Future Reflections        Convention Report 2011

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The 2011 Educator of Blind Children Award: Dreamers and Risk Takers Make the Future!

by Dr. Dean O. Stenehjem

Cathy Jackson presents the 2011 Educator of Blind Children Award to Dr. Dean O. StenehjemFrom the Editor: At the board meeting of the National Federation of the Blind, held at the NFB national convention, Dr. Dean O. Stenehjem received the 2011 Educator of Blind Children Award. Dr. Stenehjem serves as superintendent of the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB). The Distinguished Educator Award carried with it a thousand-dollar prize and covered his trip to the 2011 NFB national convention in Orlando. In presenting the award, NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer said, "Dr. Stenehjem has dedicated his career to ensuring that blind students are given the tools for independence and academic success. Dr. Stenehjem's dedication is exemplified in his work developing partnerships with local school districts in Washington, ensuring that all blind students, not just those enrolled at WSSB, are given the opportunity to succeed. The National Federation of the Blind commends Dr. Stenehjem for his unwavering commitment to the education of blind students."

Dr. Stenehjem later addressed several hundred parents and educators at the meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Here is what he had to say.

As parents, don't we all have dreams and aspirations for our children?  When you find out that your child is blind, deafblind, or has multiple disabilities, don't stop dreaming!  Wonderful things can come your way, but you must have determination and open your heart to opportunities. You must instill in yourself and in your child the desire to become a risk taker and, hopefully, a reality dreamer.

Is it risky to dream? You bet! However, it is much more risky not to dream. Without dreamers looking to the future, there is no future--or at least the future would be pretty boring.

I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and in a number of states, where I have been able to glean what I believe are some of the best approaches in working with blind and visually impaired children. I have worked with wonderful partners and teams to build programs that help students succeed. This is not just about academics, but about attitudes, expectations, and a way of life. It's about realizing that everyone deserves the chance to be what they want to be, given the right skills, tools, and intestinal fortitude to push forward even when some say it can't be done. It's about helping each child believe in himself or herself and helping parents understand the capabilities of their children.

Students need to be willing to take a risk, to take the next step. If it doesn't work out, try again. Sometimes this is as simple as dreaming about what they would like to do tomorrow and then following through with an action.

I've always applauded students and staff who are willing to take risks and push the envelope. I see my role at WSSB as a facilitator in working with students, employees, and others. We help plant the seeds of knowledge. Those seeds might be ideas, might be direction, or might be a sense of self-determination to get things moving. It is then that you need to give away some ownership and help nurture individuals so that they grow, show self-determination, pride, and confidence, and move forward on a path toward independence and success.

Let me tell you a little about the culture we have tried to instill in staff, students, and parents at the Washington State School for the Blind. One of our goals is to help students understand that their dreams can become reality. At WSSB our mission is to create an "I can" attitude, backed by skills that can make things possible. Students involved in programs on campus and off are provided options to become active participants in life's journey, which can be full of wonderful adventures and opportunities. In order for this to occur, students must believe in themselves, look for opportunities, and not be afraid of failure. Remember, Thomas Edison had a thousand failures before he created the lightbulb. Just think what would have happened if he gave up after his first attempt!

We need to instill this same type of drive within every child, and maybe even more so in the child who is blind. Students must be wonderful salespersons and strong self-advocates. They will need not only to believe in themselves, but to get others to believe in them. We need to share this important message with students so that when they run into that first obstacle they don't give up.

Dreaming is easy, but being a reality dreamer takes determination, willpower, and the ability to try again if things don't work out the first time. It also takes self-confidence, which I hope we instill in each student. Without self-confidence, people often are unwilling to be risk takers, which limits them in realizing their dreams. As we work with students and parents, we hope we can assist them not only in developing the necessary skills to be successful, but also in gaining the confidence to take the risks necessary to help students build their future.

Students in the WSSB on-campus program (which is like a big revolving door), come in and get what they need and then go back to their local districts. All students are on 24-hour IEPs. This entails a coordinated effort including academics, life skills, and expanded core skills (blindness-related skill development). It entails getting students involved with life and teaching them to accept responsibilities. Nearly all students have some type of job on campus, whether it is in the cottages during the week (students go home on the weekends), helping make a meal, setting the table, cleaning up after the meal, or working in the community. Students secure jobs based upon their current ability level, and they receive stipends. They are trained to use the fully accessible ATM on campus (provided by iQ Credit Union--another partner helping WSSB students achieve independence). They learn to manage their money (some do better than others--I guess this is the same for adults). By utilizing the ATM, students learn a new skill and parents can monitor their child's spending habits. Not only are students learning skills they will need in the future; they are learning skills that relate to just about everything they will be doing on a daily basis.

As part of the IEP process, students are involved in a program designed to help each child learn about his or her own medical needs. Once again, this is a part of being independent.

Success is not just built on academics, but on making sure that students develop all skills to be independent. For more information, please visit our website: <www.wssb.wa.gov>.

WSSB sets expectations for students based upon their abilities, helping each child grow and gain confidence. For example, a young blind girl with multiple disabilities has a job delivering mail on WSSB's campus. She could be too sick to go to school, but she still won't miss doing her job. This determination and desire to work landed her a job upon graduation. Since 1998, 80-82 percent of the graduates of our on-campus program have been successful! This represents the full range of students at WSSB, including those who are blind with additional disabilities, those who are deafblind, and those who are blind and gifted.

