TSBVI logo | Home | Site Search | Outreach |

Summer 2004 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Our Commitment to Children With Multiple Disabilities

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

Abstract: Dr. Hatlen discusses the historic role of Teachers of the Visually Impaired in serving students with additional disabilities, and the ongoing commitment to valuing and teaching all students who are blind or visually impaired.

Key Words: News & Views, multiple disabilities, TVIs, MIVI

I think I may have developed an addiction to email, and the result is that I subscribe to just too many listserves. One of these listserves recently became involved in a very sensitive topic. A contributor suggested that teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) do not provide the same level or quality of services to blind and visually impaired students with additional disabilities as to other children. The writer suggested that my profession tends to better serve academically capable visually impaired students first, and often attempts to avoid serving more challenging students with multiple disabilities.

I know that the writer is wrong, so I attempted to provide a very brief, incomplete history of services to children with multiple disabilities in response. Below is what I wrote. I would appreciate any reactions, questions, or responses to this short statement.

The history of our profession and its role in serving children with multiple disabilities is rich with commitment, dedication, and success. As with visually impaired students with no additional disabilities, there are the occasional "horror stories" from both parents and educators about when the "system" didn't work. However, these sometimes tragic stories in no way reflect the professional commitment of the vast majority of educators of visually impaired students to those with additional disabilities.

I must often remind myself that the first 35 years of my career were in California, and, while I thought I had a good handle on what was happening with blind and visually impaired students in my home state, this did not necessarily reflect the status of educational services nationwide. Thus, what follows is my perception of a very brief history of services to visually impaired children with additional disabilities in California. If it can be generalized, fine—if not, then at least you know something about my home state.

In the mid-1950s, children blinded from retrolental fibroplasia (RLF, now known as Retinopathy of Prematurity) were reaching school age. No one was ready for that population—schools for the blind had not expanded their facilities, personnel preparation was limited to a handful of universities, and local school programs were few in number. For reasons I know, but will not elaborate here, most of the families of RLF children became champions for local school education, and worked hard to make it a reality. Thus, the migration of blind children with no additional disabilities from schools for the blind to local schools began.

Until this time, most schools for the blind were strong academic schools, highly selective in whom they admitted. Few children with additional disabilities attended schools for the blind prior to the late 1950s. I recall that the California School for the Blind had about 190 students in 1958. Mildred Huffman (author of "Fun Comes First for the Blind Slow-Learner") taught one class with about 10-12 students who were considered at that time as mildly mentally retarded.

About a half-mile away from the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, I began as a resource teacher in a regular elementary school in 1956-57. There were 15 blind children and one "partially sighted" child enrolled at Emerson Elementary School. They were "successfully" included in regular classrooms, and I pulled them out for limited amounts of time to work on braille and typing. In those days, as local school programs developed rapidly all over California, there was a process used for determining which children were to receive education in the public school system. The term "educationally non-feasible" was used by psychologists and administrators to deny certain students the benefit of a "free and appropriate education."

Since it was considered very critical that early efforts to include blind students in regular classrooms be successful, many, perhaps most, of the RLF children were labeled "educationally non-feasible" and denied education at both the local school and the school for the blind. At one time, around 1959, in Alameda County (where Berkeley resides), I knew of 26 blind children who had been denied admission to the Berkeley resource program. More children were turned down than accepted. And these were the children who seemed to have additional disabilities. My colleagues and I thought that many of them were functioning at a level below chronological age because of experiential deprivation, but we found it almost impossible to convince our administrators that at least some of these children with multiple impairments deserved an education.

Finally, in 1960, three blind children with multiple disabilities were admitted to Emerson School in Berkeley. Because I'm not very imaginative, I placed these children in regular classrooms—that's what I did with all the academically capable students I served. Well, these three children could not be served effectively in regular classrooms, and I had to resort to initiating a partially self-contained classroom. I want to emphasize, however, that my commitment to those three children was as strong and passionate as with the other students I served. I was not alone—colleagues from throughout California began serving students with additional disabilities. They did it willingly and with dedication and professionalism. And we did it long before PL 94-142.

Meanwhile, the California School for the Blind (CSB) was having difficulty with its enrollment. As parents opted for local school placement, the number of students served by CSB began to decline. I became Principal of CSB in 1962, and the need to change the services and philosophy of the school was very apparent. When I arrived at CSB in 1962, there were about 20 children with multiple disabilities. When I left in 1966, the school had become ungraded, and by far the majority of children were multiply disabled. I believe that this rapid transition happened throughout the country, and that it wasn't always an easy evolution. There are schools for the blind that resisted this new role until they began to be concerned about their very existence.

Today schools for the blind stand tall as providers of high quality education for blind and visually impaired children with additional disabilities. Some schools specialize in this population—for example, St. Joseph's School in New Jersey, and the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind in Pittsburgh. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a better educational program for these students than that offered by these two schools. I could easily add the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to this list, and this is generally true of all schools for the blind, where the majority of children served have multiple disabilities.

In 1963, AFB published a classic small book entitled No Place to Go by Kathern Gruber and Polly Moor. It described the desperate situation for many blind children who were being declared "educationally non-feasible." This book was followed by No Time to Lose in 1968, edited by Polly Moor. Read the last paragraph in this book, and know that we accepted this challenge:

"…Helping each child to reach his optimal development is not only the crux of teaching but the joy of teaching. The benefits are shared by the child and his parents, the teacher and school, and by the widening community in which the child will live. Time is important. For the child there is no time to lose.

Teaching the blind child who is multiply impaired demands conviction, love, patience, and a creative, daring spirit."

Recognition of the responsibility, the joy, and the challenge to serve blind and visually impaired students with additional disabilities grew rapidly through the 1970s and 1980s. We learned quickly that many students being served in other areas of special education also had a significant visual impairment, and TVIs collaborated with other teachers and other disciplines so that all areas of need for the child were met. Personnel preparation programs took initiative in adding course work for future teachers that better prepared them for a wide diversity of blind and visually impaired students.

For many years I was involved in teacher preparation in Northern California. I know what students learned about teaching a wide diversity of blind and visually impaired students. I know that they learned to love, honor, and respect all children, regardless of various levels of additional disabilities. I never heard a teacher suggest that she did not have responsibility for these children. I never knew of a teacher who placed children on a hierarchy, with those with complex additional disabilities on the bottom.

Today, many local school programs of which I am aware have tremendous programs for blind and visually impaired students with additional disabilities. I have yet to meet a TVI who has suggested that she/he is not professionally and morally responsible for the education of all children, including those with multiple disabilities. Multi-disciplinary teams of highly trained experts work to provide these children with the very best education we know how to provide.

Every child is precious. We do not value one child over another. Every child deserves the very best we have to offer, and I know that we are committed to providing the best.

News & Views Section Editor's Note: In the last edition of SEE/HEAR, we announced Terry Murphy's acceptance of the position of Commissioner of the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and the selection of Barbara J. Madrigal as the Assistant Commissioner of the Division for Blind Services (DBS). Until recent agency reorganization, the commissioner of the Texas Commission of the Blind wrote a regular column for this publication. Barbara will now become the ongoing contributor for this column, and her series will begin with the next edition. As usual, Dr. Phil Hatlen continues his regular contribution as Superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

| Summer 2004 Table of Contents | Send E-Mail to SEE/HEAR|

Please complete the Comments! form or send comments and suggestions to Webmaster

Last Revision: September 1, 2010