[PHOTO/CAPTION: Dr. James Bickford]

The Inclusionary Express

by James Bickford


From the Editor: Dr. James (Blue) Bickford was the 1998 recipient of the NFB's Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. The following comments are derived from the presentation he gave at the Annual Meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children in Dallas, Texas, July 6, 1998. They first appeared in Future Reflections, the NOPBC's quarterly magazine.


What I am about to tell you this morning is my truths. They are not global, for global truths do not exist. Truth changes from day to day, as do the needs of our children. The one sustaining idea is that all of our children have a right--entitlement--to education, and within that entitlement is the implied right to an equal education. This means access to and comprehension of not only curricular materials but also of those skills which are necessary to independent function: mobility, daily living skills, Braille, social skills, and above all literacy.

Public Law 94-142 began in 1975 amidst great controversy and confusion as an attempt to insure that all handicapped children have the right to a free, appropriate public education. Today the same law remains on the books under a new name--IDEA--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

As early as 1974 professionals began to see the pitfalls of mainstreaming all handicapped students. Edwin W. Martin, Deputy Commissioner for Education of the Handicapped, expressed many of these concerns succinctly:

If in advocating mainstreaming we don't plan today for the societal patterns of response to the handicapped, we will be painfully naive, and I fear we will subject many children to a painful and frustrating experience in the name of progress.

I am concerned today about the pell-mell and, I fear, naive mad dash to include children, based on our hopes of better things for them. I fear we are failing to develop our approach to inclusion with a full recognition of the barriers that must be overcome.

There is a mythical quality to our approach to inclusion. It has jump-on-the-band-wagon qualities, and my concern is that we do not deceive ourselves because we so earnestly seek to rectify the ills of segregation.

Listing barriers of attitude, training, logistical support, coordinated prescriptive planning, and failure to insure appropriate evaluative criteria, Martin went on to state that programs must focus on "the social and emotional aspects of the children's lives, for much of our hope for mainstreaming lies in this realm."

Today, of course, the term is no longer mainstreaming but full inclusion. My present concern for full inclusion, with its accompanying speed and confusion, is that the current leadership has completely forgotten the schedules, timing, safety controls, and indeed the destination which has been so clearly charted from the past. It is an injustice of the highest order to blind individuals--and total disaster to the multiply handicapped--to force these groups to climb aboard the Inclusionary Express before the itinerary is planned and the track is laid.

But why this talk of inclusion and mainstreaming when the real issue here is of solid educational foundations? It sounds as though I would like to have every blind child at a school for the blind. Not so. However, I will take the stand that literacy, concept development, self-image, and the ability to be involved in the classroom are fundamental to the individual's ability to be included and be successful in the broader community.

Although the law was intended to provide a continuum of placements for handicapped and blind children from total inclusion to special school placements, many districts and states have opted to interpret this portion of the law to mean that all children should be educated in the regular classroom and that blind children may be placed generically in any program that would provide educational benefit. At the other end of the spectrum some school districts have decided to transfer out to other schools and agencies nearly all of their blind students in order not to have to bother with them. Neither of the two above solutions is really viable. Without a continuum of programs which provide for the most productive placement, school districts may find themselves faced with due process hearings and legal battles.

But the Special Education Director is faced with the local school board that must fund appropriate programs with a very specific and limited tax base. It would then appear that the most economically feasible program would be to include as many blind children as possible in the regular classroom. The second most feasible alternative is to form special education resource groupings and hire a cross-categorically-trained teacher to provide what she or he can to the students. Out-of-school placements are not generally recommended because they tend to be by far the most expensive. While any of the above alternatives may indeed provide an appropriate education and some educational benefit may occur, all too often it is not the most appropriate program to enhance the child's development. Only in the larger districts will there be enough blind students to permit comprehensive programming and allow equal access to curriculum and compensatory skill training.

Unfortunately, we frequently see that students are placed in special education programs, not by identified need, but by political and economic considerations. Since this may be the case, school organizations often see the special education program as an add-on mandated by law rather than an integral part of the entire curriculum.

How does a blindness curriculum fit into this scheme?

First we must begin with a definition of what a blindness curriculum really is. We must look at two distinct parts. The first part is the general school curriculum (reading, writing, and arithmetic). The second part consists of all the compensatory skills which allow the student to access the general curriculum and the direct instruction of the ancillary activities which sighted students acquire through incidental learning. As students your children have a right to all of the above to the extent that their abilities will allow. Excuses of unavailable or untrained staff cannot be accepted. But at the same time, because of the unique needs of our children, we must be willing to look at a variety of service-delivery systems which will meet the need at any given time in the educational process. Yes, this means public school placement, itinerant services, resource rooms, and residential school programs.

