September 15, 2002
The American Council of the Blind ( http://www.acb.org ) is a national consumer organization of blind persons with a long history of commitment to improving opportunities for blind individuals to learn, work, participate in community activities, raise families, and contribute to a better society for all Americans. As an organization of concerned and responsible adults, the ACB seeks to make it known that the future of blind and visually impaired children is at risk of being wasted as the result of a faulty educational system.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) sets out in Federal law how children with disabilities will be educated in our schools. While it has certainly made a positive difference for many disability groups, its impact on the lives of children with visual impairments has been far less easy to assess. Seventy-five percent of all blind children already attended public school before IDEA was implemented. Over the years, IDEA has actually had the effect of limiting educational and social development of blind and visually impaired children. We believe that this is because of the nature of the law which focuses attention on process rather than on performance and favors adherence to philosophical principles such as the least restrictive environment and full inclusion over the need to plan the education of each child based on that child's needs.
This paper focuses on three major aspects of an appropriate education: people, tools, and environment. By looking at each of these we paint a picture of a system that is fundamentally flawed and does not educate blind children to their full potential. After we describe our concerns we suggest changes that we believe can substantially and positively impact the educational and social success of children who are blind.
One of the primary prerequisites for the successful education of any child is the people involved in that process. Parents, classroom teachers and specialized personnel versed in the disability-specific training needs of the children must all function individually and collectivly to optimize performance. Too often, this does not happen.
Many parents of blind children are afraid to intervene with the school system on their child's behalf. They may feel that their child is in need of specific instruction, however, the school system isn't convinced such instruction is necessary, and therefore not willing to recommend it in the student's education plan. Parents, generally, are not adequately informed of their rights, and often think that the educational professionals must know what's best for their child. Parents often fear retaliation or retribution against their child in the future, and will not press for services that they believe would be beneficial in order to avoid angering the school system. While parents are dealing with the entire spectrum of educational requirements for their child, many parents are also coping with feelings of guilt that their child has a "disability."
Mainstream classroom teachers have not had enough opportunity or have chosen not to take advantage of specialized training to work effectively with children with severe disabilities. Consequently, general education teachers either ignore the blind child in their classroom or smother the child with inappropriate attention. Qualified and experienced teachers of the visually impaired remain scarce and are concentrated primarily in urban areas.
In many school districts teachers specializing in serving blind and visually impaired students are not the norm. Instead, teachers are hired with a generalist disability qualification that have no notion of how to teach the blindness-specific skills that are so essential to a child's future. In other cases, para-professionals take the place of fully certified teachers placing the specialized instruction blind and visually impaired children require even further out of reach.
A core value of IDEA holds that placing a child in a classroom with mostly non-disabled students encourages integration and acceptance by their chronological peers. Unfortunately, this theory seldom occurs in reality for blind children. Because many classroom teachers have little knowledge about dealing with blind children or have minimal expectations of their capabilities, they allow isolation of the blind child by classmates, leading to poor social development and low self-confidence. Either mainstream teachers give blind students too much attention or they ignore them and leave all the training to a specialist itinerant teacher of the blind or to a teacher's aide. It should be noted that, with the rise of the concept of full inclusion, it is becoming increasingly popular to assign a teacher's aide to assist the teacher and the student. Too often, the aide ends up doing much of the work for both the teacher and the student. Moreover, aides frequently lack training in the specialized techniques blind children must learn.
For too long, blind children have been isolated academically and socially within the general classroom because the general education staff does not consider it their responsibility to teach blind children, because special educators with expertise in Braille, assistive technology, and other services are in short supply, and because print information, such as textbooks, daily worksheets, library materials, and building signage, are not simultaneously accessible to blind students. The isolation has resulted in woefully inadequate academic and social learning, leaving blind students ill equipped for self-direction, independent living, and employment. All educators must consider blind children to be truly "included" in general education first, provide equal access to the academic, social, and extracurricular activities of the school, and take specific steps to provide for the specialized instructional needs of each blind student. The net result of all the "people" issues is that the blind child is not acquiring the skills he or she needs to be successful and independent, and is not feeling accepted in the very full inclusion environment that is supposed to create a sense of belonging.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
No child can be successful in school without the right tools. Educators are now convinced that these tools include real literacy, access to and training in the use of computers, opportunities to explore careers, and enough life experience and sufficient sense of self to allow the student to believe that he or she can learn.
