Sunday, November 6, 2011

Teach them well

As teachers of blind students, we have so many tasks to complete. From making sure the students are literate in Braille and using a cane to reaching milestones for age appropriate expectations to taling to them about blindness, some things can easily slip through the cracks.
One of our most important jobs is to make sure the blind student can advocate for himself or herself. This could include anything from saying “I can pick up my book,” to asking a teacher for the list of textbooks for the next school year to see if any are available in accessible formats. As important as it is to teach the student to advocate, it is also crutial that the student knows that you and other members of the IEP team will be supportive and that he or she should talk to you if they are having difficulty with other teachers.
I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who believed in the National Federation of the Blind’s philosophy. She taught me that being blind didn’t mean I couldn’t be independent at home and at school.
As a first grader, I had a paraprofessional who stayed with me all day; her job was to help me with class assignments, go to lunch with me, and make materials accessible. However, she was overprotective and didn’t want me to walk by myself, run outside at recess, or cary my tray and open my milk at lunch. I eventually had enough of this treatment. One day, I exited the van to go into school, and as the tactless six-year-old I was, I pushed her hand off of my arm and said, “go away, I don’t want you, I can do it myself.” This made her upset; later the same day, we had peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches with tomato soup, and I said the same thing as she took the plastic tray from my arm.
I don’t know how much time passed; it could have been the next day or the next week, but my first grade teacher informed me that there was going to be a meeting in the afternoon to discuss my behavior. When I got there, my first grade teacher, paraprofessional, the special ed teacher, the school psychologist, the principal, and some other adult were sitting around a big table. I was scared, and I remember thinking “Why do all the grownups want to yell at me?” They told me to sit down, and I refused.
They talked at me, lecturing on how it wasn’t safe for me to get out of the van by myself, especially after I fell down the last step because my shoe was untied. I shouldn’t carry my tray, especially on soup days, because it was very hot, and I could burn myself. I couldn’t walk to class alone because I would geet lost. I shouldn’t sass my aid because she was doing her job and helping me. I needed to be a good girl and do what my teachers said because I was there to learn. It went on and on and on, and by the time it was over, my little legs were very tired, and they accomplished what they set out to do: silenced me.
After that meeting, and for the next six years I was an extremely quiet child. When my parapro asked me questions such as “do you like this?” or “Did you miss me?” I always nodded or whispered yes, even if I truly disagreed with her. I didn’t share my opinions with anyone because I was too afraid of getting in trouble again. I didn’t tell the teachers when I saw other students doing something wrong. And most importantly, until after my mother and others fought for a long time with the rest of the IEP team, I didn’t travel many places by myself and didn’t carry my tray at lunch because I had been discouraged and internally accepted that I couldn’t do it.
All it takes is one time to plant the seeds of uncertainty and doubt. I told my mother who fought for me, but it never occurred to me to tell my Braille teacher. To borrow words from Whitney Houston’s song, “I believe children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.” Give them the tools so they can believe in themselves and fight for what they need. But, I hope you can also let them know that if they have fallen into silence, that you will be there to help them talk again and not because you feel obligated to but because you genuinely care about the future they can have if they have a positive attitude, proper training, and the chance to succeed in the classroom and in life.

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