University of Edinburgh

The Education of Blind and Visually Impaired Children: Personal Conduct, National Standards and Global Forces.

Presentation to the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment
Sao Paulo, Brazil - 3-8 August, 1997.


The confusion of the concepts of "competence" and "worth" and the use of the term "integration" have retarded the concept of educating blind and visually impaired children for "citizenship" in its widest sense which will require partnerships with many kinds of expertise outside the field of visual impairment. The relationship between national educational standards and personal conduct are explored and put into the context of global economic and technological developments.

The trouble with being blind is that one ends up taking it for granted; as most other people do the exact opposite, and behave as if blindness is the only personal attribute worth talking about, to downplay its importance and, by degrees, to minimise its effects on one's life, is a natural reaction to what can only be described as chronic harassment; and the more intelligent one is, the more one is expected - and in the end the more one expects oneself - to play down the consequences. So, whenever I am asked what being blind means, I tend to reduce it to a list of deprivations: "I can't drive, see pretty women in the street or watch cricket" would be a good, summary of the way I downplay the issue. I could add, though it would be boring for me and my listener, that judging the mix of breakfast cereal and milk, using shoe polish, clearing up broken glass and a host of other daily episodes are a source of interminable nuisance and that, as I get older and as, in consequence, my concentration more frequently lapses whereas my responsibilities increase, I find independent mobility increasingly stressful, particularly since an incident when I came within inches of being seriously injured, or even killed.

What we noble 'ambassadors of the blind', have fatally confused is competence and worth and so we have perpetuated the view which formed us, that what counts is functional competence which will, in time, establish our social worth. There is some merit in this case if only of the negative sort which emphasises the importance of avoiding the faux pas or a display of ignorance concerning trivial things which could, at a stroke, wreck a carefully constructed edifice of erudition and sophistication; but what I want to concentrate on in this presentation are the negative results of this confusion between competence and worth and to suggest how, by understanding the degree to which blind people are truly deprived, we will be forced by an inexorable logic to re-examine the relationships between personal conduct and national education standards, put these into a global economic and technological context and, as a result, forge partnerships with the world outside the tiny but intense professionalisms of visual impairment.

During our lifetime, no matter where we live, no matter what stage of development we have reached, we have seen the steady acceptance of a number of key ideas which have influenced the development of special education: the first is the acceptance that an efficient and growing economy requires an educational programme administered by the public sector; the second is that, as a matter of principle at least, all children, including those with special needs, should be educated; and the third is that the education provided should follow a recognised set of formulae, some concerning industrialisation, some commenting on culture - I include religion in that general term - and some reflecting political agendas. Within this broad framework the education of blind and visually impaired children has operated but with a certain dependence for its legitimacy on altruism, on the recognition that there will be many children with special needs who will not produce an economic return, will not contribute to, and might not even benefit from, any cultural transactions and who will never be politically useful or significant. That altruism - or, to put it another way, that assigning of value to learning and self expression regardless of utility - has occupied a situation of varying importance alongside the more utilitarian justifications for education but I do not think there is any serious doubt that the main motivators of public sector education programmes are economic well-being, cultural stability and, in some cases, political acquiescence.

On the whole, those concerned with blindness and visual impairment have "played the game" - and it will emerge later that I really mean "game", as opposed to reality - by making heroic gestures - and I mean "gestures" - in the direction of economic utilitarianism. How often have I heard advocates explaining to hard pressed Ministers of Education that the justification for meeting special needs is that those who receive this more expensive form of education will make more than a balancing return to the economy in the future; and, incidentally, how often have I seen those hard pressed Ministers, some facing appalling population explosions and a consequential falling GDP per capita, smile with a kindly scepticism and sanction expenditure on grounds of pure altruism. A brief glance at the employment statistics for graduates of special education for the blind and visually impaired of any country you care to name will show the hollowness of the claim and justify ministerial scepticism; and meanwhile in the real world of unemployment and under-employment, these high school graduates with paper qualifications and fixed smiles, facing a level of intrusive questioning by members of the public which would not be allowed in a police station without the presence of a lawyer, still get ignored while their guide dogs are petted, still get stuffed into airless ground floor bedrooms next to the hotel kitchen even though most of them live in dwellings with stairs and still, in short, suffer under an immense burden of stereotyping and trivialising.

