The Freedom to Read, the Right to Read

Issue:

Literacy education for children and youth who are blind or living with vision loss in Canada

Statement:

CNIB believes that all children have the right to literacy instruction and to be as literate as their sighted peers.

Preamble:

There is a crisis in Canada regarding literacy education for children who are blind or living with vision loss. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNICEF Education Agenda and the Canadian Coalition on the Rights of the Child, require us as a nation to provide an appropriate education in the most enabling environment.

CNIB is concerned that Canada is not meeting this requirement for children who are blind or living with vision loss. In response, CNIB commissioned a study on the status of literacy education for these children and has prepared this position statement. The goal is legislation to guarantee children’s freedom to read, write and learn.

THE CNIB POSITION:

CNIB believes that:

  1. All children have the right to literacy instruction and to be as literate as their sighted peers. They deserve the same standards of education and have the right to: be taught to read and write; to have freedom of full access to information and knowledge from textbooks, journal articles, the Internet, written forms of communication, fiction and non-fiction literature, and other forms of written media and to library services that are accessible and support their education and information needs.

    Public policy must assure and guarantee the practices and procedures in the field of education and alternative format media production, and provide appropriate levels of funding. At minimum, education legislation should guarantee the basic literacy skills for Canadians who are blind and living with vision loss, assure the same standards and quality of education for children who are blind and living with vision loss as for their sighted peers; and hold accountable those publicly funded institutions for ensuring that these standards of literacy are met.

  2. These standards are under threat for Canadians who are blind and living with vision loss because of the continued decline in the use of Braille by school-age children who are blind; the limited access to large-print materials for students with low vision; the limited access to specialized literacy materials, aids and instruction for those with additional disabilities; and the deterioration of literacy skills in general among students who are blind or living with vision loss.

  3. Partnerships are key to children’s success in achieving access to literacy instruction. All stakeholders, including community agencies, educators, government, and of course, families, have a role to play.

  4. Therefore, the governments of Canada must cooperate in a major study to assess the impact of education strategies on literacy amongst children and youth who are blind or living with vision loss.

This position statement adheres to The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. In addition UNICEF’s Education Agenda, acknowledges the need for “supporting special measures to ensure that none are excluded from learning and that quality education reaches every child regardless of gender, class, race, religion, ethnicity, disability and location” (UNICEF, 2000, p. 17).

The Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, the Canadian body responsible for monitoring Canada’s progress on the international convention, reports that children with disabilities, along with Aboriginal children, abused and neglected children, and refugee children, are still particularly vulnerable to rights abuses (Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, 1999). The Coalition continues to say that the supports and services needed by Canadian children with disabilities are considered a ‘privilege,’ not an entitlement, and that “the right to appropriate education in the most enabling environment is NOT guaranteed” (CCRC, 1999, p.4).

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Based on sound research of the status of literacy access of Canadian children and youth (MacCuspie, 2002), we make the following statements of need:

1. A Canadian voice for the education of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

The Issues

  • Given the low incidence of vision loss and blindness among school-age children, the heterogeneity of the population, the level of expertise required to address their educational needs, and the scarcity of resources, school board employees are sometimes uncertain of the programs and services needed by their students who are blind or living with vision loss.
  • There is current information that Aboriginal children with vision loss living on remote reserves are sometimes kept at home and not sent to school at all.

CNIB Position

Ministries of Education must establish:

  • Guidelines and standards of practice for the delivery of appropriate, high-quality educational programs to all children and youth who are blind or living with vision loss, including those with additional disabilities;
  • Terminology that is consistent and common to all provinces and territories;
  • Teacher preparation facilities to ensure an adequate number of qualified teachers;
  • Shared information and expertise relevant to the field;
  • Advocacy for equality of educational opportunity for students who are blind or living with vision loss;
  • Identification of important research needs; and
  • A process to catalogue and distribute all materials being produced in alternative formats for educational use, and to monitor the access to equitable services throughout the country.

