Main content

Alert message

Hosted by Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired


Phil Hatlen, Superintendent
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
(presented at "Getting In Touch With Literacy Conference" Dec. 4, 2003)

I have begun this presentation 12 times, 4 on paper and 8 in my head, and each time it has a different beginning. So, this may or may not be the final draft. My problem is that I have several topics I want to include, and it's difficult to know where to begin. I really should begin with the Expanded Core Curriculum and Literacy, since that is what I promised Cay I would do. But I am moved to talk with you about what I consider a fundamental issue relating to literacy, and what I have to say about the ECC and literacy requires that I begin with another topic.

I will begin and end with three challenges that you and I face in our profession, and a call to you to become active in addressing these challenges. They are:

  1. Make certain that every blind and visually impaired child has access to assessment and instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum.
  2. Examine your definition of literacy, and consider using adjectives to differentiate various types of literacy.
  3. Tap your creativity and those around you so that we may find ways of presenting braille materials in a usable, reader-friendly multi-media format.

As some of you know, I have long had a problem with the generally accepted definition of literacy. Because those with whom I've discussed my issues have suggested that I challenge myself on this topic, I'm going to share some thoughts with you.

What is it to be literate? If one can read and write print or braille, is one literate? If one cannot read print or braille, is one illiterate? What follows is a presentation I gave at my school recently:

I firmly believe that every child has the capability of becoming literate. If we are creative enough, if we are imaginative enough, if we persevere enough, every child at TSBVI will become literate. It all depends on how we define the term. And I maintain that the definition must take into account the unique characteristics of blind and visually impaired children.

I have close friends and colleagues who say to me that to be literate means to be able to read and write, either in print or Braille. They can point to most dictionary definitions of literacy to support their position. I have a very big problem with this, for two basic reasons. First, when one or more sensory input systems are impaired, then that definition needs to change. Second, if the term "illiterate" continues to carry a terribly negative connotation, then those among us who will not read or write print or Braille are relegated to a status we don't deserve.

I remember, early in my experience as a teacher of students with visual impairments, discovering that a high school Braille reader has no chance of keeping up with her sighted peers, using Braille materials only. A simple fact comes into play. Braille, by its very nature, will be read more slowly than print. A reasonably good Braille reader will read at a rate of around 100 words per minute. A reasonably good print reader will read at a rate of 250 to 300 words per minute. Thus, the sighted high school reader will cover three times as much material in the same period of time as a Braille reader. This is not a condemnation of Braille, it reflects the differences between visual reading and tactual reading. Therefore, most blind high school students use recorded books or live readers as a supplement to braille in order to cover the amount of reading material they are assigned in a regular school. Braille will, in most cases, remain the medium of first choice, and most competent Braille users will continue to use it in all reasonable situations. They will supplement it by "reading by listening". Do you buy that? Do you think of listening to a text or a novel as a form of literacy? For those of you who think this is a slam-dunk, let me tell you it's one of the most controversial topics in our profession. Let me quote what one writer said about reading by listening:

"There are two important reasons why listening is not literacy. First, to say that a person who reads through listening is literate would require a change in the operational definition of literacy. Sighted persons who cannot read print are considered illiterate. Such persons may have exceptional skills in reading by listening, but these skills are not a part of the traditional definition of being literate. Second, the definition of literacy involves the ability to both read and write. There is no assurance that persons who claim to have achieved literacy through listening can write at all."

Well, so much for one person's narrow-minded position on literacy. But wait, who was the author? It says his name is Hatlen!! Sure enough, I wrote this for a Point/Counterpoint column in 1996. (Point/Counterpoint, Is Listening Literacy, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, vol 90, pp. 173-175, 1996). I took that position because the other wasn't available. A man named Dean Tuttle wrote in support of listening being literacy. This is what he said:

"Is listening literacy? As a blind person, my answer is a resounding yes! For me, much of each day is filled with auditory reading of Talking Books, email correspondence, news programs on a local radio reading service, and on-line databases at the library."

I think Dean Tuttle makes his point very clearly, and I think that it's time for us, as educators of blind and visually impaired students, to strongly support the position that, for our students, literacy can be achieved through print, braille, or through listening.

