Future Reflections Fall 1991

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by Robert Scally

Editor's Note: Carol and David Keir are the parents of Cyrus, a blind third-grader who attends the public school in San Diego. Carol and David are also members of the San Diego County Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind and take an active role in the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division and its California affiliate. The following article by free-lance writer Robert Scally was originally published in MAINSTREAM, December 1989-January 1990, then later reprinted in The Blind Citizen, the NFB of California newsletter. Over a year later, Carol and David state that they now have a good working relationship with the school and Cyrus's Braille and mobility teachers. Cyrus has been learning Braille and will make the transition from print to Braille textbooks this year. Carol would have preferred a swifter transition, but feels the compromise has been acceptable.

Carol Keir never expected to have to fight her local school system to make sure her son became literate.

"I went out and got myself educated. If I was going to be affected by all this, I better go out and learn what these professionals were talking about," Keir said. "When I first got involved in the (educational) system, common sense told us, OK, here's a child that's never going to see well and he has a congenital condition that's only going to get worse...the likelihood of his having any sight when he reaches adulthood is very minimal."

When Keir's son Cyrus, who has glaucoma, was beginning kindergarten, education professionals told Keir basically, "You don't want the child to stick out and appear handicapped; you want him to appear normal." Educators told her that teaching Cyrus Braille would make him appear handicapped. Keir found that because of varying beliefs and theories educators have about how mainstreaming relates to certain types of disabilities, her son would not be taught Braille until he was in the third grade and had already fallen behind.

She was determined to not wait until Cyrus, now six years old and in the first grade, fell behind to begin teaching him Braille. "The approach of special education administrators in the past has been to mainstream children, especially those with just one disability like Cyrus, socialize the child and then intervene reluctantly when the child flounders," Keir said.

At first the Keirs went along with the recommendations of educators, who also told them it was difficult to teach young children Braille.

"Fortunately, we had met blind adults who did learn Braille when they were four, five, and six years old and learned it very well because they had teachers who knew how to teach it," Keir said. "They told us it was a bunch of bull. Since when is it difficult to teach young children Braille when it had been done successfully for over 100 years?" With that seed of doubt planted in their minds, Keir and her husband, David, began to inquire.

What it gets down to is not many teachers know how to teach Braille anymore because you want the child to appear normal," Keir said. "What it boiled down to in the normal classroom setting," Keir said, "is other children in the classroom quickly learned that Cyrus had a problem with his vision and did things differently. The classroom teacher, of course, was well aware of the Cyrus disability. Both the students and the teacher accepted Cyrus on a social level, making the question of his appearing normal a moot point compared with his need to be literate and prepared for the challenges of eventually becoming totally sightless in a very competitive world."

"Lawsuits," Keir said, "have put a great deal of pressure on schools to emphasize mainstreaming, even in cases where doing some things the old fashioned way makes more sense. "In some ways they've just gone a little too extreme making sure the children are in a normal setting," Keir said.

The danger that Keir foresaw for Cyrus, a bright and active child, was that even though he currently has some residual vision it would soon become difficult for him to learn subjects, such as advanced mathematics, through the use of audio tapes and large print. At one point a teacher's aide even accused the Keirs of cruelty because they were "pushing their son into Braille at such an early age.

One of Keir's advisors, a blind attorney who also has a blind son, told them to be prepared to have to fight the system for as long as their child is in school.

"The whole thing is not to be antagonistic," Keir said. "They're (the schools) trying to do the best job possible. You're not out to be antagonistic with the system, but you want to make sure your child doesn't fall through the cracks."

"I went to the library and checked out some books about education of blind children and pretty much found that the professionals do not agree," Keir said. Keir explains that through her research she has come to believe that some of the problems surrounding how to teach partially sighted children come from when the teachers and administrators involved graduated from college and graduate school. As each new theory was advanced, teacher's colleges produced new educators steeped in that particular theory.

"Many of the teachers working in the field today hold on to whichever theory they were taught in school. Since most of these different schools of thought have come about in the past three decades, there are many working teachers from each era, a phenomenon that leads to confusion and differences over approach, Keir says.

The next step after doing library research was to talk to other blind adults and contact various advocacy groups for the blind and other disabled persons such as the National Federation of the Blind, and TASK (Team of Advocates for Special Kids) a parent support/advocacy group based in Orange County, California. "We found out we had rights," Keir said.

By the time Cyrus was ready to enter kindergarten, special education administrators in the Keir's school district already knew the family did not agree with their philosophy of introducing Braille at the third-grade level for partially sighted children. When it came time to sign Cyrus's Individual Education Plan, the Keirs refused to sign unless the school agreed to include Braille right from the beginning.

The Keirs themselves decided to help their son learn Braille by themselves learning Braille at the same time. Through a group called Twin Vision (American Brotherhood for the Blind), a group of volunteers that transcribe books for the blind, the Keirs began to learn Braille and found that even though the teaching of Braille is becoming a lost art because of the rise of other technologies, good Braille teachers still exist.

Cyrus is in a regular classroom setting. His grades are faltering somewhat because he is having trouble with large print. But he's making the transition to Braille, a transition that is being made only after Keir and her husband insisted the school teach him Braille beginning in the first grade, not the third grade as originally recommended by his school district's special education administrators.

"When push comes to shove, Braille is like using pencil and paper. If you can't use pencil and paper, what good's a computer going to do you?" Keir points out.

New technologies, such as talking computers and closed circuit television magnifiers (CCTV) are fine, Keir said, but expensive devices might not always be available once a partially blind person reaches the age of 18 and has to go to college or work. Some of the technologies, while effective, do have drawbacks, Keir notes.

"Reading 20 words a minute on a CCTV is fine, but it isn't going to get you through college," Keir said. "They have their place, but they're not a cure-all. As one college professor said, "How many CCTVs have you seen out there on picnic tables being used to play a Scrabble game?"

Currently, Cyrus is in an itinerant setting at school, spending much of his day in a typical classroom while receiving special instruction a few hours per week.

What is Keir's ultimate goal for her son? "Get him literate. Literate and independent."

Already Cyrus is on his way to independence by using a combination of old methods and mainstreaming ideas. For now he doesn't seem concerned with being blind as long as he can do things on his own. When it came time for Cyrus to go trick-or-treating last Halloween, he said he didn't want to hold his mom's hand.

"He used his cane and got along fine."

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