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2. Preschool children have equal access to appropriate emergent literacy materials and skills.

The Issues

Preschool sighted children develop literacy from a very early age. Because they have complete vision, there is huge exposure to the concept of symbolism, the first building block in early childhood literacy. Extremely young children learn what the giant yellow M means long before they can sing the entire alphabet, and probably well before the parents would prefer!

Children with vision loss are blocked in their vision-based emergent literacy development. The teaching of emergent literacy skills must be encouraged by service providers, and appropriate materials must be made available for the 2-5 age group. Parents must be provided with both the materials and the skills and ideas so that they can implement simple emergent literacy programs in their homes. These kinds of programs must be made accessible to parents without undo hardship or cost, for parents are the primary teachers of all children in this age group, and parents of children who are blind must be supported so they can provide the appropriate literacy education.

Emergent literacy development is a building block for later development of literacy skills.

CNIB Position

Providers of early childhood intervention and preschool education, must make a high priority of emergent literacy skill development in their family support and early intervention programs.

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3. A determination of the appropriate learning media for students who are blind or living with vision loss.

The Issue

Determining the learning media to be used by children who are blind or living with vision loss is influenced by a lack of resources, administrative preferences, or convenience, rather than based upon the results of a comprehensive assessment of the student’s strengths and needs.

CNIB Position

Students who are blind or living with vision loss must receive a learning media assessment prior to the initiation of formal literacy instruction in order to make an informed decision of the learning media to be used. Assessment must be ongoing, and learning media decisions should be re-evaluated on a yearly basis or more frequently if decisions are tentative or problems arise.

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4. Emphasis on the importance of braille literacy for those who would use braille.

The Issue

Literature indicates that the decline of the use of braille by students who are blind or living with vision loss is a result of technological advancements, the inclusion of students in the public school system, and/or the shortage of qualified teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss (MacCuspie, 2002).

CNIB Position

When assessment results indicate a potential benefit, the option of learning braille in order to access literacy instruction must be available to all children who are blind or living with vision loss. Braille provides efficient access to information and a process for both reading and writing. It is the only reading and writing system recognized by UNESCO for people who are blind.

CNIB believes it is a mistake to presume that any other technology is a substitute for the literacy skills provided by braille. In addition to the acquisition of basic literacy, braille provides readers with the opportunity to function independently in their activities of everyday life, employment, recreational reading, and communication with others.

Braille is considered an integral part of educational programming for students who cannot access print efficiently, and is an equally effective and valued medium in supporting the acquisition of literacy skills. Braille must be accurate and conform to CBA standards.

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5. Equal access to specialized instruction for children with low vision who use print.

The Issue

Because the unique learning needs of children with vision loss are often misunderstood or unidentified, children who use print as their primary medium for literacy instruction, or who have a specified level of visual acuity, are sometimes denied specialized teaching services available to children who use braille.

CNIB Position

Children with vision loss who use print as their primary learning medium must not be denied specialized teaching services available to children who use braille, and must receive the same individualized instruction from a qualified teacher of students who are blind or living with vision loss as do students who use braille or braille and print simultaneously. The type of services and the frequency of direct instruction must be determined only through assessment of the student’s learning needs and performance.

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6. Access to literacy instruction for students who are blind or living with vision loss with additional disabilities.

The Issue

Children who are blind or living with vision loss with additional disabilities are often considered incapable of developing literacy, and are not always provided with formal instruction, particularly in braille, to promote the development of literacy skills. Children with these multiple disabilities are often not “counted” as having vision loss.

CNIB Position

A broadened concept of literacy must be adopted to address the assessed needs of students who are blind or living with vision loss with additional disabilities. The importance of literacy instruction for these students, including basic and/or functional literacy, must be promoted and understood among parents, educators and administrators. Such instruction must become an expectation of their educational programming.

