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by David Block, Ardmore, Pennsylvania
If you think that most blind and visually impaired people learn to live independently at a young age, if you think they are always prepared to face the outside world after high school, then talk to Jack Reuben, a teacher at Overbrook School for the Blind (OSB). He will set you straight.
When Reuben began teaching at OSB seven years ago, his perceptions of blind and visually impaired people were not quite so enlightened. "I didn't know how challenging it was to have that kind of disability," said the fully-sighted Reuben. "I just thought, 'You learn braille, go to school, you're just like everybody else.'"
He realized he was wrong. "I was surprised by the high unemployment rate among the blind and visually impaired. It's at 70 percent." He also grasped that many visually-impaired children in public schools don't learn how to live and travel independently. "An itinerant teacher would visit you, bring you large print or braille books." (Some blind and low vision public school students also receive orientation and mobility.) "There's not much beyond that," said Reuben.
Six years ago, Dael Cohen, Overbrook's Coordinator of Transition Services, sought to improve this situation, at least for some students who are enrolled at the Philadelphia school. He implemented an independent living program for OSB high school students, with Reuben serving as a primary instructor. The average number of students enrolled ranges from eight to ten. These students live, eat, and sleep at White Hall, located on OSB's campus. As part of the program's curriculum, students receive intense orientation and mobility training, job coaching, meal planning--they learn to shop for groceries, cook, and budget.
According to Reuben, there are similar programs in Washington state and Texas, but the students in those programs were already living in school dorms. "Our students are moving from being day students to an intensive residential independent living program."
The effects are sometimes dramatic. Reuben recalled one student who seemed independent before the course began, but soon everyone learned the truth. "That student's mother did everything for him. She did his laundry, cleaned his room, made all his doctor appointments for him; she drove him everywhere. He had no idea how to negotiate the world as an adult. We had to teach him how to boil water, how to use a washer and dryer. He eventually learned all those skills."
This year OSB's independent living program will be 24/7 Monday through Thursday, with students going home for a three-day weekend. Reuben explained that, prior to this fall, the Independent Living students had to complete all their work on the same bell schedule as the other OSB pupils. For this school year, all of Reuben's students will have their classes at White Hall, and the school's bell schedule will no longer apply to them. "Now a student can work from, let's say, noon to 9:00 PM," said Reuben. "Before, the students only had to plan and prepare their dinners. Now it's also breakfast and lunch."
Students with further educational ambitions will have the option of taking a college course at Delaware County Community College in addition to their OSB classes. Other changes to the program this year include more staff. Reuben will no longer be the sole person staffing the program. There will be an additional teacher, six supervised para-instructors and a part-time nurse.
Of course, teenagers will be teenagers--blind or sighted. In some ways, Reuben's students are like other teenagers in taking for granted that there is some kind of automatic transition between going to school and having a job. If it works as it is intended to, the newly-expanded Independent Living program at Overbrook will help its students realize that life is about more than just showing up. It's about creating a great first impression and about showing initiative while knowing how to ask for appropriate accommodations--" because they don't always understand that it IS a job to get a job."
For more information, contact Jack Reuben at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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