One area that takes up quite a bit of my personal time is education of blind children. I represent the Association on the Board of Trustees of the Blind and Low Vision Education Network (NZ) (BLENNZ). This is a relatively new organisation that combines the old school for the blind we used to know as Homai College with virtually all of the visual resource centres around the country.

One area that takes up quite a bit of my personal time is education of blind children. I represent the Association on the Board of Trustees of the Blind and Low Vision Education Network (NZ) (BLENNZ). This is a relatively new organisation that combines the old school for the blind we used to know as Homai College with virtually all of the visual resource centres around the country.

Most blind children today attend local schools, and face immense challenges in their education. Subjects are often taught visually, and nowadays there is a lot of technology in the class room. But much of this is inaccessible to blind children so they can easily miss out on getting the same education that other children get. But these children also need to learn basic skils that relate to their blindness or low vision, such as learning braille, how to walk around safely, how to effectively use specialised technology, how to be independent, how to behave socially, etc. To teach these children everything they need to know takes a lot of extra time, and extra money for the specialist teachers these children need.

We’ve spent quite a bit of our time in the last few years lobbying for more specialist teachers. New Zealand compares rather badly with other countries when we look at the number of specialist teachers we have for the number of blind and low vision students.

Working closely with the parents of vision impaired, Ngati Kaapoo, other consumer organisations and the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind, we achieved some success last year, in that the Government approved an additional fifteen specialist teachers to work with blind students in the mainstream. These teachers are starting work right now, and that will make a big difference to the support BLENNZ can give to these students starting this year.

I guess it does illustrate the point that often when it comes to advocacy, it is persistence in the end that pays off, and it is one example of service providers, consumers and parents working cooperatively together to pursue a common vision. But speaking of persistence paying off, this year will also see a fundamental change in the way BLENNZ is governed. The Minister of Education recently announced that BLENNZ will get a new Constitution. Although that sounds rather ho hum, it is important for a couple of reasons.

The vast majority of the roughly 1200 blind and low vision students in New Zealand attend local schools. So, even though they get support from the specialist teachers employed by BLENNZ, they are not formally enrolled with BLENNZ itself and so their parents have not had an opportunity to influence the governance of blindness education services. Under the new Constitution, these parents will be able to elect several parent representatives to the Board, alongside a parent rep for students who are enrolled with BLENNZ.

Another significant change in the new Constitution will be the formalising of partnership agreements between BLENNZ and this Association and the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. The Association is the largest generic consumer organisation of blind adults, and the Foundation is of course the largest provider of blindness services in New Zealand. Our two organisations will now be able to directly appoint trustees to the BLENNZ Board, whereas previously this was done by the Minister. Tangata whenua wil also be able to directly appoint a trustee.

The new BLENNZ Board is therefore going to have stronger links to the whole parent group, to the blind community and to the Foundation of the Blind itself. All parents want the best for their kids, and blind adults too want to ensure that the next generation of blind people has the best opportunity to learn to get on with maximum independence in a sighted world. I think the new Board gives us the best possible chance to achieve that vision.