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Success in Education: Is Mainstreaming Always The Answer?

Editor's Note: Anthony Tibbs is AEBC's National Treasurer. He lives in Montreal, Quebec.

What is the ultimate outcome we wish our education system to have on the students of tomorrow? In the primary/high school years, the desired outcome seems to be a little more broad, providing students with the basic foundations on which they can further develop their own minds, and to inspire self-confidence, independent thought, and the willingness (and capability) to pursue one's own dreams and goals.

I believe I was afforded these opportunities in the mainstream classroom, even with my vision impairment. I completed all of my basic education in this type of environment, as opposed to a specialized program (such as at the W. Ross Macdonald School), and for 11 of those 13 years I was a large-print user, requiring very little hands-on intervention support or assistance. As long as I was provided with the basic necessities--large print textbooks, in particular--I was able to perform well above average in almost all areas of the curriculum. Socially, being a part of the mainstream program was very beneficial, as it forced me to learn to adapt to an otherwise sight-dependant world, to learn to quietly and unobtrusively cope with the challenges that arise as a result of my vision--an incredibly valuable skill when one is entering post-secondary education, or the workforce.

While being in the public education system may have prepared me well in some ways for the "real world", the experience was not perfect. For the first six years of my schooling, I had no idea that "large print textbooks" even existed, much less that I could have access to them. I was in regular contact with an itinerant teacher for the blind, but large print textbooks were never offered as an option until we discovered in grade six that I was, in fact, entitled to these books if I wanted them.

But the feeling of the itinerant was that this would make me "lazy". Perhaps there is some truth to that, and that challenging me to overcome my limitations had its merits; however, considering that I changed from a student who was barely passing each year in grade six to an honour roll student from grade seven onward, perhaps it was too much of a challenge? There are undoubtedly other students, like me, who ought to receive more support than they currently do, and the extremely limited resources available to itinerant teachers of the blind (who might have 20 or 30 students on their caseload) may be partially to blame.

When my vision dropped off very unexpectedly in grade 12, it was necessary to immediately switch to alternative-format materials in order to complete high school (braille, electronic text, and tactile graphics). The lack of pre-existing materials in the mainstream education system was definitely a problem, and made completing high school more difficult than it might have otherwise been. I am not sure that, if I had always required that level of support and accommodation, I would have found the mainstream education system satisfactory: It can be done, but this route is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Finally, while the mainstream classroom may have afforded many interesting "standard" social opportunities, I cannot help but feel that I would have benefited from knowing more students with blindness or low vision. Through the course of my schooling, I had met a few other blind and partially sighted students at different events, but interacting with a person once every couple of years and spending several months at school with them are two different things. It may have helped me to see that there are others in my situation (as I realized in grade seven), and to see all of the options available to students in terms of material access, yet this was never even discussed as a possibility, much less an option.

In sum, I found my experience in the mainstream public education system to be generally very positive, and the end result has certainly not been a disappointment. On the other hand, I was, for the first six years of my schooling, one of those students left a little behind because I simply did not know that there was a better way (e.g., large print textbooks). Socially, there may have been some value to exposing me to more students (and/or adults) with vision impairments, simply to demonstrate that I was not alone in my fight for equality. But, at the end of the day, I am not at all disappointed at where I am now, where I am going, and how I arrived here: For me, the mainstream classroom experience was "successful".