Photo of Denise Mackenstadt
Denise Mackenstadt]

Independence and the Blind Child in a Mainstreamed Education Program

by Denise Mackenstadt

From the Editor: Denise Mackenstadt works with a blind child as an instructional aide in a public school in the state of Washington. She is a longtime Federationist and a leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Recently she sent me this thoughtful little article about the problem of helping blind children become truly independent. This is what she says:

As I was considering this article, I tried to think of a universal theme that would be of interest to families with blind children. The one element in the daily interaction I have with blind children is working to make the student an independent blind person. Many times I have wondered if one can really teach independence. Blind people live with this dilemma on an ongoing basis. As parents we have a long-term goal to teach our children the skills to enable them to leave our sides eventually and go out into the world. We hope that we have been successful since as adults we are aware that the world is not always a friendly place and is full of dangers that threaten the welfare of our adult children.

As a parent of two adolescent children, one of whom has a child of her own, I am aware every day of this challenge. For parents or educators of blind children, teaching independence can be complicated. We receive double messages from society. On the one hand we know that in this culture the worth of an individual is based on how well she maintains an independent and self-sufficient lifestyle. This means maintaining her own residence, holding a worthwhile job, and perhaps supporting a family. On the other hand our society is not certain whether blind people can achieve this lifestyle. As we work with blind children, we have to recognize that they too are confused by these messages.

In her school the blind child is probably the only student who is blind or visually handicapped. All children want to fit in, so the blind child's minority status makes it vitally important that she have the skills needed to develop self-worth and a good self-image. This is a gradual process that evolves throughout the lifetime of the blind person.

The blind student is exposed every day to a host of circumstances that challenge her self-confidence as a blind person. Getting to school requires making a decision between traveling the way non-disabled students do or taking special transportation. Upon arriving at school how will she get to her classroom, on her own or with assistance? She cannot choose independence if she does not have good travel skills. The question comes down to this: can the student make meaningful choices? The regular school day is not conducive to taking the time to give adequate attention to learning blindness skills. The blind student is required to take time out of her recess or other play times to learn these techniques. This is not fair, as many students say, but it is necessary.

The classroom is not set up to accommodate all of the equipment and materials that the blind student needs to get through a school day. The student must be organized. When instructions are given to look up a page in a book, the blind student must be more alert because finding the right volume and page will take more time than the other students need. The student must learn to anticipate instructions. The teacher gives instructions with the idea that the students can quickly scan a page using all of the visual cues such as bold-faced titles and illustrations. The blind student cannot do this as quickly or use the same cues. The student must decide to be assertive enough to question the instructor or a classmate about how to apply the directions to the use of Braille materials.

The student may need to question the teacher's language in mathematics instruction. For example, when fractions are written in print, the terms upper and lower are used to describe the two numbers that make up the simple fraction. In Braille the fraction is written with a number, slash, number; the digits appear in a single line. When the teacher refers to the 2 in the fraction 2/5 as "on top," the student does not necessarily know to which digit he is referring. These issues are easily resolved, but it is a learning process for the blind child. In the end it comes down to the student's ability to communicate her unique needs to a sighted world effectively. This is doubly hard when the personality of the child is shy or reserved. However, questioning others articulately is a skill that all blind people must learn.

Not only must the blind student learn to ask for help, but she must also learn how to reject unwanted assistance. This can often be done with grace and without hurting anyone's feelings. But sometimes the situation is more delicate, particularly when the relationship is child-to-adult. Children are told to follow directions given to them by adults, not to argue, particularly in a school setting. But suppose the adult's understanding of the blind person's capabilities is incorrect. Sometimes the student has to accept that the instructions should be followed even though the adult's belief is wrong. This is a difficult notion for the child to understand and accept. Blind adults may also face situations in which it may be advisable not to argue a point of blindness—for example, a disagreement with an employer. Learning to deal with such issues is part of education and growing up.

The social life in an average public school would challenge the skills of the most sophisticated socialite. Blind children are viewed with a mixture of fear and awe. In physical education classes including a blind student can be difficult. Most PE programs are not equipped to provide the opportunities for physical activity that the blind student needs. Blind people are capable of being active and athletic. Judgements must be made about whether the experience is constructive or merely an exercise in frustration. When a good PE program works well, the blind student has wonderful opportunities to build respect and understanding with her classmates.

Extracurricular and play activities are essential if the blind student is to feel a part of the school community. Disabled children are so involved with adults from the very beginning that often they do not develop the skills to communicate well with their peers. These skills can be learned and modeled effectively. The expert use of blindness techniques gives the blind child the opportunity to participate in the life of the school community.

In the final analysis, can independence be taught to a blind child? I believe the answer is no. Independence cannot be taught. Only by providing good training in the skills that the blind child will need to compete in an essentially sighted world will the child be able to choose independence over dependence. As educators and parents we need to reflect upon our expectations. When competence and independence are expected, children will strive to meet those expectations. Even though society may give mixed messages about the blind achieving true independence, the blind person knows that to be successful in society one must live a life with meaningful choices. The basic tenet of Federation philosophy is the belief that, with equal opportunity and proper training in the alternative techniques of blindness, blind people can make good choices about the lives they lead.

We need to expose our blind children to adult blind people who can act as heroes and role models. Other blind people can help the blind child deal with the feelings that often come when one lives in a world that does not cater to the needs of blind people. Only by teaching life skills to our blind children to the same degree that we teach them to our sighted children, can we hope that they will be able to make their own life choices successfully.