We track every student for eight years to help us determine what has worked, what hasn't worked, and when students seem to make the transition to employment. It was interesting to learn that the major transition seemed to happen five to six years after high school. Students may have been involved in college or vocational training, and some just plain goofed around for a while. Guess what? I think the same thing happens for sighted students. Transition studies that have been done in our country regarding disabled children often track students after graduation for only two years; I don't think this is long enough. What would the results show if we did the same studies on nondisabled students?

I'm not saying we don't have a problem with unemployment and underemployment, but what can we do to turn this around? I believe we are doing some of the right things at WSSB, but we could always be doing more.

Let me give you an example of empowerment and instilling confidence. John (a fictitious name) was a young child who was born deafblind. At a very early age he had a cochlear implant. He was fortunate to have parents who helped him receive good services before he came to WSSB. They were strong advocates for John and worked very hard at home in partnership with the programs he attended. However, he was not receiving a lot of training in blindness skills.

Over the years John grew and so did his self-determination and self-advocacy skills. When he was sixteen years old he received a second cochlear implant to assist with his orientation and mobility, helping him hear traffic sounds. Then, as a junior in high school, he received a guide dog from Leader Dogs, which has a program for deafblind individuals.

John loved animals, and in particular he loved to ride horses. His goal was to become a certified equine therapist (horse masseur). During his junior year WSSB's Braille Access Center, along with the Braille transcription program that WSSB helped create at our state's women's prison, produced all of his anatomy books in Braille with wonderful tactile graphics. Over the summer he took his exams and became certified as an equine therapist in the state of Oregon. However, he could not become certified in Washington because he had not gone through a college of massage therapy for humans.

John was frustrated. I told him, "Why not change the state law?" I was planting a seed. One day Senator Dale Brandland was on campus. I introduced him to John and said, "John, here's a person who could help you change the law." I was nurturing that seed.

Before the end of the legislative session, we worked with John on submitting written testimony and testifying in a formal hearing. As a result, the state law was changed.

Think about how empowering this was for John and the message it gave to the general public! A young person took charge of his own destiny. John was not only the first blind student to submit legislation to change a state law, but the first high school student I have known to do so. Senator Brandland said, "If you ever have another student that is interested in submitting legislation, I would be happy to work with them." John built an important bridge that helped him with his future, and he realized his dream.

John had a dream, but he didn't just dream, he became a "reality dreamer." By the way, John was one of those students who goofed around after he graduated from high school while he tried to find himself. He also loves music (percussion to be exact) and recently was accepted into the Berkley School of Music. As Paul Harvey would say, "Now you know the rest of the story!"

This is just one of many stories I could share with you about students gaining confidence and acting on their dreams. Our students have gotten involved in building a greenhouse, running our espresso service, working with staff in a coffee roasting business, providing volunteer services to the community, as well as powerlifting and downhill skiing. The list could go on and on. These activities are not designed to train someone for a specific trade or sport, but to help students develop the "I can" attitude that will help them the rest of their lives.

You may have picked up on the theme that success is not just based upon academics, but upon attitudes, expectations, and a way of life. It's helping children believe in themselves along with helping parents understand the capabilities of their children. It is really important for parents and educators to learn how to do with, and not for, a blind or visually impaired child. It takes time, but in the long run your child will be the winner because of your actions. However, when planting those seeds and nurturing your child, don't forget that he or she is a child first. Sometimes kids act goofy and do foolish things; this is part of growing up. Don't try to make little adults out of children. We all grow up too fast!

It truly does take a village to raise a child. When a child is blind the village becomes a little larger in pulling together the right people and the right resources. You are all part of that larger village. Glean what you can from those around you, for they are part of the expanded village that can help you and your child succeed. The NFB is one of many resources that you need to access in order to help your child move down the course that can lead to success. Helen Keller said, "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much!" I really like this quote because it speaks of partnerships and gets us dreaming about pulling people together toward a common goal and mission.

A number of years ago, we brought stakeholders together to discuss the future direction of the WSSB. As you can imagine, words that we kept hearing were, independence, success, positive attitudes, self-reliance/self-determination, and self-esteem. Some of the questions people asked were things like, How do we know we are reaching our goals? How do we measure success?

What came out of these important planning sessions were program changes on the WSSB campus. They included expansion of outreach services and the development of Braille production services, a statewide instructional resource center, statewide assistive technology services, community work experience opportunities, career development programs, 24-hour IEP programs, self-medication training, and accessible online learning options. Probably the most important changes were helping everyone realize the importance of setting realistic high expectations, assisting students to build self-confidence and self-esteem, and developing the skills students needed to succeed. This great experiment could not have been accomplished without the partnerships of hundreds of people throughout our state and country. We aren't yet where we would like to be, and we probably will never reach our ultimate goal, but I believe we have been moving down the right course and will continue to learn and improve with everyone's input.

Please continue to dream, but also encourage your children to be reality dreamers--those who work hard at making their dreams come true. Don't forget that children who are blind are children first. They need to have great childhood experiences that will help shape who they are and who they will become.

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