American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)       OPTIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES

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Going the Extra Mile with Distance Learning

by Chelsea Page

Chelsea Page From the Editor: Chelsea Page is a teacher of blind children who just earned a master's of arts in teaching blind students (TBS) from Louisiana Tech University. She plans to work with blind infants and toddlers to ensure that they get the services they need. She has taught several blind students remotely. In 2016 she was the recipient of an NFB National Scholarship.

I was born blind, and I attended a school for the blind until the beginning of ninth grade. Though I learned Braille, there was still a serious gap in my education. At the school for the blind I had very little exposure to technology. I had a Braille 'n Speak that I sometimes used, but it wasn't adequate to meet my needs.

When I was mainstreamed in ninth grade, I struggled through two computer classes. I did not have a teacher of blind students to teach me to use assistive technology. The instructor in my computer classes was eager to work with me, and he taught me everything he could, including keyboard shortcuts for navigating through various programs. However, he didn't know anything about JAWS, the screen reader I was using. 

Although I had attended a school for the blind, I had been taught that I was not really blind myself. To be blind meant that you couldn't see anything at all. I couldn't see as well as a fully sighted person, but that didn't make me blind. In 2006 my family and I attended our first NFB national convention. During that life-changing event I began to identify myself as blind for the first time.

After I attended my first NFB convention, I was hooked. I got my very first notetaker with a Braille display, and I taught myself to use it. In 2007 I attended the STEP program for blind high school students at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). Before I started college I attended the LCBs adult training program. Through these experiences I decided that I wanted to teach blind students and give back what I had been given. Today I have the privilege of teaching assistive technology to blind students via distance learning.

I share my personal story because I want to emphasize the importance of ensuring that your child receives adequate and appropriate services from an early age. Blind children need to know that it is respectable to be blind, and they must receive an education that allows them to compete on terms of equality with their sighted counterparts. Sometimes it is difficult to find a teacher of blind students who is qualified to teach the skills that your child needs, especially if you live in a rural area.

In recent years distance learning has had a huge impact on society. It has brought instruction within reach for millions of people who never before had such learning opportunities. Many teachers of blind students now provide instruction in Braille and assistive technology by using programs such as FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom. These are conferencing programs that allow both audio and video communication.

Exploring the Options

As a parent you are the expert on your child, and you are his or her strongest advocate. If it is determined that your child needs instruction in Braille or technology, advocate for those services. Many school districts do not have access to a teacher of blind students who is proficient in these areas. In such cases, distance learning is a great option. 

When you or the school district find someone who can provide services, make sure that the teacher has a good, strong philosophy about blindness. Furthermore, be sure that the teacher is highly qualified in the areas in which he or she will instruct the blind student. I can say from experience that a blind child should not be pressured to use vision that may be unreliable and inefficient. Blind students should be taught to use nonvisual techniques. Later they may combine nonvisual and visual methods to come up with a blend that best suits their needs. The teacher must have confidence in the areas of instruction. If a teacher does not know how to use JAWS without constantly resorting to the mouse, he will not be able to teach the student to operate a computer efficiently using nonvisual techniques.

With the help of a qualified teacher of blind students, whether face-to-face or via distance learning, students can learn to navigate the course materials their classmates are using. Blind students may even learn to scan print documents, edit their scans, and emboss files into Braille. These skills prepare students for life after high school. However, students should not be expected to scan and emboss their own course materials, as the process is quite time-consuming. 

Technology plays a central role in today's classrooms. It is crucial that our blind students have the same access to technology that their sighted peers take for granted. The blind ninth-grader should be doing whatever is expected from a sighted ninth-grade student. This goal can be reached as long as the blind student's technology is accessible with a screen reader such as JAWS, Window-Eyes, or NVDA. It is extremely important for the teacher of blind students to keep up-to-date with the most current devices and software.

Open Lines of Communication

If the blind child receives assistive technology training through distance learning, you may wonder how to make certain that all course materials are accessible. With an open line of communication, teachers and other members of the IEP team can ask you to preview materials, and they can assist in making those materials accessible. Good communication may minimize the need for a child-specific paraprofessional. With an open line of communication the team can plan for the child's future needs and make certain that he has the proper tools in his toolbox.

As long as all members of the team exchange ideas freely, the child can benefit from Braille instruction via distance education. Distance education allows our blind students to have the same opportunity to learn as their classmates, even if they live in an area with no qualified teacher of blind students.

Final Thoughts

In summary, make sure that the blind student receives the services he or she deserves. With today's technology, those services can be provided in a traditional classroom setting or through distance education. Advocate for your child to have a qualified and confident instructor to teach the necessary skills. Geography need not be a limiting factor. If a qualified teacher is not available in your school district, consider distance learning as a strong option.

Keep an open line of communication with your child's team and discuss all of the topics related to her needs. By providing good services from the outset, the school can minimize the need for a child-specific paraprofessional, saving money in the long run.

Over time the child should be encouraged to advocate for what he or she needs. The ability to advocate for oneself is very important at every stage of life. 

Distance instruction is changing the educational landscape for everyone. By working remotely with a qualified teacher, blind students can receive instruction in Braille and assistive technology more easily than ever before.

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