And so we have a task before us. We must re-define literacy for the students with whom we work. Our new definition must take into consideration a variety of ways to become literate. Of course, one is reading and writing print. Another is competence in reading and writing braille. But then we enter a gray area"one that we must define. We must take into consideration the characteristics of the person in determining whether print alone, braille alone, or a combination of the two alone, will achieve complete literacy for the blind or visually impaired person. The answer, according to Dean Tuttle, is a resounding "no". For Dean and most other blind persons, literacy through listening must be added. So I say to teachers and parents that the judicious use of recorded material you use with high school students is clearly a dimension of literacy for them.

And what about a deafblind student at TSBVI? What if she will not be a print or braille reader, and will not learn through listening. Is she destined to be labeled illiterate? If you were the child's teacher or parent, I'll bet you wouldn't want this child to carry that stigma! Is signing a form of literacy? Are tactile symbols a form of literacy? Are calendar boxes a form of literacy? I propose to you that they all are, and because we have the creativity and flexibility to take into consideration the strengths and skills of each individual student, every child at TSBVI has the capacity to become literate, and the staff of TSBVI has the capability to teach literacy to every child!!

The other day I asked my secretary to find some definitions of literacy on the internet. She uncovered what I believe to be a very profound concept. At least it's profound to me, because I hadn't heard it before. There are literacy experts out there in the world who have developed the concept of "Media Literacy". Listen to this:

"for 500 years, we've taught our children to read words.
The time has come to teach them also to read the powerful
images and sounds of their multi-media world."

Yes, all of us live in a multi-media world. A simple, but graphic, example are new textbooks being written for sighted students. They don't contain simple lines of print any more. There are colored words, italicized words, bold words, boxes, columns, pictures, graphics, and all sorts of variations that are intended to make the visual page more exciting to read. More than that, much of the learning experienced by sighted students using these books come from non-printed information.

As learned people have expanded "Print Literacy" to "Media Literacy", so also must we accept the concept that literacy encompasses far more than the ability to read and write print and/or braille.

Is "illiterate" a dirty word? I think so. It is often used in a demeaning, prejudicial way. It closes doors. It stigmatizes. It labels. It serves no positive purpose to label a child as "illiterate". But if we accept, adopt the traditional definition of "literacy", then we have relegated many wonderful, talented, precious children to being illiterate.

While I believe there are many reasons to advocate for a broad definition of literacy, even perhaps embrace the concept of "media literacy", perhaps the most pursuasive reason is that no child at TSBVI will ever, ever, live under the stigma of being illiterate.

Now you know where I stand on the topic of literacy.

Listen to this definition developed by the Center for Media Literacy:

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a variety of forms " from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

While there is nothing specific in this definition to suggest that it would cover a blind child with severe additional disabilities who uses tactile symbols and a calendar box for receptive and expressive communication, I maintain to you that this is simply because the authors don't know the same children that I do.

What if I suggest to you that the definition of Media Literacy is the ability to communicate needs, thoughts, and responses, and receive information, through the effective utilization of remaining senses?

The founders and advocates of Media Literacy have something entirely different in mind. They view this as an expansion of print literacy, combining all sources for receiving and producing media in this high tech, electronic world. But I say we steal their term and give it our own meaning, and relegate every blind and visually impaired child to the level of Media Literacy through creative, systematic, and inspired instruction!!

I propose to you that we stop using the term "Literacy" and agree that the word must have a defining adjective preceeding it. Let's get used to using Print Literacy, Braille Literacy, Tactile Literacy, Auditory Literacy, or Media Literacy when describing the various paths that lead to a system to receive and give information.

I must share with you what I consider the down side of Media Literacy. I believe that modern textbook publishers have become experts at using multi-media in the production of textbooks. I have regular opportunities to review new textbook adoptions in Texas, with the task of evaluating formats to be used in transcribing them into Braille. It is ironic that, in these days of increasing inclusion of blind students into the regular classroom and curriculum, the instructional materials they receive are becoming ever more difficult to use. On a single print page, there are now sidebars, boxes, graphs, pictures, bolded words, colored words, words of all different sizes, some italicized, and charts. What was once a simple print page consisting of words written in uninterrupted lines has now become an exciting multi-media production for the sighted student. I'm sure there is data to support that these eye-catching books assist in the learning of sighted students. The book becomes similar to the multi-media world in which young people live today.

