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Speaker's Corner

It's the Journey, Stupid!

Susan Jay Spungin

Print edition page number(s) 743-745

The joy is in the journey. We all know that, but how often do any of us have the time to reflect on our careers in this wonderful field of ours? Well, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), where I have worked since 1972--some 36 years--has asked me to do just that.

The long journey of my professional career began, appropriately enough, with a week-long road trip across the United States from New York to San Francisco. The year was 1963, and I had just completed my undergraduate studies in music education. I could not be certified to teach in California until I took a course in the state's history. Off I went to San Francisco State University for a night course and ended up staying until I earned a master's degree in creative arts with emphasis on voice and keyboard. Meanwhile, I became certified to teach elementary school, which I did in Oakland. Because of a requirement for my degree, I learned music braille and wrote about it for my master's thesis. Little did I know that some day I would be chair of the Braille Authority of North America at a time when the final revision of the International Braille Music Code would be reviewed and passed!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

I continue to be amazed by how much I have learned and changed, as the ideas of the field have changed, over the years. For instance, in the early days of my career there was a strong belief that a teacher of a blind or "partially sighted" child had to determine as early as possible whether a student was a print or braille reader. The idea that a student could learn both print and braille at the same time was heresy. It was a given that everything in print had to be reproduced exactly in braille. Although the method I used wasn't widely practiced at the time, I taught every one of my students who were blind to sign their names in block writing, using the braille cell as a guide to making each letter. You could certainly pick the signatures of my blind students out in a crowd, because their handwriting was all the same. Raised-line drawings were considered useless, especially for congenitally blind children, and the use of raised-line coloring books was completely out! Verbalism was a hot topic. The accepted belief at the time was that one should never assume that a visual description articulated by a child who is blind reflected intrinsic knowledge of the concept the blind child was describing. Perhaps it is true that a blind child's visual descriptions are more an imitation of the sighted world's descriptions. By the old model, however, even Helen Keller would have been supposedly uninformed about the things she described. So much for the importance of assimilation into the "sighted world"! For many decades, it was believed that only sighted orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors were acceptable, even though there were wonderful teachers at the time who were visually impaired. The practice of excluding visually impaired people from training as O&M specialists changed, like so many others, in the course of my career.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.


Finding a home in the blindness field

After working as an itinerant teacher in Daly City, California, I returned to the east coast, to Princeton, New Jersey, to marry and teach at the New Jersey Commission for the Blind. Georgie Lee Abel, who was then part of the education faculty at San Francisco State, had given my name to Josephine Taylor, then director of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, as someone with potential, and Jo Taylor hired me. I had found my new family.

By 1972, I had completed all but the dissertation for my doctorate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University, and was just starting at AFB. My dissertation, on defining competencies for university personnel preparation programs in the field of blindness, turned out to be a springboard for much of my future work. Believe it or not, in 1973, the graduate programs educating teachers to work with blind children only rarely shared information. The closed nature of such programs has certainly changed, and, for that, I am very happy.

For my first 10 years at AFB, my title was specialist in education. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Little had been done at AFB in education since the departure of Georgie Lee Abel in 1960, and I became the queen of questionnaires to discover the professional structure of the field. I recognized early on that in order to assess education on a national level, one needed structure and information. Because of this, AFB helped jump-start national organizations for state vision consultants, instructional materials centers, and the then-unorganized university programs, which are now represented by Division 17, the Personnel Preparation Division of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

In the 1970s, the field of visual impairment and blindness often grappled with the issue of developing special curriculum versus adapting existing curricula for visually impaired students. Adaptation won, with the belief that developing new material was opposed to the concept of mainstreaming, and adapted programs for the science, math, and social studies curriculum were developed. It was not until recently that our field accepted the expanded core curriculum. Prior to this, the concept that teaching disability-specific skills could allow students who are blind to do much of the adaptation themselves was not considered by professionals in the field, perhaps due to the forced acceptance of the inclusive model of special education.

I was promoted to director of AFB's national consultants in the 1980s and became responsible for most of the program areas at AFB. During that time, the term integration turned into mainstreaming, which we now know as inclusion. The issues of the decade, across all age ranges, were the need for unique accreditation of agencies for blind people, lack of funding, difficulties in recruiting trained professionals, attacks on programs that were focused on a specific disability, and decentralization of the national government during the Reagan years.

Fostering collaboration

In the 1980s I was part of the AFB team that joined forces with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to come to terms with positions on which the two organizations could agree and work together. Discussions led to the development of position statements that were accepted by the field on subjects such as the importance of residential schools, the need for braille to be accepted as equal to print, and the concern that electronic media were overtaking the importance of braille. It was during this time that I developed friendships at NFB and became especially close with Kenneth Jernigan and his wife. Because of my relationship with NFB, I was invited to speak at their convention for the first time in July 1989. The topic I chose was literacy--specifically, braille--and blind people. At that time all blindness organizations such as NFB and the American Council of the Blind agreed on the importance of braille, and much has been accomplished since.

Under Carl Augusto's leadership in the 1990s, AFB began redefining its role in the blindness field. Established in 1921, AFB had become "all things to all people," and the very professionals in the field that AFB had helped support over the years were more than capable of doing many things, such as in-service training, that AFB had been doing. As a result, I focused more on national issues that required collaboration within the blindness field, such as the education of children who are deaf-blind, which resulted in the Hand in Hand series, edited by Kathleen M. Huebner and others, as well as the need for the timely production of accessible textbooks, which was coordinated by Mary Ann Siller. It was also during this time that the National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairment, Including those with Multiple Disabilities, was developed with its original eight goal areas. In addition, issues such as early identification of visual impairment, rights of parents, increase of faculty positions at the university level, size of caseloads, placement options, assessment, universal access, and the expanded core curriculum were all being worked on under the leadership of Anne Corn, Phil Hatlen, Kathleen M. Huebner, Frank Ryan, and Mary Ann Siller. These efforts truly were field-wide collaborative activities.

International efforts

By 1999, I felt it was time to decrease my role at AFB to part time and concentrate on international efforts in blindness around the world. I had previously been very active with the International Council for the Education of People with Visual Impairment and the World Blind Union (WBU), but the shift in my focus to international programs afforded me more time to become immersed in issues of prevention of blindness and inclusion in developing countries, teacher training, and community-based rehabilitation on the international level. I became interested in running for international treasurer of WBU. With the support of Carl Augusto and Mark Maurer of NFB, I campaigned for the 2004-2008 term and won! It was wonderful to spend my last years with AFB working internationally, and meeting new friends and colleagues and learning about the world. It was the perfect end to my career.

There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.

That will be the beginning.

--Louis L'Amour

So my work as a staff member of AFB comes to a close, and what a journey it has been. I will continue to work with AFB as a volunteer and consultant, but my role will be different. I will continue to live in the best city in the world, New York City, and, to some degree, go back to the world of music, both as a listener and closet performer. Remember: Don't forget the journey, stupid! I don't think I ever will.


Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., volunteer and consultant, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001; e-mail: <>.

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