The sad conclusion must be that we have failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered during the era of unprecedented public sector support for education in general and special education in particular; we have failed to establish the proper apprehension and comprehension of and interaction with impairment within the context of universal, or an aspiration to, universal education. In my own country - almost incredible to grasp - during the height of public sector support for special education, undreamed of before and unlikely to recur in our lifetime, its educational establishment waged a cynical, self-interested war from the fastnesses of its special schools against the education of blind and visually impaired children in standard schools which was not settled by the arguments of those in favour of this approach but was settled by the very clear perception - following the Yom Kipur War and the subsequent rise in the price of oil and the still faint glimmering of economic globalisation with its impact on high taxation regimes - that the cost of special education in an age of declining altruism would have to fall. The erroneously termed "integration" - erroneous because you don't need to integrate what you have not segregated - had the twin virtues of being cheaper - though of course, operated correctly it might be even more expensive - than residential education and it was ideologically acceptable to those, now out of power, who had been the chief advocates of high public expenditure. What could be better than the combination of economy and political correctness? The United Kingdom is not an isolated example in this respect; everywhere, whether from the general pressure of economic globalisation or its more specific manifestations in World Bank Structural Adjustment, European Union convergence criteria, or North America Free Trade Area labour market pressures, per capita public expenditure is falling.

So, if we failed to deliver appropriately equipped blind and visually impaired school leavers in the most favourable political, economic and cultural conditions there have ever been for such an enterprise, what should we do now with all three factors beginning to work against us?

First of all - and I recognise that this is an extremely difficult task at a world conference - we have to get our language right. Secondly, we need a realistic analysis of the range of transactions which those in our care can undertake with their sighted peers, remembering that the word "range" deliberately implies limits; and, finally, we need to recognise, once that range has been defined, that no matter how gifted we are as professionals, individually and collectively, what we have to offer is too narrow to maximise that range and then make it a reality for our pupils.

What does our language tell us about ourselves? It tells us, above all else, about our social imagination; we cannot express what we cannot imagine. It also tells us about our restraints - or, in extreme form, our taboos - which allow us to operate a social structure that does not self-destruct. On the whole, as commonplace language makers we are much more aware of the second than the first and this is why, I think, we have been very careful over time to moderate our language as it affects disability; we have learned to distinguish between an impairment, a disability and a handicap and this has been a useful set of distinctions but we have also learned to euphemise to the extent that it is virtually impossible to use the word "blind" of a totally blind person without causing acute embarrassment and I will later go on to show that this has been responsible for leading to a false minimising of the affect of the impairment on the range of social transactions available to the impaired. In the meantime, let me return to the more imaginative aspect of language. We have given ourselves away with the motif of our adult professional lives; "integration". We should have known better; the word is inextricably tied up with the racial politics of the United States of America where 'liberals' aspired to people of different races attending the same schools, working in the same businesses and living in the same neighbourhoods. This, it was recognised, would involve a physical movement from states of apartness - what was known in South Africa as "apartheid" - to states of mingling but this is clearly a false parallel. Admittedly, racial minorities and impaired people carry the common burden of majority prejudice but, with the exception of some comparatively rare diseases and socio-ecological phenomena such as xerophthalmia and onchocerciasis, blindness and visual impairment do not cluster; the children who are born with visual impairments - even if there is a socio-economic bias which means there is an inverse ratio between concentration and family income - are born scattered throughout communities. If such children are "segregated", thus requiring "integration" then it is their own families and communities who segregate them, not external, majoritarian oppression. Rights legislation is important but in the very act of pressing for it we are stressing a commonality amongst the beneficiaries as well as between them and everybody else; nobody here would ascribe to defectology but our language of "integration" gives us away all the same because the word carries with it a number of connotations which make it a bad starting point for any conceptual framework for maximising the social transactions of those who are impaired. The word chain runs thus:

  • "integration" implies a state of affairs where some entity is apart from another entity;
  • the entity which needs to be "integrated into" another entity is the smaller of the two and is, therefore, a minority which in turn places a numerical value on a group of people rather than recognising intrinsic value;
  • "minority" implies, particularly if it requires to be "integrated" that it is "segregated" and therefore suffers from a state of victimhood which can only be alleviated by the enactment of "rights" which, no matter how socially justified, requires a "concession" which in turn, finally, requires the external manufacture of a social process;

And that, in summary, is what actually did happen in the United States of America in an attempt to achieve justice between the races. There are so many levels on which this approach can be said to have succeeded and failed that I won't draw any conclusion about it as a model for socio-political reform but as an approach to the development of blind and visually impaired people it is clearly absurd; and we recognise it as absurd; nobody in this room would deal with the social consequences of blindness in the way that we attempt to deal with the social consequences of racial intolerance; so why the commonality of language? Is it not, perhaps, because, in the end, we, as professionals, are more comfortable with common characteristics, a dash of victimhood, a cause to be fought for, a constructive, measurable "progressive agenda" a sense of having achieved something difficult? We are perilously close to military metaphors, of fighting the people we want to convince.

