American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention 2017 NOPBC CONFERENCE
by Deja Powell
From the Editor: During the 2017 NOPBC conference, Deja Powell led a workshop exploring ways to encourage physical and social activity for blind children. This article is based on ideas that were discussed in that workshop. Deja Powell is a certified orientation and mobility instructor who has taught both children and adults. She is currently working on a PhD in K-12 education.
It's very important to get kids moving, but blind kids face some particular challenges. Many children's activities involve throwing and catching balls. As a blind child, I always found balls kind of scary. Playing dodgeball was not my favorite entertainment, and none of the other kids wanted me on their team.
Participation in social activities can be complicated, too. Parents sometimes observe their blind child sitting on the sidelines during recess.
Sometimes the blind child is discouraged from taking part in physical education (PE). The school is all too happy to comply if the parent brings in a doctor's note saying the child should be excused. This actually happened to me. I was taking dance and gymnastics classes outside of school, so I was excused from PE. As a result I missed a lot of interaction with my peers. Sometimes the school will come to parents and say, "What do you think about not having your child enroll in PE class? There are too many things in there that could be dangerous."
PE and recess often are considered the best times to pull out a child for orientation and mobility or other blindness-related training. It's important to remember that recess and PE are valuable parts of the school experience. Students learn new skills during those periods of the day, skills that are useful for all children, blind and sighted. Even the negatives about gym class can be valuable. Classmates bond as they grumble about ugly gym suits and embarrassing exercise routines.
I remember when the PE teacher would say, "We're going to go play softball out on the field." I would start to shake inside, wondering how I was going to play. I didn't have the confidence to go to my teacher and say, "Can we think about a solution here?" Instead, I tried to fake it. I pretended that I had typical vision. I'd stand in the outfield and hope the ball didn't come toward me. I didn't have a TVI who could help advocate for me. I had some sight, so they thought I didn't need Braille or O&M. Yet I couldn't play sports, and I couldn't even see the blackboard. I was very confused.
What can you do, as parents, to make sure your kids are included in these activities? Sometimes changing teachers or coaches can make all the difference. Having your child learn to interact with other kids at recess can actually be an IEP goal.
Sometimes an adaptive PE instructor can be helpful. These instructors specialize in working with kids who have various disabilities. They may bring in equipment such as beeping balls, and they'll work to get your child moving.
I have mixed feelings about adaptive physical education. I think it's great when it's used in the proper way. It gets complicated, though, when blind kids are pulled out of the regular class for one-on-one instruction. Separate instruction can be valuable for teaching certain skills and concepts. But the child who is pulled out on a regular basis misses the benefits of inclusion in the group, such as developing skills around teamwork. I encourage parents to advocate for the blind child to be included in group activities. Urge the adaptive PE instructor to work closely with the regular PE teacher. Together they can find ways to include the blind student in general PE activities. We all need to learn to work with others. That's part of life.
Interacting with kids on the playground can be very challenging for a blind child. Talk to your child about ways to approach other children. If your child is new to the group, it may be helpful for him or her to open the topic of blindness. Kids need to know that it's all right to ask questions. Once the topic is in the open, everybody can move on.
It's terribly easy for a blind child to be shunted to the side and left alone, waiting for something to happen. For this reason it's important to teach assertiveness skills early on. As a parent, you have to figure out when to intervene for your child and when to back off.
Parents can help their blind children by giving them information. At the pool a mother might tell her daughter, "There's another girl here, and she's trying to get your attention." I had to teach my mother cool ways to give me information instead of ways that embarrassed me. For instance, if she was holding a door open for me, I wanted her to tell me, "I have the door open," instead of shouting my name across the field! All parents embarrass their kids, though—that’s one of the perks of being a parent!
O&M training can teach children to pick up on a wide variety of information around them. But inevitably there will be times when they miss something. To this day there are times when someone tries to get my attention and I don't pick up on it. They might wave or gesture, or they might say something without referring to me by name. In high school I got a reputation for being kind of snooty because I ignored people when they waved to me. I didn't use a cane back then, and my classmates didn't know I was blind. I felt awkward when I realized suddenly that someone was talking to me. There's no perfect solution, but if your child uses a cane, people are more likely to understand that they can't just use visual cues.
When I was in high school I wanted to play sports, but I knew it wasn't going to work for me. I decided to be a cheerleader, which was second best. Years later my coach and I wrote an article about that experience. My coach said that she gave me a chance because I explained that I am blind when I told her I really wanted to be on the cheering squad.
Get your kid involved in some kind of group activity. It might be a sport, a play, a singing group, or a dance class. Any activity that involves others is a great opportunity for your child to start learning self-advocacy skills. She has to learn if she's on a team, or she won't get to participate at all. She'll lose out on the feeling of being included. I learned a lot about groups through my involvement in dance and gymnastics. Those activities really helped me pull out of my shell.
When I grew up, our house was Play Central. Kids were in and out all the time. Hosting play dates can be enormously helpful. You bring other kids to your home. Your child is on his own turf, where he feels most comfortable. He knows his own yard. Maybe he knows his favorite park. He can point things out and say, "Come here! This is my swing!" In a familiar situation he has the chance to know more than the other kids do.
When you go to a playground, walk around with your child and show her where things are. Tell her, "This is the slide, this is the jungle gym, and here are the monkey bars." Do this when you and your child are alone together so she has time to explore. Later she'll have confidence when she's on the playground with other kids.
If you don't know how to adapt an activity, get in touch with me and we'll talk about it. If I can't figure it out, there are lots of other people I can email to get ideas.
One time I asked a student what career he wanted to go into. He told me, "I can't do what I wanted to do before I went blind. I wanted to drill for oil." I didn't know any blind person who had drilled for oil, but I put out a message on a listserv. Within three days I found someone for this student to call. I said, "You've got to be kidding! There's a blind oil driller?" My student couldn't believe it either, but he went ahead and called this guy. We have an amazing network of people. If your child wants to do something unusual, it's very likely that there's a blind person doing it out there somewhere. That network is vitally important for you as parents and for us as teachers.
Sometimes our kids don't know things that we assume are intuitive. A lack of basic knowledge will really hold them back. One day I lined up a group of kids in a gym and told them to run. They all took off except for one little boy. I asked him, "Why aren't you running with the other kids?" He said, "I don't know what running is." It had never occurred to me that he had no idea how to run. We went through the motions step by step. I talked him through it.
If I say, "Okay, guys, we're going to do jumping-jacks!" sighted kids can look around and get the hang of it right away. They watch the kids who know what I mean, and they imitate their movements. If you're a blind kid, people may assume that you know what a jumping-jack is, but you might have no idea.
A lot of instruction in dance and other movement activities consists of an instructor modeling the movements from the front of the room. That doesn't work for us. We learn best through verbal explanation and touch. It can be offensive if an instructor just walks over and starts manipulating your body, but if he asks first, it's usually okay. Sometimes I'll say, "I'm not understanding this. Could you come over here and show me?"
When I teach movement to kids, I use a lot of songs such as "The Hokey Pokey" and "YMCA." You've never done "YMCA?" Okay, I'm going to teach you! I'm going to explain the movements verbally. Come on! Everybody stand up!
Make a Y by holding your arms up over your head, straight up and out to the side at an angle.
Make the M by bending your hands in toward each other. Point your fingers down toward the top of your head. That's the M.
For the C you make a half circle with your arms. The open part of the half circle is toward your right.
For the A you put your hands above your head in a clapping position. Your arms form the strokes of the letter.
Okay, we're going to turn on the music. You're all ready to dance. Here we go!
[Deja leads the group in "YMCA," with everyone singing and dancing along.]