The Move of a Special Institution for Visually Impaired towards a Modern Service Centre in Styria, Austria
The Odilien Institute (OI) is a traditional facility for visually impaired and blind people in Styria.
The Institute, founded in 1881, has dedicated itself to the care of the visually impaired . Until the eighties, children with sight disabilities could attend school only in the Odilien Institute (OI). In addition to the facilities in Graz, there were similar schools in Vienna and Innsbruck. The children arrived at 6 years of age, the age for children to start school in Austria, at the boarding school and then stayed there until the completion of their education, which originally lasted 8 and then later 9 years. At this time there were around 140 students at the Odilien Institute (OI).
At the end of the 70s, it became increasingly clear that the children’s education should start with the early intervention training. In Germany, experience with Parental courses had been made. So from 1982 onwards, first on a voluntary basis, particular families were supported by committed OI teachers.
Possibly, one of the roots of the integration movement in Austria can be found here: the parents of impaired children became more self-confident by this support and more competent in articulating their requirements. These parents wanted schooling for their children close to their place of residence. They wanted to see their children not only once a month at weekends, but to have an active role in their education, growth and development.
Teachers at OI, motivated by the example set in Schleswig, addressed themselves intensively to the issue of support for visually impaired children in their own surroundings.
However, it still took from 1980, when the first talks to the school authority started, until October 1984 till the first school children with sight disabilities could attend a regular primary school. This was restricted at the beginning to just visually impaired children resident in the city of Graz. After a successful start in Graz, in 1987 integrative schooling was spread to the whole of Styria.
As the level of care was to the satisfaction of all parties, parents of blind children living outside Graz asked if there was also a possibility for their school children to attend the local schools. Even if there were doubts beforehand, if it was possible at all to school blind children integratively, in 1990 the first school child was registered in a regular school. At this time there were hot discussions between teachers of blind children on the one hand and the union of blind people on the other about the possibility of proper and adequate teaching at the regular school. There was the fear, that a blind child lacking specific education for blind will remain illiterate. But the good learning results of the children and the satisfaction of the parents stopped these discussions.
With the 15th SCHUG-amendment in 1993, the law recognized integrative schooling.
The parents now have the right to choose between a regular or a special school.
With this law Austria, different to other European countries, has build a dual system: special schools and integrative school side by side.
Special Education Centres (SEC) were opened to guarantee integrative schooling of impaired children . The mission of these centres is the co-ordination of integrative schooling advanced training, further education for teachers, expert opinions, and drawing up support plans. In 1994 the school at the Odilien-Institut became an SEC for visually impaired and blind children.
More and more parents chose integration rather than the special school. That meant a rapid decrease of school children for the OI. In 1990 there were still 85 students in the OI but 10 years later just 47. As the OI is a privately run school that meant a dramatic loss of income.
The height of the financial crisis was in 1997: Even though at this time 150 visually impaired and blind children were supported in the whole country of Styria by the SEC, thoughts about closing the school came from the school owner which is the Odilien-Verein. At this time there were just 12 children left in the boarding school. Therefore both, the school and the boarding school, were financially unsuccessful.
As the interest of the continuance of a pedagogic facility for visually impaired and blind children was accepted by the school board as well as by the school owner they were searching for alternatives. Already at the beginning of the integration schooling there had been a consideration to teach also non- impaired children at the OI.
And in the nineties we had wanted to put up reverse integration, which means non- impaired children attend the special school together with impaired children
This constellation is ruled out by the Austrian law, however. Non- impaired children cannot attend a special school and be taught according to the curriculum of a primary school .
But it is possible the other round with the impaired children being taught according to the curriculum of the special school.
That was the reason why we chose to found a new school on the old premises. This idea was given effect in 1998: the VS Odilien was put in operation. Matching the philosophy of the school the main idea was social integration.
Impaired children and non- impaired children are taught together by 2 teachers.
As the demand of a full day care was given, the form of a full day school was chosen (in Austria school ends normally at 2 at the latest, and there are different models of school offering either private afternoon care or care by teachers...).
By now the integration of children with disabilities has turned into something natural.
In Styria 80 percent are being schooled in regular schools?.
So the requirements for the SECs have changed. There are more reasons:
1. At the beginning we primarily took care of children who were exclusively visually impaired or blind, now the number of children with additional disabilities or multiple disabilities outnumber them. The result was, that the teachers had to increase co-operation with related disciplines (logopedy, physical therapy etc) and also work together with different specialists (specialised doctors, boards, social worker, other special schools, regional SECs etc.) .
2. Technical progress has brought a lot of special aids on the market, which means that on the we have to take care of contacts with different companies and also buy devices for both testing and showing.
3. It is our experience that it is not enough to support the child and teacher in the school situation. Therefore we were looking for ways to give courses, seminars and conduct other activities for school children, teachers and parents. In addition to the support we can offer we profit from the exchange with each other, the possibility to get to know each other and by establishing new contacts, a major part of these events.
At the time we are organising parents-children courses, meetings for teenagers between 10 and 14 years, typewriting courses, computer courses, courses for mobility and life practice skills.
4. In integration we soon get close to the border of the present curricula, therefore we see the contribution towards an improvement of the curricula also as one of our duties.
5. In order to ensure the quality of our work we will participate in a school development process and carry out wide spread evaluation activities.
6. Cooperation and exchange with other European special facilities have become increasingly important. So teachers of our school participate in different international projects. (Comenius, Leonardo da Vinci, Virtual School).
Finally, judging from our experience I am proud to conclude that the change from a special institution into an open and service- oriented centre with different offers and individual pedagogic support has apparently been a step in the right direction.
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