For Blind Students,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.