February 2003 • Volume 97Number 2

Speaker’s Corner

Cannibalism is Alive and Well in the Blindness Field

For the purposes of my remarks, I refer to two definitions of cannibalism: 1. (from the dictionary): The practice of an animal devouring its own kind. 2. (from my mother): Biting off your nose to spite your face. I see these two approaches to cannibalism on a continuum of actions the blindness field has chosen when confronted with various issues instead of working with determination and creativity together to achieve common goals. This paper will deal with a few examples, from least barbaric (biting off your nose) to most barbaric (devouring your own kind).

Itinerant teaching

The field’s adoption of the itinerant teaching model for service delivery has allowed students to stay in their neighborhood schools, but often at the expense of learning skills that only a trained teacher of visually impaired students can teach. The itinerant teaching model is by far the most popular service delivery option, and its development has been over 50 years in the making. However, during the past two decades, teachers have been required to serve such large geographic areas and caseloads that they can do little more than track accessible books and consult with various school personnel. Why is this model so popular? When a visually impaired student enrolls in a school or a student is newly identified as visually impaired, administrators often prefer to simply add that student to the caseload of an itinerant teacher who is already serving students in other schools, since it is far easier to add a student to an existing program than to recruit a difficult-to-find, trained teacher to serve in that school.

The blindness field’s embrace of the expanded core curriculum for our students has created a false sense of security. Although there is no doubt that disability-specific skills in the areas of social interaction, daily living, and adaptive techniques are necessary to success, very little, if any, of this curriculum can be taught under the itinerant model, due to time constraints. Unfortunately, the illusion of meeting students’ needs seems to satisfy some teachers and administrators and, as a result, has created generations of blind or visually impaired students who are unprepared for the adult world. Whose nose has been bitten—the teachers’ or the students’?

Paraprofessionals

There are approximately 6,700 full-time equivalent teachers of visually impaired students and 1,300 orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists serving approximately 93,600 children with visual impairments. To meet the needs of these children, we immediately need a total of 11,700 new teachers (both teachers of visually impaired students and teachers of deaf-blind students), as well as the same number of O&M specialists. Therefore, an additional 5,000 teachers of visually impaired students and over 10,000 O&M specialists need to be hired. The total number of new professionals graduating from university programs to work with students with visual impairments has fluctuated between 416 to 375 per year for the past seven years (see Mason, Davidson, & McNerney, 2000). These numbers clearly show that the field is in crisis regarding lack of trained personnel. Other fields in special education suffer from the same problem and have helped expand the impact of their teaching by hiring paraprofessionals under their supervision. However, in the name of quality control, many paraprofessionals continue to meet the wrath of the blindness field and are considered untrainable or misguided. Why not treat paraprofessionals as a valuable resource and train them? Why are we so quick to believe this potentially rich resource of personnel can’t work with us or—worse yet—may undermine and or inappropriately replace us as teachers? Why as an educational field can we not problem-solve this together? Whose nose is hurting now?

Residential schools

The blindness field’s embrace of mainstreaming and the itinerant model has unnecessarily been at the expense of residential schools. For more than four centuries, residential schools for students who are blind have been recognized as an important educational setting. Yet, since 1975, when the “mainstream act” was passed, the relevance and educational quality of residential schools have been under attack. This negativism, unfortunately, comes from both outside and inside the blindness system. Residential schools can provide excellent training and practicum experiences. Many are centers for research and outreach programs, as well as statewide assessment centers. In this time of teacher shortages, why are we limiting our options and “eating one of our own,” rather than seeing residential schools as a solution to the teacher shortage?

University programs

Because of the way federal funds are distributed to university programs, the programs are forced to compete instead of collaborate with each other. Since many university programs training blindness professionals depend on federal funds to stay alive, why does the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services insist that universities compete against each other? Some people might argue that this mechanism for distributing essential funds fosters fair and healthy competition. However, when one university wins, another university loses, and there are too few programs left to spare. To avoid this cannibalism, new models must be developed for distributing federal funding to university programs that bring all the excellent training programs together under one network. Such a nationally coordinated effort would then allow students to select from the best of the best. Why are we required to eat our own to be successful?

Literary braille code

The field’s reluctance, especially in the United States, to approve a standard literary braille code continues to be self-destructive. For years, the Unified English Braille Code (UEBC) has attempted to simplify the basic literary, math, and computer codes into one overall code, eliminating the need for blind students to change from one code to another, which is cumbersome and awkward. Historically, the field has always offered resistance to changing the braille code (remember the war of the dots?) because of issues regarding time, speed, portability, and space. However, in this age of technological advances such as refreshable braille displays, such issues are far less relevant.

The UEBC is expected to be approved throughout most of the English-speaking world, where, in fact, it is making good progress. However, in the United States, the war of the dots continues. When will the UEBC be viewed as a means of improving the existing system, not cannibalizing it?

Professional and consumer groups

Much of the field’s collective power is diffused by the failure of consumer groups and professional groups to work together. Why does the battle of consumer versus provider—or organizations “of the blind” versus organizations “for the blind” continue to rage, especially in Europe, other than because of mistrust? Is it that the pendulum must swing way too far in order to neutralize the past outcomes of the charity model? Can we as a field get past that mistrust and mutually agree to the balance and synergy that comes when we work on our mutual issues together? Do consumers worldwide wish to cannibalize a group of providers that see themselves as partners, not antagonists?

To end on a more positive note, I do believe there have been two recent issues that started as “biting off your nose to spite your face,” which were then dealt with effectively. The first is the controversy about whether to teach students print or braille, and the second is the controversy about whether to teach uncontracted (grade 1) or contracted (grade 2) braille or both. When I was a university student, I was taught, as gospel, that for students who are visually impaired one must establish one primary mode of reading—print or braille—never both. I was also taught that, since the skills are identical for reading grades 1 and 2, teachers should skip grade 1 and teach only grade 2. Now, these “gospels” have been challenged, and this more open-minded attitude has benefited students. As a field, we have come a long way and now question what Dr. Sally Mangold calls “teaching methods developed over time or by folklore.” We have finally felt secure enough to question and call for research.

When I was a young child I asked my mother why we had to continue to be at war (World War II) and why we couldn’t just give the enemy what they wanted. My mother said that if we did that the enemy would take more and more. Not soon after that the United States dropped the first atom bomb—for peace.

I am not suggesting that the situations discussed above are easy to solve. All I ask is that as a field concerned with ensuring the best for all children and adults who are visually impaired or blind, we must try and try and try yet again. I hope never to see a bomb dropped on our field to stop our wars.

Reference

Mason, C., Davidson, R., & McNerney, C. (2000). National plan for training personnel to serve children with blindness and low vision. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, 32 (5).

Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., vice president, Education and International Relations, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001; e-mail: <spungin@afb.net>.


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