(Editor's Note: "From Your Perspective" is a column that appears occasionally. Its contents vary from technology to religion, from internal goings-on to items of concern in the blindness field in general. The opinions expressed are those of the authors, not those of the American Council of the Blind, its staff or elected officials. "The Braille Forum" cannot be held responsible for the opinions expressed herein.)
After I graduated from Saint Joseph's School for the Blind in Jersey City, N.J., I went on to high school at Wildwood Catholic. That was in 1960, 48 years ago. I could have gone to a school for the blind but I chose the course which changed my life forever.
In some ways, I envy the young blind person who is approaching this life-changing decision right now. Technology has advanced to such an extent that this young individual has a remarkable chance for success if he or she is capable of using the equipment which is now available. But all of the technology in the world is not going to prepare any young blind student for the challenges of attending high school. The problem isn't the subject matter, the tests or even the transportation. It is how this person without sight will deal with a world in which he or she is an exception. There are so many things that a sighted child relies on daily which are lacking in a blind child. Two children can communicate a great deal with a glance or a facial expression. They see and react almost instantly to the world around them. The blind child must depend on his or her senses, but sight, which makes up such a large part of growing up in this world we live in, is absent. As a result, the blind student might be subjected to any number of different reactions from his or her sighted classmates. Now, I'm going to invent some people to make this easier. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Kelly and Andy. Kelly is 13 and has just graduated from middle school. She is bright, intelligent and very outgoing in her own way. But Kelly is blind. Andy is also 13, has very little usable sight and he has attended a school for the blind. What is in their future? Which avenue will these children take to achieve the next level of education?
Kelly has decided to enter her local high school and is counting on the support she will receive from the Bureau for Blindness and Visual Services of Pennsylvania. Andy has a choice. He can continue his high school training at one of the schools for the blind or finish his schooling in a place for which he is not prepared. What happens to each of these children is the point I'm going to make.
Kelly has already been exposed to other children with sight. She was pulled out of class regularly during elementary school to learn braille and other skills which will serve her well in the future.
Andy has been educated in a state school for the blind. He has had all of the advantages of specialized training designed specifically for the visually impaired. He has never worried about where his next textbook will come from. He was taught braille and learned how to use a computer as a regular part of schooling. Andy attended a school in which his largest class was eight students. His teachers were able to give him a great deal of one-to-one help with the various problems he encountered along the way. Andy did compete with other children in his class, some of whom were disabled in other ways. He has learned from a very young age to accept people no matter what their talents or abilities. But his exposure to the real world is limited. As a graduate of a school for the blind, Andy will be well versed in every aspect of education. But he has never learned to relate to the sighted world around him. When he finally walks through that door, this young man is in for a tremendous shock. The world outside those walls won't be willing or able to give him anything except odd responses to his blindness, something he has never experienced before.
Kelly will adjust well to her new high-school surroundings. She may encounter some resistance from the other students, but she has learned how to interact with the world around her. Her blindness is a nuisance, not a disability.
If we took Andy out of his carefully planned and organized environment and exposed him to the chaos of walking through a hall in a public or parochial school, he would be shocked and maybe even frightened. He wouldn't know how to adjust his schedules to allow for free periods devoted to taking tests or having material read to him which wasn't available in a more accessible form. He would have to learn all of these skills from the ground up. But Andy's biggest hurdles won't be the education. He will be a complete outcast. He has never been exposed to the ridicule and laughter of other children when he wore something that wasn't cool. He wouldn't have suffered the so-called humor which is an everyday part of high school life. For quite a while, Andy would wish that he had never chosen a public school and had stayed at the school for the blind for his high-school years.
My point is that blind children, just like the rest of us, will have to learn to live in a sighted world. Schools for the blind are good as beginnings. In an environment like that, the child can learn the skills he will need later. Learning braille in a school like that is best. There is no guarantee that he would receive the same quality of braille training in an outside location. A child can learn to use a computer best when the teacher knows the abilities and limitations of her blind student. Again, that might not be the case if the child tried to learn on the outside. Why not give blind children the basics they'll need in a closed environment like that? But each blind child should be introduced into the real world at every opportunity. I believe that there is a place for specialized schooling, but it cannot possibly be the final solution. Schools for the blind still exist today, but their students are often people with multiple disabilities in addition to blindness.
If a blind child is exposed to regular schooling with supplementary special education for his special needs, that level of training might vary from state to state based on budgetary considerations, available staff or something as simple as state legislation. There is no guarantee that a child will get the help he or she needs consistently. Blind children raised in a sighted environment are often exposed to extreme levels of cruelty from other students. Children like this must have the support they need to survive that kind of treatment.
The answer is certainly not locking a blind child away for most of his or her life and then ejecting him into a world which is poorly prepared to deal with that kind of problem. The only way that any child with a visual impairment can exist and grow is with a set of skills and abilities that have to be reliably taught at a very young age. So many people who are now living on their own were unable to face that tremendous crash. After their schooling was completed, they withdrew and never were able to achieve anything significant. Why is this true? The world would prefer that we go away and not bother them. This is an indisputable truth. When someone is rejected time after time, he or she might just back away and reach the conclusion that the pain and frustration just aren't worth it. If that same unforgiving society then provides the blind person with a way to survive without working, then many will make that choice. I have heard it time and time again. "Why should I go where I'm not wanted?" Why indeed? It all begins with the children. If they learn independence early, then they will be independent through their entire lives. Conversely, if the child is never taught to exist in the sighted world, then he or she might find it so much easier to live a quiet existence where there is no challenge, no confrontation, no pain.
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