Promoting Quality Education for Blind Children

Promoting Quality Education for Blind Children

By: Peggy Chong

A quality education for all blind children and adults, whether in a public school setting or at the state school for the blind, has always been of concern to the organized blind movement. The generation coming up is the future and hope for the current generation.

The Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault (now known as the State Academy for the Blind) has been the primary concern of the organization over most of our history. For nearly 100 years, the school was the only effective means of educating blind children.

This special school for the blind was established to teach blind children because local schools could not do so. Sighted teachers had no training in Braille or other needed skills, and the number of blind children was too low to justify hiring special teachers in each school district.

A good working relationship existed between our organization and the Braille and Sight Saving School during the 30's, 40's, and 50's. The school provided high-quality education based on Braille and high expectations for its students. Treatment of the blind staff persons also was important. John C. Lysen, superintendent of the school, hired competent blind teachers and paid them the same salary as the sighted staff members. The school attracted blind educators that were active in the blind community. Many of them were active members of our organization and some were elected to the Board of Directors. By 1960, State Services for the Blind was discouraging parents from sending their blind children to the state school. In one case, a blind child's blind parents (who were also members of this organization) were determined to send their daughter to Faribault. Our Board of Directors advocated for the blind parents and went as far as to ask Governor Rolvaag to intervene. He did and the young girl went to Faribault.

It was not that the organization felt that blind children would always get a better education at Faribault. However, it believed the parents should choose where their child would be educated.

The organization was always ready to testify and lend support to the school whenever the idea of merging the school with the School for the Deaf was brought up. It seemed like about every 15 to 20 years, someone would want to merge the school or do away with it all together.

By the 1980's, educational options were broadening for blind children. Some were deciding to attend private schools. In one case, the Board of the NFBM helped a family who was unable to get more than one hour of braille a week for their son at a private school. The Federation suggested alternatives that would clear up the private vs. public school problem, so the two systems could cooperate to provide the best education for the blind child.

Today, local school districts educate blind children. Each child is a separate case and receives widely varying quality of instruction. We face an ongoing struggle to ensure basic literacy. Many teachers have only minimal Braille skill and some have low expectations of their blind students.

Our major educational focus over the past decade has been the Braille Literacy Law passed in 1987. This law is supposed to ensure that every legally blind child in the state is given the opportunity to learn Braille. We have worked to strengthen the law to ensure that its intent was fulfilled. The Legislature is currently considering a teacher-competency standard to ensure that the teachers who teach Braille know how to read and write it proficiently. As well as educating children, the Braille and Sight Saving School was for many years the only source of education for newly blinded adults. A summer program was held for many years for adults to learn or brush up blindness skills. The summer program began in 1907 and ran until 1963, and our conventions were planned around the summer-school schedule.

The summer program was stopped after the Minneapolis Society for the Blind rehabilitation program was established. However, many blind people felt that the programs offered at the state school were far better than those offered at the Society. At the annual convention in 1966, resolution 04 was passed, calling for the reinstatement of the summer school program at the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School.

The State Academy for the Blind is still the only effective choice for blind children who cannot receive quality blindness skills in their home district. Since many of our members are alumni of the school, the ties are still strong.