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 dives into Italy’s current approach to educating children with visual impairment. If you missed part one of this series, check out “Gabriele Colantonio Recounts Attending School As a Child with a Visual Impairment.”
Closer Look at Italy’s Approach to Educating Visually Impaired Students
In part one, we learned about Gabriele Colantonio, an Italian lawyer who is blind, and his experience of attending school in Italy as a child with a visual impairment. After attending a school with little support and accommodations, Gabriele’s family decided to move to Rome where Gabriele could attend Centro Regionale Sant’Alessio for the Blind. Initially founded as a live-in institute in 1868, the Institute at S. Alessio was created for “the poor blind children” of school-age to learn to read and write braille.
It remained this way, synonymous with many early US residential school models for the blind and visually impaired, until 1987. After Law 118 was passed in 1971, giving children with disabilities access to common classrooms, and Law 517, passed in 1977, abolishing the establishment of specialized schools in Italy, the Italian Ministry of Education started paving the way for students with visual impairments and other disabilities to have access to ample services in public schools.
Framework Set Into Motion
When Law 104 was passed in Italy in 1992, that long-awaited framework was set into motion. It can be considered the Italian version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the US, as it clearly specifies and requires that all necessary services be provided to students with disabilities.
The law states that its primary goal toward full integration into the common educational system will be provided through
- access to necessary materials and services,
- additional assistance to the pupil and their families,
- the adoption of measures for prevention and functional recovery, and
- ensures social, economic and legal protection.
Today, in Italy, the residential segregated school model for blind and visually impaired students has completely diffused, and it’s considered a great victory.
“On every level regarding the development and education of a student, we want inclusion,” Gabriele added. Coming from someone who brought himself up two grade levels in one year, applied to and graduated with a law degree from Rome’s prestigious university, La Sapienza, and then went on to receive his specialization from the University of Teramo, all without the accessible technology of today, it’s a statement that carries great weight.
“From a young age, blind and visually impaired students need to have access to the outside world, the people walking around the outside world, and their sighted peers in the outside world. The best way we can give this experience to them as early as possible is through inclusion and integration in the schools.”
Access to Assistive Services
Each student, after receiving the necessary eye exams and processing the necessary documentation from a vision specialist, will have access to assistive services provided by the state in their school and outside of school. They are entitled to additional services—academic, independent living, and career training—provided by their region. In addition, private training and tutoring are available upon request as well as financial assistance to purchase necessary assistive equipment such as an iPad with screen reading software, portable braille monitors, and accessible computer software programs for laptops and PCs.
“These little inventions,” Gabriele said, holding up his iPhone, touching the head phones around his neck, the iPad on his desk, and iWatch on his wrist, “have given us freedom and autonomy to do everything sighted people do. We have no excuse to not participate in the natural, external world. It’s no longer external.”
Not Without Flaws or Setbacks
That’s not to say that life as a blind or visually impaired individual in Italy is without flaws or setbacks. As in any country, accessibility, career and academic opportunities, and general awareness of blindness and visual impairment are much more readily available in larger cities and metropolitan areas like Rome, Milan, Bologna, Padova; training opportunities and general public understanding are much less available in smaller, more remote regions across the country.
“Here in Abruzzo,” adds Gabriele, “we still have a lot of work to do to reach the level of awareness available in Rome, for example, but we know what we need to do, and we are moving toward that goal. Slowly, but surely.”
Nevertheless, Gabriele’s story, the delegalization of residential schools in Italy, and the emphasis on integrating students whose only obstacle is visual into the school system provides a key lesson. If additional assistance is necessary, it’s available. However, on every other front—social, psychological, psychosocial, behavioral, economic—mainstreaming is viewed as a solution.
Moving Forward and Spreading Awareness
In the coming months, Gabriele, as President of the Abruzzo Chapter of the Italian Union for the Blind and Visually Impaired, is organizing a very important practice for elementary and secondary students in the area. He and a member of the association are planning to visit schools (with or without students who are blind or visually impaired) to explain how they move through their day and the devices they use to access information, work, and study.
In this way, Gabriele is bringing the level of awareness and understanding that changed his life’s path in Rome to Abruzzo. This is how we move the needle on progress, one region at a time.