Future Reflections         Summer 2009

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A New Model of Education for Blind and Low Vision Students

by Dr. Denise M. Robinson, TVI, PhD

Denise Robinson speaks at the 2009 NFB National Convention.From the Editor:  Dr. Denise Robinson is a dedicated teacher of blind and low vision students in central Washington. Over her long career she has shattered the low expectations which too many of her colleagues hold for blind students. In this article she describes her innovative program to help blind children achieve at the same level as their sighted peers.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The present 80 percent illiteracy rate and 74 percent unemployment rate among blind adults should tell us we can do something better in the education of blind and low vision students. In this article I describe a program that is very different from the typical modes of instruction. I believe this approach may help reverse the current trend.

When I was twenty-four years old, both of my eyes hemorrhaged from diabetic retinopathy and I lost most of my sight. I had never talked with or even met another blind person until I went to school to learn blindness skills. Through many years of surgeries I regained a great deal of sight, but I grew to love and see the potential of Braille and technology. Consequently, in 1990 I enrolled in classes to become a teacher of the blind. My most impressive teacher was Mr. Lennox, who had been blind since birth. He taught college classes and also had a resource classroom for blind and low vision students in the Detroit suburbs. He showed me what blind and low vision students could do if they had the correct education. That education included daily living skills, Braille, orientation and mobility, and technology. Mr. Lennox believed in equipping students with all the tools they might need, and letting them discover what worked best for them. With all the skills at their disposal his students easily kept up with their sighted classmates.

I also met low vision students from other school districts who had no Braille or computer skills. They read slowly and laboriously, using CCTVs and enlarged print. I met totally blind students who read Braille, most with one hand, but had no computers, no way to produce work in print. Para-educators stuck to their sides all day long, "helping" them do their work. Some schools had computers with speech programs, but none of the teachers knew how to use them so no one learned on them.

After I received my bachelor's degree in December 1992 I set out to apply the lessons Mr. Lennox had taught me. I took a job as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired in Michigan. For five and a half years I taught Braille and technology as an itinerant teacher. To insure that my students were fully integrated into the mainstream classroom I also worked closely with their classroom teachers. I trained a para (paraprofessional educator) to adapt the students' worksheets and other materials. Each year I watched students learn and find success in their mainstream classes because of Braille and technology. With computer access my students printed out their work and handed it in with the rest of the class.

By the time I moved back to Washington, my home state, I had formed high expectations for blind students, and I was ready to implement the best practices I had discovered in Michigan. My caseload was small enough to allow me to work with each of my students every day. All of my students had low vision, and many of them had progressive eye conditions. I had two para-educators who learned Braille, and eventually we hired two more. I taught the new paras Braille and trained them in technology.

As needed I prepared the students for their classroom lessons. When they walked into class they functioned on their own. They read in Braille and used the computer to print out their assignments or to email their work to their teachers. Each year I watched new students begin at the bottom of their reading group and progress to the middle and even the top of their mainstreamed classes.

Denise Robinson addresses a convention workshop.To instill a love of leisure reading, I focused on the students' interests. The younger ones were fascinated by magic, so Harry Potter became their best friend. The more they read, the more their reading speed and fluency increased. Students who did not read at home were much slower than their peers who read all the time.

My students spanned the full age spectrum. I had a six-month-old baby, several high school students, and a number of children in elementary and middle school. The earlier I began to teach them, the better the results. I started the baby on tactile and visual training. As time went on I let him play with a Brailler, slate and stylus, light box, and other tools. When he was three, I began formal Braille and technology training. He knew the Braille alphabet and dozens of contractions when he entered kindergarten, and could type on a computer keyboard. He was able to keep pace with his peers because of the early introduction of literacy.

Another child, who came to me when she was in kindergarten, was already behind her peers. She could only see large print and did not know the alphabet in print or Braille. With intensive Braille and technology instruction she slowly gained ground. Even with one-on-one instruction, however, she still needed a para when she was in the classroom to help her keep up with her lessons. By the end of the year, and with extended school year in place, she was at grade level. By the next fall she no longer needed a para in the room with her.

The later the child starts learning Braille, the harder it is for her to move from trying to do everything in large print. This is especially true for high school students. Even highly capable children and teens do not want to be different, although their classroom work is suffering badly. With intensive service they can eventually reach grade level. Once they get moving with Braille and computer speech software, they find they actually perform faster than their sighted peers.

The computer can lead to a breakthrough for high school students who no longer can use print. A student can learn the keyboard in about three days and master the basics of speech software in two weeks. By the third week he is back in the classroom on his own. For the next two months or so he may complain about how slow he is, but I let him know that his persistence will pay off. I refuse to let a para take notes for him or do his work. At the end of that two-month adjustment period he is working comfortably on his own. However, for these older students Braille is very slow in coming. Most middle-school students and high schoolers take up to two years to learn Braille, and seldom do they read it for pleasure. They do everything on the computer. These young people also resist using a long white cane, even when they bump into poles and other obstacles without one. They actually believe people around them do not know they are visually impaired. They need counseling to help them deal with the emotional aspects of vision loss and being different, so they can go on to be successful. The children who do not learn how to accept their vision loss join the unemployed and illiterate, as they never gain the necessary skills to succeed.

