Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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Spheres of Influence
Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award

by Casey L. Robertson

From the Editor: At the meeting of the NFB Board of Directors, Cathy Jackson presented the 2012 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award to Casey L. Robertson of Mississippi. Casey later addressed the NOPBC board, describing her work and her philosophy of teaching.

Casey RobertsonIntroduction by Cathy Jackson: The Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award is a very important award that we in the National Federation of the Blind have established because of our belief in and hopes for our children. This year's recipient has the ability to teach, but first and foremost she has the heart, the spirit, and the philosophy of a true Federationist. She is a natural TVI. Our winner was a student of Dr. Ruby Ryles, and Dr. Ryles gave her a glowing report. I would like to present this beautiful plaque and a check in the amount of one thousand dollars to Casey L. Robertson.

I'd like to read the inscription on the plaque. It says, "The National Federation of the Blind honors Casey L. Robertson, Distinguished Educator of Blind Children, for your skills in teaching Braille and other alternative techniques of blindness, for graciously devoting extra time to meet the needs of your students, and for empowering your students to perform beyond expectations. You champion our movement, you strengthen our hopes, you share our dreams. July 2, 2012."

Casey Robertson: Thank you for honoring me by letting me address such a wonderful group of parents today. I am very honored to be this year's Distinguished Educator of Blind Children and to be here with you, the parents of blind children. You are your child's first teachers. There are many great teachers of blind students out there. I have learned from great teachers such as Ruby Ryles, Krystal Guillory, Amy Phelps, Kristen Sims, and many more.

I like to think that God brought me to teaching. The NFB brought me to the proper attitude, provided excellent training, and taught me how to provide the chance for blind students young and old to achieve their dreams of being independent. I want to share with you today some of my teaching experience and some of my thoughts.

Change is one of the most feared processes at any time of life. People fear change almost as much as they fear blindness and Braille. It is human nature to resist change. However, as Federationists, we must embrace the process of change to move forward and make the dreams of our students come true.

In our nation, general education and the education of blind students are in a crisis. Other populations of students are in even greater crisis--our children with low vision and those with multiple disabilities. I believe that the crisis is due to the stigmas and misconceptions attached to blindness and the belief that these students are simply meant to lag behind.

I also believe there is another reason. I believe that part of the crisis is due to the fact that parents and teachers are often caught up unknowingly in what I call the "bystander" effect. That is, the more people involved in a situation or process, the less likely anyone is to step forward and try to create change. Everyone thinks that someone else will do it. Outside the education setting, if a person collapses on the street, it is statistically proven that the more people present, the less likely it is that a person will step forward and provide help. People wait for someone else to take charge.

The National Federation of the Blind is an organization that helps parents and teachers overcome this phenomenon. NFB and its parents' division, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, offer an abundance of knowledge, expertise, and assistance in the change process.

Change starts with one person, one idea, or one need. Recently in Mississippi we saw the need for a change in our state's Braille bill. For seventeen years, professionals and parents in our state had been restricted because our Braille bill ensured only minimal services for our blind students. This situation was unacceptable. We, as the NFB, do not accept minimal standards. We want the standards to be high. We want great services for our kids.

After many parents unsuccessfully attempted to receive services and books for their blind children, they wanted to sue the Mississippi Department of Education. As lawyers looked at the existing Braille bill, however, they realized that our Department of Education (DOE) was meeting the very minimal standards that the law required. One parent, Wingfield Bouchard, and I looked at laws around the country. We discovered that Mississippi had the weakest Braille bill of any state. We rewrote the bill over a single weekend of long hours. The legislative team at the National Center for the Blind read the proposed bill to make sure it was acceptable. After making a few small changes in wording, the National Center endorsed the bill and we set out to find a sponsor.

Within a week, through a friend's connections, we secured the sponsorship of Rep. Tom Miles, a freshman Democrat who was eager to learn more. We did not seek help from the Department of Education; it had used its influence to weaken the previous bill. When our bill was introduced to the legislature, we had bipartisan support, with a lead sponsor and twenty-two cosponsors.

We went directly into a full-blown effort to educate the senators and representatives about the needs and realities of blind students in our state. We knew we had to educate these elected officials before they could truly understand the issues. Working with the state parents' group, we held informative luncheons where kids read Braille and spoke about their needs. We sent out emails every other day with facts about blindness. We gave out treats that had facts and statistics listed on them. Parents made photo collages of children reading Braille and children who had been denied Braille instruction, struggling to read print with their faces pressed to the page. We made a must-see YouTube video of two students, "House Bill 960." Here is the link: <www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvI_IhdzytY>. We included the link in every email we sent to senators, representatives, and the media.

