-school programs. The bottom line is that I had to work harder than all the other students just to stay even, but my mom didn't make any excuses for me. She made sure I understood that it was my responsibility to work longer and harder to get where I needed to be, and I thank God that she did.
After only a few years of this intensive education, I went from the diagnosis of educably mentally retarded to being classified as gifted. [Applause] My point is not to say that I'm no longer educably mentally retarded, but that labels mean nothing in this context. If we focus on providing the services that students need in order to learn, they will learn. We must set high expectations for learning, regardless of the diagnosis, if we intend to achieve success.
You might be asking, "What does all of this talk about intellectual disability have to do with blindness?" I've told you my story about having to work harder than the other kids because I believe it is relevant to students today. Most blind kids have to work harder than other students. I had to get additional services that other students didn't get. Like me, most of our blind students have to get additional services that other students don't need or receive. We need Braille; we need O&M instruction; we need training in the alternative skills of blindness. But this doesn't make us inferior. It is simply a recognition that we need intervention to make us competitive so we can be successful. We in the Federation set high expectations because we intend for blind students to achieve nothing less than success.
I was lucky to have had this experience when I came to be the president of the NFB of Georgia. One of the things I committed myself to was programs for youth. Many of the things we did in Georgia revolved around young people in the education environment. When I started going to IEP meetings for many of our students, my eyes were opened to the blatant discrimination to which our blind children are being exposed. I remember specifically going to one IEP where I learned that many blind students were being encouraged to pursue a special-education track. They were being discouraged from seeking regular high school diplomas that they could use to extend their careers into areas where they could obtain competitive wages. I had the pleasure of being on an IEP team--you know the kind of team I'm talking about, where you have me, the student, the parent, and about twelve people from the school. This isn't much of a team if we're supposed to have democracy and are going to vote. Given the system, I was always tempted to try bringing in about twenty NFB members to balance the scale.
I remember in one IEP meeting a young lady was told, "If you pursue the special-education track, you won't have to take algebra."
The student's immediate reaction was, "Oh, I don't want to take algebra. Sign me up for this special-education track."
At this point I interrupted and said, "Oh no, you're going to take algebra, and you're going to be successful." I'm pleased to tell you that the young lady graduated with a high school diploma, and she did pursue a college education.
I remember another instance in which I served as one of two advocates. The other advocate was not affiliated with the NFB but knew a good deal about the Americans with Disabilities Act. We were joined by the student, her parents, and the rest of the IEP team. In this discussion the parents were complaining that their daughter was staying up until ten or eleven at night because she had to finish her homework assignments. They said the homework consisted of fifty mathematics problems, and that doing them was so time-consuming they were asking for an accommodation. The other advocate said, "Yes, as long as the homework is a representative sample of the things that the student is supposed to demonstrate the ability to do, then you can reduce her assignment to twenty-five problems."
Again I found myself saying, "No, no, no. You cannot. We don't want the world to reduce its expectations for blind people and then deny us jobs because we can't compete." I made some enemies during that meeting; the parents were really upset with me because I was able to convince the school system not to lower its expectations. I got a call a month later from those parents because they finally understood what I had been trying to do. Their daughter was able to be successful and competitive with her sighted peers, and no longer did she labor under the false expectation that the world had to change for her.
It's important to recognize that this organization is committed to our membership. Our strength does not come from legal expertise; our power does not necessarily come from the money we raise. The real power of this organization is love: the love in this room, the love that motivates us to succeed. I'm glad I'm able to participate in this loving family of Federationists.
In order for us to be successful in our efforts to educate, we have to make sure that we become partners and influence those who must make quality decisions for our blind students. It is a pleasure for me today to introduce two individuals who are committed to our effort of setting high expectations for our blind students. Before I bring them on, I want to do one thing. My Federation family, I charge you to get active in the way I just described: be active in IEP meetings; be a part of the team; operate from a position of respect and knowledge. You don't have to know everything about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to be a viable proponent in making sure that students receive a quality education. All you have to realize and understand is that it is respectable to be blind.