by Ann Sywensky
From the Editor: Ann Sywensky is the mother of two children and the daughter of Tom Bickford, a well-known Federationist whose convention presentation during our seventy-fifth year celebration was featured in the August/September 2015 issue of the Braille Monitor. She credits her father with teaching her to think as a feminist and as an advocate. Ann is a non-traditional student pursuing a master’s degree in education at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This paper, written for her class “Special Education Process, Transition and the Exceptional Child,” demonstrates what she has learned through her contact with the National Federation of the Blind and through the example of one of its staunchest members. Here is what she says:
For homework this week I was asked to research and find a landmark special education court case that has informed the public on how to deliver special education services. Here is my submission:
The court case I chose is J.M. and H.M. v. Oceanport Board of Education. This case took place in New Jersey in 2011 with a decision handed down in 2012. Hank is a child with a disability which renders him legally blind, even though he has some sight. In 2008, as Hank entered second grade, his mother and father noticed that he struggled with reading. The longer he read, the more his eyes bothered him. In addition his fluency and comprehension decreased the longer he read. The parents approached the school district and asked them to provide Braille instruction for Hank. Hank was evaluated by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (NJCBVI), the agency contracted by the school district to assist with visually-impaired students. The NJCBVI did not recommend Braille instruction because they said Hank was better off in the "sighted world." The school asked the parents why they wanted to "do that to him," as though teaching him Braille was harmful, or negative.
Hank's parents continued to request Braille instruction over the course of the next three school years. They had Hank evaluated by other experts and presented that data, but the school district still refused. Finally Hank's parents got assistance from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The NFB helped the family file a due process hearing in 2011. The hearing lasted nine days in court, but the days were staggered across seven months. Finally, in 2012 the court declared that the school district must provide Braille instruction for Hank. They found that the evidence brought by the family was more research- and data-based than that of the school district.
I am disheartened that it took such a long battle for this family to ensure functional literacy for their son. Having a small amount of sight does not always mean that the use of that sight is the best way to do things. With good instruction Hank should be able to read better and faster with Braille than with print. Educators must take a family's requests seriously and must look at good data and recommendations to ensure proper placement and services for blind students. Cane travel instruction and Braille materials are two very important tools that can be used by people even if they have some sight. Through the efforts of the NFB, IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was amended in 1997 to state that schools must provide Braille instruction and the use of Braille to blind children.
Thank you NFB for help with my homework!