Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2008
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by Eric Vasiliauskas, M.D. (“Dr. V”)
Keynote Address, March 2, 2007
California Teachers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped (CTEVH)
It is a pleasure to have the privilege to address you today, especially since CTEVH has had such a profound impact on our family, through what we have learned by attending the annual conferences and through the individuals we have met and interacted with over the years.
Our blindness journey began a little over ten years ago with the birth of our eldest son Vejas. Petras joined our family four years later. As our boys have grown, we have grown with them. In fact, I must admit that, despite all my schooling and training, this has been the most educationally intense and the most educationally rich decade of my life.
While I had heard educators in the blindness field and parents of blind children warn of the dangers of being overprotective, it wasn’t until our first CTEVH conference nine years ago, that I heard the term “equal expectations” for the first time. Dan Kish’s family was presenting a workshop and his father honed in on the concept of equal expectations. He emphasized that we must demand higher expectations of our blind youth, and that our kids need the skills to make it in the real world where they will not be given a break just because they have a visual impairment. They will not be given twice as much time as their co-workers to complete their projects. Once your child graduates, it’s survival of the fittest.
“Equal Expectations.” I must admit that, as a father, the first time I heard this catchy phrase my ears perked up and I thought “How refreshing! Now this is a philosophy I can identify with and aspire to.” During today’s presentation I will start out by sharing with you how our family has chosen to address the challenges associated with raising blind children and preparing them for life. I intend to be provocative and to challenge each and every one of you to honestly assess whether you indeed have equal expectations of blind children. While some of what I share with you and propose to you will undoubtedly be controversial, I sincerely ask each of you to listen to what I have to say with an open mind.
To start I would like to share some photos of our boys, and in doing so give you a better sense of where we are coming from philosophically and to our approach to raising our children. As you will quickly gather, it would be hard to call us overprotective. Vejas is now ten years old. He is fully mainstreamed and attends fourth grade at our local elementary school. In this slide we see Vejas on a field trip with his class onboard a sailing ship called the American Pride. Vejas helped hoist the massive sails, swab the ship’s tall-reaching masts, and he even had the opportunity to steer the ship for a stretch.
This is a picture of Vejas’s third grade classroom, which was intentionally configured to encourage maximum independence. On the right we see Vejas writing on his BrailleNote, which is positioned in front of his Perkins Brailler [not shown]. He places his reading materials on the clear plastic stand that sits over the Perkins. Once he completes his classroom assignment, all he has to do is pick up his BrailleNote, turn around, and take a few steps to the counter in the back of the classroom, and he then either prints or embosses his work (wirelessly, via infrared ports) and turns the assignment in on the spot with the rest of his sighted classmates. The classroom teacher has instant print and doesn’t have to wait for days or longer for someone to ink print his work. This also allows for more real-time feedback and avoids transcription errors that, even in the best hands, are bound to occur during the ink printing process from time to time. In second grade Vejas relied on his classroom aide to help with the cables. On the recommendation of the technology specialists from the California School for the Blind (<www.csb-cde.ca.gov/Documents/technology.htm>) who came down to assess Vejas in his classroom through the outreach program, we abandoned the cables by taking advantage of this simple wireless infrared technology. As a result, since third grade, Vejas has been able to independently do these tasks.
Petras just turned six a few days ago. He is fully mainstreamed in our local elementary school’s pre-kindergarten program.
Whether at home or on the road, both boys are expected to help out with chores and tasks. When we travel, Vejas and Petras both help haul the luggage. After all, it’s “Too much for Dad to do all by himself,” isn’t it? The boys help scoop out pumpkins and carve jack-o-lanterns every Halloween. From time to time they help prepare meals, desserts, or snacks like cookies, pudding, or guacamole. The boys help plant, care for, and harvest crops from the little garden in our backyard. In the left frame we see Petras carrying in a bowl of lemons he helped pick off the tree [not shown]. On the right, Vejas squeezes lemons with his cousins as they work together to make fresh homemade lemonade [not shown]. Here, Vejas and my wife Rasa are putting together a gingerbread house [not shown]. As you can see, Vejas has learned the secret that the chef never goes hungry. And, of course, the best fruit salad is the one you make from scratch yourself--or so says Vejas.
Our children help pick out food at the store, carry it into the house, pull items out of the grocery bags, and from time to time even put them away. Which reminds me, here is a parental O&M pearl: You know how tempted kids are to hold on to your hand when you are out and about with them? Well, if you have your child help you by carrying a bag or an item, he or she can’t grab your hand and so is forced to focus on his or her cane skills. Vejas has figured this one out and now asks me, “So, Dad, what are YOU carrying?”
Rasa Brailled the microwave in our kitchen so that Vejas can independently heat things up. Vejas has started clearing the table after dinner. Petras enjoys running the dishwasher by hitting the markers Rasa placed on the front panel. Time permitting, Vejas helps unload the dishwasher and put things away. Rasa used raised markers to make our clothes washer and dryer accessible as well. Petras enjoys loading and unloading the dryer. Here Vejas is using power tools to help me assemble his brother’s new bed [not shown]. Vejas in fact caught on a while back and, from time to time, will ask, “Dad do you really need my help, or are you showing me how to do this?”
