Teaching the Legislature to Believe in Blind Students

Remarks by Casey Robertson to the 2013 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando, Florida.

I am Casey Robertson. I am a teacher of blind students with a master’s degree from Louisiana Tech. I’m currently a doctoral student at Walden University.

Last year, a dream came of three women in our affiliate and was backed by a great state president, Sam Gleese. We wanted to change the way blind students were taught in Mississippi. We were met with a lot of opposition. We were told that others did not believe that blind students could learn as their sighted peers do. I ask you today, do you believe?

Really, do you believe blind students can learn as their sighted peers do?

We approached the legislators, and asked them if they’d work with us on a bill. And their response was, “We have a state school for the blind. Do they not meet our blind students’ needs?” Our answer was no, they do not, and even if they do, that’s great. We want to improve the services for blind students in public education.

So, a legislator by the name of Tom Miles (R-75) was gracious enough to meet with us. As we sat down with him, I realized that education began right there. He was not aware that we had blind students in public education. We knew that we had a challenge from the beginning. So, we started teaching the legislators about blindness. We did this through e-mails, meetings, posts, fliers, and we taught them everything there was to know about blind students and how they learned.

One of our greatest acts was to let blind students speak for themselves. There are so many things that I can do as a teacher of blind students, but I cannot speak as a blind student speaks. So, I gathered blind students and we went to the state capitol. We had meetings with legislators, and when they said, “Braille is too slow” or “Your opposition is saying braille is too slow for us to invest in,” I let my students read for them.

Some of the Education Committee said, “I can’t read print that fast.” We killed the myth that braille was slow.

The second point of opposition was, “We don’t have teachers. We can’t say that these kids need braille because we don’t have teachers to serve them.”

Our answer was that’s not our problem, since that’s what we were there to change. So, the legislature began to see our beliefs, and I’ll never forget the a-ha moment when a legislator called me up at home and said, “Casey, I get it. I finally get it. These kids can learn. These kids are the same as their sighted peers. What have we been doing?”

He was then on a mission. Before our bill hit the floor, we had 26 bipartisan cosponsors. When our bill passed the legislative floor on the representatives’ side, it passed with 100 percent support of the bill.

Many of you are thinking, “We have a braille bill in our state. What makes yours so special?”

Let me tell you some of the parts of our braille bill.

Our braille bill now requires, just as federal law requires, that all students who have 20/200 vision and are legally blind receive braille in the forefront while they’re waiting on assessments. Our teachers can no longer just give any type of assessment; they have to give a research-based assessment for blind and low vision students.

This is different because the National Federation of the Blind worked with the Louisiana Tech Institute on Blindness to develop the first research-based assessment: the National Reading Media Assessment.

I knew ahead of time that we had the only research-based assessment, so now they use our assessment to decide whether students get braille or not.

The National Federation of the Blind has long fought a battle for blind students to receive textbooks on time. Our bill says that it’s against the law for students not to have textbooks at the same time as their sighted peers, on the first day of school.

And it’s good to talk the talk, but have they followed through?

I can assure you that my students have next year’s textbooks at their home school, right now, and most were delivered before school was out this year.

We had never gotten workbooks in the state of Mississippi. I have workbooks for my students to start school with in August.

One of the greatest battles we fought was for teachers to show proficiency in braille.

We had teachers show up to fight us at the legislature, saying that they did not need to be proficient in braille to teach blind students.

We argued, “How can you teach something that you’re not proficient in?”

I looked at the legislators, many of them had kids of their own, and said, “Would you allow your student to be taught by a teacher who could not read?” The consensus was no, they would not. They expected their teachers to be competent and efficient in the tasks that they were teaching.

From now on, in the state of Mississippi, you cannot become a TVI unless you show a proficiency in braille literacy.

Due to surgery, I was unable to be there the day that the bill was passed on the legislative floor. But I made sure that our gallery was filled with blind students and blind adults. As the bill was passed, we had a standing ovation from the floor, which rarely happens in the legislature. When a legislator asked if he could speak to the floor, and was given permission, he turned to the blind people in the gallery and said, in his 37 years as a representative, this was the most well-educated bill that he’d ever seen pass the floor. Now, he believes in blind children.

As a part of our bill, we asked for no money.

We gave the legislators ways that they could provide efficient education with the money that they were already spending at the state school for the blind and the textbooks that they were already receiving.

However, because our bill was so well-educated, we had members of the financial committee approach us and add a $50,000 scholarship fund to our bill that will train those already working in the field but who aren’t proficient in braille.

