by Gary Wunder
Normally when I write or edit an article for you to read, my hope is that you will come away encouraged, uplifted, and grateful that you took the time with it. In this article that won't be quite so easy. We're going to talk about some difficult things that continue to get in the way of success for our blind children and future blind adults, and it won't all be wrapped up with a tidy bow and a card that says "We know what to do to fix this, and we’re well on our way to doing it.”
I am sixty-five years old, so I started school in 1960 and graduated in 1973. At that time there was a discussion involving the teaching community and the parents of blind children about whether people should go to the school for the blind or the public school. In Kansas City where I lived, there were several schools that had what were called resource rooms. In these resource rooms, we who were blind spent most of our time there in first and second grade, learning our Braille, learning to put numbers in columns for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and learning that strange format that one used for long division. We learned the difference between Nemeth Code and the literary code. Never once did we hear the message that Braille was confusing.
There were different grades or levels of it, and they were all a part of learning, which of course we would do. We were learning dots that made shapes that made letters that made words, and people in adjacent classrooms were learning to look at lead and ink that would make shapes and letters and words. We learned that we were fortunate because almost two hundred years ago a man named Louis Braille came along and figured out how we could do with our fingers what other people did with their eyes.
In our resource room, we learned physical fitness from a teacher who understood that what she wanted us to do would have to be conveyed by word and sometimes by physically showing us what to do. We learned that we could run as fast as we wanted as long as our hand was on a rope, and later we learned that we could run inside the gymnasium if we paid attention to what we learned through echolocation.
Since the school I attended was not in my neighborhood, I spent forty-five minutes to an hour each way on the bus. But this was not considered a problem; it was considered a blessing. How amazing that the school system in Kansas City cared enough to try to educate its blind students rather than forcing them to travel across the state of Missouri to St. Louis.
In some ways the resource room I attended was like the old schoolhouse featured in so many westerns. There were young first-graders like me, but there were also people who were in the second through the sixth grade. So as I worked, I got to watch them work. Some of them were slow, intellectual disabilities severely restricting what they could do. But others were fast, and it was hard not to be distracted by the interesting stories they were reading to our teacher. Tom Sawyer was a lot more exciting than Dick, Jane, Puff, Spot, and the pony who stole an apple from mother’s purse. These fast-reading children gave me reason to believe that this Braille I was being taught could let me work as quickly and efficiently as I heard my mother and father work when they were reading and writing.
Braille was never considered inferior. It was our path to learning, and what could be more valuable than that? Several times each day I would read aloud to the teacher, and she would correct any errors that occurred in my recitation. If I got stuck on a word, or more correctly I should say when I got stuck on a word, she helped me through it. Even when she moved on to other students, if she noticed my fingers weren't moving or I seemed to be distracted and directing my attention elsewhere, she paid me a brief visit. "What appears to be the problem?" she would say.
"I don't know this word."
"Show me the word. I see. Spell it out for me."
“It is a hard one. It seems to start with a G, then there is the AR sign, and then I think this is a Y.”
“You have those letters right, so what does that spell?”
“It is Gary,” was my uncertain and sheepish answer.
“Of course it is, so keep going.”
So I was moving again, reading and understanding the story until once again I came to that G, the AR sign, and that lonely Y. No other word should have been simpler, but none was harder. When she had me read aloud, I would hesitate when I came to that word, and I’d hear her whispering under her breath, “Gary, Gary, Gary.” Then I would pretend I had gotten it and say, “Gary.” She masked her relief and frustration with what sounded like excitement.
The more I learned about the basics of blindness, the less time I spent in the resource room. At some point it stopped being my school day home and started being the place I kept books for other classes. It became the place that I would breeze in and out of to drop off geography and grab up my history. Often it is where I picked up something that had been transcribed for me by the resource teacher that I would use in the classes I took with people who had sight.
The point in writing this is not to take you back to some memory of the good old days or to suggest that there weren't problems in my school curriculum, but as I look at what blind children are getting today, I almost feel like I haven't a complaint in the world.
Contrast what I have experienced with what I hear from so many parents of blind children today. Few of them start with getting Braille immediately on entering the first grade. Usually there is a fight because a child can see a bit. The adage that in first, second, and third grade you learn to read, and in every grade thereafter, you read to learn gets turned on its head. We spend our time in endless evaluations trying to determine whether a child should read Braille, print, or both.
