Collaboration: Free and Appropriate Education for Blind Students

By Sheena Manuel

Sheena Manuel is an outreach specialist at the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University.

Abstract

Collaboration is one of the many factors that contributes to the education and success of children, specifically children with disabilities. Collaboration among teachers, parents, and community members is an essential factor. However, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, which includes teachers, parents, related service providers, and community members, is responsible for the education of blind students. To ensure that blind students succeed in life, educators have a duty to build their blindness knowledge and share that knowledge with other key stakeholders, collaborate with experts in the field of blindness and in other fields relating to the education of students with additional needs, share standards and develop methods and strategies to promote success in the regular education classroom, foster community relationships to ensure adequate access, and develop professional growth plans for continual professional development opportunities. This manuscript presents guiding information for stakeholders in building blindness knowledge, being an effective team, and aiding student success in the regular-education classroom. The implications aid stakeholders in facilitating professional growth and knowledge about blindness as it relates to school-aged students.

Keywords

Public education, individualized education program, blind students

Collaboration: Free and Appropriate Education for Blind Students

Many factors contribute to the education and success of children, specifically children with disabilities (Vaz et al., 2015; Willis et al., 2016). Collaboration among teachers, parents, and community members is an essential factor for students to receive appropriate instruction (Goddard, Goddard, Kim, & Miller, 2015; Ronfeldt, Farmer, McQueen, & Grissom, 2015). When stakeholders collaborate to meet the needs of blind students, they can present innovative ideas, new skills, and address or adjust their misconceptions about blindness. Educational leaders and educators must create safe spaces for peers, parents, and students to question and understand their respective philosophies on blindness. These leaders and educators must also evaluate their philosophies and strategies or methods used when working with blind students and their families. Effective and efficient collaboration efforts among stakeholders may foster an increase in knowledge about blindness and the development of an effective team, which may lead to student success in the regular-education setting (Goddard et al., 2015; Ronfeldt et al., 2015). Without collaboration efforts, some students and families may experience the following scenario:

Scenario

A blind student lives in a small town where he is the only blind person. The student has repeated a grade, reads below grade level, and has some functional vision. The presence of functional vision makes it seem as if he can complete all assignments using large print. Despite his disability, visual impairment, his IEP does not include authentic assessments, the appropriate reading medium, or list a qualified expert in the field of blindness; however, the regular educator understands that the student works better with large-print materials. The parents are uneducated about blindness and know only one blind person: their child. Consequently, they are unaware of his right, which is stated in the IDEA, to receive braille instruction unless evaluation results determine otherwise (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004).

After conducting an evaluation, the school district learns that the student needs braille instruction as braille is the most appropriate reading medium. However, the school district does not have a qualified staff member to provide these services and is unaware of institutions or organizations that can offer instructional assistance. Therefore, the student will continue to read large print for the remainder of the school year with his nose to the desk, bent over, or head tilted, thus affecting his posture and potentially his attitude about academics and life as an adult.

Finding qualified staff members and educating parents on their child’s rights can enrich the lives of blind students. When providing a free and appropriate public education, administrators, educators, parents, and all involved will collaborate with each other and work toward providing accessible materials to students. Stakeholders in the field of education like teacher preparation programs will increase their efforts to multiplying the number of experts in the field of blindness and elementary and secondary public education. Along with these efforts, stakeholders need to collaborate to develop clear definitions and interpretations of “appropriate education,” as well as IEP plans that lead to success in the workforce or higher educational system.  

Building Blindness Knowledge

Some parents, schools, and community members may lack knowledge about blindness due to its low incidence and the limited availability of blindness information (Holbrook, 2015). What does the word blind mean when discussing students who have some functioning vision? How do blind people live and work? What are the skills needed to succeed after school? Where does training occur?These questions are often thought of by educators and the public when discussions arise in the educational setting; however, some blindness educators have limited experiences and resources to answer these questions thoroughly.

In an online nationwide poll, respondents across all ethnic and racial groups described loss of eyesight as the worst ailment that could happen to them relative to losing memory, speech, hearing, or a limb (Scott, Bressler, Ffolkes, Wittenborn, & Jorkasky, 2016). The process of overcoming the fear of the unknown starts with having faith that better circumstances are in the future. Blind individuals who view blindness as a burden may need experiences, opportunities, and proper training that promote a positive outlook on life. In collaborating with experts, parents, and students, educators can devise an appealing plan of action to ensure that blindness becomes a characteristic as opposed to a burden.

