American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2021      WORKSHOPS

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Learning Shades: Helping Parents Learn and Teach Nonvisual Skills

by Michelle Albrecht

Using learning shades, Patrick Thibodeau teaches Vicki Walter-Winters to use a long white cane.From the Editor: Learning shades (sometimes called sleepshades) are a helpful tool for teaching cane travel, daily living skills, and Braille to blind children and adults. In this presentation Michelle Albrecht, the sighted parent of two blind children, explains how learning shades can help parents gain a deeper understanding of how blind children use nonvisual techniques.

This is my first time speaking at an NOPBC conference, and I'm honored to be here. My name is Michelle Albrecht. I have two blind children. Both of my children are adopted. My daughter was adopted eight years ago, when she was almost four. When we brought her home I started to explore resources to make sure she could access everything she needed. I got connected with the NFB community, and that's where I first found out about learning shades.

I've used learning shades for teaching tasks and just to observe how my children do things. I am fully sighted. Both of my children were born blind; they didn't lose vision over time.

I realize that everyone's situation is unique, and everything I say may be interpreted differently, depending on your circumstances. I'm not an expert; I'm a parent, the same as you are.

My daughter and my son are very different, even though they are both blind. My daughter is very much into touching things, and she wants to do everything. My son is pretty hesitant about touching and exploring. It's been quite a learning curve with each of them!

I started using learning shades with my daughter because I wanted to understand how she was doing things and moving around. I wanted to learn more about how she lived without sight. I had noticed that often she would figure out how to do something if we sat back for a while and let her figure it out with her hands. When I say "a while," I don't mean a couple of seconds; I mean a few minutes! 

When I tried using learning shades myself, I found that I used my hands very differently from the ways I was used to. I used the shades more and more often. Sometimes my daughter asks me how to do a thing, and I try to figure it out so I can show her.

One area where learning shades have taught me a lot is understanding how my kids pour liquids. I used to watch them and feel anxious, afraid they were going to spill. It might look that way visually, but they've got it! They don't spill liquids any more than I do when I'm looking visually. Their technique is not the same as mine. Learning shades gave me an appreciation for how they do it. When I have that understanding I'm less likely to jump in and try to help.

When we attended NFB conventions in person, I found that the Cane Walk was a very helpful experience. It helped me understand how the cane user picks up information. It's very different from how I gather information by sight. It also helped me understand how tactual and auditory cues can help a person get where they want to go. If you ever attend a face-to-face convention, I highly recommend the Cane Walk. It really helped me get past some fear!

My family also uses the learning shades when we play games. We use them with board games and outdoor games.

When I first put the shades on, it was a big adjustment for me. It was scary to go from being fully sighted to suddenly having no vision. It was great to know that I could take the shades off! Over time using the shades helped me become comfortable developing nonvisual skills. Eventually I was able to wear the shades in the kitchen as I helped my daughter learn to cook, or out in the yard playing games.

My daughter can always tell when I have the shades on. She'll say, "You have your shades on, right?" When I say yes, she might say, "That's why you're doing this more slowly."

Wearing shades helped me organize my daughter's crafts area. I realized that she organized her materials differently from the way I would do it. When I wore learning shades as we did crafts together, I had trouble finding things. I knew where they were, but the clutter in the area was confusing.

I homeschool my daughter, so it falls on me to teach her a lot of skills. We have orientation and mobility (O&M) support, which is very helpful. But when it comes to reading and ADLs (activities of daily living), it's up to me. I use learning shades a lot as I teach her. 

Initially I used learning shades for all of the ADLs—folding laundry, organizing drawers, washing dishes. Learning shades helped me respect how she was doing things, and kept me from jumping in when we did things together.

Now that she's eleven, my daughter wants to start using the oven. The stove top and the oven were anxiety producers for me as a mom. When I put on the shades I was able to problem solve. I worked out strategies for moving around the kitchen and knowing where to find utensils. My daughter has been successful with her most recent cooking projects, putting things in and out of the oven and cooking on the stove top.

My husband, who is sighted, sometimes gets nervous when he watches me do things under learning shades. He'll grab my arm and try to intervene. I learned firsthand how startling that can be. I have noticed that my daughter is startled when someone rushes in and grabs her while she's doing something. It can be very disorienting! Even now, though, I don't always remember to stand back when I watch my daughter work. That's the truth of the matter. But wearing the learning shades has given me the knowledge that so much more is possible than I might have thought. The way my daughter does things may look different, but she's just as successful as I am with sight.