What do we do with the braille version of these books? Well, we haven't yet discovered how to make braille multi-media. Braille is braille, designed to be read in a horizontal fashion across a page without interruption. Remember, the braille reader knows little about the page except what has been read and is under the fingers.

I have seen some heroic and some mis-guided examples of how to present multi-media print material to the braille reader. I know transcribers who, without the wise counsel of a teacher, have produced amazing replicas of the print book. I know what a stair-step chart is, and I have yet to figure out how a braille reader is supposed to read it with understanding. Teachers and transcribers are doing the best they can, often demonstrating wonderful creativity. However, I suggest to you that these multi-media books, when transcribed into braille, are infinitely more difficult to read.

I recently reviewed a primer, a very beginning reading book. In the print copy, key words were presented in color. The braille copy used appropriate and approved transcription methods to indicate the colored words, making this beginning reader far more difficult for fingers that cannot easily "read over" anomalies among the letters.

Now, I don't begrudge our media literate sighted students these multi-media reading materials. But I can't help but worry about the braille reader, sitting in a regular classroom, trying to figure out the layout of the transcribed page without the help of the TVI, who won't be there until next week!!

I also challenge you to explore ways in which to present multi-media books in braille. You say to me "that's impossible", and I say to you that that is my first reaction, too. But we're a profession that doesn't use the word "impossible". Instead, we have been a profession that, for years, has discovered how to solve impossible tasks, how to use the creativity that permeates our profession, how to think so far out of the box that we amaze our friends and colleagues!

Now I'm ready to deal with my topic for the day.

I'd like to begin by sharing with you some of the history of the development of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC). I'm sure there are many professionals and parents who discovered, long before me, that there are unique educational needs shared by blind and visually impaired students. Forget the term, and look back in literature dating back to the late 19th century, and you'll find references to various portions of the ECC.

It is my contention that we set aside any emphasis on the ECC in our zeal to make inclusion work, beginning in the 1950s. We were very reluctant to admit any differences in educational needs between sighted students and visually impaired pupils. To do so, we thought, would surely undermine our efforts toward inclusive education. So we used phrases such as "She's just like sighted children, except she can't see", or "He's first of all a child, and only secondarily a blind child". Good and noble words, but words that may have taken us off track for a number of years.

As we became painfully aware of the differences in blind and visually impaired students, we began using terms such as "unique curriculum", or "specialized needs". The first of these to receive public attention was, I believe, orientation and mobility. An obvious need, but for those of us who were hell-bent on inclusion, on removing the child from the regular classroom for as little time as possible, orientation and mobility needs became our first taste of reality. Additional pull-out time would be necessary in order to teach the vital skill of independent travel, and we wept inwardly as we watched our "included students" being taken out of the regular classroom for more time.

The next term popularized was "disability-specific curriculum", and that lasted in my vocabulary until someone said to me that there is nothing disability-specific about instruction in independent living skills"many groups of disabled students needed this instruction. So I sighed, and said, "Okay, what I mean is disability-specific methodology".

One day a dear friend of mine, whom some of you know, named Jack Hazekamp, told me that California was developing a new "Core Curriculum" for all students in the state. He urged me to write about the contents of a core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students. Well, like so many times in my life, time and other priorities got in the way, and I never took Jack's suggestion. But I never forgot it, either.

The actual formal birth of the ECC happened with the development of the National Agenda in 1993, and the ECC became Goal 8. While few parents and professionals disagreed with the concept of unique educational needs for blind and visually impaired students, real commitment to the ECC has taken years. I once stated that the three stages needed for the ECC was acknowledgement of the need, commitment to the principle, and implementation. Acknowledgement occurred almost immediately. Commitment to the principle took longer, and actual implementation is only now gaining momentum. Some states, provinces, and regions immediately began working toward implementation, but the most difficult problem has been changing service delivery systems so that teachers have time to teach the ECC.

