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Spring 2002 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

"Where Airplanes Fly"

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

What follows is a story with as many versions as there are teachers of the visually impaired. A good friend of mine was a resource teacher for the visually impaired at a senior high school. Among his students was a very bright, competent totally blind 11th grader. My friend was concerned about the concepts and social skills of this student who excelled in academic learning. One day he had the student climb up a ladder and touch the ceiling of the classroom. My friend said, "Do you know what that is?" The student responded, "This is where airplanes fly."

While this little story seems to illustrate a lack of concept development, not social skills development, I contend that it is a classic illustration of why we need to be teaching social interaction skills.

Over the years that I've been involved in education of the visually impaired, it's been interesting, frustrating, and tragic that my colleagues and I have paid so little attention to the systematic, sequential teaching of social skills. I recall that among the original reasons given for "mainstreaming" were to give blind and visually impaired students opportunities to grow up socially with their sighted classmates and neighbors. So we placed them in regular classrooms and thought proximity would do the rest. When questioned about teaching social skills, we would say that we corrected inappropriate social behavior (rocking, eye-poking, etc.) as needed. What that meant was that we intervened when children were being socially inappropriate and tried to extinguish the behavior. It did not mean, at least in my case, that we replaced inappropriate behavior by teaching what would be socially acceptable. We also did not share with students information about which behaviors were permissible with different audiences, and which behaviors were permissible only in the privacy of their own homes or their own rooms.

In a former life, when I taught future teachers of the visually impaired at a university, I offered a course entitled "Social and Psychological Implications of Blindness." Almost every semester, the students and I would begin this course with a fascinating discussion. We would consider the possibility that, for the adventitiously blinded adult, the major issues of blindness would probably be psychological, while for the congenitally blind child, most issues would be social. The child, who knows no other condition than blindness, may not have any psychological reaction to being blind. On the other hand, every social skill that is incidentally, casually learned through vision will need to be taught to blind children. What happens to these skills if we have no social skills curriculum?

As a result of our rather feeble and innocently ignorant attempts with social skill training in the early years of mainstreaming, too many blind and visually impaired young people entered the adult world with few skills for social interaction. Thus, the very reasons we mainstreamed students led to many socially inept young adults.

Are we doing better now? I hope so - we have curriculum for assessing and teaching social interaction, we have an expanded core curriculum that stresses the teaching of social skills, and our universities are paying much more attention to the preparation of teachers who know how to teach non-academic skills.

Ann MacCuspie wrote a book entitled Promoting Acceptance of Children with Disabilities: From Tolerance to Inclusion (Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, 1996) that every professional in education of the visually impaired should read. Ann describes what she calls "Pupil Culture," and warns us that this characteristic of adolescents is learned through the visual observation of peers, and is essential for a healthy social life in school and the community.

According to MacCuspie, pupil culture has several functions:

  1. It is a defense resource for pupils against teachers and other adults.
  2. It determines who belongs and who does not.
  3. It provides special benefits for group members.
  4. It legitimizes children's perceptions of their world.

MacCuspie goes on to illustrate, through her research, why it is difficult, if not impossible, for visually impaired children to be a part of the "pupil culture."

"...many sources of incompatibility became apparent. Classmates of these (visually impaired) students were often perplexed as to how to interact with a student who was visually impaired or how to respond to her/his atypical behaviors or mannerisms. Students with a visual impairment, frequently uninformed of the negotiated rules of school culture, behaved inappropriately... The social environment itself was often a hostile one for children with disabilities integrated in the regular classroom. Competence, verified in competitive settings or judged on inequitable criteria, routinely placed the student with a visual impairment at a disadvantage..."

I've been very conscious of this emphasis in Ann's book because I am the father of a teenager. Lucas, my son, is 13 years old, soon to be 14. Throughout his life, he has been a kind, sensitive, loving and fun-loving young man. He, and his mother, are the joys of my life. Yet, I am very aware of his beginning to identify with his pupil culture now. The changes are subtle, for Lucas still has a deep and abiding love of his family, and is committed to being a loving member of our circle. But there is a normal and growing dimension of him in which we, my wife and I, are not included. He has friends with whom he shares interests, even passionate interests, and his parents can only look on and approve. He is growing up, becoming his own person, not just an extension of us. I have yet to hear or see Lucas deliberately defy his parents, and I attribute that to the 13 years of love, caring, and gentle discipline he received.

Why am I telling you this story? Because most of what Lucas knows about his pupil culture has been learned casually and visually. He "fits" with a certain crowd at school because they share interests, have very animated conversations, and laugh a lot together. His identity with his pupil culture will grow over the next few years, and his parents only hope and pray that his solid foundation will help him remember honesty, integrity, and what is right.

Lucas first became a member of a pupil culture because of the common interests he and his friends share. As the months and years go by, that bond will strengthen through shared experiences and relationships. Hopefully, his friends today will be his lifetime friends.

What are some of the prerequisites children must learn in order to be a member of a pupil culture? What are the characteristics of pupil culture that blind and visually impaired children may need to be taught? This is what Ann MacCuspie has to say:

How can we help these students develop a pupil culture? I'm not certain, and many of you readers have done more than I have in this regard. But I can't help thinking about spending some time every day, or several times a week, helping the pre-teen on your caseload learn socially appropriate dress, socially acceptable mannerisms, develop interests common to other students, learn conversational skills (don't interrupt, how to feign interest, etc.), appropriate relationships with adults, etc.

Because, after all, social skills are just as important as learning to read, aren't they?


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