Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2006

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Yogi Was Right!

by Ruby Ryles, Ph.D.

Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, December, 2005. The Braille Monitor is a monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind.

Ruby RylesEditor�s Note: Dr. Ruby Ryles is a longtime Federationist, the mother of a blind son, a distinguished researcher and writer on the importance of Braille literacy, and now assistant professor of visual impairment at the College of Education, Louisiana Tech University. In October of this past year, she was invited to speak at the state convention of the NFB of Texas. In her speech Dr. Ryles told the Texans a heart-breaking and infuriating story about the continuing crisis in the education of blind children from the very personal perspective of a young family in Louisiana. It�s true that the education of blind children is suffering because of a lack of trained teachers, but the story Ryles tells in her convention speech reveals a continuing, deeper problem that goes to the heart of the mission of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is Dr. Ryles:

The humorous Yogi-isms of the legendary Yankee�s catcher Yogi Berra have become a part of our American culture. Are you old enough to remember these? Yogi�s observations on a Steve McQueen movie: �He must�ve made that before he died�; Yogi�s answer to a friend who asked what time it was: �You mean now?�; his directions to a lost traveler: �When you see a fork in the road, take it�; and Yogi�s answer to his wife�s questions about his preference of burial sites: �Surprise me�--all make Yogi Berra�s simple wisdom uniquely his own. But last Friday, outside an old school building in a rural Louisiana town, one Yogi-ism was driven home with a clarity uncharacteristic of the great Pinstriper.

Damen Roberts is an imposing man--over six feet, four inches tall and built like a bear or a wrestler. If you ever ride in his pickup truck, you�ll need a stepladder to get to your seat on the passenger side. Somehow I wasn�t surprised when he told me how he supports his family. He is a tugboat pilot, and it fits him to a T. Damen and his high school sweetheart Dee are the loving parents of a young son and an infant daughter. Four and a half years ago, when their son Lance was born blind, Damen and Dee Roberts knew nothing of the reality of blindness. They had never met normal, active blind adults, teenagers, or children. When Lance was born blind, like other residents of their small Louisiana town the Roberts knew nothing of the normalcy of blindness and especially did not know the potential for their son to lead a normal life.

Damen and Dee grew up in Louisiana. From the time Lance was diagnosed as blind, they made certain that school administrators and special education service providers knew that their son would be coming to school where Damen and Dee had gone to school. The Robertses trusted their hometown school administrators and teachers because, after all, small-town folks take care of one another. And hadn�t teachers, school administrators, and the superintendent (who, by the way, had been Damen and Dee�s high school principal), all known for several years that Lance was coming and would unquestionably need Braille and cane travel instruction? Yep, things would be fine for Lance because the parish school system had plenty of time to get ready for him.

But qualified teachers for blind children are nearly as scarce as igloos around northern Louisiana--as they probably are in Texas and other areas of the country. In fact, did you realize that more than 5,000 teachers of blind children are needed nationwide? And didn�t I hear on CNN that mobility instructors are on the endangered species list? Okay, maybe that hasn�t happened yet, but I do know that in all fifty states there are fewer than three dozen university degree programs for teachers of blind children and fewer than two dozen O&M degree programs--in the entire United States.

Lance squeals with delight as he practices using his new cane while his proud dad, Damen Roberts, coaches him.Wow! Little Lance Roberts was born under a lucky star, because just sixty-four miles from his parish superintendent�s office is an internationally known training center for blind adults with resources and programs that other small-town school superintendents could only dream about. And if the proximity of the Louisiana Center for the Blind to the superintendent�s office weren�t in itself a sure sign of a charmed life ahead of little Lance, then a short three-block walk west of the Center was a dream-come-true for any dedicated, child-centered school leader. At only sixty-four miles from his office Lance�s future school superintendent had at his fingertips all the training, the workshops, the seminars--even the educational degrees with state and national certifications in blindness that the Parish school faculty could ever want or need to teach Lance.

Remember how few university-training programs for teachers of blind children there are in the United States? And remember that there are even fewer university training programs for O&M degrees? Well in addition to a progressive, prestigious international training center for the blind at his doorstep--relatively speaking--Lance�s superintendent would have easy access to, not just one, but two of those rare university-training programs for teachers of blind children and O&M instructors.

Imagine. In lovely northern Louisiana, Louisiana Tech University sat poised and ready with the Louisiana Center for the Blind to offer world-class training to the small-town school system--and sometimes even financial assistance. And if no one in the school system wanted a degree in teaching blind students or O&M, then the superintendent or special ed director could encourage a teacher to take Louisiana Tech�s series of courses that leads to state or national certifications in blindness. Or the teacher�s aid could make that sixty-four mile drive west on Interstate 20 to take a Braille course and other blindness courses so she could work with Lance more effectively. Or Louisiana Tech would even send a professor to the small town to teach courses or workshops or seminars or simply to help Lance�s preschool get ready for him.

Oh the possibilities--just sixty-four miles from the superintendent�s office. Yes, indeed. Lance Roberts is a lucky little guy, don�t you think? But when Lance entered preschool last month, no one in the parish had ever made the relatively short drive to some of the best blindness training in the United States. The special education director had even refused the university professor�s repeated offers to provide district-wide or individual trainings to faculty and staff in the parish--all at no cost to the district.

I have been in the field of work with the blind since the late seventies and have participated in many IEPs over the years, including those for my own blind son. Since the early nineties I have gradually done less and less teaching of blind children as I have become more involved in developing programs and teaching at the university level. But the common thread among many of the IEP meetings I used to attend--particularly the litigious ones--surfaced when the discussion turned to the child�s needs. Amazingly, blind children at the center of an IEP always seem to need, and need only, whatever services the school district just happens to have.

