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4th Workshop
Training of Teachers of the Visually Impaired in Europe

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Keynote address
by Renate Walthes, University of Dortmund

Being asked to give a keynote address is a great honour, because it means someone regards you as having the knowledge to use the keys with which you may open new doors. But you might be wrong in the assumption that I am the right person to do the job to everyone's satisfaction. Those who know me might be familiar with the constructivistic perspective I often choose and might remember one sentence I started with in Krakow: "the future is a land which belongs to nobody". On the one hand it is true, that we cannot conceive the future except in terms of our own experiences and structure. Keynotes can only be suggestions, first drafts from the speaker's point of view. The speaker may throw the suggestions at the audience without knowing which kind of resonance they will have; if there is no resonance, than they have failed in their keyword job. But the committee gave me some help with the motto they gave the conference: "Inclusion network on all level".

There are two words which in my opinion may function as a key word: "network" and "inclusion". Both are two of the most utilized words at the moment. I would like to start with the term "network". Meaning everything is or should be connected with each other. Whether or not you are part of the economic system, politics, sports, sciences, stock-markets, agriculture, greenpeace or amnesty international or other NGOs, nothing seems to proceed without networking. If network or networking is one of the keywords of this conference, which new door will be opened with this key and what will be behind it?

As you may know I love language and I prefer to look behind the superficial use by going back to the etymological roots of the word. Network is a compound word.

Net has several meanings: to tie, to knot, to attach (i.e. a condition to s.th.) to link. It also has connotations with yarn, webs and spinning, or a negative connotation i.e in the verb ensnare. To spin a yarn or to fall into somebody's trap symbolizes the dangerous side of being in a net. If somebody is in a net, escape is seldom possible, however its possible that somebody gives you the slip. The net that includes and supports you might be the net which could strangle you if you become entangled in its netting. Nets can be tightened and then you are trapped. Network or networking signifies more: the possibility to create nets, which is hard work because several decisions should be considered before this work can be started: should the subject be in the net or is the subject the material the net is tied with, are fine meshed or loose tied meshes appropriate? Is this the job for one designer or should networking be a self-organized and therefore sometimes a chaotic process, like the internet? Should there be some rules or criteria for who or what belong to the net and who or what will be on the outside? What will this net be used for? Does networking imply that dependent activities in a net are better than independent ones? Are people or organizations having conferences together a network? What has to be done so that you can say that this is a well-functioning network?

Back to this conference, some of you have been taking an active part in these teacher-training conferences since the first meeting. For some of you the time between the conferences is a time of active work together, some of you enjoy the conferences, the discussions and love to meet colleagues from the other countries and exchange experiences. But in the meantime everyday life at work seems to be too exhausting, taking up all the time, there is no possibility and no concrete reason to cooperate. Knowing each other and knowing what others are doing is an important aspect, so you may e.g. pass addresses to other colleagues or to students, you may use the specific competences of a colleague or of a group for further information . On request you know who is who in the field and who is suited to which problem. If you are visiting a country or city you know a colleague in question who will welcome you and will show you around in the field of special education. Is this networking? It is an open question. I hope we will work on it during the conference.

The use of the second key word "inclusion" seems to have become a 'trend' in the field of special education. Used to minimize the segregational connotation of the term integration, inclusion should represent the fact, that in everyday life as well as in the field of education, everyone should take part and make his contribution for a successful outcome. A school for all students regardless of background, language, impairment or other characteristics is the professed aim. This school should be able to provide individual coordinated programmes for every student, a demand that seems to me as old as educational institutions themselves. The term inclusion is in danger of being abused like integration or emancipation. The use of this word - although there are some articles that define criteria for a school for all - is mostly undifferenciated. When inclusion is used as a substitute for integration, nothing will change. To refer to the concept of the WHO, if we switch round from a person-related condition to an environmental-related condition, the term exclusion might be more convincing. If you regard all persons included in society, to learn about the risks of exclusion it might be in a theoretical and in a practical way more productive. From this point of view you can analyze and observe how and in which way educational and social systems esp. special schools and special vocational training organizations work on exclusion while they include the persons into their system. The aim to minimize exclusion risks maybe not suitable for "political speeches", but maybe a more appropriate way meet the requirements we have.