I learned to read Braille tactually. As my daughter started reading books with Braille on both sides of the page, it was hard for me to read with her visually. Once I learned tactual reading, I would read the problem word with my fingers. It actually made my daughter more willing to read at a time when she was struggling with some letter reversals. I'm not urging parents to learn to read Braille tactually, but this is how it worked for us.

Just my knowing the Braille code in general was very important to my daughter. She knew I had learned it, and she knew my husband had not. Braille was very intimidating for him, almost overwhelming in the beginning. Recently he has learned, and he now can read Braille visually.

I learned to read tactually by wearing learning shades. I'm very much a visual learner, and it was hard for me not to use my vision. I had to eliminate that option.

My daughter is entering sixth grade, and she's very interested in math. I use learning shades as I figure out how to create charts and geometric figures. It's easy to put a lot of clutter into a picture. It's hard to distinguish which elements are important when there's too much stuff on the page. I found that when the picture was simpler, it was easier for me to understand tactually what was there. That understanding helped me develop pictures for my daughter. It also helped me advocate for my son when he brought materials home from school. Sometimes the whole page was covered with raised lines. It was much too complex for him to understand! So learning shades helped me from an advocacy perspective as well.

NFB highly supports the use of learning shades, and so do I. But when my son first put them on, he became panicky. My son only has light perception in one eye. He doesn't have any usable vision for reading or travel. Nonetheless, putting on the shades produced a lot of anxiety in him. My own anxiety when I put on the shades gave me an idea what he was experiencing.

When my son went to BELL® Academy, they highly encouraged him to use learning shades. Over time, in that setting, he became more comfortable. Now he's more open to wearing them when he plays sports such as goalball and beep baseball. But taking that light away was very panic-inducing!

We have a large yard. When we play with a ball out there under learning shades, I feel safe moving around. But when you throw a ball and you have acres of land, it can be hard to locate it! Sometimes the ball sounds close when it's beeping, but it's really farther away. One day my son got mad when we were playing. He said, "You can see! It's not fair!" Then he came over and found that I had the learning shades on, and he said, "Okay, you're not cheating."

For my son wearing learning shades produced a lot of anxiety. He refused to wear them at home, and we did not make it an issue. He was adopted at an older age, and we had plenty of other struggles. After a while he adjusted to the shades, and he learned to use them with his TVI and his O&M instructor. Using the shades definitely has benefited him.

For a sighted person there's a major difference between wearing learning shades and simply keeping your eyes closed. When the learning shades are on, you can blink your eyes and have any facial posture very naturally. When I helped out in the kitchen at BELL, I'd let the kids know I had learning shades on. They'd touch my face and see that it was true. The shades were on whenever I wasn't driving!

If you're a parent and you're willing to try wearing learning shades, start with an activity where you're comfortable. It doesn't have to be cooking or traveling outside the house. You might play a game or organize your kitchen cupboards. When we play games at our house, even my husband wears learning shades. That's the only time he wears them! He realizes that moving around the game board is different when he's wearing the shades.

Recently my parents came to visit. We played a board game, and my dad wore shades. Later he said, "I don't have to help them as much as I think!" That was a nice realization for Grandpa. Sometimes the best way to help our kids is by not helping.

When my son struggled with tying his shoelaces, I had to understand what he was experiencing. Both of my children became independent shoe-tiers after about a month of trying. The experience with learning shades gave me more words to describe what I was doing step by step.

I had my kids feel my hands as I tied my shoes. I have professional training as a physical therapist, and I work in pediatrics. I work alongside a lot of occupational therapists, so I've seen how they work. I broke the task of tying shoes into steps, and I had my kids follow me as I went through the process. At first I just had them cross the laces, tuck one end under, and pull it through to make the knot. As they became successful with that step, I added making the loop. They learned "around the loop, around the tree, and tuck through." We allowed plenty of time. If we were leaving the house at one-thirty, we started with shoes at one o'clock. If we were done early, they could play before we went out. If they were not successful right away, it was important that I not jump in and do it for them. I'd say, "Okay, let's see where you got stuck."

Our O&M teacher lent me a cane for a while. I found there is a major difference between moving around with learning shades on, and moving around with a cane and learning shades on! It was great to understand how the cane works when I'm wearing learning shades. I told our O&M instructor I wanted to try using a cane. It really helped me understand that when my kids are walking the cane will detect poles before their body does. It will detect steps! It will help them detect the obstacles in their path. That was very helpful in making me comfortable with them moving around. The cane helped me see obstacles without panicking.

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