Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2010

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Educating Blind Children
Changing the Paradigm

by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

Fred Schroeder addresses the ConventionFrom the Editor: On Thursday, July 8, 2010, NFB First Vice President Fred Schroeder, a research professor at San Diego State University, gave the following address:

No minority emerges from subjugation to equality in a single moment. The move from oppression to freedom, from isolation to full participation, from segregation to integration is agonizingly slow, marked by long periods of hopelessness until the crushing weight of injustice becomes unbearable, forcing a shift, shattering the familiar, the accepted social order, the status quo.

Years ago I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson. Its opening lines struck a chord, taking me back to the time when as a teenager I became totally blind. The poem begins: “I'm Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody--too?" These words captured the despair and sense of futility I felt at that time. I knew with the certainty of the condemned that I was nobody and would be nobody for as long as I lived, a nobody, living according to the dictates and charity of others. But I was wrong.

In 1940 a handful of blind people came together to found the National Federation of the Blind. They came together to advocate for themselves, rejecting society's belief that the blind were nothing more than a community of nobodies. Today, seventy years later, we have made unimaginable progress, yet our work is far from over. We continue to struggle, continue to press forward toward full participation.

Nowhere is the struggle for equal opportunity more urgent than in the education of blind children. Blind children continue to suffer gaps in literacy; gaps in math and science; and, more troubling still, gaps in confidence and hope for a productive life.

In 1975 Congress enacted Public Law 94-142 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act), now codified as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This was an important step forward, affirming the right of blind children to “a free and appropriate public education”--good as far as it goes--but the problem is that the law establishes a separate standard for educating children with disabilities, including blind children, a standard based on a deficit model, a model that assumes that blind children are society's nobodies.

Special education law presumes that blindness (or the presence of another disability) automatically limits the child's ability to learn like others. Consequently the law requires that services be provided to help compensate for the child's limitations, the child's deficit. Of course the hope is that special education services will make a difference, but the underlying assumption is that the blind child will always be behind, unable to keep up and certainly unable to excel--a deficit model, a model based on the assumption that blind children are nobodies, nobodies standing off to one side, looking on, yearning to be a part, forever denied true equality, true integration. Perhaps I am being harsh, but, when you examine special education law, you find that the schools are absolved of any real responsibility for a blind child's educational achievement.

Every deficiency is presumed to be the consequence of the child's blindness. No matter how far behind, no matter how limited the child's academic performance, the deficit model assumes that blindness must be the cause. The schools face no consequence for poor training, poor services, or low expectations. The deficit model embodies the condescending assumption that the child is doing the best he or she can (given his or her limitations), and of course the schools are doing all that is possible to help.

It is true that the law requires the schools to provide special education services, but the type and amount of those services are almost exclusively determined by the schools. The only accountability is for the schools to provide what they have agreed to provide. That is all.

To change this condition, the schools must be held accountable, accountable for providing the tools and training to enable blind children to achieve on a basis of equality with their sighted peers. Next we must secure for every blind child the right to literacy, true literacy and that means the absolute, unquestioned right to learn and use Braille. But, you may ask, don’t blind children already have that right? Did we not fight for and win that right more than a decade ago?

It is true that in 1997 we, the National Federation of the Blind, were successful in persuading the Congress to amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to make Braille the presumed reading medium for blind children. Specifically, the law reads, "(iii) 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 (Individualized Education Program) 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." 20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(3)(B)(iii)

Once you cut through the legal jargon, the meaning is plain: The local school district is to "provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP team determines” otherwise. Yet, when the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations implementing the 1997 amendments, it completely nullified the presumption of Braille. Of course the regulations acknowledged that the use of Braille is presumed unless the child's IEP team decides otherwise. But what happens if the IEP team cannot reach agreement on the appropriateness of Braille? This is where the Department of Education eviscerated the presumption. Logic would dictate that Braille, the presumed reading medium, would be taught while the IEP team works out its disagreement, but that is not what the Department of Education said. Why not? Because the Department considers Braille to be a special education service and when an IEP team cannot reach agreement, the so-called Stay Put rule applies, which means that the child's current services continue until the IEP team reaches agreement or until a change is ordered through the fair hearing process. So, if the child is not currently receiving Braille instruction, even though the parents want Braille provided, until the dispute is resolved, likely years in the future, no Braille is taught. No matter that the law affirms that Braille is the presumed reading medium, the child must wait. How did the Department of Education explain such an obvious contradiction of the plain language of the law? Here is what the Department said:


