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WORKING SESSION 4
Introduction: Dr Rolf Lund, Chair of Studies and Research in Visual Impairment, Faculty of Education, University of Oslo, Norway
A Programme for Special Educators in Visual Impairment at the University of Oslo.
Abstract: The University of Oslo is a community of more than 35 000 students attending courses of study in eight different faculties. One of three departments in the Faculty of Education is the Department of Special Education (DSE). The programme for education of Special Educators for the Visually Impaired started in this department at the end of the 1960s. The aim is to train Special Educators for the Visually Impaired and qualify them to work with all ages, both as teachers and therapists within the school system and the social health care system.
Today there are no special schools for the visually impaired in Norway. Our two centres that were formerly special schools for the visually impaired have become resource centres. All Norwegian children, including those who are visually impaired, attend regular schools.
DSE has developed a Continual Education Programme in Orientation and Mobility. This course builds on a background from the specialization course in Visual Impairment.
There is an increased interest in low vision around the world. There are a number of conferences, journals and annual reports on research in this field. New technology and science has to be continuously integrated into the programme. There is a need to establish a network between important centres in the world in order to be updated on current research and new developments in the service to visually impaired persons.
Key words: Norway, University of Oslo, university course, special education, visual impairment, low vision therapist, rehabilitation, orientation and mobility, integration, research, network.
The programme in special education.
The Department for Special Education (DSE) which was founded in 1961 as the Norwegian Institute of Special Education has recently become part of the University of Oslo. The Department is the Norwegian Center of advanced teacher education and research within the area of Special Education, Habilitation and Rehabilitation. The Department has three major tasks; teaching and training of professionals, research and information.
Part I admits students for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies for the first year programme. The aim of the course is to provide a theoretical and practical introduction to the field of special education with an emphasis on specific learning disabilities. The completion of Part I does not in itself confer teacher status unless the candidate also holds previously recognised teaching qualifications.
Part II is another one year programme. This allows the students to specialize in one of the following areas: hearing impairment, visual impairment, speech therapy, mental retardation, physical disabilities, socio/ emotional maladjustment, multiple handicap and the use of personal computers in special education.
Part III is a two year programme and includes the principal study. It is an introduction to social science methods and special education research. This include an independent research project corresponding to one year full time work. It will give training and deeper understanding of the theories in counselling and educational change.
The highest level of study is represented by our doctoral programme in special education. The student follows a number of compulsory programmes in research and submits a doctoral dissertation to a committee appointed by the Faculty. The doctoral student has to defend her/his dissertation publicly before it can be accepted. The doctoral programme is estimated to correspond to three years full time work.
During the last decades society has changed a great deal in relation to services for visually impaired persons in Norway. These changes give reasons for continuous consideration of new approaches in the education of professionals working in the field.
Special education for the visually impaired
The programme for education of Special Educators for the Visually Impaired started at the end of the 1960s and was concentrated mainly on services to the blind and worked primarily with children in the schools. In the beginning there were few students. Through the 70s it developed to become a programme for the visually impaired - including services in low vision. In the 80s a number of the graduates started to work in the low vision clinics at our new centres for the provision of technical devices, which included low vision devices.
The aim is now to train Special Educators for the Visually Impaired and qualify them to work with all ages, both as teachers and therapists within the school system and the social health care system.
Today there are no special schools for the blind in Norway. Our two centres that were formerly special schools for the visually impaired, Huseby and Tambartun have changed to what we call resource centres. All Norwegian children, including those who are visually impaired, attend regular schools. They are integrated into a mainstreamed education. This has been accomplished by establishing an advisory and consultant service through out the country. An itinerant service has been established in each county.
A technical aid center in each county was also developed during the 1980s. These centres provide services to persons with all handicaps and includes a low vision clinic. The staff of the technical aids centres work on referral from and closely together with the ophthalmological services in their area. Being staffed with both optometrists and low vision therapists, the centres can provide assessment of all kinds of devices used by visually impaired persons, such as low vision optics, illumination devices, closed circuit television systems, computers, special desks and devices for activities of daily living and mobility. The centres will provide a free loan of the devices needed.