What sort of language, then, would you use to describe a strategy which aims to maximise the range and depth of the social transactions undertaken by a heterogeneous group of people afflicted by a variety of syndromes which cause a superficially identifiable cluster of impairments within a society where the range and depth of the social transactions of everyone is limited by impairment, application, opportunity or lack of imagination? This must be, surely, a language which leans more to Aristotle's notion of the whole being more than the sum of its parts rather than Plato's concept of the archetype and the inevitable imperfection of each of us. It is a language which emphasises how we all differ rather than dividing society into two sub-sets, one major, one minor, which need to be integrated; it is a language of equal worth but different capacities, a language, even without political constitution, of citizenship - however that is defined in a given culture - and it is a language which does not equate worth with independence of action nor, incidentally, with the sum total of our capacities to undertake social transactions; and it is, above all, the language of inter-dependence which is the bedrock of self-interested, as opposed either to selfish or altruistic, citizenship based on social co-operation.

The kind of words which come to mind in this language are: interaction, negotiation, co-operation, contribution; we are dealing, after all, as I have said, with people widely scattered within their respective families and communities. I might add "realism", too, which isn't, as I will come on to show, the same thing as pessimism. My aspiration, for what it is worth, is to be accorded equal concern and respect as my peers and to be allowed as fair an opportunity to contribute to and benefit from the advantages of social co-operation as my peers. We should stop talking about "integration" and, whatever the cultural nuances of the term may be, we should, instead, talk about "citizenship".

Although I have, since I became socially interactive, recognised the severe disadvantage of first, visual impairment and later, after an irreversible deterioration, total blindness, I did not fully realise the extent of the deprivation until I began, during the course of writing this speech, to re-read Proust which I last read when my use of residual vision, driven by curiosity and intelligence, was at its peak. Even then, there were many aspects of, to name some subjects at random, architecture, heraldry, geology, costume, transport but, perhaps above all else, botany, which were beyond the apprehension of a reader who could only grasp fine detail at a range of four inches and who got a black nose reading newspapers; but what struck me, on re-reading the same work twenty years later, even with what I guess to be, without any means of comparison, a good visual memory, was the acute sense of loss added to the initial deprivation as if I were, like Proust himself, painstakingly weighing up my responses to a given situation over a period of time. Let me, by way of example, quote a passage from C.K. Scott Moncrieff's English translation:

"... the trees continued to live by their own vitality, and when they had no longer any leaves, that vitality gleamed more brightly still from the nap of green velvet that carpeted their trunks, or in the white enamel of the globes of mistletoe that were scattered all the way up to the topmost branches of the poplars, rounded as are the sun and moon in Michaelangelo's 'Creation'. But, forced for so many years now, by a sort of grafting process, to share the life of feminine humanity, they called to my mind the figure of the dryad, the fair worldling, swiftly walking, brightly coloured, whom they sheltered with their branches as she passed beneath them, and obliged to acknowledge, as they themselves acknowledged, the power of the seasons; they recalled to me the happy days when I was young and had faith, when I would hasten eagerly to the spots where masterpieces of female elegance would be incarnate for a few moments beneath the unconscious, accommodating boughs. But the beauty for which the furs and acacias of the Bois de Boulogne made me long, more disquieting in that respect than the chestnuts and lilacs of Trianon which I was going to see, was not fixed somewhere outside myself in the relics of an historical period, in works of art, in a little temple of love at whose door was piled an oblation of Autumn leaves ribbed with gold."

You will be relieved, I think, that I am not going to treat you to an extended analysis of the literary merits, nor even the meaning, of these sentences but I want to use them as a framework on which to lay a structured understanding of the problems we face in the education of visually impaired and blind people.

  • First of all, there are many who will never be able to read;
  • secondly, there will be many who will read without ever grasping the syntax;
  • thirdly, there will be those who can grasp the syntax but whose apprehension of the meaning will be limited because their congenital total blindness robs colour of any but repetitive, ritual significance;
  • then there will be those, with limited vision, who immediately recognise the colouration and may even grasp its symbolic significance but who have widely differing immediate understanding: some will never have been able to see clearly more than a few feet above their own heads and may, therefore, have a clear understanding of tree trunks but only a vague notion of budding leaves; some will grasp fine detail but lack any sense of perspective; some will only function effectively when the sun is out, others when it is in; the variations and what they imply in trips to reference libraries, are endless.

