Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Connect & Conquer
Why teachers should help disabled students connect with resources

Andrew Leibs, M.A.
E-mail: andrewleibs@yahoo.com

As a blind writer and sometime student of human potential, I think there is no greater gift teachers can give disabled students than to encourage and help facilitate their taking ownership of crucial educational resources that exist just for them.

Too often in special education, teachers, administrators, and even state education department personnel procure materials for students, without ever training the students to cultivate their own relationships with institutions. A great opportunity exists for providers of pre-service training for special education teachers: helping students take responsibility for their resources can increase academic performance, sense of independence, and self-esteem while making the day-to-day management of classroom participation more efficient for teachers.

I will illustrate how this approach might make a difference in one key area, that of reading, among students who are blind or visually impaired. It seems clear that the concept can also apply to other cognitive skills and among students with other types of impairments.

I wrote my book, A Field Guide for the Sight-Impaired Reader (Liebs, 1999) after realizing I had spent years cultivating resources and developing reading strategies that could be taught to a visually impaired student in an hour or two.

All the resources I needed to excel in school existed, but my Individual Education Plan focused on Braille and typing, the primary skills of the two teachers assigned to me. They brought me tapes from Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), but lied to me about my ability to acquire the tapes on my own, in part to keep me from dropping their classes.

Learning how RFB&D memberships work, which for me happened by accident the summer before I began college, launched my world of reading, motivated me to track down all essential resources, and stimulated me to revisit my education to see how others could benefit. What I concluded boils down to four basic steps: connecting to resources, creating context among them, building confidence, and, eventually, gaining control of one's reading life.

Connecting to Resources

Teachers must show students how to connect with institutions such as RFB&D and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), and guide them through the sign-up process. Students must have their own borrower ID number for RFB&D and membership in their NLS network library by age 12. Students need their own access to primary resources for Braille, large print, recorded, and electronic texts, and also need to know how to obtain necessary playback equipment. Resource phone numbers and web addresses should be as familiar to students as their home address.

One Teacher of the Visually Impaired recently told me she makes sure students sign up with RFB&D by age 17–five years past the age when students begin reading for information. Some states have employees who procure materials for all special needs students. Such go-betweens foster dependence and prevent students from accessing resources on their own, which makes reading indistinguishable from schoolwork. Reading is how we interact with information, explore interests, set goals, and build our destinies. A teacher who procures materials for students robs them of a crucial freedom and building block of their identity.

When I was in eighth grade, a special education teacher said she would bring me any extracurricular book I wanted. Seven years later, after finally learning I could access RFB&D on my own, I could wander the pages of its two-volume catalogue and find fascinating books I never knew existed the same way students find them on library shelves. A sight-impaired reader's library might be several institutions miles apart, but they should be empowered to explore it the same way. Exploration starts with independent access.

Creating Context

Once apprised of and connected with key resources, teachers can help students understand the benefits of each resource to accomplish reading tasks. Students should be shown that RFB&D is a primary resource for school textbooks on cassette and CD-ROM, relying on volunteers as readers, offers free bibliographic searches, and will record books. The NLS, by comparison, has thousands of literary classics on cassette and uses professional narrators, which makes it a preferred source for the many novels one reads in school. The NLS also offers Braille books, music, and magazines. Large print textbooks from the American Printing House for the Blind are ideal for many subjects, especially math and languages. There are Braille publishers (including the National Braille Press) offering new titles and transcription services. There are websites for downloading e-texts that can be read with a screen reader. Live readers (e.g. parents, teachers, volunteers) can be the ideal solution for deadline-driven assignments.

Sighted students read. Blind students triage tasks among a set of accessible tools and techniques, depending on the task. Literacy doesn't develop, it is built. More resources mean more effective reading.

Building Confidence

If one has no role models of blind readers, and harbors some suspicion about the merits of books in specialized formats, it's hard to develop confidence as a sight-impaired reader. I remember basking in the accomplishment of finishing a long novel when my brother snapped, "You didn't read it–you listened to it!" I was crushed by that judgment, and that only got worse soon after as I saw that teachers were just as shortsighted. They would challenge top (sighted) students with extra books, but mark my achievements with a kind of asterisk. I was seen as different, needy, and not as the hungry, intelligent reader I was becoming. Even in graduate school, a professor decried my use of tapes to read Shakespeare (despite their having enabled me to memorize four complete plays) while sharing with the class dumb-downed modern translations, even a comic book version of Romeo and Juliet, in his showcase of teaching tools.

Listening is reading, no matter what cynical people say. Printed books are a far more recent technology than the oral tradition a blind reader taps into while listening to a book.

Teachers can bestow great confidence on students that their form of reading is not only legitimate, but offers advantages (ease of repeated listenings, increased comprehension through proper enunciation, and the means to take risks) over traditional reading. People rarely speak of the advantages of blindness, but reading is one area where the great leveler of technology can lead blind students to higher ground.

Gaining Control

Control happens when you have been connected to enough resources and have enough confidence to take proactive steps toward using reading to enhance your life. This could mean securing extracurricular books about a hobby or other area of interest, or seeing the advantages of planning in meeting academic goals. An incoming freshman, for example, might realize that it is never too early to meet next year's teachers (a forthright act as inspiring to teachers as students), learn what texts will likely be assigned, and order those books on one's own–perhaps even do some summer reading in preparation. Students might take on extra-credit reading or read ahead to alleviate pressure down the road. These are the types of actions top students take that teachers often assume are beyond the abilities of blind students. That's tradition, not fact.

I never saw any book as a boundary between what I wanted to read and what I could read. But it took many years to build the sort of internal triage system through which to assess each task. To me, that is the most crucial skill sight-impaired students need to develop, and one that teachers at all levels can augment by encouraging students to take ownership of their resources.

Leibs, A. (1999) A Field Guide for the Sight-Impaired Reader, Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press.

Copyright (c) 2006 Andrew Leibs

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