The two resource centres, Huseby and Tambartun, function as specialist centres with short term training programmes, materials and specialized services. Pupils of all ages, their parents, teachers and also local advisors are invited to come together in various groupings to the centres for exchange of information, education and development of new approaches in teaching visually impaired persons. The centres has developed specialised services in functional diagnostics, assessment and counselling in areas that can not be provided at a local level.
In everyday life persons with visual impairment are supported by the local county-based system. Visually impaired students are taught with other students in their class. The goal is to allow persons with visual impairment to participate in work and social life on equal terms with others.
The programme for special educators for the visually impaired at the University in Oslo educates professionals for all these services; the resource centres, the county-based service and the technical device centres. This implies a lot of challenges in compiling a compact programme. The advantage is having a united group of professionals with the same background as a basis for their praxis. The professionals can change jobs during their career and obtain wide experience. In a country with a scattered population such as we have in Norway, it is important to have professionals who can provide a wide range of the services which are needed.
Organization of the programme
The study is organized as one year (two semesters) full time study at an intermediate level. Each semester consists of both theoretical and practical studies in how to plan and carry through education of the visually impaired. The different topics are presented through lectures, seminars and projects. Students are expected to take an active role in the learning process. Self studies of literature is an important part of the programme.
During the course the students are required to demonstrate skills in areas such as typing braille, teaching mobility and teaching different reading techniques with low vision devices. The students are required to answer a number of written questions and write one project report during the study. Five weeks are devoted to praxis activities. During these weeks the students will practice their skills under supervision.
Most of our students from the University will work in the advisory and consultant service. This is different from teaching in a special school for the blind. In the special school the teacher would be a member of staff were each member had a some specialty. It was not necessary for the teacher to know all the different skills and sciences that their visually impaired students had to work with. As an itinerant consultant it is required to be able to give advice in all aspects of teaching a visually impaired student. Most of our Special Educators for the Visually Impaired will work with pupils of different ages in their area. It is a big challenge to able to give advice to other teachers in how to plan and carry through education of the visually impaired from the years in kindergarten and all the way through high school.
Most of the pupils with visual impairment have low vision, but still there is a number of blind pupils as well. Some of the pupils with low vision prefers to use a combination of technology for low vision and blind. The Consultant must therefor be competent in both areas.
Even if teaching is challenging, most of the consultants find the social aspects of integration of visually impaired the most difficult task. A lot of the visually impaired pupils are longing for each time they can get together with other visually impaired. This is how many of them find their best friends and make sweethearts. A lot of visually impaired students feel lonely at school, but even more so after the school hours. It is hard to find examples of real integration and participation.
The consultant will often be the primary contact between the family and the support system offered by the community. Whether the consultant shall work only on educational issues or concentrate mainly on the social aspects has been an issue for discussion. It is probably necessary to able to work in both areas. This require a broad knowledge of social services and legal and economical rights.
In different periods of life in a family with a visually impaired child there will be an extra challenge to the consultant's counselling skills. Critical periods are the time after the visual impairment has been detected, when the child attends a kindergarten for the first time, starts at school, every time when changing to a new school, becoming a teenager, planning an education and looking for a job, etc.
This is challenges in the job that most of my students will face after qualification. This is very different from the students who went to teach in special schools for the blind 20 years ago. How can they gain experience and develop the skills required when most of them are thrown out in the field to work independently?
Approximately 200 students have graduated from the programme in Special Education for the Visually Impaired. There are currently 18 students in the programme. They are all Norwegians and will practice in Norway. There are still a number of vacant positions for low vision therapists and special educators for the visual impaired in Norway. We believe the future will show an increasing need for this profession, primarily because of the integration of visual impaired students into mainstream schools. These students and their parents want to have a guarantee a quality local education. They have, according to Norwegian law, the right to equal access for opportunities in education and vocation. This requires professional teaching, support and supervision directly to the students, their teachers and parents. I believe the future will show an emphasis on county-based services to persons with visual impairment, and special educators will provide this service. Our two national resource centres will provide specialized supervision, diagnostics, courses and materials for education and training. The national resource centres will be the sites for research on services to visually impaired persons, cooperating closely with university research programmes.
