American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention 2017 NOPBC CONFERENCE
by Denise Robinson
Introduction by Kim Cunningham: Dr. Denise Robinson is a teacher of the visually impaired. She founded Tech Vision to write lessons for teachers, parents, and students that can enhance learning through emerging technology. Please give your attention to Dr. Robinson.
I created Tech Vision because technology instruction will give you vision. I've been teaching for about thirty years. I often tell teachers and parents that they must always teach today what the child will need tomorrow. So what are the tools we need to use right now, and what are we expected to use in the years ahead?
Let's do some unofficial research and see whether it matches the real research. Say "Aye!" if you use a smartphone. [Enthusiastic chorus of ayes] Say "Aye!" if you use a Mac. [Scattered Ayes] Say "Aye!" if you use a PC. [larger Aye response] Say "Aye!" if you use both a Mac and a PC. [very small response]
You get the idea here. Top Pew research (I love that name, P E W!) says that 80 to 90 percent of respondents use a smartphone and a computer. The top computer that is used is the PC. It is used especially for the low-vision and blind child.
Apple did a phenomenal job with the Mac. It's a great machine, but there is better and there is best. Teach the best tool first, the tool that will do anything and everything—and that is the PC. Teach that first!
Please take clear note of what you just heard. The PC is the tool your child needs right now, and it will serve your child tomorrow. It takes years to learn that computer well, so start as early as you can. Taking on a high school student who does not know the PC is a bit like doing emergency room triage, where you're working to stop the bleeding. The student needs to learn the computer primarily and then focus on other educational tools. If you start with these kids really young, they can learn it all, and learn it well.
Your kids are amazing—but no one will know it unless they can use a PC inside and out. No one will know how brilliant your child is if he or she only uses an iPad or a BrailleNote, or if your child dictates the work to a paraprofessional.
Ideally, when a child is three years old, I begin instruction on Braille and technology. By kindergarten these students are doing all of the same work the other kids are doing. No extra help is required. They've got the skills they need.
Don't panic! You can start right now. I've taken on many high school students who only knew the BrailleNote or iPad or Mac. They were very limited by what they could do with those tools. If your child cannot do everything his peers are doing, with the same speed and efficiency, he's using the wrong tool. Possibly he has the wrong instructor.
Once a blind child sees that she can do everything the other kids are doing when she uses the PC, it will become her go-to machine. All others are supplementary. If a child can get a vision of who she is and what she can do, regardless of visual acuity, she will be unstoppable. But the blind child needs the right tech instruction and the right tool to bring out her brilliance.
Let me emphasize that I'm talking about the low-vision child, too. He also needs a computer. Typically our low-vision kids are the ones who are falling through the cracks. The PC computer and the smartphone are the primary tools your blind or low-vision child needs to learn. They are the tools your child will use to access the world—all of it.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm pretty passionate about this field. Why? Let me tell you my story.
I grew up with an incredibly strict father who ruled with an iron fist. We attended a church that did not believe in going to doctors. At sixteen I went into a diabetic coma. My mother was watching me die, day in and day out. If not for her bravery in standing up to my father and taking me to the hospital, I would not be speaking to you right now. My last memories were of gasping for breath at our home.
Years of total lack of care resulted in that outcome. Later I was scolded by family and church members for using insulin. Let me tell you—don’t play Russian roulette with diabetes!
During my last semester of college both of my eyes hemorrhaged. Since I had no idea how to function with little usable sight, I dropped out of school. I was in my twenties, and I had no blindness skills.
I varied between crying and being numb. I was broken—or at least I thought so. I did basically nothing other than going to doctor appointments and undergoing procedures. I was dependent on those around me.
Three months into my journey of dependence, my life took an unexpected turn. A friend asked if I wanted a change of scenery, so to speak—something different from sitting around the house knitting. She was taking night classes, and she said I could sit in the back of the room while she attended her lectures. So I sat in the back of a very large, noisy room and knitted away, listening to all the exchanges of conversation.
Suddenly the room got quiet. Then I heard prayer, and then someone started to speak about how good God was. The anger that poured through me was unspeakable. I swear, I had smoke coming out my ears! I stood up and spewed out the most awful, hateful words! Everyone became very quiet, listening to my condemnation of all they believed. When I was spent, the leader asked why I believed all that. Tears poured from my eyes as I retched up my past, the least of which was the hemorrhaging of my eyes and the need to drop out of college during my last semester.