What usually happens is that the district decides early on that if the child can read some print, that is the way he or she should learn. When the print gets smaller, the lines get closer together, and the reading load increases, suddenly it is clear that print isn’t working. Now the district and the parents start thinking about Braille, but where to work it in? The time set aside for learning to read has already gone by. Now Braille has to come at the expense of some other subject or subjects. Maybe we pull Jimmy out of class fifteen minutes early. Why not history? When he gets a bad grade, we really didn’t mean for him to miss that pop quiz or the warning that there would be one or the study material students were told to pay particular attention to in the waning moments of the class. What is to blame for Jimmy’s poor score? Why, of course, it is Braille.
Even for children who are totally blind, Braille instruction is not guaranteed, and sometimes it simply can't be provided. Far too often small schools can't find Braille teachers. Sometimes when they do, the blind student gets so little of the teacher's time that learning to read and write is not a basic part of their initial education but is treated like any other course and gets only a small segment of the day. In far too many cases, our children live in school districts visited once a month by a teacher who knows Braille. Again, I think of myself stuck on the word Gary, and I wonder what my reading speed would be if someone had told me that I would have to wait for three weeks until my Braille teacher could come back and help me.
What happens to our blind student if she does not learn to read and write competitively? She learns to sit in her classroom and be a spectator. She picks up what she can by her ears, but every year she comes to see just how much information is gotten from a worksheet, a book, or weekly reader. She learns to be a spectator in her own life, and sometime around eighteen we transition her to a rehabilitation program. If that program has a good attitude, it tells her she can become anything she wants, that the sky is the limit, that her blindness, with proper training and opportunity, can be reduced to the level of a nuisance and an inconvenience. Regardless how good the program, how likely is it that she will get these skills and become proficient in them? How realistic is it to believe that with all of our one-week, two-week, and eight-week programs that we can turn this around? Nine months of rehabilitation training can work miracles for some people, but we need to work on seeing that those who have our blind children nine months a year for twelve years do a far better job of teaching them how to learn.
In Missouri and in many other states, what happens in the public schools is mostly determined locally. Of course there is some state and local funding, and with that funding comes a few standards. But money promised by the federal government to supplement the cost of special education has never been what was promised. Interestingly the government has acknowledged its unhappiness with rehabilitation outcomes by increasing funding for transition services, but most of this money starts long after one is supposed to be able to efficiently read and write. For the rehabilitation system to get involved earlier seems like a good idea, but my fear is that for most students it is still getting involved far too late.
With too few teachers, too few instructional materials, and too few role models, our children face an excruciating battle to learn what should have been a part of their knowledge and understanding long before. We offer college and other postsecondary training and are surprised when so many students don’t complete their course of study. Occasionally post-secondary education is where blind people start to develop their own techniques for learning and start down the long path to catching up. Is it any surprise that some very bright people finish their college education with a lesser grade point average than they would've had if only they could concentrate on the material being taught and not wrestle with knowledge assumed to have been acquired, skills that are likewise presumed, and technology built without them in mind?
In this article and this issue you won't find any easy solutions that can be implemented by writing a few letters or visiting a few members of Congress. We have to stand back and take a hard look at what we are getting for blind children and make a valiant effort to go beyond defining the problem. As it always has, a big part of the solution must come from us, first in the form of an idea, then in the form of a commitment, and then through the follow-up and dogged determination that brings about real change. Environmental integration may feel good when we send our children off to the same schools as their siblings, but when there is such a disparity between what our blind children get and what their sighted colleagues receive, we simply have to say that we have a broken system and begin figuring out how to fix it. Let us not be derailed by those who will say that the system is broken for everyone, for we know that is not true. If the system in which blind people function could be easily fixed, someone else would've done it. We must pledge ourselves to a solution, one that clearly prioritizes helping children over supporting the status quo or worrying about offending parents who believe we are trying to make their children different by emphasizing skills and tools their sighted classmates don’t use.
What might we put on the table for consideration? This very question is key to why the article you are reading is appearing in the Braille Monitor. Good ideas don’t just come from authors. Good ideas come from people who have experience and brains. Positive results come from being willing to share them. If this is the first and last article we see on this subject, I have wasted your time, my time, and our resources. But my most fervent hope is that this is the beginning of something positive.
Who besides us should be involved in our quest to find answers? No one has more daily contact with children than teachers, so they should have a place at the table. School administrators have to decide how to spend precious resources, so they should have a place at the table. The legislative and executive branches of government fund what gets done and set the stage for the regulations that implement how it will be done. Certainly they too need a place at the table. But change won’t come from all of these folks. We will have to initiate it, solicit their input, incorporate it where we can, and, most importantly, get them to join with us as allies and start down the long road of fixing education so that our children can achieve the dream of real integration with sighted people. This is where you come in, so please do!