My wife and I go out of our way to give our boys experiences that other sighted children have. As illustrated in this slide, this includes participating in birthday parties at the AdventurePlex gym complex, bowling, mini-golf, and even laser tag [not shown]. We take advantage of opportunities in the community to learn more about what our public servants do, whether it be climbing in a police car, flipping the switch for the siren, speaking over the car’s megaphone, hopping on an officer’s motorcycle, or trying on a heavy, well-insulated fireman’s outfit in the middle of the summer in Palm Springs. We enjoy tandem biking and flying kites at the beach.
Vejas and Petras are both little fish. They love the water and have both been taking weekly swimming lessons since they were three or four years old. Vejas is our family’s reigning whale-riding champion: last summer, despite three adults simultaneously performing cannonballs, we were still unable to dethrone Vejas from Shamu (an inflated killer whale). Vejas and Petras love water activities, including this 100-foot waterslide in Palm Springs and water parks, like Knott’s Soak City. Theme parks are always lots of fun for children and adults of all ages.
We try to take advantage of fun opportunities when we can. One weekend Vejas’s school held Dodger’s Day. We joined in the festivities at the ballpark. To give Vejas a better understanding of what was going on, I downloaded some general information on baseball, went to the Dodger’s Web site and downloaded information on each of the players, and then embossed and compiled this into a personalized program for him. We also brought along the Picture Maker Kit from the American Printing House (APH) to Dodger’s Stadium and with it I laid out the field to make it easier to explain what was going on. We did the same thing when we went to a Lakers game last year. As you can see Vejas even met some of the players, including Brian Cook and Luke Walton, who autographed his embossed program next to their Brailled names [not shown]. Movies are a lot of fun. We enjoy DVS videos at home and on special occasions go for the all-out full experience of the movie theater.
Both of our boys have been searching for the raised dots of Braille on book pages since about nine months of age. Here we see my youngest son Petras enjoying his favorite nighttime book, Good Night Moon, with his Mom. It is important to start reading early. Reading contributes to concept development. It is fun, is a great bonding time, and creates discussion points; and early exposure sets the tone that reading is exciting. Early introduction to Braille does NOT mean waiting until kindergarten, or even preschool. Literacy begins at home. If you spend some time at the Borders’ or the Barnes and Noble’s children’s section, you will notice that even the simplest of children's books includes print letters or words. Are our blind kids given equal access to Braille at the same age? The answer is simple: No. We need to get interesting Braille books and Brailed toys into the hands of our blind and low vision children before their first birthdays. When exposed early, kids search (look) for Braille in books before their first birthdays.
Both of our boys love stories. As you can see here, we are high-volume users of the Braille Institute Library <www.brailleinstitute.org> and the Kenneth Jernigan Library <www.actionfund.org/kjlibaps.htm>, both of which mail volumes of books every few weeks for the boys to enjoy. Our mailman gets quite the workout. When requesting specific books, we always opt for an electronic or embossed Braille version. We only ask for audiotapes when a Braille format is not available.
Vejas has been participating in the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB’s) national Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest <www.nfb.org/nfb/NOPBC_Braille_Readers_Are_Leaders.asp> since he was in kindergarten. For pages to count in the contest, the children need to read the Brailled pages on their own. Tapes do not count. Participating in this contest in particular has been a truly rewarding experience. I literally get goose bumps thinking about how much progress Vejas has made in his Braille reading skills each year over the three-month contest period.
I must however caution each of you that should you read to your child and encourage literacy; you must be prepared to deal with the potential consequences. Let me elaborate with a real life example. Several summers ago, my family came along when I was lecturing at a medical conference in Hawaii. Disney’s Lilo and Stitch happened to début that very week. I was not particularly surprised when, after listening to the Read-A-Long audio book version of Lilo and Stitch, my ever-inquisitive, soon-to-be first grader asked, “Dad, what exactly is surfing?” I did my best to explain, already anticipating the question that soon followed: “So Dad, when can I go surfing?” Now I had met Cara Dunne-Yates and her parents when Vejas was only ten months old. As many of you know, besides being a mother and a Harvard law school graduate, Cara was a Paralympics tandem cycler and competitive skier. So I had a fairly good idea of what blind children and adults were capable of. In fact, inspired by Cara and other families we had met, I had even taken Vejas for a few runs down a ski slope when he was just three-and-half years old. Nevertheless, I must admit that I was caught a little off guard by his request to go surfing, and not being a surfer yet myself, did not know how realistic or safe it was for any child his age, sighted or blind, to go surfing. I let Vejas ride some imaginary waves at a luau the following night. Then I did what I imagine other parents might do and tried to punt this one by explaining that, unfortunately, we only had two days left and there wasn’t enough time to arrange for a lesson. As a compromise of sorts, the next morning we went boogie boarding and sea-kayaking. But as many of you know, kids are very perceptive. Vejas knew that boogie boarding, while fun, was not the same as surfing.
Well, as fate would have it, we decided to go on a real two-week vacation (no work) to Kauai the following summer. As soon as the airplane’s wheels lifted off the ground, Vejas stopped reading his book. He turned his head towards me and in a very focused fashion extended his hand to find my face and gently guided it in his direction with the clear intent of making sure he had my full attention. (I wonder where he learned that maneuver?) He then pointedly posed his question, a question that undoubtedly had been brewing ever since we began to plan this trip: “So Dad, when are we going surfing?” I reassured him that we would look into it once we got to Hawaii. After continued prompting from my persistent six-and-a-half year old, I arranged for an early morning surf lesson.
