Stronger Together: Raising Cultural Competency, Engaging Diverse Blind Mentors, and Advancing the Education Of Blind Youth; Monique Coleman, TVI, President of VISTAS Education Partners, Highland Park, New Jersey

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: Thank you very much to the mule and the rat for your update.  I really appreciate it.  We are going to move to a stronger together raising cultural competency engaging diverse blind mentors and advancing the education of blind children.  Professionals in the field.  We continue to raise the standard.  We say that if we won't teach them, if they won't teach them, we'll teach them ourselves.  There are a number of great educators doing work with the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.

As we think about the diversity of the blind community and we think about how to effectively raise expectations for students, we have to think about how we apply the work that we do and make it more diverse in new areas.  This educator is doing a lot of thinking about that. We've invited her here to talk about the work she's been doing.  She's been influenced by the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey.  She's president of her own educational group that works on providing services to blind children here for an educational presentation is Monique Coleman.

Education is the key 
To the future 
Education is for me
Yes, for me 
The future's mine and I'll take it 
I just can't fake it
Education is the key
To the future 

MONIQUE COLEMAN: Good evening, everyone.  I'm so honor and very happy to be here for my first NFB national convention.  These past few days have been so enriching and energizing for me.  I'm already getting hyped up about attending my first in person convention next year.

I want to acknowledge and give thanks to President Riccobono for the lovely introduction.  Thank you so much.  But for extending this right hand of fellowship during a conversation that we had.  I want to recognize my deeply respected colleague Natalie Shaheen for connecting me and President Riccobono. In our conversation, we talked about some areas of synergy between my work and interests as a TVI and NFB's connecting families of difference.  I appreciated that conversation because we connected in so many ways.  I look forward to many more discussions like it that will give rise to new collaborations that advance the learning opportunities and outcomes of blind children of all backgrounds.
I want to start since I know many of you may not know me.  I want to give you background about cultural and inequity.  I spent my early teaching years in general education, primarily working in early childhood centers in New York City, serving African, black American and Latino children.  It wasn't until I got to graduate school that I learned about and grew interested in the field of visual impairment education.  

I had decided I wanted to dedicate my career to working with underserved youth.  It wasn't difficult for me to make the transition to this field.  From one underserved population to another, essentially.  As I became immersed in my work, I started to draw some broad comparisons between the educational circumstances of the kids of color and predominantly poor and working class neighborhoods I had worked with prior to becoming a TVI and those faced by the blind students I started encountering in the field.  This is important because this ties into this conversation we're having about expanding opportunities and cultural diversity.

One observation I noted across both populations was the often unrealized potential of students who experienced lowered expectations and a look of rigorous, well supported learning opportunities.  This is often related to stigmatization and bias.  And schools that disproportionally impact families. A third common observation    the third ground I observed among both groups was the untapped strengths of culturally and linguistically diverse families particularly those who diverged from middle class norms.  Those speak to realities of the system that are the subject of a completely different segment of time.  Use a whole hour or day to unpack the inequities in our school system.I want to touch on them and weave them into this brief time together.  So you will hear themes reflected as I talk about advancing the blind youth.

With the footholds in low vision ed. coupled with my own schooling experiences as a child of the '70s who was this little black girl bussed across town to a wealthier and whiter neighborhood as a part of mandated school busing for integration, I am personally endeared to issues of equity, access and inclusion. But in the field of blindness and low vision ed., the critical issues are articulated with a singular focus on disability to the exclusion of a full interrogation of the way that race, class and culture and other individual characteristics shape our student's educational experiences and their opportunities from the assessment process to school and classroom placement decisions to instruction and certainly at the IEP table.
We already have national data albeit limited in scope and now a bit dated on the existence of racialized differences in reading and math achievement among blind and low vision students.  Long term federal study that documented the school experiences of more than 11,000 special education students as they moved from elementary to high school between the years of 2002 2006, race and gender had a significant impact on the sensory impairment categories.  African American and Latino students as well as those from low income families scored significantly below their white and higher income peers respectively on most measures of academic performance including Braille fluency.

Think about the long term consequences of these differences.

Another disparity found was that high school blind and low vision students of color use technology less frequently, specifically access technology less frequently than their white peers. Given the critical importance of technology and the implications it has on post graduate outcomes, this is worthy of concern. I do suspect the needle has moved on this digital divide since the study was done.  Certainly this past year, remote education has likely resulted in increased tech use across the board for blind and low vision students who can benefit from technology.  Anecdotally, the National Homework Hotline which is a volunteer driven service and the volunteers are comprised of low vision adults themselves, we organized the hotline last spring when school started shutting down and we noticed early on that we were receiving calls from students as old as middle and high schoolers who were receiving their first laptop or iPad or Braille display.

I don't know why the students didn't have the devices sooner.  There could be different situations but I count these new tech acquisitions as one of the great silver linings of the pandemic induced remote education.  However, we need new research in our field that looks at technology use among blind students so we can get a handle on the extent to which digital disparities may exist within this population. If we don't recognize and understand a problem, we can't work to solve it.

I raise these disparities not to be a downer during this extremely positive and uplifting week.  I'm here to advocate for an intersectional approach to the education of blind students and engagement with their families.  I've been listening to a lot of the presentations and talks during this convention and I know this is work that the NFB is already doing with your amazing advocacy groups and so I'm really focusing on the educational piece.

