AFB/FJB – Vision Loss Symposium

Little Timmy Thompson sits and listens politely as his seventh grade geography teacher drones on about latitude, longitude and the equator: Okay so maybe Tinmy just looks as though he is listening. In reality, he is far, far away, pondering what it would be like to ride an elephant or go on an African safari.” Moments later, his mind transitions and he imagines how it would feel to have the wind blowing through his hair at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Timmy does not know of these places by the maps he has seen at the front of the classroom or the slide-shows and videos that have been shown in class, nor has he ever left the country. Rather, his fingertips have taken him on a journey, a journey of the mind that does not even require him to leave the classroom. You see, Timmy is blind. Fortunately for him, his geography book is written in Braille and has afforded him the ability to sit in a typical public school classroom and endure the same monotonous lesson as his sighted peers.

Timmy’s experiences are not unique, and inclusion of Stu dents with varying degrees of visual impairments is on the rise. Recent studies show children placed in the main stream setting are spending up to 80% of their day in a regular classroom. The Florida Instructional Material Center for the Visually Impaired (FIMCVI) is just one of the many facilities instrumental in making the lives of children like Timmy a little easier. The FIMCVI serves as a resource center and is responsible for all of the Braille and large-print books that are lent to the students in neighboring regions. The Coordinator of Instructional Resources, Kay Ratzlaff, has been teaching for 25 years and has spent the last 15 years instructing students who are blind. Now moving away from the classroom setting. Ratzlaff is focusing her attention on academic tools and materials that are necessary for mainstreaming to occur. Ratzlaff and the staff at FIMCYI share a common objective: to ensure that students and teachers have access to the instructional materials they need to make inclusion successful. Because these items (a seventh grade geography book, for instance) can be costly, FIMCVI functions as a lending library in hope that more than one student will be able to utilize the materials it provides.

While resources such as these are invaluable. Ratzlaff stresses the inherent necessity for teachers who are qualified to instruct these children. “The need for well-trained teachers of the visually impaired is just critical,” she explains. “Awareness is the problem. We are such a low incidence. People can sometimes go through their whole teaching career and never have a child who is blind or visually impaired in their classroom.” Presently, the topic of discussion is focused on presenting available options to teachers who come in contact with these students, in addition to parents and caregivers.

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One of the most important things to realize is that there are choices available in the continuum for students who are blind or visually impaired. While some may argue that these choices are limited, it is still essential that they be not only defined, but also made readily available to parents, students and teachers. The alternatives vary from program to program, but have a tendency to follow a similar pattern. Different stages in a child’s development and degree of vision loss may necessitate a change to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP addresses each student’s specific needs and is utilized to place the child in the most appropriate educational setting.

The continuum begins with a consultative model. This model provides an ongoing support system where a professional, in this case a teacher of the visually impaired, works closely with the faculty and staff to make certain the teachers have the materials they need to adequately instruct a student with a visual impairment. Depending on the specific needs of the children in the district, these teachers may spend the majority of their time at one school or be itinerant, meaning they travel from school to school and classroom to classroom.

The subsequent step is the resource setting where the child spends the bulk of the day in a typical classroom setting and participates in ‘pull-outs. During pull-out sessions, the students are taught special skills that require isolation from the other children. They may be learning Braille or how to access low-vision technology or gaining instruction on how to use devices that may help them assimilate into the mainstreamed classroom. As they mature, this time may also be utilized to discuss the students’ own awareness of their vision loss and potential further loss. These sensitive topics and skills are unique to children who are visually impaired, and having an area separate from the classroom is essential not only for privacy, but for individualized instruction as well.

The next level is similar to the resource setting. The children receive standard classroom instruction during a large portion of their day, but also spend time in a resource room with a teacher of the visually impaired. In this scenario, a group of children may be brought from throughout the district to spend their day with a teacher who specializes in the education of those with vision loss and blindness. Even if a school has a resource room available, specialized instructors may still visit classrooms to assist students as needed. A resource room teacher is also available to members of the faculty and is able to address and assist teachers and administrators when called.

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For some students, a self-contained classroom is the preferred choice of action. A classroom structured in this manner would afford the teacher of visually impaired students the opportunity to spend all of his or her time focused on one specific group. Students opting for this model are often mainstreamed into activities such as music, art and library, depending on their level of independence. Typically these are children with multiple disabilities whose vision loss is impeding their learning process most critically.

4 Images of Robert B. Rolls, Carl Augusto, Dr Maya Angelou, Ray Charles and Quincey Jones
Robert B. Ralls, president of FJB and Carl Augusto, president and CEO of AFB Dr. Maya Angelou kicked off the symposium on opening night Ray Charles entertained the crowd with his warm felt energy. Quincy Jones presented Ray Charles with a Lifetime Achievement Award

Residential placement extends students the most individualized care. The residential schools have varying curriculums and housing options depending on the state and county in which they are located. Children reside in and are educated on premises under constant care and supervision. The most important element to remember is that these choices are available and can be applied during all phases of a child’s education.

Laura Brown, coordinator of the visually impaired program for the school district of Hillsborough County in Florida, emphasizes the need for movement along the continuum. Brown also reiterates the scarcity of qualified teachers in this field, “I think it is very important that we look at the whole continuum and really make it work for kids, because without it we are really making a mistake. Take sighted children for example. Some of them need more support in certain grades and certain skills. that is why we don’t teach them the same skills every year. We teach them different things at different times and support them in different ways. Without teachers of the visually impaired who are well trained with special skills, these students will t get the help they need.”

