As you read this, it is August; the height and heat of summer are upon us. It is, therefore, a perfectly good time to focus some attention on the growing national crisis affecting our state schools for the blind. Succinctly put: some schools have already been closed, or are being threatened with either consolidation with their counterparts for the deaf, or outright closure.
Let's take a step back for a few moments and offer some perspective. Schools for the blind have been around for nearly two centuries. In 1829, the first such institution, the Perkins School for the Blind, was chartered in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was followed within a year by the Overbrook School in Pennsylvania. These schools were just about the only places where blind children could receive any sort of education for well over 100 years.
Certainly, there were parents who managed to enroll their blind children in a neighborhood school here and there. However, up until the last 50 years or so, the norm was for the child with low or no vision to attend the state residential school for the blind. The concept of mainstreaming was virtually unheard of until the early 1970s when IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was passed by Congress.
While IDEA has meant that millions of children with disabilities have received a free, appropriate education, it has also resulted in a group of extremist educators and parents vigorously advocating for the elimination of all special schools, including schools for the blind. The total inclusionists, as I refer to them, argue that the term least restrictive environment (LRE), as found in IDEA, must be narrowly defined to mean a school setting in which children with disabilities are fully integrated with their non-disabled peers. Thus, a residential or day school for blind children is not, by definition, offering children an education in the least restrictive environment possible.
What is forgotten, or more likely ignored by these advocates, is yet another term found in IDEA: a continuum of services; meaning that there must be a range of educational options offered to the child with a disability. Depending upon the specific needs of that child, a residential school may be most appropriate during the students early years in order to learn to read and write braille, while the childs local school is the most appropriate setting later on, once those skills have been learned. The parents of that student have taken advantage of the continuum of services delineated in IDEA.
Several months ago, there was lively debate on the leadership list regarding whether schools for the blind were still necessary, given the prevalence of mainstreaming. Such discussion, while interesting, is really beside the point since IDEA clearly requires that a continuum of services be made available to children with disabilities. The other point missed by those within ACB who question the continued existence of such schools is our belief in the concept of informed choice. Just as we believe that blind and visually impaired people should be able to choose the type of rehabilitation curriculum which best meets their needs, we also believe that parents of blind or visually impaired children given information about the available placement options should likewise be able to choose the best school setting for their child.
Now add to this the severe recession that has adversely affected the country, not to mention almost every state. As of the middle of June, California is coping with a $24 billion deficit. Although the Golden State may be an extreme example of the overall problem, other states are certainly dealing with their own budgetary concerns. And because most schools for the blind have fairly low enrollments and relatively few stakeholders, they are looked upon by those wielding the budgetary axe in state capitols around the nation as easy targets for elimination. The Oregon School for the Blind has just been shuttered. The fates of the North Carolina and Illinois schools are in limbo as this is being written. The School for the Blind in Louisiana has been consolidated and moved to the campus of the School for the Deaf. There are probably other schools which, if not in immediate danger this year, will face the fiscal grim reaper at some time in the near future.
To make a difficult situation even worse, there is a critical shortage of personnel specially trained to teach blind children. There are literally hundreds of job vacancies around the country, a situation that will only be exacerbated by the aforementioned closures. Who will teach these children?
In response to growing concern expressed by many of our members, Ive established a Schools for the Blind Task Force to begin looking at what the American Council of the Blind may be able to do to assist our affiliates to save the remaining residential schools for the blind. This task force will include members from states where school closures have either already occurred, or are being seriously considered. Additionally, a prominent official of the organization representing schools for the blind has agreed to join this effort.
Regardless of your feelings about residential schools for the blind, ACB has an obligation to such schools and the parents who believe they represent a viable option for their children. IDEA justifies the existence of schools for the blind and, so long as this is the case, the American Council of the Blind will fight to keep them open and independent.
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