Future Reflections Fall 1988, Vol. 7 No. 3

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FOCUS ON THE EDUCATION OF BLIND CHILDREN

By Kenneth Jernigan

[PICTURE] Kenneth Jernigan, Director of the National Center for the Blind, is shown here as he speaks to the 1988 NFB national convention. Mr. Jernigan began his career in work with the blind as a teacher at the Tennessee School for the Blind in 1949. He has been involved with the education of blind children in one manner or another since then.

Editor's Note: This was published in the May June, 1988 issue of the Braille Monitor.

There was a time when the education of blind children seemed rather straightforward and uncomplicated. In almost every state there was a residential school, where blind children were educated. The child left home when he or she was six years old, went to the residential school, came home at Christmas (and maybe once or twice besides during the school year), spent summers at home, and graduated from the twelfth grade. In general (and admittedly it is a generality) the academic training was good; the vocational prospects were bleak; and the social contacts with members of the opposite sex were nonexistent or clandestine.

Speaking again in generalities, the blind teenager left high school with a pretty good knowledge of history, geography, and how to use the language; with not much chance for remunerative employment; and with even less chance for a lifetime of normal man-woman relationships. Of course, the average sighted American hasn't done all that well with the man-woman relationships either. In any event it should not be necessary to have to make a choice between a decent education and a decent social life. With respect to career, the schools (whether residential or otherwise) can hardly be blamed for the fact that most of the working-aged blind of a generation ago didn't find a job. Although the vocational situation is somewhat better for the blind today than it was then, it still has a long way to go, and such progress as has been made can hardly be credited to the schools.

In the mid-forties and early fifties the simplicity and straightforwardness were suddenly gone from the education of blind children. As with most things, the reasons were undoubtedly numerous, but the principal factor can probably be encompassed in a single term: retrolental fibroplasia. In unprecedented numbers premature babies were suddenly becoming blind--if not at birth, then shortly after; and nobody knew why. By the time it was determined that it had to do with oxygen in the incubators, there were thousands of blind youngsters going through the population in a wave, and the educational system was simply not adequate to deal with them.

The residential schools had had a stable or slightly declining population for decades, and with a few notable exceptions the public schools were not taking blind children at all. Now, all of a sudden, the choices were stark and immediate: Either the physical facilities and training resources of the residential schools would have to be expanded six- or seven-fold -- and at once; the public schools would have to try to do the job; or the children would have to go uneducated. Since a high survival rate among premature babies was not one of the characteristics of low-income groups in the 1940's and 50's, the parents of the retrolental fibroplasia babies had clout as a group, and they were not about to permit their children to go uneducated.

The question was not whether but how ~ and not even would there be quality or effectiveness or a workable approach: just that something be done, and immediately. The parents were scared, and at the gut level their expectations for their children were low since they regarded blindness as an unmitigated tragedy. Into this vacuum stepped some of the larger agencies for the blind. They worked with colleges and universities to establish teacher training courses and sought to make the parents a political instrument to build their prestige, advance their causes, and enlarge their budgets. The parents were vulnerable and desperate, so it is not surprising that (by and large) they ac cepted and believed what they were told. It is not, for the most part, that the agencies were cynical or deliberately manipulative but only that they were administered and staffed by humans, who rationalized their own self-interest into a virtue which it often lacked. As was said of the early missionaries who went to Hawaii, they came to do good and remained to do well.

That was more than thirty years ago, and since that time a whole system and an entire way of thought concerning the education of blind children has developed (some of it constructive and some irrational) but the totality sanctified by the word "professional." As the colleges and universities pumped out graduates, a corps of so called "professionals" was built. The teachers and the teachers of the teachers had to publish in order to survive and gain recognition, so a body of "professional literature" was written. Again, it must be emphasized that, with some exceptions, most of this has not been done cynically or to manipulate. Nevertheless, the end result has often been (and is today) at variance with common sense and reality and extremely destructive to the blind children who are supposedly the beneficiaries of the "professionalism" and its trappings.

With a straight face many of the educators who have come through the system, attended the conferences, and read the literature now advocate practices and techniques which not only defy reason but contradict the experience of the majority of successful blind adults. Consider these examples: They resist teaching Braille to children who have such limited eyesight that reading print (even large print with a magnifier) is virtually impossible. In one instance, when a teacher who had resisted teaching Braille to a blind child was ordered to do it, she attempted to comply with the order in a way which would seem laughable if it were not so painfully tragic. The child had almost no sight. Yet, she tried to teach him Braille by using flash cards with large print representations of Braille dots.

In another case an educator argued that if a child has some sight, it is destructive for that child to try to learn both Braille and print since only a certain amount of learning can be done and teaching both systems would cut the progress of each in half. That educator went on to say that it is not necessarily essential for a teacher of young blind children (even a teacher who is responsible for teaching reading to those children) to be proficient in the use of Braille. When he was asked how such an argument was different from saying that a French teacher did not need to know French or a math teacher math, he simply responded with anger ~ perhaps understandably since there would seem to be no logical answer that could have been given.

It is not only Braille but also mobility which gets peculiar treatment. Mobility instructors often try to prevent blind children from learning to travel with a cane. They do this in spite of the fact that they themselves teach cane travel to blind adults, that many blind children successfully learn cane travel techniques, and that parents want their children to be taught such techniques. The reason given for not letting the child carry a cane or learn to use it has frequently been that the child will appear more "normal" if he or she is not carrying a cane, especially if the child has even a small amount of sight.

One has to be deeply concerned about the damage which is being done to blind children who are exposed to this pseudo- professionalism. What sort of image are they being given about blindness and about their own potential? How will they cope when they become adolescents and have to deal with the troubled years of the teens? How comfortable will they be with their blindness and how effectively will they manage their lives when as adults they meet the competition of the everyday world?

