Future Reflections Convention 1999, Vol. 18 No. 4


When I Was In School
Reflections and Advice from Blind Adults and College Students

Editor’s Note: At the Wednesday, June 30, parents seminar, a panel of adults and college students talked about their experiences in school, what was successful, what was not. Here are the revised and edited remarks of David Ticchi, Massachusetts; Chris Danielson, South Carolina; Nathanael Wales, California; and Angela Howard, Louisiana. We begin with Dr. Ticchi’s remarks:

Dr. David Ticchi, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard University, has been a teacher for over 25 years. He is currently supervisor of the alternative education program for ninth and tenth grades at Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts. He is also a consultant for the Technical Vocational Department in his school. In 1998 he was the recipient of the Blind Educator of the Year Award, and in 1996 he had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch at the opening of the Olympic games.

My parents realized that I was blind at a very early age. Thankfully, we had an ophthalmologist who urged them to let me be a child just like their other child (I have a sister who’s two years older than me). We grew up in a very small town on a farm in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. There was lots of work to do both inside the house and outside on a farm. Even prior to the time I went to school, I had responsibilities. I did simple things, like setting the table inside the house; I had major tasks on the farm, like collecting the eggs in the chicken house and helping my father with the feeding, watering, and cleaning in that area.

I learned simple arithmetic by counting the eggs in the chicken house. Later, I moved on to addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division because my father wanted to know things like, "In a pen of a hundred chickens, how many eggs could we get every day? Every week?" and so on.

I went to public school. This was a decision made between my parents and the schools in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. I think there was some resistance, not stalwart resistance, but there was doubt and skepticism. However, bear in mind the time I was entering school—1951. This is before mainstreaming, inclusion, special education, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; all of the concepts and laws which exist today. In 1951, the public school did not have to take me, but they did.

At this point in my life I could read large print, so I learned how to read and write using print. I was reading pretty well in terms of grade level, but I did need some materials read to me. My teachers, my classmates, and my parents met those needs. My sister and I did not work well together, so we learned very soon that my sister was not the one who should read to David. My classmates did a lot of that. But I was not an "empty vessel." I brought something to the table, too. We developed some study parties out of those reading sessions, which helped all of us. It was through that kind of teamwork that I made some very good friends in school; friends which I still have today.

In my education in West Bridgewater, there was no double standard. What was right was right, and what was wrong was wrong. If I only had 3 out of 5 correct on a math exam, that was 60 percent, and that’s what I got.

I really had no technology until my high school years when I began to receive some recordings on these thick record albums. I remember reading David Copperfield—42 records. I confess I only read about 21. At that point I decided to have one of my classmates read me the abridged summary. I never told my English teacher.

I learned Braille in high school, too. A teacher came once or perhaps twice a week and taught me Braille. I began to use it in school, but only in later years did I become more proficient at it.

My high school graduation present, along with a scholarship from the local Lions Club, was a reel-to-reel four-track tape recorder. That was the technology I went off to college with. I went to Holy Cross College, which is a small Jesuit college in Massachusetts. I graduated in 1963. During the 1960’s there was no office for disabled students. I think in many ways that was a benefit because, as I understand it, those offices can oftentimes be as much of a curse as a blessing. In my case, the most valuable thing that I learned in high school, along with my academic preparation, was the ability to be able to advocate for myself. In college I used live readers, some Braille, and recorded materials from Recording for the Blind (now Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic).

My original plan when I left college was to go to law school. In fact, I had a three-year fellowship to law school. But I decided instead to join the Jesuit volunteer corps (which is something like the Peace Corp). I was placed in a school for Indians in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where I taught speech and English. That year changed my life. Instead of going to law school, I ultimately received my masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While doing my graduate work I had an opportunity to do a participant observer internship with the Newton, Massachusetts Public Schools. This was a wonderful experience. I was only required to go once a week, but I loved it so much that I went four times during the week.