Here we see the surfing instructor, Miguel, working with Vejas on the shore. He is teaching Vejas auditorially and kinesthetically by having him practice over and over what he will need to know to perform on the waves. Miguel and Vejas then headed out into the ocean. I was assigned the job of catching Vejas once he reached the shallower water. I got my camera ready. To my amazement, on his first attempt, Vejas not only stood up but he assumed a near-perfect surfing stance as he rode his first wave. I was so excited I forgot to take a picture and cheered him on as he glided past me. I then watched him lunge forward as his surfboard implanted itself in a sandbar. I snapped out of my trance and rushed over to him. Instead of tears, he turned towards me and shouted “Dad, did you see me? I want to try that again!” Vejas had a second lesson with Miguel a few years later and he has had several additional formal lessons since then. I once asked him which instructor he thought was the best. “Miguel” he responded without much hesitation. When I asked him why, I was admittedly a little surprised by his insightful response. He said it was because Miguel paid the most attention to detail and had the highest expectations of him.
I have to admit that Vejas looked like he was having so much fun out there on the waves that it inspired me to take up surfing last year. And no, I don’t have any pictures of that--you’ll just have to take my word for it. But I do have a shot of Vejas and his own yellow surfboard with his cousins at the beach [not shown]. Now, Vejas not only surfs the waves, but the Internet as well.
We are avid users of the National Library Service’s (NLS) Web-Braille <www.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/webbraille.html> system. In preparing for today’s talk, I was very excited when I stumbled upon Web-Braille’s child-focused search portal, NLS Kids Zone <www.loc.gov/nls/children/index.html>. And we love Bookshare.org <www.bookshare.org>. As of last week, there were 3,227 children’s books available via their Web site, and the number seems to grow weekly. As a parent, I submit that a Bookshare membership is among the best investments a parent, student, or teacher of blind students can make. If you don’t have one, go to the exhibit hall and sign up today. You won’t regret it, and you might even get a conference discount.
We get a variety of accessible children’s magazines. Cricket magazine arrives in the mail every month on tape. This is combined with National Geographic World Children’s Magazine which is recorded on side two. Vejas just started receiving Sports Illustrated for Kids audiocassettes a few weeks ago. Vejas looks forward to Brailled versions of Spider magazine, Stone Soup magazine, and Muse magazine <www.loc.gov/nls/children/magazines.html>. And both boys enjoy the new Squid Tactile Activities Children’s Magazine available through APH <www.aph.org>. Many of the Brailled magazines are also available in electronic format for downloading via Web-Braille. While this is nothing short of amazing, I would like to put forth a fatherly word of caution. Call me old-fashioned, but when downloading Braille magazines for children, I think that parental and teacher discretion and guidance is still advisable.
I have another example of the potential consequences of reading. When Vejas was in third grade, he read a book from the Jigsaw Jones series sent to him by the American Action Fund <www.actionfund.org/freebooksmain.htm> called The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. Around that same time he read a story in Spider magazine about snowboarding. I’m sure some of you can guess what question this led to. That’s right--“So Dad, when can I go snowboarding?” I used to ski a lot in my younger days, but snowboarding became popular after I moved to Southern California. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how to approach this one either. So I posed the question on NFB’s blindkid listserv <www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/blindkid> and got back some great leads. I was able to arrange for a snowboarding lesson with the adaptive skiing and snowboarding instructors at Big Bear Mountain <www.usarc.org>. The instructor guaranteed Vejas one thing: that he would fall; and he did. But he had a great time and some fun runs. Once again, my son inspired me to attempt something new. I actually gave snowboarding a try for the first time last week. To use an expression I hear my son and his friends use, it was “Extreme.” Petras was eager to join in the fun this year. He had such a great time during his half-day skiing lesson that we delayed our departure so that he could squeeze in another lesson.
As many of you may know, Rasa and I are of Lithuanian descent. To help maintain our cultural roots, both boys attend Lithuanian School for four hours every Saturday morning. In this extracurricular setting, as you can well imagine, our family does not have access to the same formal resources for the visually impaired that the boys have during the rest of the week. Yet, amazing as it may seem, the boys actually have access to the Lithuanian school curriculum to the same degree as their sighted classmates. Here, we see Petras in his Lithuanian kindergarten class [not shown].
This next slide shows Vejas in his first grade Lithuanian Saturday school classroom [not shown]. On the left we see him working off of worksheets that have been Brailled and modified by Rasa [not shown]. To the right of that we see Vejas Brailling out an assignment in class on his Perkins Braillewriter [not shown]. The transcribers and teachers of the visually impaired in the audience can appreciate the amount of time that goes into the Brailling and ink printing of all the materials for both boys.
A few years back, I met Joe Sullivan, the president of Duxbury Systems, here at a CTEVH conference. I still remember approaching his table in the exhibit hall and asking him if his program could be modified to accommodate Lithuanian Braille translation. He not only said it could be done, but offered to do this for us. There was an article awhile back in the Boston Globe that described Joe, as the “wizard” of Braille <www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2006/09/10/lost_in_translations>. I couldn’t have put it any more accurately. Let me show you why.