With great loving kindness, the leader asked if the students could lay hands on me. Slowly, surely, hands were laid upon me one by one as each of the students prayed over the broken parts of my life and asked for the recovery of my sight. I was broken all over—a broken heart, soul, and spirit. Loss of sight was nothing compared to all of the other things that were broken in me.
You all probably want to know if I was miraculously healed when they were done praying. Did I get my sight back? I did not, not one iota! But I gained peace—an incredible peace that overwhelmed me. And a few days later I had a vision of what to do next.
I had no idea about training programs for the blind. Good grief, I'd never even met a blind person! I did know that I needed to go back to college, and I needed to develop blindness skills. I found a great blindness training program at the university. A friend helped me get into the dorm, and I began to study all things blind. I lived totally independently as I gained my skills.
All my books were on cassette tape. I used a very large cassette player, heavy enough to give me muscles from carrying it around. I also learned on an Apple 2GS—anybody remember that one? I carried my Perkins Brailler with me, and let me tell you, that thing is hard to pack! I rejoiced when the Braille ‘n Speak came along!
As my attitude changed, so did my life. As my perspective grew positive, what I had viewed as negative lost its power over me.
We all go through hard times. I bet just about every one of you could tell a story like mine. Those of us who gain a positive attitude can go forth and make change for ourselves and those around us. We may not have total control over our circumstances, but we always have control over our attitudes. Our attitudes determine what we can do with our circumstances.
I grew more powerful in my understanding of the blind world when I met a teacher named Ted Lennox, and then Fred Gissoni of the American Printing House for the Blind. Then I met Abe Nemeth, the guy who developed the Nemeth Braille Code for mathematics. They were great mentors, and they made all the difference in the world for me.
Ted Lennox was one of the most incredible people I've ever known. He was one of my first true teachers on how blind people can live and what we need in order to achieve our goals. Ted was my constant go-to person while I was in school. Fred was my go-to when I got a job. And Abe—well, he added to everything they taught me. I applied every principle they taught me in my daily life, and eventually in my career. It shaped the way I teach my students. I learned that losing my sight, which I thought was a bad thing, could turn into one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was finding great opportunities to change what it means to be blind.
Ted was sixty when I met him, over thirty years ago. Fred and Abe were up there, too. Ted taught blind students in his career. He also taught college-level classes on all things blind. As I gained blind skills, I wanted to become a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI). When I gained my degree I taught under Ted to gain more experience.
Our students had computers on rolling carts; there were no laptops back then! The students wheeled their computers around the school to do their work. They came to Ted and me a period or two a day to continue their blindness training. They did not get less work or more time than their classmates. They met the same standards that applied to all the other students. The only accommodations they had were Braille for reading and the computer for typing their work.
Ted taught us to memorize everything—shortcut keys, configurations, everything. I could remember a string of numbers fifteen or twenty digits long. I want to add a caveat here. Be careful of Siri! Let’s face it, we humans are lazy.
Ted grew up like most other kids. He rode bikes and fell down. He threw balls, got hit by them, got up, and kept playing. And yes, he had chores to do. He had beautiful blue fake eyes. He used the typewriter to output his work, and he read Braille books. He was taught by a TVI when he was young. No para, and no extra time—he did the work, just as requested.
In the beginning Ted did a lot of his schoolwork verbally. His TVI corrected all the mistakes he made in those beginning years. Then Ted learned to type. He realized he did not know how to spell or even type out a sentence.
When he got older, Ted was always the first person to try out new technology. He brought it back to our classroom. We all used it and gained the power to access the world.
Over the next ten to fifteen years, my sight slowly returned, still with deficits. But my vision of who I was and what I could do had become clear when I gained blindness skills in my twenties.
As I began teaching full time, I followed the principles I was taught. I saw kids break through the glass ceiling of what others thought the blind could not do. I wanted people to stop saying, "This is amazing!" My constant goal is to show everyone that these are just kids who use a computer, other technology, and Braille to access the world. When I've had students for a few years, their teachers expect them to do all the work just like everyone else. My students don't have a para or TVI beside them in class, but they get daily virtual instruction to teach them what they need to do on the computer. Blind and low-vision students in the classroom can text a question about a command they forgot and immediately get an answer. Daily tech instruction enables them to get their work done in the most efficient manner. Most of the time they work faster than their sighted peers.