After that year, I was offered a position to teach 7th grade English in Dade High School for the school year 1971-72. I’ve been teaching in public schools ever since.

At the time, I was not a member of the National Federation of the Blind. In fact, in my 26 years I had only spent about 10 hours in conversation with other blind people. But later I discovered how blind people had paved the way for me to have this wonderful opportunity to teach, for which I will always be grateful. Until 1960 there had been visual acuity requirements for public school teachers in all fifty states. It was the National Federation of the Blind that changed those laws and made it possible for me to be a teacher.

As I said earlier, I’m still in school. There is greater technology available now than when I was a student, and I use some of it. I use the Braille ‘n Speak and will probably get a Braille Lite. I use Braille everyday of my life, and I have a slate and stylus at my desk. I believe that it is these skills, the ability to advocate, and the support and high expectations of parents and teachers—good parenting and good education—that are the things that give blind students the opportunity to succeed.

fr99cv44.jpg (19746 bytes)
Chris Danielsen

Chris Danielson, a 1991 NFB Scholarship winner, graduated from Furman University in 1993 and received his law degree from University of South Carolina School of Law in 1996. He currently has a general law practice in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In his spare time, he serves on the Board of the NFB of South Carolina.

Some years into my adult life my mother told me how scary it was having a blind child. Blindness itself wasn’t frightening of course. What frightened and worried her were the details of raising a blind child. How was I going to get educated? How would I ultimately get from point A to point B on my own? My parents didn’t know the answers to these questions or others. The doctors talked to them about my blindness, but they only explained the nature of my eye condition. My parents’ friends sometimes talked about my blindness, but only to say how sorry they were. Nobody had any answers. So my parents relied on determination, their own manpower for research, and a little bit of luck. Parents of blind children today have the same questions, but fortunately, we have resources for answers, and one such resource is this conference. That’s why I’m so honored that Mrs. Cheadle asked me to speak here, and that I’m able to participate.

My parents did know, since I had only a little light perception, that I was going to have to learn to read Braille. My mom wanted me to go to public school, so she started my literacy training early and her own, too—Braille literacy, that is. I remember a lady with a guide dog who used to come to our house and help my mom learn Braille. Mom figured that if I was going to learn to read Braille, she had better know a little something about it.

When we lived in Leavenworth, I went to a special preschool for disabled kids, although I think they called us handicapped back then. I was the only blind child there, and the first one they had ever had. At least from what my parents were able to gather, most blind children in Kansas went to the school for the blind in Kansas City. There was nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t my parents’ preference for me. Anyway, I ended up at this preschool which was run by the county because my pediatrician felt that it was important that I get out of the house and associate with other children. It turned out that the head mistress, for lack of a better word, was a firm but kind German lady that cared passionately about her students. She didn’t know what to do with a blind student, but she followed her instincts, which, fortunately, were good, and resulted in me learning a lot. She’s the one who made sure I did not develop the bad "blind behaviors" that are sometimes associated with blind children. So that was a big help.

One thing about being in the Army is that your family moves about every three years. We liked Fort Leavenworth, but my parents were busily planning the next phase of my education. They wrote to school districts in 17 states inquiring as to whether they could accommodate blind children. The school district with jurisdiction over Virginia Beach, Virginia, had a facility called the Center for Effective Learning that ran a preschool class designed for preparing blind children for integration into a public school setting. Through some bureaucratic manipulation of the military process my parents were able to get me into the Center for Effective Learning. I attended the preschool class at the Center for Effective Learning for a year, and then in the second year I attended the class in the morning and public kindergarten at the local elementary school in the afternoon.

During my morning classes at the Center I began receiving one-on-one instruction in Braille. I got more instruction at home because, luckily, one of the libraries in Virginia Beach was also a National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped distributor. My mom insisted on taking me to the library at least once every two weeks and bringing Braille books home for me to read. At first I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t understand why I had to read books with bumps on them, but she insisted on it. She made sure I read Braille every day. As an aside, that library came into possession of something called a Kurzweil Reading Machine at that time. This was probably when they had first come out. We were fascinated by it, but it was a little out of our price range.