In the early years, as I preached ECC, I know I left the impression that all blind and visually impaired students needed all areas of the ECC. I sounded like those fine, but misguided colleagues of ours who promoted full inclusion with the phrase "All means all". My tendency to not make exceptions was noticed by some of my colleagues, notably by Susan Spungin, who wisely helped me understand the error of my ways. Now my message to all teachers is to assess every area of the ECC. You might well discover that there are students who are sufficiently competent in one or more areas that you don't need to address them, at least not at the moment.

  1. The first area of the ECC has to do with compensatory skills, including communication modes. This has always been known as a unique need for blind and visually impaired students, and has been an area of instructional responsibility for teachers of students with visual impairments (TVI). Literacy and its prerequisites are deeply imbedded in this ECC area of unique need. Mastery of these skills will ensure access to the regular education core curriculum. With the addition of media literacy to our definition, we have the opportunity to provide every blind and visually impaired child with literacy skills appropriate to their needs and abilities.
  2. Orientation and Mobility Doesn't everything about orientation and mobility have to do with media literacy? If the use of touch is media literacy, then the grip, the tactile response of the cane to an object, location of a surface warning strip with the feet, identification of a landmark while trailing, and the reading of tactile maps are all literacy skills that enhance independent travel. If using air pressure and echoes, listening to traffic flow, using auditory cues, both natural and human-made are all listening skills, and listening is a part of our definition of media literacy, then these skills are literacy skills. If use of low vision greatly enhances the mobility skills of a student, then this, too, is a part of literacy.I must add that I have had a problem with the professional skills of orientation and mobility specialists because, from the outset of the profession, I have believed that they should know Braille and know how to teach it. The last time I explored this, I didn't find any O&M preparation programs that required Braille.
  3. Independent Living Skills As we explore the areas of the ECC and relate them to our expanded definition of literacy, it becomes apparent that all of the ECC is dependent on a level of literacy in order to become an integral part of one's life. I used to define "Independent Living Skills" as everything in the daily routine of a blind or visually impaired student, from personal hygiene to financial management. Tooth-brushing is an independent living skill, and it involves recognition of toothbrush and toothpaste, a literacy activity. Bathing requires knowing hot from cold, location, identification, and cleansing of body parts"sounds like media literacy to me. In fact, any intended, purposeful action, that results in a positive outcome, will require some form of media literacy.I'm not certain where the teaching of independent living skills stands in local school programs, but it has become a major instructional program in many, if not all, schools for the blind. At TSBVI, over 1/3 of our enrollment consists of students over 18 years of age. In discussing reasons for referral from local districts, the two major concerns of local educators and parents are in the areas of independent living skills and career education. This implies to me that the local school districts are having a difficult time delivering these areas of the ECC. More on this later.This talk is becoming a bit redundant, largely because my expanded definition of literacy leaves almost all learning in the areas of the ECC dependent on media literacy. So I'll say just a few words about the remaining curricular areas.
  4. Social Interaction Skills Media literacy permeates this area of the ECC, especially auditory information. The student must learn to be a careful listener, for tone, volume, and emphasis will change the meaning of spoken words.
  5. Recreation and Leisure Skills What first comes to mind are the many table games that require literacy in order to play. Goal ball, beep baseball, even bowling require auditory skills in order to participate.
  6. Career Education Interacting with fellow employees and employers is essential to success in employment. Thus, the basic level of literacy needed for employment is auditory and expressive ability to communicate, a skill that I maintain falls under the definition of media literacy.
  7. Technology Of course, I'm aware of the fact that those who have developed and are promoting the concept of media literacy had in mind the marvelous contributions of technology to our access for information. But I would maintain that the child with severe disabilities who learns to use switches, the child who learns from Intellitools, are also participating in media literacy.
  8. Visual Efficiency Skills Does it seem to you that those of us who strongly believe in helping children achieve the maximum utilization of low vision are having, once more, to strongly support our position? I can remember when the monumental work of Natalie Barraga so dramatically changed our profession. It was not an easy sell in those days, and now we seem to be having to defend utilization of low vision again. Do I need to explain the link between Visual Efficiency Skills and Literacy? I think not.
  9. Self-Determination What's this, you say? You thought there were eight curricular areas in the ECC, and now Hatlen presents a number nine! Some very wise people, especially Karen Blankenship, suggested that self-determination belongs in the ECC. It was not difficult to convince me! Remember, the litmus test for inclusion in the ECC is if it is a skill or knowledge that is learned differently by sighted and by visually impaired students. Do you believe that many of the skills and knowledge that result in self-determination are learned casually and incidentally by sighted children? Do you believe that blind and visually impaired children will need to learn self-determination in a systematic and sequential manner? Do you observe self-determination as being a problem with some, or many, blind and visually impaired students?Many years ago, I read a book by Martin Seligman entitled "Helplessness" (W.H. Freeman and Company, 1975). It came out at about the same time as Robert Scott's book, "The Making of Blind Men". These two publications had a profound effect on me. Scott described his research (some called it his perceptions) of the manner in which agencies for the adult blind fostered a dependency on them among their clients. Thus, the number of clients always grew, since no client ever "graduated".Seligman's book is about learned helplessness. And reading his book became my first initiation to the term. It has been used widely to describe many conditions since the book was published, but I think Seligman had it right. As I read this publication, I realized that the author never mentioned blindness, but the book was all about blindness. This is what it made me realize:We now have systems in place that deliver services to blind and visually impaired persons, birth to death. It is likely that the blind infant will follow a relatively seamless process from infancy, to preschool, to school, to rehabilitation, to aging, in which there are professional services available at every step. While this is to be desired when used appropriately, it can result in severe learned helplessness. Seligman points out that when decision-making and choices are taken away from persons, it can result in severe reactions, even destruction of the will to live. He cites many examples when intervention was needed that literally gave back to persons their own lives.Do you agree that we run the risk every day of creating an environment of learned helplessness? I can think of so many examples!! It isn't just taking away opportunities for making choices or making decisions, what we as professionals need to consider is if we need to create opportunities for blind and visually impaired children and youth to make choices, to make decisions.One of the most unforgettable stories I have ever heard was from a TVI in rural Northern California. One day a blind third grader ate her lunch in the resource room. She finished half her sandwich, then announced that she would leave the other half on her desk, unwrapped, to eat for lunch the next day. The teacher could hardly contain herself, wanting to explain what the sandwich would be like the next day. But she said nothing, and the child came back the next day to a hard, inedible sandwich. This is allowing the child to make a choice, and to live with the consequences of the choice.A rehabilitation counselor told me, many years ago, that most of the visually impaired young people who came into his office would result in a conversation something like this:
    • Rehab counselor: What can I do for you?
    • Client: Find me a job.
    • Rehab counselor: Oh, what would you like to do?
    • Client: I don't know. Just find me a job.
    • Rehab counselor: What are you good at?
    • Client: I don't know. Just find me a job.