Vejas is now in fourth grade. We have modified his workspace in the Saturday school classroom to enhance independence. Here we see Vejas reading his Lithuanian textbook passage off his BrailleNote in class. Yes, believe it or not, the BrailleNote can be tricked into displaying Lithuanian Braille. You just need to make sure the voice feature is turned off to avoid hearing what sounds like complete gibberish. This year Rasa started Brailling out Vejas’s Lithuanian textbook passages ahead of time on our laptop into the Lithuanian template in Duxbury. I might add, she uses six-key entry, which she finds faster. We then save the documents as “brf” files and then transfer the files to Vejas’s CompactFlash card.
If you think that’s amazing, then hold on to your seats. Thanks to Joe Sullivan, we now have the capability for Vejas to complete his Lithuanian homework and class work assignments on his BrailleNote, which he saves as “brf” files. We then transfer these to our laptop, open the files with Duxbury, with a single stroke convert the BrailleNote-generated Braille to Lithuanian print, and turn the document in on the spot. It is much easier for Vejas to make corrections within his electronic Braille documents. Not to mention that, as assignments inevitably become lengthy at the higher-grade levels, think about how much time is saved by not having to ink print. Under my guidance Petras too has recently started dabbling with twenty-first century technology in Lithuanian Saturday school.
Let me share with you some additional marvels of the twenty-first century. To illustrate, here is a page from my son’s Lithuanian textbook. I can use OmniPage Professional to scan and then optically recognize the Lithuanian text. Then I proof the text on my laptop using OmniPage Professional’s built-in proofreading tool which is similar to spell check, and then make any additional needed corrections using the Lithuanian keyboard option which comes prepackaged as part of Windows XP. Next, I copy the corrected Lithuanian text, import it into the Lithuanian template I created in Duxbury, and then with a single keystroke translate the text into Lithuanian Braille, which can then be embossed or transferred to the BrailleNote via a CompactFlash card.
But wait. It gets even better. While we unfortunately don’t have access to a Lithuanian equivalent of Web-Braille or Bookshare, the World Wide Web now offers us new options. Bernardas Brazdzionis is one of Lithuania’s most influential patriotic writers. Every Lithuanian child has read his famous tale called “Meskiukas Rudnosiukas” which roughly translates to “Little Brown-Nosed Bear.” A few weeks ago, Vejas participated in a commemorative ceremony marking Rudnosiukas’s one-hundredth year birthday. Vejas asked if I could find him some background information on this author and poet. So naturally I Googled Bernardas Brazdzionis, and one of the links led me to this Lithuanian Web page: Vikipedija (you see there is no “w” in the official Lithuanian alphabet.) Unfortunately our JAWS screen reading program isn’t sophisticated enough to handle Lithuanian yet, but being the eternal optimist that I am, I am hoping for this capability in the future. For the time being however, I am able to copy the text, paste it into Duxbury, and--voila!--translate the text to Lithuanian Braille. This really is like a virtual magic wand isn’t it? By saving this as a Lithuanian “.brf” file, I was able to provide Vejas with reference material in Lithuanian that he could access on his BrailleNote to filter through on his own. This offers us the ability to broaden our children’s Lithuanian language exposure.
In the fall of last year, Vejas was invited to read at a special Lithuanian mass. As he gracefully read the Lithuanian passage with his BrailleNote, he projected an image of competence and confidence and turned quite a few heads, even the visiting Bishop’s. I submit that such moments help redefine people’s preconceptions of the abilities of the blind.
You might think that equal access in the church environment might also present a formidable challenge. Let me share with you how we have chosen to address this. It turns out that the selected daily readings and gospel passages used in our church can be found on a Webpage. By this point in the presentation, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that every week I simply copy the text, and then go through the easy steps to make it BrailleNote-accessible.
I have made an arrangement with our church’s choir director. He e-mails me the list of songs that will be used for upcoming masses, and we then download or write these out ahead of time on my laptop. We save these as WORD files that Vejas can access and read with his BrailleNote during mass. Even if Vejas is reading the words for the first time (which is often the case) you would never know it. You see, Vejas reads Braille fast enough that he can sing along with everyone.
Though the Web is in its infancy, for a blind child it offers the opportunity to access useful information that can otherwise be hard to come by. When you go to a restaurant, what percentage of the time do you think they actually hand you a Braille menu upon request? In our experience it is not too often. An increasing number of restaurants are posting their menus on the Web. As long as they are not picture files, many are thus easily accessible. Before a recent visit to the Ragin’ Cajun in Hermosa Beach, I copied the menu from their Web site and pasted it into Duxbury so that Vejas could decide what he wanted on his own.
Yes, we have high expectations of our boys. We also have high expectations of our district’s educators and our VI professionals because, for our children to acquire all the skills they need to become truly independent and succeed to the best of their ability, they need to not only master the general education curriculum, but the whole host of compensatory blindness skills including Braille fluency, orientation and mobility skills, technology skills, social skills, advocacy skills, and the skills of daily living.
