American Association of Blind Teachers

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The following article originally appeared on the
Cain Able News Features and Releases
web site, which is hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also see a 1977 documentary, A Blind Teacher in a Public School,
which was part of David Ticchi's doctoral thesis. It was his personal contribution, he writes in the thesis, "to the struggle for enlightenment in the area of the blind as public school teachers of the sighted." It ran on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

Lory Hough

They didn't have to take him. When David Ticchi's parents approached school administrators at the West Bridgewater Elementary School about enrolling their six-year-old son, the administrators legally could have said no. It was 1951, and there were no laws on the books saying the town had to accept a blind child -- or any disabled child for that matter.

There was, of course, some resistance and concern. But his parents pushed, says Ticchi, Ed.M.'69, C.A.S.'71, Ed.D.'76, in part because the only other option was to send him to the Perkins School for the Blind, located almost 40 miles to the north, just outside of Boston.

"I would have had to board there, which my parents didn't want," says Ticchi, who was born legally blind with limited vision -- he could see some light and vague shapes. His parents wanted their son at home, plus he was another helping hand on their small farm.

Their pushing worked: Ticchi enrolled that fall in the town's four-room schoolhouse. At times, he admits, it was difficult. Recorded lessons were still in their infancy -- reading David Copperfield involved listening to 42 thick records, he says. He also didn't learn Braille, a language system of raised dots, until he was a teenager. (Someone had convinced his parents that it was passť, so he had to rely on teachers and other students to read to him during elementary and middle school.) Occasionally, kids would tease him. When he got older, he couldn't drive a car like the other students. At dances it was hard to get around.

But something important also happened: Ticchi's teachers set the academic bar as high for him as they did for every other student. He says that if he got three wrong on a test, he got three wrong. According to the National Association of Special Education Teachers, this was unusual. At the time, the few disabled students mainstreamed in public schools -- no matter what their disability, physical or learning -- were usually nudged toward manual work like bead stringing or weaving, not academics.

As a result, Ticchi got something from his public school that every child deserves: a great education.

It would be more than two decades before other disabled students would legally get the same chance.

Much of the credit goes to parents, at least initially. Around the time that Ticchi started school, a parents' rights movement was starting to build in America, writes Joseph Shapiro in No Pity, his book about disabilities and civil rights.

"As more children survived disability, more parents sought to keep them from being institutionalized," he writes. Parents started key advocacy groups like the United Cerebral Palsy Association in 1948 and the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1950. Parents also began lobbying Congress, which created the Bureau of Education of the Handicapped in 1966. A few years later, the bureau started providing funds for the training of special education teachers.

Other factors contributed to the rise in rights for disabled students. By the late 1950s, for example, Denmark was integrating students with disabilities into the broader community. "This represented a significant shift in societal attitudes toward people with disabilities," says Stephen Luke, Ed.D.'03, director of the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. "The spirit of this approach soon resonated across Europe and the United States." Also critical, Luke says, was the passage of several landmark civil rights acts in the United States during the 1960s, which, while not specifically for the disabled, actually made it illegal to discriminate against certain groups.

And then two pieces of legislation forever changed education and disability rights in America. The first was a provision that was quietly tacked on to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 saying it was against the law for groups receiving federal funds to discriminate against anyone "solely by reason of . . . handicap." Known as Section 504, the wording in the provision "clearly was copied straight out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ruled out discrimination in federal programs on the basis of race, color, or national origin," writes Shapiro in No Pity. Surprisingly, there were no hearings held on this provision and it received little fanfare -- at least at first.

"Members of Congress were either unaware of it or considered it 'little more than a platitude' for a sympathetic group,'" Shapiro writes, quoting sociologist Richard Scotch, who later studied the legislation. It didn't take long, however, for politicians to realize the significance of what had just happened, especially when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) estimated that compliance with the provision would cost billions. When signing of the bill was delayed, protests erupted, including a sit-in at the regional HEW office in San Francisco that garnered national media coverage.

Then in 1975, a second bill called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), or Public Law 94-142, was enacted. Where Section 504 was broad, protecting postal workers and highway construction crews as well as students and teachers, EHS was the first federal law that explicitly stated that children with disabilities aged 5 to 21 were entitled to receive a free, appropriate education. (Eleven years later, an amendment expanded the legislation to cover children aged 0 to 5.)

