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A Profession with Pride and Dignity: From Where I Stand Now

Phil Hatlen

Print edition page number(s) 743-745

As I look back at the 50-plus years I have spent in my profession, and as I look at its current and potential future leaders, I am filled with pride as I remember past accomplishments and as I consider its strong and dynamic future. Recently, I began a list of the four great accomplishments of educators in the field of visual impairment and blindness over the last half of the 20th century. The list soon expanded to seven, and it is these accomplishments that I would like to discuss in this essay.

Seven great accomplishments of educators in the field

Professionalization of teaching students with visual impairments

The first great accomplishment is that teaching students with visual impairments has become a profession. In the not-too-distant past, teaching and working with visually impaired students and adults was considered a folk art. There was very little writing on the education of visually impaired students. Only two "methods" books were available to me when I first started teaching: Education and Health of the Partially Seeing Child, by Winifred Hathaway (1994), and The Blind Child and His Reading, by Kathryn Maxfield (1928). Today, thanks largely to the commitment of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), we have many excellent, state-of-the-art books. There was almost no research being conducted in the field 50 years ago. Today, we have many outstanding researchers. We no longer pass along information and techniques verbally from one generation of teachers to the next, as happened when I first started to teach. Today, we are a profession, and we can stand tall and proud of the status we have worked so hard to achieve.

Professionalization of O&M

The second major accomplishment is that O&M instruction has also became a profession. In the 1950s, individuals in the field heard about those working with blinded veterans at the Hines Veterans Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. But it was not until Boston College established the first formal, university-based O&M personnel preparation program in 1960 that O&M began to achieve professional status. In less than 50 years, O&M has significantly changed the educational lives of visually impaired children, largely because the professionals of this field were eager to look at the O&M needs of all children and adults with vision loss.

Education of children with multiple disabilities

The third significant accomplishment is that the education of visually impaired children with additional disabilities became our responsibility. Long before PL 94-142 (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) was passed in 1975, many teachers of visually impaired students were working with children with complex additional disabilities. We did not do this because it was required by law--we did it because it was the right thing to do.

Recognition of low vision

Thanks to the research of Natalie Barraga, our fourth major accomplishment occurred when we recognized that many legally blind children, in reality, had low vision. After Dr. Barraga taught us that these children had usable vision, over the course of a few years, in the early 1960s, many children with low vision who were learning to read braille were switched to reading print. For a while, the utilization of vision among low vision students may have been embraced to an extreme as we desperately tried to help these children learn to read. But, as a profession, we continued to study and research how best to serve low vision children, and the current status of the education of these children is excellent and continually improving.

Expansion of personnel preparation

Personnel preparation of teachers of visually impaired children has grown, invented, and re-invented itself since the middle of the 20th century, and this growth is our fifth major accomplishment. When I decided to become a teacher of the visually impaired, I had six choices of universities, and two of them had part-time programs in my area of study. Now, potential teachers have many choices of universities and programs. This change was largely due to a significant influx of federal funds, the result of the work of Josephine L. Taylor at the U.S. Department of Education.

Establishment of the National Agenda

Within the last 15 years, the most exciting and potentially productive activity in the education of students who are blind or visually impaired, and our sixth major accomplishment, is the National Agenda for Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities (Corn, Hatlen, Huebner, Ryan, & Siller, 1995). The 2004 revision of this document contains 10 goals that, if they were met, would put an entirely new face on education (Huebner, Merk-Adam, Stryker, & Wolffe, 2004). The National Agenda movement has had its fits and starts, sometimes seemingly all but forgotten, and sometimes motivating people far beyond the authors' wildest hopes. I know it will eventually live up to its potential.

Creation of the expanded core curriculum

A portion of the National Agenda is the ECC, our seventh and final major accomplishment. To many of my colleagues, the ECC may be better known than the National Agenda itself. In a very short time, the ECC has swept the nation among our profession, and it is difficult to attend a conference or meeting without it being highlighted.

A look to the future

These seven events are, in my experience, the highlights of the past 50 years. Let me now suggest where the field needs to go in the future.

In the future, members of the field of visual impairment and blindness need to further refine the use of educational placements so that all children receive services appropriate to their needs.

We must not continue to sacrifice literacy for inclusion. Integrity, professional honesty, and ethics must always prevail over what may seem politically correct. We must consider the ways in which teachers and parents can have an effect on the unacceptably high rate of unemployment among blind persons, and acknowledge that the educational process contributes to a part of the problem of the high rate of unemployment of this group. The issue of early intervention services for young blind children (ages birth to 5 years) needs to be aggressively addressed, along with parent education and advocacy. We must continue our advocacy until best practices in education are applied in every U.S. state. It is not acceptable for one state to have high standards for instructional services for visually impaired students, while a neighboring state has no standards. Further, we must ensure that every student be assessed, and receive instruction in all areas of the ECC.

The chronic teacher-shortage problem needs to be solved. It is unacceptable for a parent to hear that his or her child's school has no teacher of the visually impaired or certified O&M specialist to meet the child's needs. Likewise, the size of caseloads needs to be reduced to a reasonable level. Finally, we must continue to illustrate to the rest of the educational world that we are the most creative, child-centered, and passionate professionals in all the world.

I am deeply proud of my profession. As I reflect on my career, I come to the sad conclusion that I did not accomplish all that I wanted. But maybe history will demonstrate that I have moved our profession one small step forward. In closing, I will quote Mother Teresa:

In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.


Corn, A., Hatlen, P., Huebner, K. M., Ryan, F., & Siller, M. A. (1995). National agenda for children and youths with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities. New York: AFB Press.

Hathaway, W. (1944). Education and health of the partially seeing child. New York: Columbia University Press.

Huebner, K. M., Merk-Adam, B., Stryker, D., & Wolffe, K. (2004). National agenda for children and youths with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities, revised. New York: AFB Press.

Maxfield, K. E. (1928). The blind child and his reading. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Phil Hatlen, Ed.D., private consultant; mailing address: 19026 20th Avenue NW, Shoreline, WA 98177-2804; e-mail: <>.

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