From the Associate Editor: The following article is reprinted from the Spring/Summer, 1992, issue of The Blind Educator, the publication of the National Association of Blind Educators, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. The piece was originally an address delivered at the annual meeting of the NABE, which took place at the 1991 NFB convention. Tom Ley was a 1987 National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner, and he has been an active member of the organization and a leader in the Louisiana affiliate and the student division. Here is what he has to say about teaching high school math:
Last year, when I attended this NABE meeting, I was looking for my first job as a teacher. I was very busy, and it paid off because I did get a job teaching high school math.
I grew up as a sighted kid and always wanted to be a football player. At least, I wanted this career until I was ten or so. Due to diabetes, I started to become blind during my last year of high school. It took about ten months to go from having twenty-twenty vision to being totally blind. During that year I went through many of the experiences other people have who are losing their sight. My grades started going down, and I made a trip to the college I had chosen in order to learn my way around the campus while I still had some sight. At that time I did not know about the National Federation of the Blind. Therefore, I did a lot of suffering: I was falling down stairs, and I could not read room numbers. I did not know that blind persons have alternative ways of solving such problems.
I had wanted to be an electrical engineer. When I went blind, my father looked in a reference book, where he found a list of jobs the book's author presumed a blind person could do. Among the jobs was electrical engineering. I had been blind for only a few months, and I did not know any blind people. I thought I was very lucky that I could continue in my chosen career.
After high school I got some training in the skills of blindness. In Arkansas I was taught how to use a very short cane and learned to read Braille, and then I came back to Louisiana and enrolled in college.
I really enjoyed my course work at Louisiana Tech, and I was doing rather well. But I did not have enough of the skills of blindness, so I was having to study twice as much as the other students. For that reason I had no social life. I knew how to use a cane, but I had no confidence. I simply went from my dorm to my classes and hoped I would never wander down the wrong path.
At that point I thought I was very fortunate to have a sister attending the same institution. She would take me to the cafeteria and make sure I got my food and found a table. Little did I know at that time that blind persons were effeciently doing all these tasks and many more.
I was very lucky because my university is in the town of Ruston. At about that time the Louisiana Center for the Blind was opening. Joanne Wilson, Director of the Center, found me and took me to a state convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana. At that convention I saw a lot of normal blind people. If you took away their blindness and the alternative techniques they used, you would consider them just average folks. These blind people were doing things that normal people do. When I was with them, I knew that they had something I wanted. At that point I decided that I needed the special training which I had not been offered previously.
At about that same time I began realizing that maybe engineering was not what I really wanted to do. I was looking at the engineering jobs my classmates were getting, and I noticed that they lacked the human interaction I wanted. I like to be an impact person. I like to get in there and cause combustion. I had always enjoyed teaching, doing tutoring when I was in high school. The idea struck me that I would like to be a teacher. But I had never heard of a high school math teacher who was blind. I thought it was out of the question. I wanted to be just like the high school math teachers I had had, and I did not want to teach at a school for the blind. There is nothing wrong with teaching at a blind school, but I wanted to be right in the mainstream. At first I did not think I could really do the job. I figured that I could do some of the tasks, but not all, and I did not think anyone would hire me.
I started at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 1988. I had attended my first National Convention in 1987, where I was a scholarship winner. I attended my first National Association of Blind Educators meeting that year. I went around and talked to blind educators. They were employed, so they told me how they accomplished their tasks. They gave me the confidence to believe that, if they could teach, I could too. At the Louisiana Center I acquired personal confidence, undoubtedly the most important characteristic of all. Until that time I had never had it. I had seen it in other blind people, and I knew that it might be mine, maybe in the future. But because I acquired confidence at that Center, I knew that I could teach. I learned that my blindness is just another part of me as is my height or my being right-handed. Blindness is no longer something which overwhelms me or predominates in my life. It is not the defining factor in my personality.
I enrolled in the department of education at Louisiana Tech. There were no open complaints to my entering; however, the professors let it be known in subtle ways that they had doubts about my ability. I paid no attention to them. I worked my way through the courses and did just fine. Of course, I knew that because of federal law they could not deny my entrance. Because I did not question my ability to become a math teacher, my confidence was projected to all my professors.
The blind person simply has to go into those departments of education and tell the professors what the score really is. One simply has to take charge. As time went on, my professors decided that blindness was no big deal, for I was doing everything all the other students were doing.
When my master teacher for student teaching learned that a blind student was assigned to him, he was convinced that it would not work. But I showed him that he was wrong. I completed my student teaching and was looking for a job. I was very happy when I got my resumes just like all the other job seekers. But I can tell you all that I would not have gotten anywhere without my confidence, which came from the NFB and the members of the National Association of Blind Educators. I also learned from reading articles in The Blind Educator.
Several times this year my principal has said that she has never hired a teacher with so much confidence. Since I am the first blind teacher in this area of my state, the news reporters came out to see what was going on. I got great support from my administrator. I cannot repeat too many times that it was my confidence which got me the job. But confidence comes from good training and positive attitudes about blindness. You have to have good cane technique and Braille skills. Also you must communicate with other confident blind teachers to get ideas and techniques. If you do not believe in yourself as a blind person, you cannot project a confidence you do not possess. It would be unfortunate if you could. If, lacking the skills of blindness (including self-confidence), you got a job, you would never survive in the classroom.
My first year of teaching was challenging, exciting, interesting, and fun. There were a lot of sleepless nights and hard work. Grades and papers must be turned in on time. If grades are due today, no teacher can expect to get extra time. The skills I use in the classroom are basic. My high-tech equipment consists of a slate and stylus, a tape recorder, and masking tape. I put the tape on the boards for writing in straight lines. When it came to putting up a graph, I made a grid using my tape and my cane to insure I made the lines straight. I have a computer at home for keeping grades and making tests.
I have the duties of a full-time teacher, including chaperoning the prom. I work selling popcorn at the basketball games and fix the broken popcorn machine too. I am comfortable doing all this, and I know that this is all part of teaching. I received all the skills that helped me get my job from the National Federation of the Blind. I'm excited to be in this organization. Recently I had a chance to talk to a physics teacher, who has been teaching a long time, but who will be starting his first year as a blind teacher next fall. We all help each other. Together we can demonstrate that, given training and opportunity, blind people can compete successfully in all areas of education.
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