California School for the Blind

We Are Family

I’ve already been told that this title isn’t original, that it’s the title of a very popular song.  When I decided that I wanted to use this title for  my presentation my presentation to you this morning, I had no idea that a song had beaten me to this phrase.  After all, I only listen to music by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, or maybe the Weavers.  So the title stays.

We ARE family.  A school for the blind functions as a small town.  We have our own security, transportation, health service, food service, educational services, and residential services.  We have our own groundskeepers, we even have a mayor, who, in your case is Stuart Wittenstein.  Think about this concept.  A wall ten feet tall and three feet thick could be built around CSB, and it would continue to exist as a small town.  And those early schools, many more than 100 years old, did exist with real or imaginary walls around them.

At TSBVI, about five times a year, we have two days of New Employee Orientation.  Sometimes the organizers even allowed me to speak.  And this is what I said.  We are all here for one primary purpose—to enhance the education of blind and visually impaired children.  That is your charge, whether you mow the grass, maintain the buildings,  cook and serve meals, drive vehicles, teach children, provide residential services, or serve in whatever capacity.  Once more, you may arrive at work and get on a lawn mower because that’s what you do every day to enhance the education and lives of blind and visually impaired children.  I want to emphasize how important those of you who do not provide direct service are to the vital functioning of CSB.

Sometimes direct service staff get a little carried away with their importance.  So, you teachers and residential staff need to remember what it takes to make a small town thrive.  Over the years, I’ve learned a very important lesson.  The maintenance worker with expert skills in carpentry may realize that his or her expertise will be called upon by the direct service staff for the benefit of children.  And he will do what you ask.  But he doesn’t want you to stifle his expertise in carpentry.  Yes, he is there to enhance the education of children, but he is also there because he brings special skill of his occupation to CSB.  Our challenge is to acknowledge both views and balance them.  If you, the teacher, views the maintenance worker as being there to meet your classroom needs as you define them, then are you really acknowledging the expertise of the carpenter?  Would it be okay to say, “What I want is more shelf space on the wall of my classroom.  What ideas do you have for doing this?”

My friends and colleagues, it is a very fine dividing line that we walk.  Often direct service staff believe that everything revolves around them and that other departments, such a health center, operations, business, etc., exist simply to serve them.  I urge you to re-think your relationships, if you need to, and realize that the custodian, the food service worker, the maintenance worker, and others, share in your desire to make CSB the best learning environment for blind and visually impaired students.  And you support staff, please believe that requests made by teachers and residential staff always have the best interests of students first.


I was in the Bay Area awhile back, and I had a chance to visit at length with my oldest grandchild, 21-year-old Melissa, a beautiful young lady who is a senior at St. Mary’s College.  Melissa is very interested in social concerns, and wants to get her MA in some area of gender differences.  I encouraged her to learn about many aspects of human service, that the most rewarding dimension of life can be assisting others to explore their status in society and in their culture.  Melissa then asked me why I do what I do.  Now, I’ve never had a child or a grandchild ask me that question, and I was silent for a few seconds.

Then I said, “Melissa, I have a vision.  I’ve been carrying this vision around with me for almost 50 years.  It’s what drives me—what makes me get up in the morning, what inspires me, what makes me passionate, why I am a life-long learner.  And this is my vision:  I envision a day when equality and dignity for all blind and visually impaired persons is an accepted fact, not a conscious effort.”  Melissa sighed and sadly said, “Opa, this is never going to happen.  There’s too much hate in the world.  People have too many reasons to perpetuate a caste society, because if they can’t believe they’re better than someone else, they believe they have nothing”.  And she wasn’t done.  Melissa went on to say something like this:  “Opa, Jesus explained the ideal world in such a simple way.  So many ‘religious’ people believe that being a Christian is really, really hard, requiring a life of sacrifice and temptation and condemnation of others in this world so their place in heaven can be assured.  But that isn’t what Jesus said.  He said ‘Love yourself, love God, and love your neighbor’.  What a simple recipe for life.  And if we all lived it, then your vision would very quickly become a reality”.  How did a 21-year-old girl become so wise??

