Faith In The Unseen

Blind since infancy, Olivia Norman proved that inclusion works. Then she got to high school.

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Olivia Norman was once a model of how disabled children can thrive in regular classrooms. Blind since infancy, the 8-year-old was a happy 1st grader at a public elementary school in suburban Washington, D.C., when Teacher first met her in 1989. She kept up with her class work and played merrily with the other children. It was "a magnificent year," she said at the time.

Ten years later, Olivia is about to begin her senior year at a small private school. The mainstreaming that began with such joy ended up failing her--a failure that poignantly illustrates the hardships that disabled students can face.

"I look back [on 1st grade] now, and I think, 'How easy,'" says Olivia. Her experience at Takoma Park Elementary School was nearly idyllic, thanks to the attentive staff. A vision teacher translated lessons into Braille. The guidance counselor gently encouraged her to share any problems. And her 1st grade teacher made it easy for her to navigate the classroom, keeping furniture in the same place and assigning classmates as her "helper for the day." With such support, Olivia developed friendships and handily negotiated elementary school's playground politics.

It wasn't until 9th grade that Olivia began to have trouble. She had accepted the district's recommendation to enroll at Rockville High, outside her neighborhood zone. The high school nearest to Olivia was too big, officials had reasoned, and Rockville would be a better fit because it had a vision resource room. It was also farther away; Olivia had to catch the bus by 5:50 a.m. to make the first bell. And classes at Rockville were by no means small; 32 students crammed into her English class, including one relegated to the teacher's desk.

Worst of all, say Olivia and her mother, Anne, Rockville made little effort to integrate its visually impaired students into the school's social life. Exiled to the vision resource room and overwhelmed by her large classes, Olivia didn't make any friends. She spent the year anonymous and alone. "I began to worry that something was wrong with me," she says.

Olivia's problems at Rockville point to a common hazard of mainstreaming. Since Olivia first entered school, inclusion advocates have concluded that educators must help disabled students fit in socially as well as academically. "You want students to have friends," says Nancy Safer, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy organization for special needs children. "Some teachers have been doing whatever they have to do to ensure that their students are included. It's been something that many places have attended to, but not everywhere."

Although her teachers at Rockville supported her academically, Olivia grew so miserable that her parents pulled her out at the end of the year and sent her to the Newport School, a tiny private school in Kensington, Maryland. Newport doesn't have a vision specialist, so Olivia has had to figure out her needs on her own. Fortunately, Newport is small enough to be flexible, and its teachers have been accommodating. They give her handouts and tests via e-mail so that her computer speech program, Jaws for Windows, can translate the text and read it aloud.

Today, Olivia appears to have recovered from the bleakness of her freshman year. She's thrown herself into Newport's social life--spending a great deal of time on the phone, according to her mother--and she fills her days playing the saxophone, tutoring a 3rd grader in writing, and focusing on the matters that weigh heavily on many soon-to-be high school seniors: the SATs, college applications, and the Future. She plans to continue mainstreaming in college--right now, she's crossing her fingers that she'll get into Haverford, a small liberal arts school outside Philadelphia. "I like to be in the sighted community," she says.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 76-77

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Faith In The Unseen
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