Looking back on the conference from the perspectives as sketched in the keynote address
Renate Walthes, Germany

Closing session, Thursday 13 July 2000, 16.00 - 17.00


Dear colleagues and I hope I can say dear friends,
Before starting to fulfil my task of summarizing the conference, please give me some time for a personal statement.
Having agreed to speak to you in the opening and closing session more than nine months ago, I didn't know what else would be in the conference. When I realised that a visit to Auschwitz was to be part of the programme, I knew it would be a very difficult task to speak to you afterwards because of the emotional effect it would have on me. Because of that, I decided not to visit Auschwitz, but now knowing that many of you have been there it is still very difficult for me to stand here in front of you and speak. However I draw confidence from the bonds which have grown between us during the conference and despite the fact that you may be thinking what right do I have as a German to speak to you all when you have seen the cruel things which were carried out by the Nazis during the second world war.

I can find no answer to this question except one. A great burden has been placed on my generation of German people, a burden we have to cope with and a guilt which will be with us throughout our lives. In my case, I have had many painful discussions with people from the older generation about the atrocities. In order to guard ourselves against such horrors happening in the future we must take responsibility for the present to avoid the possibility of such evil "beginnings". This conference is an example of what can be done collectively for the future good of European peoples. Thank you.

So here we are:
Five days of intensive discussions coming to an end now,
Five days of getting to know each other and learning from each other,
Five days of feeling the spirit of this university town,
Five days of enjoying the hospitality of our Polish colleagues,
Five days of enjoying this beautiful and vivid city.
During these five days each one of you has certainly gained so many impressions, has exchanged so much information that it is simply not possible to include even one percent of it in my résumé. Before, however, I try to do that, let me first express to all of you my gratitude.
First to all the helpers in the background, whose efforts and work has been noticed only by those who looked behind the scenes. Thanks very much, to all of you who work here or elsewhere. Only those who have already organised a congress like this, know what the organisational committee has achieved. It's a never ending task to do justice to the wishes and needs of so many different cultures and individuals. Thanks to you the congress has become this successful. Last but not least I would like to thank the board of directors of ICEVI Europe, who have managed to organise this outstanding congress. Our respect to all of you for your achievements and efforts. Please allow me now to summarise the themes of the congress. This can only be done due to the many personal impressions as well as discussions with participants. Thank you all very much for your contribution.

The topics of the various reports, workshops and poster sessions show the vast range covered in the field of education of people with visual impairment in Europe. I think they are representative of the issues you are facing in your work. I would particularly like to compliment those countries who are in the process of expanding the educational services they offer to people with visual impairment. You have achieved something very impressive, but also something very special and unique for your own country. One of the most important experiences for me at this congress is that there are different ways of doing things but that we can learn to accept these differences. Young people with blindness, visual impairment or multiple disabilities, no matter where they live in Europe need the same things because we live in a very visual world. However their social and cultural environment will determine how they are enabled to achieve these goals.

I really do hope we continue to have such variety across Europe and things don't become too uniform. Differences create discussions and further developments. Without discussions among experts and the weighing of advantages and disadvantages of the system no progress whatsoever will take place. Satisfaction has never been the motor of change. Therefore my résumé will focus on those aspects with which we are still dissatisfied. I am doing this because it is the basis of movement and change.

"The Future is a land which nobody knows."
At the beginning of the congress I explained what it means to be active in the present not knowing what the future will bring about. If you look at the activities of this congress, you may find quite a few future visions whose fulfilment have already begun or are to be anticipated in the near future.
In the field of early intervention the focus on the child will be supplemented by the focus on the family as well as the empowering of closely related people (parents, sisters and brothers). That vision becomes more and more important when we consider the education of children with multiple disability. Moreover, it places the children as well as teenagers and adults at the centre of our efforts.
The fact that the area of responsibility of educators and rehabilitation experts has become more extensive has also been confirmed at the congress. Here the first steps have been taken, in which far-reaching decisions will be made in the near future.
What might be the focus of education of people with visual impairment in 10 years?

The conference has made us even more aware of the increase in visual impairment caused by cerebral damage compared with the causes with which we are more familiar. Could there be a link between the tremendously fast pace of change of the visual nature of our society and its attractions and information and the increase of visual perceptual damage. Does this mean that the information and media centred society is producing its own specific form of damage or disability? And finally taking note of the neuro-scientific discoveries which give an important significance to experience, active coping and the internal organisation of the brain, we might ask whether we can allow ourselves to continue with only an ocular-oriented education or whether we have to turn towards a perceptual education?

