by Barbara Cheadle
As I sorted through articles and considered events and topics which should be written up for this issue, one theme kept coming up. Everything I looked at seemed to say something important to me about what should be included in a good education for a blind child. Granted, after a nearly two-year personal battle with our school district -- trying to get Braille and other services for our blind son--I am pretty sensitive to that topic. But it is not just my personal sensitivity which makes this question so critical and so urgent.
The education of blind children is, quite frankly, in a state of crisis. I know those are strong words, but I believe any words less strong would only be glossing over the true difficulties we face. This is not to say there are not any good programs or teachers out there. There are. But they have become the exception, not the rule. Ironically, the crisis has come at a time when public understanding and acceptance of the blind, as well as blindness-related technological advances, are at an all-time high.
The crisis is not in, as one might expect, the application of new technology and new concepts of education. Rather, we are seeing an almost total breakdown in the teaching of basic, fundamental skills.
We know this because we see what is happening to blind kids when they get out of school. Over four hundred blind students apply each year for scholarships administered by the National Federation of the Blind. There are hundreds more who apply for scholarships to state affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind. Three state affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind operate orientation and training centers for the adult blind. A large number of Federationists are employed as counselors, teachers, supervisors, and directors in other public or private rehabilitation programs for the blind. What we are seeing are blind youth who have neither the skills nor the confidence to really compete on an equal basis in our society. They expect to take twice as long to do a task as it takes others; they expect teachers routinely to shorten assignments for them; they have such limited notions of independent travel that the idea of traveling alone to a stange city is frightening and foreign to them; and they limit job expectations to "safe" careers in computers, social services, and governmental employment.
Even among the best, the brightest, the most accomplished blind students there are astonishing gaps in skills. No typing skills; no experience in independently using readers or ordering and using taped materials; mobility skills limited to route travel; but most blatantly of all-no Braille skills.
The decline in Braille literacy is well-documented. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has kept statistics dating from the early 1960's to the present which confirm it. For example, in 1966 46^c of the registered, legally blind students read Braille, and only 6% read neither Braille nor large print. In 1988 only \2c/c of the students read Braille, and 31% were nonreaders.
But there are those who would argue that these statistics prove nothing. They cite increases in the numbers of blind, multiply-handicapped children and say this explains it all away. But it doesn't. The ploy of using the blind and multiply-handicapped as a cop-out for providing good educational services just won't wash. Regressive workshops and rehabilitation agencies for the adult blind have tried to use the same argument (we can't pay minimum wages or give better training because of the multiply-handicapped) and have failed. The argument doesn't hold up because, among other things, it assumes (falsely) that the blind, multiply-handicapped are all alike and are all uniformly incapable of learning (and especially of learning to read and write Braille). This just isn't true.
And so we come back to the same problem. Nearly a third of the blind children in this country are illiterate. There is reason to believe that few of our blind children graduate from school today with a complete foundation in blindness skills or competitive expectations for themselves as blind persons. What do we do about it? If what we are doing isn't working, what should we be doing?
In 1985 I sent, upon request, some materials to a task force studying the education of blind children in one of our midwestern states. Reprinted below is part of a cover letter I sent with the literature. The letter outlined what I believed were key elements in a good educational program for blind children. If I were writing the letter today I would add some items to it, such as instruction in typing, instruction in using readers and taped materials, and instruction and guidance in the efficient use of visual aids; but I wouldn't change anything else.
As you read my list and read the other articles in this issue, I challenge you to think deeply about the question, "What constitites a good education for blind children?" Then I would like to hear from you. What is your answer to this question? Perhaps you don't think there is a problem at all, maybe you disagree with all or some of the proposals in this issue, or maybe you want to present something entirely new.
The direction of the education of blind children in this country depends upon what we, parents, teachers, and the adult blind, believe ought to happen. Please share your views and write to: Education of Blind Children, Barbara Cheadle, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230, (301) 659-9314.
1. Blind people, given the proper training and opportunity, can compete on a basis of equality with their sighted peers. This should be the basic philosophy for any programs, standards for programs, or evaluation of programs for the blind.
2. It is respectable to be blind. "Blind" should be restored to the vocabulary of educators and used frequently.
3. All blind children (including legally blind children who have some vision) should learn to read and write Braille.
4. All Braille users should learn to use the slate and stylus as early as possible and be required to use it regularly. (Early means at grade school level, usually between first and third grades, and always before junior high or high school.)
5. Teachers of blind children should be required to demonstrate proficiency in reading and writing Braille at least at the level required of Braille transcribers certified by the National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. (Certification as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired by a university program does not guarantee such proficiency.)
6. All blind children should be given a long, white cane and instruction in its use upon enrollment in school (kindergarten or first grade). The cane should be with the child throughout the day and used in the halls, in the cafeteria, in the classroom as needed, on the playground, during fire drills, and under any other conditions requiring independent mobility.
7. Sleepshades (eye covers) should be routinely used when alternative techniques, such as cane travel or Braille, are being taught to children with partial vision.
8. Educators should work with the organized blind to expose blind children of all ages to competent, knowledgeable blind adult role models. Blind children need these role models in order to develop confidence and sound expectations for themselves as blind persons. (Note: The Kansas School for the Blind under Ralph Bartley has developed programs to meet this need. Such programs could be adapted to meet the needs of blind children in nonresidential settings.)
9. Special education teachers of the blind should be required, as a part of their professional growth and continuing education, to attend conferences or conventions of blind consumers. They should, in addition, make themselves knowledgeable about the philosophy, literature, and resources of the major consumer organization and utilize the most progressive materials available.