The age distribution in Norwegian population is changing. As people live longer, they are likely to acquire disabilities in their later years. Visual impairment is a frequent disability among elderly persons. Norwegians who are disabled have the right to obtain technical devices at any age. Many of these devices can not be used efficiently without appropriate instruction and training. For this reason, our centres for the provision of technical devices for the handicapped are staffed with therapists and special educators. This service is only in its beginning. These Centres are currently understaffed and cannot yet provide follow-up services. The low vision section of the centres do not yet have the capacity to give every visitor the instruction and training that is required to achieve success. The provision of technical devices should be integrated in a well-planned process of rehabilitation. We do not yet know how to develop an economical system of rehabilitation that can handle this challenge.
There is still a big gap between social and cultural activities offered in the community and those in which visual impaired persons can participate. There is still a need to improve our programme in personnel preparation to understand and deal with challenges in social integration.
I see many challenges in the field of preparation for Special Educators for the Visually Impaired. There is an increased interest in low vision around the world. There are a number of conferences, journals and annual reports on research in this field. New technology and science has to be continuously integrated into the programme. I would like to establish a network within the University of Oslo to other important centres in the world to keep our department updated on current research and new developments in the provision of services to visually impaired persons. I hope to establish contact with other programmes in other countries to exchange ideas and knowledge.
Does the itinerant teacher have other tasks than the education of the visual impaired?
Keyword: Change agent
SUMMARY OF THE DISCUSSIONS
There was a thorough and lively discussion on the importance and the possibilities of integrated education, also known as `inclusion', and the itinerant teacher's role in this. It was established that in this respect there were great differences between the participating countries: from integrated education/ mainstreaming for all visually impaired pupils (in some Scandinavian countries) to virtual no integrated education at all. The latter is caused by a number of factors: insufficient support from special schools and the lack of certain pre-conditions such as adequate legislation, the lack of resources required for support in mainstreaming schools. Another factor is insufficient parental awareness and pressure required for initiating and stimulating such a development. Participants unanimously agreed on the key role that the itinerant teacher has to fulfil in the realisation of successful integration: he has to be the consultant, the resource person, not only for the visually impaired pupils but also for their parents, the classroom teacher, the school as a whole and other professionals involved. The itinerant teacher has to have an eye for all aspects of the education of the visually impaired child. It would be good, and maybe this should even be a pre-condition, if mainstreaming activities could be based on the work carried out by the early intervention worker in the pre-school period.
As regards the itinerant teacher's role of change agent, s/he could/should have a role, together with other people, in changing attitudes of classroom teachers, classmates, school management and society. This would be a step-by-step process which, certainly when integrated education is first started, will take a lot of time.
As visually impaired children often do not meet other visually impaired children when they attend a mainstream school, the itinerant teacher has to create opportunities for these particular children to meet from time to time to enable them to share experiences and to learn from each other.
Compared to the special teacher of the visually impaired, the itinerant teacher will need a number of additional competencies in order to fulfil his duties properly:
The plenary meeting of this working session had a special character: the chairperson asked each of the participants in a slightly provocative manner what they would start working on in their own country after the workshop, following on from what they had heard/learnt during this workshop.
This resulted in the following variety of replies:
A very interesting working session on a topic that is important to all countries. Full inclusion is more than mainstreaming. Integration/inclusion is an ongoing process which will always require a great deal of attention. The way in which this integration could be achieved will differ from country to country and will depend on traditions, culture, legislation, availability of resources, etc. Mainstreaming is one way, but certainly not the only one.
If education is one of the most important ways of preparing children, and also visually impaired children for an independent life in society, we will always have to be critical about and reflect on the way in which future special teachers will be prepared for this task.
The end of the plenary discussion was very interesting and resulted in a lot of work to be done in the near and longer-term future.
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