The Braille Monitor                                                                        November 2005


The Organized Blind and Education for Blind Children

by Allen Harris

Allen Harris
Allen Harris

From the Editor: The final presentation of this education panel was made by longtime NFB leader Allen Harris, who now serves as director of the Iowa Department for the Blind. Allen has served as a member of the board of directors and treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind and president of the NFB of Michigan. Before he became an administrator of state services for blind adults, he was a teacher, coach, and administrator in the Dearborn public schools. Here are his remarks:

It is an honor to speak to you this morning. I wish that what I had to say were a bit more upbeat, but, as you know, we in the organized blind movement always call it the way we see it. How many of you were with me outside the Department of Education building on May 26? [loud shouts from the audience] That event is destined to be like Woodstock, where a hundred thousand people were present, and three million claim to have been.

I am here today, not to find fault with the programs that have been discussed, like the one at PCO--I am delighted about that--but we know that the real story is Jordan. It does not matter (I don't mean it is unimportant), but it does not matter how many doctoral students we train or people with doctorates we have in services for the blind or in special education if, when Jordan shows up in the classroom, he cannot receive an appropriate education. That's the hard news.

Earlier this morning we honored the members who served in our armed forces in defense of freedom for this country, and we were proud to do so. I am here today to enlist you as foot soldiers in another army, one battling for freedom, opportunity, expectation, and achievement for blind children, and every one of you must help. Are you willing to help? [affirmative shout]

Let's talk about some of the things we have done and must do. The National Federation of the Blind is no stranger to the value of education; we are proud of what we have achieved by passing laws and by working, unfortunately all too often, case by case. But if we do not all enlist as foot soldiers in this battle, we will continue to see Jordan's story in every case. Many parents, like the Gilmers, work more or less full-time trying to ensure an education for their blind children that has challenge and expectation about it. What about the families that do not have the time, expertise, or understanding to do so?

Back in the days when an effort was made to corral all blind students in the schools for the blind--I guess that time did have the advantage that we knew where the students all were--the teachers made a fairly determined effort to be sure that blind students were literate. If I ever had confidence in that model, however, I lost it about forty years ago. Parents today do not want their blind children to be educated apart from their sighted siblings and friends. Today we in the Federation want to have blind students prepared with the skills to compete fully, not to pretend, but to meet high expectations. Pats on the back, certificates of achievement, and other empty commendations to blind students are not helpful. In fact, if we do not change this practice, we will lose a tragically high percentage of today's blind students. We in the National Federation of the Blind have a proud history of achievement on behalf of students. The Educational Testing Service no longer consistently denies blind students reasonable accommodations or flags their test results. Thanks to Peggy Elliott and others in this room, blind test-takers are often treated fairly. We have promoted Braille literacy through the Braille Readers Are Leaders program that reaches across the country. Encouraging students to take part in this program is something that our army must work at. Have you done everything you can to persuade Braille readers to participate in this contest? Only you can answer the question of whether you have done everything you could to help.

We understand the importance of Braille literacy. If a student cannot read and write, the rest doesn't matter. The National Federation of the Blind has fought to pass Braille bills in more than thirty states. Really no one else has worked on that effort.

In 1988, when I was president of the NFB of Michigan, with the help of Steve Handschu, Jim Gashel, and President Maurer, we wrote a Braille literacy bill. I expected that we would get it passed no later than 1989. When I left the state in 1999, it was still not passed, but it did pass the next year. On the other hand, I went to New York, and I wrote the bill one year and saw it pass the next. I have had both experiences, and they are equally effective. Ask yourself if you have done everything you can to see that the blind students in your state will be Braille literate, will be able to read and write efficiently. For years we were led down the dead-end lane of electronics and maximized use of low vision. I have nothing against using vision and certainly nothing against electronics. I am in favor of literacy for blind children. We have learned the hard way that concentrating on electronics and low vision to the exclusion of learning and using Braille effectively results in functional illiteracy.

You heard President Maurer and Dr. Zaborowski yesterday describe the model programs that we are developing at the NFB Jernigan Institute to challenge blind students and assist their teachers to set high expectations for them. These programs must be replicated and funded across the country. As foot soldiers we must see that this happens. We have to get these programs into the classrooms of all the Jordans out there. If we do not, we will fail this generation of blind students, but we will not fail.

What about texts on time? Who did it? The National Federation of the Blind. Within two years we will see blind students getting their text materials on time. That is a huge advance when we are fighting for the efficacy of Braille and Braille literacy.

I repeat: it is not that we have not worked hard for the education of blind children, it is that we have so much more to do. It is not that we are lacking partners of good will with effective programs and who support our efforts. But we face an urgent crisis. As foot soldiers in the Federation's army we must support blind children as they reach for freedom, opportunity, expectation, and achievement. We dare not leave the job to anybody else. We have seen what happened in the past; No Child Left Behind for blind children is an empty promise. In fact we are likely to fight even lower expectations and reduced opportunities for blind children than before it was thought up. It may be a clever slogan; it is not a grand idea, at least not for blind children.

Like our commitment to each other, our commitment to our blind children must be a promise that we keep, because we always keep our promises to ourselves. We have our history to show the way: the work of Dr. tenBroek, the brilliance and inspiration of Dr. Jernigan, the strength of President Maurer, and the efforts of the leadership we enjoy. The very least we can do is work for the blind children in our own communities. If you have participated in an IEP for a blind youngster, say aye. [audible chorus] Way too few of you. We must all participate in IEPs. Do you need to be a lawyer? [no] No, you need to have resolve, to find your voice and raise it. Don't worry about the cadre of professionals Carrie described. Who cares? All we need is our beliefs, values, and ideas. Our army can overcome any of their big groups.

Our history points the way that we must go. We are rightly proud of our current accomplishments. Yesterday's presidential report recounted great accomplishments. But as of this day we are on high alert. I ask each of you to join me as foot soldiers in this army. Our job is nothing less than guiding this generation of blind students to strive for freedom, opportunity, high expectation, and great achievement. Let's get busy!