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'It Takes a Village'

Editor's Note: After attending kindergarten at her local school, Mary Randall was educated at the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford, Ontario. Today, she is a retired teacher of the blind and deaf-blind, whose 30-year career included working in both residential and community settings.

The most important aspects of education for any child, blind or sighted, are related to self-actualization--discovering skills and talents, and then developing independent expression of them. If you look at educational curricula, such underlying skills as conceptual/perceptual development, body awareness/movement through space, self-care and social development must be learned before children are taught academic subjects. In the 1950s, when I was a child, parents of blind children were flying by the seat of their pants, doing their best with the information they could get from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Most tried to teach their preschoolers the regular milestones of walking, talking, dressing, eating etc. In the process, most blind children learned a little body awareness, O&M (orientation and mobility) and language. Many, however, did not, and needed extra help in the early years at school. Things have not changed much in the 2000s, with early intervention for blind and low-vision preschoolers still not being universal.

Those of us who attended a residential school for the blind had an enriched academic program throughout our educational careers. Although we lacked social and emotional support, as well as life-skills development, in our early years, rudimentary O&M and life skills were being developed by high school. I have since advised many parents of blind children being educated in their home communities that if they don’t reinforce these types of skills by providing daily opportunities to practice them, their benefits will be negligible.

My time at the Ontario School for the Blind was punctuated with community outings and artistic achievements, including music, drama and other arts. Public schools offer some of these enrichment experiences, but Blind students are often overlooked for such things as leading roles. However, if specialist teachers, along with O&M and rehabilitation instructors, are creative, blind kids will get these opportunities. Parents who have the time and resources to take their children to museums, parks and libraries, furthermore, understand the importance of a broad and exciting learning experience. Community facilities such as swimming pools and recreational programs like skating and gymnastics are sometimes welcoming, but lack expertise. Ontario Blind Sports and other organizations like it could be of great assistance to cities and private service providers. Physical development and movement are essential for all learning.

The primary advantage of a residential program is that child-development experts, as well as those skilled in arts/cultural and high-tech education, are readily available on a regular basis to deliver an integrated and enriched program for blind students, but children educated in their home communities can also benefit from equally rich inclusive programming. The important element common to both is communication and cooperation between parents and educators. They, and others, help to develop and teach children, enabling them to succeed in our evolving world. It’s said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It was as true in the 1950s as it is in 2010: Our programs are only as effective as the people who implement them.