Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1991

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by Else Momrak Haugann

Assistant Professor—Norwegian Institute for Special Education Reprinted from the ICEVH Educator, a publication of The International Council for the Education of the Visually Handicapped for the Quinquennium 1987-1992.

Should the visually handicapped receive their education in special schools or together with the sighted? This question has arisen at every international conference or seminar in which I have taken part, regardless of the real theme of the conference. It has struck me that the points of view brought forward show, as a rule, little variety. One is either for or against integration, for or against special schools. One is not capable of seeing—or at least not willing to admit that there are strong and weak aspects to both systems.

In the following article I would like to do just that: Discuss the strong and weak points to both integrated education and special schools. I will try to give a special reference to the developing countries. Some of these countries have already started educating the visually handicapped, and there is an interest in promoting such an education. I hope it will be possible to learn from our experience and to avoid at least some of the mistakes we have made.

I have learned, little by little, that in real life we seldom get a simple choice between one entirely good and one entirely bad thing.

If that were the case, choices would be easy. As a rule we have to choose between things with both positive and negative sides to them. We must hold the positive and negative sides up against one another in order to make the better choice. When this is done one must try to reduce the negative aspects.

Segregation and integration may be thought of as opposite poles on a sliding transition scale. The traditional school for the blind is a boarding school where the blind pupils both live and are taught. Education tends to extend over quite a number of years, often comprising both elementary school and occupational training. Such a school may admit pupils from one region or from a whole country. As a rule the distance between the school and the pupil's home is considerable.

We also find special schools, or special classes, where the pupils live at home but get their schooling in the institution. The distance between home and school must not, in these cases, be too great since the pupils must travel to and from school daily. This means that the school must be situated in a town with a relatively large population.

The word integration is used to cover different forms for education. Personally, I would not use the term integrated in relation to a blind pupil who attends a special class. I use it first and foremost to describe blind and partially sighted students who, singly or two or three together, receive their education in a class for the sighted.

Now something about the advantages and disadvantages of the different systems. Most blind persons who have had to leave their families as small children in order to attend a school for the blind far away will emphatically agree that this was a traumatic experience. Such an experience may have an indelible impression on the mind of a child and may lead to emotional problems later. The right of a blind child to live at home with his family is a strong argument in favor of integration. Most parents, too, will appreciate having their child at home. Long absences from home may weaken or even break the natural ties between parents and child. However, some parents reject their blind children. This reaction is perhaps due to fear and a feeling of guilt. In some cultures blindness is considered to be a punishment from the gods for earlier sins. This is a stigma which causes the whole family to lose status.

Other parents overprotect their child. They are full of compassion and have low expectations regarding what the child may manage to do. The child receives no training in managing for himself. There is no expectation of his achieving anything, and this will in turn lead to the child's becoming passive, lacking in initiative, and failing to learn the everyday activities which all children must know.

Then there are parents who will look at the school for the blind as a welcome opportunity to rid themselves of the burden which the blind child represents. In such cases we are not always justified in moralizing. The reason may be rejection, but some families are so poor that they are glad to have fewer mouths to feed.

In any case, leaving home in order to attend a school for the blind will emphasize the child's deviation from the norm. Not only is the child blind, but she/he also grows up in different surroundings from her/his brothers and sisters. If, however, conditions in the home are particularly difficult due to extreme poverty, rejection, or overprotection of the child, then the school for the blind may represent a better environment in which to grow up.

In that case, the school for the blind must be of a certain standard, with personnel capable of satisfying the needs of blind children both for stimulation and education. There are many blind children who have suffered deep emotional injuries after a period at a school for the blind which had uncaring and inefficient personnel and tyrannical fellow pupils. I think I may maintain that even a good school for the blind is not a substitute for a good home, but such a school may of course represent a good alternative to a bad home.

It is often said that special schools show better results in education, whereas integration has its strength in the social rehabilitation. There may be a good deal of truth in this, but in my opinion the picture is more differentiated. At a school for the blind one has access to books and technical aids necessary for the education of blind pupils. There are teachers with knowledge about and experience with the blind. One can also teach special skills, such as mobility and orientation, training of intact senses, and Braille. The classes are small, at least smaller than in ordinary schools.

To compare the academic achievements with integrated schools where all this or at least most of it—is lacking is obviously unjust. If integrated education is to function at all then the minimum condition is that the blind pupil have access to the necessary books, either through Braille books, talking books, or being read to aloud. A service with itinerant teachers is also important. How else is a blind pupil to learn, for example, Braille? But when conditions are right, we find that blind pupils can show good academic progress in ordinary schools.

The teacher is a central figure in all education. Many teachers in ordinary schools have no knowledge whatsoever with regard to teaching the blind. Some are perhaps directly negative, others only confused and afraid, still others overlook or overprotect the pupil.