These students learn to do their work using the most advanced skills in PowerPoint, Excel, Word, and Google. They can do it without long homework nights, or at least no longer than any other kid in class. They are able to access all parts of their education, and when they graduate they are ready for the world.
Recently I took on a high school student who was in advanced placement (AP) classes, yet he did all his work verbally, by dictating his answers. He could not spell or write a sentence on his own. Unfortunately, this happens all too often. Basically, the student's para had been doing all the work, and no one really knew that. The parents insisted that this boy take AP classes. Worse still, they insisted that he must get A's, or else!
The teachers were totally stressed out. They pushed the kid through, due to the parents' negativity and constant interference. That one parent took more of the teacher's time than the whole class combined. This situation also resulted in sighted classmates, teachers, and administrators viewing blind and low-vision students as hopeless, privileged, and unable to do the work. This boy had no friends.
I've had several students in this scenario. Even after four years of computer instruction and work on basic skills, they fail in college immediately. Some go back home and are still there.
One thing to keep clear is this: teamwork is essential! Willingness to work with your school district will result in positive outcomes at least 95 percent of the time. I've worked in some schools where a bit more pressure is needed, and sometimes parents have to apply it to show what their children can do. Your child may be the first blind person the principal ever met. Your attitude will determine how everyone in the school views the blind population from then on.
Research shows that placing a person next to your child to help her all or part of the time will undermine her confidence and her will to do things on her own. She will never learn to be independent. Eventually this plays out very poorly, adding to that nasty 75 percent unemployment rate for the blind. When you get the right technology instruction in place, the computer will allow your child to do everything the other students are doing. More importantly, she will gain confidence in herself as a person. She will know that she can contribute in the world. Friendships develop because others will come to her for help. Roles reverse as the blind student becomes the go-to person.
Once your child learns skills, if he refuses to do the work, let him face the natural consequences. If he fails, let him get a failing grade. Teach your child self advocacy, and slowly but surely back away.
I haven't mentioned orientation and mobility (O&M) yet. You can have the best academics in the world, but if you do not know how to travel well, that knowledge will do you no good. Get excellent O&M skills also.
Attitude determines aptitude. Like a plane full of fuel, a positive, hardworking personal attitude will fly high. It is our will, not our circumstances, that changes our path. As parents you are in the driver's seat right now. I know you may feel pressured as you try to figure out the right path. Just remember how this speech started. What was the most used technology? Remember the two main tools that your child must learn. Get him the best advantages in life that will help him reach his true potential. At a minimum it will take a computer PC and a smartphone. Start as young as possible, but jump in no matter where you are. Find an instructor to teach your child what he must learn. All the other tools are supplementary. The PC and the smartphone come first. Then your child can learn to use a notetaker such as the BrailleNote, followed by all else. Some of you already have figured this out, and some of you have less-than-ideal situations. Learn from the stories!
I wish I could tell you that all of the schools know exactly what to do for your child. They do not! Sometimes you must go out and find an instructor.
Without the right instruction, the right tool will collect dust or become a toy. Your child may learn to hate it, based on the bad instruction that made learning it a struggle. Do not get a tool without the right instructor!
Right now you will have to do the legwork to find a great instructor and to show the school what your child can do with the right tool. Even if you can only find someone to teach the basics right now, continue looking for an instructor with more advanced skills. Your school will hire that person, because most schools want to do the right thing. In the past eight years, since I've owned my company, I've only had one school outright refuse to do it. The result of your hard work will be a successful child who will go on to meet her potential. She will do everything she dreams of doing and more.
One of my students just emailed me. All my students have expressed this same idea as they realize how far they have come. Jordan emails,
I wouldn't even be writing this email if it wasn't for you. You have revealed to me that blindness is not a limitation, but rather an innovation and a form of self-expression in a unique and wonderful way. You have taught me to go beyond my scope and explore new things, and that nothing is too big or too small for me to accomplish.
This is what I hope for all of you. Go in peace. Find the people. Get the tools. Show your children that nothing is too big or too small for them to accomplish.