by Gail Katona
Editor's Note: The Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award brings not only honor, national recognition, a trip to the NFB National Convention, and a substantial amount of cash, but it also confers certain responsibilities upon the recipients. Because the recipients become role models for other educators and for parents, we ask them to give a major presentation at the annual meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. In this presentation they are to outline their philosophy and approach to education and describe very specific examples of how they go about putting that philosophy into practice. The following address is the presentation which was given by our distinguished 1993 Award recipient, Gail Katona of New Mexico. Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure and honor to be here today and to have the opportunity to address you and share with you some of my thoughts on the education of blind children. I was one of those kids who always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and that, of course, was to be a teacher. I have an uncle who has Down's Syndrome and my aunt, Karen Mayry, is blind. So I grew up around people who were, as some folks saw it, "different." I remember when I was little crying and asking my mom why people laughed at and pointed to my uncle, and wondering why people thought that I (a child) had to help my aunt (an adult) just because she was blind. It puzzled me that people found it amazing and fascinating that my aunt led a normal life. Because I was around these relatives often as a child, I was exposed to stereotypical thinking and discrimination towards those who had exceptionalities at an early age. I spent three summers when I was a teen-ager living with my Aunt Karen and her husband. From spending time with her and watching her run a household, go to work, go waterskiing, play golf, take care of her husband, hand out discipline to me when I needed it-basically leading a regular, average life-I quickly learned that many people in our society sure had the wrong ideas about the capabilities of blind people.
I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) since I was about 17 years old when I attended my first National Convention in Minneapolis. Because of the NFB I have met many capable, confident, and independent blind adults. I know without a doubt that my young blind students too can and will grow up, go to college or technical school, get jobs, raise families, and be whatever they want to be in life (except of course pilots or brain surgeons). In order for these kids to accomplish their goals they need to become PROFICIENT in what we call the alternative techniques of blindness, such as Braille and cane travel, and they need a positive "I can do" attitude about being blind. I believe all children can be successful and grow to their fullest potential if they are taught with creativity, love, and encouragement; if their teachers have high expectations of them; and if they get the tools they need for success.
I entered college in the fall of 1980 at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. On my first day of class I wore an NFB T-shirt. I sat in the front row, right in the middle because that's where kids who get good grades sit, right?! Well, my professor looked at me and said,"NFB?" I replied,"Yes, are you familiar with the organization?" And he said,"I am. What do you know about it?" I answered,"Well, I've been a member for a couple of years." He responded with,"Oh NO - you're one of THOSE people?" I was surprised and came back with,"YES I AM AND DARN PROUD OF IT, TOO!" (Mind you this exchange was taking place in a room full of students.) He then called us (the NFB) a bunch of rabble-rousing radicals who liked to get up on their soapboxes. My final response was "Whatever they are, I'm one of them, and nothing will change that." Needless to say he and I bumped heads over the next four years, but in May of 1984 I graduated with a dual major receiving a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Teaching the Visually Handicapped.
In college I learned many teaching techniques and methods. I learned Braille (we used the Library of Congress Braille Transcribers Manual), how to use both the Perkins Braille Writer and the slate and stylus, basic orientation and mobility skills, and a little bit about the abacus. But it was through my association with the NFB that I picked up my philosophy for teaching blind children. Who better to learn from than those blind adults who have been through the education system and KNOW firsthand what is needed to be successful and make it in today's world?
When I began teaching in Albuquerque nine years ago I had six students, first through third grades in a classroom in a regular elementary school. Over the years as our reputation grew and word got out about our existence, the program continued to grow. We have even had a few families relocate to Albuquerque so their children could come to our program. Three years ago we had so many children that I could no longer handle it by myself so we split into two classrooms. For the past two years I have been team-teaching with a lady named Rye Gerry who took over the primary students. Rye does not have visually impaired certification but has many years of teaching experience and has a masters in special education. More importantly she has the skills to teach blind children: she is proficient in the Braille code and spent many hours under sleepshade learning cane-travel skills. Rye and I teach all subjects like any other elementary classroom teacher. The only difference is we teach using both print and Braille or only Braille.
