Future Reflections Fall 1988, Vol. 7 No. 3

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PROBLEMS AND OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EDUCATION OF BLIND CHILDREN: THE CHALLENGE OF THE 90'S

by Homer Page

Editor's Note: Mr. Homer Page, who is blind, wears many "hats". He is the Director of the Office for Services to Disabled Students at the University of Colorado in Boulder; the elected Deputy Mayor of Boulder; and the First Vice-President of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado.

There is a growing awareness among parents, teachers, blind youth, and the adult blind community that the education which blind children are receiving is failing them. They are not receiving a quality education which can prepare them to compete in the demanding high tech economy and society of the 21st Century. They are not learning to use and trust the alternative techniques which blind persons must have if they are to be successful. They are not developing the positive attitudes toward their blindness which are so essential to them if they are to become mature, responsible, productive adults.

Over the last several years the membership of the National Federation of the Blind has been expressing a growing concern over the deplorable educational opportunities which are available to blind children almost universally throughout this nation. NFB initiated legislation has in a number of states sought to require that Braille be taught to all blind children. There has been growing support and advocacy on behalf of the parents of blind children, and those of our members who are professional educators of the blind have stepped up their efforts to reform the theory and practice of education that now is predominant.

This growing concern became focused at the 1988 National Convention in Chicago. The mechanism for this to occur was Resolution 88101, which was adopted by the convention.

This resolution was prepared in response to a proposed resolution which had been brought to the convention by Rami Rabby. Mr. Rabby's initiative stimulated a great deal of discussion, and while the people who drafted Resolution 88-101 felt the Rabby proposal was off the mark in some crucial ways, we all appreciated the serious thought and the forceful expression of the ideas which had shaped it.

The people who drafted Resolution 88-101 were Barbara Cheadle, Peggy Pinder, and myself. We received assistance from Barbara Pierce, Sandy Kelly and Marci Page.

We had five important problems which we wanted to raise. We also sought to suggest some concrete actions which in the real world of American education could actually be implemented and therefore begin to really make a difference in the lives of blind children.

The problems which we wished to address are as follows: (1.) While PL 94-142 has promised a great deal, the provisions of the Act and its implementing regulations have actually been used in such a way as to diminish the quality of education for blind children. Most noteworthy in this regard has been the misuse of the concept of least restrictive environment to prevent blind children from receiving instruction in braille. (2.) We wished to reaffirm the crucial role that parents have in the education and personal development of their children. (3.) Even though parents have a crucial role in the education of their children, they should not be asked to take on the job of providing basic educational services. In many cases parents have actually had to teach Braille to their children when the schools refused to do it. (4.) An additional point which we wished to make was that in all but a few isolated classrooms there are no examples of what a good educational program for a blind child might be. Without some effective programs how can we begin to shape a strategy for the education of the blind that really can work? (5.) Finally, we were all too aware of the appalling failure of the teacher training programs to adequately prepare their students to teach blind children. Even more important in preparing student teachers to work with blind children than the classroom experience is the practice teaching that they get while doing student teaching. The lack of quality field placements for students in training is a truly serious problem. It dooms these students to go into the classroom and deliver the same wretched educational services that blind children are now receiving.

The above list of problems demands a response. We feel that there are some excellent opportunities to improve the education of blind children which now present themselves. A high ranking official from the Department of Education spoke at the Convention. He stated his willingness to investigate with us the problems with PL 94-142. He also stated an interest in working with us to create model demonstration projects that would serve the educational needs of blind children. These projects should provide short term and long-term educational services to blind children, as individual needs might require.

The demonstration projects offer a locus for changing the quality of education for blind children. Each project would offer a residential program. It would also provide outreach and consulting services to the local school districts. It would provide a teacher training site and provide a variety of training programs for parents and classroom teachers.

A blind student might participate in the demonstration project for a few months or for several years. She/he might participate in a summer program or other specially arranged training activities.

The demonstration project would insure that blind children have the opportunity to become proficient in the alternative techniques of blindness, have the opportunity to develop positive attitudes toward their blindness, and receive a quality education. The demonstration project would also have the mission of defining the strategies and practices which are needed to insure that blind children can receive the quality education that they need to compete successfully in the world in which they will come of age.

There are exciting opportunities for us to break into the world of education of the blind and reshape that world. What is called for is clear analysis and forceful action. The resolution adopted at the 1988 Convention provides us with a road map to a better future for blind children. Let us work together to give blind children the chance they need to become productive whole adults.

RESOLUTION 88-101

WHEREAS, the education of all blind is of compelling importance to this organization and to the creation of a better future for all blind persons; and

WHEREAS, P.L. 94-142 was adopted for the purpose of insuring an adequate education for all handicapped students but, in the case of blind children, it has failed miserably to redeem the promise of adequate education which is the birthright of all Americans; and

WHEREAS, blind children need intensive, long term training in the alternative skills of blindness; and

WHEREAS, no single educational setting can meet all of the needs of all blind children; and

WHEREAS, the regulatory requirement of placement in the "least restrictive environment" has been generally interpreted to mean that, merely by placing a blind child in a regular public school classroom alongside his or her sighted peers, the environment automatically becomes less restrictive; and

WHEREAS, this irrational attachment to physical mainstreaming as the paramount objective in the education of blind children has led to the virtual demise of appropriate education for blind children; and

WHEREAS, major shortcomings in the education of blind children include the failure of the public schools to teach Braille, cane travel, and positive attitudes about blindness; and

WHEREAS, residential schools have been used as a dumping ground for blind multiply-handicapped youngsters and for other blind children whose local schools have refused to educate them; and

WHEREAS, children with low vision are taught to believe that they are not blind, and schools (both local and residential) deliberately withhold from them essential training in the skills of blindness, leaving them utterly unprepared to meet the challenges of higher education and the demands of life; and

WHEREAS, this catastrophic failure to educate our blind children results from an irrational fear of blindness which poisons the thought and practices of educational professionals who work with blind children; and

WHEREAS, this unhealthy atmosphere is so pervasive that blind children and their parents do not, for all practical purposes, have any educational options, except for a few scattered but notable pockets of quality; and

WHEREAS, the parents of blind children are fighting a heroic battle to provide a humane environment which affirms their blind children, and they have often had to take over the job of the schools by teaching Braille and other skills, and parents are still struggling to gain from educators the recognition that parents are a crucial link in the overall education and personal development of their blind children; and

WHEREAS, the training of teachers of the blind is appallingly inadequate in its philosophy of blindness, its lack of requirements for the mastery of the alternative skills of blindness, and its paucity of student teaching and internship opportunities, especially significant because research shows that the single most important aspect of teacher training is the student teacher field placement; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, by the National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled this eighth day of July, 1988, in the city of Chicago, Illinois, that this organization call upon all professionals in the field of education of the blind to reexamine their motivations and the outcomes of their work; and be it further

RESOLVED, that this organization call upon the United States Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to work with the National Federation of the Blind to create model schools that will offer long-term and short-term education and training for blind children, outreach to local school districts, support and assistance to the parents of blind children, and student teacher field placement sites; and be it further

RESOLVED, that this organization call upon the U.S. Department of Education to change the regulations implementing P.L. 94-142 so that, in the case of blind children, the standard for determining educational setting be the "most appropriate environment," thereby assuring a complete range of educational options to blind children and their parents.

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