A comprehensive range of specific needs (a Core Curriculum) must be met in the education of a child who is blind. These include: orientation and mobility (teaching the child to understand spatial position and travel independently); daily living skills (training to live independently, including maintaining clothing, preparing meals, cleaning, and managing money); blindness-specific computer training (use of an audible screen reader, large print magnification or a Braille display, keyboard skills, access games, word processing, and other programs); and, of course, Braille instruction (teaching the child to read using the Braille system). Without training in these areas, the blind person, no matter how intelligent, is not equipped to function effectively and competitively in the real world. There is alarming evidence that blind students are not receiving Braille instruction. Without Braille, many blind students end up graduating from high school functionally illiterate, lacking the ability to read and write in a medium they can access independently. It is not sufficient to be able to use a tape recorder or a computer. Both approaches can supplement literacy skills, but can never substitute for Braille. Blind students must develop strong literacy skills in Braille first and foremost.
As suggested earlier, there is a set of additional tools that a blind child must learn to use. These most often include a white cane; low vision aids, or after a child is at least sixteen years of age, a guide dog. Serious teacher shortages, administrator apprehension of lawsuits, and insufficient time in the school day impede the acquisition of critical orientation and mobility skills.
The issue of technology is much more complex and much harder to impact. Often, school districts are prepared to provide technology for students who are blind or visually impaired, though frequently without appropriate evaluation of the effectiveness of the specific technology. Moreover, useful technology is made available to the student exclusively at school. As a result, the student is learning skills at school, which promote independence while being forced to depend on others for help at home. This kind of mixed message only serves to deepen the child's sense that he or she will never truly become independent. Appropriate technology must be available both at home and at school.
A designated staff person needs to be identified to learn how to use and teach the technology. All too often, classroom teachers have no notion of how to make access technology work in the school. They generally don't know if it will work with the specific software that the class is using and simply don't have the time to find out. So, by default, the technology access becomes the job of the vision teacher or the aide. Unfortunately, even fully certified vision teachers don't know how to use and teach their students to use assistive technology and don't know what to do with that access technology when it is received. Often blind students finish high school with no personal training in independent access of technology.
Teachers are comfortable with letting the aide or the vision teacher make sure that the student's mandatory computer competencies are met. Usually this involves having someone else do the work for the student. Much of the time the access technology is just turned off so it doesn't disturb the rest of the class.
Perhaps the most important single change in the provision of education in the last decade has involved the implementation of mandatory vocational counseling for all students. Planning for and exploring career options now begins in elementary school in virtually every state. Unfortunately, it does not begin and, in fact, doesn't usually happen at all for blind students. This reinforces and deepens their sense of difference and serves to reinforce their low self-esteem and the belief that they probably can'twork anyway.
We cannot and must not judge the success of education simply on the basis of academic performance. Clearly, as a recent OSERS survey indicated, when 95 percent of the blind students graduating from high school have held no job or participated in any extra- curricular activities, we must question their possession of the social tools they need to survive in the post-school world.
Differences deepen when classmates have print textbooks, but the school does not make them simultaneously accessible to the blind student. The rest of the class receives print worksheets and handout materials, but blind students do not receive the information at all or at a much later time, creating a separate and unequal environment. Despite the law and regardless of the fact that technology exists that makes it fairly easy to produce accessible materials quickly, schools do not take the necessary steps to provide an appropriate education with simultaneous access to all curriculum materials. The failure to provide information in an accessible format simultaneously with information provided to other students certainly constitutes unequal treatment, which is contrary to IDEA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act. How can we expect blind children to thrive when the tools that are available for everyone else are not simultaneously available to them?
The objective of every school must surely be to create an environment in which children can learn effectively. Clearly, many blind children in a mainstream classroom do not have access to such an environment. While IDEA has always allowed for the "continuum of services" which means it supports the notion that all children need not be educated solely in a classroom with non-disabled students, practice has moved towards inclusion. A continuum of educational placements was supposed to be a fundamental part of IDEA but has failed to appear. With the emergence of full inclusion it is becoming more and more common to see blind children educated in a single classroom using aides to help them. This environment assures that the very skills that are so essential for the success of blind people such as Braille, orientation and mobility and independent living skills are not being taught. Furthermore, placements once made, seem to become permanent not allowing for the growth and changing needs of a child over the twelve years of their education.
