Keynote Address by Prof. Dr. Renate Walthes
professor at the uiversity of Dortmund, Germany


Visions and Strategies for the New Century

Mr Chairman,
Mr Secretary,
ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

it is a great honour for me to present at the beginning of this congress some thoughts and visions about the motto of this week. But first of all I would like to thank the board of directors and especially Mr Hermann Gresnigt for the invitation.
It is a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to speak in front of you here in Poland and especially in this wonderful city. Even though I know only little about this country, I am more aware of the energy, the joy of life as well as the skills of its people, particularly of my colleagues in the field of "Education of People with Visual Impairment".
I was very impressed by the quite intensive and lively week in Ustrón three years ago as well as by the mutual exchange of information. Therefore, I am very happy to meet you again as well as to spend a labour-intensive week with all of you.

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The theme of the Congress is also the theme of my speech. To develop visions and strategies for the future is a wonderful job, at first sight.
However, the title of this Congress includes more than the possibility of future strategies.

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Visions are also, etymologically speaking, dealing with sight and further sight. Does the motto of this Congress imply that only people who can see are concerned with visions for those who can't? The ambiguity of the concept 'vision' is something we will be dealing with later. No matter what kind of interpretation I focus on, the motto of this Congress presents more questions than answers.

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I would like to approach the topic from different angles, starting with the aspect with respect to future strategies, and then together with you discuss what it means to develop visions.
I would then like to turn to the aspect of vision and discuss the significance of sight in this century. Finally, I will present one or two suggestions as to how we might realise visions for the future.

I also want to accompany my report with pictures and music to get you altogether in the proper mood for the theme. I am, so to speak, presenting the theme in music, and would like to ask you to find out what the pieces have in common.

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1. Future is a Land which belongs to Nobody

Before I start with my reflections about the aspect of future strategies I would like to tell you a parable. It is a story about a farmer and his horse.

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had a beautiful mare he was very proud of. One day the mare disappeared and he could not get her back. The neighbours came and grieved with him: "That's a terrible loss, isn't it", they asked. "Maybe", the farmer answered. After a few days the mare came back and brought with her five wild horses. The neighbours congratulated him on his good luck and said: "Now you must be indeed a very happy man to have these five horses". But again the farmer answered simply: "Maybe". On the following day the son of the farmer tried to ride one of the horses and broke his leg. Now the neighbours told the farmer that these horses had actually brought him bad luck, since his son was badly injured, and that was dreadful. But again, the farmer only said: "Maybe." A week later officers of the King appeared and recruited all grown-up sons of the hamlet for the forthcoming war, except for the son of the farmer, for he had a broken leg..." (Opaschowski 26-1-1997).

To develop visions about the education of people with visual impairment means to enter a field on which you can only move securely at the very beginning.

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In fact, we are used to thinking straight and along the line of cause and effect, that means drawing one line from the past, over the present to the future. It is true, we cannot conceive the future but in terms of our own experiences and structure. Nevertheless, we will never be able to know what will actually be.

At the same time it is first and foremost the pedagogues who think and design future. Education and training only make sense as long as visions are being developed. Without any idea of what children and teenagers, of what people are supposed to accomplish in the future, education would be aimless and thus absurd. Without the idea that professional work in the field of special education contribute to a better future and the living together of people with and without disabilities, the work of each participant would be without any perspective, although we do not know how these ideas will be realised.
Pedagogical work is torn between the available time of education, the complexity of the world, which has to be put across, and the postulate of progress our civilisation has committed itself to.

Confronted with the task to make the richness of the world available to the following generation, who may intervene according to society's future visions, puts education into a dilemma, which I would like to characterise briefly:

All knowledge, all norms, values and rules must on the one hand be handed down as something which must be kept, but on the other hand progress claims that things in need of change must be changed. To keep and to change, tradition and progress are thus always opposing pairs of adults and children. An example from the dialogue of G. Bateson on the topic "How much do you know?" explains this context. There it says: "I used to know a little boy who asked his father: "Do fathers always know more than their sons?" The father answered: "Yes." Then the boy asked: "Daddy, who actually invented the steam engine?" The answer was: "James Watt." The son: "But why didn't James Watt's father invent it?"

I think that handing down knowledge from generation to generation and the necessity of progress has never been summed up so exactly. What, then, does this paradox mean to education?

It means that adults, educators and teachers must learn to deal with the fact that they are teaching for an unknown future with possibly unsuitable methods and means in a time as quickly as possible.

To this dilemma education and particularly school teaching responds with reduction of time and causal attributions. Acquiring knowledge as early and intensively as possible is expected. In terms of an "if - then relation" it means:

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if you as children or teenagers don't learn as much as possible, then you won't have a chance later on, then nothing will become of you, then you will have to learn twice as much later, and so on, and so on... With respect to the children we are dealing with it sounds more like this: If there are no diagnoses, adjustments and training as soon as possible, then further problems will arise, that is secondary disabilities et cetra. If children and teenagers don't learn in time, they will have problems to find their place in society. It is necessary and important for adults to think along these lines, since if they don't make plans for the future, they would never consider it necessary to act in the present.