But what about when it comes to the academic setting? Based on nearly a decade of interactions with both general education educators and with VI professionals, I am too frequently led to wonder if “equal expectations” represents a true belief paradigm, or more of a feel-good politically correct phrase. Teachers, educators, and administrators, as a parent, I ask you, “What is your philosophy when it comes to educating my blind children?” Is your goal to have them “get by,” that is, to do well enough to at least be able to perhaps graduate from high school, or are you intent on doing your best to make sure they have the chance to reach their full potential in life and to really succeed? Do you have equal expectations of blind and visually impaired children? To help frame this discussion, I would like to pose a series of questions and then comment on each from my perspective as that of a parent who has dreams and high expectations for my children, who happen to be blind.
What do you expect of your Braille-reading students? Do you expect your Braille readers to read faster than, at the same rate as, or slower than their print-reading classmates? Let me share with you one first grader’s perspective. One day when I was with Vejas in his first grade Lithuanian classroom, he, in his usual form, finished his assignment before anyone else. I leaned over to let him know this and he whispered back to me, “Of course Dad, that’s because I have the advantage--Braille is faster.” I am proud to share with you that Vejas was formally recognized as the best student and most fluent reader and writer in his Lithuanian school class that year.
California is the first state to adopt formal Braille Reading Standards <www.cde.ca.gov/re/pn/fd/documents/braillereadstand.pdf> and Braille Math Standards <www.cde.ca.gov/re/pn/fd/documents/braillemathstand.pdf>. These standards have already served our family in very real and practical ways. However, while this is a definite step (or perhaps more appropriately--leap) in the right direction, unfortunately these standards do not include standards for reading fluency.
Let’s examine reading rate guideline data from the US Department of Education Web site that present the numbers of words per minute at which children read silently and orally during the elementary school years <www.ed.gov/teachers/how/tools/initiative/summerworkshop/mccabe/edlite-slide019.html> and middle school years <www.ed.gov/teachers/how/tools/initiative/summerworkshop/mccabe/edlite-slide020.html>:
Words per Minute (wpm)
Do you expect your Braille readers to be reading at the pace suggested in these guidelines? By the end of sixth grade, are your Braille students reading 180-230 words per minute? Are your third graders reading 95-130 words per minute? These numbers may seem a little high, so let’s look at the reading fluency benchmarks that our school district (Manhattan Unified School District) uses:
(wpm with 95% accuracy)
The third grade benchmark is 130 words per minute with 95 percent accuracy.
Some of you may be thinking, “Dr. V, that is wishful thinking,” because your experiences have taught you that the blind adults, teens, and children you work with do not read that fast. Some might direct me to the NLS Factsheet, <www.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/braille.html>, which states that the average reading speed of blind individuals is about 125 words per minute. To put this into perspective, based on the data from the US Department of Education Web site, that is about the average speed that a typical sighted third or fourth grade child reads print. But it is likely that the Braille reading speeds are based on a mixed bag of individuals, many of whom started reading Braille later in life as teens or as adults.
Some of you would likely to point me to these standards which have been posted
on both the California Department of Education's Braille-n-Teach listserv <http://csmt.cde.ca.gov/helpFAQ.aspx>
and on AERNet, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind
and Visually Impaired’s e-mail discussion listserv: <http://lists.aerbvi.org/pipermail/aernet_lists.aerbvi.org>,
numbers which are actually being used by VI professionals around the country.
Reading Rate (wpm)
Texas School for the Blind and Visually
Impaired (TSBVI) Assessment Kit
High School Graduate
At the third grade level, in stark contrast to the 95-130 words per minute proposed by the guidelines on the US Department of Education Web site, or the 130 words per minute benchmark set by our school district, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) Assessment Kit reportedly suggests that 51 words per minute is acceptable and even more shocking is the 30 words per minute benchmark put forth as adequate by the Michigan scale.
By the end of third grade Vejas was clocked at an oral reading speed of 182 words per minute with 100 percent accuracy. I only recently explained to Vejas that there are educators who believe that Braille is a slower reading medium than print. With utter disbelief, Vejas replied with, “But that’s ridiculous!”
Let’s examine the performance of some of the top young Braille readers in the NFB’s yearly National Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. In order for pages to count, the contestants need to read the Braille pages on their own (tapes don’t count). Take a close look at the accomplishments of some of our young Braille readers from around the country. Two years ago my then second-grade son read over 12,000 pages of Braille in three months, <www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr18/fr05sf.htm>. Last year one of California’s second graders, Merlyn Hileman, who frequents this conference with her parents, read 16,316 pages in three months, <www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr22/fr06sum10.htm>. Many of these young readers are reading thousands of Braille pages for pleasure. I assure you, these kids are not plodding along at 30 or 51 words per minute. Perhaps a key factor is that many of these children had been immersed in Braille before they started elementary school.
If you look at the readers in the NFB Braille Readers Are Leaders contests over the years, you find that the trend is towards more and more pages of Braille in each age category. Clearly, interesting Braille reading materials for children and adolescents have become much more readily available during the last decade from Bookshare.org, the NLS, the Braille Institute, National Braille Press (NBP) <www.nbp.org>, Seedlings <www.seedlings.org> and others. There are people who can read Braille at 200, 300, and some even over 500 words per minute. Individuals who learn to read Braille as adults tend to plateau out at much slower reading speeds, perhaps less than 100 words per minute. It is not appropriate to lump expectations for children who have been immersed in Braille from infancy with those of children or adolescents who start learning Braille later on--this is an important distinction, which seems to be overlooked when it comes to designing and interpreting norms. Many people believe that speed is influenced by practice. Given the dramatic increase in the accessibility of fun Braille materials, I would not be at all surprised that, if Braille reading norms were reexamined in an appropriate fashion, we would discover that the new rates, especially for those children with early Braille immersion, would be significantly higher than the norms currently being used by many educators.