Therein lies the problem. There are not enough qualified instructors who specialize in the field of vision loss and teaching students with visual impairments. What exactly defines the parameters of being well-trained and qualified? Braille instruction, coupled with a specialized background in how to teach children who are visually impaired. Ratzlaff notes one of the major problems blind children experience has to do with missing subtle connections and nuances that sighted people take for granted. One of the main differences in teaching them is their lack of concepts, in other words they often have a very incomplete picture of the world. Eighty percent (different sources place this number as high at 95%) of what we learn, we learn visually. So now someone has to fill in 80% of the gaps for a child who is blind. We all know kids have a tendency “to say the darnedest things,” and children who are visually impaired are subject to this as well. The problem is that if no one inter cedes and helps fix the picture, those disconnects become the child’s reality. Ratzlaff shared a story about a well-educated, intelligent friend of hers who happens to be blind. This person holds a master’s degree and is well-respected among his peers. One day a conversation arose about state flags. Looking slightly bewildered, the gentleman looked over and asked quite sincerely, “Well, does every state have a flag?” No one had ever told him that the “state flag” varied from state to state. This is a perfect example of just how substantial these disconnects can be. With out a qualified teacher making the connections for the children. the world becomes a mind-boggling misrepresentation of reality.

Up to this point, a benign and lovely portrait has been painted in which the options are endless for children mainstreamed into the public school setting. However, as we all know, there are two sides to every story. What about the scant supply of qualified faculty? What about the increased lack of funding that programs for the visually impaired are facing? What about the fact that there is still a colossal literacy problem with today’s visually impaired youth and adults? These complex questions were prevalent topics of conversation at the second International Vision Loss Symposium co-hosted by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the Foundation for the Junior Blind (FJB). The symposium. titled “Vision Loss in the 21st Century: Everyone’s Business,” encompassed the goal of the gathering: to make John Q. Public aware of the capabilities of blind and visually impaired people. and to heighten the collective perception of the needs of people who have visual impairments.

Members of the press had the opportunity to meet with the presidents of the AFB and the FJB to hear firsthand the goals of the symposium and the obstacles facing those with vision loss. Robert B. Ralls, president of the Foundation for the Junior Blind, noted, “This international forum allows us the opportunity to bring vision loss and blindness into the mainstream of social consciousness. We have a society that is growing older and there are going to be even more people who have blindness and vision loss issues as the years progress, so this is our effort to try to step out and get people looking toward the future and working together cooperatively and collaboratively.”

Eight hundred attendees gathered from across the country and around the world. The three-day symposium, which ran February 19-21 in Los Angeles, California, offered more than 100 different workshops and covered topics ranging from research and development to the latest technological advancements that have been made available to people who are blind and visually impaired. An expansive Exposition Hall featured hundreds of products and equipment making everyday life a little easier. Dr. Maya Angelou, remarkable poet and author of 11 best-selling books, kicked off the symposium on opening night. Quintessential musical mastermind Quincy Jones was on hand to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to his good friend, Ray Charles, who graced the stage with his infectious laughter and merriment. The event was also studded with other celebrity personalities including Richard Anderson, Gary Collins, Max Gail, Rhonda Shear, Connie Stevens, Ken Taylor and Steven Williams, to name a few.

Celebrities and awards were only a small part of the three-day event. More serious issues and obstacles were also discussed. President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, Carl Augusto suggested that although in some instances mainstreaming and inclusion has brought about a very positive result, there are still many downfalls. Again, the shortage of qualified Braille instructors comes into play. “What happens is that the itinerant teacher, who is going into the community to the local schools, may not even know Braille because they deal with kids with all types of disabilities,” noted Augusto. “Furthermore, the teachers who possess these skills are only coming in one or two days a week for an hour a day. Now think what would happen, how many heads would roll at the local Department of Education, if a seven year-old sighted child, received only one to two hours a week of print instruction. That would never happen in our society.” The bot tom line is that these are literacy issues that need to addressed.

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Both Brown and Ratzlaff agree public schools are primary targets of concern for the shortcomings of inclusion policies and practices nationwide. One of their main dis appointments stems from the district’s lack of representation at conferences and symposiums. The public schools “simply are not being represented to the extent they should be. The problem? Lack of funding from individual schools coupled with the difficulty teachers have spending time away from their classrooms. Brown mentioned one teacher who attended the symposium and had to go to her local Lion’s club to request monetary assistance to cover conference fees.

Technology plays an important role assisting all students in the learning process. However, to state that the benefits of technology are equal for children with and without vision loss begs controversy. For example, many sighted children are currently learning to read through electronic phonics programs and specialized technology. While this approach may lack the personal touch, it is still effective in most cases. “It would be wonderful if the same technology was sufficient in teaching Braille to children who are blind. While it can be used to supplement future hands-on training, initially someone has got to personally teach the child to read and write,” Ralls suggests.

This symposium offered a meeting of the minds and an opportunity for all opinions to be voiced for those involved in the field of blindness. Educators, medical representatives and people from the private and business sec tors came together to learn, to teach, and to get the word out. “Vision Loss in the 21st Century” really is, or should become, “Everyone’s Business.”

For more information on the symposium, sponsors and participants involved, please visit:

by Ryann E. Smith

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