In Italy, “I” Stands for Inclusion, Part 1: Gabriele Colantonio Recounts Attending School As a Child with a Visual Impairment

Editor’s Note: In honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (Thursday, May 18), we are sharing two stories about the education of children who are blind or visually impaired in Italy. Today’s story is from Gabriele Colantonio about his experience with different school systems across several regions of Italy. Tune in tomorrow for part two, “A Closer Look at Italy’s Approach to Educating Blind and Visually Impaired Students of Today.”

Gabriele Colantonio Recounts Attending School As a Child with a Visual Impairment

Since 1977, the Italian Ministry of Education has emphasized the importance of integrating all children, including children with learning disabilities and physical disabilities, into the common system. Their mission is based on a philosophy that values the social, psychosocial, and behavioral benefits of this inclusion. Gabriele Colantonio, President of the Abruzzo Chapter of the Italian Union for the Blind and Visually Impaired, shares his experiences in different school systems, across several regions of Italy, and the level of respect and inclusion that encouraged him to become a practicing lawyer.

Vision Loss and Continuing School

At age 11, in the summer just before starting “prima media,” (junior high by our terms), Gabriele Colantonio endured eye trauma that left him completely blind. He and his parents decided that it was best for him to take a year off before continuing his education. Gabriele would later attend the same public school during the day and receive additional services to learn to read and write braille. There were no residential schools for blind or visually impaired students in his region, and unfortunately, the teachers’ lack of preparation and experience at the public school created a long list of obstacles that Gabriele would need to confront later in life.

Lack of Accommodations

This was the mid-80s in Abruzzo, a region “detached” from the larger Italian metropoli; access was not an option. The teachers at this public school were not specialized in teaching students with visual impairments. They provided minimum adjustments instead of the necessary tutoring, textbooks in braille, and adaptive resources Gabriele needed. He was isolated in a separate classroom to receive one-on-one teaching, and for the few classes in which he was allowed to sit with the rest of his class, the teacher made little adjustments to ensure he was following along. This was the common case in smaller, less accessible regions across the country, and sadly, still occurs in certain regions today. When Gabriele started falling behind in the second year of junior high, as could have been predicted, the administration did not make the necessary reforms.

“Instead of providing private tutoring for the material I’d missed, or investing in the additional time and training to bring me up to grade-level, they decided amongst themselves that as a blind man, my future was predestined to be a career in the call center,” Gabriele shared. “They assumed they were doing me a favor, letting me slide through the third year (terza media) of junior high with an easier, separate exam. It was the greatest disservice I’d ever been handed.”

Moving to Rome for Better Opportunities

Being the ambitious teenager that he was, he decided that instead of getting locked into the limitations that others were imposing on him, he’d go where horizons were within his reach. While it wasn’t easy, his parents made a decision that would change his entire life path: they moved northwest to Rome, enrolled him in Centro Regionale Sant’Alessio for the Blind, and, most importantly, enrolled him in the public school down the block from the institute. During the day, he’d attend a full, normal day of classes with teachers who were prepared and comfortable working with students who had visual impairments, and after school, he’d walk down the block to S. Alessio for auxiliary training and tutoring. With the collaboration between the administrators at the institute, his informed parents, and the teachers at the public school down the block, Gabriele received the adapted materials he needed—braille textbooks, audio cassettes, adapted workbooks—and in the span of one year, he recovered the previous two years of junior high that he had lost. He vowed that he’d work twice as hard to catch up, and he did. Most days, from morning to night, he found himself studying 16 to 17 hours a day, “come uno matto,” (like a mad scientist) because he was aware of his own potential, and he was determined to attain it.

“The greatest gift of moving to Rome was not joining the Institute at S. Alessio alone,” Gabriele said. “It was the level of awareness and understanding that emanated throughout the entire neighborhood. Being in the vicinity of the historic school for the blind, everyone—teachers, store owners, bus drivers—were accustomed to seeing blind and visually impaired students and adults of all ages navigating the area, ordering coffee at the cafe, and catching the bus home after the school day. I was not segregated for my handicap but included in all normal daily activities, and additional services were there for me if I needed them. I was treated like a human being.”

Resources on Choosing a School for a Child with a Visual Impairment

Exploring the Options for Your Blind Child’s Education

A Parent’s Guide to Special Education for Children with Visual Impairments

Join the message board conversation on choosing between mainstream or specialized schools!