What about your low-vision, large-print readers? Are they keeping pace with, or out-pacing, their sighted peers? How does their reading proficiency compare to their age-matched sighted classmates or the Braille-reading NFB Braille Readers Are Leaders contest participants we just looked at? Are your large-print readers struggling to keep up with schoolwork? How many are avid readers? How many actually enjoy reading for fun? If they must read, do they prefer to listen to books on tape? Are they, too, participating in reading contests? By high school, are they able to read hundreds of pages per week?
Are your Braille students keeping pace with their classmates when it comes to taking notes in class and completing their assignments? What about your large-print readers? How efficiently can they take handwritten notes in class? Are they as fast as their sighted peers? How legible are their notes when they need to review the information? Can they efficiently read their own notes without having to lug a CCTV everywhere?
In children with residual vision, Braille is not encouraged as much as it could or should be. I was heartbroken by a question posed to me by a girl in middle school who came to a workshop I was giving last year on Braille resources. She sat down in the front row and before I formally started, she raised her hand and asked me, “How do I convince my teachers to teach me Braille?”
She went on to elaborate. “I have some vision and my teachers make me use large print, but I can only see a few words at time on a computer screen. I just can’t keep up with my schoolwork and homework. I can’t even read my own notes without a magnifying device. I just don’t know what to do. I know I should learn Braille, but my teachers are unwilling to teach me. What can I do?”
Unfortunately this story is neither unique nor that uncommon. I have heard such stories many a time, including at this and prior CTEVH conferences. Just because a child can read enlarged print does not mean that that is the best primary learning mode for that student. The irony is that children who have some residual sight are frequently at a disadvantage because they often can’t keep up with their peers and may ultimately be less likely to be passionate about reading. Furthermore, it is important to remember that many conditions (even in children) are associated with progressive loss of vision over time, in some cases due to the underlying eye condition, in others from retinal detachment or glaucoma.
How fast can your elementary school students type on a Braille keyboard, be it a Perkins Brailler, Mountbatten Brailler, or an electronic notetaker? How does their speed compare with the QWERTY speeds of their sighted peers? The truth is that both my third grader and my sighted wife can Braille faster and more accurately than I can type on a QWERTY keyboard--and I type on my computer every day.
How fast can your elementary school student type on a QWERTY keyboard? Are they typing as fast as their sighted peers? The reality is that in 2007 and beyond, keyboard proficiency is a critical skill that blind children must efficiently master. Keyboarding becomes increasingly important as there is a move towards Internet-based learning modules in education. Typing has become an integral part of many jobs. It is needed to fill out Internet-based forms and job applications, do online banking, and to purchase items online.
In what grade do you introduce an electronic Braille Notetaker? Preschool? Kindergarten? First Grade? Second Grade? Third Grade? Fourth Grade? Fifth Grade? Middle School or Junior High? High School? In the year 2007, more and more children are starting to formally get exposed to Braille notetakers as early as kindergarten and first grade. Based on the California School for the Blind’s “Intro to the BrailleNote GPS” workshop I attended this morning, GPS training for our elementary school students is just around the corner as well. In fact, electronic Braille notetakers were one of the hottest topics of conversation between the second, third, and fourth grade finalists at the National Braille Challenge Invitational 2005 and 2006 <www.braillechallenge.org>. Do you know what the coveted grand prize in each age category at the Braille Challenge Invitational was last year, even at the youngest first and second grade levels? A PacMate. Now that is progressive!
When do you introduce a slate and stylus? I love the following story I read in the Braille Monitor <www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm93/brlm9310.htm>. Kim Boshart in Nebraska started teaching preschoolers to write with the slate and stylus “because she didn't know they couldn't learn it” that young. Guess what? They did learn. How fast can your elementary school student Braille using a slate and stylus? My wife worked with a social worker that could take notes on a slate and stylus at the same pace as her sighted team members. We had wanted Vejas to learn the slate and stylus for several years now. Last June, our teacher of the visually impaired joined us at the Braille Challenge banquet. Vejas made a new friend and wrote down her contact info on his BrailleNote. But his new friend didn’t have a notetaker or a Perkins with her to get his contact info. I glanced over at our teacher of the visually impaired and in a friendly manner pointed out that that is why kids need to learn the slate and stylus. Fortunately, we can now point to the California Braille Reading Standards and say that it is part of our child’s academic curriculum.
Do you expect your blind or visually impaired elementary school student’s computer skills to be superior to, the same as, or inferior to their sighted classmates? In what grade do you introduce keyboarding, WORD, EXCEL, and PowerPoint? My children are mainstreamed and attend public school. In our local elementary school, beginning in kindergarten, all the kids attend Technology Lab once a week. Just like an increasing number of school districts around the state and country, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District has a formal district-wide technology curriculum defining what students should master by the end of each grade level, starting as early as pre-kindergarten. In our school district, kindergarteners and first graders focus on keyboarding skills, second graders work in Microsoft Word, and third graders are introduced to EXCEL and PowerPoint.