I�ve been at the university level for about twelve years now, and my own blind son is thirty, so it has been a few years since I attended an IEP meeting as a parent, a teacher, or even an advocate. But last Friday in a small Louisiana town, in the truest fashion of Yogi-isms, it was �déja vu all over again.�

Not one but two O&M instructors drove--in separate state cars, I might add--from Baton Rouge (a distance of 209 miles to the Roberts� hometown) to support the superintendent as he insisted that Lance Roberts would not be allowed to use his cane in school. Instead Lance must use a pre-cane in the form of a walker made of PVC pipes.

After all, said the O&M instructors from the residential school for the blind, Lance was not safe with a cane and would endanger himself and other children; and then the school, the superintendent, the town, the teachers, and the O&M instructor himself--everyone remotely connected with Lance, it seems--would be liable and would be sued for a vast amount of cash.

Mom and Dad Roberts recognized that the scare tactics of the O&M instructor were simply an excuse for poor service, inferior instruction, and most of all low expectations. But, as is so often the case, the familiar ploy of teaching fear worked. The superintendent declared to the thirteen people sitting at the table that the O&M instructors from the school for the blind would be his experts, regardless of the presence of national expertise just sixty-four miles from the IEP meeting.

Several times during the stress-filled meeting, the superintendent and his so-called experts alluded to Lance�s attending the state residential school for the blind, which was home base for the two O&M instructors. This option was clearly inappropriate for Lance and totally unacceptable to his parents. For nearly three hours a Louisiana tugboat pilot and his wife weathered yet another Louisiana storm, this time inland and in the form of a contentious IEP meeting. Among the statements (many of which were legally questionable at best) that were made to the incredulous, beleaguered parents was one statement for the books. In a heated exchange the superintendent clearly delineated his position and spoke for the parish education system--in reference to the absence of qualified personnel to teach Lance, he curtly replied to Lance�s mother, �It�s not my problem.�

It�s not my problem. You think that might make a good campaign slogan for the next school board election in the parish? Or maybe a national response to No Child Left Behind from educational leaders like this one?

I said earlier that no one in the parish is trained in blindness. That�s not true. Dee Roberts is taking a Braille course through Louisiana Tech University, and a little birdie tells me that she has one of the best grades in the class. She has spent hours in Ruston talking with Federationists who direct and teach the programs at Louisiana Tech University and the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Last Tuesday night after class, she sat on the curb under a streetlight with a teacher of blind children who graduated from Louisiana Tech�s master�s degree program in teaching blind students. They were deeply engrossed in a discussion of blindness, services, and IEPs when I waved goodnight to them. I assure you Lance�s mom learned more on that curb Tuesday night than the declared experts for Lance�s school district will ever know about blindness.

Dee took home a copy of Future Reflections (the National Federation of the Blind�s magazine for parents of blind children). She has been so eager to learn about blindness that I was puzzled when I asked her after class one night if she had read the literature on blindness I had given her, and she answered, no. But she was exonerated when Damen called my office. He was many miles from his hometown. He called from his tugboat off the shores of Houston. Seems he had taken Dee�s copy of Future Reflections to read to get ready for last Friday�s IEP. He had read it several times, he said, and had a couple of questions--he even quoted from it.

Damen and Dee Roberts are dedicated, loving parents who will do almost anything to ensure that Lance has the chance to live a normal, full life. They are learning from the real experts. They are meeting skilled, competent blind adults. Federationist Dr. Edward Bell, director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness and coordinator of Louisiana Tech�s O&M program, was the first blind man either parent had met. Along with her courses from Louisiana Tech, Dee is getting mobility lessons from NOMC-certified Roland Allen at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. And the tugboat pilot? Since last Friday he�s been fitted for a long white cane so he can practice traveling under sleepshades.

Even though the Robertses will have to weather many more storms created by the education system, I�m not too worried about them. They are learning--and fast--not from self-styled experts, but the real deal--the National Federation of the Blind.

To their parish school system the Robertses now offer a last Yogi-ism, �It ain�t over till it�s over.� And the Robertses are just getting started with the National Federation of the Blind. Oh, and in case you don�t know, where do you think the Roberts family packed up and went this weekend? That�s right. They�ll be here through tomorrow�s session, so when you see them, teach them what a Federation greeting is.

If you are interested in helping us change things for all the Lances, come join us at Louisiana Tech. If you were a part of the gathering yesterday at noon that cheered Lance as he used his cane to walk independently down several steps for the first time in his life, you know the excitement of watching a little life take off. Come join us. Until you experience it yourself, it is impossible to describe the rush you get when your first-grade Braille student giggles wildly at his Frog and Toad storybook or begs to read The King, the Mouse and the Cheese book to you for the sixth time this week. Come join us. Are you like Emily, one of the current students in the Louisiana Tech TBS program, when I asked her why she was in the program? She said she wanted to make a difference. Do you? Come join us. If you want a degree in teaching blind children or orientation and mobility from the only university programs in the United States based on Federation philosophy, please talk to us.

Four of our current teachers in training are here and will also be happy to talk with you about the programs. You can call me, Dr. Ruby Ryles, or Dr. Edward Bell at (318) 257-4554. Or if you forget that number, just call the Louisiana Center for the Blind at (800) 234-4166, and Zena Pearcy will get you in touch with us.

Stay active in the National Federation of the Blind. Together we are making a difference for tomorrow�s blind kids.

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