Future Reflections        Special Issue on Advocacy

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Weapons of Meaningful Education

by Carlton Cook Walker

Carlton Cook WalkerFrom the Editor: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a crucial piece of legislation regarding the rights of children with disabilities. When used effectively, it is a powerful tool to ensure that blind children receive a free and appropriate public education, as Carlton Cook Walker explains in the following article. Carlton Walker serves as president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC).

When I tell parents that I am both an attorney and a teacher of blind students, they usually respond, "Wow! You must have a great IEP (Individualized Education Program) for your daughter!"

"No," I tell them, "unfortunately I have to fight the same battles you do." Like all too many parents of blind and visually impaired children, I have fought to make certain that Braille is available for my daughter and that it is valued by the school staff. I have had to insist that my daughter's technology be accessible and effectively implemented, and I have had to ensure that her right to keep and use her long white cane is not abridged.

Too often, parents feel that special education is an unending war. As in all wars, there are no winners; each side merely fights to lose less than the other. In this scenario, administrators pull out their artillery, educators put on their armor, and parents prepare to launch guerilla attacks. The IEP becomes a contrivance of misdirection, an implement of obfuscation, and an engine of inaction. In the midst of this mayhem, the greatest casualties are the children.

Luckily I have found some secret weapons for this warfare--weapons that I now share with you. I call them weapons of meaningful education, or WMEs. I have utilized these weapons in my roles as parent and professional educator of blind children.

Successful IEP teams focus on the true purpose of the IEP, as defined by the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). By focusing on the underlying purpose of the IDEA, the IEP team members are armed with weapons of meaningful education.

Getting the IDEA

The IDEA is the federal law that creates and defines the Individualized Education Program, or IEP. It sets forth eligibility criteria for students and minimum requirements for schools as they create and implement IEPs. However, before any of these matters is addressed, the IDEA sets forth both Congressional findings about special education and the purposes of the law. First I will discuss the portion regarding Congressional findings.

First portion of Congressional Findings:
20 U.S.C. Section 1400(c)(1):
Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

First portion of Congressional statement of IDEA purpose:
20 U.S.C. Section 1400(d)(1)(A)
Purposes.--The purposes of this title are: to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.

Congressional Findings

First, let us explore the findings of Congress. These findings spurred the creation of the IDEA and, thus, the IEP. By examining the reasons IEPs are needed, we can create IEPs that meet the needs of our children or students. Congress recognized the value of "ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities." 20 U.S.C. Section 1400(c)(1). Essentially, the IDEA seeks to ameliorate as much as possible the effects of disability on an individual's ability to reach his/her maximum potential in school, in employment, and in life. Disabilities are natural and need not be debilitating. Yet, when disabilities are treated as grossly abnormal by the majority of society, the disabled are either coddled or shunned. The effect in either case is isolation and lack of achievement--human potential unfulfilled. Through the IDEA, Congress sought, and seeks, to bridge the divide between disabled and typically-developing students so that all may enjoy the opportunity to succeed.

Next, the purposes of the IDEA lend further support to the principle that special education is designed to provide disabled students with a more even playing field so that their hard work may bear fruit. The law recognizes the need to meet the "unique needs" of disabled students in order to "prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. Section 1400(d)(1)(A). Again, the IEP is meant to serve the student. IEPs are meant to meet unique needs related to the student's disability. They are meant to provide these students with the knowledge and the tools to achieve their potential in school, in employment, and in life.

What Does This Mean for My Child?

The objective of the IDEA is clear. The IEP is merely the tool used to carry out this mission. However, time and bureaucracy have shifted attention away from the student's future. Instead, other concerns are often at the forefront. These concerns include funding, staffing levels, competency of personnel, attitudes toward blindness tools and techniques, low expectations, and overprotection resulting from fear of legal liability. None of these concerns is the focus of the IDEA, where the student and his/her needs take center stage. Development of the IEP should focus on the student's current and future academic, vocational, and independent living needs. The student should receive education and training designed to minimize or eliminate the impact of the student's disability. This is the purpose of the IEP. This should be the focus of the IEP team. This is the major weapon of meaningful education.

Putting Theory into Action

We have explored what is needed--a concentration upon that which is needed to minimize the impact of the disability and maximize the performance of the student in all aspects of life during and after school. The next question is how. Tap into the hearts of the educators and administrators on your student's IEP team. Though the pressures of their positions may be clouding their judgment, you can help them rekindle their love for teaching. You can lead them to intensify the impact of their professional talents by focusing on the needs of the student.

As a preliminary matter, convey that individualization does not mean diluting the curriculum. The content to be taught should, to the maximum extent possible, mirror that taught to typically-developing students. Though the presentation of the academic material may require alteration (Braille transcription, tactile graphics, etc.), the content of what is taught should remain the same. While this concept is simple and straightforward, in terms of real-life implementation the devil is in the details.