In fact Vejas, just like all of his sighted classmates, had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation at the end of third grade. He chose to do it on the Lincoln Memorial. He completed this with the assistance of JAWS and without ever touching a mouse. How is that for a wake-up call? This is not unique to our district. Keith Christianson, a blind teacher of the visually impaired who many of you know, introduces his second and third grade students to EXCEL. I have a patient who attends school in Yorba Linda. She asked me for some information on Crohn's disease that she could use for her third grade PowerPoint presentation.
Yes, technology is in our elementary schools and it is here to stay. Despite what VI educators may have been taught or may currently still be experiencing, the world has changed over the last few years. It is 2007 and technology has filtered down to the lower grade levels. This is a reality which will be increasingly more common. Rather that be reactive, I want parents and educators to be aware of this very real new trend, this new reality, so that they can proactively prepare to address the technology needs of their children and students rather than putting children in a position where they will progressively, perhaps even exponentially, fall further and further behind.
Do educators have equal expectations of blind children? If educators truly believe in “equal expectations,” then why is it that nationally only 45 percent of blind or severely visually impaired, but otherwise capable, students graduate from high school, compared to 80 percent of their sighted counterparts? (Data from the American Foundation for the Blind [AFB] Web site: <www.afb.org/section.asp?SectionID=15&DocumentID=1367>.) Why do only 16 percent of those blind or severely visually impaired students that graduate high school then go on to earn a college degree? Now granted one doesn’t need a high school diploma or college diploma to a get a job, but everyone should agree that advanced education certainly broadens one’s options.
Some may feel I am overreacting and claim that local outcomes are better. How
many of the Braille readers and large-print readers in your school system graduate
from high school and from college? How many have gone on to pursue postgraduate
studies, including law school, medical school, or PhDs? How does the performance
of Braille-reading students and large-print reading students in California compare
to the rest of the children taking the California state STAR exam? Where is
the actual data? Who collects it? How accurate is it? I am under the impression
that such education attainment statistics are not well tracked. Where is the
accountability? California state testing results are broken down by economic
status, gender, ethnicity, and the broad category of disabilities. The state
testing agency knows which students get Braille or large print exams. Why are
the performance results of blind and visually impaired children therefore not
examined and made available? Without accurate and current local district, SELPA,
or state-based statistics, how can parents be asked to “back off” and to put
their full trust in “the system”?
Employment status is a reasonable alternate measure of the fruits of the current educational system. According to the AFB Web site, <www.afb.org/section.asp?SectionID=15&DocumentID=1367>, less than half of low vision adults and only about a third of legally blind adults are employed, and of that third, 93 percent of the employed blind read and write Braille; only 7 percent don’t. We must also take into account that these statistics focus only on employment status, that is, employed versus unemployed, not on the type of job one is able to hold. As a parent who wants the best for his blind children, I find these statistics sobering. We must all critically examine the educational system performance hard data, the educational report cards so to speak. The data suggests that at the schooling level there is a huge discrepancy between the accomplishments of sighted and blind children. From a parent’s standpoint, I must interject that this report card of the current status of affairs is also not at all encouraging and is certainly not reassuring.
Let’s not forget orientation and mobility. How do the independent travel skills of your blind or visually impaired children compare to their classmate’s abilities? Are your ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds able to safely and independently cross streets on their own? – Their sighted peers do. Do your ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds have the skills to go to the hotel gift shop to pick something up for you? Their sighted peers can. How would they do if you asked them to go the neighbor’s house across the street to get you some sugar for a recipe? Can they find their way around a grocery store or the local shopping mall? Their sighted peers can.
Be honest, how many of your blind or visually impaired children passed this litmus test?
I would like to wrap things up by focusing on three concepts and by extending a few challenges to you.
1. STRIVE FOR EQUAL EXPECTATIONS. Blindness alone is not a reason to have lower expectations of students. Kids need to be given the chance to be the best that they can be. That won’t happen if the expectations of parents and educators are low. Too many kids are not getting the skills they need to make it in the world. That is a recurring theme at almost any conference. Please set the bar of expectations for our children at a high level. Children, and even adults, will rise or fall towards the expectation standards you put forth. I have in particular enjoyed and been inspired by lectures and articles by the following individuals who promote the concept of equal expectations: Dr. Ruby Ryles, Dr. Fred Schroeder, Dr. Karen Wolfe, Dr. Sharon Sacks, and Carol Castellano. At the beginning of each school year Rasa and I share some of their articles with the general education teachers and staff to help convey to them that they should have the same expectations from our boys as their classmates.