There are then the additional, even more significant, layers of meaning which relate the landscape to the art and both of these to the author's emotions and then, finally, there is the mechanism by which the author's depiction impinges upon our sensibility and, in turn, on our conduct; in other words, what may appear simply to be a piece of narrative prose loses its central force if it does not have an effect on our social transactions.

Now I deliberately chose a relatively simple passage which excludes explicit human activity and its interpretation but it still raises vital questions about how far it is worth making this text live for children with varying degrees of visual impairment compared with many other influences which could be brought to bear on the way they think and live. Counsel for the prosecution would be bound to observe that even a close study of the whole monumental work will only have a marginal, if significant, effect on our sensibilities and consequent actions and that the values it describes and the perceptions it explores might be more didactically presented; that there are simpler ways of presenting aesthetics, of exploring the psyche and developing an imaginative empathy with an historical period; and that, taken as a whole, its likely influence on our sensibilities and behaviour is disproportionately small to justify the effort; but Counsel for the defence would argue that nowhere in literature is there a more precise dissection of the chronic, mundane suffering and indecision which constitutes an element in most of our lives which we have to learn to deal with and which we will deal with much better having seen it so dissected. So the question is not one of pure principle, of an equal right to the enjoyment of literature, but one of establishing a balance of advantage or disadvantage in using the time in this way rather than another and the problem for us, as I have shown, is that that balance varies minutely but perceptibly along a spectrum of propensity from the totally blind child with serious learning disabilities to the highly gifted child with an intelligently driven visual acuity of 6/60.

Against this example we might set the plays of Shakespeare, not so much the comedies which often rely upon an undertow of culturally significant pastoralism but, let us say, the history plays, requiring no sets but merely a few props. Here, most, though not all, of the language is open to clear if not always full interpretation without a grasp of the visual imagery. Counsel for the defence would no doubt argue that such plays deal with real events which can be studied; that the significance of the crown, the shield and the obeisance are readily explicable; that the human emotions are explored in their full breadth and depth; that their ultimate significance is timeless. The prosecution would be bound to respond that the emotions dealt with in such plays are titan, not mundane; that most of us will never be moved by the ambitions and jealousies, nor be so deeply flawed, as the central characters; that the vital element of gesture, even if acted rather than read or heard described, is devalued of its full significance; and that, above all, most blind and visually impaired spectators, protected by their impairment - and often by their environment - from the extremes of emotion, particularly violence, would only receive a paraphrased impression of the drama.

There you have it in a nutshell; Proust's mundane and Shakespeare's titanic preoccupations each present particular problems of apprehension for the blind or visually impaired child which accounts, I think, for the tendency of the general public, who vaguely grasp the extent of these problems without fully understanding them and who, sadly, are often more realistic about their implications than we are, for the intuition that blind people would be best off sticking to music. There is a logic of kindness in this feeling, a sense, I am sure, that nothing matches better the schadenfreude of being alive yet impaired than the simultaneously contradictory emotions which music, above all, can trigger; but music is a consolation and not a substitute for coming to grips with our social world.

Looking back to my Keynote Address at Wurzberg ten years ago, I find that my theme was not very different but that I managed to get through the whole address without mentioning the specific problem presented by the difficulty or impossibility of apprehending the significance of visual imagery but then, in 1987 I was wrapped up in the new and wonderful world of the personal computer which allowed me to edit and correct my own script after years of typing pages of text on a typewriter when the ribbon had stopped turning! Today we are coming to grips with what is often called the "Information Technology" revolution or the "Information Explosion". This is generally shorthand for the development of information processing in universities, offices and factories which has spilled over into the home but this is a dangerously elitist, flawed analysis. the central fact of the information explosion is television. Had I been blind fifty years ago I might have had the newspaper read to me, I might have discussed picture-free novels with my cronies, I would have been on equal terms in enjoying the wireless and I might have been mildly irked and marginally disadvantaged by not being able to see the latest Hollywood musical; but now there is no possible compensation, no possible attainment of parity, with those for whom television is an integral part of their lives. My eroticism is not driven by Madonna, my pity is not excited by Bosnia, my horror is not summoned by acts of bestial violence; my humour is of an ancient sort; I am, in many seriously debilitating ways, other-worldly. My eroticism is strictly limited to my own life experience and has no outlet or motivation in fantasy; my reaction to political crisis is a wish to reduce it to reason and to solutions rather than simply to empathise with it; my grasp of violence is purely theoretical and leads me to misunderstand the society I live in; and my humour lacks nuance, lacks the duplicitous facial expression of the person who says one thing but whose eyes, caught by the camera, are saying something else.