Professor Judith Singer, in a 1985 piece in Education Week marking the bill's 10th anniversary, called it "a handicapped children's Bill of Rights." Shapiro says it was the disability movement's "equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education." And Luke says it was this act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA) that made it clear that all students mattered.

"This legislation really stands out as the game-changer for children with disabilities," he says. "Prior to 1975, children with disabilities were commonly excluded from public schools." Many states even had laws prohibiting children with disabilities from public schools, he says. "With the passage of EHA, public schools were now mandated to provide a 'free and appropriate public education' with the ultimate goal of preparing students for positive postsecondary outcomes such as employment or postsecondary education."

Several provisions in the law, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, were key, says Luke. One states that education has to be provided in the "least restrictive environment" -- that is, in regular classrooms, as much as possible. It was no longer enough for a school to isolate disabled students in special ed classes or pay to have a disabled child educated elsewhere.

Another provision also hugely expanded parental rights. Parents got to see their children's records, for example, and became equal partners with the school staff in creating a written blueprint for their child called an Individualized Education Program, commonly referred to as an IEP. Included in the IEP would be an extensive evaluation and a set of measurable goals. Due process also allowed parents the right to appeal any decision.

Advocates hailed the legislation, despite potential price tag concerns. According to a 2000 policy paper by the Brookings Institution, early supporters believed the number of students requiring extensive, and expensive, special needs services would be low and that "the financial impact on regular education would be slight." The law originally said the federal government would pay schools' excess special education costs at 40 percent of the national average per pupil. The fiscal year 2011 budget called for funding at 17 percent.

Back in 1975, the country was in a recession and the fiscally conservative President Gerald Ford made his ambivalence about the bill clear during the signing ceremony. "Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the federal government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains," Ford said. "Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic."

After the law was enacted, an estimated 1 million children who previously had not been in school were enrolled.

By this time, David Ticchi was a grown man. He knew about the legislation and supported it, of course: "To be able to advocate for yourself, you have to have a knowing intellect," he says. "I've tried to pay attention."

But he also knew from experience that getting legislation passed was one thing: The bigger hurdle was changing attitudes. As Harvard Law School professor Martha Field said at a disabilities panel discussion held at the Ed School in the spring, "Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that once the law is passed, it's all right."

Growing up, Ticchi never really thought of himself as different. "I'm a person and blindness is a characteristic," he says. "We're all made up of certain characteristics, but it's not all of who I am." And his parents expected as much from him as they did his older sister, who is not blind.

"Growing up on the farm was a real blessing for me," Ticchi says. "Parents have expectations for any kid -- keep your room neat, set the table. Not only did I have to do those things, but I was also expected to contribute on the farm. Every day we had to feed the chickens, shovel manure, collect the eggs. It made me feel good about myself that I was contributing, but also that I was competent."

The farm also served as his first teacher. "We had a thousand chickens and we counted the eggs every day," he says. There was even a blind chicken that he coveted. "By the time I was in the first grade, I knew how to add, subtract, and divide. I grew up in an environment where my parents expected much of me and now I expect much of myself."

But when he was about to graduate from high school, he got his first real inkling that not everyone had such high hopes for him. Although his teachers had supported his intellect, a counselor assigned to him by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind told him and his family that they could set him up with a fruit stand in the subway in Boston as a solid, lifelong profession."They never mentioned a word about college," Ticchi says, nor any other options. He ignored their advice and earned a bachelor's in economics cum laude from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. -- a real feat, says his close friend and dormmate, Chris Matthews. "Holy Cross was a tough school," says the host of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, who would read textbooks to Ticchi. "There was no grade inflation. You had to work for your grades." At Harvard, Ticchi earned both a master's and a doctorate from the Ed School and on December 17, 1969 -- he still recalls the date by heart -- he became one of the first certified teachers in Massachusetts who was blind.

But again, even those huge accomplishments weren't enough when he started applying for teaching slots. He was blind. No one wanted to take a chance on him. "I don't know how many resumes I sent out. And it wasn't as easy as it is now," he says. "Back then, you had to type out every envelope, make copies, put on the stamps. . . . "

When he applied for jobs, he didn't, of course, say in his cover letters that he was blind. And by then it was illegal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to discriminate in hiring on the basis of blindness.