Through the first and second grades my Braille skills continued to improve. My parents kept the reading material coming. I remember getting the Braille Institute of America’s "Expectations Anthology," which I highly recommend.

My regret about my Braille experience was that when I learned to write Braille I learned on a Perkins Brailler. I don’t remember having a slate and stylus in my hand until I was probably in the fourth grade. I was told that I would need it to take notes in college because it didn’t make as much racket as a Perkins. The trouble was I had gotten used to the Perkins so it seemed to me that I was writing backwards. I can’t wholly blame my Braille teachers. Because I hated the slate I didn’t exactly practice like a maniac at home. It didn’t seem important at the time. I know better now. Thanks to my Louisiana Center for the Blind days, I am an accurate slater, if not a fast one. Still I wish somebody had put the slate in my hands first, before the Braille writer. I hope a lot of you will insist on it as a writing implement for your children. Even with all of today’s technology, it’s the best (and cheapest) note-taking device available at the spur of the moment. Anyone who has felt their stomach drop to their shoes when their Braille ‘n Speak, formatted itself for some mysterious reasons can tell you that. And no offense to Blazie. I have a Braille ‘n Speak and I love it, but it’s no substitute for the slate and stylus.

The other thing that was sadly missing in my education was cane travel. I got cane travel about once a week starting in the fourth grade, but it wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t enough. I had to straighten this out later in my life when I went to the Louisiana Rehabilitation Center for six months.

Back on the positive side, one of the several things my parents did really well was make sure that I got involved in things like swimming lessons, scouts, and outdoor activities. I think that’s really important as well.

My parents took what they were able to learn and ran with it, and that’s what I did with what I learned from the NFB later in life (I came to my first convention in 1991). But all three of us can now tell people what we’ve learned about what works: Braille works. Canes for kids works. Getting blind kids involved with outdoor activities works. And, as we discovered much later than we would have liked, but still early enough to have a major impact, the National Federation of the Blind and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, works. It’s all about being informed–and using the information.

fr99cv45.jpg (19147 bytes)

Nathanael Wales is a student at the University of California at Davidson. He currently serves as the President of the California Association of Blind Students, which is a statewide chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of California and an affiliate of the National Association of Blind Students.

My parents and I dealt with my blindness all of my life, even though we may not have called it blindness. We called it something like "eye problems" or "vision problems." When I was an infant I wore experimental contact lenses. In fact, my mother often reflects today that instead of worrying about diaper rash and all the other things that a mother worries about with an infant (I don’t know what they are, but I imagine that some of you do), she was worrying about having to crawl around on the floor to find my contact lenses if I should inadvertently rub them out of my eyes.

When I was three years old I got my first pair of eyeglasses. I got them when I entered an early childhood intervention program in my school district in Wisconsin. The teachers didn’t want to crawl around on the floor looking for my contact lenses. After about two years in this program, I entered a kindergarten in a mainstream classroom. I began to learn to read and write. I had enough vision that I was able to read and write print in first and second grade. I was introduced to a small hand-held magnifier. It was just powerful enough that I could read the smallest print that I wasn’t able to read with my glasses; print that you might find in a newspaper or dictionary.

When I was in about first or second grade my parents bought me a large print Bible and that was very helpful. In church I didn’t need a hand-held magnifier to read it. I could read it with just my glasses. That was great until we moved to California.

I was in the third grade when we moved to California. My vision began to seriously deteriorate because of complications from my eye condition. As my vision deteriorated, I needed that hand-held magnifier more and more. Finally, a teacher came to my school. People called her a vision teacher or a VI or VH teacher. She visited with me a couple of times and saw how I did my work. Then, one day she brought me a machine called a closed circuit television (CCTV). I thought that thing was the neatest thing in the whole wide world because it had this camera, and it took a picture of whatever you put underneath it. It had a TV screen, and it made whatever you put underneath that camera really, really big. That was really neat because you could play around with it and do all sorts of neat things with it.