Parents and educators are responsible for making sure that, in addition to the traditional academic curriculum, blind and visually impaired children acquire the full complement of skills they will need to function in life confidently, to live truly independently, and to reach their full potential. When your children graduate from high school, they won’t have someone to arrange their things, to cook for them or shop for them; and they won’t be able to rely on predetermined travel routes to get from one place to another, or on a sighted human-guide to escort them from one place to the next. The Expanded Core Curriculum (EEC) <www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=44&TopicID=189&SubTopicID=4&DocumentID=2117> and <www.tsbvi.edu/Education/corecurric.htm> is a set of guidelines put forth by the National Agenda <www.tsbvi.edu/agenda> intended to make sure that, by the end of high school, blind and visually impaired students acquire all the needed life skills, including appropriate social skills and blindness skills. The ECC needs to be elevated from the level of informal guidelines to a formalized state or federal policy, much like the California Braille Reading Standards and Braille Math Standards. To be an effective tool for blind children, the EEC needs to be given some teeth, so that parents and VI professionals can point to them as official requirements when convincing school administrators that working on activities of daily living, physical therapy, and occupational therapy really are part of the blind or visually impaired child’s educational curriculum. Please take the steps needed to make the EEC a powerful and influential resource.
Parents and educators may ask, “There’s so much to do. Where do we start?” This is a process; it doesn’t happen automatically. Is it achievable? Absolutely. My suggestion is for parents, educators, and the child to pick and agree to work on one or two goals every three months. The child needs to buy into these as well. Some goals will require more work and time than others, such as learning how to button a shirt, to tie shoelaces, or to use silverware properly. But each baby step that is accomplished brings the child one step closer to where we, and they, want to be. I submit that blindness itself is NOT the handicap, rather, not giving kids the appropriate Braille and other blindness skills creates the handicap--the handicaps of functional illiteracy and over-reliance on others. In my opinion this is further compounded by lower expectations on the part of parents and educators of our blind children than of age-matched sighted peers, and, I will add, low (to virtually nonexistent) expectations of parents by educators.
2. FAMILY INVOLVEMENT IS NEEDED. I encourage educators to synergize with parents and give parents the tools they need to help their child succeed. With all due respect, educators of the blind are fooling themselves if they think they can most effectively teach a blind child all the skills they need on their own without involving parents in the process. Here is a story problem. Let’s say for sake of argument that kids actually get ten hours of sleep a night. That leaves 98 waking hours during a week. If an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired spends one hour a day with a child, an orientation and mobility instructor three hours a week, and an occupational therapist and physical therapist ninety minutes each a week, and let’s assume that the blindness skills and concepts are actually actively reinforced the rest of the school day, that still means that the majority of the child’s waking hours are with the parents. Blindness professionals need to take advantage of the parental component of the equation, or you will fall short of the answer.
Teachers, if you want to have a real, long-lasting impact, rather than just leaving a footprint, leave a legacy with each child and family you work with. Teach your kids, and importantly their parents, how to “fish” for themselves. Empower parents by encouraging them to educate themselves in the matters of blindness and raising a blind or visually impaired child, by showing parents how to network with other parents, and by teaching them how to find and utilize resources on their own.
The theme of this year’s CTEVH conference is resources. I submit that every CTEVH annual conference is an overflowing cornucopia of resources and practical information that any parent could benefit from. It is my understanding that there are close to 6,000 legally blind students in California. I don’t see anywhere near 12,000 parents here at this conference. They are missing out. Teachers and administrators, I urge you to take the necessary steps to get the parents of your students to attend. I will go so far as to challenge each teacher to get at least one of the parents you work with to attend next year’s conference. The various organizations and SELPAs serving blind kids in Southern California should be encouraged to carpool families here next year. Be creative, perhaps a vendor could volunteer or be convinced to sponsor a prize to the group that gets the most parents to attend.
3. SUCCESS REQUIRES A GROUP EFFORT. Lastly, I submit that to optimally educate and prepare a blind child for life, the team needs to involve not only the child, parents, educators (both VI and general education), but a more direct interface with the blind community itself. My children’s accomplishments and successes are due to a team effort; a team that extends well beyond the bounds of our home and our local system. Parents and children need to be exposed to positive role models in the form of blind mentors and blind advisors. I respectfully suggest that every parent and blindness professional who works with blind or visually impaired children be open-minded and subscribe to Future Reflections, a journal in which blind adults, educators, parents of blind children, and even blind kids themselves share experiences covering a wide variety of topics pertinent to growing up blind and to raising a blind child. Most importantly, the articles are presented from a refreshing, positive, uplifting, practical, success-in-academics and success-in-life prospective.
I challenge every teacher of the visually impaired, every orientation and mobility instructor, every administrator, every student interested in a career as a blindness professional, and every parent of a blind or visually impaired child to spend an entire week at a national conference of the blind. I’m not talking about a conference that is specifically oriented towards teachers or parents, but a conference where virtually all the thousands of attendees are blind and where you participate in the activities and interact with blind people from all walks of life. The experience of immersion with the successful blind is sure to be a life- and perception-altering experience.
The reality is that the scope of skills that young blind children, as well as teachers of the visually impaired, and parents, need to master is ballooning. I respectfully submit that if indeed one really believes in age-appropriate expectations, then in all aspects of life, our blind children need to be encouraged to develop the same, or parallel, skills as their age-matched sighted peers.
I leave you with this last thought. What would you attempt to do (for your blind child) if you knew you could not fail? To really take advantage of this philosophy we need to reexamine our own current paradigms and become aware of what is possible. More importantly, the more we educate ourselves about blindness issues, the more we expose ourselves to the successful blind (and their parents), the more we come to realize that the boundary between what is possible for a blind individual and for a sighted individual is not all that much different.
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