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Nationwide Shortage of Teachers For Blind Students Must Be Corrected

Editor's Note: August 21, 2002

Two months ago, within the space of two weeks, I received nine calls from school superintendents across the country asking me the same questions: Do you know where we can locate teachers who can teach blind students? What can you tell us about Braille products? Are there other products that we should be looking at? Do you know how much Braille printers or embossers cost? Are there any special training programs offered by blind organizations that will help us?

Additionally, I heard from blind and low-vision students and their parents, who asked me similar questions.

One call was from Sharon Kendall, a 12-year-old blind student who asked, "What is my future if I cannot receive an education?" She said she was behind in mathematics and science because her school lacked the resources to buy her the equipment she needed and none of the teachers at her school knew Braille or any other technology related to educating blind students.

Nationwide there is a critical shortage of teachers to work with blind and visually impaired students. School districts have even turned to Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, Spain and other countries to find Braille teachers. "We did not have luck finding anyone so far," a spokesman for a school district in the Greater Metropolitan Washington, DC, area told me. "We won't give up."

There are special education teachers who believe school districts don't try as hard as they should to find qualified teachers to work with students with disabilities.

In Atlanta, Marilyn Hammill, a special education teacher with 12 years of experience, told me, "I believe school districts put forth minimum effort to find teachers who can work with blind or visually-impaired students."

As for technology, special education consultant James Stroud of Kansas City, Kansas, added, "Most schools still lack the most basic knowledge of technology available for disabled students. They don't know how to use the accessibility features found on all computers using Windows. This is a place to start."

A survey of schools in Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties in Virginia revealed more than 260 blind or visually impaired students in attendance. A total of 37 teachers are certified to teach blind students in these counties. While these teachers know Braille (although none of the eight teachers I spoke to considered themselves experts in Braille usage and training) they lack the knowledge of text-to-speech hardware and software, and none of them are familiar with low-vision assistive technology.

Many special education teachers believe schools don't push hard enough in encouraging them to\ improve their skills. "There is no encouragement or incentive from the school leadership to advance yourself in the assistive technology field," a Fairfax county special education teacher told me.

The teacher's statement is supported by parents who have brought lawsuits against schools for failing to teach blind students. "My son's public school in Philadelphia wouldn't even consider sending his special education teacher to summer classes for certification in the assistive technology field," Camille Johnson told me. Her 11-year-old son is blind and in the fourth grade. Calls to the school system seeking confirmation of Mrs. Johnson's statement were not returned.

In writing this article, I spoke to seven blind children ages 7 to 13. All of them are a year or two years behind their grade levels. They told me it is because they are not being adequately educated to compete with their peers.

"I am as smart as my peers. But because my school does not have a teacher qualified to work with me, I am behind. My peers my age make fun of me and call me dummy. I am not a dummy," a defiant Kendall told me.

Organizations working with blind students believe the shortage of teachers for them is catastrophic, and urge schools nationwide to address this critical need.

Brian Charlson, Vice President of Computer Training at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, says, "Blind students nationwide are being shortchanged daily in our schools because of a lack of teachers trained in Braille and other assistive technologies. As a result, tens of thousands of blind students are falling behind in mathematics, science and other categories."

No one knows exactly how many blind students attend our public schools nationwide. The American Foundation for the Blind says more than 90,000 blind students are in our public schools. The federal government says from 20,000 to 45,000.

However, school superintendents, principals, and special education teachers recognize the need to employ qualified teachers with knowledge of Braille and other assistive technologies.

"We need to address three problem areas in educating blind students," a spokesman for the Philadelphia schools told me. They are: money to hire more teachers familiar with educational technology; money to train the teachers; and lastly, money to buy the technology.

The lack of money. The lack of money. The lack of money for hiring, training and purchasing of assistive technology products is the same excuse I have been hearing from schools since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now IDEA) was passed 26 years ago. It is time for schools to commit to educating blind children. One blind child left behind is one child too many.

It is time for public schools nationwide to wake up to their responsibilities and to educate blind children. Our public schools can't continue to disregard the educational needs of blind students. Blind children have a right to a free and appropriate education. Blind children have a right to dream about being successful. They have a right to be successful based on their abilities.