Children who are blind or living with vision loss with additional disabilities must be counted for the purposes of statistics, funding, and access to specialized services, including literacy instruction, from teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

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7. Literacy instruction programs for (school-aged) children and youth must be designed and delivered by qualified teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss. Families of preschool children should be encouraged to involve their children in programs that promote literacy at an early age.

The Issue

Children who are blind or living with vision loss, including those with additional disabilities, are sometimes denied the probability of reaching their maximum literacy potential, because they do not have access to direct instruction from a qualified teacher of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

CNIB Position

All children who are blind or living with vision loss should be considered to be at risk for development of literacy skills. These children, their parents, and their teachers should receive support to promote development of literacy through the use of all sensory channels, from a qualified teacher of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

For school-aged students who would use braille as their primary learning medium, CNIB strongly supports the standards for teachers of braille reading and writing established by the Canadian Braille Authority. The standards state that teachers of braille reading and writing must:

  • hold at least a bachelor’s degree;
  • have basic teacher certification in any area of education;
  • hold qualifications as a teacher of students with vision loss;
  • have completed university coursework on basic methods of teaching reading;
  • have completed university coursework focusing on the literary braille code; and
  • have completed university coursework focusing on teaching braille reading and writing.

For students who would use large print as their primary learning medium, CNIB strongly supports the specialized services of a qualified teacher of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

For students with vision loss with additional disabilities, CNIB strongly supports the specialized consultation services of a qualified teacher of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

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8. Frequency of Specialized Instruction

The Issue

Children who are blind or living with vision loss sometimes do not receive the frequency or intensity of literacy instruction by a qualified teacher of students who are blind or living with vision loss, to ensure they reach their maximum literacy potential.

CNIB Position

Children who are sighted are usually actively involved in literacy development activities for a significant portion of their school day. For students who are blind or living with vision loss, significant accommodations and additional formal instruction are often required to ensure the timely development of literacy skills. Intensive, individualized literacy instruction must be provided during the early elementary grades for all students who are blind or living with vision loss. The need for continuing support and instruction focused on the development of literacy skills must continue to be determined through annual assessment of the student’s needs and performance.

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9. Access to literacy materials and programs.

The Issue

Children who are blind or living with vision loss sometimes have a limited selection of literacy materials, or have limited access to the literacy programming materials available to their classmates.

CNIB Position

Children who use braille as their primary learning medium, and those who use braille in addition to print, must have access to the same literacy programs, materials and resources as do their classmates who are sighted. Children who require large- print materials must be able to receive them in a timely fashion.

Classrooms and libraries in schools where students who are blind or living with vision loss are enrolled should maintain a broad selection of age-appropriate literature and selections at the reading level of the student. Literacy materials used with beginning readers must be interesting, varied, and formatted to accommodate the physical and intellectual interests of the young child.

Older students need to have written materials provided in the medium of their choice to ensure they have the opportunity to expand and practice literacy skills. CNIB strongly supports legislative mandates requiring publishers to provide access to electronic versions of all materials sold to schools, to ensure students who use alternate formats have access to new resources at the same time as their classmates who are sighted.

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10. Access to Assistive Technology

The Issue

Students who are blind or living with vision loss sometimes do not receive timely instruction in the use of assistive technology that supports the development of literacy skills, or they have access to assistive technology only when in school. Children and youth who would benefit from optical devices to access print often go without, whether because of a resistance to using them, a lack of resources, or lack of a low vision assessment to recommend the devices.

CNIB Position

Children who are blind or living with vision loss should be assessed to determine the assistive technology and technical aids that will best support their development of literacy skills. The use of assistive technology and technical aids should be monitored and reassessed on an annual basis. Assistive technology and technical aids should be available both in the home and at school, to give the student full access and sufficient opportunity to practice newly acquired skills.

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11. Parent Involvement in Literacy Issues

The Issue

Parents sometimes feel reluctant to take an active role in educational decisions relevant to their child’s literacy instruction.