Before going on, I think I should say a few words about the relevance of my message for developing countries. My concerns may seem rather abstract now but I am attempting to look into the next Century and the time for preparation is short. Satellite television, video cassettes and rural/urban drift are already accelerating access to television and film and the hegemony of the sports shoe is alive and well and living in Sao Paulo and Johannesburg, Bombay and Jakarta. This obsession is the pinnacle, or the trough - depending on how you look at it - of global, popular culture but it is already having an effect on what happens in the classroom, and that is what I will turn to next.

Once upon a time children started off with picture books and as they grew older the print grew smaller and more dominant and the pictures steadily decreased until, by the time of graduate studies, there were densely typeset treatises. It isn't a chronology that any child would recognise today; instead, as children grow older there are more rather than fewer pictures, illustrating the key points in every possible subject. Short of locking up all our children in special schools with an almost wholly text-based syllabus, what are we to do?

Before trying to answer that, and many other questions in the second half of this presentation, I want to look at just one more issue. I am glad that the notion that blind and visually impaired people are gravely deprived by a lack of access to body language is now a fashionable commonplace though I see very little evidence of any serious effort to deal with the deprivation or, at the very least, to argue that nothing can be done about it; we still stand like cave-dwellers in the face of a thunderstorm. Without wishing in any way to diminish the problem, it is fair to say that its worst effects have often been mitigated by a certain level of social cohesion and comprehension: stable, suburban communities became accustomed to little Johnny walking unsteadily down the street with his head in the air; a rural settlement learned to cope with the onset of river blindness and to recognise that its ravages were so great that the blind must work if the community was to survive; there was a certain tolerance of socially peculiar behaviour within the protective environment of the sheltered workshop; and there was a set of social attitudes about blindness and visual impairment which, no matter how negative, could be readily learned, accepted, moderated or contested. The globalisation of the media, the hegemony of the image, of the one soccer match watched simultaneously by over a billion people, will not generate a similar cultural melting-pot from which will emerge a set of common attitudes for there are far more powerful forces at work fragmenting communities. In countries with tribal structures the drift to the cities has left people only nominally tribal but actually rootless; in countries with long traditions of stable, family businesses and stable industrial production, globalisation has wrenched the labour market into millions of transient, peripatetic pieces; and that economic liberalism has, too, generated a cult of individual self-expression which far surpasses all but the most extreme of "Romantics". As cultures collide, as labour competes, as worth is economic and as self expression defines the meaning of life how is the person to cope who has difficulties apprehending his own culture, let alone those of others; who is uncompetitive in the labour market; who is, therefore, economically marginal; and who, for these reasons and a host of others is limited in self expression? This is not a caricature nor a stereotype of blind and visually impaired people but all its elements are recognisable in those we teach and those who have left our care. If we are over-awed by the prospect, as we surely are, it is time to summon reinforcements.

Far away, half way up a mountain in a distant land I met nine blind children; each was using a stylus and frame to make copies of a braille text written a generation before by the same implements and as they wrote, copying the mistakes of their predecessors and adding their own, they reminded me of Mediaeval monks who gave their lives to the texts they revered and, in the act of preservation, unwittingly committed countless tiny acts of corruption. At the end of their labours, lasting eight years, eight would leave and the ninth would become the teacher of the next generation. I will never forget the love of the teacher for his students and their work nor the love of the students for their work and him but for me this distilled - of course it did not represent - everything that is wrong with our education system. I was so overcome by the magnitude of the required reform and so respectful of the loving atmosphere that I did something highly unusual; I said nothing and departed in peace; but I knew then that I owed those children and their successors a great debt for my silence then and I am here now to repay it.

Let me start by reverting to citizenship. You will recall that I qualified the term with the phrase "however that is defined within a given culture" so I am not advocating any particular notion of citizenship, democratic, pluralist or Liberal though my inclination is for all three. Looking at the economy of the area where those monk-like boys copied their manuscripts, the requirement for an esoteric, literacy skill was at best marginal; it might conceivably lead to an honourable place in an oral religious tradition but with such a lack of understanding of the human race at large such a religious calling would have been, even for a monastery, perhaps a little too unworldly. There was a small provincial administration in the town which might have provided work for those not only literate but with a grasp of public affairs, even the ability to write stilted letters would have helped; there was a primary school with fifteen teachers trained at the provincial College; there were a handful of shopkeepers, one of whom actually was blind from an unoperated cataract; and there were thousands of small cultivators, owners of livestock and fowls, casual labourers and near slaves; there were thousands without any work at all; and there were the women. I could, of course, have argued that women should be freed from their domestic shackles and that blind girls (of whom I met three) should have been allowed to go to the school and copy manuscripts but it seems to me that the starting point should be altering the educational syllabus for the boys so that they can become citizens within the terms accepted by their culture; to argue about the girls would have been to argue about the terms of citizenship.