slide Social exclusion

Despite this sophisticated and artificial linguistic and theoretical practice, European politics and developments force us to coordinate our activities and to build up a network. I would like to work on two examples: First the Bologna declaration and its implications to teacher training and the second, the fact that due to the decreasing number of children with visual impairment in Europe, the whole educational field seems to be irrelevant when observed by outsiders.

The Bologna Declaration

Besides others, the Bologna Declaration marks a turning point in the development of higher education esp. teacher training in Europe.

"A Europe of Knowledge is now widely recognised as an irreplaceable factor for social and human growth and as an indispensable component to consolidate and enrich the European citizenship, capable of giving its citizens the necessary competences to face the challenges of the new millennium, together with an awareness of shared values and belonging to a common social and cultural space."(Bologna 1999)

As we do in our international conferences the bologna declaration has realized that in spite of their valuable differences, European higher education systems are facing common internal and external challenges related to the expansion of private and transnational education.

"The importance of education and educational co-operation in the development and strengthening of stable, peaceful and democratic societies is universally acknowledged as paramount.(Bologna 1999)
"European higher education institutions, for their part, have accepted the challenge and taken up a main role in constructing the European area of higher education, also in the wake of the fundamental principles laid down in the Bologna Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988. This is of the highest importance, given that Universities' independence and autonomy ensure that higher education and research systems continuously adapt to changing needs, society's demands and advances in scientific knowledge." (Bologna 1999)

The action programme set out in the Declaration is based on

  1. a clearly defined common goal: to create a European space for higher education in order to enhance the employability and mobility of citizens and to increase the international competitiveness of European higher education;
  2. a deadline: the European space for higher education should be completed in 2010;
  3. a set of specified objectives:

To put the first point into practice, the European commission initiated the Erasmus-mundus programme. The aim of this programme is simply to compete for students from post-industrial and developing countries in the sciences-market. European universities are forced to develop a curricula of an excellent quality to attract students who would usually go to other countries. From the European Commission point of view, the attraction of this offer increases if the studies are as I said of a high quality and if several European universities are involved because this will produce more cooperation more adjustment and coherence. It seeks, primarily, to enhance the quality and attractiveness of European higher education world-wide. Secondly, Erasmus Mundus Masters Courses and scholarships will provide a framework to promote valuable exchange and dialogue between different cultures.

Up to the magic date of 2010 all participating European countries should have established a B.A / M.A System at the universities and colleges of higher education with ECTS and a developed system of quality assurance. The following slide shows the present state of types of degrees at master level in general (M.A of arts, M:A of sciences, MA. of education etc.) The second slide shows the number of countries which have adapted ECTS or other creditpoint systems.

You may recognize some differences but more similarities.

slide 1 - Types of Degrees on Master Level  slide 2 - Types of Degrees on Master Level

Is this development a great challenge to the institutions or even a challenge for our group? In my opinion we have to face two opposing facts. On the one hand ICEVI and this group are more than other professional-groups accustomed to international cooperation and - I am confident - able to fix some binding basic standards and elements. On the other hand each teacher-training unit dealing with visual impairment is one of the smallest in their prevailing faculties, colleges or institutes. Can there be a chance to carry out the standards our group has agreed to? Universities wish to implement a uniformed B.A / M.A models with standardized credits for seminars. e.g. maybe one university will give 12 Credit-points to a module in early intervention and another 6 Credit-points - what does that mean for an exchange student? What if you can become a teacher within a 3 year B.A study in one country but will need an additional two year master course in another? At present we can excuse the differences with national standards, and I am afraid it will be extremely dangerous to keep these different levels within a common European framework. I guess, this assumption provokes an explanation and I will try to give you only one: If one agrees with it or not, society in Europe follows more or less the economic code: profitable ore unprofitable. Economic costs and values are main aspects in almost all areas. If one country shows that it can cope with teachers on a bachelor level, most of the other countries will follow this example despite the totally different cultural and social situation. Due to this development I suggest as a first recommendation: A European network Teacher Training of Teachers and Professionals specialized in visual impairment should come to a coordinated, uniform system of degrees of undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels.