Long before IDEA such models as the "resource room" created a central classroom in a school where all the blind children would spend part of their school day learning blindness skills. This system worked. With IDEA resource rooms have become far less widely used partly because children who are blind are not being sent to any single school in large enough numbers to justify resource room creation. When possible, these classrooms can successfully provide both specialized instruction and important socialization opportunities for blind students to develop a positive self-image as individuals with blindness.
For other blind children, a school for the blind may be the most appropriate place for education, both because it assures that the blindness-specific skills that are so necessary are taught and because it offers an environment where healthy socialization can happen. We believe blind students need socialization, not only with non-disabled students, but also with other blind students, in order to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. Schools for the blind also provide for the employment of teachers with highly specialized skills such as mathematics and music for those who use Braille and specialized equipment for the teaching of science and geography.
Currently in many states, a struggle continues between local school districts and schools for the blind as to which placement option will prevail. What works best for the student is often a combination of local school placement and temporary placement at the state's school for the blind. This partnership allows the student to take advantage of the expertise of the school for the blind to learn essential skills such as Braille for general reading, mathematics and science, and for music; orientation and mobility training, adaptive physical education, techniques of daily living, and field trips and other social opportunities that cannot be replicated on the local level. The originating purpose of IDEA centered on the needs of the disabled child and not that of the educational institution. Where has this principle gone?
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
In the past, the blindness community has tried to work with all elements of the education system to make the law work to the advantage of students who are blind. We believe that we now have no choice but to seek to impact an intransigent bureaucracy by changing the law itself. For the sake of generations of blind children we must mandate changes that equalize the playing field for blind children so that they have a chance to become all that they can be. Our proposals fit well into the three categories of this paper and, in the following paragraphs, we will describe how our changes to the law will impact each of these areas.
Most of our proposals relate to people. Right now, teachers who must work with children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms have no more than a single survey course on disability. We propose that all teachers in all states be required to have at least nine credits of disability-related education (including blindness) to acquire or retain their teacher certification. We allow a five-year period for bringing teachers up to this level and urge the Federal government to earmark funds to support this initiative.
We believe that the current funding formula for low-incidence populations under personnel preparation has disadvantaged programs preparing specialists in the blindness field, which is part of the reason that so many programs are finding it hard to survive. We propose that thirty-five percent of the funding allocated for personnel preparation for special education be allocated to low-incidence populations and that twenty percent of that sum be specifically allocated to programs that train specialists to serve blind children.
Parents need to know what the options are for their children. To encourage the recognition of the range of choices that might best serve their children, we propose requiring each school district to provide parents with a document that lists the range of options both within and out of state that might be appropriate for their child. This document should be mailed along with the notice of the IEP so that parents have time to read it before the team meeting.
In order to assure that blind children and their teachers have the tools they need to be successful, we include two major proposals. First, we propose amending IDEA so that the core curriculum is expanded to include instruction in orientation and mobility, assistive technology, daily living skills, and low vision.
Second, we have asked the Secretary of Education to create a priority during this funding cycle to train teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, and students to utilize access technology.
Obviously, there is overlap among these areas. In terms of affecting the environment in which education is delivered, we make several proposals. First, if children are to be educated in a mainstream classroom, we propose that the law be amended to assure that they are not so disadvantaged as they are now. We propose that they have access to technology, hand-outs, textbooks, classroom activities, field trips, audio-visual presentations, notices and all other activities conducted in the classroom at the same time as they are available to their non-disabled peers.
We also propose that one of the requirements for all blind students regardless of their environment is that the expanded core curriculum described earlier becomes a part of IDEA.
Finally, we propose that the definition of least restrictive environment be amended to include two exceptions instead of one. Currently the law says that a child whose disability is so severe that education in the mainstream classroom is not appropriate may be placed elsewhere. We propose the suggestion that a child whose educational needs can best be met, in the opinion of the IEP team, in an environment other than the mainstream classroom that child can be placed elsewhere along the continuum of services.
The changes proposed here are crucial to creating an educational system that will assure blind children the opportunity to learn and grow into adults who can take their proper place in the world. That is what education is all about for all children. Can we ask for less for those who are blind?
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