Braille Monitor                                                    October 2009

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The Demand, the Crisis, the Solution in Education for the Blind

by Edward Bell

Dr. Edward BellFrom the Associate Editor: Dr. Edward Bell, director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, delivered the following remarks at the 2009 NFB convention on Wednesday, July 8. We can only hope that his call to action and recruitment plea will help staff positions in blindness education across the country with high-quality teachers and administrators. Here is what he said:

A statement I have always found particularly profound has been ascribed to the renowned geologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He said, "I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."

To me the profundity of this quote is in both the painfulness of its truth and the number of generations for which it has been true. It is sad, and its magnitude and scope are beyond our comprehension. It is equally valid for the centuries of blind people who have wasted away in sheltered workshops, institutions, and rocking chairs across the world. Is this merely a true reflection of the best we can hope for the blind?

If dependency is not preordained, then to what can we attribute the 90 percent illiteracy rate and 75 percent unemployment statistic that exists in America's blind community? The problem is multifaceted, but we can exercise some control over at least two aspects of it. First, a large percentage of those who are hired to teach blindness skills do not possess proficiency themselves or the expectation that blind people can achieve real independence. Second, no national standard or benchmark exists that can be used to hold school districts, agencies, and universities accountable for the skill deficiencies of teachers. Although these problems are pervasive, solutions are at hand, and many individuals are working to resolve them.

One of the factors that has contributed to the 10 percent literacy rate of the blind comes from the inconsistency across the country in the preparation of Braille teachers. This problem is systemic because some university programs provide rigorous training in the Braille code while others do not. Some states have stringent certification and licensure requirements for teachers of the blind while others have virtually no standards. Some agencies and schools demand that teachers be highly qualified while others do not. Some teachers are passionate and ensure that their own skills be exceptional, yet others lack this same passion.

The National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and others created over the last twenty years the National Literary Braille Competency Test (NLBCT) to address this lack of consistency. Through a partnership with the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB), the NFB, and the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, a National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB) has been developed and is now available.

The NCLB is a national certification based on the NLS Braille examination that tests the applicant’s proficiency in literary Braille. This certification process serves to identify Braille teachers who are competent in Braille and those who are not. Those who are proficient will become credentialed with the NCLB and will be highly sought after by employers. Those who fail the test will not be demeaned, but they will be assisted in improving their skills to the extent possible. When all is said and done, however, teachers who cannot demonstrate a professional grasp of the Braille code will not be credentialed, and they will find it increasingly difficult to become employed to teach blind people.

Already more than 150 individuals have taken the exam, and slightly more than half of them are now credentialed. This has not only added to their own value as employees, it has also strengthened the entire blindness education field. We intend to continue pushing the NCLB as the national standard for all teachers who work with the blind to promote literacy.

We know that only 10 percent of blind youth read Braille, but we also know that youth who receive appropriate instruction in Braille are as literate as their sighted peers. Similarly we know that youth with significant vision impairments who are not given consistent instruction in Braille fall far behind in literacy skills when compared with their sighted and blind peers who receive consistent training. We are obligated to hold teachers accountable for this fact and to raise nationwide the standard for professional preparation.

The NCLB will go a long way towards helping to address the 90 percent illiteracy rate for blind people. But this is not enough. We need you. We need to identify, train, and hire the next generation of teachers who have the passion, dedication, and proficiency to teach the next generation of blind youth and adults. The problem is not lack of opportunity. Each month I receive phone calls from employers across the country who are desperate to hire cane travel and Braille teachers. I am sad when I have to tell them that I do not have any graduates to offer them. We are not maxed out. We have space at the university. Our classes are typically at half or one quarter of their capacity. Every month we send out a lot of brochures, electronic flyers, and notices on listservs. We do a lot of networking at national conferences and by word of mouth. Yet, despite these efforts, the number of people seeking to enter our programs is dismally low.

Why is this so? Are people afraid of graduate school? Are they afraid of standardized tests, their lackluster transcripts, or the year-and-a-half commitment that it takes? Or is it even deeper than this? Does it partially stem from a deep-seated belief that working with the blind is charity work, unrewarding, and a last resort if other plans don’t work out? I don’t know the answer. I don’t know why we struggle to attract students into our programs while general education programs are over capacity. We offer tuition assistance while many others do not. We offer more one-on-one instruction while in other programs some students are just a number. We hold high standards for students, but we also provide many levels of support. No, I don’t know why attracting people to work in this field is difficult. But I do know that, as the demand continues to grow for people in this profession, the supply continues to dwindle.