To those who didn’t believe blind children could learn, I say:

  • My 15 year-old deaf-blind child, who was illiterate because nobody believed she could read, is now reading braille.
  • My third-grader who was hanging in a world between print and braille, and who was not literate in either one, is now proficient in braille.
  • The two sixth-graders that had never had Nemeth instruction (math braille) are now proficient in their grade level math.

Our bill also requires that the state Department of Education recognize braille as well as orientation and mobility as core curriculum subjects. No longer can a student be in high school and denied instruction in orientation and mobility or braille during the school day because it takes away from core curriculum classes.

Many of our students are helped by the National Reading Media Assessment. Without this research-based assessment, we are missing a lot of students who are in public schools using, and struggling with, large print and really need to change their reading medium.

Administrators and teachers at one third-grader’s school didn’t know what to do with her. Through the National Reading Media Assessment, it showed that she was a braille reader. Once we changed her reading medium, she was able to become proficient and literate in ways that she had never been able to before.

At the time, we thought asking for a research-based assessment was a very small part of our bill. But it turned out to be huge.

The teachers in our state are having to go back and re-test their blind and low-vision students to see where they fall in the reading media assessment. Our federal quota numbers are coming up, because we’re finding more students who are struggling with the wrong reading medium. Now, we can allow them to have success.

A team from the National Federation of the Blind and Louisiana Tech University will present the National Reading Media Assessment to a national special education conference at the end of July. We’ll teach special education leaders about how to properly assess a blind student and incorporate braille into their curriculum.

So, I ask you now, do you believe that blind children can learn?

I look at the adults here at the National Federation of the Blind conference and I see what my students need to know to be successful blind adults. I want to thank each and every one of you here for changing what it means to be blind in Mississippi and across the nation.

I also urge you not to sit still.

Natalie told us yesterday about how sitting still is killing us. Sitting still in our affiliates is killing the chance that you could change your state law. I ask you not to wait on the national office of the National Federation of the Blind to fight every battle for us. I want you, in your state affiliate, to get together and look at your braille bill. See what needs to be changed. Contact myself or the Mississippi affiliate, so we can help you re-write your bill and tell you the steps to get it changed. Don’t sit and wait for someone to change what it means to be blind in your state. Get moving and make that change happen.

You might say, we don’t have the money in our affiliate to change the braille bill. I can tell you, that for less than $1,000, we changed the entire educational system for blind students in Mississippi.

Our bill is not only working to help find students. It’s also helping all students, because they’re learning more about blind students in their schools simply because we showed the legislators that it is respectable to be blind, that it is okay to have these blind students in the public schools, and—as a result of our bill—our current school for the blind is being reorganized.

So, not only did we affect the public school system, we affected the state school for the blind in Mississippi. So, I’m asking you to look at your state bill, seek out the help if you need it, and make the changes that need to be made so that your students are getting the best possible instruction in braille, large print, or both. Make it a core-curriculum subject, make it where legally blind students have to learn braille, and don’t let the excuses get in the way.

Thank you for listening today to my story and how you can change what it means to be blind. I urge you to look into Louisiana Tech University’s program of becoming a teacher of blind students or orientation and mobility instructor.

I often have people ask me, “How did you learn so much about blindness?” I say, for one, I watched blind people, and, two, I was trained by the best in the country: Louisiana Tech.

Thank you, and I ask you to go out, believe in blind children, and make a change.

[Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, offered the following remarks at the conclusion of Casey's speech.] So, here you are, a teacher of the blind, a parent of a deaf-blind person, and you write a proposed law, you introduce it in the legislature, you get it adopted unanimously, you get it funded, you have a standing ovation on the floor of one of the legislative bodies…we need you in Washington, DC! I admire people who get things done and cause consensus and create new opportunity. That’s great. And you did it because you believe in the people who needed you. I cannot but admire that kind of courage.
 
If you share Casey’s passion for teaching blind students, we invite you to consider a career in teaching blind students to read and write braille. Louisiana Tech University’s Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness is always recruiting students, so please give us a call at (318) 257-4554.
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Casey West Robertson, M.Ed., NCLB

Casey West Robertson, M.Ed., NCLB

Casey was named as the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children in 2012 in part for her constant advocacy that blind children learn braille in a positive environment. In addition to serving as an independent contractor with four school districts in Mississippi, Casey is an active researcher and instructor at Louisiana Tech University.

5 thoughts on “Teaching the Legislature to Believe in Blind Students

  1. Thanks for writing this. I really feel as though I know so much more about this than I did before. Your blog really brought some things to light that I never would have thought about before reading it. You should continue this, Im sure most people would agree youve got a gift.

  2. also don’t forget to teach students about open source alternatives to windows these open source operating systems for computers can do nearly everything windows can. and for the windows apps they need vmware is easy to install and windows xp will work.

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