Future Reflections Convention Issue 2014 WORKSHOPS
by Natalie Shaheen
From the Editor: Natalie Shaheen is the director of education at the NFB Jernigan Institute, where she has developed a rich variety of programs to provide blind students with hands-on experience in the STEM fields. She has also worked extensively with children on the autism spectrum and with blind children who have additional disabilities. This article is based on a workshop she conducted at the NOPBC conference.
Teachers of the visually impaired are taught to work with students whose primary disability is blindness or low vision. However, when they start teaching, they quickly discover that a large number of their students (perhaps as many as half or two-thirds) have disabilities in addition to visual impairment. These other disabilities may have such an impact on the child's life that the visual impairment receives little attention from the professionals. TVIs often feel overwhelmed by these children, believing they cannot benefit from the skills of blindness.
I want to emphasize here that every child, no matter how severe his or her disabilities may be, can learn. As teachers and parents, we must never allow ourselves to slide into a mindset of hopelessness. We must never give up. We need to find ways we can connect with these kids. They're not "those kids" out there somewhere; they're "our kids." My motto is, "If they do not learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn."
In the education system, blind kids with additional disabilities tend to fall through the cracks. I often hear special educators say, "I don't know anything about blindness. Many of the cues and extra supports I provide to students with [x disability] are visual. They won't work for a child who can't see." At the same time, TVIs say, "I don't know anything about [x disability]. Will the methods I use to teach Braille work for this child?"
Collaboration is key. Special educators and teachers of the visually impaired need to communicate to develop the most effective program for each child.
Before we conclude that a child can't learn a particular skill, we need to ask ourselves some crucial questions. If this child were sighted, would we teach him some form of literacy? Literacy comes in many forms in addition to traditional print literacy, including symbol literacy and photo literacy.
If this child were blind without additional disabilities, would she receive Braille and cane travel instruction? This is another important question to ponder. What other services would be provided if blindness were her only or her primary disability?
Finally, what would a typically developing child of this age be learning? The child in question may not be ready to learn those things, but keeping them in mind helps us maintain high expectations.
Here is some practical advice for teachers of blind and visually impaired students.
Braille can be taught in many creative ways. Using an experience box, the child has the chance to explore objects tactually that are related to a story being read aloud. Each object can be labeled in Braille. The Braille cell token board is also helpful. The board has six holes in the form of a Braille cell (a muffin tin works beautifully!) Each time the child earns a reward in the course of the day, he places a ball in one of the cells, forming letters or symbols.
Children can also scribble using a Braille writer or electronic notetaker. It helps to have plenty of Braille in the environment--Braille books; Braille labels on furniture, cubbies, toys, and videos; Braille games. Braille can be incorporated into mealtimes, music classes, and other activities.
The communication methods used to help sighted children with disabilities can be adapted for use by children who are blind. The picture exchange communication system (PECS) can use tactile symbols. Signed communication can be taught through touch. When encouraging speech, be sure to model the speech you want the child to use.
All behavior--even behavior we consider problematic--is a form of communication. When following a behavior plan, make sure to use positive behavior supports. Set up situations where the child can succeed. If a child has a meltdown or shows some other undesirable behavior, look at the circumstances that led up to it and the way the situation was handled. Did the adults' responses actually reinforce the negative behavior? Document the child's behaviors throughout the day.
You can develop nonverbal cues to redirect the child and help her control behaviors you are trying to phase out. Sometimes a light tap on the shoulder is all the reminder she needs.
Clear and consistent schedules also help children with behavior issues. Knowing what is going to happen and when it will take place helps kids deal with anxiety and stay on task. For a blind child, schedules can use Braille and tactile symbols. For instance, a toy car may indicate a ride to go on a field trip.
You can learn more about my philosophy around teaching blind kids with additional disabilities in my article, "Without Exception: Teaching the Skills of Blindness to Children with Additional Disabilities," published in Future Reflections, Volume 29, Number 2, Spring 2010 (<https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/ fr/fr29/2/fr290203.htm>).