That machine was also helpful to me in doing my schoolwork. In fact, it was so helpful that my grandparents bought me one to use at my home to do school work.

As my vision continued to deteriorate, I needed that machine more and more, and I needed greater and greater magnification. I developed techniques to use that closed circuit television. My parents had high expectations of me, and they always expected me to do my work, and I did. They expected me to challenge myself in my classes, and I did. The techniques that I developed to use the closed circuit television helped me to do that, but not very efficiently. But I didn’t know about anything else, and I thought that this was the way that I would need to do things.

One of those techniques had to do with how I did math assignments. I would put the piece of paper that I was writing my math assignment on underneath the closed circuit television camera. Then I’d take the text-book and put it on top of the paper, and on top of that a piece of glass to flatten out the pages. Next, I would focus the CCTV on the math problem. I would read it, take the math book away, and set it on my desk. I would then refocus the CCTV on my paper and write out the math problem with my answer. Then I would go to the next problem. I’d put the book back underneath the CCTV, refocus it, and go through the entire process again. It took several hours sometimes to complete math homework. I got the job done, but it was very time-consuming. My parents were very encouraging because they wanted me to succeed. They wanted me to do well. Doing things this way was what they thought was best for me at that time.

Near the end of fourth grade I had a surgery that significantly improved my vision. In fact, it improved my vision to the point where I no longer was so dependent on the CCTV. I could now use some fairly high-powered hand-held magnifiers to read my textbooks. I would still write out my homework problem under the CCTV, but I would take this little hand-held magnifier and use it to read the book, which would be sitting next to me on the desk. It still took me a while to do homework, but it was faster. I even had a little name for it. I called it the "fast glance" system.

I used hand-held magnifiers and enlarged photocopies of my textbooks throughout fifth and sixth grade. But by the time I entered junior high my vision had begun to deteriorate again as a result of complications of my eye surgery. Once again I became more dependent on the closed circuit television throughout junior high and high school. I had a total of six classes in high school. I had a CCTV in each of the four classrooms because a CCTV can’t be moved around easily. Well, there are certain CCTV’s that are easier to move around, but they were a lot slower to use, and you can’t write under them effectively. However, it was portable and did come in useful in my school mock trial team. But it was still slow.

Eventually, with my vision deteriorating, I couldn’t use hand-held magnifiers anymore, even in conjunction with large print. I got to the point where I could no longer read my large print Bible. Since it wouldn’t work to take a closed circuit television to church, I would sit in church and pretend that I was reading my Bible. I was reflecting on why I did that as I was writing this speech, and I came to the conclusion that I really wasn’t ashamed of my blindness. Everybody knew that I was blind or "visually impaired" as my parents put it. What I was ashamed of was the fact that in church, I was illiterate—I had no way to read my Bible there.

My parents love technology. Technology was the greatest thing in the whole wide world. That’s how we were introduced to the NFB. We attended a technology show my sophomore year of high school at a state convention of the National Federation of the Blind. We found a lot more than technology at that state convention and at subsequent conventions. I found successful blind people. Blind people who were doing the sorts of things that I wanted to be doing when I grew up. I met blind college students, blind engineers, and blind lawyers; people who were willing to mentor me. I asked them, "What is it that you do to get your work done?" You see, I was always looking for more efficient ways to do things. The overwhelming answer I received was, "Braille." It was one of the most effective techniques they used. I figured these people must know what they’re talking about, so I gave Braille a try. I learned it my senior year of high school.

After I graduated from high school, I continued developing my Braille skills. Before I enrolled in college I attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston for about eight and a half months. It was there that I really developed my Braille skills, as well as a number of other skills of blindness, such as traveling around with a cane and using a computer with a screen reading software program like Jaws for Windows. I continue to use these techniques today. I use Braille all the time to read and to write. I also now have a Bible in Braille, and I now can read my Bible in church again.

