by Kae L. Seth

We are in tough times, there is no doubt of that. The blind community in Oregon knows this better than most. During the past year, we have lost a valuable resource. Portland State University has closed its doors to the only training program for teachers of the visually impaired in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon Commission for the Blind, a state agency which serves the adult blind population, has been threatened with closure and is being scrutinized carefully by the Oregon Ways and Means Human Services Committee. Most sadly, the Oregon School for the Blind will close its doors on Sept. 1, 2009, after serving blind Oregonians for over 136 years.

I could spend a lot of time and space telling you of the great accomplishments of this school, but I want to tell you the story of how this travesty occurred. I want to talk about unsung heroes who attempted to stand on the front lines fighting for this worthy educational endeavor, and I want to urge the American Council of the Blind to stand fast in the fight for education of blind children in our nation.

The Oregon School for the Blind has been on shaky ground for a very long time. When I joined the American Council of the Blind of Oregon in the late 1970s, we began even then to hear of great changes in the education of blind children throughout the United States. These changes affected all blind children, and the schools which were created to provide the best possible education for them had to either move forward in the vast wave of federal and state legislation or get swallowed up and become lost. We as an organization worked hard to ensure that the students served in our state school received the best possible education, but as time marched on, the legislature and the Oregon Department of Education found ways through lack of funding, and lack of leadership, to scale down services and move toward the eventual closure of this fine educational institution.

For more than 20 years, as our legislature met to consider budgets and other weighty matters, we fought to keep the school for the blind open. Such stalwarts as Kim and Brian Charlson, along with Mildred Gibbens, testified unceasingly for the school. Parents, teachers, staff, and friends joined forces time and time again to fight for this school. However, this time, although we joined forces with the NFB of Oregon, and although former legislator Kevin Mannix spoke strongly in our favor, the legislature crafted a bill which brought death to this school and forced those students who were there to move back into school districts already overburdened.

Oregon has approximately 800 blind and visually impaired children within its borders; many of these children do go to public school, but O.S.B. provided a place for students who could not function well under the programs presented in their school districts. Most of these students had multiple disabilities, and the school districts could not cope with them. They found that the Oregon School for the Blind could provide an education for them, and it often helped a student who was lacking in all the things which make us confident and independent to become a self-sufficient, happy person.

So, then, why would the state wish for its closure? Because of the cost of educating a blind child, and maintaining an archaic set of historic buildings. Many times it was suggested that blind children co-locate (or move) to the Oregon School for the Deaf. Both the blind and deaf communities resisted this, although the Department of Education made it apparent that this was its strong desire. Even after the board of directors of the Oregon School for the Blind opposed this desire and appealed the decision to do so by the education department, it was apparent that there would soon be a showdown regarding the school for the blind.

House Bill 2834 was introduced in February. It would close the school for the blind effective Sept. 1 and abolish the legislatively mandated board of directors. Staff would be displaced, and students would return to their school districts to finish out their education. A program would be developed to ensure a smooth transition, and the school and its buildings would be put into mothballs awaiting sale of this $10 million or more property.

Despite strong outcries from consumer organizations of and for the blind, in spite of hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and newspaper articles — even with resounding testimony from over 40 people in opposition, the legislature moved forward to “do what was best” for blind students.

There was constant communication with legislators, both on the House and Senate sides, but those of us who were on the front lines of this fight were told repeatedly that this bill was on a fast track, that there was nothing we could do to stop this wildfire.

We tried, with countless trips to Salem, numerous phone calls, and hearings attended by many; but, to no avail. The House and Senate passed this bill and the governor signed it, which set forth the closure of the Oregon School for the Blind.

Parents, children and friends of the school were shocked, for Oregon in its past was known for its strong support of the blind. Now, what would happen to these students, who must adapt to another change and try to learn how to cope in a pretty unfriendly world? Teachers of the visually impaired who work in our regional programs for the blind are hard-working, dedicated individuals; they have a heavy load to carry; adding to it is a grave concern to many. Districts are scrambling to cope with tight budgets, and now they are mandated to work with a population which has spoken out when they haven’t done a great job in the past. Who will really suffer? The kids, and their parents. This will not be cost-effective; equipment and education of a blind child is expensive.

So, what would be done?

The board of directors developed a master plan which we hoped would provide resources for all workers of the blind to use to provide a continuum of service to blind children. We had hoped that the campus of the school would provide a site for such a program. This won’t happen, but those of us who are concerned about the blind of this state will demand answers from the Oregon Department of Education and we will remind our legislators in years to come who they’ve forgotten. We will remind them by not voting for them, and by putting before their faces children whose lives have been affected by this step backward in time.

Our blind children will have a strong voice, and I believe that ACB will join with us, making certain that our blind won’t stand alone.

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