We should adopt the suggestion of the EU committee to take about 180 credits for a B.A and about 120 credits for a M.A study. The basic acceptance requirement for a Master programme in most countries is a first degree in Bachelor level, and normally in combination with more specific requirements defined by the department offering the master level. Within the Master programme about 60 credits should be identified for the specific subject. Those are more general aspects and sometimes outside the influence we have. But there are several aspects which in my opinion need a detailed discussion and if possible decision within our group.

  1. We need a strategy and agreement, what should be the curriculum at B.A level and what kind of qualification should we strive for? It might be on the one hand an appropriate decision to put all the basic qualifications into the programme. On the other hand students should get a qualification with which they may enter the labour market. What are they qualified for?
  2. Should the B.A be the prerequisite to join a Master programme or should we define other conditions or training programmes in addition? Within consecutive models students from the international community will have more problems to fulfil the conditions for the master programme. However a model with an independent structure will probably cost twice as much for accreditation.
  3. What will we accept as a Master Programme? e.g in Germany most of the universities and the Ministries of Education are going to put teacher training at Master level and define the B.A-qualification as a kind of educational assistant. Besides this, Master studies will give the universities the opportunity to design a special profile to develop joint degree programmes just as 'Erasmus mundus' offers too. What would we recommend as Master programmes in the field of visual impairment? Do we regard e.g. orientation and mobility as a future master study and how would such a study be different from a one year full time course in professional training?
  4. Should we offer a wide variety of master programmes in our field or would it be more appropriate and effective if we came to an agreement to establish priorities across Europe?

The introduction of new degree structures and programmes goes hand in hand in many countries with the implementation of new quality assurance mechanisms, often in the form of accreditation. These accreditation agencies have worked out criteria for the diverse levels. At B.A level, so called soft skills such as: being able to communicate well, being able to deal with clients, speaking foreign languages, good presentation skills should be incorporated into the programme and the programme should be polyvalent, which means, graduates should be able to proceed in different ways e.g. to enter the labour market or to be able to apply for different Master courses. At M.A level they expect research related projects, clearly specified qualifications and methodological and methodical abilities. I don't exactly know how accreditation is practised in the different countries. In Germany we have to pay about 20 000 € to get a Master programme accredited. So having a Master study depends not only on the teaching capability you have but also on the money, your department, your institute or your faculty is willing to pay.

Looking at the model the colleagues from the Barczi Gusztav College have worked out, the polyvalence at B.A level refers to teacher training as well as to external rehabilitation within the subject of visual impairment which has to be chosen after the first year. The student has the option and the possibility to change within the two courses and has to make a definite decision after two years. This Y - model should be considered seriously.

slide Undergraduate Training in Special Education at Barczi Gustav Faculty of Special Education  slide Bachelor of Education at University of Dortmund, Faculty of Rehabilitation Sciences

In Dortmund we are discussing a variation of this model. All B.A students will have a basic curriculum in special education in the first year, afterwards they have to decide if they will join the teacher-training course or the pedagogical rehabilitation branch. They will have some courses together (dark part in the diagram) and study similar structured modules. This makes changes easier to practise. After B.A level the teacher-training branch leads into a M.A course (consecutive model) whereas students with the B.A in pedagogical rehabilitation can enter the labour market or can apply for a Master in 'rehabilitation-sciences' or other Master studies. Our experiences with a diploma course that is not divided up into the traditional disabilities but is oriented on 'life studies' like early intervention or vocational and social rehabilitation supports the decision to transfer this concept into the B.A model. Students are obliged to establish two priorities from four offered. So these students are not specialized in the field of visual impairment as the Hungarian students are, but are qualified in two fields like early intervention or vocational training in general. With this more detailed explanation I would like to ask you a possible question for the future: will those students have fulfilled the conditions to enter a Master program e.g. in Vision Rehabilitation or Orientation and Mobility or any other specified programme? My second recommendation therefore is:

