In our prison, all disabled and special needs students are mainstreamed into the classroom. Individual education plan conferences and case reviews tend to be sporadic, and sometimes don’t happen because of the age factor. Legally, if they are over twenty-three, we don’t have to provide the special services we must offer the younger individuals. If they are under twenty-three, by law we have to provide all of these meetings.
Generally, it is up to the individual teacher to accommodate each student. The best way to explain this is to give a personal example.
In April 2006, I received a request from a gentleman who was 100% blind, to be enrolled in school. The immediate reaction was a bit of fear by anybody I approached with the request. No one, including my supervisor, thought we could accommodate the man’s situation. I thought, though, we had a legal and ethical obligation to offer him services.
I obtained my supervisor’s permission to interview Mr. Edwards*, in order to assess the situation and see if there was anything we could do for him. I established Mr. Edwards had been sighted from birth to age nineteen; a gunshot to his face totally destroyed his vision. He had completed the tenth grade and seemed very eager to learn Braille and to earn his GED. My reaction was, “Holy cow, what am I going to do?”
I accepted Mr. Edwards into my classroom and did extensive research so I could help him. I contacted the state library, obtained a GED program on tape, a tape recorder, and made arrangements for him to sign out talking books and magazines on a regular basis.
I located an NCA accredited school, the Hadley School for the Blind. Mr. Edwards was enrolled in correspondence Braille classes. This free school is an excellent resource for anybody who has issues with blindness or poor sight. It even offers courses for people who work with the blind, such as a parent.
A special education teacher eventually provided us with a conference and made arrangements for Mr. Edwards to take the GED orally. Obtaining a talking calculator and a talking dictionary, along with a few other pieces of helpful equipment, was quite a challenge. Eventually, we got them, and he was allowed to take them back and forth to the dorm so he could study when not in school.
I accumulated three files of forms and documentation, attempting to serve Mr. Edward’s needs. The red tape involved was overwhelming, to say the least. I spent time speaking to the dorm officers and to the prison case managers. Permission was obtained for him to have a key lock rather than a combination lock. He was eventually allowed to carry his tapes, cassette recorder and materials back and forth.
For the first two weeks, Mr. Edwards was in a wheelchair, so I thought he had a dual disability. I wondered if he had been shot in his spine. I didn’t know quite what the situation was, but one day, by accident, I realized he could stand up. I expressed surprise when I walked in the room and saw him standing. He laughed and said, “They make me sit in this wheelchair. Another inmate was assigned to push me over to school, because they’re afraid I’m going to fall. I think they’re afraid I’d sue.”
I’m sure the prison officers meant well. They were trying to accommodate him and make sure he was safe, he didn’t fall, and nothing happened to him. But Mr. Edwards was frustrated. He lamented that he already had one disability and really didn’t need to be sitting in a wheelchair.
We worked it out. We obtained a cane for the blind through the Lion’s Club. And instead of an inmate pushing Mr. Edwards to school in the wheelchair, I convinced the security staff it would be fine if the “wheel chair pusher” walked next to him, guided him to school, and nobody would sue them.
When the administration understood how important it was for the man to be able to walk and not feel like he had another disability, they gladly went along with it. It just took somebody to advocate for Mr. Edwards.
We called the man “blind guy.” It wasn’t meant as a “put down”. It was just a joke, and he even referred to himself by the term. An administrator from the state had once been in my classroom and said, “Can I meet the blind guy?” My response was, “Do you mean Mr. Edwards?” Once, Mr. Edwards needed to write a letter to that same state administrator. He signed his letter with, “Blind Guy.”
When other teachers would see him in the hall, they would say, “Hey, blind guy.” “Blind guy” knew all the teachers by voice and would always say “Hi”, calling each teacher by name. He was very intelligent and worked very, very hard. It took him about a year, but Mr. Edwards ended up passing the GED test, scoring very high. I was amazed, to tell you the truth. It’s beyond me how a man can “write” an essay by dictation. He couldn’t see, but he would tell the tester where to put each punctuation mark. He was an amazing individual! He even learned to type. I learned more from Mr. Edwards than he learned from me, that’s for sure!
The situation taught me we need to be proactive. It is very easy for disabled students like Mr. Edwards to get lost in the shuffle. We need to constantly follow up on our recommendations and be certain all people with special needs get every opportunity available to them. It was very time-consuming and sometimes a frustrating process, but it was very rewarding when I saw the progress and appreciation from Mr. Edwards.
*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.
Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at .