An Interview with Dr. Phil Hatlen

By Dr. Mike Bina — The following interview originally appeared in the July 2013 VisionServe Alliance newsletter, Stone Soup. The Hall of Fame thanks Dr. Bina for granting us permission to post it.

Portrait of Phil Hatlen

Philip Herbert Hatlen was born in 1934 in Patterson, California, the son of first and second generation Norwegian-Americans. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education (1957) and a Master’s degree in special education (1960) from San Francisco State College. In 1975, he earned his doctorate in education (Ed.D.) from the University of California, Berkeley.

He began his professional career in 1957 as a resource teacher for students with visual impairment, then served as Principal for the California School for the Blind from 1962-66. At the same time, he returned to San Francisco State University (SFSU).

He retired from SFSU in 1990 to accept the position of Superintendent at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin. He served in this position for 17 years. Along the way, he also served as an Executive Director of the Blind Babies Foundation (1979-1989) and founded the Living Skills Center for the Visually Impaired (now the Hatlen Center for the Blind) in 1972.

A prolific author of books, book chapters, and journal articles, he fathered the concept of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) in 1996, the ground-breaking idea that students with visual impairment require additional disability-specific strategies in order to access the general education curriculum. He is a frequent keynote speaker at professional conferences, both nationally and internationally.

Dr. Hatlen has been awarded the Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Award (1994); the AFB Migel Medal (1997); the AER Mary K. Bauman Award (2000), the CEC/DVI Distinguished Service Award (2003); the Outstanding Leadership Award (2004) from CEC; and the APH Wings of Freedom Award (2009).

Dr. Hatlen advised, “Stand tall, be proud of your profession. Decide what your “bottom line” is, and do not compromise. Commit to your fundamental truths, and live your profession by not compromising. Be gentle, be creative, and respect the dignity of all children. Love life, work hard, live with a passion for everything that you do. Laugh a lot, and help your students to learn to laugh.”

1. When you were growing up what career did you think you would pursue?

My dad was an apricot farmer in a small town in Central California. I knew he wanted one of his three sons to take over the family farm, but it wasn’t going to be me. I watched Dad work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet, and he worked so hard that I didn’t want the farm and the other jobs. When I left for college, I knew I wouldn’t be coming back to the farm.

An insurance agent told me that I should become an actuary, because there were only a handful of them in the entire country, and insurance companies would be bidding for my service and offering a lot of money. One semester of taking classes leading to an actuary career convinced me that I wouldn’t like that job. Then I drifted through almost three years of college, changing majors every semester. My hometown consisted of almost all farmers, so my exposure to very many jobs was minimal.

2. Did you ever imagine that you would be working in the field of blindness? Did you find the field or did it find you?

Dr. Tuck Tinsley, APH President, presented Dr. Hatlen the Wings of Freedom Award.

I met my first blind persons in 1954. The children were “integrated” in an elementary school in Fresno, California. Almost all of them had been blinded by retrolental fibroplasia (RLF) now known as Retinopathy of Prematurity. The resource teacher was Bob Bowers who eventually became a professor, teaching graduate students how to educate blind children. I credit Bob with being my first mentor.

My first impression of these young people was “How do they learn?” How do they replace visual perception with utilization of other senses? That same semester I became a reader for two blind college students attending Fresno State College. These two bright college students taught me a great deal about use of senses. I was convinced. The next semester I transferred to San Francisco College.

3. Who or what influenced you to work in this field?

The fascination and challenge of working with blind students was a major factor in changing my career choice. And, or course, the enthusiasm and commitment of Bob Bowers inspired me, as did Florence Henderson, the professor at San Francisco State.

4. Who were your mentors?

I have already mentioned two of my most inspiring and knowledgeable mentors. I grew up in this field with very prominent professionals—I had the best mentors one could hope for. They were Josephine Taylor, Berthold Lowenfeld, Georgie Lee Abel, and Natalie Barraga. I am sure there were more, but these are the ones I remember best.

5. In your career you have been a mentor to others. Give an example where you had a positive influence on a colleague or young protégé.

Sandy Lewis tells me I was her mentor, though I doubt it. She had an opportunity to learn from great leaders in our profession, and she is such a bright and creative person that she, as her profession advanced, didn’t really need mentors. But if Sandy wants to list me as a mentor, I’ll accept with humility and gratitude.

6. Do you still recall the names of some of your blind or low vision students and clients? Which three come to mind and why?

It’s been many years since I taught children. If I were to mention three students, it would be from the 1950s. One would be Bruce who was one of the brightest students I had. He was a very rapid Braille reader, perhaps the fastest I’ve ever known.

Another would be John, also bright. He lived near the school, so I got to know his whole family well. John went on to be an avid beep ball player. He became a lawyer and I understand he is very good at his profession.

The third is a toss-up between two Jims. One was a success in disability advocacy and in music.

The other was a strong-willed child who challenged me about everything I tried to teach him. I recently corresponded with a woman who has known this Jim since third grade.

She has stayed close to him for many years, and reports that he has had a very difficult life. With him, I will always wonder if I could have done better.