Para-educators play a key role in our program. The para's main job is to produce all the classroom materials in a format the student can use effectively to be independent. Written material is put into Braille or e-text. Diagrams are reproduced with raised lines or enlarged for viewing. Once the work is ready, the child can perform along with her sighted peers. It is essential that the para meet regularly with the classroom teachers to plan for the work ahead of time. The student MUST have all the necessary work as soon as the sighted students receive it. OpenBook, Kurzweil, Duxbury, Braille embossers, and other technology really help the para produce all the work that needs to be completed. Internet sites contain thousands of books that can be downloaded and embossed or put into e-text.

After six years I took a new position at an educational school district (ESD) in the central part of Washington State. The ESD covered twenty-five school districts and included forty-two blind and low vision students. I was the only teacher of the blind. I traveled fifteen hundred to three thousand miles a month. I knew I could not begin to teach forty-two students on my own. I had to find and train people who were interested in working with the blind.

Within three months the ESD hired on a blind person who knew Braille and assistive technology. His wealth of knowledge was a blessing. Two months later, the ESD hired on another person who was Braille-certified and knew a good portion of the technology. These two people were known as Braille specialists -- they were highly skilled and trained but lacked formal degrees.

Between the three of us at the ESD, we worked with all forty-two students. I handled their evaluations, including their IEPs. I set up all the programming and did all the paperwork. I also set up the weekly schedule so everyone knew where to go, what to do, and a myriad of other details. I taught all of the older students, as I was the only one who knew Nemeth Code, abacus, slate and stylus, Braille music, and many of the advanced technologies. The Braille specialists instructed the younger students and taught Braille to some of the older students. I checked in on the younger students once or twice a month and saw the older students once a week. I worked approximately seventy to eighty hours a week.

When I first began my evaluations of where my students spent their days, I was appalled by what I found. The students had minimal skills. They could not use Braille well, did not have English or math skills, and did not know any technology. The para-educators were doing all of the work for them. The paras walked the students everywhere, the students holding onto their arms. That was the scenario wherever I went. Within three months of starting my new job, I set up classes to train the paras in Braille and technology.

In addition to training the paras I worked to gain the support of the special education directors. I gave presentations with videos of the students I had taught north of the Seattle area. I followed up in person with the directors in their districts, convincing them to buy the necessary equipment. I assured them that I could load programs, configure systems, and troubleshoot problems with the technology, and that I could teach the students and paras how to use it. The special education directors could feel confident that equipment would be put to good use, and they could look forward to future videos recording the students' progress. Over time the directors have come to respect my expertise. They truly want to do the right thing, but often they are consumed with the problems of the thousands of students in their district. They welcome my suggestions because they recognize that I want the best for our blind students and know what they need in order to learn. When I request a piece of equipment, they do what they can to acquire it. I keep them abreast of future needs and prepare the directors ahead of time so they can plan financially for coming purchases. There are districts with huge budget deficits where services are greatly hindered for all students, but I continually work with them in order to find solutions. Slowly, proper services are coming about.

The directors have been wonderfully supportive of my efforts to train the paras. They let me hold trainings one afternoon a week, and the paras are paid for their time. The paras have great incentive to learn, and learn they have.

I firmly believe that a para without training is a detriment to a child. He can actually impede the child's learning and prevent the student from making friends. Instead of turning to the teacher for answers and direction, the child looks to the para for help. The regular teacher counts on the para to instruct the blind child. Whatever the child manages to learn is taught by a para whose own education is limited and who has no teaching credentials. On the playground the child plays with the para and has no chance to make friends with her classmates. The child and the para occupy a world apart, isolated from the rest of the class. This hurts the child emotionally, socially, and academically.

A well-trained para knows that his job is to enable the child to be in the classroom by herself, doing the same work as her peers. The para adapts the work materials as needed. When the child requires assistance with a lesson, the para assists as the regular education teacher directs. He does not answer the student's questions, but always directs her back to the teacher. The trained para does not play with the student during breaks, but gives her space to interact freely with other children. His main purpose is to adapt the material, checking with teachers to make sure the students have all the needed work. Even in first and second grade the students are independent in the classroom if proper instruction started early enough.

In the ideal program the para works with two or three students at a time. A long-term one-on-one relationship with a para is a detriment to the child's growth and independence. In a situation where a child must have a one-on-one in the classroom, I rotate paras periodically. In this way a problematic codependent relationship can be avoided.