While it is true that the traditional training of the residential schools of the 1940's and earlier left much to be desired, it can convincingly be argued that we have merely swapped one set of problems for another and that the former system (with all of its disadvantages) may well have had the edge over what is being done now. There can be no doubt that the vocational prospects for today's blind youngster are better than they were forty years ago and that the public attitudes and social acceptance are also better, but these advances should not be nullified by blighting the academic competence of blind children and conditioning them to believe that it is not respectable to be blind.

All of this was brought into focus for me recently by a letter from the mother of two blind children. She has the right instincts, and she is doing what she can to create a climate of positivism and opportunity for her children; but she faces formidable obstacles. And the sad part of it is that those obstacles come not from the blindness itself or from the misconceptions of the uninformed public but from the very people (the "professionals") who are supposed to be helping her. Fortunately she has found the National Federation of the Blind and its Parents Division. She will meet successful blind adults and learn from their experience. She will also meet other parents and draw strength from them. Here in part is what she says:

I am writing this letter to ask for your help. I am the mother of ten children--three by adoption, with special needs, and two of them blind. I lose many hours of sleep over the discrimination they face. I'm trying to gain support for my position on their rights. I have been dismayed for eight years over what goes on. I have run into a brick wall every time. It is the only thing in parenting that I may lose my sanity over. (I love all other aspects of being a parent.) You seem like an organization that can help. HELP! These are just some of the things my blind kids have encountered. The list is long.

Tim is eighteen adopted at age ten; Ronnie (Renita) is fourteen and a half; adopted at age nine.

Ronnie (immediately upon arriving at her new school) was stripped of cane and any Braille skills already achieved. As her teacher put it, she needed to be taught the "right way." She was put into a developmentally disabled class (sneakily) and with no knowledge of parents. I found out when I went in to volunteer to help kids read. A sign was on the door, which read: "Miss Tanner's developmental class."

The kids I tried to help were trying to read regular print by turning their magnifiers every which way but inside out to be able to "see" the words. Iasked the teacher on the way out why they did not use large print books. She replied that they were "too expensive." There were two Braille students, Ronnie being one. Along with others who should have been Braille students, they were trying unsuccessfully to read print.

Goals on the IEP (Individualized Education Program) have been repeated three years in a row -- even after being successfully completed. They are put on as the same goals for next year, and I am presumably to "thank" them for being concerned. Many times I am condescended to with phrases such as "Now, Mrs. --, don't you remember? We went over this last year." Apparently not only blind children but also their parents aren't too smart!

In frustration I contacted the state department of education. I was told that I should ask for more specifics on the IEP. I was told that I should and could ask them to list completion of books as a goal on the IEP. It's no fun to get jumped on to by a principal, a director of special education for two school districts, and a teacher who says, "We will not list books! Furthermore, we don't have to." I called the state department of special education back. It almost sounded as if they had made a deal. The whole story was changed. The state sided with the school.

"No, we can't make them list books on an IEP," they said. "Did you think I told you that?"

Most recently Ronnie is to have phys ed. Last year it was on the IEP, but since they did not think she could do any of the activities she didn't get it. She did some "exercises'" with a teacher instead on an irregular basis. This year she still has been excluded from at least one gym class to go to study hall.

A teacher of social studies told me Ronnie "runs" out the door and out in the hall after class. He doesn't want her to do this. "She might get hurt," he said.

I said, "Oh, Ronnie runs?"

"Well, no," he said, "but she walks too fast for her safety."

God forbid! So my child walks too fast! She is disobedient, isn't she?

She is, as they put it, "mainstreamed" in this class, and all other children in this class have a book. She has a tape. She is to review her lesson, and then she gets ten minutes by herself with the instructor. Why bother mainstreaming her?

My son Tim is also facing the same kinds of problems. One year he was not allowed to go down the steps alone. Safety reasons. He changed schools this year and was not allowed to go to the bus by himself. The teacher, as she put it, did not know he could do it on his own.

Ronnie belongs to drama club. They were having a talent show some time before Christmas. She practiced and was very excited about playing her guitar and singing. When I picked her up after the meeting when the talent show was to occur, I asked how it went. She said, "I didn't play."

I said, "Oh, why not?"

First she said, "I guess they didn't have enough time." And then she said, "We had to sign up to be in the show, and no one signed me up."

This is occurring again. They are doing a play. A note was sent home with names of characters and parts to be played. She could choose. She later decided that since she did not know what the play was about, she didn't want to be in it. She had such a change of heart it seemed as if she was being influenced.

I am so tired of trying to defend her. I just quit trying. She has lost heart, and so have I. She is in the developmentally handicapped classes, and time after time teachers want to make sure that we both know our places.

The kids have one of the few trained orientation and mobility instructors in the state, so I presume we should be pleased. However, she has been very skilled at keeping us uninformed. These are some of the wonderful things she has said: "Signing an IEP does not mean approving an IEP. It just means you were present." "There is no one in this area who can teach you (parents) Braille."

This is what she says, but I am learning that many of the blind are willing to teach us. This instructor was overheard at church saying: "Can you imagine? They are considering hiring blind instructors."

This is what one mother of two blind children says, and much can be read between the lines. If her story were an isolated instance, it would be bad enough; but since it is the rule rather than the exception, it demands attention. The National Federation of the Blind faces no single problem of more crucial importance than the mess which is being made of the education of blind children. We absolutely must find a solution, and we must do it with minimal delay. Morally and ethically (even if not biologically) these are our children, and we must not fail them.

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