"I knew in many cases that they'd be surprised by the white cane," he says. He could usually tell by actions if the interviewer was interested or not: If he or she leaned forward during the discussion, something Ticchi could sense, it was a good sign. If the door to the office remained open after Ticchi sat down, it wasn't. "I also knew that if the subject of blindness didn't come up, I wouldn't be considered for the job. It's normal to have questions."

Eventually, in 1971 -- almost two years after he became certified -- one principal gave him his chance. Van Seasholes, head of Day Junior High School in Newton, Mass., knew Ticchi from his time student teaching at the school. Seasholes never doubted Ticchi could do the job, even when his superiors questioned the hire.

"That's how a good system works," says Seasholes, now semiretired. "You have confidence in the people that are there. I knew Dave would figure out a way. Education has missed a lot of that -- having confidence in people." And Ticchi did figure it out. He had students write on the blackboard. A personal reader would help him grade papers and tests. He earned the respect of the students.

"Kids have to respect a teacher," he says. "And you don't have to have 20/20 vision to be respected." Today, nearly four decades after he first started teaching, he says people still ask if his students cheated. "Oh sure," he says, but he's convinced that some kids would have cheated no matter how acute the teacher's vision. "Cheating was alive and well long before there were blind teachers." Over time, he created a classroom culture based on the honor system that worked. "To this day, when I meet former students, they still talk about this."

After six years at the school, Ticchi took a 10-year hiatus from teaching to work for a subsidiary of Xerox. The company had just come out with an optical scan system that digitized data and turned it into speech, primarily for the blind, but also for others with disabilities. The inventor, Raymond Kurzweil, lived in Newton at the time and recruited Ticchi.

Eventually he missed the students and returned to the classroom, this time to Newton North High School, one of the city's two high schools, where he now runs their alternative school-to-career program. Jim Marini, the person who hired Ticchi for the program, says that some staff had initial concerns that troubled students would try to take advantage of a teacher who is blind. But, as he predicted, "The students loved him," says Marini, now interim superintendent of Newton Public Schools. "Kids really recognized that David wasn't a blind person. He was a person of substance."

It was one example, says Ticchi, of adults -- not the students -- questioning his ability to teach effectively. He remembers another, earlier experience when Seasholes asked him into his office. A parent had called with concerns about her son having a blind teacher. Seasholes backed him up, telling the parent that he had 100 percent confidence in Ticchi or he wouldn't have hired him. He also told her that her son would probably have an experience he'd never forget.

"I felt we were lucky to have him," Seasholes says. "I would never have jeopardized the kids. I hired another blind teacher later at Newton South High School but had to let him go. He didn't have it with the kids. Dave always did."

When talking about this time in his life and career, Ticchi, who also oversees the ethics program as a special assistant to the president of the Legal Sea Foods Corporation, gets misty. "When someone is behind you like that, you'd run through a wall for them," he says, "with or without a helmet."

When Ticchi was first learning to read and write, he did it the same way the other students were learning, despite the fact that is was a hard process. (He had to use large-sized print and a big magnifying glass.) "I'd get very close, so it was really slow going," he says. Taking notes in class was extremely tedious. "If there was anything I would change, it would be that I learned Braille earlier. It's critical. There's a crisis today in Braille literacy. There's a shortage of teachers and a misconception that technology will replace it." Many blind students today rely on MP3 players, audiobooks, and computer software.

Ticchi points to current employment rates for the blind as good reason to utilize all methods of learning -- technology and Braille. "The unemployment rate is about 70 percent for blind people. It's outrageously high," he says. "Of the remaining 30 percent who are employed, nearly 90 percent are Braille readers."

Although his little four-room schoolhouse in West Bridgewater is gone, the legacy of what a quality public education offered [David Ticchi] is clear, as shown in a letter written in 1973 by one of his junior high students to a superintendent in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in support of a teacher who lost his vision and then his job: "Maybe if we give people a chance, they just might jump out and shock us. Never after seven years of elementary school have I ever had the most respect for a teacher. I do admit I liked all my teachers and tried to be a good student, but never did I test myself for loyalty and truth as I do this year. Most of the people that got Mr. Ticchi, our English teacher, who is blind, thought how easy it would be to chew gum, sneak in when you're late for class, etc. But they soon found out they always got caught. We soon grew to know and to respect Mr. Ticchi as a teacher and a human being."

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