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 Article of Interest - Visual & Hearing Impairments

Public schools weak on education for blind
Only 60 teachers in state are certified to teach visually and hearing impaired kids
by Janet Vandenabeele / The Detroit News / August 26, 2002

Lauren Valisevic, 13, giggles like most 13-year-olds would as a photographer's camera whirs, snapping shots of her and her family -- pictures she will never see.

Lauren, born blind and with cerebral palsy that affects all four limbs, starts her third year today at Warren Woods Middle School -- an accomplishment for a child whose disabilities once seemed so severe that doctors told her parents she simply should be institutionalized.

Lauren's special needs "have been addressed because I'm one of these parents who fight," said her mother, Janet Valisevic.

"Lauren would not benefit if I was one of those people who just stay back. You're entitled to it. They can't say no to it."

The Valisevics aren't alone in pushing school bureaucracies to ensure their blind children get an adequate education. Even under the best of circumstances and with the best of educational intentions, blind students are going through the nation's schools with only a bare minimum of help, educators and advocates said.

A nationwide shortage of all types of teachers has become a crisis for students who are blind or whose vision is impaired enough that they can't read a regular textbook or see words written on a chalkboard. Their teachers must receive more specialized training to learn how to translate a visual world for a child who cannot see -- and the number of colleges offering those programs is dwindling.

"It is a crisis and it's going to get worse," said Barbara Cheadle, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. "It's been building for some time."

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools must provide a tailor-made education for all special needs children that recognizes their strengths as well as their weaknesses. The law also requires schools to take into consideration parents' concerns for enhancing their children's education, as well as any educational or medical testing used in evaluating a child.

But the shortage of teachers for blind children has become so crucial that some schools simply can't provide one at all, even knowing that they're risking a civil rights lawsuit.

A case winding its way through the Maryland courts, for example, involves a boy with only the faintest of vision who spent his entire fourth-grade year without someone to provide him with Braille books or read to him in class. His grades fell from A's and B's to nearly failing.

The boy's rural school district simply couldn't find him a teacher. He's now in the fifth grade, and won't get a specially trained teacher to help him until January, though school officials did pay for tutoring over the summer.

In Michigan, teachers and paraprofessionals carry such heavy caseloads, some can only meet with their students several times a month, advocates said.

There are only about 60 teachers statewide who are specially certified to deal with the unique needs of the blind and visually impaired -- a nebulous number conservatively estimated at 3,500 students, including those solely with vision problems and those like Lauren, with multiple disabilities.

Blind and visually impaired students are scattered in small numbers throughout the state, making it hard for local and intermediate districts to provide services for them. In Oakland County, for example, only 134 children are listed as needing help primarily for visual impairments, out of a special education population of more than 23,000.

Many students are taught in small blocks of time by itinerant teachers who travel between schools, districts and, particularly in rural areas, counties. They may juggle upward of 50 cases.

In addition to meeting with their visually impaired students, these specialists are the ones who must track down, and often create, educational materials like Braille books and recorded tapes for their students.

And it's up to the specialist to train a child's other teachers.

Lauren, for example, must meet with a vision teacher two to four times a month. Most of Lauren's services in her educational program address her physical needs.

"That could be only 30 minutes a month for her. That's pretty sad for a blind child," her mother said, though she acknowledged that her daughter's vision teachers usually have spent more than the minimum time with her.

The problem will only get worse, educators fear, because there are so few college programs to give teachers the specialized training they need.

Michigan State University no longer allows new students into its visually impaired training program, though a handful of students, less than two dozen who were in the program when the decision was made last year, are being allowed to finish their studies.

MSU's decision leaves only two programs in the state: one for undergraduates at Eastern Michigan University and one for graduates at Western Michigan University.

Solving the teacher shortage means tackling the training problem, said Cheadle of the national parents group. But she doesn't expect the solution to be quick, and foresees a shortage for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

One promising solution to the heavy caseloads, Cheadle said, is pending federal legislation that would make accessing textbooks and turning them into Braille or recordings much easier, which would let certified teachers spend more time with students.

In an ideal world, Janice Valisevic would like to see a visually impaired trained teacher in every school full time who could stay with children over their years in that school.

You can reach Janet Vandenabeele at (248) 647-7225.


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