Braille Monitor                                                 February 2011

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Blind Immersion:
A Proposal for a New Approach to the
Education of Blind Children

by Frederick Driver and Oriano Belusic

Oriano Belusic and Frederick DriverFrom the Editor: We recently received the following article in a roundabout way. It was written by two Canadian Federationists, and it builds on the French immersion educational model as a possible radical new way of addressing the many problems in the education of blind students in both neighborhood and residential schools. We thought that the ideas were intriguing and trust that you will find them interesting as well.

Frederick Driver is sighted and a founding member of the Canadian Federation of the Blind. His university degree is in French and teacher training. He worked in the Canadian French immersion program for seven years. Oriano Belusic is totally blind. His degree is in economics, and he is a past president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind. He has personal experience in both residential and public schools. This is what they say:

Introduction

On the whole the educational system is failing blind children. Too often they are denied the opportunity to master essential skills, are unnecessarily excused from robust expectations, are denied appropriate materials, and are isolated from both their blind and sighted peers. We propose a new educational structure: a blindness-specific hybrid, grown from the innovative marriage of disparate but effective and proven programs and precedents. Our aims are first a greater realization of blind students' academic, social, and vocational potential; second a broader and more positive affective experience for blind students; and third the improvement of knowledge and attitudes about blindness held by the sighted, which should lead to more meaningful integration both in school and beyond.

Implications for Families and Practitioners

This new model will empower blind students and their families in a collective and cooperative educational structure, replacing the varieties of isolationism that currently dominate the field. It will foster networking and the growth and exchange of ideas and methods. Educators will see both their effectiveness increase and their jobs become easier as they engage a new community of common purpose and opportunity.

The Potential of Blind Immersion

Much debate has taken place amongst educators and the blind over which educational setting is more effective for blind children: integration in the regular school or segregation in a residential school. Some argue that a special residential setting is necessary for the thorough acquisition of blindness skills such as Braille and cane travel and that blind students integrated in the public system are often not given adequate opportunity to learn these essential skills for future success. Others argue that it is wrong to segregate blind students and that they must be integrated in the regular school. Take a moment to reflect upon which you think is better.

Either-or thinking has often been an impediment to understanding and progress. The view that segregation and integration are competing and opposite options is a false dichotomy beyond which educators and stakeholders have failed to venture, one that has severely and unnecessarily limited the opportunities available to blind students to realize their potential. We suggest that the segregated and integrated options are by no means mutually exclusive and, if combined, would indeed be complementary.

What do we mean by combining the two? It is true that some educators have been less intransigent than others in their advocacy of one or the other of these models and have shown enough flexibility to recognize that the choice depends on the student concerned. But this is not enough, for both models offer in themselves only an incomplete educational and social experience for the student. No one would insist that sighted students choose between thorough mastery of necessary skills and the broadest possible opportunity for personal and social growth. Why are blind students and their parents forced to make this choice?

We suggest a third and better option. An ideal model for the operation and administration of a holistic and complementary coexistence of the integration and segregation options has existed for many years in Canada. That model is French Immersion.

French Immersion students from all over an Anglophone school district attend designated schools that have a French Immersion program. These programs are essentially segregated French units within English-speaking schools. But the two are not isolated from one another. Regular and Immersion students interact in elective courses and social settings. Immersion students take some of their classes in French and others in English. The ratio changes over time, with younger students doing more in French and seniors doing more in English.

Similarly, blind students from across a district could attend a designated public school--one with a Blind Immersion program. Students would spend some time in the Blind Immersion program and some time integrated in the regular classroom. Younger students would likely spend more time in the former, with seniors spending minimal time in a segregated setting. But the ratio would be entirely flexible, depending on the needs of the individual student.

The current system typically integrates a single blind student in a school with hundreds of sighted students. But blindness is just a characteristic like any other. Imagine the isolation of being the only girl in an all-boys school, the only black in an all-white school. Blind Immersion programs would offer an alternative to this needless isolation. Blind students would come together and experience the self-confidence that comes with peer support and interaction. Furthermore, this collectivity would become a political unit, empowering both students and parents in their advocacy for access to quality education.

The present dispersion of blind students in individually integrated placements throughout districts has caused widespread inconsistency in matters of quality, access, performance standards, and achievement. It is not uncommon for blind and visually impaired students to graduate without mastering Braille. This is a tragedy, for Braille is not an optional or specialized skill; it is to the visually impaired what print is to the sighted--basic literacy. Some students have ready access to assignments, examinations, and materials in appropriate alternate formats and are expected to meet performance standards, while others lack these resources and are unnecessarily excused from these important expectations. It is critical, not only for evaluation, but for motivation that students be given the tools and the opportunity to meet goals and challenges and to demonstrate their mastery through testing.

Student evaluation is presently a haphazard business because pupils and their teachers work in relative isolation, often struggling to reinvent the wheel at every turn. Blind Immersion programs would foster the sharing of strategies and the development of common methodologies, thereby enhancing student achievement, facilitating more reliable norm- and criterion-referenced testing, and ensuring an environment in which the importance of blindness skills and accessible materials would not be overlooked. It would also result in more efficient and economical use of technical resources.

We believe that Blind Immersion will significantly, and most importantly, improve the lives and learning of blind students. But it will also give sighted students a more realistic view of blindness. Despite the best intentions, when one member of a visible minority is placed with hundreds from the majority, the latter tend to generalize stereotypes based on the one person they know. This is the ubiquitous dynamic of prejudice. The myth that blind people are helpless has been the greatest single barrier to the social integration and employment of blind people. The interaction of significant numbers of blind and sighted students in schools with Blind Immersion programs will demonstrate the abilities, potential, and normalcy of blind students, toppling pervasive myths about blindness and opening a new future of opportunity for blind people. Is this not, after all, the goal of integration?

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