Under Washington state law, anyone working with blind and visually impaired students must be certified in Braille. The paras in my program become Braille-certified within one to one and a half years. Within that time they also learn the technology necessary to adapt the materials for the students. In addition, I help the paras work with the unions to get higher pay and title when they become Braille-certified. Braille training occurs weekly and Nemeth/abacus/technology training occurs once or twice a month. The paras email lessons to me during the month so I can correct their work and comment on their progress. Continued instruction occurs weekly as the paras observe while I instruct students.

Another critical factor in the program is the need to train parents and receive their input. Several times a year I hold a parent night. The ESD personnel and the paras also take part. At each of these events we teach the parents about some aspect of the education of blind children. I invite blind professionals to speak so the parents can start to envision their child's future success. Parents meet other parents of blind children, and no longer feel isolated. They get to know the team that is teaching their child. I make myself available to parents on an ongoing basis through email and the telephone.

I also make sure to be available to the paras and special education directors, who often raise questions and concerns. Every day I spend two or more hours answering email and phone calls. I try to devote at least two days during the week to paperwork, as well as attending IEP meetings and evaluations.

Needless to say, progress toward the ideal program has not always been smooth and straightforward. Paras in the process of gaining skills were not ready to take on all the work that needed to be done. It took time to train them properly, and some simply did not work out. During my second year, the ESD hired a new TVI who had a special education background but lacked knowledge of Braille and other blindness skills. She had no desire to learn, and for two years her students floundered. I have discovered that it is far worse to have someone with poor skills working with the students than to have no one at all. If a teacher or para is not working out it is best to move her along during the probationary period. If a poor teacher survives probation with satisfactory evaluations, it is important to work with the directors to have her skills tested. Everyone will quickly become aware of her lack of ability. It is vital to move these teachers out of the system if they refuse to learn the appropriate skills to teach blind children.

Fortunately, by the third year another person finishing her TVI and O&M degree came on board. She proved to be a very valuable member of the team. The ESD also added another Braille specialist by my fourth year. About ten new students a year have come into the ESD program, and today we have sixty-five, with several more pending evaluations. Approximately 60 percent of them are learning Braille, and all are using some type of technology. Many high school students use BrailleNotes in the classroom, and do mathematical calculations on their laptops. I asked for donations from the community that enabled us to revamp used computers for all of our students who needed them at home. The students can complete work at home, and the paras can send them materials by email. The middle and high school students download books for leisure, reading from sites such as Bookshare.org, and read them on their BrailleNotes.

There are many ways to help blind and low vision students "see" what the teacher is doing. For low vision students who cannot see at a distance, we attach a monitor to a document camera with a VGA splitter. The student can see everything that is going on in the distance. Low vision students who travel from class to class use a portable device called an ONYX, a monitor/camera that folds into a rolling case. Some low vision students find the CCTV helpful for looking at diagrams or printed documents, using it in addition to Braille and a computer with speech software. Blind students can connect their BrailleNotes to computers and receive Word documents from the teacher, who is showing information on the board in front of the classroom. I show the teachers that, with good computer skills, blind and visually impaired children can do everything they expect from their sighted students.

Low-tech tools are also essential. Both blind and low vision students learn to use the slate and stylus, and how to print with pen and paper. I want the blind students to be able to script their names and print all the letters of the alphabet. With this skill they can leave a note for a sighted person if need be. By learning print the blind student can understand what people mean when they refer to a "U-turn" or a "T-shaped intersection" or an "I-beam."

Despite all the technology, the students use their Braillers daily and slates and styluses on a weekly basis. I want them to be able to pick up basic tools and use them well. When the technology goes down and has to be sent in for repair, students can use their Braillers to do their work. The students learn to take good care of their tools because they know that their computer or BrailleNote is the fastest tool to help them keep up.

In four short years our program has made great progress. The ESD will soon have four TVIs, three of whom are also certified in orientation and mobility. We now have ten Braille-certified paras and Braille specialists, and we have six more in the process of getting their certification. A half-dozen parents are also working toward certification, taking the weekly Braille classes. Despite the rough places in the first years, the students have excelled with their newfound skills. Because they use their skills throughout the day, they have made dramatic improvements. With Braille-certified paras, their instruction continues all day long. Constant integration of instruction is the key.

Of our sixty-five blind and visually impaired students, seven are preschoolers, all of whom are learning pre-Braille and technology skills. We have twelve elementary-school students, four middle-school students, and fifteen high-school students who are learning Braille, technology, and other blindness skills. Several of our large-print users are being evaluated for Braille due to their decreased reading speeds. We also have fifteen-plus students with additional disabilities who use many types of tactile learning modes to communicate with those around them. When you include all the tactile methods used with the multiply impaired students, the percentage for tactile instruction is higher than 60 percent.

I am constantly evaluating where the students are and where they need to go, constantly thinking about what it will take to get them where they need to go. I know what does not work. I am looking for all the things that do work, and work well. One thing I want is to give our students as many tools as possible in the toolbox of knowledge. As new tools come along I will introduce them to the students so they will always have a wide selection to choose from as they strive to reach their dreams and goals in life.

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