Accepting blindness as a non-defining characteristic requires people to change their thinking. All educators in the field of blindness do not share the same philosophy about blindness. Some experts believe that blind students can live an independent life, but these expectations often mean non-challenging activities or limited exposure to situations; other experts believe that blind students can live an independent life with expectations commensurate to all peers and have a wide range of exposure to different situations. The philosophy that drives this manuscript extends the word blind to encompass all individuals whose vision adversely affects their education and daily living skills. Blind individuals may have functional vision, light perception, or be totally blind. The word blind is not demeaning or a characteristic that is perceived negatively but embraced as a physical feature that requires stakeholders in education to reconsider the means of educating students in the P-12 setting. This paradigm shift reveals the lack of early interventions regarding braille and orientation and mobility instruction for students who have visual impairments or low vision. Blind is just another word when stakeholders are knowledgeable, receptive, and have personal experiences with blind individuals.  

Building blindness knowledge can assist educators in developing a common philosophy that blind students can achieve anything with the help of collaborating teachers, appropriate instruction/tools, and a wider variety of learning opportunities. When building blindness knowledge, all stakeholders have a responsibility to search for resources on the local, state, and national levels. Educators can build their knowledge through professional development opportunities and online publications. Parents can build their knowledge through IEP meetings and online resources such as state websites, publications, and support groups. Members of the community can build their knowledge through visiting local organizations and/or businesses that cater to this population. When collaborative efforts are presented, every stakeholder can provide their interpretation of information about blindness that they have gathered or offer their perspective from personal experience.

An Effective Team

Tannock (2009) stated, “collaboration requires a unique set of individual skills to develop a successful foundation for a working relationship” (p. 174). In the educational setting, an effective team will possess the set of skills required to ensure success in all areas of blind students’ lives. The team also needs unique skills to develop working relationships with other teachers, advocates, and local businesses to expand the opportunities of blind students. Each party plays a role and can share the common goal of providing rigorous educational experience for any student.

When discussing blind students, the collaboration must be voluntary between the service providers on the educational team. In the field of blindness, an effective team understands significant legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), which states:

…in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP team determines, after an evaluation of the   child’s reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media (including an evaluation of the child’s future needs for instruction in Braille or the use of Braille), that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for the child.    

An effective team must also be aware of significant research related to early braille instruction, braille reading as it relates to well-being, and quality literacy instruction (Koenig & Holbrook, 2000; Ryles, 1996; Silverman & Bell, 2018).

Appropriate instruction can promote independence and motivation among blind students. If educators create appropriate braille instruction, blind children are more likely to be employed and self-sufficient than those who do not (Ryles, 1996). Therefore, authentic assessments should drive the instruction provided by all service providers on the educational team. In developing an educational plan that matches a learning environment, service providers will conduct and explain the results of the assessments administered. Teachers of blind students will provide information about accessing the general education and expanded core curriculum. Orientation and mobility instructors will provide information about traveling at home, school, and in the community independently. Regular education teachers will provide information about core content knowledge, typical performance rates, and classroom routines. Parents will provide information regarding the behaviors and skills students display when in familiar and natural environments. Collaboration among these team members aids blind students in reaching the goal of literacy and independence.

Success in the Regular Education Classroom

Teachers must think creatively to appropriately teach blind/visually impaired students through multiple engaging experiences. Success begins at the foundational level if teachers understand how to get visual concepts across to blind students (Castellano, 2005). Furthermore, blind students need opportunities to experience common age/stage-appropriate activities within the regular classroom setting. Regular educators can develop ways to include blind students when they collaborate with teachers of blind students, orientation and mobility instructors, and service providers such as occupational/physical therapists. The team must gather ideas and respect each other’s knowledge base to develop creative ways to teach blind students.

Setting ambitious standards for student success is a model goal; if genuine collaboration is required among school leaders, teachers, and communities, then that serves the mutually beneficial goals of schools and communities (Harmon & Schafft, 2009). With creative ideas and multisensory methods, educators can develop an action plan that facilitates success in academic, social, and living skills. Moreover, educators can measure the success of blind students using the same standards as the students’ sighted peers. If a child is encouraged and expected to make progress, that child will have academic success (Castellano, 2005).

