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This Mattered to Me

"Cannibalism is Alive and Well in the Blindness Field," by Susan J. Spungin, published in the February 2003 issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Volume 97, pp. 69-72.

Recommended by Ruby Ryles

Print edition page number(s) 733-735

The series editor of "This Mattered to Me" is Stuart H. Wittenstein, Ed.D., superintendent of the California School for the Blind.

Susan J. Spungin was already a household name in the field of visual impairment and blindness when I entered the field in 1978. As the American Foundation for the Blind's educational specialist, Dr. Spungin's many leadership roles inspired me and many fellow neophytes to lifelong careers in the education of blind children.

In the early years of her career, Dr. Spungin experienced firsthand the dramatic historical change in the field with the advent of the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act, renamed in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But it was her subsequent close friendship with Kenneth Jernigan, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind, that brought her a deeper understanding of the crisis in the blindness field. Her voice has been one of a few that have challenged us in the field to take an introspective, critical look at our "best practices" and ultimately nudged a reevaluation of why we teach what we teach (Spungin, 1990; Ferrell & Muir, 1996; Wittenstein, 2009). The short, powerful commentary, "Cannibalism is Alive and Well in the Blindness Field," written by Dr. Spungin, appeared in JVIB's Speaker's Corner column in February 2003, but it could easily have been published in 1983, 1993, or yesterday.

Although not the first to do so, Dr. Spungin's article identifies the widely used itinerant teaching model as one of a number of self-destructive practices prevalent in our field. Huge, unrealistic caseloads spread over large geographic areas preclude meaningful, daily, direct teaching from a qualified teacher of students with visual impairments and virtually ensure a sighted professional's own braille skills will quickly deteriorate from lack of use.

Dr. Spungin references the expanded core curriculum, observing that "… very little, if any, of this curriculum can be taught under the itinerant model. … Most itinerant teachers cannot find adequate time to teach all the children on their caseload adaptive techniques to master even the basic curriculum, let alone an expanded curriculum.

Her view on the use of paraeducators is one my own university personnel preparation program shares. Paraeducators are typically provided little training and less respect, a stance, according to Dr. Spungin, that discounts "…a rich source of personnel."

The albatross of "low incidence" affects the field at all levels. Low student enrollment numbers and "soft money" funding guarantee university programs that prepare teachers of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility practitioners are annual targets for budget cuts. Furthermore, counter to calls for collaboration, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services annually assures the elimination of smaller programs through its intensely competitive grant process.

Dr. Spungin boldly addresses the elephant in our field's living room: the self-destructive (cannibalizing) mistrust or the battle (Spungin's words) between providers and consumers that has characterized our field for generations. Today the line of demarcation between providers and consumers has blurred with the advent of consumer-driven training centers, institutes, and university programs that have spawned valuable research, rigorous new certifications, innovative training methods, and professional literature. Progressive, prominent leaders in the blindness field have embraced consumer-professionals as colleagues and friends, who collaborate on research, literature, conferences, and projects, which hopefully signals a potential metamorphosis of the blindness field. The "elephant" is shrinking.

Dr. Spungin's article is a must-read for newbies and a reread for veterans in the field. When I read it, I couldn't help but reconsider how we do business in our field and who our "best practices" are best for.

On the web
The article relating to this commentary is available free to subscribers at JVIB Online: <>.


Ferrell, K. A., & Muir, D. W. (1996). A call to end vision stimulation training. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 90(5), 364-366.

Spungin, S. (1990). Braille literacy: Issues for blind persons, families, professionals, and producers of braille. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Wittenstein, S. (2009). What's bugging me now. DVI Quarterly, 55(1), 25.

Ruby Ryles, Ph.D., assistant professor, program coordinator, Teaching Blind Students, Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, Louisiana Tech University, P.O. Box 3158, 100 Wisteria, 210 Woodard Hall, Ruston, LA 71272; e-mail: <>.

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The Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB)--the international, interdisciplinary journal of record on blindness and visual impairment that publishes research and practice
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