This would mean a considerable extension of the field itself as well as of our clientele, which would give the field of education of people with visual impairment a more central position and thus our work would have a completely different social significance? I think that the knowledge about blindness and visual impairment which has been acquired over the last 200 years, as well as the related different ways of experiencing the outside world could be of great importance for this wider range of questions. I ask you to think about it and tell me what kind of conclusions you come to.

I would like to turn to another closely linked topic which has preoccupied me during the last five days. It is the problem of the relation of the general and the specific - a problem which became obvious during sessions on early intervention, training of multiple disabled people and last but not least of school integration.
I don't know if you share my view. I have gained the impression that the more sophisticated and distinct a system of education and support of people with visual impairments is, the more significant general topics and problems become. However the other side of the coin is that it becomes more difficult to justify the specifics of the particular approach.
Due to the decreasing number of special schools and the increase of inclusion we are becoming more aware of a content related and maybe a structural deficit. It becomes clear that specialist work and specifics are mainly based on formal, technical, and sometimes methodical (Braille) contexts. The question is how can we learn from the visually impaired children and teenagers themselves which of their strategies will be useful instead of always imposing strategies which come from the world of sight. Unless we draw on both these worlds of experience as we heard about in some sessions during the conference are we justified in calling ourselves specialists? As I have already mentioned, different forms of experience might become necessary where the information and media-centred society overburdens its members, thus producing its very own damage.

As you can see I assume that in the following 10 years quite a few problems in the field of visual impairment still remain to be dealt with. The precondition, however, is that we must replace the tendency to standardise human life and the control of life processes, which is nowadays quite common in areas of biology, medicine, neuro surgery and genetic technology, with a completely different anthropology or concept. The theory of evolution maintains that only species which are diverse and different and thus flexible are able to survive. The specific characterisation of human beings is their diversity and differences as well as their social behaviour. They cannot be reduced to genes. Please let me briefly comment on this: The presumption that the determination of development and specific diseases is exclusively caused by genetics is not true. The genetic structure is exclusively responsible for protein synthesis which is the next step in the bio-technological process. It is not responsible for the more substantial physical structures or even character features, such as announcements about the discovery of genes responsible for aggressiveness, diabetes or schizophrenia. It is only the basis for further processes. However, how the process continues is dependent on the dynamics of the system and thus cannot be ascribed only to the structures, since it is a matter of self-organisation and interaction. I repeat:
The specific characterisation of human beings is their diversity and differences as well as their social behaviour. In order to protect that diversity we need co-ordinated action of all experts, not only of those specialised in education of people with visual impairment.

Interdisciplinary sciences and learning from other countries as well as from other professions is another topic which must be dealt with in the future.
If it is our aim to maintain our special knowledge and skills and use them to help children and teenagers with a visual impairment chose the support they need to be independent 'co-architects' of a commonly experienced reality. That's why we need interdisciplinary sciences and a co-ordinated approach.
The visions of children and teenagers are specifically theirs and moreover very important, since they are the basis of a world of their own. However, very often they do not comply with the visions of adults. We might learn to respect this and try to develop a solution oriented dialogue. I would like to remind you here of what I said at the beginning of the conference.

"Together everyone achieves more" TEAM
During the last week the concept of 'Together' has been the subject of much discussion and will continue to be so this evening. Some of you will even have the opportunity at post conference workshops to develop strategies for the fulfilment of our visions.
I really do hope to meet you all again in two years at the International Congress of the ICEVI in the Netherlands as that TEAM having had further and important experiences in togetherness.

Finally to take you back to my keynote talk where I left you with the task of identifying a common theme running through all the pieces of music which you heard. Many people have shared their interpretation with me. I was delighted by all the possibilities of interpretation which I hadn't dreamed of. I must say all your interpretations are right because they come from your experiences. I think it's only fair that I tell you what I saw as the theme running through all the pieces of music. Many of you identified the Pachelbel theme which was the first piece and then was heard in the other pieces either as a main or background theme.
For me this signified that we all follow the same theme although we work in such different contexts with so many different people.
I'm now going to play the pieces again and my wish is that we all take the theme of the conference home with us.


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