Contrary to a suggestion of commenters, a regulatory provision making it mandatory for Braille to be taught to every child who is legally blind would contravene the individually-oriented focus of the Act, as well as the statutory requirement that the IEP team must make individual determinations for each child who is blind or visually impaired based on relevant evaluation data. (Federal Register, Vol. 64, 48, p. 12589 (March 12, 1999).)

In other words, no presumption of Braille. We must not allow this to continue. We need a clear, straightforward statement in law recognizing that Braille is the literacy medium for blind children, and we need to hold the schools accountable for blind children's literacy, not just in a general sense, but truly accountable. What might real accountability look like?

Ridiculous? Unreasonable? Impractical? Perhaps, but these are the precise goals that the U.S. Department of Education proposed for sighted children in 1997 in response to the Government Performance and Results Act. The only difference is that the Department of Education was talking about sighted children reading print, and I paraphrased each statement to apply to blind children reading Braille. At the same time the Department of Education was proposing high reading standards for sighted children, it was developing regulations gutting the presumption of Braille for blind children.

No one objected to having a national goal that sighted children would read independently by the end of the third grade. No one shuddered at the idea that such a goal would violate the sacrosanct principle of individualization; and, by the way, no one blamed the children for the schools’ failure; yet blind children, particularly those with multiple disabilities, are routinely blamed for the schools' shortcomings.

Of course some blind children have additional disabilities, and in many cases they present real and significant challenges, but the presence of additional disabilities does not negate the child's right to an equal education. The presence of multiple disabilities (or in the language of the medical profession, comorbidity) must not be allowed to excuse poor educational services. The schools must not be allowed to wring their hands and blame the child and his or her multiple disabilities for their own failure; their own lack of imagination; lack of resources; and, I am sorry to say, their lack of interest.

Much work remains:

We need more well-trained teachers of blind children.
We need teachers who are well-prepared to teach blind children to read and write Braille, and that means we must work to have every state adopt the National Certification in Literary Braille.
We need to develop new technology that will enable blind children to compete in all subjects, especially in science and math.
We need to promote research, meaningful research that supports the full integration of blind children into society on terms of equality, and that means research designed and led by blind people.

To that end we, the National Federation of the Blind, have established the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research--the first international, interdisciplinary, open-access journal created by blind people themselves together with parents, teachers, administrators, and academic researchers--to address the real problems of blindness.

Of course some blind children learn quickly, and others struggle. Some have lofty aspirations, and others harbor more modest goals. Some are driven, and others less so. Some are confident, and others timid. Some are outgoing, and others reticent. Some are ready and willing to confront life's challenges head-on, and others despair of living a full and productive life. To make a difference, we must begin by helping blind children understand that, no matter society's misguided beliefs, they are not nobodies, and other blind people are not nobodies. Then we must follow our words with action. We must change the law; we must train more teachers; we must develop new technology; we must conduct meaningful research--action that changes the paradigm; action that rejects the deficit model; action that turns hope into reality and full participation into the common experience.

When I was sixteen, Emily Dickinson's words: "I'm Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody--too?" expressed the hopelessness I was feeling. Yet the sense of being a nobody need not persist. Through our collective efforts we are making a difference--a powerful difference--replacing uncertainty with hope, doubt with confidence. Each year more and more blind children become aware of their own ability, talent, capacity, and right to live as others. Through our continued work--the work of the National Federation of the Blind--one day, I hope one day very soon, blind children will have the skills and confidence to say to one another: "I read differently from others and travel differently from others, but I am Somebody! And so are you! You're Somebody, too!" And this is the National Federation of the Blind.

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