Editor’s Note: Nineteen affiliates conducted BELL Programs during the summer of 2013. Those affiliates are California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.
by Casey Robertson
From the Editor: Casey Robertson is a teacher of the blind who lives in Mississippi. Active followers of our Internet mailing lists will remember the updates about the campaign in that state to pass a Braille bill and about a video generated for the Mississippi Legislature featuring young children reading Braille. Casey Robertson was a primary mover in that effort. She was slated to speak later on the convention agenda but, as happens from time to time, agenda items get moved, and she was called ahead of time to make her presentation on July 5. Here is what she said to the 2013 convention and the remarks President Maurer made immediately following:
Good morning, Federation family and friends. I am here this morning, but, if you look at your agenda, you might see you were supposed to hear about surviving potential disaster. Well I think my story goes right along with that because, if we do not change the way students in our country are taught, we are headed for disaster. [applause]
I am Casey Robertson, a teacher of blind students with a master’s degree from Louisiana Tech, [applause] and I am currently a doctoral student at Walden University.
Last year a dream came true for three women in our affiliate and was backed by a great state president, Sam Gleese. We wanted to change the way blind students were taught in Mississippi. We were met with a lot of opposition. We were told, "We do not believe that blind students learn as much or as well as their sighted peers." I ask you today, do you believe in blind students? [scattered cheers] That wasn't strong enough. Do you believe blind students can learn? [applause] I thought maybe you might've been taking a drink of your coffee or something, so I was going to check by asking again.
We approached the legislature and asked them if they would work with us on a bill. The response was, "Well, we have a state school for the blind. Don't they meet our blind students’ service needs?"
Our answer was, "No, they do not, but, even if they did, what we want is to improve services for blind students in public schools." So a legislator, Tom Miles, was gracious enough to meet with us. As we sat down with him, I realized education began right there. He was not aware that we had blind students in public education, so we knew we had a challenge from the beginning. We started teaching legislators about blindness. We did this through emails, through meetings, through posts, through flyers—we taught them everything there is to know about blind students and how they learn.
One of our most successful strategies was to let blind students speak for themselves. [cheers] As a teacher of the blind I can do many things, but I cannot speak as a blind child speaks. So I gathered blind students, and we went to the state capitol. We had meetings with legislators. When they said, "But Braille is slow—your opposition is saying Braille is too slow for us to invest in," I let my students read for them. [cheers] Some members of the education committee exclaimed: "I can't read print that fast." So we killed the myth that Braille is slow, again by letting the students show their stuff. [applause]
The second argument advanced by the opposition was, "We don't have the teachers. We can't proclaim that these kids need Braille because we don't have teachers to serve them."
Our answer was "That's not our problem." That's what we were there to change. Soon the legislature began to see the wisdom of our beliefs, and I will never forget the ah-ha moment when one of them called me one night at home. He said, "Casey, I get it. I finally get it. These kids can learn; these kids are the same as their sighted peers. What have we been doing?" [applause]
Suddenly he was a man on a mission. Before our bill hit the floor, it had twenty-six bipartisan cosponsors. When it passed in the Mississippi House of Representatives the first time, the vote was a unanimous 100 percent support.
Now many of you are thinking, "Well, we have a Braille bill in our state; what makes yours so special?" Let me tell you some of the important parts it contains. Our bill now requires, just as federal law does, that all students who have 20/200 vision and are legally blind receive Braille while they're waiting on assessments. [cheers] Our teachers can no longer just give any type of assessment. They have to give a research-based assessment for blind and low-vision students. This is important because the National Federation of the Blind worked with Louisiana Tech and the Institute on Blindness to develop the very first research-based tool, the National Reading Media Assessment. I kind of knew ahead of time (but they didn't know) that we had the only research-based assessment. Now they use our assessment to decide whether students receive Braille or not. [applause]
A battle that the National Federation of the Blind has fought for many years is to guarantee textbooks on time. Our bill says that it is against the law for students not to have textbooks at the same time (on the first day of school) as their sighted peers. It's good to talk the talk, but have they followed through? I can assure you that my students have their textbooks at their home school right now, and most were delivered before school was out last year for this coming school year. We had never gotten workbooks in the state of Mississippi. I have workbooks for my students to start school with in August. [applause]
One of the greatest battles we had to fight was to require that teachers show proficiency in Braille. We actually had teachers show up and fight against the legislation by saying that they did not need to be proficient in Braille to teach blind students. We asked the teachers and the legislators, "How can you teach something that you are not proficient in?” [applause]
I looked at the legislators, many of whom had kids of their own, and I said, "Would you allow your student to be taught by a teacher who could not read?" There was absolute consensus that they would not. They expected their children's teachers to be very competent and efficient in the tasks that they were teaching, especially something as fundamental as reading and writing. So from now on, in the state of Mississippi, you cannot become a TVI (teacher of the visually impaired) unless you have shown proficiency in Braille literacy. [applause]
Because of surgery, I was unable to be there the day that the bill was passed on the floor of the house, but I made sure beforehand that our gallery was filled with blind students and blind adults. When the bill was passed, we had a standing ovation from the floor, which rarely happens in the legislature. One legislator asked to address the floor and was given permission. He looked up to the gallery, turned to the blind people, and said that, in his thirty-seven years as a representative, these were the most well-informed advocates he had ever seen, that they made it clear what they needed and what should be done, and that this was one time when it was really clear to him how he could vote to improve education. He concluded by saying that he was grateful for the advocacy, grateful he could help, and grateful that he could now say that he believes in blind children.
