Future Reflections        Convention Issue 2013

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How High Can Tomato Plants Grow?

by Janna Stein

From the Editor: Janna Stein is a teacher of the visually impaired in the Chicago suburbs. She gave this presentation at the 2013 board meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC).

Janna Stein with a young friend, Angel, taken in MexicoI'm a teacher of the visually impaired in Illinois, and my mom is Debbie Stein, who is sitting here in the audience. I learned that my mom is blind when I was about three. My mom has told me the story. I wanted her to look at a toy, and I said, "Here, look at this." She reached out her hand to touch it, and I said, "No, look with your eyes!"

She said, "No, I can't; my eyes are broken."

I said, "Okay, I just fixed them. Now look." [Laughter.]

My mom said, "You can't fix them. They're always going to be broken."

Then I said, "Okay, here." I handed her the toy and called it a day. From then on I didn't bother to insist that she look with her eyes, because I just wanted to get to the fun. I wanted to get to whatever we were doing.

As I got older, I began to notice when people treated my mom differently or treated my family differently. Sometimes people would stare at us. Sometimes at a restaurant the waitress would hand the check to me, a seven-year-old girl, rather than to my mom. There were countless times throughout my childhood and adolescence when we were offered unnecessary allowances or when people scolded me for not helping my mother when I was off playing and being a kid. But I can honestly say that these incidents never made me feel upset or embarrassed. Those people seemed to think that my mom was in some way defective, but I didn't feel that way. I knew even as a kid that they were wrong and I was right. [Laughter]

My mom was the one who taught me to tie my shoes. She taught me to bake cookies, and she took care of me when I was sick. She was the all-knowing, all-powerful mom that every kid has. So when people treated my mom as though she was incapable, I did not internalize that. I knew those people just didn't understand. They had not been exposed to blind people.

Since my mom has been involved with the NFB, I was able to meet many other blind adults when I was growing up. This contact really helped me understand what blind people are capable of doing. Also, knowing so many blind adults as I grew up was important in helping me build my confidence. I knew I was not the only kid in the world who had a blind parent, and that made it easier for me to deflect any negative or unnecessary attention that we received in public.

My father was the one who originally suggested that I might like to teach children who are visually impaired. My mom never pushed me toward a career in vision. I think she didn't want to pressure me and make me feel that I had to follow in her footsteps. I did look into other areas of special education, but ultimately I decided to take my dad's advice. I pursued a triple master's in teaching the visually impaired, orientation and mobility, and vision rehabilitation. [Applause]

I began my first job as an itinerant teacher of students with visual impairments last August. I was given a diverse caseload in terms of ages and needs. To give you a sense of the kinds of students I had--one student was totally blind and had a high number of weekly minutes with the TVI in his IEP. I had a six-year-old student with low vision who functioned cognitively at a much lower level than his chronological age. I had several students with low vision whose acuities were well above the 20/200 designation of legal blindness. They mostly required instruction in the use of magnification devices.

With each of these students, and with many others whom I didn't describe, my background and experiences with my mom and with other blind people played a role in how I taught and what choices I made about my students' education. Having a blind mom and knowing all that she can do provided me with a vital frame of reference as a teacher. By example my mom had always shown me that a disability of any kind does not signify a limitation on what one can do. With training and modifications, people who are blind or visually impaired can get around independently, take care of a household, pursue higher education, have a career, all the things my mom has done and many more.

So if one of my students is having trouble traveling from class to class in his high school, I'm not willing to jump immediately to the conclusion that he needs someone to accompany him to his classes. I know blind people who navigate independently. I have a kindergarten student with low vision who's reading large print, but I'm not sure how useful print is going to be for her in the future. I know many blind people who use Braille, and I see how fast and effective they can be with it. That experience of seeing how blind adults use their skills really has influenced my expectations of my students.

My mom's example influences my approach to working with all of my students, including my children with multiple disabilities. Because my mom and the other blind people in my life have exceeded the sometimes low expectations of others, I'm more likely to aim high when developing my students' goals. I feel it's always better to provide a student with the chance to prove his teachers wrong and raise their expectations rather than assuming that a goal can't be reached before allowing the student an appropriate amount of time to master a skill.

Notice that I say "an appropriate amount of time." That doesn't mean the teacher should give the student one or two tries and then say, "Okay, he couldn't do it." This is something I've really learned from my mom and other blind people. It came up last spring when the NFB of Illinois put on a seminar for teachers and parents of blind children. Patti Chang, the president of the NFB of Illinois, mentioned that there's kind of a one strike and you're out approach toward blind people when they're learning to perform a new task. There's a real overreaction when blind people make mistakes. One example I heard at the seminar was the experience of a blind child learning to pour water from a pitcher into a glass. When he spilled water on the table, the reaction of the adults around him was to discourage him from pouring water ever again. If a sighted child spilled water in the same way, it's highly unlikely that the reaction would be so extreme.

Change the scenario to a blind child learning to peel or chop potatoes, learning to use a knife. If the child cuts herself in the process, it's even more likely that adults will discourage her from learning to use a knife. The greater the perception of danger, the higher the level of discomfort about letting the blind child learn a particular task. But honestly--who hasn't cut herself or spilled water? If we were all discouraged from trying those tasks ever again, I don't think any of us would be very competent today.

If I can convey one thing with this presentation, I wish to express how important it is for TVIs, O&M specialists, and other professionals to get to know independent blind adults. This exposure will provide professionals with a frame of reference about what to expect from their students. Imagine if you planted some tomatoes. You try to anticipate how high they will grow, but you've never seen a fully grown tomato plant. If your plant grows six inches or a foot, you might think that's great, not realizing that it could grow much taller. It's a silly metaphor, but I think it illustrates my point. If teachers, or parents for that matter, don't know any blind adults who are independent, fully functioning people, it will be vastly more difficult for them to determine what to expect from their students or children.

The NFB is an amazing resource for teachers because it is full of blind people who are self-assured and unlimited by their visual impairments. Programs such as Teachers of Tomorrow and seminars such as the one I mentioned earlier are important ways to get teachers more involved in the NFB. Unfortunately, I think sometimes the NFB sees negative examples of TVIs. The NFB is often called in when parents are at the end of their rope, when something terrible is going on at school. Maybe their child isn't getting Braille instruction, or the school isn't allowing the child to use a cane. So the NFB witnesses a lot of negative situations. I really hope that through these programs, more good and dedicated teachers will become involved with the organization. I think it's a fantastic resource for us.

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