All too often, regular education teachers fall into the trap of thinking about what they teach rather than why they teach it. In addition, teachers of students with blindness/visual impairment may find themselves so focused upon blindness skills that they miss the important job of ensuring that blindness/visual impairment does not impact the content of the education that students receive. Parents often feel so overwhelmed by fighting for blindness skills training and so under-informed about regular education content that they are not sufficiently equipped to fight daily curricular battles. Once again, the students lose.

Common Core Standards

Take heart, fellow warriors! There are additional tools in the arsenal. The first is a set of reading and mathematics standards for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, the Common Core State Standards. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted these standards for the minimum levels at which students in each grade are expected to perform. (Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia have not yet adopted these standards, and students in these states will meet the state-adopted standards.)

The mission statement illustrates the premise that these are minimum standards all students will need to meet in order to succeed after they leave school. "The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy." From "Implementing Common Core State Standards," <www.corestandards.org>.

These standards provide an objective standard that all students should achieve (unless other intellectual disabilities prohibit the meeting of these standards). The methods by which students gain access to content are not relevant. The standards serve as a valuable tool to direct all educators to teach the skills necessary for the achievement of the tasks described in the standard.

For example, let us examine a reading standard for first graders: "Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text." (From "English Language Standards, Reading: Literature, Grade 1," <http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RL/1>.) In order to meet this standard, the blind student must have a variety of skills. The student must be able to read contracted or uncontracted Braille tactually at a first grade reading level, which would include at least the whole uncontracted Braille alphabet. The student must be able to understand the Braille formatting used for each text feature listed, and must be able to read the text with sufficient accuracy to allow for comprehension such that "key facts or information" can be identified by the student. Thus, an IEP that does not provide at least this skill level is not designed to allow the student to meet these standards. Thus it short-changes the blind student from the regular education his/her sighted peers are receiving. It does not matter what blind students have done in the past; these standards set forth the minimum "free, appropriate public education" that the IDEA requires.

Mathematics is an even bigger concern. Many teachers of blind/visually impaired students have been taught that students should not learn the Nemeth Code used for math in Braille until after they are fully fluent in contracted literary Braille, which often occurs between second and third grades. However, a quick look at the kindergarten mathematics standards illustrates the fallacy of this educational theory: "Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (such as 18 equals 10 plus 8); understand that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones." From <http://www.corestandards.org/Math/Content/K/NBT>. In order to meet this standard, our blind kindergarteners need to be able to read and write Braille numbers tactually (including two-digit numbers), and they must be able to read and write operations symbols such as the plus sign and the equals sign. Holding off on this instruction means holding our students back--and that is not acceptable.

As if this weren't good enough, we have yet another weapon of meaningful education, an arrow striking at the heart of the educational needs of our blind students. Educators in the state of Maryland, with the assistance of various stakeholders, including members of the Maryland Parents of Blind Children and the Maryland affiliate of the NFB, crafted the first and only Common Core Standards for Braille readers (<http://mdk12.org/instruction/commoncore/braille/index.html>). [See Melissa Riccobono's article elsewhere in this issue.]

Focusing on the Content

The key to success in the day-in, day-out education of a mainstreamed blind student is teaching everyone involved to focus on the content that is being taught rather than the method of teaching. As mentioned above, the Common Core Standards assist in this endeavor, but they are only the beginning. All professional educators involved with the blind student must start to think in terms of content rather than task.

For example, consider the “word find.” A word find is an array of individual letters with spaces between them. Students are asked to connect the letters--horizontally, vertically, diagonally, forward, or backward--to form words. In either print or Braille, word finds are not especially meaningful from an educational standpoint. In fact, many schools have "outlawed" word finds due to the lack of educational benefit they provide. Usually, word finds are used to introduce or reinforce vocabulary for a particular unit. Instead of insisting that a Braille reader engage in this activity, a more meaningful and useful activity might be to have him/her use the vocabulary words in sentences or in a paragraph. If familiarization with vocabulary is the instructional core, no one should have qualms about modifying the delivery system in order to reach the instructional goal.

Even a highly visual concept such as color can be addressed effectively for students with blindness/visual impairment. What is the purpose of teaching colors? As a preliminary matter, color names are largely taught for organizational/categorizational purposes. In later years, colors grow in importance from labels to literary symbols. The ability to see colors is not important for any of these purposes. In the early years, labeling and categorization can be accomplished by alternate means. Different textures can be used in place of colors whenever colors are used for instructional purposes. Literary connections with various colors can be explicitly taught as a part of the regular education curriculum.

Lessons Learned

Once the IEP team can acknowledge the core educational skill at issue, modification for instruction of visually impaired students becomes far clearer and easier to implement. All students, no matter their disability, are entitled to a free, appropriate public education under the IDEA. By focusing on the content to be taught, barriers to the instruction of blind students melt away, and this federal right can become a reality.

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