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Summer 2003 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

The Evolution of Schools for the Blind in the 21ST Century

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

In this country, inclusion had its serious beginnings in the 1950s. By the end of the 1970s, it was firmly established as the most popular, most desirable educational placement for many blind and visually impaired children. This did not happen easily, and many serious conflicts caused what should have been an exciting, wonderful era in our history to be less than joyful. Most significant among these conflicts was that schools for the blind were left out of the movement toward inclusion; in fact, they were often thought to be inhibitors of inclusion. The result was years of suspicion, hostility, turf wars, and less than adequate attention paid to the individual needs of children.

Even today, there are children who are receiving inadequate services, not because the services are not available, but because they are the victims of misguided philosophic differences. This applies equally to blind and visually impaired students in schools for the blind and in local schools.

"Evolution" implies a gradual, steady movement. This is what has happened to schools for the blind in the U.S. Before the second half of the 20th century, these schools were havens of the elite blind. Children with no additional disabilities were far in the majority, and academic programs were offered that were at least as good, and often better, than non-disabled students received in regular schools. Through most of the second half of the 20th century, there was significant upheaval in schools for the blind. As we should have expected, most parents of blind children with no additional disabilities strongly preferred regular school enrollment for their child. This movement left many schools for the blind with rapidly diminishing populations.

However, as we became more sophisticated at diagnosing visual impairment, and as we gradually began to recognize our responsibility to visually impaired students with additional disabilities, many of the spaces vacant in schools for the blind were soon filled by a very complex, challenging population. This is not the place to discuss whether this was a good move for schools for the blind. In my opinion, every child with a visual impairment, regardless of additional disabilities, benefits from educational services that address the visual impairment.

Unfortunately, we work in a profession that, when the pendulum swings, it doesn't stop in the middle, it goes to the polar side. First, the popular thing to do was to place your child in a school for the blind. Then the pendulum swung, and the place for most, if not all, blind and visually impaired children was in regular schools. Many of us viewed it as our professional responsibility to try to move that pendulum toward the middle. And, my friends, it is happening. This is why there is a serious evolution of schools for the blind in the U.S. at this time.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, it was my privilege to discuss the emerging role of schools for the blind in England, Germany, Australia, and Japan. Without exception, my worst fears were true. In other countries with growing emphasis on inclusion, there was tension building between schools for the blind and advocates for regular school placement. In all instances, my message to colleagues throughout the world in schools for the blind was consistent. "Don't fight inclusion," I stated. "It is inevitable. Rather, embrace inclusion, and find positive ways in which you can encourage and support it. There is no reason that the champions of inclusion cannot be leaders in schools for the blind."

Perhaps there are three groups of professionals. First, there is a vocal, but diminishing group who believe that all blind children should attend schools for the blind. Then there is an equally vocal group, who find themselves on the side of political correctness, who advocate for regular school placement for all visually impaired children. Then there is a third group, one that sees values in all placement options, and believes that services should match the needs of students. This third group has no political agenda. It simply believes that, for every blind and visually impaired child, there is an appropriate program, based on the individual needs of each child. Needs may change through the years, and often this means that placement should change. My "third group" has two fundamental beliefs: 1) Regardless of placement, all visually impaired children need a qualified teacher of the visually impaired who can meet their special needs. 2) The expanded core curriculum needs of visually impaired children must be considered when planning educational services.

In order to accept my thesis regarding schools for the blind, you must understand certain fundamental beliefs that I have: I believe that schools for the blind are centers for the most experienced, most expert professionals in education of the visually impaired. The school for the blind should be the "hub" of educational services for blind and visually impaired children, regardless of where they go to school. It is the professional responsibility of a school for the blind to share its expertise wherever it is needed. In order to truly share, there must be a significant shift of resources. In two of the United States, the schools have changed their names. The Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped is now The Wisconsin Center for the Education of the Visually Impaired. The same change has happened in Nebraska. In that state, the school for the blind was mandated by their legislature to take a significant role in the education of all visually impaired students in Nebraska.

This constitutes a significant evolution. While schools for the blind continue to serve children in a residential school, they are discovering ways in which they can enrich the education of all such children in regular schools.

This first installment of Schools for the Blind for the 21st Century is perhaps a history lesson. In future installments we'll look at how these ideas are being applied now.

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Last Revision: August 19, 2003