Future Reflections Summer/Fall, 2002
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Partially Sighted Child
in the Classroom: Tips for Teachers
by Barbara Cheadle
Shortly before school started last year, I received an e-mail request from an elementary classroom teacher. A visually impaired child had been assigned to her classroom, and the teacher wanted to know what she should do to help this child learn and flourish in her class. She was, she admitted, a little anxious because she had never taught a visually impaired child before. My impression from the teacher’s brief e-mail was that this child was a partially sighted print user. My intention was to reply with a brief e-mail, get her postal address, and send her a thick packet of literature. She did get that thick packet, but my brief e-mail turned into a multi-page letter, with lots of advice.
I think all the frustrations I experienced over the years with my son’s classroom teachers came bubbling to the surface as I wrote. Here was a chance to get a classroom teacher—one who obviously cared—off to the right start in working with a low vision kid! Looking back, I realize that although I had often shared my ideas about raising a partially-sighted child with parents (see the article, “Advice to Parents of Partially Sighted Children” in the Future Reflections Introductory Issue), I had never written down any tips for classroom teachers.
Well, that deficiency is now remedied. Reprinted below is the classroom teacher’s reply to my letter, and an edited version of the e-mail letter I wrote to her:
July 27, 2001
Thanks for all of your advice and for taking the time to write. After reading your letter I’ve become even more excited about this year. Your information came today in the mail. I am looking forward to learning as much as I can. I wish you could see the smile on my face right now. My anxiety has suddenly turned into excitement. Your support is truly appreciated!!!
First of all, I am so very glad you care enough about this little girl to reach out for information. She and your entire class is fortunate to have a dedicated teacher like you. I’m sure that all of you will have a good year.
Now, as you requested, let me give you a few tips and suggestions.
Let me begin with some background about myself. My own son, who is now 23 and finishing college, is partially sighted from birth. It was never necessary for him to have an instructional assistant, or aide, in the class. He did have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the services of an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), who provided direct instruction to him as needed and consultation to his classroom teachers and others as needed. Totally blind in one eye, my son has a visual acuity in the other eye which ranged, during his school years, from 20/70 to 20/200 (20/200 is legally blind). He used print primarily in the class, but was taught Braille and keyboarding, too, by the TVI. (We were ahead of our time. The federal law—IDEA—now requires that all visually impaired children be provided instruction in Braille unless an evaluation indicates it is not necessary now or for future literacy needs.)
Now, for the tips.
1. Before you do anything else, read the child’s IEP, then ask the TVI and/or the parents to clarify anything you don’t understand about it. If the girl does not have an IEP, she should have a Section 504 plan. If she doesn’t have either, this is a serious oversight, and I urge you to call it to the attention of the proper authority in your school system. In the meantime, with or without an IEP or Section 504 plan, you can still proceed with the strategies below:
2. Verbalize everything! All of your kids will benefit if you read everything as you, or others, write it on the board or review it from the overhead projector. Even when you call on students for answers, don’t just point—say the names aloud. You can even occasionally rattle off several names, “Oh, I see that Kevin, Tyesha, Rachel, and Ryan have their hands up. Ryan, what is the answer?”
Kids with partial sight can see some things and not others, and sometimes what they can see will vary from day to day or hour to hour depending upon the lighting conditions, eye fatigue, etc. My own son loses a lot of vision in glare or overly bright light; he always did better in low or even dim light. Some kids can’t see well in dim light. Observe your student and try to determine what works best for her. If you learn to verbalize everything as you go, you don’t have to worry about whether she is having a good day or a bad day with her vision.
Also, a partially sighted child at this age very often cannot tell you what she can or cannot see. Remember that she has no idea what “perfect” vision is like. There is much in the visual world that she is missing, and doesn’t even know she is missing. It takes time and training for kids with low vision to understand their vision, and more time to learn how to describe it to those with good vision. My son, for example, didn’t realize until middle school, that other kids could look out the car window and see their friends waving at them from the sidewalk. He was upset because other kids thought he was being stuck up and ignoring them when they waved to him—he didn’t know they expected him to be able to see them. After all, he recognized his friends visually in the hallways. It was hard for everyone—including himself—to understand the quirks of his low vision.
3. With this in mind, please don’t ask your student “What do you see?” or “Can you see...?” Instead, observe the child, ask for her feedback about your verbalizations, and ask her how she prefers to manage certain tasks.
