Blind Guy

Blind Guy

In our prison, all disabled and special needs students are mainstreamed into the classroom. Individual education plan conferences and case reviews tend to be sporadic and sometimes don’t happen because of the age factor. Legally, if they are over twenty-three, we don’t have to provide the special services we must offer the younger individuals. If they are under twenty-three, we must provide all of these meetings by law.

Generally, it is up to the individual teacher to accommodate each student. The best way to explain this is to give a personal example.

In April 2006, I received a request from a gentleman who was 100% blind to be enrolled in school. My immediate reaction was a bit of fear of anybody I approached with the request. No one, including my supervisor, thought we could accommodate the man’s situation. I thought we had a legal and ethical obligation to offer him services.

I obtained my supervisor’s permission to interview Mr. Edwards to assess the situation and see if we could do anything for him. I established Mr. Edwards had been sighted from birth to age nineteen; a gunshot to his face destroyed his vision. He had completed the tenth grade and seemed eager to learn Braille and earn his GED. My reaction was, “Holy cow, what will I do?”

I accepted Mr. Edwards into my classroom and did extensive research so I could help him. I contacted the state library, obtained a GED program on tape, a tape recorder, and made arrangements for him to sign out talking books and magazines regularly.

I located an NCA-accredited school, the Hadley School for the Blind. Mr. Edwards enrolled in correspondence Braille classes. This free school is an excellent resource for anyone with blindness or poor sight. It even offers courses for people who work with blind people, such as a parent.

A special education teacher eventually provided us with a conference and arranged for Mr. Edwards to take the GED orally. Obtaining a talking calculator and a talking dictionary, along with a few other pieces of helpful equipment was quite a challenge. Eventually, we got them, and he was allowed to take them back and forth to the dorm to study when not in school.

I accumulated three files of forms and documentation, attempting to serve Mr. Edward’s needs. The red tape involved was overwhelming. I spent time speaking to the dorm officers and the prison case managers. Permission was obtained for him to have a key lock rather than a combination lock. He was eventually allowed to carry his tapes, cassette recorder, and materials back and forth.

For the first two weeks, Mr. Edwards was in a wheelchair, so I thought he had a dual disability. I wondered if he had been shot in his spine. I didn’t know quite the situation, but one day, by accident, I realized he could stand up. I expressed surprise when I walked into the room and saw him standing.   He laughed and said, “They make me sit in this wheelchair. Another inmate was assigned to push me over to school because they were afraid I would fall.  I think they’re afraid I’d sue.”

I’m sure the prison officers meant well. They were trying to accommodate him and make sure he was safe, he didn’t fall, and nothing happened to him. But Mr. Edwards was frustrated. He lamented that he already had one disability and really didn’t need to be sitting in a wheelchair. 

We worked it out. We obtained a cane for the blind through the Lion’s Club. And instead of an inmate pushing Mr. Edwards to school in the wheelchair, I convinced the security staff it would be fine if the “wheelchair pusher” walked next to him, guided him to school, and nobody would sue them.

When the administration understood how important it was for the man to be able to walk and not feel like he had another disability, they gladly went along with it. It just took somebody to advocate for Mr. Edwards.

We called the man “blind guy.” It wasn’t meant as a “put down.” It was just a joke, and he even referred to himself by the term. An administrator from the state had once been in my classroom and said, “Can I meet the blind guy?” My response was, “Do you mean Mr. Edwards?” Once, Mr. Edwards needed to write a letter to that same state administrator.  He signed his letter with “Blind Guy.”

When other teachers would see him in the hall, they would say, “Hey, blind guy.” “Blind guy” knew all the teachers by voice and would always say “Hi,” calling each teacher by name.  He was very intelligent and worked very, very hard. It took him about a year, but Mr. Edwards ended up passing the GED test, scoring very high. I was amazed to tell you the truth. It’s beyond me how a man can “write” an essay by dictation. He couldn’t see, but he would tell the tester where to put each punctuation mark. He was an amazing individual! He even learned to type.  I learned more from Mr. Edwards than he learned from me, that’s for sure! 

The situation taught me we need to be proactive.  It is very easy for disabled students like Mr. Edwards to get lost in the shuffle. We need to constantly follow up on our recommendations and be certain all people with special needs get every opportunity available to them. It was a very time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process, but it was very rewarding when I saw the progress and appreciation from Mr. Edwards.

*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest-risk students.