The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______     November 1997

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An All Too Familiar Story

From the Editor: The two previous articles provide a ray of hope for parents of blind children and the advocates committed to improving the educational opportunities available to blind youngsters. Aides like Denise Mackenstadt and teachers like the distinguished educators honored by the NFB each year provide their students the chance to make everything they can of their lives and gifts. And the children who spoke to the parents' seminar at last summer's convention demonstrate what can be accomplished by knowledgeable, determined parents even when ideal instructional conditions are not available. Yet across the country today blind children languish in public school classrooms because no one working or caring for them knows enough to provide the services needed or can find a way to compel the school system to do so.

Louisiana is doing more than many states to solve this huge problem. The Louisiana Center for the Blind, the NFB's adult training center in Ruston, has a grant to train paraprofessionals to teach Braille. Pam Dubel directs this effort, and it is turning out aides who can make a real difference in the educational future of blind children. But the grant is for the northern half of the state, and the child profiled in the following story lives in the southern part. This article appeared in the June 7, 1997, edition of the Times Picayune. It is a stark reminder of how much work we have yet to do. Here is the story:

Teaching Blind Boy a Struggle Mainstream Classes Lack the Resources

by Cassandra Lane
St. Bernard/Plaquemines Bureau

While the other children learned to read books this year, Gerald sat in the back of the class wearing headphones to listen to books. Six-year-old Gerald Passero twirled wildly on an open area of the playground at Carolyn Park Elementary School, then braked himself against a brick wall with his hands. His cane had been discarded on the sidewalk.

"I can see," the kindergartner mused. But Gerald can't see. And this past year the St. Bernard public school system struggled to help him find his way into a regular classroom, despite a lack of resources and no precedent for dealing with a completely blind child.

While there are twenty-two visually impaired children in St. Bernard's public schools, Gerald is the only one to be totally blind, said Gloria Plaiscia, one of two instructors who teach Braille and living skills to the visually impaired students. Nationwide, school systems are trying to find ways to integrate handicapped students into regular classrooms. As St. Bernard schools learned with Gerald, that's not always easy.

In January, at his mother's request, Gerald was removed from a preschool for children ages three to six with a wide range of handicaps and placed in a regular classroom at Carolyn Park.

"He was in a class with children who were in diapers," Penelope Passero said. "Children who couldn't talk, couldn't walk.... He went on field trips with just them. He learned what they learned." Gerald wasn't being challenged academically, she said. "He would come home and say, `Mama, I want homework. Mama, I want to go to kindergarten,'" Passero said. "I want Gerald to be able to learn everything. He's so normal."

Teachers agreed it was a good idea to move Gerald into the regular kindergarten class. "There's nothing wrong with his learning ability," said Trina Claycomb, his special class teacher at Gauthier Elementary. And his regular kindergarten teacher at Carolyn Park, Tabitha Osbourne, agreed: "He's a very bright student."

But that wasn't enough. Although he's a smart kid, Gerald had trouble keeping up with his sighted classmates. As a consequence of a late start in kindergarten and too many absences, Gerald won't join his classmates in first grade next year; he has to repeat kindergarten. Glaucoma and cataracts caused the youngster to lose his sight. He became totally blind at age 3. He doesn't know how to read because he knows only half of his alphabet in Braille. While the other children learned to read books, Gerald sat in the back of the class wearing headphones to listen to his books.

Osbourne said she sometimes felt frustrated trying to teach Gerald math because, while she had a few Braille materials, she didn't have hands-on materials that would help her explain concepts. So while the other children worked, Gerald sometimes stood alone in the corner, running his fingers over toys. "I've got twenty-something other children in my classroom," Osbourne said. "I've never taught a blind child."

Carolyn Park Principal Katherine Thornton said she was apprehensive when she learned she'd be getting Gerald in a regular classroom at her school. "He can't see," she said. "We were very, very nervous. We were worried about his falling down or running into a pole."

As a resource teacher for visually impaired children, Plaiscia tried to ease the transition. She helped Gerald find his way around the school, ordered special materials for him, and gave him lessons in Braille. But with only two teachers to work with all of the twenty-two visually impaired public school students, Plaiscia had only about an hour to spend with Gerald twice a week.

Pam Dubel, youth services director for the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana, said a youngster can't learn much in that time. "No wonder he doesn't know his Braille," Dubel said. "You wouldn't think of teaching a sighted kid who's in kindergarten reading only twice a week and expect him to pass.

"It's not the resource teacher's fault," she said, explaining that nationwide there are too few teachers to provide the specialized help that blind students need. "School systems say that they don't have the money, but parents need to fight for more certified teachers so their children can have more time. That child should be with his Braille teacher at least one hour every day," she said.

Passero said she'd been fighting to make sure Gerald gets a fair and equal education since she learned she had a right to take him out of the special preschool class.

Janice Campagna, head of the school system's special education program, said the local public school system is doing the best it can with the financing it gets. She said more federal money for the special education program would mean more equipment and materials for students with special needs.

"We don't have a special school for the blind." Campagna said. "Philosophically, they should be integrated in regular education. It would be wonderful if colleges prepared regular education teachers for students who are blind."

Plaiscia said she spends much of her time squelching teachers' fears about teaching visually impaired students.

"I'm like a counselor to these teachers," she said. Osbourne, who isn't teaching Gerald next year because her one-year contract with the school system has expired, said having him in her class was a learning experience for her and the other students.

When she found out she was getting Gerald, she blindfolded her students and told them: "That's what Gerald sees." They read books about children with physical impairments. And in time they saw that Gerald could find his way around the classroom and the school as well as they could.

"The important thing to remember is that Gerald just learns in a different way," she said.