HISD shuts down a program for visually impaired students and strips its teacher of her job

Barbara Schindler enters with her erect posture and close-cropped, curly hair streaked with gray. She's wearing a plain, high-buttoned dress and showing the strong bearing gained from all she ever wanted to be in life: an old-fashioned schoolmarm.

With no kids in the room, her disciplined demeanor relaxes into broad grins at the thoughts of their occasional antics. And her easy smile lingers even longer when she describes, with pride, the strides her students have made.

"Just look at this," she says, sliding a child's open scrapbook across a table. "Here was the trip to the petting zoo. We've been on field trips to the grocery store, the beauty shop -- we even made bath salts kits and sold them to other teachers to raise the money for lunch."

Schindler, shown here with her guide dog Baja, is battling HISD on behalf of blind students.
Daniel Kramer
Schindler, shown here with her guide dog Baja, is battling HISD on behalf of blind students.

Those might be typical endeavors for most pupils or teachers. But Barbara Schindler and her students are blind. She fought back from the loss of both eyes to acquire teaching degrees and other tools -- braille, sign language, Spanish and more -- for her work in educating at-risk blind students at Hamilton Middle School.

Now Schindler's fighting back against what she feels is a worse personal crisis. In response to budget problems, HISD stripped her of that teaching job and gutted the special education life skills program for the visually impaired. She believes those actions will lead to the meaningless warehousing of the blind in the school district.

"Sometimes we have to stand up for things we believe in," Schindler says matter-of-factly. "I feel like this is wrong. So I'm going to have to do what I can to keep this program open."

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws, the handicapped are afforded the same rights to educational opportunities as those without disabilities. Attorney Elaine B. Roberts explains that blind students are supposed to reap benefits similar to those of the overall student population.

In HISD, there are about 300 blind students. With some assistance, many of them are able to cope in regular classes. For blind kids with other problems, HISD has relied for about 20 years on the special Visually Impaired Life Skills Program, in which students receive basic instruction along with intense training in how to become self-sufficient in a world they cannot see.

Something as simple as a breakfast of eggs can be a mystery to blind kids. "They don't have the basic concept. They can't see how Mom is preparing it -- cracking the egg, scrambling it, putting it in the frying pan," Schindler explains. "They just know it's there. It takes a lot of experiencing." She relies on a "hands over hands" routine to introduce students to everyday chores, such as washing clothes, cleaning house, dressing and making the bed.

Schindler found herself facing those challenges fairly early in life. She'd been a tomboy growing up on a farm and ranch in the Hallettsville area west of Houston. A deeply religious woman, Schindler received her degree in education and lived and taught in a convent in San Antonio in her quest to become a nun. In 1968, she had a minor infection, although the treatment -- a penicillin shot -- almost killed her. Schindler's body reacted by shutting down. She came out of her coma a week later with badly scarred corneas. That began the long fight to retain her sight, with scores of operations ending with the removal of her second eye in 1984.

Rather than withdrawing, Schindler set out to do even more with her life. She set out to experience -- even if she couldn't see -- Europe, touring the Catacombs and cathedrals in a religious pilgrimage of sorts. "I wanted to see so bad," she admits. "But the trip came to center more on why I was there. I think I got more out of it than most people."

After her return, she got a job as a receptionist and began volunteer work and teaching to help others with disabilities. Schindler got her special certification to teach the visually handicapped after serving as an HISD volunteer in braille and related courses.

Three years ago, she became the teacher in the special life skills class for the visually impaired at Hamilton Middle School. HISD operated a similar program at Lockhart Elementary School. Friends say that, along with her educational background, the biggest benefit she brought to students was simply being a role model -- showing them that a fellow blind person could excel in life.

When the aide for one of her blind students failed to arrive to take him to his next class last year, Schindler found his cane and got her guide dog Baja. The three of them set out and located his classroom. "When he came back to the classroom, he had so much confidence," she says.

Schindler relied on aides for the students for some of the work, but she was largely self-sufficient. Her students ranged in number from six to the two she taught last year. She tells of putting up with budgetary shortfalls -- she had to buy computer equipment and other materials. And there were indications that the district was neglecting the program: The classroom had broken floor tiles and even mice, which were particularly scary for the blind children. The room had no running water either, hampering efforts to teach kitchen skills and requiring Schindler to buy her own drinking water for the students.

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