Future Reflections Fall 1989, Vol. 8 No. 3

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WHEN WILL THEY EVER LEARN?

[PICTURE] Carol and David Kier with son Cyrus and daughter Jane.
[PICTURE] Ruth's son, Tony, (left) receives some cane-travel tips from Scott LaBarre at the 1987 NFB convention in Phoenix, Arizona.

Do attitudes about blindness have anything to do with the current Braille literacy crisis? This is no idle question. The answer has profound implications for the solutions we seek to Braille illiteracy among today's youth. If, as some would like to believe, it is only a matter of inadequate Braille training of teachers, then the solution will likely be simple and straightforward. If, however, attitudes are a fundamental part of the problem, the remedy will necessarily involve something more.

I thought about this question of attitudes when I read the following letters. The first letter is from Carol Barker-Kier, a parent in California. Carol and her husband, David, believe that their blind son and sighted daughter are equally entitled to quality school books. The special education Braille teacher, however, seems to believe something else. The edited letter is reprinted below.

The second letter is from Ruth Swenson and was written to me in response to the Winter 1989 Future Reflections article, "What Constitutes a Good Education for Blind Children?" Her son, Tony, graduated from high school this year. Ruth has a great deal to say about special education and attitudes toward blindness.

Carol and David's son, Cyrus, is just entering school. Ruth's son, Tony, has just finished school. We must ask ourselves, what story will Carol and David tell in twelve years when Cyrus graduates? There is no more time for Tony. Ruth, his mother, did the best she could, and it will have to be enough. But there is still time for Cyrus, my own son Chaz, and for many of your blind sons and daughters or students.

Will we do our part to change attitudes about blindness --beginning with ourselves? Will we work for legislation which will give all blind children the opportunity to learn Braille? Will we insist that teachers of the blind be required to meet high standards of Braille literacy-- at least equivilant to the standards required of Braille transcribers? Will we insist on early cane travel? If we will not, what will we do; and will it be enough? And if it isn't...?

Here are the letters.

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March 17,1989
San Diego City Schools
Program Manager for Special Education of Visually Impaired
San Diego, California

Re: Braille transcribed primer books for blind students.

Dear Sir:

At Ross Elementary, where our kindergarten son is enrolled, there is, as you know, a visually impaired resource room. Last week, after a discussion with the classroom and resource teachers over beginning reading materials, I asked for, and reviewed, the first reading book in Braille the children would start reading from. This was a copy (not original) of a Braille plastic overlay on the print book Bears from the Bears, Boats, and Balloons series. Upon reviewing this book, I discovered more than 12 Braille errors in this 48 page picture book. Also, the print paper was wrinkled on two or three pages, whereupon one could feel the creases of the wrinkled paper through the plastic Brailled overlay.

I gave the resource teacher a list of errors I found in the Brailled overlay Bears book. She telephoned us and confirmed there were errors. The teacher's response was, "That's the best we can do;" and "Even the State (Clearinghouse) Depository and American Printing House (for the Blind) sends us books with errors." She indicated though that the books we were discussing were done by the transcribers hired by San Diego City Schools and that the books were probably experimental at the time they were transcribed and that we'd have to take the matter up with the Braille transcribers at Whittiers as, the teacher said, "I have no control over what I receive."

We have a sighted daughter in second grade in this school district. We have yet to see on her papers and reading books anywhere near the level of misspelled words, words and punctuations chopped off at margins, inconsistent punctuation marks, and missing lines of text. I have just received my Braille transcriber's certificate as a volunteer. As volunteer transcribers, we would never be allowed to make those kinds of errors without correcting them. When I mentioned to the same resource teacher that if a print book for sighted children was prepared and presented like that Braille book, we didn't believe school personnel, let alone parents, would stand for it. Her response was, "Oh, you'd be surprised how many errors are in print form too."

A few mistakes can occur from time to time in print as well as Braille. However, we cannot believe the school's policy is to allow this great number of errors for first year beginning reading books. If the child is a 4th grader and comes across the word "stey," the child would at that point know the word should be "stay." This would not be so for first and second year readers. We cannot believe that the State Department of Education Clearinghouse Depository, nor the American Printing House for the Blind would allow those kinds of errors to leave their printing offices!

We are asking for an explanation of how such sloppy work could be produced and distributed to school children. The Bears, Boats, and Balloons primary reading books have been in the school district for at least four years. How many other Braille books are out there of this poor quality of craftsmanship?

We are also recommending that your reading Braille books, especially the primary ones, be adequately proofread to make sure that errors like we discovered in Bears are corrected. The job of the school is to make literate human beings. The concern of parents like us is to assist the school in this endeavor. Let's make sure that the school materials which we put into the hands of our blind children are at least as error free as those which we place before the eyes of our sighted children. Errors embedded in the mind are more difficult to erase than to prevent.