We have all, to a certain extent, grasped this in a limited way by agreeing that education should prepare people for life but I am afraid that many of us are not much further on than the school on that faraway mountainside. "Why", I have been forced to ask on every continent "are you doing this?" Whether it has been abnormally high literacy rates or certification rates in residential schools, whether it has been an arid, academic curriculum amidst the sorghum or the maize, whether it has been trigonometry in the cross-fire of a civil war or Alfred Lord Tennyson in a squatters' slum, the answer has had nothing to do with life as understood by the culture in which it has taken place. What we have groped towards is an education for work, which those with a Judaeo/Christian/Marxist inheritance too readily confuse with life.

The underlying problem which we all face and which we must confront is that universal primary education is designed as an adjunct to social learning for the development of general skills which will facilitate improvisation. Very few people entering school will not know what their first job will be, let alone their last; but those boys up that mountain could have been half way to success simply by knowing what their first job would be; for some it ran in families, for many the choices were so limited and the need to work from an early age so pressing that there was hardly a choice at all; but the education they received wasn't an adjunct to their social learning for of that they had been almost totally deprived and they were given no choice. There were, to be sure, jobs in their small town that they could never have done but many which were well within their reach. They might, as the price of their early manual employment, have forfeited literacy but that would have been a small price for the attainment of a respectable citizenship, comprising a steady if lowly job, a wife, children and a say in the counsels of their community.

The more complex society, and the more varied its pursuits, the more important it becomes to acquire a wide range of general, improvisatory skills - reading, writing, counting, thinking, negotiating, resisting, agreeing, managing time and priorities, threatening, cajoling - plus a high concentration of temporary specialist skills which must be abandoned as the market changes. The problem for us is that, when it comes to improvising, blind and visually impaired people have a much more limited range of options; and so we need to look at the way in which they can maximise their improvisation. What is the visually impaired person's equivalent of taxi driving?

The philosophical core of this argument is the curriculum, traditional or modern, national or improvised. Here, fatally, we have confused "doing the same thing" with "being equally effective as" sighted peers; and so there has been a tendency to accept the curriculum and syllabus of the sighted and add on some orientation and mobility and some extra tuition in out-of-school hours, thus reducing invaluable socialisation opportunities. As long as we hang on to this model of instruction those who do succeed will do so in spite of it and not because of it; most children will acquire two-dimensional skills and remain socially marginal because concentration will inevitably be on the first part of my list at the expense of the second; reading, writing and counting are important for many of our children but if they are capable of these three tasks to a level which makes them effective tools then all the more reason for these children to be effective in the second part of my list: thinking, negotiating, resisting, agreeing, managing time and priorities, threatening and cajoling.

This is not a marginal but a central issue because legislated curricula place artificially rigid constraints upon the learning of a fundamentally heterogeneous population. There has been a somewhat surreal debate on this subject in the "Western" world because business, which actually requires thoughtful and proactive employees if it is to maximise the potential and deal with the decision-making consequences of information technology, has been short-sightedly attacking "child-centred" education and promoting "the basics" as a cover for extending the life of the kind of authoritarian, conformist model required by industrial mass production.

We already implicitly accept the truth of this reality by agreeing that there must be special curricular provision for those children with a visual impairment who suffer from such additional impairments as rule out the acquisition of reading, writing and counting to a level where they are useful tools. Some of us at least accept that to try to impose the basic curriculum for "normal" children on these children with very special needs is a piece of sterile egalitarianism. Having said that, having accepted the central tenet of child-centredness in education, I would insert the caveat that much of what I have seen is too unquestioningly based on the fashion for self-expression and does not give a high enough priority to absorbing and interpreting external sources of data which is, after all, a necessary prerequisite for any kind of meaningful self-expression.

Having conceded the point in principle, it is vital to see how far it can be taken in assembling the syllabus of individual blind and visually impaired children. How important is it, for instance, that children who perceive themselves - and are perceived by their peers - to be inferior because of their impairment should be able to socialise effectively and possess some attribute which is negotiable for they are far more likely to be given help where they need it if they can offer some kind of help in return. It may be that one child who reads particularly well can offer that as a skill in return for help in some other area but it is more likely that it will be some other attribute, such as the trained use of memory or enthusiasm for a particular interest that will count; I was never a practicing sportsman myself but I solved innumerable disputes through my unquestioned grasp of records and statistics which gave me something with which to negotiate.