What, however, does this mean to children and teenagers?

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Generally speaking this time perspective of education signifies a far-reaching use of the present in view of a better future. The experience of the moment, the here and now is a link between past and future. Today's actions of the children and teenagers are seen under the perspective of the future.

This applies twice to all those children and teenagers who we call blind, partially sighted or multiple disabled.

Over the centuries our society has developed certain ways of dealing with differences, which tolerate only specific ones but marks others as being abnormal.

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Blindness and visual impairment are counted among these abnormalities. The concepts we normally associate with blindness are still reflected in our daily language. Thus, blindness is closely linked with a limited vision as well as stupidity, even if on the other hand a mystification of this phenomenon in the sense of an inner vision can still be found in literature and movies. No matter what knowing or unknowing prejudice people follow: a different vision obviously requires a particularly thorough preparation and coping on the part of society.

The birth of a child with a disability always means in view of the predominant social prejudices a severe setback with respect to future concepts normally taken for granted. No matter how well the parents cope with this irritation the child will nevertheless much earlier be confronted with worrying concepts of the future as is normally the case. This is due to the involvement in a medical and therapeutic as well as in an early intervention and special school situation. This distinction shows clearly that education has always been built on the self-evidence of the future. Children do always signify a new beginning, they are a pledge for the future, and they stand for continuity as well as for change. This is what education takes care of, and that's the way it should be. However, not only does education in a general sense build on the self-evidence of the future.

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It is actually a lot more precise. Kindergarten and school, vocational training and job are undebated steps in any given lifetime.
However, when it comes to visual impairment and disability, the future becomes questionable and thus much more significant to all people concerned. This is mirrored by the workshops and lectures of this congress ranging from early intervention to independent living.

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To my mind, children with visual impairments have to cope to a much higher degree with the tension between the richness of the world and the briefness of time as well as the threat which causes tension to the adults.

This leads me to the second aspect of the theme, the visual aspect.

2. Significance of sight

The tension children with a visual impairment are confronted with is mainly caused by those who see. Due to their visual kind of knowledge aquisation they are not able to imagine other ways of understanding the world. Not being able to see is thus on the top of the scale of the unimaginable and threatening. The process of touching which is considered much more time consuming than sight, allows only a rather limited level of information, that's what people say. If you look at the experts' remarks on the divergence of visual and tactile-haptic information, which not only accompanies education of people with visual impairment for more than one century but also justifies its specific authority, then you will find as an essential argument the dilemma of time in relation to the complexity of the world. The process of realising and recognising seems to be considerably more time consuming by way of tactile knowledge acquisition and is, moreover, dependent on the imminent presence of the material.

The answer of education of people with visual impairment to this friction between the learning period and unattainable richness of information is as follows: magnified concentration, specific preparation of material and higher levels of abstraction.

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There is still another aspect of the different relation of children and adults to present and future.

Not only since Piaget's studies on the concept of time does the relation to the present characterise childhood. To act here and now, to develop an individual concept of time which has got nothing to do with measured time, to get lost in play, that is to ignore the passing of time, to repeat actions again and again are considered as specific skills of children as well as their individual mode of concentration. At the same time this kind of concentration is seen as something which must be overcome. To learn means first and foremost practising structures of measured time, schedules, 45 minutes' periods as well as daily, weekly and school term units.
At least in institutionalised settings these individual concepts of time and the non-operationally oriented relation to the present are becoming more and more obsolete.

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However, there is something strange about this: once this kind of relation to time is acquired, and future becomes present, where there is action but no learning, then the capability of being in the here and now, to take one's time to do things in peace and quiet becomes the one desirable aim. Then, but only then, slowness may be rediscovered. Due to the prevailing preconceptions this kind of development is to a far lesser degree granted to blind people and particularly to multi-handicapped people. This is especially based on the fact that the respective individual concepts of time have a threatening effect on the people around who do see. A network of cause and effect is being built, which regards blind peoples' individual concepts of time in the sense of taking a break, the preoccupation with only one thing over a longer period, the seeming inactivity and the generating of specific sequences of movements as boredom, loss of contact, that is getting lost in a world of one's own.

If and to what extent we are able to respect and support the repeatedly observed specific ways blind people cope, which they need to develop their own identity, is dependent on coping with time, as well as allowing one to live in the present.

In the course of the history of education of people with visual impairment we may often find an understanding of the perception and conception of those people, which is determined by the following hypotheses:

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  1. The eye sees and by seeing it is capable of reflecting the world as it is. If there is no or only limited sight, the decisive piece of the image quality is missing.
  2. Thus, the ways of perceptions of people with visual impairment must be considered as incomplete (they have to be compensated), individual forms of dealing with the world around is seldom admitted.
  3. The world of the people who see is an objective one, it is acknowledged as point of reference. It is something people have to submit to. Thus, visual impairment is a very unique challenge to education.

This chain of arguments has to be reversed.

Our world, particularly the highly technified so-called first world is so much focused on visuality, so much dependent on optical contexts that it does not offer structures or patterns whatsoever to people who have a different perception.