My parents and I were very fortunate in finding the National Federation of the Blind and good, positive, blind role models. We’ve learned from them. My parents had high expectations of me, but they didn’t know the most efficient ways for me to do things. But now we’ve met successful blind people who’ve shown us how.

It’s a pleasure to be at this convention and to be a part of the process of sharing and learning and growing.

Editor’s Note: Angela Howard, a student at Guilford College, is double majoring in Women’s Studies and Sociology. She lived in Atlanta and worked with the homeless during the summer of 1999.

I grew up with some degree of residual vision. I found out when I hit my teen-age years (which are so difficult anyway) that I have retinitis pigmentosa and would eventually be completely blind. Like most kids who grow up with some vision, I was never taught Braille, was never taught how to use a cane, was never told that I was blind, and certainly was never told that it was okay to be blind. I had large print pushed on me. I was encouraged to use my vision the best that I could to get around. "Don’t say the word blind," I was told. "That’s not what you are. You can see. You can see." We really send a lot of negative messages to our partially sighted blind children when we try emphasizing how much vision they have. When so much emphasis is put on vision, the message the child gets is "My amount of self-worth depends on how much vision I have, and I only have 10 percent, so I can’t be worth much." What we really need to be focusing on is "You are blind, and yes you can see a little bit and yes that is helpful, but it is also respectable to be blind." And when your sight isn’t convenient to use, then you have other skills that you can use to compete."

So, anyway, I grew up using large print. But when I hit sixth grade I couldn’t read it anymore. Still, even after I couldn’t read anymore, no one suggested that I learn Braille or even suggested that I get books on tape. So there was a period of about six months in school where I couldn’t read anything at all. Thank goodness I got a pamphlet from the Louisiana Center for the Blind describing a new program the Center was developing for children. My teachers discouraged my mom from sending me, saying, "Well, they’re pretty radical. I don’t know if you want to send her there." Thank God my mom is radical, and she did send me. That’s where I learned Braille. I learned the whole code in a month because I stayed up late at night after lights out because I knew that this was going to be my only chance to learn Braille. When I came back to school they had purchased a CCTV for me. I told them I wanted to start using Braille in the classroom. They said "No. We want you to use this."

Photo of Angela Howard (19668 bytes)
Angela Howard

I want to talk about the CCTV for a little bit. I know Nathanael has talked about his experiences. Think about the story that Nathanael told about having to put his paper then the math book on the CCTV, put a piece of glass over that, focus it, read, take the glass and the book off, refocus, then write out his problem. He may have gotten his work done, but he was not competing on terms of equality because it took him hours and hours longer than it needed to. Education is more than just learning to read and write. Education is being outside when the other kids in the neighborhood are outside playing. It’s going to Cub Scouts and doing all the things that other kids are doing. When we’re forcing our blind children to spend so much extra time trying to read print when it’s not efficient for them, we are denying them a crucial part of their education.

Back to my story. My teachers finally agreed to let me use Braille. I use it to this day. I love it. I use my slate and stylus to take notes in college. I must confess that I hate technology. I don’t even have a love-hate relationship with technology. It’s pure hate. But I also know that it is important because the other kids are typing their papers on a computer, and I need to be doing the same thing. So I do use a computer with voice to complete my written work, and I use a combination of tapes and readers to do my reading. I do have access to a scanner in the library, which I use in emergencies. (I would much rather have a real person reading to me.)

In closing, technology is important for blind kids because it’s important for sighted kids, and we need to make sure that our blind kids have, and do, the exact same things that sighted kids have and do. But technology isn’t going to save the blind kid’s life. What’s going to save that kid’s life is a positive attitude and philosophy about being blind. To get that attitude, that philosophy, blind kids need you, the parents, and they need the National Federation of the Blind.