The thirteen students we taught this past year are blind, and that's where the similarities end. More importantly they are individual kids with a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses, just as you would find in any classroom. Our students range from kindergarten to fifth grade. Some students have learning disabilities, a few have some physical difficulties, but most are what I call"generic" kids"regular kiddos who happen to be blind. Our goal is to teach the students the Braille skills and other alternative techniques of blindness so they can go out into the mainstream of the school and be able to compete equally with their sighted classmates. Some of the students spend 90 percent of their day mainstreamed into regular classrooms, some spend 90 percent of their day with us, and the rest fall somewhere in between. We take a very individualized approach with the students because we want all children to be successful in their school experience. Some kids, even if they had 20/20 vision, would still need a lot of special support in school. Those are the students that spend most of their day with us receiving individual attention.
Our students' vision ranges from totally blind to legally blind or what some people refer to as visually impaired. No matter what their visual acuity is, we are a classroom for children who are blind. We try to instill in the kids, their parents, other teachers, and other sighted students the belief that being blind is respectable. Blind is not a negative or"bad" word. Being blind is simply a characteristic, and it doesn't define who you are.
Although there are many differences among our students there are three things they all have in common. The first is they are all blind. The second is they are all learning to read and write in Braille no matter how much residual vision they have. The third is they are learning to be safe and independent cane travelers. Both of these skills are taught while the child is wearing a sleepshade (blindfold). We don't make a big deal about wearing a sleepshade, that's just the way it is. Usually the kids don't fuss about it either. We use sleepshades so the students will more quickly and thoroughly learn to use the proper techniques instead of depending on remaining vision, which oftentimes is ineffective and misleading.
There are reasons why children who have some vision should be taught to read and write in Braille. Some of our kids have degenerative eye conditions and will not be able to efficiently use print as primary reading and writing medium as they get older. They are learning Braille at the same time they are learning print so the skills will be in place as their vision decreases or fluctuates. Others have such limited vision that they have to stick their noses on the page to see the print. This obviously is not a very quick or efficient way to read, and so the children quickly fall behind other students in their work. Some of our low-vision students do well with standard large print materials and can keep up with their sighted classmates. However these kids also experience eye fatigue and headaches after prolonged reading. They are learning to use Braille so they will have an alternative to print material. No, it is not traumatic for a student with vision to learn Braille. It can be, though, if the teacher has a negative attitude about it. We are not trying to"make a child blind" as some feel. We are trying to provide students with the skills they need so they can succeed in life.
Yes, it is possible to learn and use both print and Braille at the same time; even our youngest students are deciding for themselves that Braille is often easier and quicker for their school work. Valene is one of our students who did not have Braille skills when she started with us in first grade. She is a child who could see out of one eye and could read large print if she got really close to it. We started to teach her Braille, wearing a sleepshade, and continued also with some instruction in print. Valene picked up Braille very quickly and was really enjoying reading. During her first year in school, she experienced two or three hemorrhages which temporarily took away her vision. If Valene had not been using Braille, her learning would have stopped at this time. But because she had Braille training and was already using a white cane for travel, her education could-and did-continue uninterrupted. After the hemorrhage cleared, we again incorporated print instruction with her Braille. By the beginning of second grade Valene said, "Braille sure is quicker and easier than print!" Valene has done all of her academic school work in Braille ever since; she begins fourth grade this August.
People often wonder when Braille should be introduced to a child. I've heard professionals say,"He's not ready to learn Braille." And the child is five or six years old! Or professionals will say,"Why bother using Twin Vision" books? A two-year-old can't read anyway!" My response to these statements is NONSENSE! Braille needs to be introduced while a child is small at home or in preschool. If you think about it, sighted kids are bombarded with print from the time they are babies. They are learning that these funny looking lines mean something. Our blind children need to have Braille exposure at a very young age too. I'm not saying that we should expect all two-year-olds to be able to read, but they need to know that Braille exists.
