#ADA25 Blind Learning

A quarter century. Always a big milestone when achieved, but especially when referencing a document who’s reach extends farter even than its original creators had intended. Happy 25 to the Americans With Disabilities Act!

RELATED: Twenty Years of the ADA

I thought it would be interesting if this time, I examine a bit of how education for and of blind folks has changed over the years, particularly by looking at the unique system of schools for the blind that have persisted since the 1800s or so.

Actually, according to a document outlining the history of Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, the empatus for creating American schools for the blind began when a medical student named Dr. John Fisher traveled to France to see their school for the blind in the 1820’s. The idea really took off, thanks in large part to such successes as the deafblind Laura Bridgman, who’s fictionalized story I’ve recently noted, and Helen Keller.

Now, most states have at least one location that serves blind individuals, and much more the case these days, those with multiple disabilities. Here in North Carolina, we have the Governor Moorehead School for the Blind, which was established in 1845 as the eighth such institution, and the first to serve African American blind and deaf students.

Many of the older blind individuals I know attended such schools pretty much throughout their education, rooming in dorms and going home only once or twice a semester. They’ve told me that this experience had its good and bad sides.

Certainly a positive is the degree to which they could fully participate in extra-curricular activities. It was then and probably still is now easier for blind individuals to get involved in student council, play sports, and conduct other character-building in a more specialized setting than at a public school. Therefore, many of the people I know who have had such experiences are a little more socially developed than those of us who have not.

However, until recently at least, the academics in such places were not always on the same level as those one gets in a county school system. I think this has been remedied in a number of ways though, and particularly by allowing individuals who attended the school for the blind to take some classes at a nearby public school, as my cousins did. This meant that my cousins were able to attend a university once they graduated, because they had achieved all of the necessary academic standards.

Nowadays, thanks in large part to documents like the ADA, most blind children are mainstreamed. When I was a kid, there was still a need to largely centralize us so that we could all more easily access resources. This meant that if you lived closer to the city’s edge, as we did, your bus ride would be long. I find it hard to believe, but am fairly certain that it would take us 2 hours and 25 minutes to make the journey from our house to the school we attended near uptown (downtown) Charlotte. I’m not sure I would have the patience to do that these days, even in the era of smartphones that would allow for endless entertainment. I guess in those days, we would just entertain each other with jokes and actions that very likely drove the drivers nuts, if we were not in fact sleeping.

I think now that students can attend schools that are at least closer to their actual districts, which is a very good thing. The proliferation of laptops, iPads and the like have brought accessible learning to nearly every corner of a given city, but from what I hear the quality of instruction is perhaps not keeping up. I hope that going forward we continue to make a commitment to teach our blind and low vision students the techniques and give them the tools they need for success. I think this will require finding instructors who are truly passionate for the job, and also for those older blind folks who have gone through the system to be willing to go back and help our younger peers (yes, I’m talking mostly to myself here!) But as I sharpen my skills, I do plan to find some substantive way to give back.

Because I believe that someday we’ll see blind folk powering innovation, heading companies like Apple and Google, and perhaps running for President of the United States. We must continue to dream big, and hope that the ADA at 50 will have far surpassed anything we could imagine.

Today’s Tidbit

Well ok, it’s more like yesterday’s, but it relates to the ADA. The strip of restaurants we have over near my apartment complex seem to have been built specifically to comply with the ADA, I guess because they’re located so close to Duke University. This is a great thing, but it makes life, well, interesting for a blind person. All of the doors have long handles that are mounted in a straight up and down position. They also have a bit of carpeting just inside of the door, and seem to exhibit exactly the same acoustic characteristics.

This means inevitably, I must ask “Where am I?” when I manage to get someone’s attention. And in many cases, I have not entered my intended restaurant. This isn’t a problem really, as the cashier or some such individual will just tell me how many more doors to go down, but it does amuse me.

Actually though, I wonder what a person in a wheelchair makes of those restaurants? Yeah I suppose the doors are a bit easier to open, but most of the registers are located way towards the back. I know for me, this means a confusing navigation through tables and people, especially when the place is crowded. I think they just show the degree of challenge involved in creating a building that can successfully meet everyone’s needs. But this is definitely no reason to not keep trying!

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