As a common thread running through all of this is the issue of literacy; and often this means Braille. Here comes my plug for Braille--watch out. The difficulty in learning Braille comes from sighted adults who attempt to transpose one reading mode to another. For blind children we must talk about learning to read rather than learning to read Braille. The tactual discrimination required to decipher the raised dots is actually significantly less than the complex process of making all the fine discriminations between print letters. Thus Braille is simply the reading mode for blind people, as print is the mode for sighted people. Presented in terms of reading curriculum, Braille is no more difficult than print. Unfortunately as adults and teachers we tend to send a message to children that Braille is difficult and that Braille is a last resort if you can't see well enough to decipher print. Both are very far from the truth.

There is as wide a variety of Braille readers as print readers. I would expect that in this room some of you read print at about sixty to seventy words a minute, and others read at a speed of 500 words a minute. The same variety will be found among Braille readers--those who read at fifty words a minute and those who have the ability to read and comprehend at 300 words a minute. The point is not so much whether it is print or Braille, but the function for which the reader is using it.

I have seen many students who were forced to be print readers simply because they had remaining sight. These students labored over print materials using visual aids, electronic magnifying devices, and other tools only to achieve a rate of perhaps twenty-five words a minute, and by the time they had reached the end of the sentence or the paragraph, they had forgotten what the beginning said. This leads to depressed comprehension rates, high fatigue, and frustration. The same student could have been a more fluent reader and would have had the enjoyment of reading for pleasure if he had been given the opportunity to read Braille. This is not to say that students must always choose one or the other.

Often a student with remaining vision will learn to read both Braille and print. For it is true, the telephone book is not printed in Braille, nor is the daily newspaper. So the ability to use both becomes even more important.

I have been in the education business for over twenty-five years now and for that quarter of a century have continued to hear that Braille is bulky and obsolete and should be eliminated. In 1973 it was because cassette recorders were popular and books were being placed upon cassette tape and people could simply listen to them. Have you ever wanted to re-read a page or chapter of a book after you have finished a section? Think of the problems in trying to look in an index of your book (all on cassette tape), find the appropriate page, and then find that page someplace in cassette five, track three--a task that is virtually impossible.

Today, of course, we hear about the wonders of computer technology. Computers have been a tremendous asset to educational programs, but again they will never take the place of Braille. Using standard CD-Roms we are able to download information and translate it to Braille. People are able to access computer programs using speech or refreshable Braille displays. Technology allows for the optical scanning of print books with voice output. But these computer programs will still not allow a mother to sit down with her child and read a book.

Fundamental to all is a basic definition of reading. Reading must be thought of as the ability to interact with the written word mentally and physically. Only when this occurs are individuals able to create their own meaning and develop concepts and mental pictures from their reading. A voice on a tape gives someone else's meaning to the words in a book. A computer voice program delivers words with no excitement. Only physical reading allows us to grow in our ability to express ourselves and ultimately become independent members of society. As parents and educators we cannot deny this to our children.

How do sighted children learn to read? Sighted children are bombarded daily with visual images associated with print images (actually abstract configurations) which are seen as a whole. Think of the Burger King and McDonald's signs. Children recognize the words because of the associated visual images. In early years there is no actual decoding or encoding of words. As the words become familiar, they are then generalized to other settings. The "King" in Burger King is recognized in "King's Department Store" and so on. When a student enters school, most reading is not done in reading class but integrated into every activity in which the student is involved throughout the day, and the teacher is there to reinforce those pre-reading, reading recognition, and reading skills. We must not expect anything less for our blind students who need Braille or print. Reading cannot be taught only two days a week for forty-five minutes at a time or even daily for just forty-five minutes if we want our blind children to be competitive with their peers. Reading of some kind transpires during each activity that occurs during the day. Thus we must insure that, as our students progress through their school programs, they are provided the opportunity to read. And as parents and educators we must come together to insure that those people who are instructing our children are qualified to teach reading using Braille. We would not allow teachers to teach our sighted children using materials with incorrect spelling and backward letters, and the same must be true for our Braille-reading students.