Fortunately there are many opportunities for everyone to contribute to this effort. Louisiana Tech University offers master's degrees in O&M and teaching blind students, but we offer much more. We are committed to reversing the statistics for blind youth and adults. In addition to the staff of the Institute on Blindness, we have with us this week the students from the Louisiana Tech programs and more than a decade's worth of our alumni. We are here because change is here, and we want to be a part of that effort.

For more than a decade we have offered a graduate degree in structured-discovery cane travel. Those individuals have earned national orientation and mobility certification (NOMC) and they are working in agencies and schools from coast to coast. This program remains strong and vibrant, and all that we are missing is you. We know the value of preparing people at the graduate level, and we need to get people interested in our programs. Is that you?

Of course not everyone is able to go to graduate school, and we know that it does not take a graduate degree to be a great teacher. The Louisiana Tech program was built on the consumer-driven approach to cane travel, and the NOMC certification was based on the same philosophy. Consequently the certification board has recently formalized the apprenticeship program, and one can now gain the training and certification necessary to teach cane travel. While this program does not supplant academic requirements where they are required for employment, the apprenticeship training and credentials are sufficient to obtain meaningful employment in many agencies.

The teachers of blind students (TBS) program at Louisiana Tech University has been in existence for more than six years, but we have worked to teach Braille to people for much longer than this. The TBS program is a master’s degree, complete with student teaching and certification requirements. In addition Dr. Ryles remains passionate about the importance of Braille, and she has built her program so that parents, family members, and paraprofessionals can gain the same competency in the Braille code. Here again all that we are missing is you.

Because of the inconsistent training nationwide, an entire generation of well-meaning teachers who believe in Braille but who have underdeveloped or eroded Braille skills are in the classroom. As a result we are launching a Braille training program that will refresh the Braille skills of those who have learned previously. The goal of this project is to raise the skill level of teachers enough to succeed at the NCLB examination and, once they are certified, to maintain this proficiency throughout their careers.

Yet another area of great need is on the level of leadership. Irrespective of the qualification of staff, we are all limited by the creativity, commitment, and knowledge of our supervisors. For better or worse this is one area where academic training will make the difference in the field. Many of the brightest and most talented people in work with the blind do not possess college degrees, and many of the most clueless and ineffectual people I know do have college degrees. Inexorably those with the advanced academic degrees secure the management and leadership jobs. We, that is, those who truly understand blindness, need to be in those leadership positions. Yet without the academic degrees we will continue to be at the mercy of the less informed but better credentialed masses. In the most eloquent words of Mahatma Gandhi, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.” No one else will do it for us.

As you sit and listen to these speeches, I know that you are troubled by this problem, and I know that you are passionate about reversing this trend. Yet what will we all do next week to address this crisis? We need you--not just the person sitting next to you, but you yourself. We can no longer step aside and assume that others will do the work. We cannot afford to shake our heads at the grim statistics while we sit back passively. We cannot proclaim that this is essential work that must be done now but wait for someone else to do it. We cannot pretend that, because we know the truth about blindness, this belief will result in real change; we cannot because we have the knowledge--the knowledge that the statistics remain unchanged. These statistics tell us that the demand remains high while our classrooms remain empty. Simply believing in the solution is not enough. We must be committed collectively to taking the actions that are necessary to address this problem.

I am not asking you to quit your job tomorrow unless you are unhappy with it or unless my words have moved you to some divine purpose. But how many of you are not working? How many of you would love to teach independence to blind people but are intimidated or concerned about your ability? How many family members, friends, and neighbors do you have who would find this work life changing if only they knew of the difference they could make in the lives of others? The opportunities abound. The need is ever-present. All we need is you.

What will you do tomorrow to help? What responsibility do you have as a person to help rectify this crisis? What collective role do we all share in reversing the dismal statistics? I for one am far less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops. I am equally certain of the truth in this statement for past generations of blind people. What will we do collectively to ensure that this is no longer the fate of future generations? Come and join us to make a difference in the lives of blind children and adults today and for the future.


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