Sunrise cresting over the silhouette of a tree upon a hill (Medellín) by Hugo Quintero

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In two weeks, we at the Institute on Blindness will have the honor of hosting teachers of blind and low-vision students for a two-day conference. The goal is to connect teachers with a local, state, and national professional development network.

Natalie Shaheen, a former teacher of blind students and current Director of Education programs at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, will present the keynote address at the Louisiana Teacher Training Conference on Blindness and Low Vision.

“Our education system is in a time of flux, and this provides us with great opportunities as educators,” Ms. Shaheen said in an interview.

Here are just some of the ideas that Ms. Shaheen will be presenting in her speech entitled, “The National State of Education for Youth who are Blind or Visually Impaired.”

Early identification

This time of year, Ms. Shaheen’s e-mail and voicemail inboxes are flooded with calls from parents who are frustrated that their blind sons and daughters don’t have teachers, braille books, or the orientation and mobility skills to navigate the crowded hallways.

“I want to frame these calls as an opportunities for us, both as where we are now and what’s next,” Ms. Shaheen said. “These calls help us all understand what skills these kids need to do what they need to do. When the schools know what the kids need, they can work to provide those services.”

Providing services to kids who are blind or have low-vision may seem to be the norm in your area, but Ms. Shaheen recounted her experience in first grade this way:

“At the beginning of the year, my parents had a meeting with the teachers to make sure they understood that I had poor vision. My parents told them that I had to hold things right up to my face to see them, and—sometimes—I couldn’t see things. And that was that. The school did not suggest any evaluations be conducted, special services provided, or an IEP be written…despite the fact that public law 94-142, the Education of all Handicapped Children Act, had been in effect for over a decade.”

Fortunately, the students whose parents who are calling Ms. Shaheen today won’t slip through the cracks or be held back because they can’t read fast enough. The parents, advocates, teachers and administrators have an opportunity to help these students to stand on an equal level with their sighted peers.

Technology

In most states, schools are preparing for the common core standards, set to be implemented during the 2014-2015 school year. The accompanying assessments will be partially or entirely computer-based.

“Whether the new testing modules, learning systems, and e-readers will provide the full accessibility needed by students with disabilities in order to showcase their true abilities has not yet been demonstrated,” Ms. Shaheen said.

For the products that are somewhat accessible, Ms. Shaheen cautions us all to remember that not every blind student is going to be a tech wizard or be able to “figure it out.”

“We, the experts in blindness, must teach the administrators, technologists, and salespeople who create, sell, and procure this technology about accessibility and the needs of our students,” she said. “Clunky non-visual interfaces that turn a quick and simple visual task into a slow and arduous non-visual task do not suffice. Accessibility means that the technology, when accessed non-visually, provides a blind user with the same ease of use and the same functionality as a sighted user.”

Students with multiple disabilities give teachers a chance to keep learning.

Particularly in the field of blindness, teachers are expected to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics: braille, daily living skills, assistive technology, as well as orientation and mobility. When teachers come across a situation or a topic with which they’re unfamiliar, Ms. Shaheen says that’s another opportunity to learn.

For some teachers, having students with multiple disabilities in their classroom for the first time is the wake-up call that they need to learn more. Teachers can’t possibly be experts about every disability, but they can constantly be working to find new information and incorporate that into what we do everyday.

Ms. Shaheen will host a roundtable discussion at the upcoming teacher conference in Louisiana to foster a dialogue about how to involve, engage, and inspire students with multiple disabilities just as much as the students whose only disability is blindness. We invite you to come join the conversation.

Teachers are needed and appreciated.

Today, the broadcast media lambasts teachers as the problem in education. Ms. Shaheen, though, plans to showcase her appreciation and thanks to today’s teachers of blind and low-vision students.

“I appreciate my fellow teachers and the hard work they do every day for our kids,” she said. “As long as we are constantly learning, reflecting on our practice, and sharing that learning with our colleagues, we can accomplish our goal to empower our students to reach their fullest potential.

Referring to teachers’ jobs “the best job in the world,” Ms. Shaheen said it’s the only job that offers awesome opportunities every day.

“When the students aren’t getting what they need, our assessments show the areas that need more attention,” she said. “When the technology doesn’t work, we can educate. When we don’t understand what a student needs, then it’s our opportunity to learn.”

Natalie Shaheen, M.Ed. is an Ohio native who was born blind. A pediatric ophthalmologist told her parents that, because she was blind, Natalie would never learn to read or write, graduate from high school, or go to college. She graduated with honors from Ohio State University, and has taught blind students from Las Vegas to Maryland. She currently directs national educational programs for blind youth as the Director of Education for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute.

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Corbb O'Connor
Corbb, a blind entrepreneur, coordinates the outreach and marketing efforts for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University as an independent consultant.

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