Future Reflections Fall 1989, Vol. 8 No. 3

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EDUCATION FOR THE BLIND, MENTALLY RETARDED CHILD: WHERE AND HOW

by Colleen Roth

Editor's Note: Colleen Roth is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio and the Chairperson of the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division Committee on Blind, Multiply Handicapped Children. She also serves as President of the Wood County, Ohio, Association for Retarded Citizens. Her daughter Monica, who had been severely retarded and legally blind, was killed in March of 1988, in a tragic school bus accident. Colleen and her husband are now in the process of adopting an older child who is profoundly retarded and legally blind. Colleen is eager to assist anyone who may need advice or counsel in raising or working with a blind, multiply handicapped child. She understands the need for moral support and understanding from parents who have "been there." Her address is 1912 Tracy Road, Northwood, Ohio 43611, and her phone is (419) 661-9171. Here is what Colleen has to say as reprinted from the April-May 1989, issue of the Braille Monitor.

I am the mother of a blind, retarded child who would have been seven and a half years old if she had lived. I am also totally blind. Understanding blindness as I do and having dedicated my life to working with and loving multihandicapped youngsters (my husband and I are preparing to adopt and provide foster care for such children), I thought my expertise in educating and caring for these blind youngsters might be useful to other parents making difficult decisions.

When it was apparent that Monica was mentally retarded, I contacted the Board of Mental Retardation in my county. Later, other parents asked me why I had not contacted a program serving the blind instead. In the first year of Monica's schooling I summed up the reasons for my decision this way: If Monica had been a normal blind child with no other disability, I would have placed her in an appropriate educational setting near our home. I would have insisted upon cane travel, early introduction of Braille, and tactile skills. Working with the school or battling alone, I would have fostered in Monica a positive attitude about her own capabilities and the alternative techniques which she would have been mastering. I would gladly have helped teachers find materials and would have provided them with information guiding them toward an understanding that it is respectable to be blind. I would also have demanded that Monica be expected to do work equivalent to that of her sighted classmates and would have assisted with Monica's class when called upon.

But Monica could not compete with children in a regular classroom. She needed to be with others whose primary disability was not blindness but mental retardation. In teaching a blind youngster, you can present material and ideas as you would to any normal child, merely using a few alternative techniques. Monica, however, needed a lot of special training. Mentally retarded children learn things more gradually than those with higher intelligence. In fact, they may not learn anything academic at all. In the early years a good bit of time is devoted to teaching basic self-care skills, and blindness does not make the teacher's task more difficult. You can place blind, retarded children in a class with other retarded youngsters, and they will fit in and learn with a minimum of extra effort on the teacher's part.

The same cannot be said when trying to place blind, retarded youngsters in a setting where the other children are merely blind. Yet parents and professionals continue to conduct this experiment with our blind children. Schools with classes for the visually impaired in my county have become a dumping ground for children whose parents believe that blindness is the most profound of their children's disabilities. Others cannot or will not deal with the complexities which arise when multiple disabilities are involved. People sometimes excuse themselves by saying that at least they did not abandon their children by putting them up for adoption, but it seems to me that when a parent refuses to demand humane and appropriate treatment for the child, it is almost worse. There is always the possibility that an adoptive or foster parent would have found the right school.

I recognize that some parents truly do not know where to turn or what educational setting would be best, but just because a child is blind, a residential school for the blind or a local class for visually impaired youngsters is not necessarily the best choice. When one disability is mental retardation, the child should be taught in a setting structured for the mentally retarded.

Schools for the blind then could be required to increase their expectations of their students by demanding greater academic progress. They should, as a matter of course, be expected to meet the graduation standards accepted in other schools in the state or region.

We in the National Federation of the Blind must rise up and fight together to change the current sorry state of affairs. We must remember that while we are emphasizing the normality and competence of the blind and are insisting upon their intellectual capacity, we cannot forget blind children who are mentally retarded. They are also part of our family and deserve to be welcomed. They too need to receive our help and support. Sometimes we forget that we possess information and have mastered techniques that would immeasurably assist and encourage parents of multihandicapped children. These youngsters deserve care and education appropriate to their actual needs, and very often it is not and should not be available in programs primarily for the blind. Let us all fight together to protect our blind, mentally retarded children from this manifestation of public ignorance and misconceptions.

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