A Challenge to My Colleagues for the 21st Century
Presented at the AER Convention, Denver, July, 2000
For the last ten years of my life, I seem to be in a rut. There are four general topics on which I am usually asked to speak or write:
- The School for the Blind in the Future;
- The National Agenda;
- The Expanded Core Curriculum;
- The Old Man Talks About History
Well, my friends, tempted as I am, I am not going to re-visit any of those vital topics. Instead, I want to talk with you for a few minutes about something much more esoteric.
In recent years, I’ve experienced tremendous growth in my spiritual life, an experience I’d be pleased to share with you at another time in another place. I only mention it because one of the aspects of that growth has been to examine, within myself, what I choose to call (1) Fundamental Truths; and (2) Personal Convictions. I was thinking about the differences between these two when I recently accessed the O&M list serve and found an ongoing discussion about the efficacy of Orientation and Mobility Assistants (OMAs). I felt myself getting sucked into the discussion, and I wanted to pound some sense into those who disagreed with me. Then I stopped and said to myself, “Is my position about OMAs a fundamental truth or is it a personal conviction?.”
If it is a fundamental truth, I should go to the "mat" for it. If it is a personal conviction, then I must allow others to hold their personal convictions, and participate in non-aggressive, non-attacking, discussion whose foundation is mutual respect. When I get into trouble in this world is when I defend a personal conviction as though it was a fundamental truth. Then I lose the power and advantage a fundamental truth gives me, and I become confused and confusing.
My friends and colleagues, what our profession begs of us is to establish fundamental truths, and then never, ever back down from them. In the process of considering my list of fundamental truths, I found it necessary to review much of my professional life, to examine years of experience, to recall the words and writings of others, and to reach deep inside of me and uncover those few statements that I believe all of us would accept as fundamental truths. This is what came of a sometimes painful, sometimes revealing, and in the final analysis, a wonderful feeling as I released all else to the category of personal convictions. Can we all agree on the following?
Fundamental Truths in the Education of Blind and Visually Impaired Students
- All blind and visually impaired students have the capability for inclusion into society, at a time and to a degree that is appropriate for each individual, and is chosen by that individual.
- Assessment, educational planning, and placement decisions must be driven by the individual needs of each student.
- Every blind and visually impaired student must have the services of a qualified teacher of students with visual impairments and an orientation and mobility instructor for sufficient time to meet identified needs.
- Parents and educators form a special, vital, and necessary partnership.
- All blind and visually impaired persons must have the opportunity to be equal, and the right to be different.
After agonizing over a long, complex list of what I once considered Fundamental Truths, I have discovered, for me, that they can be briefly stated in five points. They can be summed up as: (a) equality; (b) dignity; (c) personal choice; (d) individualization; (e) professional intervention; (f) parents as partners.
We, you and I, may not share fundamental truths, and if we don’t, we need to get together, because if there is one thing that will destroy a profession, it is lack of agreement on its fundamental truths. On my less optimistic days, I sometimes feel that we continually divide and weaken ourselves by our lack of agreement on fundamental truths.
Some of the thoughts that occur to me are:
- Do we always teach skills that will enhance satisfaction and fulfillment for the student in adult life? Do we always respect the differences in our students, and recognize that independent, inclusive life exists on a continuum for all of us?
- Do we always individualize our services? Do we provide truly comprehensive assessments, do we plan for and teach all assessed educational needs, do we determine placements based on need, not philosophy? If we don’t, are we denying a fundamental truth in our profession? When we don’t hold to our fundamental truths, what message does that give to administrators, to parents, to the general public?
- We have skills possessed by no one else--no classroom teacher, no para-professional, no volunteer, no generic special education teacher. What have we done to this fundamental truth when we allow a para-professional to teach braille, when we assume the classroom teacher will teach reading of graphics, when we think the generic special education teacher can teach living skills? Should not this be a non-negotiable fundamental truth for which we will stand up and be counted?
- Long before federal law mandated our working closely with parents, we had, as a profession, acknowledged the value, the necessity of enlisting parents as partners. Have we violated this fundamental truth when we come to an IEP meeting with a completed IEP? When we do not value the ideas and opinions of parents?
