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 Article of Interest - Visual Impairments

For Blind Students, Another Challenge
Shortage of Vision Teachers Vexes Schools, Angers Parents

By Theola Labbé, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, July 28, 2002

Article submitted by Brunhilde Merk-Adam - Thank you!

The story was "Freckle Juice," the Judy Blume tale of a young boy desperate to alter his looks. In a Calvert County fourth-grade classroom, the students broke up into small groups and read the book aloud.

Except for Aaron Richmond. He sat by himself doing nothing.

Aaron is blind. He lacked a Braille version of the book and a teacher trained in Braille to help him read it. To his parents, Aaron lacked the opportunity to get an education. This year, they filed suit against the district.

"He should have been participating all day, every day, without exception," said Aaron's mother, Jill Richmond. "With a vision teacher, he would have."

Aaron, an 11-year-old who previously earned A's and B's in school, went without a vision teacher for his entire fourth-grade year when the district could not find one. The difference was stark. He was without Braille reading textbooks for two months because no one placed the special order over the summer. He was excluded from activities such as computer lab and that hallmark of a grade school education, the science project. He ended the school year with near-failing grades.

The root of the problem, a critical shortage of vision teachers, has left virtually no school district in the Washington area and beyond untouched. Prince George's County is looking for a vision teacher and went to a Toronto conference this month to recruit. There are two openings in Prince William County. Montgomery County filled one post last fall by getting a teacher to switch positions. Then, another teacher announced she was quitting and administrators are back to where they started.

"What if a school district said, 'Oh well, we just can't provide service to Chinese children or African American children'? No one would tolerate that," said Matt Richert, executive director of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind.

"But because it's a child with a disability, it's not seen as a civil rights issue, it's seen as charity."

Robin Welsh, Calvert's director of special education, said the district made a good-faith effort.

"We maintain that we did everything possible to try and find a teacher," she said. A judge will rule in Aaron's case in August.

As difficult as Aaron's plight may have been, he is coming of age in a challenging time for blind children who attend public schools. The inclusion movement over the past decade has successfully pushed disabled children such as Aaron into mainstream classrooms. Yet spots for special education teachers, particularly those with knowledge of Braille and other techniques for helping the visually impaired, remain the hardest vacancies to fill.

Teachers for the blind make up a a small part of the special education pool -- in Maryland, for example, 100 of the state's 7,392 special education teachers -- and they are aging and retiring. At the same time, the number of university programs that train vision teachers has shrunk to just 30. This year, Michigan State University voted to eliminate its vision teacher training program after a lengthy, emotional debate.

"These are not easy decisions," said Lou Anne Simon, the school's provost and vice president of academic affairs.

Elaine Sveen, superintendent of the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind -- which has two vacancies -- said: "This shortage is a critical crisis. We need certified teachers."

Aaron will enter fifth grade this fall without a vision teacher -- though the district has hired someone who will start in January. To help Aaron make up for what he missed last year, including work with a teacher to review his Braille writing for spelling and capitalization errors or help him edit his writing, Calvert is paying for him to be tutored this summer by a vision teacher from Anne Arundel County.

It's a singular situation foreign to his school-age friends. "They don't really understand what it means to be blind," Aaron said.

Of the three Southern Maryland counties, Calvert's rural tranquillity and high-achieving schools increasingly have made it a destination for military families and suburbanites. Even after the growth, which has required the school system to use temporary classrooms at nearly all 12 elementary schools, there are just 20 children in the 15,000-student district who are blind or have severely impaired vision.

Aaron -- a talkative, outgoing boy who holds an orange belt in tae kwon do -- likes to read biographies and runs around the playground with the other children at recess.

Born with Peter's Plus syndrome, Aaron has had seven cornea transplants to improve his vision, the first when he was seven weeks old. He wears thick glasses with curved lenses. His vision is 20/800 in his left eye and 20/1,000 in his right eye. He can recognize colors and large shapes at close range. He reads and writes exclusively in Braille.

Aaron had worked with the same vision teacher since kindergarten. He sat alongside students without disabilities and participated in a regular class with the assistance of the county's only vision teacher. The teacher also pulled Aaron out of class for one-on-one sessions several times a week.

But after 12 years in which the teacher saw both her student caseload and responsibility grow, she resigned in April 2001. Calvert County advertised in trade journals and national publications and interviewed several candidates but struggled to find a teacher. In February, the Richmonds filed suit.

The severity of the vision teacher shortage has bubbled quietly for years because blindness is a low-incidence disability. Experts in the field differ on statistics: The American Foundation for the Blind counts about 93,600 schoolchildren who are blind or visually impaired, while federal education statistics put the count at about 26,000.

Recruiting teachers can be hardest for remote, rural areas such as Calvert.

"Unless somebody has come from that area, is trained, and goes back to that area, it's usually not easy to provide the necessary specialist in the more rural areas," said Lucy Hession, of the division of special education in the Maryland Department of Education.

The Richmonds have lived in Port Republic for five years, an eclectic Southern Maryland community made up of sprawling farms, estate homes with built-in swimming pools and houses with a view of the Chesapeake Bay. The Richmonds settled there, even though Kyle Richmond works in St. Mary's County at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, because they had heard good things about the Calvert schools.

"When we moved here, everything was fine, but I did have concerns that they had one teacher. It rose in my mind, what if she quits?" Jill Richmond said.

Some have questioned her stick-to-her guns strategy. Why not move, or send Aaron to the Maryland School for the Blind?

Officials say the school concentrates on children who have severe disabilities in addition to blindness, which does not apply to Aaron. As for moving, Jill Richmond said special education services at public schools are too tenuous to try your luck at a succession of districts.

"Every time you have a problem like this, if you move, a year later someone could quit and then everything is horrible," she said. "We want to get the problem resolved, not just for our son, but for all the vision students."

The hearings in the case lasted through the spring. The school district admitted before a judge that not all of Aaron's books were ready and that he was taught by several instructional assistants or aides, never by a certified vision teacher. Jill Richmond was the only witness to testify on behalf of her son. She said he was in dire need of a vision teacher to lift his grades and teach him how to use equipment such as the software that would allow him to access the Internet independently.

The lawsuit also demands that the school district pay for tutoring and technology to assist Aaron.

The teacher arriving in January is a recent graduate from Illinois, lured in part by the $10,000 singing bonus, school officials said. But a search continues, Superintendent James R. Hook said. The district hopes to hire another teacher to begin work in September.

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