by Barbara Cheadle
"And when the little girl discovered she had some vision, why, her confidence just shot up! She wasn't 'blind' anymore, she was 'sighted'! What a boost to her self-esteem!"
The first time I heard a statement like this was about eight years ago. A teacher of blind/visually impaired children was enthusiactically describing the "benefits" of vision stimulation (teaching blind children to use their remaining residual vision). I still remember my shocked and indignant reaction. Was I really supposed to believe that it was healthy for blind children to build their self-esteem on the amount of vision they had? What if they lost more vision? Did this mean that they were automatically inferior to all those who had more vision than they and superior to those who had less, or were totally blind? I have since heard similar comments many times and I am no longer shocked. However, I am not any more reconciled to it today than I was then. It is wrong. It represents a false philosophy about blindness. It says, about as openly and blatently as anything can, that to be blind is to be inferior, second-class. Worse yet, that philosophy is being spread to thousands of impressionable blind youngsters. Let's take a look at vision stimulation theory and practice. Vision stimulation is a relatively new concept. At one time doctors and educators feared that excessive strain on the eyes would lead to deterioration of vision. Parents were warned that their children could lose their sight if they used their eyes too much. That's why the "sight-saving" schools and resource rooms were set up in the 50's. Then advances in medical knowledge proved that this was a myth. Eye strain, they now say, will not lead to vision loss.
All kinds of ideas began to pop up then. If you couldn't lose your vision by using it, could you learn to use it more efficiently? Some research seemed to point in that direction and very soon we were being told not only can you learn to use your sight better, but that "seeing" was itself a learned behavior. This became the foundation for vision stimulation programs. But there is more. We learn that the visual maturation process continues in the ordinary manner regardless of eye impairments or defects and that visual acuity does not measure visual efficiency. What one person may be able to do visually with 20/200 vision, another person with the same acuity may not be able to do visually at all.
The last two statements regarding the maturation process in the eye and the difference between visual acuity and the efficient use of vision are,as far as I know, accurate. Young children cannot see small print well until their eyes have matured some. That is why books with larger print are used in Kindergarden up to about third grade. This is as true, we are told, for the diseased or defective eye as it is for the normal eye. But it is also true (and proponents of vision stimulation do not tell you this) that all eyes, normal and defective, are subject to the degenerative changes brought about by aging.
There are so many factors involved in the efficient use of vision that it is impossible to seperate them all. There are broad, general ones like age, personality, eye condition or disease, and specific or fluctuating ones like fatigue, glare, motivation, health, etc.
Teachers use a variety of materials to teach the use of residual vision. Flashlights, special light boards, or blacklights are often used with very young children or those with not much more than light perception. Blocks of different shapes or colors and simple line drawings with and without pieces missing are commonly used.
There is some controversy about vision stimulation programs. There are those who feel that it is extremely valuable. They say it helps children develop proficient use of the little vision they have and this helps them learn better. (Although, what they usually mean is that they can sometimes get children to read print instead of Braille and/or learn to travel without a cane.) Other professionals believe it is a waste of time. They see minimal results, or none at all, for the time and effort that goes into it. More emphasis, they say, should be put on giving the child more and richer experiences and opportunities to act independently. Others do not dismiss it entirely, but believe it has been greatly overrated.
But, putting aside for the time the question of how valuable vision stimulation programs are (or could be) for the blind, low-vision child, there is a greater concern. Like drugs or a common kitchen knife, even useful educational tools can be turned into dangerous weapons that destroy instead of nurture. Professionals have twisted the concepts behind vision stimulation and are using it as a panacea for all the psyschological ills supposedly inherent in blindness.
Does a child feel inferior? Is he clumsy and dependent, lacking many skills? He has some vision?! Why, we'll solve all these problems, we will tell him he's not blind, he's sighted! Futhermore we will insist that no one ever calls him blind; he is visually impaired, low-vision, partially-sighted, anything but blind! His teacher is the "vision teacher" and her department is the "vision program". Just to make sure the student gets the message, we won't teach him Braille or orientation and mobility or any techniques that would label him as blind. Never mind that he may be able to read print at only 20-30 words per minute with great difficulty, or that he is afraid to travel by himself, and that he plays petty tricks in public so no one will know he can't see. So what if this makes him feel even more inferior and confused? He can still feel superior to all those other "blind" people, can't he?
There probably isn't a professional in the field of blindness that wouldn't object to this sceniro and vehemently insist that they really don't do that! But if you strip away all the jargon and all the pretenses, this is exactly what is going on in educational programs all over the country.