I will never, ever give up my vision.  I now realize that my job is to move the vision forward just a bit, but to know and accept the fact that I’m not going to live to see the day when it’s realized.  Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to see the attainment of equal rights for women, but she certainly moved us forward.  Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t live to see the day of equal rights for African-Americans.  But consider what he did to move the vision forward!!

Learning from the Past

            It warms my heart more than I can express to look out at this audience and see so many new, young faces.  You are the future of a profession that I so passionately love.  You are the future of the next generation of blind and visually impaired children who need you so desperately!  Yet, I wonder how much you know about this profession you  have joined.  Its history over the past 50 years is a magnificent testimony to leaders who had vision.  To know and respect where we have come over the past half-century is to better realize what you can accomplish.

            This was our profession in 1955:

  • There was no orientation and mobility profession

  • Visually impaired children with additional disabilities were denied educational services

  • Legal definitions of blindness and partial sight were used to determine educational services

  • Legally blind children were all taught Braille; “partially sighted” children were taught print

  • Educational programs for these two populations were entirely separate—in the East Bay, partially sighted were served in Oakland, blind children in Berkeley

  • Inclusive education for blind and visually impaired students was just beginning, but the fact that it was beginning meant that we were the pioneers in inclusive education

  • Volunteer transcribers were what made inclusive education work—we had no technology other than the revolutionary Perkins Brailler

  • Schools for the blind were fighting to maintain their leadership in the education of blind and visually impaired students—a fight they were destined to lose

  • No collaboration between schools for the blind and local school programs—in fact, there was competition, suspicion, and open hostility

  • Preparation of teachers for blind and visually impaired children was available in only four universities

  • the prevailing philosophy was that visually impaired children had the same needs as their sighted peers—no more, no less.  The teacher for the visually impaired was a materials provider and an academic tutor for children integrated into regular classrooms.   Blind children were described as being the same as seeing children, except that they couldn’t see.

  • the successfully integrated blind child was considered well-served by her classroom teacher—the teacher for the visually impaired was a support service.

  • optometrists were considered potentially dangerous because they were not trained to diagnose medical problems.  All parents of children with visual impairments were referred to ophthalmologists.

  • children were not provided with optical aids until they were in adolescence.

  • it was believed that stimulation of low vision would lead to further vision loss.

  • we were exclusively curriculum adapters, not curriculum developers.

  • we did not teach social skills because we thought they would be learned by placing the child with a visual impairment in the presence of sighted children.

  • we did not serve visually impaired children with additional disabilities.

If this description of our profession in the 1950s doesn’t shock you, you must be on another planet!

A generation of leaders in the latter half of the 20th  century brought us:

  • the reality that vision cannot be harmed by using it.  In fact, vision utilization can be increased by a carefully designed program of vision stimulation.

  • the legal definition of blindness is of limited use when determining educational services. 

  • optometrists are among our most respected colleagues. 

  • optical aids can and should be introduced as soon as it is determined by a low vision specialist and the teacher that they will be of assistance.

  • we have become a profession of curriculum developers.

  • we know how to provide essential services to visually impaired children with additional disabilities.

  • a new profession called “Orientation and Mobility” was born

  • carefully planned educational programs in local public schools for blind and visually impaired children could be very successful if appropriate support services were available

  • a chronic shortage of teachers could be partially solved by assisting a number of universities in developing teacher preparation programs

perfected local school programs, and went beyond the definitions of resource room and itinerant services

  • re-defined schools for the blind, and assisted them in becoming partners in a true continuum of service delivery

  • defined and promoted the expanded core curriculum

  • brought to teachers, parents, and students the National Agenda

  • promoted the use of effective technology, both for children and for adults

  • entered a brave new world of multiple ways to prepare teachers

  • fought the “cookie-cutter” approach of inclusion zealots, and have been successful in promoting the best services for blind and visually impaired students

  • recognized that some “sacred cows” needed to go away, such as a total commitment to contracted Braille

  • acknowledged that sometimes curriculum adapted from that which sighted students use was not appropriate, and we became developers of curriculum

These are the many accomplishments of our past and present leaders.  But there is much more to be done, and you, the younger generation must carry on the tradition of constant, dynamic growth in our profession.  Do I dare to share with you my dreams for your generation?  Yes, I do, and here they are:

  • further refine the use of educational placements so that all children receive services appropriate to their needs.   We must not continue to sacrifice literacy for inclusion.  Integrity, professional honesty, and ethics must always prevail over what may seem politically correct

  • consider ways in which teachers and parents can impact the unacceptably high rate of unemployment among blind persons, and acknowledge that education owns a part of the problem

  • aggressively address the issues of services to blind children, ages 0-5, and of parent education and advocacy

  • apply national best practices in education to every individual state.  It is not acceptable that one state has high standards for instructional services, while a neighboring state has no standards.

