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Spring 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

A Vision for Texas: Our Profession Determines Its Own Destiny

By Dr. Phil Hatlen, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Editor's note: Dr. Hatlen gave this speech at the 2001 Texas Association of Education and Rehabilitation (TAER) Conference on April 20th.

In recent months, and most certainly in the coming months and years, a common topic for conversation among educators has been TCB's Texas Confidence Builders. My own reaction to this change in service delivery has taken several turns over the past few months. Let me suggest one way of looking at it.

Unemployment and underemployment has been the primary issue among blind adults for as long as I have been in this profession. Despite advances in rehabilitation and education services, despite technology advances, despite changes in employer attitudes, the rate of unemployment has virtually remained the same for the past 50 years. TCB has looked at that fact, considered what to do about it, and taken a dramatic move in the manner in which it serves its customers. Whether you and I approve or not, the fact that TCB is willing to take risks, be bold, stretch the envelope, because nothing else has worked, is something that I, for one, can admire.

How are we, in education, doing these days? Very well, in many ways.

I think that local school districts, education service centers, and TSBVI have, over the years, developed a very supportive, collaborative system that results in blind and visually impaired students receiving the best education in the most appropriate placement. "Appropriate" may change from time to time, and we have a flexible system in which that can happen.

But we have our chronic problems, too. Regarding unemployment, we must own this issue, too. What are we doing about it? About service delivery in rural areas, are we certain that students are receiving all the direct instruction from a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) that they need? And what of teaching the expanded core curriculum? Our profession clearly tells us that it is as important as the regular core curriculum. But are all TVIs finding the time and inclination to teach such subjects as social skills, living skills, and career education?

I'm not certain that you'll all agree with me, but from my perspective, we in education are as much in need of evaluating our efforts and considering some new directions as was TCB.

I have a short list (five items) of concerns that I suggest to you are in need of immediate attention. And, like TCB, the solutions to some of these issues might very well require high-risk, bold efforts. My list consists of national issues, not unique to Texas. But my sincere hope is that professionals in Texas will take some of these concerns on as challenges to be overcome, and that once more Texas will take the lead in confronting issues and finding solutions.

1. Instruction in the expanded core curriculum

The concept of an expanded core curriculum for blind and visually impaired learners had its origin in schools for the blind a century ago. It took a wrong turn for awhile in the middle of the 20th century when we became so obsessed with inclusion that we weren't willing to admit that these students had unique needs, that vision loss in and of itself created learning needs.

This topic went through several name changes. It was first referred to as the "specialized needs of visually impaired students." Soon we were using the term "unique needs," the "disability-specific needs." Finally, with the realization that all of education was moving toward the concept of "core curriculum," the term "expanded core curriculum" was used and adopted.

The National Agenda movement ran it up the flagpole. Everyone saluted. Shortly thereafter, articles were written on the expanded core curriculum; our major professional organizations endorsed it; and there seemed few, if any, detractors. Therefore, I think it's safe to assume now that most educators of blind and visually impaired students realize that all students must be assessed in all areas of the expanded core curriculum, and, based on assessment results, IEP goals must be written to address the areas needed by each student. (Years ago, when I stated that the learning of living skills should be of equal importance with learning to read, my educator friends would giggle or look at me aghast! Today, when I make that statement, I see heads nod in agreement.)

So, where are we today in implementing the expanded core curriculum? Are all students being assessed in all areas? Does the IEP reflect the outcome of assessment and provide for instruction in portions of the expanded core curriculum? Has the TVI been given the time to teach these vital skills? Sadly, in most areas of Texas, I think not. I think that dedicated, committed, well-meaning TVIs are not finding enough hours in the day to address the expanded core curriculum. I know there are many exceptions - some of you have told me of tremendous results in teaching the expanded core curriculum.

Perhaps we have not made our position clear enough. If the instructional day provides time to teach reading, it must also provide the time to teach living skills, social skills, career education, assistive technology, etc. If it doesn't, our system is broken and needs to be fixed. I'm ready to help fix it; are you?

2. Appropriate reading media

The question I feel compelled to ask today is this: Is there any visually impaired child, anywhere in Texas, whose reading medium was selected based on the amount of time the TVI could spend with her? You have heard me say this many times, and I'm going to say it again: A child who is in the early stages of learning to read and write braille will need his TVI for at least one hour per day. It is my sincere hope that no child in Texas is reading print because of the lack of time to teach braille.

If this is an issue in Texas, will you join me in addressing it?

3. Career education

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that educators must own part of the dismal employment rate among blind adults in the U.S. Career education is a major curricular area in the expanded core curriculum. It is recognized as an educational need that most often will not be adequately addressed in the regular school curriculum. Consider the amount of career education that is incidentally learned by sighted students by visual observation, and then think about how these learning opportunities will be provided to blind and visually impaired students.

Some months ago, I was told by some of the leaders of our consumer organizations in Texas that most blind young people take at least ten years after high school graduation before they settle into a job - or, for the majority, settle for unemployment. My friends, it doesn't have to be that way. We, you and I, should commit to a career education program for our students that will prepare them for employment, for decision making, and for the dignity of work. Our graduates should have all the skills necessary to chart their own destiny, and not be dependent on TCB to give them direction in life.

Are all of you committed to teaching career education to all blind and visually impaired students in Texas? May I join you as we make this a goal for our Texas profession, and once more lead the nation in innovation?

4. Tactile Graphics

How's this for a topic that just won't go away? But, my friends, we are beginning to identify the real problem. For years our issue was a plethora of "raised pictures" coming from well-meaning, good-hearted people who truly believed that everything visual should be presented to blind students. When we finally got it straight between "pictures" and "graphics," and realized that tactile graphics make a lot of sense, but pictures with perspective are almost impossible to present tactually, we really thought we had achieved what we needed. When wonderfully creative people like Diane Spence and Bob Walling began to produce clear, sharp tactile graphics for geography, mathematics, and science textbooks, we really knew we had licked the problem of tactile graphics.

But, like peeling an onion, the more layers we took off the topic of tactile graphics, the more issues we found. At last, though, I think we have come to the core. Children need to be sequentially and systematically taught how to read tactile graphics. University preparation programs need to include "how to teach the reading of tactile graphics" to future TVIs. Then TVIs need to add this topic as a goal in the IEP of every blind student. How about it, universities, are you ready to do this? How about it, teachers, are you ready to commit instructional time to this vital area of learning?

Are there people we need to convince? How about TAER taking this on as a challenge? How about someone reporting back to TAER this time next year about the tremendous success in establishing programs to train teachers on how to teach tactile graphics, and in implementing programs in local schools that provide time for children to learn to read tactile graphics.

I'm ready; are you?

5. Use of paraprofessionals

The existence of paraprofessionals, or teacher assistants, is a given in our profession. After all, every profession, even Orientation and Mobility, uses them. But how are they used? Are they used to supplement and reinforce what the TVI has taught? Or, and ask yourself this question seriously, are they used to replace TVIs?

I could go on, but five topics for us to take on with commitment, dedication, and creativity, are enough. I know each of you could add to this list, and, because these are personal convictions, not fundamental truths, you might disagree with my list. My purpose in sharing these with you today is that I'd really like us educators in Texas to come together over chronic, serious issues, and collectively find solutions. We have led the country in many ways - let's do it again.

How about it, teachers, are you ready? How about it, TAER, is it time to tackle some tough issues?

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Last Revision: September 1, 2003