New roles of the special school

The school for the visually impaired is changing
Eberhard Fuchs, Germany

Plenary Session 2 - Multi-disabled visually impaired, Monday 10 July 2000, 11.00 - 12.30

Power Point Presentation

Schools are changing and the educational theory for the blind and visually impaired is developing further which is normal and necessary. History teaches us that to remain on the same level means stagnation or a step backwards. Together with the changes in our environment, the political conditions, and the economic conditions the technical possibilities and educational theory cannot remain the same but have to develop!

Without any doubt the last 25 years were marked by the efforts to redefine the place of support for the special classes of the visually impaired and blind children. When we look back in the educational literature of the second half of the 19th century, we see that the thoughts of integrated care of the blind students is not a new concept. At that time most of the visually impaired students, the non-blind children, because their handicap wasn't recognized were integrated in their home schools without any educational support.

In the educational reorientation after the Second World War in the mid-fifties, new considerations for a possible integration of visually impaired students became an issue. Up to the seventies these considerations were refused and even fought against. Now the discussion about the integration of visually impaired and blind students has changed to a more realistic view. Now it is more the question what kind of conditions has to exist to be successful with an integrated system. Obviously it was recognized that the place for support is decisive upon the realization of the individual special educational needs of each visually impaired and blind child. This was developed in Great Britain as "Special Educational Needs".

The position of integration in the European Context:

People with handicaps were pushed towards the edge of society in many European countries for a long time. In 1977 Italy was the first European country, which ruled by law the integration in the public schools. With that law all Italian special schools were shut down. The schools for the blind were changed into institutions for the multi handicapped or centers for aids.

Switzerland and France are marked by the existence of schools for the blind and visually impaired, which have developed a flexible mobile care system. Both countries have been implementing this method for about 20 years.

In Austria because of new school laws, integration in all areas of handicapping conditions is possible. Traditional places of learning have to develop and implement this educational law.

In the Benelux countries, especially in Luxembourg and Holland, the integration program, the mobile care, and outpatient treatments are all very important activities. The traditional institutions, above all, focus on multi handicapped support and/or outpatient or mobile support systems.

In Great Britain there is a very strong tradition for the development of a flexible education system.

The Scandinavian countries have a very progressive integrated educational system, in which the mobile and outpatient care; the counselling and support services have been a part of the educational system since decades. The existing institutions for the blind and visually impaired are centres, where the ideas are coming from.

Up to now I don't have an overall view of the east European area. I know centres in different east European countries, which provide care for the visually impaired and blind students with dedication and engagement. They are starting to implement integration experiences from other European countries and they try to include their own pedagogical considerations. I know that discussion about integration take place, for example in Poland or Bulgaria, amongst colleagues with much enthusiasm.
This short overview about the European situations is for sure not complete and could be amplified.

My homeland Germany has been discussing integration for a long time. Decisions were difficult, because each state has its own legislative sovereignty for education. In some states it has been written into law based on a decision of the constitutional court that there will be integration of the handicapped. So, it is a priority that each student has to visit the public school system. Only if this is impossible, can he visit a special support school.

The European nations started to take on the theme "Integration"; therefore, everyone can recognize that there have been lengthy discussions in Western Europe about integration for years.

Current aspects of the blind and visually impaired educational theory

Next I will show newer tasks, which determine actually the everyday life of an educationalist for the blind and visually impaired and their institutions.

Educational early intervention

The educational early intervention was not developed by the state but by the special educationalists. It is a relatively young theme in the educational theory for the blind and visually impaired. Up to the seventies early intervention was understood more as a medical treatment or a diagnostic action and less as a support system for blind and visually impaired and their parents. Yet the educational early intervention is the indisputable foundation in the overall system of the educational support for the blind and visually impaired children. Everyone knows this.

I don't know to what degree early intervention is established in the different countries, but there are highly developed early intervention systems in Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Germany. They are characterized by working in the parent's home and not by intervention at a school for the blind. In Italy we know about 2 stationary institutions for early intervention. We also know from Poland that early intervention offers are established in the area of Chorzow, Poznan, and Warsaw. I am sure that this is not a complete overview. One remark seems to be really important for me: Early intervention actions for blind, visually impaired, and also for multi handicapped visually impaired children must start from our special institutions. It is necessary that there is a close dovetailing between the institutions for the blind and the advisory services and support systems. People working in early intervention must not work in isolation, because then it would be difficult for them to maintain a special educational base and to develop further technically through interdisciplinary expertise.

Advisory and support systems

We start from the point that all institutions for the blind and visually impaired are obligated to advice and support blind, visually impaired, and multi handicapped visually impaired students. These advisory and support service apply to the inside of an institution and also for mobile actions. In Anglo-American areas they refer to it as "On-Campus-Services" or "Off-Campus-Services". In view of the "individual special educational support need" this educational offer assists all who have a visual perception problem.

The decision that a child receives special services is based on the professional opinions and expertise from various specialists. The medical diagnosis, the educational evaluation, the reports and observations of the interdisciplinary team, and input from the parents determine the appropriate services and the type of program.

Both the stationary facility and the mobile team provide the advisory and support systems for blind students. Frequently the most important point in providing an equal education is the support they will receive from technology and visual aids.
Normally the services provided by the special educationalists require more time and money. An important factor is the attitude and willingness of the regular education teacher to include blind children in his class.