  • assure that every student be assessed, and receive instruction in all areas of the expanded core curriculum

  • solve the chronic problem of teacher shortage.  It is not acceptable to tell a parent that there is no teacher of the visually impaired, or no certified orientation and mobility specialist, available to meet the child’s needs.

  • bring the size of caseloads down to a reasonable level

  • continue to illustrate to the rest of the educational world that we are the most creative, child-centered, passionate professionals in all the world.

You in the audience, in your first year of teaching, are you ready to pick up the challenge of meeting my Vision?  I happen to believe that you are, for this profession draws a unique, special group of people, and my observations over the years is that all of you are ready to receive the baton and move forward.


I’d like to share with you my most recent thoughts about schools for the blind and their role in the education of blind and visually impaired children.  Some of you will think that this is no different than now; others will say “This is what we have been advocating for years”.  I am suggesting what may, on the surface seem like a very minor adjustment in services for students, but I can assure you that this recommendation constitutes a very major change.

Several years ago a parent of a visually impaired child called me, and this is basically what she said.  “I have chosen the local school for my child.  I want him at home, and I want him educated with his peers from the neighborhood.  However, I know that my local school district cannot meet all the educational needs of my child.  So I want your school to enter into a partnership with my local district.  I want you to mutually decide which system will better meet specific educational needs of my child, and I want you to provide the opportunity for my child to move back and forth, as needed, between the school for the blind and the local district”.

This parent stopped me in my tracks, and I have thought often about that conversation over the years.  However, I did nothing about it.  Then recently a friend of mine at another school for the blind called me.  He said that he had read the lead article in JVIB written by several authors, about the abysmal job done in local school districts with regard to the expanded core curriculum.  He suggested to me that the solution to delivering this curriculum to all students might be for local districts and schools for the blind to enter into contracts to serve the same children.  The more I thought about this, and my years-old conversation with the parent, the more excited I have become about the potential for a new model. 

Why not, instead of either/or, as represented by the local schools and the residential schools, adopt the concept of “both”?  Why not really look hard at what is good about each placement, and make both available to all children, as their needs indicate?   Many teachers of visually impaired students in the local schools go to their workplace every day with a heavy decision to make: what to teach today.  Do I support my student in academic subjects so that she can be as successful as possible in her inclusive setting?  Do I consult with his daily service providers so that they understand his needs?  Or do I let everything go, and teach my daily living skills curriculum, regardless of what may be going on in her regular classroom?  I am suggesting to our profession that the solution to having time to teach the expanded core curriculum is to form partnerships with schools for the blind.  In order to do this effectively, we will have to develop a level of trust and honesty with one another that I fear doesn’t exist today.

I fear we have been settling for something less than excellence.  I have often told parents that, when they opt for local school placement, knowing that the itinerant teacher for the visually impaired will be at their child’s school only an hour every week, they have made a trade-off.  They have decided that having their child at home full-time, that having her go to her local school, is a higher priority than having their child learn to read.  What I want is for the local district to tell the parents this, too.  All too often, the local district will suggest that their child will learn to read and write Braille with one hour a week of instruction.  This is being intellectually dishonest with parents, and I am asking that local school districts stop doing this and admit their shortcomings in meeting some of the intensive needs of blind and visually impaired students.

This need for honesty includes both local districts and schools for the blind.  Schools for the blind cannot offer education with sighted peers.  Schools for the blind constantly run the risk of accepting behavior that would not be condoned in general society.  Schools for the blind also run the risk of not maintaining high standards for students.  So, you see, those of us in schools for the blind must clean up our act before we approach local school districts with the concept of sharing.