I think if I were to prize one skill above all others for our children in this competitive world it would be negotiation, to know how to ask for help and to have the confidence to limit to what is wanted the help that is offered; but to negotiate you need cards in your hand and a certain style. If it is as important as I think it is, then to have a qualification in teaching with a special certificate in visual impairment and blindness isn't going to be quite enough; so here is my first corps of reinforcements. We need to form a partnership between people who teach and practice negotiating skills and classroom teachers to produce the best results.

My next corps of reinforcements relates to the earlier discussion of coming to grips with the physical environment. One of the more remarkable omissions in most training for teachers destined to work with blind and visually impaired children is tuition in description. Even if I were to ask each of you to describe something as simple and familiar as your own house front, most of you would find it difficult. Indeed, the only time I have ever truly grasped a strange physical environment was when I toured some historic buildings with an engineer who could judge distances and angles, who knew the technical terms for architectural features and who could describe relationships and disjunctures. What we need here is both an improvement in the way our teachers are trained and we need a partnership in this area not just with engineers but also with writers; how much better might Proust have described the significance of a descriptive passage than we could describe it. It is one of those ironies that in the United Kingdom there are so called writers-in-residence in prisons but not in schools where blind and visually impaired children struggle to interact with their environment and their peers. Where verbal skills have to make up for so much else that is lacking - not, as the public thinks by merely better exercising the aural faculty - a general certificate in teacher training with an extra qualification in visual impairment is not enough.

Related to this point, we are all familiar with the traditional drudgery associated with preparing braille and taped text. The new technology is already taking the drudgery out of brailling and recording but what, as I asked earlier, are we to do with all the pictures? What we need to create is a corps of multi-media producers who can make electronic documents from every possible medium so that the author's intention is as nearly as possible conveyed to the reader. In most places in the world our alternative format production systems are bulwarks of tradition, operating in ignorance - or even defiance - of technological development; but whereas there is a profoundly negative problem of comparative disadvantage presented by the gradual replacement of text by pictures, we must make the best use of the positive aspects of technology. Firstly, almost all of us have sorely

under-estimated the importance of commercial television for children with residual vision and we have done so partly out of a moral scruple that demotes television to "vulgar entertainment" although, of course, we watch quite a lot of it ourselves. Allied with cheap video-cassette playback machines, commercial television can be a powerful educational tool but, puritans to the last, we will all stick to our CCTVs, black and white, text dominated, static guardians of our respectability. If we add to television and video, the flexibility of the personal computer, its ability to produce any size and font of modified print, its drawing and erasing facilities, its image enhancement, its multi-media functions and virtual reality, you will see that there is an immense range of possibilities; but getting the best out of computers can't be left to special needs teachers assisted by technicians. As with document producers, we need a whole range of partnerships with journalists, graphic designers, software designers and the television industry itself.

Mentioning the author's intention reminds me of a central philosophical issue which is the distinction between form and content which is vividly raised by new techniques in language teaching where "flash cards" are used to elicit responses from students. If you are unable to see the cards, what can you do? The answer - to take the case of an Englishman learning French - is that if you are totally blind it would be absurd to be asked to identify the "blue house" or even to distinguish between different kinds of blue. To learn descriptive language when one does not have the power to describe is to learn the wrong kind of language; to learn enough language to translate it into one's own tongue may be necessary because, on returning home, an acquaintance might be interested to learn that the Paris buses have been re-painted in a new colour, but the language we use expresses our priorities. It is surely only curricular rigidity that will insist on the "kind of" foreign - or even native - language that we are obliged to learn; just as the language of the nuclear physicist is of little use in a discussion of aesthetics, so the language of visual aesthetics is of little use to the person who has no sight.

Yet I see signs of curricular rigidity over matters of form as well as content. Recently I heard of a case where children must learn their "dictionary and reference" skills from hard copy books in spite of the fact that for children with residual vision it would be much more effective to use CD-ROM technology for searching, magnifying and comprehending.

The basic, underlying problem is that there is not enough time to deliver the standard school curriculum to blind and visually impaired children, plus the many other skills which they need in order to become citizens with the widest and deepest possible set of social skills, without eating into the social time which the acquisition of the latter crucially requires and so we are forced into the admission that key choices have to be made and they have to be made on the basis of the individual child, not because of some wild, individualistic ideology, not because of mindless opposition to state intervention in the curriculum but simply because, as illustrated by the passage from Proust, some children cannot apprehend concepts which most children take for granted and other children can apprehend them but only after an effort which might at the very least be regarded as disproportionate.