I would like to point out one dangerous and frequent effect of these varying negative attitudes: The teacher's expectation regarding the pupil's achievement is far too low. We all tend to fulfill expectations. Pupils are the same, whether blind or sighted. When little or nothing is demanded of them, they soon stop working. One gets accustomed to bad study habits and does not learn what one should. At the next crossroads, one loses out in the competition: one is blind and in addition one has less knowledge than one's classmates.If integration is to function both at school and elsewhere, then it is vital to teach parents, teachers, and everyone else that the blind are capable people.

However, low expectations and negative attitudes towards the visually handicapped are phenomena not only met within the public; but we find such negative attitudes even among experts who work for the blind. These persons may have become accustomed to placing the blind person in the role of a client. In such cases attitudes are even more tenacious and difficult to eradicate. This may also be the case of a teacher in the school for the blind. Many visually handicapped pupils have told of the sense of relief they felt on being transferred from the school for the blind to integrated education because they were treated more like ordinary human beings.

The social adaptation to a sighted environment has been considered the great advantage of integrated education. At a school for the blind it is difficult to get in touch with sighted pupils of one's own age. An isolated group culture develops, and the blind pupils do not learn how to behave amongst the sighted. This strengthens the deviation from the norm. It is more than understandable that the pupil, after a stay of many years in a school for the blind, finds it extremely difficult to adapt himself to the sighted world outside the institution.

But integrated education is not a key to open all doors, just as segregated education is no guarantee for academic success. It goes without saying that the chances of developing good relations with sighted comrades are much better when you are among them, but many blind pupils feel bitterly isolated in ordinary schools. Far from feeling "one of the gang," they receive continual confirmation that they are different. This is not good for the development of their personality. Perhaps one becomes accustomed to expecting that everyone should show consideration on account of one's blindness.

We all need to be a part of a social community. We would like to be equal partners in a group where we may all take part and give and receive emotional support and practical help. A blind pupil does not want to be socially isolated, however well he may be integrated in an educational sense. Nor does he want to be the subject of pity, that is, regarded as inferior. In my opinion it is important for everyone with a serious visual handicap to meet others in the same situation in order to develop a sound personality where one's identity as a blind person is neither rejected nor becomes the overshadowing side of one's character.

In order to achieve this, it is not necessary to go to school with other blind persons, but one should at least have the chance of meeting and having contact with other blind persons. The good companionship with fellow pupils is, more than anything else, emphasized as a positive aspect at the schools for the blind.

From what I have said so far it should be obvious that I regard segregated and integrated education for the blind not as irreconcilable opposites but, on the contrary, as supplementary to each other. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages.

If we do not want the education and training of blind children restricted to a few occupations, then this education and training must be given in an integrated environment. It is impossible to construct special schools with a wide selection of educational paths. But in order to ensure the proper functioning of integrated education, it is necessary to establish centers for technical aids, teaching aids, and a service of itinerant teachers. In many developing countries it may be difficult or even impossible to establish this kind of services. It demands a good system of registration of the visually handicapped and effective communications, something which is lacking in many countries. On the other hand, if we were to choose a segregated system of education, would we be able to afford to build blind schools for the millions and millions of blind children and youth in the developing countries? Will this not lead to only a few, mainly those who live in towns, being offered an opportunity for education while the vast majority are doomed to drag out their days without a chance of receiving an education?

In my opinion there should not be a choice between either special schools or integrated education, but a combination of both systems. We must have special schools for the blind, but we must also endeavor to develop education for the blind in the local environment.

I believe that an important task for blind schools in developing countries is to become centers of strong organization of the blind.

We must all have as our goal the changing of conditions of society in our various countries so that it becomes easier for the handicapped—for the blind—to function. This will never come as a gift from above. The blind themselves must take part in the fight for these changes, and that is why strong organizations of the blind are vitally important.

In conclusion, I am aware of the fact that I have posed more questions than I have answered, but I have tried to illustrate the complexity of the subject. There are enormous differences between living conditions for the blind in developing countries and in the industrialized countries. Even so, I believe it should be possible to learn from the mistakes we have made with regard to organized education for the blind.

We could wish for many things: that everybody had an opportunity to receive an education; that there were enough books, technical aids, and well-educated and committed teachers; that there was freedom of choice with regard to occupational training, and so on. However, we must realize that all this is in short supply. On the other hand, this must not prevent us from trying to improve matters; establish educational facilities where these are not to be found; and improve existing facilities.

The goal which must always be kept is sight is independence, full participation, and equality for the visually handicapped. I believe that education is a vital weapon in the fight to achieve that goal.

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