Unlike most bills, ours did not contain a request for money. We gave the legislature ways that they could provide students with an effective education with the money they were already spending through the state school for the blind and the textbooks they were receiving. However, because our bill was so well constructed and well received, we had members of the financial committee approach us, and through their initiative they added to our bill a fifty-thousand-dollar appropriation each year to train teachers who are in the field but who are not currently proficient in Braille. [applause]
Now let's look at what has changed for those students who gave me a reason to believe that blind children could learn: my fifteen-year-old deaf-blind child who was sitting in a public school and was illiterate because no one believed she could read—she is now reading Braille; my third grader, who was hanging in a world between print and Braille and was not literate in either one, is now proficient in Braille. Because of our bill the two sixth graders who had never had Nemeth math are now proficient in reading and are at grade level in their math classes. [applause] Our bill also requires that the state department of education recognize Braille and orientation and mobility as subjects in their core curriculum. No longer can a student be in high school and be denied orientation and mobility or Braille during the school day based on the argument that it takes away from core curriculum classes.
Many of our students are helped by the National Reading Media Assessment. Without this research-based assessment we are neglecting a lot of students who are in schools and using large print, struggling with large print, and really need to change their reading medium. The third grader I spoke of, who is now reading Braille—the school did not know what to do with her. The National Reading Media Assessment showed that she was a Braille reader, and, once we changed her reading media, she was able to become proficient and literate, where she had never been able to read before. At the time we thought that this was a very small part of our bill—to ask for a research-based assessment—but it turned out to be huge. The teachers in our state are now having to go back and retest their students with low vision and blindness to see where they fall in the reading media assessment. Our federal quota numbers are coming up because we're finding more students who were in the wrong medium and struggling, but now we can allow them to be successful readers.
A team made up of staff from the National Federation of the Blind and Louisiana Tech will be presenting the National Reading Media Assessment this July at the National Special Education Conference to teach special education leaders about how to assess a blind student properly and incorporate Braille into the curriculum.
I ask you now, do you believe blind children can learn? [loud cheers] My belief in blind children and blind people came from the National Federation of the Blind. I look at the adults here, and I see what my students need to know to be successful blind adults. I want to thank each and every one of you for being here and helping us change what it means to be blind in Mississippi and across the nation. [cheers and applause]
I also urge you not to sit still. Natalie told us yesterday about how sitting still is killing us. Well, sitting still in our affiliates is killing the chance that you can change your state law. I ask you not to wait on the National Federation of the Blind at the national level to fight every battle for us. I want you, as members of your affiliates, to get together a group to look at your Braille bill, see what needs to be changed, contact me or the Mississippi affiliate; and we can help you rewrite your bill and tell you the steps to get it changed. Don't sit and wait for someone to change what it means to be blind in your state—get moving, and make that change happen. [applause]
You might say, "As an affiliate we don't have the money to change the Braille bill." Well I can tell you that, for less than a thousand dollars, we changed the entire educational system for blind students in Mississippi. [cheers]
Our bill is not only helping blind students, it's also helping all students because they're learning more about blind people in their schools. As the result of our bill, our current school for the blind is being reorganized. Not only did we affect the public school system, we affected the state school for the blind and all blind students in Mississippi. I'm asking you to look at your state education acts as they pertain to blind people, seek out help if you need it, and make the changes that need to be made so that your students are getting the best possible instruction in Braille, large print, or whatever their reading medium is. Make reading a core curriculum subject.
Thank you today for listening to my story and to my thoughts as to how you can change what it means to be blind. I often have people ask me, "How did you learn so much about blindness?" I say, "Well, number one, I watch blind people, and, number two, I was trained by the best in the country—Louisiana Tech." I ask you to go out, believe in blind children, and make a change.
President Maurer concluded this presentation by saying: So here you are, a teacher of the blind, a parent of a deaf-blind person; you write a proposed law, and you cause it to be introduced in the legislature. You get it adopted unanimously, you get it funded, you have a standing ovation on the floor of one of the legislative bodies—we need you in Washington DC. And all of this you did because you believe in the people who needed you. I cannot but admire that kind of courage.