Oregonians fight to save school for the blind

SALEM, Oregon—Both visually-impaired and sighted people in Oregon are battling to block legislation now pending before the Oregon Legislature that would permanently close the 136-year old Oregon School for the Blind (OSB).

“This would be horrible, a setback for the education of visually impaired students in Oregon,” said Kae L. Seth, former president of the American Council for the Blind of Oregon, and currently a member of the board of directors of OSB. She was on her way to the monthly meeting of the OSB board of directors May 14 when she spoke to the PWW by cell phone.

HR-2834, the bill to close OSB, was approved in the House Committee on Education and sent to the Ways and Means Committee, where it will be referred to a subcommittee.

“We’ve been told the bill is going to be moving quite quickly,' Seth added. Legislators on the Ways and Means Committee “haven’t been responding to our questions on where things stand. We are waiting to hear further news ourselves,” she said.

Susan Castillo, Oregon Superintendent of Schools, is opposed to closing OSB. Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton) has also spoken out against OSB closure. But Oregon’s crushing 12.9 percent jobless rate and plunging state revenues has put many vital programs on the chopping block. There is a militant struggle, for example, to save the research library of the Oregon Historical Society from closure.

Seth, who is totally blind, debunked arguments that closing OSB will help resolve Oregon’s fiscal crisis. “It would be like applying a band-aid on a wound,” she said. “This will only shift the burden of teaching these students back to their parents and the public schools in their home districts. I don’t doubt that teachers will do their best to teach them, but often these students do not do as well in a regular classroom as they do at OSB where they have one-on-one instruction from teachers specially trained to teach the visually-impaired.”

An earlier proposal to close OSB, sell the campus to developers and transfer the students to the Oregon School for the Deaf “has been taken off the table. It isn’t being considered,” Seth continued. “The only option on the table is closing OSB.”

Christopher Kliks wrote an open letter to President Obama, printed in the April 18 Oregonian, describing himself as a pre-admission candidate for “Project Braille” at Portland State University, “the only regional program that teaches TVIs (Teachers of the Visually Impaired). The program has just been shut down,” Kliks wrote. He appealed to Obama to push Congress to provide federal funds to reopen and fully fund programs for the blind and disabled.

Seth told the World she had read Kliks letter. “There is nothing wrong with writing to President Obama, asking for federal funds,” she said.

OSB students, faculty, parents and their community allies are fighting hard to stop HR-2834. There were rallies of 100 or more on the steps of the Oregon legislature in March and April demanding that the bill be killed in committee or voted down. The fight to save OSB has become a hot topic in the media. The blog (WR) has featured articles and commentary on the struggle on a daily basis.

A recent article in the East Oregonian (EO), posted on the , quotes testimony before the legislature by OSB teacher, Liz Owen: “Please don’t throw our children away over money,” she told the lawmakers. “They did not ask for this life, it is just the way they have to live it.”

Adina Teribury, a mother from Pendleton, told EO her 14 year old son, Alix, was enrolled at OSB three years ago. He was born blind, is severely developmentally disabled and suffers seizures. At the public school in Pendleton he was disruptive and so frustrated that he inflicted injuries on himself and fellow students. All that ended when he moved to the residential campus of OSB, Teribury said. “As mentally retarded as he is, he’s made progress by leaps and bounds. It’s been a miracle for him and our family.'

In addition to academic subjects, OSB provides mobility training, use of a cane and how to ride mass transit buses, and generally how to function as a blind person in society. Students also participate in sports, learn to play musical instruments, and operate a campus radio station. There are two dorms, an infirmary, a gymnasium and swimming pool, a dining hall and headquarters building of the Oregon Commission for the Blind.