PERSONAL COMMENTS AND AN OVERVIEW
For nearly seven years now I have been covering stories and writing about blindness issues and the problems of blind people for the Braille Monitor. Almost without exception the most personally painful of these have been the scandals at some of the nation's most prominent residential schools for the blind. The first was the repeated abuse and ultimate death by scalding of a multiply-handicapped blind child at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (March, 1989). Then came the series of shoddy practices uncovered at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (February, 1990). Most recently there were the spankings of staff and students at the Arkansas School for the Blind, underscored by the fact that Superintendent Leonard Ogburn did not even contest the truth of the charges.
Both the distress and the anger many of us have felt at learning about such events arises from the very innocence and helplessness of the young victims of the outrages. And when instead of articulating similar outrage and absolute refusal to countenance such behavior, school officials attempt to hide it or explain it away, the patience of decent people snaps. The school personnel caught in these scandals seem bewildered by the outcry and furious that their mistakes and lapses in judgment could (as they see it) have been so badly misconstrued and misunderstood.
They assure us that there have always been unpleasant problems at residential schools and that it is nearly impossible to hire conscientious, responsible staff members today at the low wages necessitated by tight budgets. There is undoubtedly some truth to both these statements. Few people would be naive enough to suppose that the incidents at the headline-making schools are the only problems that have occurred at the nation's residential schools in recent years.
In fact, the Ohio State School for the Blind felt compelled to fire a teacher last summer when officials learned that a number of young women students had accused him of trapping one in a storage closet and inappropriately fondling all of them and bringing the lower part of his torso into firm contact with various portions of their bodies. This alleged behavior had continued over a number of years; but when it became known, the school moved as quickly as possible to distance itself from the teacher and his alleged actions and to do what it could to bring him to justice. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the blind community in Ohio, when the case came to trial, the teacher was found not guilty of the charges by a jury which had apparently been persuaded by the defense attorney's argument that blind students require closer and more intimate contact by their teachers in order to feel affirmed and accepted. An attempt is now afoot to force the school to rehire the teacher, but the school seems to be doing what it can to resist this effort. The point of this digression is to illustrate that, even though fallible human beings will continue to engage in morally reprehensible acts, many residential school officials are capable of demonstrating courage, of insisting that justice be done, and of working to protect their students.
Now, yet another residential school for the blind is in the spotlight. This issue of the Monitor is devoted in large part to examining some of the deeply distressing incidents that have been reported to have occurred during almost two decades at the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired (ISVI). The reports have been painful and disturbing to research and difficult to write. They will undoubtedly be distressing to read as well. We must resist the temptation to write off the Illinois School as an evil place in which unspeakable things have happened to innocent disabled children. There are dedicated, compassionate members of the ISVI staff, some of whom have risked their jobs to talk with the Braille Monitor about what has happened. There are parents who are living through the nightmare of trying to help children who have been damaged by experiences of which they had had no knowledge. And there are blind children who continue to need a sound and healthy residential school in which to learn. There is plenty of blame and bad judgment to go around, and though some of those responsible have already lost their jobs, many close to the situation believe that a number of the people responsible for the suffering and cover-ups that have gone on for years are still employed and are still exerting pressure to keep their subordinates silent.
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