Sincerely yours,
Mr. and Mrs. Kier

 

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May 3,1989
Ms. Barbara Cheadle, Editor
Future Reflections
National Federation of the Blind

Dear Barbara:

I have just finished reading "What Constitutes a Good Education for Blind Children?" found in the Winter 1989, Future Reflections. As a mother of a blind child who is graduating from high school this year, it saddens me to say that in reflecting on the quality of education my child has received and is receiving, most of it has been poor and, in fact, sometimes detrimental. The few glimpses of quality education over the years were only obtained through endless frustrating struggles between the school district and myself. It is unfortunate that in the school system where my child now attends high school, blind children receive such a poor education that inevitably they are graduated without skills, illiterate, and without the capability of competing on terms of equality.

Without the National Federation of the Blind, our philosophy, and the numerous role models that it provided for my son, he would be graduating this year without the confidence he needs to compete in a sighted society. He would have none of the skills needed to be independent and competitive. He would not be able to use a computer, he would not be a Braille user, he would definitely not know how to use a slate, he would depend on his vision at all times (even when not productive), he would not know how to write his name, he would not travel independently, and he would definitely not feel that he was a competent, capable human being who just happens to be blind.

In the school system which my son now attends, the underlying premise of the special educatorsis that blind children cannot compete on the basis of equality with their sighted peers. Therefore, much of the necessary training which would enable them to compete is not taught. Since the underlying philosophy of the program is negative, the training that follows is poor. It has been said to me that if a parent does not request computer training for their blind child, "do not mention it." It is believed that even though sighted grade school children can learn to use a computer, it is too difficult for blind children.

The special educators definitely believe that it is not respectable to be blind and that the word blind should never be used. Parents should ways be told that their children are visually paired. To use the word blind implies that a cl is extremely handicapped and will have diffu ty in future life. Because of this attitude, only' totally blind" children are taught to read Braill A great emphasis is placed on using large prii and other technical devices to avoid the use Braille. When my son first entered the hij school, approximately four years ago, the stuc guides he received in Braille had so many error that one could not figure out the questions. It wasl necessary for us to read to him the print study guides. At times there were more than twenty Braille errors on one page. What a disgrace! None of the high school students knew how to use a slate and stylus and, in fact, none was to be found in the district. When we demanded that our son use his slate and stylus and then provided a slate and stylus, they were forced to allow its use.

When my son arrived in the district, none of the high school children typed and the district was amazed that he knew how to type. And, low and behold, he even knew how to use a computer! Typing is still not introduced to young children in this school system.

It was contrary to their professional opinion that my son receive his cane travel under shades [blindfolds], that he not be allowed to trail walls, that he use a long white cane, and that he keep his cane with him at all times. We were told that he would feel strange and uncomfortable keeping his cane with him at all times because none of the other blind students did this. We were told that his cane was too long, and that when entering a classroom no one kept their canes with them. We were told that his cane would get in the way in a ceramics class and when running on a track.

He took travel from an orientation and mobility instructor for some time until we realized that he was regressing. He was regressing because he was being taught how to travel by routes and was loosing all his confidence in figuring out how to get places on his own. When we requested that he be removed from travel, lo and behold, they said he was an independent traveler and no longer needed it! This looked great on their records and they did not have to explain why they had taught him nothing. Luckily, my son had learned his travel skills from persons who believed, and lived, the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.

When we first arrived at the district where my son now attends school, we were told by one of the orientation and mobility instructors that she had heard that we were members of the National Federation of the Blind, and, therefore, she felt we should never talk about philosophy because our philosophy was wrong.

In order for my son to have received even an inkling of a quality education, we have had to fight and struggle. Without the backing and strength of the National Federation of the Blind, our determination to obtain a quality education would have been difficult to maintain. Unfortunately, I have seen little changes, especially for the better, in the quality of education for blind children since my son began school approximately thirteen years ago. This is primarily due to the negative philosophy that underlines all the educational goals of the special education teachers. They truly believe that blindness is a terrible handicap and that Braille and cane travel should be avoided at all costs, since this only demonstrates to the person and to the public that they are truly blind and therefore incapable of competing in society.

The Parents Division of the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind will in time change what it means to be a blind student in the public school system. With our dedication and strength, hopefully, in the future, blind children and their parents will not have the frustrations and struggles that so many of us have endured while our child was receiving a poor education. Hopefully, blind children will graduate from schools being able to truly compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers.

I hope I will see the day when young blind children (including the legally blind) are taught Braille and are proud to use it and use canes wherever they go and view them both as tools for independence. Each blind child has a right to a quality education and each parent has a right to ensure that their child receives it.

Sincerely,
Ruth Swenson

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