Local schools must admit to what they cannot do.  Local schools must stop using teacher assistants in place of teachers.  Local schools must either accept responsibility for, and necessity of, teaching the expanded core curriculum or consider the use of schools for the blind for this.  Local schools must work harder to develop strong self-esteem in blind and visually impaired students.  And, perhaps most damaging is the prevailing opinion among many parents and educators that a school for the blind is the placement of last resort.

In my opinion, a major flaw in our philosophy and approach to education for blind and visually impaired students is that there is one system that has primary responsibility for the education of each child.  I am suggesting that we abandon this position, and explore how we might better meet all the needs of every individual child by having two systems share primary responsibility for the child.  Consider the load taken off teachers of visually impaired in local districts, especially with regard to the expanded core curriculum.  Think of the advantages to many, many children in making available to them the expertise of the staff at schools for the blind.  Likewise, think of the advantages that local school education offers to students who might otherwise be destined to spend all of their school years at a school for the blind.  So you see, such a partnership will need to work both ways.  Every child should be able to access the benefits of both her local school and her regional school for the blind.  Of course, there will be students for whom continuous attendance at a school for the blind will be most appropriate, and there will be students who spend their entire educational lives attending their local school.

My fervent hope for the future is that all decisions regarding delivery of educational services to blind and visually impaired students will consist of informed decisions made mutually by parents, local districts, and schools for the blind.  Can you imagine a meeting of these representatives of a child, all informed advocates, where short- and long-term decisions will be made regarding placement?  As soon as appropriate, the student himself will join this team, and together this group will plan her future education.

If educational trends were seen as a pendulum, imagine it being stuck high on one side of its arc during the days when schools for the blind were the only placement option available.  Then came the amazing success of local school programs.  Well, the pendulum didn’t stop in the middle, it swung to a high position on the opposite side.

By the 1980s, many schools began to change their programs and their relationships with parents and local schools, and these schools began to complement the services of local schools, almost always at the request of the parents or the local school district.  The pendulum dropped a few notches.  Soon outreach programs, summer school, and short term programs offered another way in which schools for the blind were able to assist children and their local districts.  Down toward the middle swung the pendulum.

But you see, the pendulum is not on center yet.  Too many in our profession assume that placement of the blind child in the local school program is highly preferred to placement at a school for the blind.  Why should that be?  There are unproven statements about the difficulty children have in re-entering “society” if they spend too long at a school for the blind.   I have often invited my colleagues to provide me proof of this, provide me data to support this supposition.  There is an assumption that the bond with family members will be loosened or completely untied by prolonged time at a school for the blind.  I have found that not to be true among the countless children and parents with whom I have worked. 

So what will it take to bring the pendulum to the middle?  How will we develop a system of education that recognizes the validity and contributions that both local schools and schools for the blind have to offer?  Remember how long women’s suffrage has taken?  Remember how long civil rights and equality for all ethnic and racial minorities has taken?  Remember the ongoing efforts of gays and lesbians for recognition as equal, worthwhile citizens?   But those who firmly believe in these causes and have a burning passion for making a difference—those who believe that we can truly become a society in which every citizen is equal—these brave and committed people have never faltered in their dream.  To accomplish the kind of change I envision will be equally difficult, frustrating, heartbreaking, rewarding, exciting, and worthwhile.

I envision a day when teachers and administrators from local school districts, together with parents, will sit at the table with representatives of schools for the blind.  I envision a time when such a meeting will not generate any defensiveness, suspicion, hostility, or territoriality.  I envision a time when neither local schools nor residential schools will “own” a child.  Instead, the family will “own” the child, and the two educational systems will work together, as equal partners, to provide the very best educational program for every individual child.  Should we settle for any less?


  1. You live and work in California’s Bay Area.  There are many people in the country who believe that this is one of the most desirable places to live.  And just think, you’re already here!

  1. You have a job.  At least for today.  Some of you may not have had one yesterday, and it’s possible that some of you won’t have one tomorrow (by your own choice, of course).  The point is, not everyone has a job, and so you are blessed.

  1. You have a job that promises satisfaction and fulfillment.  This school is a very special place, a place that makes a profound difference in the lives of children.  I hope that every one of you, regardless of your job, can go home at the end of a hard day and think to yourself “I have made a difference”.  And that means the same, whether you teach, you repair buildings, you mow the lawn, or you administer meds.