Open School:

It is necessary for a flexible educational system to open the school for the blind and visually impaired to non-handicapped students. This would be called an "open school". In the visually impaired department of my school this philosophy has been put in place.
After 5 years of implementing this philosophy we can determine the following:

Multi handicapped visually impaired and blind children

Everyone knows that in the last years the number of multi handicapped visually impaired children have increased greatly. Internationally it is expressed that 70% of the blind and visually impaired students will be multi handicapped. Until the 70ties everyone was insecure, if the educational theory should even have a critical look at the problems of the multi handicapped visually impaired children. The schools for the mentally handicapped and institutions of health care were seen by most as the home for the educational theory of multi handicapped children. No one saw that special instruction offers for the blind were also very important for the development of the multi handicapped visually impaired children. Here I only want to name: "orientation & mobility", "visual stimulation", "alternative communication systems", "Braille", or "gesture".
As much as I know the first institution for multi handicapped visually impaired children was founded in Holland. Later on there were special institutions in Germany, Great Britain, Scandinavia, France, and Italy. We also know that in east European countries there are special classes for the multi handicapped children in Bulgarian schools. I did participate in the construction of a special institution in Rudoltovice in Poland.

Informed employees in the institutions for the blind and visually impaired:

The tasks of institutions for the blind and visually impaired have grown; the programs for this population have grown broader. Did the institutions prepare themselves technically in the different European countries? Are they technically able to satisfy the special support needs?
Regarding the new tasks, it seems that the teachers do not have the best knowledge in all areas. With the integrated advisory service and support for the visually impaired and blind children a new work field was founded for the teachers at special schools. Among other things education and competence in counselling are necessary. This is not yet the case in all countries.

The school support services for the multi handicapped visually impaired and blind children were not sufficiently taught at the universities up until now, at least not in my country.

In the area of early intervention the teachers do not have much experience. The education curriculum for the teachers normally starts at the age when children first visit school. The knowledge of a teacher at a special school is always necessary, but it seems the knowledge of social education workers, remedial educationalist, and educators in the family context very often help! If you look at the big picture, it seems like the teacher for the blind alone is not able to satisfy all needs. Some countries recognized the lack of education and reacted with special education seminars for the people in early intervention. For example, in Poland at a university program, in Austria in a special institution, in Italy through the Association for the Blind, and in Germany an education program will start systematically and continuously through the Association of the Educators for the Blind and Visually Impaired next year.

Interdisciplinary Team:

Since decades we can clearly see the importance of psychological help in our institutions. There is a significantly growing need of physiotherapeutic help by the physiotherapists. Orientation and mobility specialists teach our students to find their way. Teachers for daily living skills support the students to live independently. Social education workers take a big part of responsibility in the area of early intervention. Remedial educationalists support the educational process both in the parent's home and in the institutions. Specialized doctors, paediatricians, child psychologists, and ophthalmologists prepare the necessary basis for a good extensive diagnosis.
Perspectives - How will it go on?

To predict a standard development is impossible. Each country has his own history, his own laws, and his own imaginations. But it seems all countries go through the following similar development regarding to the actual tasks:

All institutions for the blind and visually impaired in Europe are well advised to meet the demands and to take them as our tasks.

For me the task of a school for the visually handicapped looks like the following in the future:

(Video presentation)

If you look at the variation of tasks you will see that the tasks for a residential school for the visually impaired will not be less and will not be threatened through a more integrating system, but the tasks will be a lot broader. The institutions will grow more and will be more important, but they will not be schools! What will appear, are centrums. We call them in Germany "Centrum for Visually Impaired". Please, don't judge the graph as a local limiting but more as a sketching of tasks, which can be done by different locations.
Off course this picture invents, that you and I are convinced, that our expertise and specialized knowledge is necessary to fulfil the needed special support service and other organizations without the specialized training cannot provide these services. In some countries there is a tendency to develop other forms of support. It is discussed if regular institutions can do the above-sketched tasks and receive expert advice from teachers for the blind as a means of providing support. That means the teachers for the blind would only provide professional advice to these service providers. It has been suggested that multi handicapped blind and visually impaired students should be taught at schools for mentally handicapped with professional advice being provided by the teachers for the blind. What that would mean is the role of the support system would be only to provide advice and not to provide hands on instruction. I believe that this method could not be a successful means of fulfilling the special educational support needs of our blind and visually impaired students, because:

I always like to compare this with our medical system: The general practitioner will refer you to a specialist addressing specific problems. He does not feel knowledgeable enough in all areas of medicine and receiving medical advice from the specialist would also not be enough for him to treat a patient.
It does not matter to what kind of decision the different countries are reaching, the main focus is the education of blind, visually impaired, and multi handicapped students and adults. We are not talking about us and we are not talking about the institutions for the blind. We have to be aware, if there are changes in the structure and content areas, which would impact the rights of the handicapped to receive comprehensive and technical support. We have to interfere! We have to understand that the system can go with us the teachers and the institutions for the education of the blind or without us. If we are convinced about the necessity of special educational theory interventions, than we have to react on time and try to work together. The history of the educational theory for the blind and visually impaired has shown that institutions that have anticipated change and acted on new developments won more influence. History has also proven that institutions that remain stagnant and resist change, their existence is threatened.

I have a conviction based on 27 years of experience, which can be shown in three concepts. We the teachers should obtain influence in these concepts by providing new solutions.

Think all on time, put no taboos, bring in all possibilities - if we do that then we will reach our goals.

Eberhard Fuchs
Ohmstrasse 7
97076 W�rzburg, Germany

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