I suspect I’m out of line with other disabled people when I say that integrated education doesn’t work well for the majority of blind children. Personally, I believe that the drive to integrate blind children into mainstream schools has more to do with political dogma than providing visually impaired pupils with a rounded education. I can speak with a little authority, as I’ve experienced three different flavours of our education system: mainstream Primary education, a specialist secondary school for a range of children with various disabilities and latterly a college education aimed exclusively at visually impaired students. So I’ve been at the receiving end of the entire array of educational experiences. Admittedly, it was some years ago. However, I’m in no doubt which one I preferred and more crucially the one I benefited most from both educationally and socially. The Royal National College for the Blind, was the best for me, as, it is an institution which is aimed not only at academia but also towards developing a person who can function as independently as possible in their own local community setting. They do this by focusing on mobility, daily living skills, social skills, and academic qualifications.
Crucially it was the support of a peer group which I missed throughout my primary and secondary education. It wasn’t until the age of 18 that I met with other people who had a significant visual loss like my own. Until then, I felt like the only blind boy in the village. To meet and find out about the world with other visually impaired people was vital for me to understand my own value. It helped me to learn about how blind people operate. For example: The first time I was able to play football with other blind people was an incredible experience. On this occasion there was a bell in the ball to help us play the game. Now I felt part of the team rather than hanging about the edges hoping that the ball would just suddenly find me! As a blind person in a sighted school I would never have got into the school football team. I was also taught mobility skills in order to move around safely using a white cane. The college also started to teach me brail. As an 18 year old this was far to late, I should have been taught how to use this from the age of 5!. I was also shown how to look after myself: cook, clean and navigating home whilst under the influence of alcohol! A skill that wasn’t on the college prospective, but one that was passed on from one generation of blind student to the next.
There has been no evidence in recent years to change my opinion that a specialist education for blind children isn’t still superior.
Blind children need to be taught that they have a rightful place in the visual world and have the confidence that they are being taught the right range of skills from as young an age as possible. Being the only blind person in the classroom, with the talking computer and the classroom assistant only highlights the fact that you are different from everyone else, which is why peer support is vital.
Now, I’m deliberately saying ‘blind’, as opposed to those children who are ‘partially sighted’ and have some useful vision. These children, can gain a great deal from a mainstream education but for those of us who have no or little vision, the experience can be a frustrating and isolating one.
The difficulty is, it all comes down to individual circumstances, for example: the involvement of parents by giving them proper information and choices, how confident the child feels about their blindness, plus does the school have the proper resources in place to support a blind child and do they have a positive attitude to make integration within the classroom actually happen.
To underline my argument for specialist education I would like to compare state schools that specialise in subjects for high achievers like sport and music. These children have to travel many miles every day in order that they get every opportunity to focus on their talents with the best coaches and teachers. Why can’t we see blindness as a talent that has to be mastered and ensure that all resources are gathered together to hone that talent.
As a society we must be cautious not to force children into their local school because of specific labels like, disability, and integration etc. Disabled children are not a homogenous group and have different specialist needs and skills. Politicians tell us that mainstream education is what the disabled community wants. That’s certainly the formal view of the disability movement. However, I hear from more and more blind people that perhaps integration has not enhanced blind children’s education. That the mainstream class room, is full of visual influences that exclude blind children. Glancing up and down at the blackboard at a mathematical equation, is not equalised by using a talking computer, the learning experience is utterly different.