4. Blackboard work, overheads, demonstrations, movies, and materials on bulletin boards in and around the room will need consideration. Follow the IEP if it is clear and detailed. If not, work with the student, the TVI, and the parents to determine what techniques will work best for her. Your verbal descriptions and reading aloud of everything may be enough. On the other hand, she may need to be allowed to go close to read the material and copy it down. Don’t always make her sit up front, however, if she doesn’t want to. Let her move about the room as needed to read things. This should be done quietly and unobtrusively, and taken for granted as a matter of course. In other words, no big announcements to the class. If other students ask about it, answer them honestly, but briefly, and move on to other topics.
5. Allow your student some flexibility to experiment so she can find out what works best for her. My son found that if he sat or stood next to the overhead projector, he could read the material on the projector slide without interfering with the projection on the wall. He always sat next to a friend in the back of the room when a video or movie was shown, and his friend quietly described any necessary action that wasn’t verbalized. He would stand close to the blackboard to read and copy down assignments, then return to his seat. Sometimes he would ask a friend, who would read it quietly to him. (It was best if he copied it himself since he could not always read others handwriting.) Although we didn’t call it this, he was doing what blind people call “using readers”—that is, live people who read materials to you under your direction and instruction. It’s no big deal, and often at this stage only takes a few moments and is especially easy to do when students are working in groups or pairs.
6. When doing a demonstration, it might help to stand close to the low vision student and to over-verbalize as you go. My heart still aches when I remember the time I observed my son in a fourth grade class. The teacher was demonstrating how to peel the thin membrane off an onion so the kids could put it under a slide to look at the cells. My son was totally lost and confused. If she had been more explicit in her language, and had stood next to him (or him to her) and casually dipped her hand down for him to get a visual close up of what she had done, he could have proceeded with the other kids.
7. Large-print IS NOT always the answer. Often regular print, as long as it is crisp, sharp, and with good contrast and no glare, is best. In fact, the WORST thing you can do is give a low vision kid fuzzy, smeared, blurred, or faint copy—no matter how big it has been enlarged. In my son’s IEP he was always given permission to take a good master copy of something to the copy machine in the office and to make an enlarged copy of it as needed. Of course, this didn’t help if he had a bad master copy, or if he had a substitute teacher who didn’t have good instructions (or didn’t follow them). That was one of his biggest complaints: a substitute who would give him a worksheet, or even a test, that had not been enlarged and when he told her he needed to go to the office to enlarge it, she would refuse and tell him to “Do the best that you can.”
8. Don’t make a big deal about the student or the techniques used. Do be up front about it; just take the attitude that “Of course we do it this way because this is how it’s done in classes with blind or partially sighted students in them.” Don’t tolerate teasing or harassing of the student, but do so in the context that NO ONE is allowed to tease or harass others for any reason.
9. DO expect your student to do the work. Please don’t excuse her from assignments; think about the purpose of the assignment and adapt if necessary, but don’t exclude. For example, she needs to learn how to use the dictionary, even if she can’t read the small print. She can learn, for example, to direct someone to read it to her. But to do that, she needs to know what information is included in a dictionary and how it is organized.
If she isn’t getting the work done but she has the cognitive ability to do so and you have eliminated other possible causes, then the problem is not the low vision; it’s lack of proper materials, techniques, and/or compensatory skills. Some low vision kids struggle with print when they really need Braille. It’s much easier to learn Braille as a child than an adult. Your observations and recommendations do count. If your student is having difficulties with print, or if you can anticipate that she will have trouble when the print gets smaller and the reading demands increase, then please call this to the attention of the TVI, the parents, and the IEP team.
10. Handwriting may be a problem. My son did not live up to his capabilities until he began to use a computer to write his essays in 5th grade. Before then he wrote as little as possible because it was hard for him to read his own handwriting, to check his spelling and grammar, and to make corrections. If keyboarding instruction and access to a computer, or even an old-fashioned electric typewriter, is not in your student’s IEP, it should be. She needs a fast way to independently prepare print materials for all her classroom teachers. My son did the True/False and Fill-in-the-blank tests by hand, but he always had independent access to a computer at school and at home to do all other longer writing assignments. Some schools provide laptop computers with synthesized speech and/or screen enlargers to blind and low vision students.
The most important thing to remember is that although a student who is blind or low vision may do things differently, they are as capable of doing academic work as their peers. If we expect them to perform, and provide them with the tools they need, they can do it.
Best Wishes! Please get in touch with me if I can help in any other way, or if you have other questions!
Barbara Cheadle with her son, Charles Cheadle, at the 2001 NFB Convention.
Barbara Cheadle, President
National Organization of Parents
of Blind Children
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