A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take part in a podcast regarding the education of blind children. At almost the same time, I found this radio documentary about whether the advent of technology is taking away the need or relevance for braille. Since it’s quite clear where I stand on the braille issue, I wanted to tackle the education questions, since (for some reason I’ll never understand) it is not infrequently assumed that all blind students attend special schools.
I’ve outlined briefly my educational background here; as is obvious, I was mainstreamed through my entire school history. All of my blind friends (few though they were) were mainstreamed, as Canada at the time only had one or two schools for the blind, and they were both in eastern Canada. It wasn’t until I was eleven or twelve before I spent a large amount of time with anyone who attended a school for the blind (in the US); even today, many of my friends were mainstreamed, and even those who attended a school for the blind for brief or extended periods have described many practices that would be decried by any civil rights organization (belittling treatment, lowered educational standards, etc.) While I realize this is not the case for all students at all schools for the blind (I’ve heard anecdotally how empowering such schools can be in Europe, as opposed to many in the USA and Canada), I’ve heard enough about it to cause me some concern. Instances like lowered expectations for totally blind students, allowing those with more vision to learn more skills than their totally blind classmates, not allowing those who took some mainstream classes to associate in any way with those “public school kids”… these all make me die a little inside. Even listening to some of the recorded portions of the documentary above, I cringed at the way some of the teachers talked to their students, as though they were much younger than teenagers.
But I cannot disagree that some students can find separate schools incredibly helpful. many smaller communities may not have the resources and facilities to assist blind students in the way that best suits them. Sometimes sighted peers will bully a blind classmate, and being in a place where they are not viewed or treated as “different” can make the difference between graduation and dropping out. If there are additional disabilities involved, a school for the blind can sometimes have the resources that a public school may not. Life skills that a public school may deem “too dangerous” or unsuitable for a blind student (cooking, workshop, etc.), and parents are unable or unwilling to teach these skills themselves, a separate school can sometimes provide such training and prepare the student to cook, clean, and perform other life tasks as a blind adult. even among some who attended schools for the blind under some of those circumstances, I’ve heard far too many comments along the lines of “They may have educated me in braille and technology and some life skills, but they nearly broke my spirit.”Many life-long students of such schools are never broken of bad habits that are socially unacceptable among sighted peers; mainstreamed kids learn (sometimes in harsh and cold ways) that such behaviors aren’t OK. I don’t think segregation is the best way to educate blind students, as it can perpetuate a certain “otherness”, but many of the resources of such institutions can be incredibly helpful for mainstreamed students who are struggling in school. I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but maybe it’s important to start a dialogue.
One thing that does concern me about schools for the blind might not be related to the education itself. Any job applicant is required to prove to an employer that they graduated from high school; including “_____ School for the Blind” on a resume will automatically “out” an applicant as blind right out of the gate. This doesn’t allow an applicant to allow their resume to stand on its own, with skills, talents, work and volunteer experience; Such schooling, just based on the name, will automatically show an HR manager, company CEO, or whoever looks at that resume, that the applicant is blind. Despite legislation prohibiting discrimination, like it or not, discrimination against people with disabilities still exists, particularly when it comes to employment. Why give hiring managers preconceived notions – right or wrong – about us as applicants?
I realize that I’m framing many of my thoughts from a western point of view, where blind people wish to be held up as equals to their sighted families, fellow commuters, and (many of whom) wish to maintain employment with mainstream organizations. But what about countries where societal views of blindness are not as supposedly enlightened as our western ones? What if blind students simply wish to… survive? Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume that organizations such as this or that in developing countries shouldn’t exist, because, by gosh, we have rights? Are baby steps in the right direction still… well, in the right direction? Are abuse, deprivation, and family suspicion better than having a safe place for the blind, even though many such residential facilities offend my western sensibilities? Again, I don’t have the answers, but I have many many questions. Last week, I read a book about one of the organizations I referenced earlier (I do plan on reviewing it in full once I mentally process it further); I was touched by the empowerment many of the blind students at these schools felt, maybe for the first time, and yet dismayed by some of the childish and socially awkward behavior that was described. Does the presence of one negate the need to address the other? Or is what matters most the fact that these students are educated, whatever the cost?
Whether east or west, mainstream or separate,I think what matters is that we are educated to be as productive as we can be. I don’t wish to only indicate what separate schools for the blind are doing wrong while praising mainstream schools, because even if I was very fortunate, I realize there are holes in that system as well. Ultimately, it comes down to us, and the power we choose to give to those around us, and I think that’s what concerns me most: as a blind child, you hear so many mixed messages, and you don’t have the mental maturity and life experience to discern truth from a lie. One teacher says that you’ll NEVER succeed at something because you can’t see, while another treats you like you’re a toddler; one shows you how to dissect that biology project, while another refuses to acknowledge your awkward behavior and help you improve it. At the end of the day, the best teachers are the ones that empower without condescension, push without bullying, and confront the hard stuff of life without pity. Those teachers are found in all schools, but are sadly all too rare… perhaps I’m lamenting education as a whole.