This kind of attitude insinuates itself into the smallest of tasks in everyday life. A blind, partially sighted teacher was once admonished by a prominent educator in vision stimulation because he had used his finger to find a keyhole to open a door. The educator was convinced that the blind man should have bent his head over down by the doorknob and found that keyhole with his sight. The blind teacher said he never was able to convince this person that his alternative technique was actually faster and easier.
Where then does this leave us? Is it "bad" to want your blind child to use the vision she/he has? Is there an alternative to this destructive approach to blindness and low-vision? I believe the answers are respectively no, and yes.
In 1984 I had some correspondence with the International Institute for Visually Impaired, 0-7, Incorported (IIVI,0-7) which directly addresses these issues. Since I believe the letter I wrote says about as much in as clear a manner as can be said about using partial vision versus alternative techniques, here is my letter and the IIVI,0-7 letter. (Note: The booklet referred to in the letters was never, to my knowledge, ever published.)
International Institute for Visually Impaired, 0-7, Inc. April 4, 1984
The International Institute for Visually Impaired, 0-7, Inc. will soon have available another publication for parents of infant and young visually impaired children. LEARNING TO LOOK contains information and suggestions for parents on how they can encourage the use of residual vision in their children.
In an appendix, we plan to provide a listing of agencies to which parents can turn for more specialized information. We would like to inform these parents about your agency and its services. Therefore, please send any descriptive or informative materials which you believe would be helpful to families of children with low or limited vision.
April 25, 1984
I have your letter of April 4, 1984 regarding materials and information for parents of low-vision chilren on my desk. I have given it considerable thought, but I still find it difficult to know just how to respond. On the one hand, I do, and have done several things which have helped my son learn to use his vision better. On the other hand, I also teach him how to use his other senses and to use alternative techniques when his vision isn't efficient or helpful to him. As I see it, the two are complimentary and inseparable. What it boils down to is: "How can my child learn to be as efficient, skilled and competent as his perfectly sighted peers?" Learning to use the vision one has more efficiently certainly helps, but it isn't enough.
I remember some observations I made at a car wash our local NFB chapter put on as a fund-raiser some years back. I noticed that one of our best washers was a totally blind guy, and the worst one was a partially-sighted young woman. As far as I could tell, she used her vision about as efficiently as anyone could, but it wasn't enough. She failed because she did not employ alternative techniques. Instead of washing in overlapping strips, she wiped in random, haphazard circular motions. Needless to say, she left some dirty spots. I suppose if she had stepped back or moved to look at it at just the right angle, with just the right lighting she could have seen those spots, but who had time for that?
My observations of and conversations with literally hundreds of other blind and partially-sighted persons confirm what I learned on that day. The wise use of alternative techniques are absolutely necessary to the efficiency and competency of a partially-sighted person. And I don't mean just the techniques of Braille and cane travel, though those are sadly neglected and avoided when they could be a very valuable skill to a large number of low vision children. Alternative techniques for cleaning, cooking, eating and dressing are just some of the techniques I have taught or plan to teach my son right along with encouraging the proper and efficient use of his vision.
My son, who is six-years-old and is legally blind, can wash a table and vacuum a floor as well and as efficiently as his seven-year-old, perfectly sighted brother. I learned my car-wash lesson well.
It seems to me that the International Institute for visually Impaired, 0-7, Inc., has an opportunity through your new publication to help parents of the low-vision child integrate the teachings of alternative techniques with helping their child increase their visual efficiency....!, and other knowledgable persons in the National Federation of the Blind would be happy to serve as consultants for such an undertaking.
The value and implications of such an approach could be enormous. For too long the partially-sighted have avoided (and sadly enough, with the encouragement of teachers, parents, and the public) alternative techniques that could be helpful to them, merely because of the shame and degradation they felt was associated with "acting like blind people." The NFB has worked long and hard to change the image of blindness. We are often heard to say, "It is respectable to be blind."
Think what that can mean for the low vision person! If it is respectable to be blind, then it is respectable to use alternative techniques if they are the most efficient way to get the task done. No longer would they feel shame or hesitency to use a cane, or any number of other techniques. Think of the freedom, peace of mind, and confidence that new attitude can bring.
I hope you will give these comments your most serious and thoughtful consideration. I believe such an approach could be the most helpful way to really help blind children learn to use their vision well.
In regard to the material and information we have available to assist the parents of the low-vision child, I believe every issue of Future Reflections (and the Braille Monitor, for that matter) is pertinent and valuable. The NFB also publishes and sells, or gives away free, a number of publications that are helpful. Particularly so are the books by Doris Willoughby, A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children and Your School Includes a Blind Student
I shall look forward with interest to your reply, and am keenly interested in how your new project will turn out.
Barbara Cheadle, Editor
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