"We should establish a working group to compare the existing and the planned B.A/M.A courses and to give guidelines for further development. These guidelines should take into consideration the autonomy of the universities as well as the necessity to rely on an international system of shared decisions in the field of the educational and rehabilitational system in the case of visual impairment."

All these teacher training workshops were and are important steps on the way to a common and comparable system because many structural and many aspects in terms of content were represented. The four themes we are going to work on in the next few days stand for current and maybe future demands. Two workshops relating to structural aspects, workshop I How to include research in teacher training projects, i.e. active student participation. and workshop II Internet based virtual resource data banks (IsaR) and distance university courses. How to realise them through international co-operation. are balanced by workshop III dealing with How to prepare teachers to work in different educational environments. The individual education plan as a tool including a MIVI student in a regular setting workshop IV discussing Empowerment: Rehabilitation and education of persons with blindness and low vision - between independent living skills and competence of self-determination. All topics being considered within the perspective of teacher training. As you may have noticed, except in MIVI which is one of the biggest sellers in all conferences, and for which there is an urgent need to discuss the perspective of teacher-training courses, there is no workshop dealing with traditional aspects of teaching blind and visual impaired children. Are these the first signals that the field has changed? If you consider the fact that more than half of the participants have chosen group III you may have doubts about this assumption. But even this signals a change, because teaching MIVI students in a regular setting is in many countries a new challenge. The competencies of teachers of students with visual impairment which you discussed seven years ago at the occasion of the first Teacher Training conference may have changed less than one may think. Although the International Classification of functioning of the World Health Organization causes a further change not only in terms but also in attitudes, the competencies you have worked out are still valid. There is one aspect which seems to be counterproductive to the usual task of teachers: the less independence an impaired person has, the more space for self-esteem and self determination should be given. To work on this attitude as workshop IV does, is in my opinion an important task for further teacher- training. Distance learning and working on an e-learning network will be one of the greatest challenges we have to face, especially because the euphoria about the possibilities of this medium has decreased. We should make a level-headed assessment about where to work at a European level and where to maintain national specifics. I don't know if research has been a theme in the former conferences. Two assumptions led this question to be a current one. A school's self-development and autonomy is accompanied by the demand of self-evaluation, evaluation of the school-programme as well as of the process of lessons. To be able to do this, teachers need to have abilities to design and to analyse surveys, to construct tests etc. That is one aspect of workshop I, the other aspect considers the second topic I have mentioned at the beginning of my speech, the fact that due to the decreasing number of children with visual impairment in Europe, the whole educational field seems to be irrelevant when observed by outsiders. Could it be, that the perception we have and the perception of outsiders are considerably different? Could it be that we have missed the opportunity to convey to the public the importance of the work we do and the work all the professionals in the field do? There are two aspects I was thinking on while preparing this keynote address. The first considers the character of sight, the second the visibility of our understanding and the results of our work. Please allow me to give you some of my thoughts on both these aspects.