Classroom teachers are often the most vocal about the placement of Special Education students in their classrooms, and perhaps rightly so. We do find many excellent classroom teachers who are willing to do what they can and to adapt materials and teaching methodologies to the disabled child in the class, but my experiences indicate that the majority of teachers are overworked in their present situations and feel that the addition of a disabled student in the classroom increases their load (and frustration) exponentially. With teaching loads today averaging about thirty students per classroom, the addition of a blind student with minimal support only increases the chance that the student will receive fewer services. It is unfortunate that the regular classroom teacher is usually teaching to the mean, tending to bypass those at either the upper or lower end of the spectrum. The addition of the blind student only increases the variability of an already heterogeneous population. More than one disabled student in the class (especially if they have differing handicaps) will only increase the frustration further.

In my opinion disabled students should be included in regular classrooms when the curriculums meet the needs of the students, and the goals have been carefully developed.

For example, a student should not be mainstreamed into a Biology class unless the need for Biology exists for that student and she/he can function in the class with a true minimum of curricular adaptations. In essence this means that the disabled student has obtained the prerequisite academic skills to function independently in that setting. If the student is mainstreamed for social purposes only, no attempt should be made to grade the student on content. The viability of learning social skills in a Biology class, when such skills would be more appropriately learned in an applied community-based classroom, needs to be seriously questioned as well.

Parents, you have the hardest job of all. Depending upon the state, county, or school district in which you live, many difficult decisions must be made with regard to Braille and inclusion. Does inclusion always mean the local school district? If the most appropriate placement of the child is in another district or a special school, is the parent willing for the child to make the long daily trip or accept residential placement in order to access the greatest education opportunity for the child? Which will provide the greater benefit, increased time at home or increased time in an alternative placement? Can one be sacrificed for the other? Who is benefiting the most, parent or child?

Within some parameters parents may not have the choice. A great many states do not require or allow parents to have an option in placement. (The 1997 amendments to IDEA now insure that at least parents may participate in the decision-making process for placement.) Some states like Washington give the final placement decision to the parents. However, placement may be left exclusively to the discretion of the multi-disciplinary team. The team's decision is often tempered by prevailing political philosophy and is final, unless the due-process procedure is invoked. Can this be challenged in court? Perhaps so, but few parents have the resources to do this.

One story that I like to share is of a fifth grader who moved from Washington to another state. In Washington, although he had some useable vision, instruction was primarily in Braille, and he had been achieving proficiency in that medium. Upon moving to his new state, during the IEP process the professionals decided that Johnny should be using print materials, so all mention of Braille was removed from his IEP. Despite the parents' repeated requests, the district remained insistent. He had vision; he would learn print. The parents went through due process procedures for the inappropriate program. After a lengthy hearing and much emotional distress, Braille was put back into the IEP--not as an instructional mode, but for Johnny "to use if it were available." Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the teacher was non-proficient in Braille, abacus, and Nemeth code and therefore had a vested interest in not providing these services. Parents, be careful. Make informed decisions and don't settle for just something. Be sure that it meets the needs of your child.

One of the best ways to empower blind and visually impaired individuals is to give them the power of literacy and independence. Without these we are relegating an entire group of citizens to second-class status, and I am unwilling to do that.

Unfortunately, our train departed the station long before all the tracks were laid and destinations determined for its passengers. The Inclusionary Express has all too often turned out to be a single destination for all those who hop on board. While the engineer's attempt at total integration for all our blind children should be applauded, in reality quality of life does not always depend upon total integration. We do not expect a single destination for all normal children; why should we expect a single destination for all disabled children?

In an attempt to streamline the Inclusionary Express, our state legislatures are now expressing preference for cross-categorical engineers and dispatchers to lead our children on their journey. Would we place our trust in a ship's captain to guide our locomotive safely, or our train dispatcher to operate as an air traffic controller? I think not. Neither should we anticipate that teachers untrained in specific handicapping conditions are competent to lead all of our children to their proper destinations. While our journey may begin smoothly and many passengers will disembark properly at their trip's end, others will be left on the train to wander endlessly and without purpose over the land.

Time is fast running out. It is later than we think. Right now--not next year, not next decade--we need trained educators, professionals with an even, steady hand on the throttle as well as on the brake. They will be approaching the most difficult task ever presented to the teacher, now or during the past century: the careful preparation of a travel schedule for the blind child as he begins his journey through life.

As I end, I would like to share a few final thoughts with you which I am sure you have heard before. Just think for a moment, if you will, how powerful the written word can be and reflect that it lasts forever. Three great treasures come immediately to mind (there are many more), and none of these is over 300 words: the Lord's Prayer, the twenty-third Psalm, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. They all go to prove that words, and to be more specific literacy, have the power to change lives.

An old proverb says, "Give me a fish, and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime." We must teach our children to fish. It is up to you as parents and educators to see to it that these young minds are given every opportunity to learn, to read, and to succeed. We owe our children nothing less.