I can imagine the client thinking to himself, "What's with this guy? He wants me to make a decision, or thinks I've already made a decision. The system has done all my thinking for me until now. Why doesn't this guy be a part of the system?"

This same rehab counselor told me that he longed for the day when a young man, right out of high school, came into his office and said:

"I understand you will help me with my future plans. You need to know that I already know my strengths and weaknesses, and what I would like to do. As long as you guide and support me, we'll be okay. But you will not take over my life!"

Isn't this what all of us want for our students and clients? We want them to have the knowledge, skills, and literacy ability to own their own lives. And this is why I support adding self-determination to the ECC.

Before I close, I must remind you that the Expanded Core Curriculum is not an option, and it is not a second-level curriculum. Every child, every student, must be assessed in every area of the ECC, and must receive instruction in those areas that are needed.

I recently had a conversation with some people who suggest that the TVI is not necessarily responsible for the teaching of the expanded core curriculum, but is responsible for seeing that all areas are taught. The real challenge is to assemble others who have the time and can do the teaching. I have heard this many times, and most of the time the conversation then identifies people such as parents, rehab teachers, recreation teachers, classroom teachers, adaptive technology teachers, volunteers in the community, etc. This brings up a concern about whether or not the teacher(s) of the expanded core curriculum subjects must be skilled as teachers of students with visual impairments. I think so. The specific knowledge and skills of TVIs are more needed for the developmental and adaptive requirements of the expanded core curriculum than they are for the regular core curriculum.

