School Days: Dark Days for Blind Children?
by Mitch Pomerantz

It's August as you read this. School administrators and teachers throughout the nation are in final preparation for the beginning of the fall term. Perhaps some schools have already opened their doors, but most will not do so until after Labor Day.

At this time of year, children are filled with a mixture of sadness and anticipation: sadness over their pending loss of relative freedom and adventure, anticipation over the making of friends and learning new things. That was certainly how I felt around this time of year; I enjoyed sleeping in, reading, the occasional day trip to some fun destination, but mostly, the knowledge that I had far fewer responsibilities than I would once school was back in session. Nonetheless, I also looked forward to getting together with friends, particularly in elementary school where we were bussed in from all over Los Angeles County and didn't get to see school chums during the summer who lived some distance away.

Parents, too, face the upcoming school year with mixed emotions about what may lie ahead relative to the education of their children. Even prior to the recession which began during the summer of 2008, school districts around the country were feeling the economic pinch from increasingly cash-strapped state governments. Here in California, to use a well-documented example, education commands the largest share of the budgetary pie, and is thus ripe for trimming by budget-cutting politicians. While the experts tell us that we are stumbling our way out of the morasse, most states are still dealing with deficits which make it all but certain that local school districts will be receiving less in the way of revenues in the years to come. Class size in almost every district in the formerly Golden State is increasing as more (nearly always younger and more committed) teachers receive lay-off notices.

For parents of blind and visually impaired children, the outlook is perhaps more serious still. If they want their children to learn braille and the other blindness-related skills necessary for them to be truly competitive in today's society, parents often have to engage in long, exhausting battles with local district officials who would prefer to avoid the expense involved in hiring, even on a part-time basis, a certified braille instructor. This little war is currently being fought just south of me in a district in Orange County with assistance and support from a member of the California Council of the Blind. In an increasing number of instances, particularly in southern California, parents of blind children are unable or unwilling to fight the necessary battle. A growing number of these parents are monolingual Spanish speakers. They come from countries where parents have few if any rights to challenge education authorities, so when a school official here informs them at an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting that their child doesn't need to learn braille, the parent simply accepts the fact and goes away.

The issue of how and where to educate blind and visually impaired children is particularly relevant to the members of the American Council of the Blind who worry about the future education of such children, meaning most of us. In May, this was a hot topic on ACB's general e-mail list and the bulk of my remaining comments will expand upon my initial post to the list on this topic.

First, I absolutely believe there is a connection between the growing braille illiteracy rate and mainstreaming. In our remaining residential schools braille was, and still is, mandatory, assuming the child is capable of learning it. That's hardly the case in the vast majority of the nation's school districts today. Other than in the more affluent or larger urban districts, you are unlikely to find adequate numbers of certified braille instructors (more on that shortly). In the poorer or more rural districts, you are far more likely to see itinerant teachers with a workload that only permits them to see a child for an hour a week. That is wholly inadequate to teach braille reading and writing.

As I've mentioned previously, I attended a kindergarten through sixth grade elementary day school for blind and visually impaired children (I believe the last remaining program of its kind in the country) which was connected to a regular elementary school. As such we received our braille instruction all day, every day. In both junior (now middle) and senior high school I attended a resource program where most of our textbooks were in braille and our tests were either converted to that medium or we were provided with a reader. In short, I and my fellow blind students were immersed in braille throughout our primary and secondary school years. That is highly unlikely in today's mainstream school environment unless the district has access to, and can hire, a full-time braille teacher.

Second, the number of certified braille teachers is going down significantly. Scores, perhaps hundreds, are nearing retirement age and there appears to be little or no effort to recruit anyone, particularly blind and visually impaired young people, to take their place. Regardless of whether you believe that our unemployment rate is 70 percent or not, no one reading these words would argue that it's acceptable or that teaching isn't a profession which will be in great demand for many years to come.

This impending shortage is compounded by a decreasing number of teacher preparation programs around the country. A major exception is Portland State's program which closed for a year; but thankfully, the powers that be did a 180 and decided that it would reopen later this year. The only way new teacher preparation programs will be launched is if education faculties around the country start seeing a need for such programs. So, we have a conundrum: with more children attending mainstream schools rather than centralized in residential facilities, from where are more braille teachers going to come?

Third, I have been a disability-awareness trainer for over 30 years, so I think I understand a little something about societal attitudes toward blindness and disability. There is probably a great deal of truth in the idea -- put forward by the advocates for mainstreaming -- that exposing sighted/non-disabled children to blind/disabled children at an early age is a good thing overall. There are studies to validate this notion and it does make basic sense. If a child is exposed to disability at an early age and that experience is basically a positive one, then that child will be more accepting of disability later in life. This, the proponents argue, means that the employer who had a childhood buddy with a disability will be less likely to bypass a job applicant with a disability when confronted with that situation.

However, and perhaps this makes me old-fashioned, that's not why blind children go to school. I believe that they go to school in order to get a good, solid education in the things they need to be successful when they grow up. They are not in school to teach other kids that they're just like everyone else. By the way, I don't believe that sighted/non-disabled children go to school to learn that blind/disabled kids are just like everyone else either. Has anyone noticed that over the past two decades, the highest achieving science and math students in college weren't born here; or if they were, they are second-generation emigres from abroad? In my opinion, that's because our schools have focused on teaching self-esteem and tolerance and gotten away from teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. I believe those people who stress mainstreaming as a way to change attitudes have lost sight (pun unintended) of the real point here. The only reason for blind and sighted children to be in school is to obtain a good, well-rounded education.

Fourth, and finally, while the federal government pays lip service to spending more dollars for education (special and otherwise), it isn't happening. Weren't we assured on more than one occasion that IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) would receive full funding from Washington? Currently, each state picks up the lion's share of the bill for educating students with disabilities and that's another financial burden weighing down the budgets of most states.

Once again using Los Angeles as an example, the elementary school I mentioned previously will not have an assistant principal next year. The principal position was restored after a very strong letter was sent to the board and school superintendent outlining the difficulties which would occur if that position were not retained. The high school in the San Fernando Valley which has housed the resource room for blind and visually impaired children for nearly 50 years became a charter school and the governing board has just decreed the closure of that resource program after the last blind child graduates next year. While there is another resource program in the area, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that the L.A. Unified School District is an unmitigated disaster, and I would not place a sighted or a blind child in a district school for a quality education. I suspect the same can be said about the districts in many, perhaps most, of our major cities.

It should be abundantly clear that I am extremely concerned for the future of our children and especially for our blind and visually impaired children, given the general direction our public education system is heading. Sadly, in this climate, those children are no more than an afterthought in the minds of educators and politicians. We in the American Council of the Blind must take the initiative in this regard. It isn't enough to have a task force focusing on the plight of our residential schools. Each of us must begin taking an active role in seeing that our school districts provide a quality education -- including the teaching of braille -- to all blind students attending schools in those local districts. Doing less would be to fail the current and subsequent generations of blind children. We cannot afford that failure.

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