Is Social Isolation a Predictable Outcome of Inclusive Education?
Is there an elephant in your professional room? There is in mine, and it's this: Most students who are blind or visually impaired in inclusive education settings are socially isolated. Many readers will disagree with me and will come up with examples of social inclusion that have been very meaningful for some of their students. But my random sample—and it's not small—suggests that, more often than not, blind and visually impaired students in inclusive education settings do not become socially integrated. Even considering the fact that social interaction skills are a part of the expanded core curriculum, I believe there is a very logical reason as to why most blind and visually impaired students in inclusive settings remain socially isolated.
Whose responsibility is it?
We have known for several decades that itinerant teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired are often overworked and are asked to carry large caseloads. Their primary responsibility has been (and still is) to assist students in being as successful as possible in the regular school core curriculum. However, the dissemination of the goals of the National Agenda in the 1990s also fostered the assumption that itinerant teachers will either teach or facilitate the teaching of the expanded core curriculum, which includes social interaction skills. In many cases, these additional expectations must have resulted in frustration and discouragement among teachers of students with visual impairments who already had more work than they could accomplish. If the teacher of students with visual impairments does not have the time to either teach or orchestrate the teaching of social interaction skills, how will children who are blind learn them? The current system is just not working, and we have no obvious solutions.
There exists an abundance of research, writing, and curriculum materials on social interaction skills among students who are blind or visually impaired (see, for example, D'Allura, 2002; Hoben & Lindstrom, 1980; Huurre, Komulainen, & Aro, 1999; MacCuspie, 1996; Martin & Hoben, 1977; and Sacks & Wolffe, 1999). Implementation of the recommendations of most authors would require a major change in our service delivery systems. Are we ready to do that, or do we simply accept the probability that most students who are blind and visually impaired in inclusive education settings will be social isolates, and that the trade-off is worth it?
We seem to have decided that children who are blind or visually impaired need the same kind of social interactions, interpersonal communication, and interpersonal skills that sighted children need. But blindness in human beings causes significant differences not only in how they learn, but also in how they view their world and their interaction with others. These circumstances leave us with a dilemma as to whether we can be successful in teaching social interaction skills that replicate the social opportunities of sighted children.
What are the options?
I recommend we consider three options in addressing this issue.
We accept the status quo
We can decide that we are doing all we can to address the social skills of students who are blind or visually impaired, and that the trade-off of limited social interaction is worth the participation in inclusive education. This position assumes that there are multiple issues in achieving social integration for blind and visually impaired students, including a need for intensive instruction that is simply unavailable. It may also assume that the perceived differences between students who are blind and sighted students are so significant that it is near impossible to bring these two groups together in a mutually enjoyable social experience. Environmental information is different for the groups, as is spatial knowledge and nonverbal communication. The educational modifications necessary for students who are blind or visually impaired to access learning experiences may, in themselves, be barriers to social interaction. Braillewriters, braille books, braille notetakers, and other special equipment emphasize differences.
We thus acknowledge that the best social experiences for almost all blind students is the time they spend with other blind peers, and we make these events happen outside the inclusive educational setting.
We try radical new approaches
A second option would be to search for new and untried approaches to the issue of social skills in inclusive settings. Our profession has a history of creativity and innovative approaches to problems in teaching students who are blind. I like to think that many of my colleagues have ideas and thoughts that would push the envelope in teaching social interaction skills.
One might begin by paying close attention to literature already written. As MacCuspie (1996) recommends, we must gain a better understanding of the concept of peer culture and how it can be imparted to students who are blind. Other authors have suggested assertiveness training, observation, and direct instruction from a teacher of students with visual impairments. Sacks and Wolffe (1999) have provided us with excellent lesson plans—a series of five videos with accompanying study guides entitled Focused On: Social Skills—but a TVI will have to make a significant commitment of time in order to use these materials.
If we, as a profession, believe that the lives of students who are blind will be greatly enriched through intensive social interaction skills training, then we must realign our priorities. I have suggested many times that social interaction skills are as important as learning to read, but I see little evidence that this is being put into practice.
We assign the task to schools for the blind
Why is it that most young people who are blind and visually impaired state that some of the most fulfilling, pleasant times in their lives were when they were in the company of other blind persons? In our zeal to "make inclusion work," are we overlooking what our students are telling us? If you are not satisfied with option 1, and if your caseload and responsibilities preclude you from trying option 2, then maybe, just maybe, it is time to consider the opportunities that schools for the blind have to offer.
If parents decide that having their child who is blind or visually impaired at home is worth the potential social isolation of the child, then that is their decision. However, they need to know the trade-off they have made. Some parents decide to try to meet their child's educational and social needs by moving to a city or town where there is a school for the blind. In this situation, the child lives at home, in his or her community, and attends a school for the blind as a day student, where he or she is given countless opportunities to develop social interaction skills.
A myth has existed in our profession for a long time. It is that the social skills and the self-esteem acquired by blind and visually impaired students in the confines of a school for the blind will not transfer to the big, real world. I have yet to see any proof of this myth—in fact, in my experience, the opposite is true. The student who spends some time at a school for the blind will often have self-confidence, self-determination, and social interaction skills that serve him or her well in the sighted community.
There is much more to say about social interaction, but that will wait for another time. I would appreciate any feedback from readers that will help me to a better understanding of social isolation, social interaction, and the impact of inclusive education.
Phil Hatlen, Ed.D., superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 1100 West 45th Street, Austin, TX 78756.
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