When do sighted children learn to read? Well, it varies depending on the child. But by the time they are in preschool they are at least being exposed to their print letters and numbers. And by the end of kindergarten sighted kids are expected to at least be able to recognize their letters and numbers and write their names. Our blind children need to have the same expectations placed on them. They also need the opportunity to meet these expectations. Blind children should progress at the same pace as their sighted classmates through the reading and writing process. Blindness does not automatically cause a child to fall behind in his school work; denying a child the opportunity to learn and use Braille may. Part of literacy is also writing skills. We teach Braille writing using both a Perkins Braille Writer as well as a slate and stylus. The slate and stylus is a blind person's equivalent to a pencil and paper; it is portable, quiet, and a must for taking notes. We also teach our students how to write using a pencil. At the very least our blind children need to know how to write their names in cursive; think of all the situations in life where a person needs to write his signature! We also teach our students how to type, using both a standard electric typewriter and a talking computer. It does not take a fancy adapted keyboard; we simply mark the F key and the J key so they can easily find home-row. I try to begin touch-typing instruction when a student is in second or third grade. Keyboarding skills are really important. It allows the students independently to turn in print assignments to their classroom teachers. This really cuts down on the turnaround time it takes for the Braille teacher to interline the print over the student's Braille and then return it to the classroom teacher. It depends on the individual student, but I expect many of my kids to turn in typed assignments by the time they are in fourth or fifth grade. Typing skills also give our kids a way to communicate with their sighted classmates through notes or letters.
The use of a long white cane is not an option, it is a necessity for our kids. Cane travel skills are an essential part of a child's education. What child doesn't want the freedom and the ability to go places by himself, when and where he chooses? Cane travel skills for young children give them that freedom. Using a white cane needs to be started at a very young age. I feel that by the time a child can walk and hold a cane out in front of him, he should have the opportunity to move about and explore his environment using a cane. How do you know if a child needs a cane? Basically, if children cannot safely and by themselves go places other children their age go, then they need a cane.
When Elisha started kindergarten with us she did not have a cane. Since she had a LITTLE vision, she was never given a cane. Well, the first day of school she was running down the hall and didn't see the wall until she was a few inches from it. She quickly put on her brakes (meanwhile my heart was in my mouth) and wham! She went into the wall. Luckily she put her hand up so she really didn't get hurt. That same day, going out to recess, she tumbled down three steps and scraped her knees because she didn't see the steps. I had a cane in her hand the next day and started instruction immediately. Then I could relax and not constantly worry about her safety. Now Elisha knows where steps are and where walls are because her cane gives her the information she needs! Jennifer is the opposite. While Elisha is a speed demon, Jennifer is pretty slow-moving. Jen didn't walk alone until she was about four years old, and she started at Zia Elementary a year later. She was very tiny for her age, about the size of a three-year-old. And when she started school she got her first white cane and began learning how to use it. When the recess bell would ring, Jen would pick up her cane from next to her chair and head out of the classroom door. She would go down the hallway and just as she got to the doors leading outside, the bell would ring ending recess! So, she would turn around and make her way back to the classroom and try again the following recess. Needless to say, Jennifer didn't get much playing done outside.
Were we mean? Some teachers and students thought so. Maybe it would have been quicker and easier to take her by the hand and get her outside. But what would Jennifer have learned? The message she would have gotten is that she was incapable of doing it herself. It took her a long time to speed up, and she's still no Speedy Gonzales (except when there is pizza for lunch-then she flies!), but Jennifer knows that she can get around all by herself, and we expect her to do so. (Jennifer goes off to middle school in August and is nervous but excited.)
When students have a white cane they are expected to use it at all times: on the playground, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, going to the bathroom, on field trips, in the classroom, on the bus, around their neighborhoods, in the store, etc. If they begin at an early age to use a cane, the cane becomes a part of them. But kids will be kids, and sometimes they forget and don't use their canes correctly. I can't tell you how many times I've seen our students dragging their canes behind, looking to see where they've been I guess, or just holding the cane but not arcing it or using it. And when they run into a pole, or fall off a curb, it is hard for me to stand there and watch it happen. My students have heard me say countless times,"Are you hurt? No? Good. But if you were using your cane it wouldn't have happened." If we always rescue a child, they won't learn how to be good, safe, independent travelers. We need to always encourage independence for our kids and encourage them always to use their canes. Now I often hear the other teachers in the school telling our kids to "Arc that cane and use it-don't just carry it." I don't know about you, but I have better things to do with my time than to walk a kid to the bathroom twelve times a day or to the drinking fountain or to the playground. With the training in using a white cane, our children have the independence to get around just like everyone else.
Teaching is much more than passing on reading, writing, math skills, and knowledge. Teaching is acceptance, patience, flexibility, creativity, and having the honesty to admit we don't have all the answers but will try to find out. It is assuming that all children have the desire to learn, and then giving them the tools they need to learn and to succeed. It is challenging students to think and grow to their fullest potential. This is what I try to do. It is a wonderful experience to watch my students mature and learn to be capable, confident young people who just happen to be blind.