An Oral History of the Education of Visually Impaired People

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By means of 61 open-ended interviews with visually impaired people (written as stories) and an analysis of documentary evidence, this book explores the history of education for visually impaired children in Britain from the 18th century to the present day. The sample is broad in terms of age, gender, type of school, geographical location and the presence of additional impairments. It provides a rich source of information regarding specific educational experiences (for example, in Sunshine Homes and selective schools) and also reflects on institutionalization, regimentation, abuse, the effects of separation from home and community and the importance of friendship. College experiences and the transition to adulthood and employment are also emphasized in many stories. As well as highlighting common experiences, the stories depict great diversity and illustrate how educational trends and practices for visually impaired children changed throughout this period. The final chapter reflects on the lessons than can be learned from these accounts regarding the inclusion of visually impaired children in mainstream school today. It demonstrates the complexity of the concept of inclusion and how this requires changes within society as a whole rather than just within schools. The book adds to the growing history of disabled people from their own perspective.


“The history of education starts with telling stories – knowledge not only of immediate history but of the wider world, and of skills for survival, passed down from generation to generation from the inception of thinking and speaking mammals – humankind. One of the twists of fate is that the voice of those without formal learning was heard less and less as the written word took over from the spoken word. As a result a very small coterie of society became the conduit for both the reporting and the interpretation of the experiences of people, including those they did not meet or understand, at a particular point in our history. At least now the starkest gulf has been narrowed, but, as this book points out, not necessarily for those with additional challenges and obstacles to overcome. This is why I believe the perspective of this book is of such interest ... In the end, however, this book is about human experience – what did happen leading to what might happen. It is about the opportunities that so many take for granted made available to those who, in the past, were denied them, not because of any inadequacy on their part, but because society itself denied those opportunities ...” – (from the Preface) David Blunkett, MP, House of Commons

“ ... As the authors explain in the introduction, this project had two main goals: to identify the voices of people with visual impairments in the history of education, and to use these voices to improve the inclusiveness of contemporary policy. Both these goals are admirably pursued. The introduction articulates a compelling case for oral history as a necessary complement to ‘official’ histories, which are confined to the documentary evidence produced by experts. At the same time, this enthusiasm does not prevent a robust appraisal of the methodology, based on thorough review of the literature. The way in which the sample was put together is also carefully outlined, and the role of the interviewer in the construction of the narrators’ stories is perceptively examined ... The breadth in this study will attract interest beyond history and disability studies in sociology and education and amongst practitioners as well as academic readers.” – Professor Anne Borsay, Swansea University

“This book has qualities that will make it a ‘must’ for all the professionals working in the field of visual impairment. It will be of equal interest to visually impaired people themselves and their families. Set within the framework of an objective, chronological account of the evolution of the systems of educating blind and partially sighted learners in Great Britain, the authors have compiled a series of personal histories that bring vividly before us the realities and experiences of people as they have reflected upon their own lives ... We are told that no ‘history’ can be complete or definitive. Each is written by a fallible storyteller. The histories must perforce carry the imprint of the teller’s own misperceptions, prejudices, and interpretations of what was occurring. And there is also the fact that researchers bring along their personal ideologies to the task. Despite these possible challenges to the validity of the research, there is a persuasiveness to these narratives that cannot be denied. No reader will be left unmoved, and no professional worker can dare to ignore the lessons so starkly taught. Dr. French and her colleagues have left us in their debt.” – Michael Tobin, Professor Emeritus and Fellow, British Psychological Society

Table of Contents

Preface by David Blunkett
Introduction: Telling Stories
1. The Early Development of Education for Blind Children
2. Stories from the Segregated Past, 1920 to 1944
3. Stories from the Special Education System, 1944 to 1981
4. Stories from the Special Educational Needs System, 1981 to the 21st Century
Conclusion: Lessons for Inclusive Futures
General Index
Index of Names

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