  1. You have the privilege and honor to be with blind and visually impaired children and young people.  You are a school, and that means you have students.  They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and other characteristics.  In fact, each student is unique.  Isn’t that wonderful?

  1. You have parents of CSB students.  Because you have students, we also have parents and other family members of these students.  Once in awhile, parents become angry or disappointed in you.  Some parents don’t seem to care much about what you do.  But most parents dearly love their children, and express that love by becoming involved with you in the education of their children.

  1. You have one another.  Look around you.  Aren’t you about as lucky as anyone you know?  Aren’t you truly blessed?

  1. This is an honest and safe place to work.  There are lots of places you could work where your bosses and fellow workers are only interested in their own welfare, and how they can beat the system.  That’s not true here.  You have a common cause, and you work for that cause.  This is a safe place.  This is a safe place for you, regardless of gender, ethnicity or race, disability, or sexual orientation.  You honor, value, and respect everyone.  And if you don’t you’d better leave.

  1. You have a right to a bad day.  Not every day is going to light your fire, make you proud, or give you a deep sense of satisfaction.  Some days are just crummy—nothing seems to go right, your karma is wrong, you feel tired and irritable.  I have those days and so do you.  We just have to work our way through them, knowing that tomorrow is going to be better.  And, as a friend recently told me, don’t worry about the world coming to an end tomorrow.  It’s already tomorrow in Australia.

  1. You should not have to deal with a whole bunch of bad days.  When one bad day blends into another, then another, then something’s wrong.  You need to look inward for causes, perhaps your spiritual life.  You need to find the strength and determination to do something about that internal thing that is causing you bad days.  If it’s external, like your job, then examine that and your attitude toward what you’re doing.  You may want to talk to your supervisor or manager if you find that your job no longer gives you satisfaction, pleasure, or enjoyment.  I don’t wish for any of you a whole bunch of bad days.  If necessary, you can work together to end that kind of life.

  1. You have an administration that encourages and supports us.   But I know this school and its administrative system.  Only when you step way out of line do you endanger encouragement and support.   I’m certain that Stuart and his administrators try to do the same thing with those they supervise.  And so it goes throughout your system, leading me to believe that every one of you feel valued and supported.

  1.  You have a State Department of Education that supports us.   You are truly blessed by a State Department that believes in what you do, and works very hard to support the work of all of you.

  1.  You are encouraged to think creatively, to problem-solve in unique ways.   If you don’t feel blessed in this way, I ask that you talk with your supervisor.  When I am asked why TSBVI has evolved into the truly great school it is, I respond by saying that it is the staff that makes this place great, and the staff are urged to think out-of-the-box and creatively.

  1.  Individually, you are unique people with special skills, and you have been called to practice those skills in a special place.  Each of you came to this school with special skills—what a blessing for the students and the school.  When you went to work here, you committed to using those special skills for the benefit of  CSB. This blesses all of you.

  1. Collectively, you are one of  the best, schools for the blind in the U.S., perhaps in the world.  That’s what happens when you bring the individual, specialized talents of all of you together into one huge, gigantic effort.  So, individually you are unique and bring special skills to this place of work.  What a blessing!  Collectively, you blend your talents in ways that make you the envy of every school for the blind in the country, and yes, perhaps the world. 

  1.  You must continue to nurture yourselves and one another.  None of you can put your heart and energy into this job without feeling renewed and nurtured by the very work you do.  But if you are going to be good at what you do, you must nurture yourselves in ways far removed from your jobs.  How do you take care of yourself?  How do you renew yourself?  How blessed you are to have the time to take care of yourselves so that you can take care of your jobs.

And yes, you are nurtured by one another.  How often, when you are having one of those rare “bad days” have you turned to a fellow employee and said I need some support and care today?  Perhaps those are not the words you used, but that is what you meant.  Over and over again, I have seen employees at TSBVI reach out to fellow employees, and the message I hear is “I am here for you”.


- Phil Hatlen, speech given at the California School for the Blind to staff at staff development meeting on Friday, August 24, 2007


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