They say it takes a village to raise a child. A disabled child’s village may become more complex than that of a typical child. But, if we are lucky, disability can invite quality relationships with adults that we might not otherwise have.
When I think about my own village, my memory quickly turns to my Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI), Mrs. Bonnie Gursh. I was fortunate to have her as my TVI from my first day of kindergarten until my last day of high school.
Arguably, one of the most important jobs for a TVI is to teach braille. A good TVI should be braille-knowledgeable and braille-positive. Mrs. Gursh was both of those things. The thing I always associate with her memory is the sound of her typing furiously on the Perkins brailler, a typewriter-like device used to write braille on paper. At all three of my schools, Mrs. Gursh set up shop in a dedicated “resource room” and whenever I passed this classroom, I almost always heard the clattering of the brailler keys, the bell ringing that signaled the end of each line, and the sound of paper being extracted and a new page being loaded into the device. Mrs. Gursh was not blind, and braille was her second alphabet, but this did not diminish her fluency and speed with braille. Although Mrs. Gursh’s primary role was to teach, she also spent many hours each week brailling class materials for her students. My school district had a professional braillist on staff, but Mrs. Gursh filled the gaps with all the last-minute worksheets and other assignments that came in each day. From my alphabet books in kindergarten, to my AP calculus and physics equations senior year, Mrs. Gursh worked tirelessly and without complaint so I could have every assignment or exam handed to me at the exact same time as my sighted classmates. She also transcribed the other way, printing my brailled classwork for my teachers until I reached middle school and started typing my work.
I learned many academic skills from Mrs. Gursh, but most of the lessons I remember today were not academic ones.
Mrs. Gursh had strong relationships with the other TVIs in our district. Early in my schooling, she and her colleagues organized field trips for all of the blind students in the district. She pulled me out of class for special cooking and baking lessons. Some of our group meetings even happened at her house. Over two summers during elementary school, she taught at a small day camp that was hosted in our parents’ homes on a rotating basis. My first friendships with other blind children emerged out of these meetups. One of Mrs. Gursh’s other students, an older kid named Ben, became one of my best friends. When I was older, Mrs. Gursh gave me information about the National Federation of the Blind, an organization that now comprises my adult blind community.
Later in elementary school, once I discovered ableism, I began to challenge my teachers who wouldn’t let me participate fully in class activities. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me, so they brought their frustrations to Mrs. Gursh. Whenever she received a complaint about my insubordination, Mrs. Gursh would make me braille up a report explaining what happened. Then, I had to read the report to Mom or Dad, who would sign it. Naturally, at the time I hated these assignments, especially the need to get a parent signature. And, there was probably a disciplinary aspect to the assignments. But, I realize now, Mrs. Gursh probably also used my reports to get my take on what really happened. She wanted all of us, including my parents, to be on the same page. And, I learned that my perspective was important. Most teachers don’t much care about your opinion when you’re ten.
As I got older, Mrs. Gursh would ask me to evaluate my own progress for the reports she brought to my Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. She asked me for feedback on her teaching and the goals in my IEP. She went to many professional conferences to stay abreast of the latest teaching methods.
Mrs. Gursh was a kind and humble woman, but she was no pushover. Ben and I would often discuss how she could command authority without ever once raising her voice. When I was little, if I dropped something on the floor, most of the sighted people around would just pick it up for me, but not Mrs. Gursh. She insisted on making me search for the lost item. She also required me to write my spelling words twice, in both contracted and uncontracted braille, so I could spell correctly both in braille and on the computer. It was hard work, but today I don’t have a magic elf picking up things for me, and I type things all the time. I’m glad I didn’t get off easy on those things.
As I matured, Mrs. Gursh made it clear that I would need to become my own advocate. I was gradually assigned to take more responsibility for requesting accessible copies of my course materials. The final formal lesson I received from Mrs. Gursh was all about self-advocacy, and my rights and responsibilities both in high school and in my post-high school future. She told me that in college, “You’ll need a primary way of getting accessible materials, and at least two backups.” That was definitely the truth. And, sadly, I saw many of my blind peers struggle in college because they didn’t have those backup plans.
As my high school graduation approached, Ben warned me that after graduation, I would no longer be allowed to call our teacher “Mrs. Gursh.” She insisted on answering to her first name, “Bonnie.” Ben warned me this would be difficult.
During my final week of high school, Mrs. Gursh gave me a final assignment. I was to email her a letter describing what I liked about her teaching and how I thought she could improve. I wrote her a letter, explaining the many things I liked, as well as my feeling that I wished there had been less emphasis on my social skills training. Mrs. Gursh sent me a thoughtful reply. She explained that she understood my concerns, and that it was challenging to balance the wishes of my parents, my teachers, myself, and the recommendations of professional practice when designing my IEP. She concluded the email: “From Mrs. Gursh; and from now on, Bonnie.” I still tear up when I think about that note.
I saw Bonnie once after my first year of university. Then, we stayed in contact via Facebook. She’s been “Bonnie” for 16 years now. I now serve as associate editor for an academic journal. Just a few months ago, we received a manuscript about professional development for TVIs. In thinking about peer reviewers for the paper, I naturally thought of Bonnie, who now has 40 years of teaching experience. I asked her to review the article. She did, and with her suggestions, the article was revised and ultimately accepted at the journal. I felt like things had come full circle from Bonnie’s first visit with me when I was 5 years old.
Sadly, this story is a rare one for blind children in public schools. Although these children are entitled to receive service from TVIs, most students don’t stay with the same TVI for 13 years. But worse than that, there is a severe shortage of qualified TVIs to meet the demand. Too many TVIs are not skilled enough in braille to teach it adequately. And, even the best teachers are often over-extended with large caseloads, prohibiting the kind of quality interaction that I had with Mrs. Gursh. The behind-the-scenes transcription support I got from Mrs. Gursh is now often delegated to “paraprofessionals,” instructional aides who may have little to no training in blindness. These individuals may not be equipped to support the student’s self-advocacy and independence. The lack of quality TVI support is one reason that many instructional teams find reasons not to teach braille at all to students who have enough sight to get away with reading some print.
I cannot deny that socioeconomic privilege played a role in enabling the strong relationship I had with Mrs. Gursh. The school district had enough resources to give her a manageable caseload and enough time each week for her to attend to all aspects of my education. That doesn’t happen everywhere. But even regardless of resources, a quality teacher can make a real difference in people’s lives. Today, I try to emulate the qualities of patience, humility, and collaborative spirit that I learned by watching Mrs. Gursh. In working with our youth transition program, I try to pass on her high expectations, the value she placed on self-determination and lifelong learning, and the joys of the blind community to the next generation. Thank you to my colleague and my friend, Bonnie.