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The more and more exclusive reference to visual and optical contexts, is not only rather unsuitable for visual impairment, but also for the integration of perception in general. If the statement is correct that in the era of information people are consuming as much information in one month as people did in their whole life at the beginning of the last century, then the increase of phenomena such as cortical visual impairment, cerebral caused peculiarities, which we call perceptive disturbances must be understood as response to a construction of reality, which is offering less and less prospects of coping.

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Since education of visual impairment is dealing with offering possibilities to unanimously designing the world under differently perceived circumstances, then it should also assume responsibility of the broadened spectrum of phenomena.
This might be a further vision for which we have to develop specific strategies.

Education of people with visual impairment is involved as soon as the adaptation of conditions (that is other perception based conditions) don't fit with the structures offered by the specific environment (that is visuality).

Specific environment includes family,

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school, boarding school, furthermore training and job, as well as the place where you live, the neighbourhood, and the old people's home. Thus, it is not the individual education or rehabilitation which is focused on, but the social system with its structures of communication and interaction. The main effort of education of persons with visual impairment lies in offering support to those who live under different visual circumstances, and thus enabling them to experience the visually structured world. This, however, does actually mean much more than discussing questions of sight in general, visual perception, or low vision training. It means to regard the visually structured world as one possible world and to support and design techniques with the help of which it is possible to participate in a commonly experienced reality (sensu maturana) under respectively specific circumstances.

Therefore we need an understanding of blindness, or other-sightedness, which no longer focuses on the individual but on the environment. The concept of disability which is based on quality does imply that the person who is disabled must change if any future at all is to be developed.

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The latest ICIDH 2 classification presented by the WHO offers a good perspective.
An understanding of disability which is based on the necessity and beauty of a difference in human existence, which is called disability if badly handled, can first deal with the conditions and must not become desperate about people not being alterable or steerable from without.
There are two visions I would like to suggest so far:

  1. The acceptance and enforcement of the individual concept of time and a specific treatment of people with visual impairment.
  2. A change from focusing on the individual towards focusing on the environment in connection with a relation based understanding of disability.

The two suggestions imply what I have already mentioned about future perspectives. One the one hand they rest on a well-known ground, since theories and concepts do already exist.
On the other hand, if these suggestions were realised to their full extent, new paths of an unknown country would be tread upon.

This leads me to the third and last part of my discussion, that is the question of what may strategies which help to realise these visions consist of.

3. Strategies

I mentioned at the beginning that we are able to think about the future but in terms of a prolonged present. It is the basis we have to use and try whether it offers visions and dreams to become true...

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  1. In the course of the last few years several studies in and outside the field of education of people with visual impairment have been conducted. They all include a change of understanding and perspectives. I hereby refer to studies on understanding about space, on perception and on the phenomenon of cortical visual impairment as well as on studies on the development of an understanding of numbers. The results of the studies reflect a change of debate and approach.

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    Not only is the comparison between people with normal vision, those with visual impairment and blind people given priority, but also the specific strategies of the latter, subject to all incomprehensiveness of the respective strategies.

  2. The studies mentioned are supported by neuro-scientific findings about the organisation and functioning of our brain, which explain of what great importance active learning and experience is for perception and cognition.
  3. The diversity of support and school forms indicate that there are many possibilities of training children and teenagers and that decisions about good or better forms of teaching must be measured by criteria of self-determination, normalisation, respect, individualisation and flexibility.
  4. The findings of neuro-scientific research, such as cognitive science or artificial intelligence, on the performance of human beings with respect to a common and co-ordinated behaviour heighten the respect for achievements of people who we call multi-handicapped as well as the respect for their contribution to social life. It is these achievements we must emphasise in discussions about bio-ethics, genetic therapy and the appearance of a seemingly rational eugenics.
  5. The growing together and the intensive exchange among European countries, which is particularly well mirrored in the organisation of the ICEVI, may be used to unitedly and powerfully represent the interests of people with disabilities or visual impairment. To do so, it is on the one hand necessary to respect the respective achievements of each country and on the other hand to use the progress in a country to find ways to improve the specific services. The motto for what I mean can be found in the concept of a workshop on the co-operation between parents and experts: "Together everyone achieves more."
  6. This is, moreover, the strategy how we may survive in post modern times and in so-called societies of multi options in the first place. We must stand for the variety and diversity of human existence and at the same time contribute by further developing our knowledge and concepts to make self-determined living in a social community possible.
  7. This, however, is based on our respect for the ability of self-organisation and self-determination of each child, teenager or grown-up, as well as on the respect for the skills of each human being. And this seems to be the strategy to make our visions happen.

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I hope you have discovered the theme in the musical variations. They are supposed to reflect the relation of the theme of the congress and the contents of the reports and poster sessions. May the congress develop visions for the next ten years and step towards their accomplishment.

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Universität Dortmund
Emil-Figge-Str. 50, 44221 Dortmund, Germany
Tel. 0231/755 4559
E-mail: Walthes@nvl1.fb13.uni-dortmund.de
Tel. u. Fax Sek. 755 4584
Fachbereich 13
Rehabilitationswissenschaften
Pädagogik bei Blindheit und Sehbehinderung
Prof. Dr. Renate Walthes


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