Sight, to be able to see is taken for granted in a very specific way. Because the visualisation of everyday life has increased tremendously we consider visuality as one of the most important information processing systems. Usually people can't imagine loss of sight and consider this loss as one of the heaviest they can imagine. At the same time people generalize their way to see and to perceive, they take the given visual environment for granted, they cannot understand that perception is a constructive performance of the brain and can therefore be very different, this is not including the various conditions of visual impairments. The fact that we can't observe how we see, and also we can't observe the process of learning to see makes it very difficult to realize the problems people with visual impairment have, be it based on ocular or on cerebral problems. The fact that the professional field dealing with visual impairment too often focuses on the eye and less on general aspects of perception and that psychologists, on the contrary, focus almost exclusively on the cognitional aspect of perception, has created two systems which take little notice of each other. We missed the chance to enter this field where much more attention from the public is given. To give you an example of what I am referring to, I would like to remind you of the book by Donald D. Hoffman titled: Visual intelligence. It is a very interesting written bestseller and is structured in the following way. Each chapter starts with a story of a person with a rare and curious visual impairment like prosopagnosia or lack of shape perception as an appetizer. If you assume he will explain these specific problems in the ongoing text you will be left disappointed. He seldom refers to these examples, instead he explains what he calls principles of perception in a very basic and interesting way. He is fascinated with the unconscious intelligence of the visual system and how it works in the reliable way it does. He never asks himself, what will happen, if the preconditions he sets are not given. Two of his principles are as follows:
a) always interpret a straight line in a picture as a straight line in three dimension.
Slide Visual Intelligence - 1. principle Slide Visual Intelligence - 2. principle
b) always interpret the ends of two lines which meet in a picture so, that they will meet in three dimension as well.

What if a line is not straight because of ocular or cerebral problems? What if due to visual field loss the ends of two lines will not meet? Are then all the principles which are built on these two rules wrong ? We as professionals of visual impairment are accustomed to focus on the quality of the line while psychologists or neurologists focus on the principles of perception. They are never concerned about the quality of the picture, so are we in a sufficient way concerned about perceptual problems? Perceptual problems are highly rated in the list of problems children have, think of ADD or dyslexia or hyperactivity. Why do we allow psychologists and other professionals to occupy this field alone. If you take into account that 2% of children have difficulties in recognizing or interpreting faces, that autism is very often accompanied by prosopagnosia, shape recognition or crowding problems, that an unknown percentage of dyslexia has to do with scotoma or tiny posterior lesion. Why are we not interested in these problems. I'm sure we could make a remarkable contribution to diagnosis and to ease these problems? Is the official classification of visual impairment for all of us the given rule?

Or am I totally wrong when I hypothesize a decreasing relevance and awareness of teaching children with visual impairment? E.g. at university level the three universities in Germany have to struggle with the fact that they are the smallest unit within their faculties; at school level, the necessary number of schools or resource-centers is regarded with scepticism. Classes with children with MIVI are no longer supposed to be in the charge of a teacher. Nurses and other educational carers are regarded to be sufficient for that group. The next step may be to remove compulsory school attendance and the right to visit schools for children with MIVI.

There is an interest in concentrating all low incidence impairments in one unit. That is to say that facing the present trend of utilitarianism in the social and the health-field we will have to struggle to keep our institutions in existence. Therefore my third recommendation is as follows:

"We should work out a strategy to minimize the exclusion risks not only for the people we are working for but for the whole system. To do this, we have to be more visible to the public."

Before I come to a short conclusion, let me say a few words about the visibility of our work. Am I right or wrong if I consider that the profession we stand for in the public eye is more aware of our charitable effects than of our contribution to research and further development in society? Do we want to change this or are we satisfied to work in a niche? I am afraid that mainstreaming will allow niches no longer. I hope and recommend,

"to accomodate a wider spectrum of visual and perceptual problems including the visual problems of the elderly which will also allow us to keep the standard and the services we have developed over the years in visual impairment".

To do this universities and colleges should offer studies on teacher-training and in professions in other educational and rehabilitation fields.

"They should develop a research programme on national and on an international level, which guarantees public visibility".

To do all this, is asking too much for a single unit at the university. Therefore we are in a great need of a strong and bonding network. Together we are able to face the challenges of the so-called Europe of knowledge, the Bologna process and the changes in society. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am confident that due to many years of experience in ICEVI we have worked well together, and we have been able to meet these challenges successfully. I hope this conference will make an important step in creating a network on all levels.


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