Accessible Materials

Success for blind students in the classroom starts with accessible materials. All materials, including worksheets, maps, pictures, and textbooks, must be provided in a timely manner and in an accessible format to foster learning in the classroom setting for blind students. Collaboration among team members can provide experiences and create an engaging environment; however, the student needs immersion in the appropriate reading medium just as their sighted peers experience immersion in print. Preparing accessible materials may require collaboration from a qualified transcriptionist, regular educator, teacher of blind students, materials center at the local or state level, and textbook publishing companies. However, the teacher of blind students is the primary person with the training on how to introduce and maintain the use of non-visual skills, manipulatives, and assistive technology; confirm appropriate formatting of educational materials per age/stage; and emphasize the importance of having materials in front of the blind students at the same time, if not before their sighted peers.  

Everyone involved must become aware of the print provided to those who have sight and consider what blind students need in relation to accessing the curriculum. If braille is the learning medium, braille is placed around the classroom and any other place blind students will visit. Establishing braille as the primary medium may encourage children to develop a positive lifelong habit of reading as adults, enhance their later employment opportunities, and thereby increase the possibility of financial independence (Ryles, 1996).

Community Access

Once the effective team has increased their blindness knowledge, redesigned the classroom environment for success, and provided the appropriate reading medium, they must collaborate with the community (blind and sighted) to enhance the experiences of blind students. The community, once aware of the needs, can come together and provide resources (monetary, service-related, internet access, networking events, etc.) to enhance the educational setting. The community, from the mayor to the small business owner to local educational institutions and organizations, must actively search for ways to become engaged with the local school district. Volunteering time, fundraising, and fostering student success through mentoring allows all involved to tear down barriers to promote improvement in student achievement and the quality of life.

Blind students need exposure to positive blind role models who are parenting children, participating in the workforce, or attending college. Surrounded by blind mentors, students learn how to live confidently, address common issues, and build a support group. Blind mentors can aid students to grow personally and professionally. With the collaboration of the community (blind and sighted) and school, blind students not only learn about the opportunities that exist beyond the 12th grade but can have a physical representation of life after school.

Professional Development

Tannock (2009) noted that educators can expand their knowledge by incorporating the ideas of others (general and special educators, supporting staff) to enhance students’ experiences. However, the effective team must regularly reflect and stay true to their philosophy and the end goal. When working together as a team in a school setting, experiences of resistance from others outside of the team occur often. People’s practices are often in conflict, and the reason for that conflict is that we make sense of our social world in diverse ways, which generates contradictions between our understandings (Riveros, 2012). Consequently, faculty and staff at the school and within the district need opportunities to talk about blindness and to reflect on theirown beliefs and common misconceptions. These opportunities range from faculty and staff meetings, seminars, conferences, and conventions on the district, state, and national level. School district leaders should encourage team members to attend these opportunities on a biannual/annual basis. Educators’ self-evaluation practices, professional growth plans, and flexibility should evolve to meet the needs of blind students in the 21st century.

Conclusion

In the field of education, IEP team members often lack information about the standards, methods, rights, and expectations of blind students. Blind students lack access to appropriate expectations, accessible educational materials, and qualified experts. An effective team’s plan to meet the needs of blind students will include creative thinking in the regular education classroom; access to the curriculum using the appropriate reading medium and learning tools; interactions with the community (blind and sighted) to build endless experiences; elevated expectations (comparing a student’s ability to all peers, sighted and blind); and professional development opportunities that enhance collaboration skills and introduce new skills, methods, and tools in the field of blindness. In providing a free and appropriate education to blind students, the key stakeholders must collaborate effectively and efficiently to ensure that students become independent contributors to our society, whether in the workforce or higher educational system.

Implications for Practitioners

  • Participate in team-building activities or regular professional development at the district level to help build relationships with team members
  • Hold regular team conferences aside from the annual IEP meeting to help the team maintain focus and adjust strategies as needed
  • Attend state and national conferences annually to stay abreast of current trends, strategies, and products in the blindness field
  • Join local organizations that focus on blindness/visual impairments to learn of current or future opportunities to interact with the community
  • Subscribe to journals, magazines, and other publications that discuss blindness/visual impairments to build content knowledge

Implications for Educational Leaders

  • Promote and attend annually state and national conferences related to blindness
  • Attend local consumer groups and professional organizations meetings to learn of current trends, legislation, and issues regarding the blindness community
  • Subscribe to journals, magazines, and other publications that discuss blindness to build personal blindness knowledge
  • Facilitate the growth and maintenance of a learning community among faculty and staff within their institution/organization 

References

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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004). Retrieved June 24, 2019, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statuteregulations/

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