  • Should we suggest that the parents must be the teachers of independent living skills and social skills?
  • Should we suggest that the vocational teacher be the teacher of career education?
  • Should we suggest that the p.e. teacher or recreation teacher be the teacher of leisure and recreation skills?
  • Should we suggest that the p.e. teacher be the orientation and mobility specialist?
  • Should we suggest that the general technology teacher be the teacher of technology?

I think not.

The very reason the expanded core curriculum exists is that the skills and knowledge are so unique, so specialized to blind and visually impaired persons, that the generalist will have no idea how to adapt and adjust teaching to this population.

No, we need our best and most highly trained TVIs to teach the expanded core curriculum!!

Is it safe to say that less than half the blind and visually impaired students in the U.S. are receiving instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum? Is it correct to say that this does not reflect the philosophy of the teachers, but rather the structure of the job? Let me share with you my concept of the future of instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum.

  1. University preparation programs must give more emphasis to the expanded core curriculum. This will help ensure that new teachers will have some basic skills in every area of the curriculum. If you agree with me that, for example, social skills are as important as reading skills, then should not the university preparation curriculum reflect this?
  1. Before there was an Expanded Core Curriculum, itinerant teachers were running as hard as they could. Then two things happened. With further emphasis on inclusion, itinerant teachers found themselves stretched even more, as their caseloads and geographic areas increased. Second, teachers were told that they were expected to teach the subjects included in the expanded core curriculum. Not only were they expected to teach them, they were expected to assess all areas of the expanded core curriculum and write IEP goals to meet them.
  1. Sharing the Responsibility:If I assume that teachers of students with visual impairments are working as hard as they can, and that emphasis on the expanded core curriculum is impossible to add, then I'm left with only one option: someone else has to do at least part of the work.I suggest that perhaps it's time that we, you and I, begin to think about the education of a blind or visually impaired student to be a shared responsibility between the local district and the state or regional school for the blind. Suppose that, instead of either or, it became both. Suppose we all sat down together, parents, local district personnel and representatives from the school for the blind, and planned the educational life of a child together? Suppose this led us to the conclusion that much of the Expanded Core Curriculum should be taught at the school for the blind, and that the child should have the privilege of moving back and forth between programs, depending on current needs?

A major flaw in our philosophy and approach to education for blind and visually impaired students is that there is one system that has primary responsibility for the education of each child. I am suggesting that we abandon this position, and explore how we might better meet all the needs of every individual child by having two systems share primary responsibility for the child. Consider the load taken off teachers of students with visual impairments in local districts. Think of the advantages to many, many children in making available to them the expertise of the staff at schools for the blind. Likewise, think of the advantages that local school education offers to students who might otherwise be destined to spend all of their school years at a school for the blind. So you see, such a partnership will need to work both ways. Every child should be able to access the benefits of both her local school and her regional school for the blind. Of course, there will be students for whom continuous attendance at a school for the blind will be most appropriate, and there will be students who spend their entire educational lives attending their local school.

My fervent hope for the future is that all decisions regarding delivery of educational services to blind and visually impaired students will consist of informed decisions made mutually by parents, local districts, and schools for the blind. Can you imagine a meeting of these representatives of a child, all informed advocates, where short- and long-term decisions will be made regarding placement? As soon as appropriate, the student himself will join this team, and together this group will plan her future education.

I envision a day when teachers and administrators from local school districts, together with parents, will sit at the table with representatives of schools for the blind. I envision a time when such a meeting will not generate any defensiveness, suspicion, hostility, or territoriality. I envision a time when neither local schools nor residential schools will "own" a child. Instead, the family will "own" the child, and the two educational systems will work together, as equal partners, to provide the very best educational program for every individual child. Should we settle for any less?

I leave you today with three challenges:

  1. Make certain that every blind and visually impaired child has access to assessment and instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum.
  2. Examine your definition of literacy, and consider using adjectives to differentiate various types of literacy.
  3. Tap your creativity and those around you so that we may find ways of presenting braille materials in a usable, reader-friendly multimedia format.