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