Future Reflections        Convention Issue 2013

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Sand and Shoelaces
The 2013 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award

by J. C. Mushington-Anderson

From the Editor: The Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award is one of the highest honors conferred each year by the National Federation of the Blind.  In 2013, this honor was bestowed upon Jackie Mushington-Anderson, a teacher of the visually impaired in Maryland and the creator of the first NFB BELL Program.  On Wednesday, July 3, she addressed the meeting of the board of directors of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.

Jackie Mushington-Anderson holding her awardIn a small schoolroom, a young girl sits disengaged from the lesson that is being taught. Although her seat is close to the front of the room, she cannot see the math examples being worked on the chalkboard. The words on the page of the textbook that the teacher has placed on her desk appear to her as marching ants.

As she sits there, she peers at the picture on the book cover, a bucket and shovel on a beach. She begins to analyze the picture. A question pops into her head, "How many grains of sand are present on the beach? How many grains could I hold in that bucket?"

This is my earliest memory of school. My road from that early experience to now has been windy and twisted. From Sands to Shoelaces!

In preparing to speak with you today, I have struggled with what I could say to inspire you, what could ignite you. What could I share with you that would make a difference? After many revisions of some very lofty, academic speeches, I am left simply with my story.

My story is made up of many chapters. Like some of you here, I was a blind child. I am a blind adult, and I am a blind professional. I am a wife and now, like most of you, I am a parent, the parent of a blind child. In sharing my story, my goal is that each of you sitting here may be able to envision and embrace the innumerable possibilities that await your child, your child's bucket of sand.

As I mentioned earlier, I was unable to see my regular printed textbooks while I was growing up. After many discussions among teachers and administrators at that little school, I was enrolled at the Salvation Army School for the Blind in Kingston, Jamaica. There I was immersed in learning many skills.

It was at the school for the blind that I was introduced to Braille. It was there that I learned to make my bed. It was there that I learned to be a competitor in academics and in sports. It was there that I learned to tie my shoes. I am not sure whether the teachers or the house parents there at the school ever could have concerned themselves with the statistics of today. The statistics here in the United States tell us that 70 percent of employable blind people are unemployed and that only 10 percent of blind children are taught to read Braille. I do know that they, as well as my family, held the same expectations for me as for any other child my age.

When my family emigrated to the United States, the recommendation was for me to attend my local school. The assumption was that, because of my residual vision, it was not necessary for me to continue instruction in Braille.

Without Braille, I was not able to achieve the academic levels that I was capable of obtaining. The problem was not because of my blindness, but because of my sight. I had to rely on large print dittos and listening to my classmates read to me from the regular print textbooks. I was forced to produce illegible handwritten assignments. Slowly, I began losing my love of school.

A pivotal moment for me occurred during my junior year of college at Clark Atlanta University. It wasn't until then that I realized I was just passing. I was just existing. I was terrified. I realized that I did not possess the skills and confidence I had pretended to have mastered. Over the years I had really perfected the art of passing.

I did not travel at night by myself. I convinced myself that it was not because I could not see, but because it was not safe. Even with magnification, it was difficult for me to do any sustained reading. I did not know how to use a reader effectively to assist me in conducting research for my many term papers. I did not know how to take my own notes in Braille. I did not know how to obtain accessible textbooks in Braille or print.

As a future elementary teacher, I realized that if I wanted to offer my students the best, I truly had to be my best. This was a critical reason why I decided to attend the adjustment to blindness program at the Colorado Center for the Blind. At the CCB I realized that I did not have to pass. I learned to use alternative skills that would truly allow me to be a competent woman. I was taught many different nonvisual skills. Some of them I now use to prepare new recipes for my family. I learned to use alternative skills of travel. Using these skills last summer, in the space of three weeks, I took my daughters and goddaughters on a trip from Maryland to the Braille Challenge in Los Angeles; to visit family in Jamaica, encountering an unscheduled layover in Florida; and ultimately, back to Georgia. I was able to navigate through busy airports, city streets, and many other unfamiliar settings with the skills and self-confidence that I had gained.

While I attended the Colorado Center, I was reintroduced to Braille. Though I remembered some letters and contractions, it was as if I were starting from scratch. What I gained most of all was my self-confidence. I truly learned how to believe in me.

So, how did I end up standing here before you today? As I mentioned earlier, I am a parent of a blind child. Shortly after my daughter was born, we discovered that she had cataracts. After several surgeries to remove the cataracts and correct the strabismus, we were left with uncertainty about her vision and the long-term health of her eyes. Instinctively, I began to draw upon my early experiences at the Salvation Army School for the Blind, understanding the importance of early immersion into the skills of blindness. I set out to seek the assistance of the "experts."

For two and a half years, we worked with a phenomenal early intervention teacher. As a blind person, I knew what I wanted the end picture to look like for my daughter. As a parent, I wanted to ensure that she had a future filled with endless possibilities. However, I was uncertain of the small steps that were necessary to get her there.

At every visit, I bombarded Ms. Abby with questions. She was patient. Through simple play, she introduced my daughter to concepts that were out of her sight. Ms. Abby worked with us through all of our concerns. She had the same picture in mind of my daughter's future. Her goals were my goals and my goals were her goals.

