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Summer 2006 Table of Contents
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Memories From the Past: Services for Preschool Blind and Visually Impaired Children

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

Abstract: a review of the history of services to preschool blind children in the U.S.

Key Words: blindness, visual impairment, preschool, International Preschool Seminar, Phil Hatlen, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, child development

Editors Note: TSBVI was pleased to host the 25th gathering of the International Preschool Seminar in Austin on May 10-13, 2006. We had 53 people who serve young children with visual impairments, including professionals from 16 states as well as 21 Texas practitioners. It was a joyous and interesting meeting of people with great passion and expertise in serving this special population. The following was the introductory talk given by the TSBVI Superintendent, Dr. Phil Hatlen.

Where do I begin, facing such an illustrious group? Here sits Natalie Barraga, one of my mentors, whose knowledge of services for blind children extends much further into history than mine. Here is Lee Robinson, cofounder of NAPVI, cofounder of this seminar, whose credentials related to preschool blind children are far more legitimate than mine and Stu Teplin and Deborah Hatton, whose work I have admired for many, many years. Stu, I know I met you at the first International Seminar I attended, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I met you, Deborah, at the same time. Look around you, my friends, we are in the presence of giants.  And it falls to me to give a brief look at the history of services to preschool blind children in the United States. 

In the Fall of 1956, I was student teaching under the direction of Jeanne Kenmore in a resource room in Berkeley, California. Jeanne elected to accept a position in personnel preparation at the University of Minnesota in January of 1957, and I was hired to fill out the school year. There seems to be some confusion as to whether I began my professional career in 1956 or 1957. I have always said that it was during the school year of 1956-1957, meaning that I am now in my 50th year in this profession.

Where were we in 1956 regarding services to preschool blind children? Remember that we were already three years beyond the research that determined that excessive oxygen was the primary cause of RLF. Yet my memory tells me that parents of blind babies often came to me during my first few years of teaching, asking what they could do to assure normal growth and development for their baby. 

The phrase, “Treat your blind baby just as you would any other baby”, sticks in my mind, and underscores the desperate need we had in the 1950s to deny how blind babies are different. Soon I began to say, “Have the same expectations for your blind baby as you would any baby, but seek professional help, and know that you will need to intervene when a learning experience requires learning beyond arm’s reach.”

As Natalie and Lee and some of the rest of you know, it was an interesting time. We had our heroes, such as Berthold, Nancy, Polly, Sherry, and others, but I don’t think we really knew what to do with grieving or denying or angry parents in terms of providing either comfort or answers.  Somewhere in our literature, I remember a particularly profound Selma Fraiberg quote, which I’ll try to paraphrase:  When we met these families, they were often without hope.  Parents felt that they and their baby would be better off dead. So, more than anything else we did, we helped parents learn to love and appreciate their baby, and recognize her as being a beautifully unique human being. Sorry, Selma, that I took some liberties with what you actually said, but I know I caught the meaning of what you were saying.

There are so many people in our past that names come rushing at me that I haven’t thought about in years. Was it Laura Zetchie in Washington, Mollie Vlasnik in Oregon, Anna Elonen in Michigan, Miriam Norris in Chicago? How about Dorothy Burlingham, Jane Hallenback, Kathryn Maxfield, Arthur Parmelee? Names that live in my memory, and probably are strangers to most of you. The profession you own today was built by these people.

And what were the prevailing thoughts of these pioneers as they wrestled with issues regarding development? It would seem that, at the time I entered the profession, if a blind child was not on chronological level, she was emotionally disturbed. No, I didn’t say retarded, I said emotionally disturbed.

Read the words of Merriam Norris: Norris, M., Spaulding, P. J., & Brodie, F. H. (1957). Blindness in Children. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

”Efforts to provide such opportunities, however, usually encounter almost insuperable obstacles, in no small part because of the lack of adequate treatment and educational facilities for any child who presents serious developmental problems. In most communities there is a serious dearth of resources, either public or private, even for the treatment of so-called normal children with emotional problems. For the blind child whose problems are accentuated by the physical handicap and the prevailing lack of understanding of his needs, even such facilities as exist for the child without physical handicap are usually denied him. As a result, commitment to an institution for mentally retarded children has been the almost inevitable outcome. The high cost to society of such failure comes both in the heavy expense of institutional care throughout life and in the permanent loss of the productive capacity of the blind person. This in itself is a compelling argument for providing the needed community services at all levels which will give the blind child opportunity to use to the maximum his innate capacities “      (p. 154).

Report about the Boston Nursery for Blind Babies, 1947 by B. Lowenfeld, The Blind Preschool Child, New York: American Foundation for the Blind, Inc.

”All the children are residents- we have no day pupils. They may stay at the Nursery until they are of kindergarten age, but there is no minimum age level: one little girl came to live with us when she was ten days old.  Not all the children stay the maximum time, for the parents are under no obligation to leave their child for any given period and we are always happy for parents who want their child and who find, through some change of circumstance perhaps, that it is possible to again include him in the family circle.  However, the majority of parents prefer that the child stay the full time, in order to gain the greatest benefit from the Nursery.” (p. 104)

The Preschool Blind Child, His Needs and Resources by Pauline Moore. *address delivered at the workshop, “The Blind Child in the Classroom”, University of Denver, June 23-27, 1958.

From: Abel, G. (1978). Concerning the Education of Blind Children (reprint). Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

”There are also those children who are slower to develop because of a mental deficiency. However, current research points to the fact that probably the incidence of mental deficiency is no greater among a sampling of children who are blind than among children who are sighted. Moreover, other studies, notably the work of Samuel Hayes, indicate that there is no greater incidence of mental retardation among children blinded from other eye diseases.

There is, however, a group of children who present characteristics which are baffling to professional persons. Many of these children have been diagnosed as “damaged”, “psychotic”, “schizophrenic”, etc. Some of these children of school age have already been dropped from educational programs of various types and are now appearing in programs for disturbed children. All are retarded.”

During my early years in the profession, I was aware of two programs for emotionally disturbed blind in Northern California. One, a residential facility for preschool blind children, was called Clearwater Ranch, and was on the coast above San Francisco. The other was located in Richmond, California, and was a day facility for about 40 preschool blind children. I remember visiting this facility in about 1958. The director told me that if the blind preschooler had been emotionally disturbed for three years, it would take six years to reverse the effects. I’ll never forget that exchange, because it scared me more than I can tell you.

I want to share with you that, in Northern California, during the RLF era, the largest program for blind children was Sonoma State Hospital for the retarded. In the 1950s and into the 60s, it was easy for a family to convince their doctor that their own mental health was at risk if they kept their blind baby at home. So doctors referred babies to Sonoma State Hospital by the hundreds, and most are still living out their lives there. Were they retarded?  Were they emotionally disturbed? We’ll never know, for at this time they are in their appropriate placement.

Now we know that not all of the multiple issues of preschool blind children stem from emotional disturbance. But I think, for those of you who may not know about this early history, there was a time when even some of our leaders were convinced that the additional disability of a preschool blind child not on chronological developmental level was emotional disturbance. Thank God we have learned a lot since that time.

Through the efforts of many of you, and others not present, developmental and educational services for infant and preschool blind and visually impaired children has greatly improved since the early RLF years. We know now that development will not necessarily parallel that of sighted children, that developmental delay and developmental differences exist and need to be considered. I’m proud of the advances made in understanding and addressing the needs of blind babies and their parents—the future for these children is bright because of the work parents and professionals do together.


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