7. What would you list as your two or three proudest moments in your career?

This is a very difficult question for me. I know what others might say about my better-known accomplishments, but my greatest accomplishment was to observe some of my first students graduate from high school. This was a group of young people who had spent their entire 12 years of schooling with sighted age-mates in public schools. They had made it in a mainstream setting.

There are yet three other proud moments. First was the establishment in 1972 of the Hatlen Center for the Blind. It was a transition program before the word “transition” was used in education. Second, I am proud of my strong support for maintaining an array of placement options for blind and visually impaired students. Third is my assistance in developing the “Expanded Core Curriculum,” an educational need critical to meeting the needs of blind and visually impaired students. These are curriculum areas that are not shared with their sighted classmates. Finally, I can’t forget the reception of the Migel Medal from the American Foundation for the Blind. It represented to me a recognition that I had accomplished a few things that were known beyond my own little world.

8. Did you ever imagine that you would be recognized and inducted in the field’s hall of fame?

I was a member of the original committee that established the “Hall of Fame”. A great deal of time and effort went into formulating and implementing this wonderful way of recognizing our past history and the people who have led us to becoming a leader in education for children and youth with disabilities. It was an honor to be a member of that committee.

However, a fact that is not well-known to my colleagues and friends is that a member of that original committee resigned before the final formation of the Hall of Fame. This person stated that every colleague in our profession should be in this Hall of Fame, because we are all heroes. This committee acknowledged and appreciated that observation, even though we continued with plans to establish the Hall of Fame. But let’s all not forget the belief of our colleague that to single out specific individuals for a Hall of Fame will leave a lot of heroes who belong.

I’m asked my thoughts about being inducted into the Hall of Fame. My inclusion within this amazing group of people, including all of my mentors, is humbling. My first reaction was that I know a lot of friends and colleagues who deserve this honor more than me. But some of those colleagues chose me. Soon I forgot the “humble” part and became very, very proud of being a member of the Hall of Fame.

9. During your career you undoubtedly saw the field change in many different ways. How did it change? In which ways do you wished it would have changed more?

Of course the major change in education for blind and visually impaired students is the movement from schools for the blind to local day school educational services. This movement has had both its assets and liabilities, and I’ll get into that later.

Technology is a very major change in education. Now our students can store and retrieve information in rapid and exciting ways. Now technology invites the student to produce information in Braille, speech, or print with little effort. Braille is more readily available, even short-run Braille. Sports and physical activities are much more available (Goal Ball is an amazing addition for blind people to participate in competitive sports). Teacher preparation has not only increased in availability, but is up-to-date with its curriculum. Recognition of the Expanded Core Curriculum has been adopted, and this has changed the role of teacher. Services for infant and preschool children have expanded significantly. There are many, many additional advances in education during my professional lifetime. Suffice it to say that we are a creative, exciting profession that has kept pace with advances in education, and has anticipated its future.

Now, for some of the things I wish would change. The competition between schools for the blind and regular public schools still exists. I went through this in the 1950s, never thinking that we would still have the issues over 60 years later. Perhaps it’s because both systems truly believe that theirs’ is the better program for serving blind and visually impaired students. Perhaps its our personnel preparation programs who indoctrinate future teachers about which system is better. No matter what the cause, many children are currently receiving services that are not appropriate for their needs. Placement should be determined by educational need, not philosophy. There are too many children who live in rural or remote areas being served locally because the school system has convinced parents that it can deliver services that are equal to, or better than, those available from schools for the blind.

Unemployment and underemployment continue to be one of the major issues for blind people. Is this an issue for which education must resume some responsibility? I think so. Career education and vocational education must be a part of the educational curriculum of blind and visually impaired students.

Although the Expanded Core Curriculum has significantly expanded in the last decade, emphasis on an academic curriculum is now leading educators to push academic subjects to the exclusion of other vital subjects.

Distant education has become the primary means for preparing new teachers for a career in our field. There are legitimate reasons for this movement, but I would like to be on record as one who strongly opposes this.

10. What are three to five pieces of advice you would give to people entering the field just beginning their first experience working with clients or students?

11. What are three to five pieces of advice you would give to those in the field who are experienced “having been around a few years.”

12. When you look back on your career, what was a humorous experience that really made you laugh.

Every year at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired students would perform a skit for staff and parents. The humor of the actors really made me laugh often. Also at the same school a student turned 18 years of age and decided to live off-campus. Money became a problem. His power was turned off. This student was one of several stars in a movie that was being filmed at the time of his move. A sequence in the film showed this student connect an extension cord from a hallway outlet down the hallway to his room. The next scene was the student sitting in his apartment blissfully using his computer courtesy of the extension cord.

13. What question haven’t I asked that you wished I had?

  1. If you were to develop a career education curriculum, what would it look like?
  2. How can education and rehabilitation work more closely together?
  3. How do we make the decision between Braille and print?
  4. How can residential schools and local schools work together to offer the best education possible for each individual student?
  5. How can we help to be certain that placement is based on educational need, not philosophy?