The problem with confusing worth and competence is that it has tied us so tightly to a sterile notion of equality that it has become almost impossible to admit that there are things - other than the most absurdly obvious - that blind and visually impaired people cannot do. We have to decide where to put our effort and what we must either down-grade or discard: is the understanding of pain in Proust worth the botanical effort? Is the understanding of violence in Shakespeare a helpful tool in understanding contemporary violence? How much emphasis ought we to place on the nuances of body language which crucially affect the establishment and maintenance of relationships when an individual cannot read a face at a distance of more than a metre? Should we, in this case, explain to the person how important such things are but that to know they are important is as far as we can reasonably go in our instruction because the trigonometry of the pyramid awaits?

These are not arguments to be had by the visual impairment world in stuffy offices with minor officials, they are major issues which should be handled by a partnership of all those who advocate an education system which, at the very least, strikes a compromise between what the state regards as basic requirements and what parents and the peculiar drawbacks and qualities of their children require in order to maximise their own potential and life chances.

There are, essentially three sources for the promotion of a rigid national curriculum:

  • the first is the already noted misplaced commercial belief that obedience is more important than effectiveness;
  • the second is the increasingly competitive nature of education which leads to performance league tables which force schools to transact what can be measured. This tendency, by no means confined to what we call "The west" may well drive blind and visually impaired children out of standard schools; they will either be too expensive, or under-achieve in measurable terms, or both;
  • thirdly, and most important in the context of this presentation, there is now a strange disjuncture between what we say about "style, as opposed to content, and what we actually do about it.

As a profession, faced with a wide variety of children with a very narrow range of competences, we have, perhaps understandably, been obsessed by functionality - the iron rule of climbing stairs and boiling eggs - and yet, in our own lives, whether it is in the way we lay out our Curriculum Vitae when applying for a job, the way we drape fabric when we are pursuing amorous ambitions, the way we conform or differentiate, the way we make statements about our culture and class, how we treat people and expect to be treated, we are all ruled, and consequently obsessed, by matters of style. We might well be humiliated, as the result of a visual impairment, by a lack of commonly held knowledge but I wonder whether it is a worse humiliation to wear the wrong things or be exempted from having to wear the right ones. There is no more cruel forum for the resolution of this question than a classroom of teenage children but that is simply the physical environment where they are brought together and which, by virtue of compulsory education, includes the abused as well as their detractors. Outside the classroom, where all the most significant learning takes place - on the street, in the cafe, on the sports field, in the boutique, in secret places, in ambiguous glances - the best relief from detraction or condescension may be social isolation which cuts children off from all those kinds of learning I have just mentioned; and it is here where we need a partnership with a strong, well equipped but diverse corps of people concerned with sport, fashion, popular culture, sex and drugs education, social interaction, so that our children have a chance as citizens in a world where to be mechanistically competent is not enough.

Is this asking too much of our children and their professionals? Yes, of course it is. As I said earlier, there are many children with whom we work who will never aspire to a range of social interactions as wide as most of their peers; and there are many harassed professionals who find it quite hard enough to teach the statutory basics required by their country; but it is only by emphasising citizenship that the less competent will not be thought to have less worth; and it is only by bringing in allies that we will save ourselves from frenetic incompetence. Basically qualified teachers in standard schools rely upon their pupils to acquire knowledge and skills within their communities which blind and visually impaired children must be taught and it is such a range of knowledge and skills that to seek it outside of the classroom teacher, or even the specialist teacher, is not an admission of failure or incompetence.

Ten years ago, in making the opening Keynote address, I asked us to de-mystify the education process for blind and visually impaired children; five years ago, in a session on the future, I begged us all to throw open the doors to the outside world; this time, I am saying that the metaphor of opening doors is too timid because, in a real sense, there are no doors; and so we must either turn inwards, forming a protective huddle, or we must be brave and enlist the help of those whom we formerly might have seen as predators. Looked at objectively, there is no choice.

KEVIN CAREY is the Editor of the British Journal of Visual Impairment and an expert on the way in which information technology affects the life chances of blind and visually impaired people. He is the Chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) Information Society Advisory Group and the founder Co-ordinator of the Information Technology and Visual Impairment (ITVI) Round Table. He worked for Sight Savers International for 15 years, culminating in five years as its Overseas Director. Born with residual vision, he attended a residential special school before pioneering "integration"; after graduating from Cambridge and Harvard he lost his sight completely. He is the founder Director of Human-IT-y, a global charity focusing on the special opportunities and problems created by the information technology revolution.