So this entails    I talk about intersectional education    it talks about race, class, gender and other identities intersect and overlap with disability to cause further educational inequalities.  Taking an intersectional approach doesn't take anything away from the important work that we educators do and advocates as well to improve blind student's access, inclusion and outcomes relative to their sighted peers.  We do really great at that kind of advocacy work and we should not take away from that.  But rather having an intersectional approach allows us to effectively work to ensure that blind children and youth of all backgrounds have equal educational opportunities.  All about rising together. Let me give you one case in point to help demonstrate why an intersectional approach is so important and shouldn't be seen as this peripheral need.

A low vision student from an immigrant household in a low income neighborhood had significant English as a second language or ESL and blindness low vision related educational needs when he started school.  They weren't being adequately met in his local public school.  That's to put it gently. By the time the student turned 14, he was in a specialized school for students with multiple disabilities.  He had, at this time, a low kindergarten level Braille skills.  Even the evaluator acknowledged should be interpreted with caution, the student had a low I.Q. score.

On the other hand, get this, despite having no quality ESL or academic language arts instruction over the years, by the time the student was 15, he was able to fluently speak English, Portuguese and Spanish.  When I met the student, when he was a teenager, I knew that the profound learning and communication deficits that I was reading about and that he was apparently having in school did not reflect his true potential.  It was clear to me that he just didn't receive the learning opportunities that he needed to develop academically.  The student did eventually begin a rigorous Braille instructional program with a TVI that was grounded in his interest, his languages and his lived experiences within his close knit family.  It aligned with the national order of contractions method.  Casey did wonderfully describe and present earlier this week on.
After two years of this kind of instruction that was more responsive to the student's needs, and was more rigorous than he had experienced before, he progressed to the point where he was able to read and comprehend third grade level contracted Braille.

He also learned how to use technology, screen readers, Braille display, reading and writing and he developed early computational skills.  He still has a lot of learning to do.  But he continues to make progress and wonderfully enough, he now has professional postgraduate aspirations. Now in addition to the more rigorous instruction the student received, he also embarked on a more engaging approach to family involvement.  One that affirmed and tapped into this family's strengths rather than bemoaned their perceived limitations.  A parent cultural inventory revealed which aspects of the family's home and community life, their work experiences, immigration history, that was built into the student's academic program.

For example, the inventory revealed his mother was a great cook and she was do a lot of dinners and meals in their community for friends and neighbors.  So she visited the class and led a cooking demo featuring traditional foods.  And with the support of an interpreter, she was able to interact with all of the students and answer their questions.  This activity allowed the mother to be valued as an expert in the classroom.  Despite the fact that prior to that point, she was just seen as another parent who didn't quite    was kind of on the margins of the school system.
And this opened up opportunities for more meaningful home school connections across social class and cultural lines that hadn't previously existed between the family and teachers and staff.

In this case, effectively working with families includes reciprocity.  It involves educators becoming aware of our own deep seated beliefs and practices.  Often which revolve around the mainstream dominant American norms or European norms.  It involves understanding family's cultural beliefs and values.  What are their beliefs about disability and independence for their child?  What are their hopes and aspirations for their child?  What are their previous experiences with education?  Especially if they were educated in another country and how is that different from the educational system their student is now immersed in?

And then having the thirdly, we want to have open discussions of our differing beliefs so that educational plans can be developed that mesh with the family's beliefs and values.  It is not uncommon for educators to attempt to execute, for example, ideas and this is common with TVIs, will execute ideas and goals around independent living and traveling that don't jive with the norms of a family that's more commune orient and interdependent focused.  This can be frustrating for the professional. These fruitless efforts can be avoided so that they're more meaningful within the family's cultural context.
This requires being an educator and a learner at the same time.

One last area I do want to touch on related to applying an intersectional approach to the education of blind youth pertains to scholarly research.  Specifically, we need studies that are based on samples or participants that are representative of the diverse, racial and economic demographics of blind youth and their families.  I can't tell you how many studies I've read about inclusive education that don't specify the demographics of the population that were involved or when they do acknowledge that, there was an underrepresentation of diverse families.  That's something we have to change.  Those of us in the field, we know it.  It just has to be done.  In this way, we can better serve families that are diverse and by understanding their needs.

We also need to think about doing more research that actually centers the voices and experiences, perspectives of diverse, racially diverse families and students.  Their needs are not being adequately reflected in literate.  When that doesn't happen, it is hard for us educators to adequately understand their needs much less meet them.  These are things I'm look forward to contributing to in my doctoral research and in my collaborative efforts in the field. In closing, I do want to emphasize    and this is not news to most of you in the room    but I want to emphasize that advancing the education of blind and low vision learners in schools that weren't designed for them, requires educators, administrators and policymakers who work to interrupt ableism and all of the other “isms” that result in the under education of far too many blind students and disproportionately impact those who experience marginalizing identities.  It is a both/and proposition.

This is the good kind of trouble I embrace as a TVI and in that respect as President Riccobono said, I feel completely at home here amongst the NFB convention and members here.  I know I'm in like minded company and among all of you and I know NFB is doing such great intersectional advocacy and inclusion and equity work.  Onward together we.  Go thank you so much for listening and having me here on this national platform.

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: Thank you very much, Monique.  Stronger together.  We appreciate you and we love making good trouble.  Keep up the great work.  We look forward to working with you on these projects in the future.