Future Reflections Special Issue on Advocacy
by Heather Fritz
From the Editor: Heather Fritz is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor in Wisconsin. She is also the mother of seven children, six of whom are blind or visually impaired. In this article she writes about advocating for blind children from the perspectives of both parent and teacher.
When I went to China to bring home our daughter, Katie, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that Katie was six years old and totally blind, and that she had been living in an orphanage in Inner Mongolia. When I got to China I was told that a social worker would bring Katie to meet me at the airport. Conditions at the orphanage were so bad that I would not be allowed to go there. I wondered what Katie had experienced, and what it would take to instill her with confidence and a sense of her own worth.
At the airport, I found Katie and the social worker waiting for me. The social worker explained that they had arrived early and had been there for twelve hours. Katie had refused to leave the airport during the long wait. She was afraid that if she left, the social worker might take her back to the orphanage. She was determined to meet her new mother and set off for the United States. In that moment I saw the strength of Katie's character and realized that she had begun to advocate for herself as best she could.
As I made the final arrangements to bring Katie home with me, I noticed that the social worker was very anxious about her ability to move around. She insisted that Katie count her steps everywhere she went, as though she could not travel safely unless she knew the precise number of steps she had to take. Katie seemed eager to move and explore, but she was being hindered constantly by the people around her.
We got home on August 14, and Katie entered school two weeks later. She had already picked up enough English to make her wishes known, and her transition to an American school went more smoothly than we had expected.
I grew concerned, however, when I met with Katie's TVI. At our first meeting, she explained that her goal was to teach Katie several letters of the Braille alphabet during kindergarten.
"What are the reading goals for the sighted kindergarteners?" I asked, turning to the classroom teacher.
"By the end of the year I expect them to be reading three-letter words," the teacher said.
"That's what Katie will be doing," I told the TVI. "Katie should be reading three-letter words by the end of the school year. Whatever her classmates are learning, she's going to learn it, too."
Right from the beginning we introduced Katie to the NFB. She attended her first state convention that October. Our student division reached out to welcome her and put her to work folding fliers and delivering door prizes. We took her to her first national convention that July. Federation philosophy was a natural fit with Katie's feisty personality.
We gave Katie a cane as soon as she got to the U.S., and she caught onto its use right away. She was thrilled to be free at last. No more counting steps! Her O&M instructor told us Katie had better cane skills than many fifth and sixth graders.
A few months into second grade, Katie told us that the driver of the school bus refused to let her sit in the back with her sisters. She was the only totally blind child on the bus, and he deemed it necessary for her to take a seat in the front. That evening my husband, John, and I talked with Katie about how to handle the situation. We encouraged her to devise a plan to fix the situation herself, but we assured her that we would be right behind her, there to support her.
The next morning John and I were there to watch Katie board the school bus. Before the driver could tell her where to sit, she walked confidently to the back and took a seat next to her sister. The driver began to say something, looked at us standing at the bus door, and didn't say a thing. From then on, Katie was as free as the other children to sit where she pleased. She had won the first of many battles, and she had won the battle herself.
Today, as a seventh grader, Katie is a very strong self-advocate. She handles most situations on her own, and they never even come to our attention. However, at the beginning of this school year, we found it necessary to intervene on her behalf. The issue was physical education.
The school's PE teacher, who was new to the district and had never worked with Katie, believed that activities in phys ed class were becoming too complex for her. In particular, he was concerned about her ability to take part in team sports. He was quick to point out that he was also certified to teach adaptive PE. He stated that the school had a big, beautiful room filled with specialized equipment. He proposed removing Katie from the regular class and allowing her to go to the room alone, where she could work out using a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise machines.
When we met with the PE teacher, we suggested we look at the purpose of team sports in school. We told him we were under the impression that team sports were offered as a way to teach children to work together and to help them learn the rules of the game. We pointed out that a seventh-grader's participation in sports doesn't have to be about winning. My husband and I also made a point that we didn't want Katie to be separated from her peers. Most importantly, we didn't want Katie to think she couldn't take part in these sports.
The teacher argued that Katie's participation would involve too many risks. Besides, it would be impossible for her to take part in such games as baseball, which call for hitting a ball and running on the field. We said we expected him to teach Katie the rules that the other children were learning. We also suggested a number of ways for Katie to play along with her classmates. She could use a ball that gave an audible signal. When she had to run bases, she could run to a sound source or run with a partner. By taking part in the regular PE class, Katie could learn about baseball firsthand and could share in the fun and excitement as a member of the team.
Eventually the teacher gave in. "If you think there's a problem with Katie playing a sport, come to us," we told him. "Between all of us, including Katie, we can come up with ideas for modifications." We also told him that many times Katie knows what will and won't work. We told him just to ask. So far PE has worked out fine.
As a teacher of blind and visually impaired students, I practice the same philosophy that I follow as a parent. I work to make sure that my students are expected to achieve the same goals as their sighted classmates. I insist that they learn the skills that will make it possible for them to keep up with their peers. Sometimes I find myself in an adversarial situation with my colleagues and supervisors. A prime example was my work with a fifth-grade student named Lee.
When I was assigned to work with Lee, I reviewed his file and learned that he had a progressive eye condition. His vision was 20/600. Nevertheless, he was being seen by a TVI twice a year, only on a consulting basis. He had no blindness skills, no Braille or magnification, and no cane.
The school didn't consider Lee to be blind, but he had been labeled a behavior problem. When I insisted that he receive services due to his visual impairment, the director of special education told me, "You work for us, not for the student!"
I requested a functional vision assessment and an orientation and mobility assessment for Lee. The assessments were done at the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (WSBVI). It turned out that WSBVI had assessed Lee four years before, when he was in first grade, and had recommended that he receive daily TVI services. When I called a meeting to discuss Lee's new assessments, the special education director declared, "This kid isn't blind! I know what blind is! I'm blind myself without my glasses."
I suggested that Lee's behavior problems resulted from the fact that he couldn't keep up with his class due to his low vision. Once he learned the skills he needed, his behavior would probably improve. The special education director was so angry he stopped the meeting. He couldn't bear to have his authority challenged.
The school didn't believe that Lee needed a cane. After I saw him fall down a flight of stairs, I convinced the school that he needed O&M services as a safety measure. When he started to use a cane, some of the other boys liked to grab it and drop it down the stairwell. The principal tried to brush the problem aside with the old cliché about "boys will be boys." I pointed out that a cane dropped from the third-floor landing was a projectile that could hurt someone badly. I also pointed out that the boys' behavior was bullying, and that it could jeopardize my student's safety. The principal spoke with the boys, and the problem ceased, at least for a time.
Getting help for Lee was a long battle. We heard a series of promises, but real change was a struggle. By the time he started to receive the services he needed, fifth grade was well underway. He began to catch up with his classmates, but he should never have been allowed to fall behind in the first place.
Lee is now a high school senior. He earns A's and Bs, and he is making plans for the future. He hopes to attend a technical school and become an auto mechanic. He will be the first person in his family to graduate from high school.
Teachers and parents sometimes say that children can't advocate for themselves, or that a child is too young to advocate. I've discovered that children can be very effective. Even our six-year-old, Jake, can say, "I can do that myself," or, "This will help." As adults we have to be careful how we word our requests. Kids may not be tactful, but they say what needs to be said. When a child says, "Let me do that, too," or "I don't like getting treated like a baby," grownups need to listen. The child gains self-esteem when she or he learns to speak up. Children must learn that they have a voice and that what they say really matters.
Self advocacy is a skill that blind children will need to use throughout their lives. The sooner they master it, the better off they will be.