The Department of Education soon found out about the bill. On the next to last day that the Education Committee was in session, the DOE used its influence to pressure the committee not to bring up the bill. However, we already had drawn up friendly amendments to make compromises with the DOE in order to keep our bill intact.

Then, after all of the compromises and agreements were made, the DOE submitted an alternative bill to the Senate with weaker language. Once again the bill said that students "may" receive services instead of "shall" receive services. The DOE bill passed in the Senate. Due to our efforts at education, the House refused to accept the "may" language and replaced it with "shall." Minor changes in wording can mean the difference between a weak bill and a strong one, the difference between services and no services. Our bill also ensured that students would receive research-based assessments to determine print or Braille as the primary reading medium. It required that they will also have access to books and curriculum materials at the same time as their sighted peers. HB 960, the Blind Persons' Literacy Rights and Education Act, passed in the House and the Senate. It was signed by the governor on April 24, 2012, and on July 1, 2012, it went into effect.

Our bill did not require any expenditures from the state. However, as a connection, we made sure that funding was added to another bill to provide for better training for teachers of the blind and visually impaired. This change was created by a simple idea and the desire for excellence for our children.

It is critical for parents to be informed on issues affecting students. Don't expect your teacher of the visually impaired to inform you on everything your child needs or on current issues in the field of blindness education. Not all TVIs have been trained to believe that blind students can be independent and that low-vision and multiply-disabled children can succeed using Braille.

In a forty-year study conducted by Klingenberg, Fosse, and Augestad, researchers found that of 248 blind students being studied, only 114 were at the appropriate grade level in math. We know that students who are taught math in a format such as Nemeth Code, in which they can write down math problems, are more likely to be on grade level than those without such a tool. Robert Jaquiss, Access Technology Specialist with the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, says he believes that less than 10 percent of blind and legally blind students are learning Nemeth Code for math today. Jaquiss suggests that the other students are being taught to do math orally or are being denied access to the math curriculum altogether. This is in direct violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides for a free and appropriate public education for all students. Jaquiss noted that, without being able to write math down with Nemeth Code, he would not have attained the level of math to become employable at his current job.

Right now a question is about to be voted on by the Braille Authority of North America (BANA). It is the consideration to change the way our students learn math. These facts might be of interest to you when considering if your child is on grade level in math. Amato (2002) examined colleges and universities that prepare teachers of visually impaired students. She found that of thirty-seven universities and colleges, 22 percent provided no training in the Nemeth Code, and 24 percent rated their training in the Nemeth Code to be inadequate (p. 145). DeMario (2000) surveyed two hundred teachers of the visually impaired to find out their competency in Nemeth Code. The results showed that 81 percent of the teachers believed they needed more training and should have had a course on Nemeth Code in their training to become teachers of visually impaired students (p. 9).

BANA wants to move away from the Nemeth Code. It proposes to adopt a new Braille code for mathematics as part of the newly developed system called UEB (Unified English Braille). Parents and teachers need to know about this very important issue and to give their input to the BANA board. This is a place where parents can use their unique sphere of influence to create change.

As an individual, you have a sphere of influence that is unique to you, unlike that of anyone else in the world. You may share friends or acquaintances, but your sphere is unique.

I am different from some teachers because I have grown through knowing great leaders and teachers in the NFB. I have always held the belief that every child can learn, that every child should attain his or her highest level of language and literacy. One child's learning may not be the same as that of the student next to him or her, but we owe it to each child to set high expectations and to facilitate the best level of literacy within that child's potential.

Parents, I beg of you today, never believe that your child cannot learn! Please use your unique sphere of influence to teach the people around you that your child can learn and become the individual that he or she is destined to be. Don't get caught in the bystander effect. Don't wait for change, CREATE IT!!!

I will end with this quote from Dr. Marc Maurer: "If we expected every child to be a genius, we would pour our very best education into every child." Expect the best from your children. I do!!!

REFERENCES

Amato, S. (2002) Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 96:3, p. 145.

DeMario, N. C. (2000) Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 94:1, p. 9.

Jaquiss, R. Personal communication, May 28, 2012.

Klingenberg, O. G., Fosse, P., Augestad, L. B. (2012) Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 106:2, p. 94.

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