Ms. Abby encouraged early exploration. She encouraged age-appropriate movement. When we discovered that Aunya was tactually defensive to certain textures, she would not accept my explanation that it was because she could not see. She understood the importance of Aunya learning to rely on her hands to explore her environment. Ms. Abby had learned that this was a critical skill that Aunya needed long before she ever learned to identify the dots in a Braille cell.

My decision to become a teacher of blind students was solidified by two major events. The first occurred during one of the early transition meetings that was held with the TVI from the local school system. During this meeting the TVI informed me that, based on his expertise, Braille instruction was not needed. Deciding that this was not acceptable, I joined several other parents who were facing similar obstacles. We set out in search of a change. This is how the first BELL program began in Maryland during the summer of 2008.

With funding and support from the Maryland affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, I worked with Jackie Otwell, a teacher of blind students. We set out to design an early Braille literacy program modeled closely upon an early literacy program used for my older sighted daughter. Our thought was that the standard literacy skills for blind children should be equivalent to those for sighted children. The knowledge I had gained over nine years as a classroom teacher had shown me the importance of developing early literacy skills.

During that first program, we immersed our nine BELL students in a wide variety of activities that focused on nonvisual exploration. In addition, we worked with each student on developing Braille skills. It was magical!

The philosophy that guides the instruction I provide to my students has taken shape through the experiences of many years. One of my fundamental beliefs is the importance of early immersion into Braille for all students who are blind. By blind I mean anything from low vision to total blindness.

Since 2010 I have had the privilege of working as a TVI in an elementary resource room with a group of wonderful students. I have seen the results of hard work on my part, but most importantly on the part of my students and their families. Within the resource room Braille instruction is implemented as early as possible. The students in our preschool program all receive instruction in Braille. It is easy to discontinue Braille instruction if it is later determined that Braille is not necessary, but it is harder to play catch up.

When planning a student's educational program, I utilize a variety of tools. Each year I review and update each student's functional vision and learning media assessment. Working with each of my students, their parents, and their teachers, I also complete the Expanded Core Curriculum checklist. With these results as well as my observations, I make recommendations for instruction for my students. Though my recommendations sometimes go against the norm, I always side with being proactive rather than reactive.

Throughout the school day, the other TVI in the program and I work with the general education teacher to meet all of our students' needs. Along with instruction in the literary Braille and Nemeth codes, we provide our students with instruction in all areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum for blind and visually impaired students. My goal is to empower my students to take ownership of their learning. I provide them with guidance and instill them with confidence in their skills.

Many of the skills that I teach my students are seamlessly integrated into the general education routine. Earlier this year we encouraged two of the students to apply to the mock NASA Space Team. This is a prestigious program for the school's fourth and fifth grade students. As a result of being selected, the students were required to read the Flight Operator's Manual. Braille, print, and digital recording all were options. We found this to be a natural opportunity to introduce the use of a handheld digital recorder as well as a human reader.

The culminating activity of the space program was an overnight stay in the Shuttle. This was a wonderful opportunity for the students to test some of their life skills. All of the students had to be responsible for their own belongings. They had to provide their own self-care. Should we have expected any less from our blind students? Of course not!

Just as important as instruction in Braille and adaptive technology are the other compensatory skills of blindness. In the spring of 2011 I worked with several teachers to start Parents Connect. This group of parents, family members, or anyone who works with students with visual impairment meets once a month to share questions, concerns, knowledge, and everything in between. We have covered such topics as cooking without looking, self-organization, so what after graduation, adaptive technology, Braille for the sighted, leisure activities, and much, much more. We have taken the students rock climbing, bowling, skating, and out to dinner. The topics that are covered are generated by the needs of the family participants. Through this group, we work collaboratively with parents and family members on supporting the development of all the skills that are necessary for the students.

Let me share a final story with you. Earlier this spring my youngest daughter excitedly ran to my classroom, declaring that she had completed kindergarten. As she bounced up and down, she said, "I am ready for first grade, Mommy." When I asked her why, she plopped her foot on my lap and replied, "See, I can finally tie my shoe without any help." In her young mind this simple task represented the completion. It was her final task. She was not concerned with the many other skills that she had gained over the year. Being able to read a book or write a story was not as crucial. Learning her left and right or learning how to add or subtract did not factor in her equation.

As parents and teachers, we must teach our blind children to tie their own shoelaces--that is, to become self-sufficient. For a blind person, that end goal may include being able to have a career and/or raise a family. They must master many skills before they are able to reach that goal. It is critical for each of us--parents, educators, and any other stakeholders--to understand the importance of each skill. Learning to pick out one's own clothes, learning to use eating utensils, being able to swing on the monkey bars, taking care of younger siblings, being able to communicate with others appropriately are just as important as learning to read or write effectively in Braille or to use the latest and greatest piece of access technology.

In the end, if we are diligent in providing our children with all the age-appropriate skills, they will have innumerable possibilities available to them.

Like the innumerable grains of sand on the beach, innumerable possibilities await your child, if she or he learns all the skills that are necessary for work and participation in society. If you envision the sands of opportunities in your child's future, let's ensure that your child gains all the skills to seize them. Help your children learn to tie their shoes!

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