CNIB Position

Parents must be an active partner in supporting their child’s development of literacy, and in the identification and choice of learning media. As an integral member of the multidisciplinary team, parents must be provided with access to appropriate information and training that will encourage their active and meaningful participation in educational decisions. Parents must be continually supported to feel a part of the team planning process.

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12. Provincial evaluation of the literacy performance of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

The Issue

In most provinces, students who are blind or living with vision loss are excluded from standardized testing of literacy skills, currently available to other students.

CNIB Position

The Departments of Education in Canadian provinces and territories must initiate a specific assessment process to determine the level of literacy being achieved by students who are blind or living with vision loss. The results of such evaluations should be used to guide educators in the improvement of literacy instruction, and to identify existing problems that can be addressed in a timely fashion.

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13. Increased availability and education of teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

The Issue

Across Canada, there is a shortage of qualified teachers for students who are blind or living with vision loss, and there is a continuing need to provide professional development opportunities to ensure that existing teachers maintain their level of expertise, and are informed of new information and skills.

CNIB Position

There is an urgent need to increase the number of qualified teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss in Canada. We can no longer ignore the needs of children in rural areas, children with vision loss who receive limited, if any services, or braille readers who must receive their literacy instruction from paraprofessionals.

As well, participation in professional development must be considered compulsory for current teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss. Continuing education to acquire expertise in the use of learning media assessment tools and procedures, the implications of various approaches to literacy instruction for students who are blind or living with vision loss, the most effective use of assistive technology in developing literacy skills, and the complex literacy needs of students with additional disabilities must be mandatory.

Teachers need to participate in routine refresher courses to maintain and upgrade skills in areas such as braille, Nemeth code, assistive technology, and the use of optical devices (technical aids). Several new teacher preparation faculties must be established across Canada, to develop and deliver supportive resources for the promotion of literacy among students who are blind or living with vision loss.

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14. Caseload assignments for teachers of students who are blind or living with vision loss.

The Issue

Itinerant teachers for students who are blind or living with vision loss are sometimes assigned caseloads based solely on available resources in a school board, but they do not consider the location and distance to the students’ schools, or factors that are based on the students’ assessed needs.

CNIB Position

The caseloads assigned to teachers of students who are blind or or living with vision loss should be determined by using a formal caseload analysis that considers the needs of the students, the direct instruction required for each student, preparation time, travel time, related duties such as classroom teacher and parent consultation, organizational and administrative responsibilities, and time for participation in continuing professional development. School boards must employ an adequate number of qualified teachers to address the assessed needs of the students in a given area.

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15. Evidence-based research on the status of literacy education, and the development of measurable standards to measure new initiatives, must occur.

The Issue

While the CNIB discussion paper (MacCuspie, 2002) included an extensive review of the literature, and a strong set of qualitative interviews with concerned Canadian stakeholders, it did not provide the evidence for the shortage of specialized teachers, for the shortage of students in qualifying programs for teachers, or for the standards of the number of hours of literacy instruction required versus the number of hours received by students.

CNIB Position

A study must be commissioned by Canadian governments, to discover the actual numbers of qualified teachers available, the number required, the number of students receiving direct instruction, the number of hours received, the level of qualification of the instructors providing the instruction. Many other related research questions might be included in such a study.

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Conclusion:

This position statement is only a start. As we noted earlier, children’s rights and education have been on the world agenda for several years. CNIB urges policy makers, administrators, educators, community leaders, and parents to make a commitment to support access to literacy education for Canadian children and youth who are blind or living with vision loss, as outlined in this position statement.

The following publications were used in preparation for this position statement:

  • Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children (1999). The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: How does Canada measure up?. Ottawa: Canadian Coalition on the Rights of the Child.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (2000). Education for all, no excuses. New York: UNICEF, Division of Communications.
  • Valentine (2001). Enabling citizenship: Full inclusion of children with disabilities and their parents. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2001.

Released: June 2003