Personal convictions shape our individual characters, and are what makes each of us different within our profession. They are good and they are positive, because they provide “meat to the bones” of our fundamental truths. But personal convictions become truly dangerous when we confuse them with fundamental truths. Following is a list of some of my personal convictions. I don’t think it would surprise you to know that, at various times in my life, I would have identified every one of them as fundamental truths. And perhaps some of them are—only you and I together will decide that.
- I believe that schools for the blind are essential in order to meet the individual needs of all students.
- I believe that low vision students have needs that are just as intensive as blind students.
- I believe that no teacher of students with visual impairments, and no orientation and mobility instructor can meet the needs of students if she/he has a caseload of over eight students.
- I believe that we are a profession, with history, research, literature, methodologies, skills, and knowledge to justify the title of “profession”.
- I believe that the expanded core curriculum is just as important for blind and visually impaired students as is academic curriculum.
- I believe that it is possible for every human being to have a joyful, satisfying, and productive life.
- I believe the zealot inclusionists are wrong.
- I believe that the school for the blind should be the center of services for all blind and visually impaired students in a state.
- I believe that heroic, high-risk efforts must be made to solve the 50-year-old teacher shortage crisis.
- I believe that every child has a right to literacy.
- I believe that blindness and visual impairment cause significant differences in the manner and style by which students learn. It is more than an inconvenience.
- I believe that children with severe multiple disabilities are precious children, deserving of the very best that education has to offer.
I’m certain that every one of you have personal convictions about the education of blind and visually impaired students that you can add to this list. I would welcome the opportunity for an open forum in which we can discuss our personal convictions.
I would now like to present to you two current examples of what I believe is the difference between a fundamental truth and a personal conviction:
- Fundamental Truth: Every blind and visually impaired person must receive orientation and mobility services.
Personal Conviction: Orientation and Mobility Assistants, well-prepared and creatively used, will be invaluable in assuring appropriate, individualized orientation and mobility services.
We, as a profession united, must embrace the fundamental truth and never, ever waiver from that belief.
I, as an individual, must be willing to discuss my conviction, promote it and defend it, in open forums that have as their foundation mutual respect.
- Fundamental Truth: Every child has a right to literacy.
Personal Conviction: Literacy for braille-reading children requires that their teachers know braille and know how to teach it.
I am bothered and puzzled by our profession’s lack of clarity regarding fundamental truths. I am concerned by our reluctance to resist those persons, organizations, and policies that cause us to violate our own fundamental truths.
If we were true to our profession, we would not allow purveyors of generic rehabilitation to assume responsibility for what we know we should be doing.
If we firmly adhered to our fundamental truths, there would be no teacher with a caseload so large that she cannot teach elements of the expanded core curriculum. Caseload and curriculum would not be determined by administrators, but by us.
So, my first urging is that we, in unity and consensus, determine the foundation of our profession—the fundamental truths that we will consistently, and with whatever energy is necessary, guarantee for blind and visually impaired students.
Now, let’s move back to personal convictions. I stand before you today, deeply humbled and contrite, because for most of my professional life I have not made the distinction between fundamental truths and convictions. I have often taken positions, based on convictions, and presented and defended them to you as though they were fundamental truths. This means that I placed little or no value on your convictions, and that I was unwilling to have a discussion based on mutual respect. I was totally convinced that I was right and you were wrong.
Perhaps with this confession, you are able to better understand why the gradual revelation I have had is so critical to me.
My second urging, then is to not confuse personal convictions and fundamental truths. When you and I can discuss convictions in a forum of mutual respect and an open mind, we set the stage for tremendous progress and change.
Our fundamental truths must be imbedded in our hearts and minds, in our research and literature, and be presented firmly and without compromise to administrators, policy-makers, and legislators. Our convictions consist of beliefs that should be discussed openly and debated in-house, and should not involve those outside our profession.
I am ready and eager to share with all of you the development and implementation of a set of professional fundamental truths. I am ready and eager for discussions and exchanges regarding your personal convictions and mine.
Can we, AER, put into writing a set of non-negotiable fundamental truths that become the solid foundation on which our profession is built? I’m ready. Are you?