American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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Creating Classrooms Where Blind Children Can Learn and Thrive

by Carol Castellano

Carol CastellanoFrom the Editor: Carol Castellano has been a mover and shaker in the NOPBC for more than thirty years. She is the founder and past president of the POBC-New Jersey, and she has served as president of the national organization as well. She is the author of four books on blind children, including Making It Work and Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade. This article is based on a presentation Carol gave at the 2018 NOPBC Conference.

If you were to check the readiness standards for a child entering kindergarten in your school district, chances are you would find a list that looks something like this:

In order for young blind children to get to this point, they need to develop in all the usual categories—gross motor, fine motor, speech, language, communication, social and emotional maturity, and self-help. Parents can use developmental charts—any chart made for any child—to figure out where their child is in the various areas and what the next logical step to work on ought to be.

In some areas parents need to pay extra attention. One of these is movement. If you watch a sighted child in a stroller passing something interesting, you might see the child twist around to continue watching the event as it goes past. A child who does not see that interesting thing might not make that twisting movement. We must make sure that our blind children have the opportunity for all kinds of movement experiences.

We also have to make sure our children become active in the world and don't remain passive. We must motivate them to explore and be careful not to inhibit their movement based on fear or convenience. Blind children are vulnerable to being acted upon by others. It is also very easy to keep doing things for blind children instead of making sure they learn to do for themselves. Make sure your child becomes a doer and not a done-to-er!

Think in terms of teaching age-appropriate tasks, or, in the case of some children with delays, stage-appropriate tasks. We want our children to internalize the expectation that they can learn and do things for themselves and be as independent as their peers. Think about independence every day! This includes the area of movement. Our children need to move independently. Don't steer them around by the shoulders! Don't constantly warn them, "Watch out, there's a step there," or "Oops, there's a table in our way; we have to go around it." Instead, empower your children to discover what is out in the world on their own and develop their skills for negotiating the environment.

Life experiences are another important area. Our children need to know about everything sighted children know about—the playground, the firehouse, the farm, the city, animals, workers, etc. The more life experiences they have, the more they will understand when they come upon these things in stories. Our children need to learn to color, cut, paste, scribble, draw, and look at tactile drawings. These are important fine motor skills, and they are precursors to full tactile literacy.

Play in general is an area to pay attention to. Sometimes we need to teach our children how to play in conventional ways that will enable them to play successfully with others. For example, if a child likes to hold a car upside down and spin the wheels, we can also teach him or her to run the car along the floor. If a child is stuck in the area of imaginative play, start with something the child can relate to. For example, put a big cardboard box on the floor and pretend to take a bath.

In terms of concept development, the key is not to let our children begin school behind their peers. There is no reason blind children cannot learn concepts—we just need to present them in accessible ways, for example, by using tactile objects or showing things like "behind" and "in front of" in terms of the child's body. Again, check a kindergarten readiness chart and make sure your child has had experience in the various areas—recognizing his or her name in print or Braille, counting, counting objects, recognizing shapes, learning the alphabet and letter sounds, understanding same/different, bigger/smaller, more/less, and first/last.

Create an environment for literacy in your home. Expose your child to books and to Braille. For the littlest kids, we can make books about things the child knows about, such as mealtime or bath time. Paste in some Braille and use real objects as illustrations.

Last but not least, we come to the area of blindness skills. Our children need to develop the use of all of the senses—touch, hearing, taste, smell, vision—along with listening skills and memory. If the child is partially sighted, teach her to pair eyesight with touch to get a more complete view of an item. If the child is totally blind, teach him to develop good patterns for exploration and examination. Our children need to have good body awareness, spatial awareness, and independent movement experiences. These will lead to the ability to orient themselves and to travel independently.

Well, all of that was just the lead up to school!

Leaving Blindness Out

The goals for the education of a blind child are:

These, of course, are the goals we have for any child. Since the education we want our blind children to receive is equal to that of sighted children, we need at first to leave blindness out of the equation when we make educational plans. This means that we ask the question, "What would you expect this child to achieve if she were not blind?"

For children who are on track for milestones and academics, we plan the same academic goals and setting that we plan for sighted classmates. We add in accessible materials and presentation. We make sure the child receives instruction in the special blindness skills that will enable him to participate fully in learning.

For children who have additional disabilities that affect their education, we first must ask what we would expect if the child were not blind. Then we must modify the academic goals as necessary, add in accessible materials and presentation, and plan for instruction in the needed blindness tools and techniques.

For children who have severe additional disabilities, again we must ask what we would expect if the child were not blind and develop a more individualized or developmental education plan. We might add in accessible materials and presentation and the instruction in blindness skills and tools.

Whatever the child's category is, the process is the same. Think about what you would expect if the child were not blind. Set academic or developmental goals just as you would for a sighted child with a similar learning profile. Then add in accessibility and instruction in blindness skills. This planning will set the stage for learning at the appropriate level and in the right setting.

The Next Critical Question

Many times parents sigh with relief when they hear from an eye doctor or teacher of blind students that their child does not need Braille or a cane. Maybe in first grade the child does fine—the print is large and the environment small and familiar, and it's okay to hold hands with an adult. But what about the next year and the year after that, when the print gets smaller and the paragraphs denser? What happens on a class field trip? Will the child be as independent as the others? Does she need to hold someone's hand for safety? Will she be in danger of falling off a curb or tripping over a tree root? What about the preteen who is venturing out to the mall with friends? Or even the seven-year-old who should be able to cross the street alone?

The question is not, "Does my child need Braille or a cane?" The question is, "What is the task before my child, and does he have a safe, efficient way to accomplish it independently and at an age- or stage-appropriate level?" Don't let anyone tell you that your child does not need a cane or Braille because he "is not really blind." Instead, insist on giving your child the freedom to choose among all the skills and tools available—both visual and nonvisual—so that he can be age-appropriate, successful, and independent.

Essentials That Must Be in Place

In order to create a classroom where the blind student can participate independently and fully throughout the school day, several essentials must be in place.

Positive attitudes and high expectations: Read—and then share with teachers—the stories of accomplished blind people such as Dr. Abraham Nemeth, the blind mathematician who learned the New York subway system when he was a child and later invented the Nemeth Code; Erik Weihenmayer, the blind guy who reached the top of Mount Everest; Rachael Scdoris, the blind Iditarod racer—that's a 1,000-mile dog sled race in Alaska through blizzards, gale-force winds, and sub-zero temperatures that takes over a week to complete! These stories will help the adults around the blind child aim higher!

Academics on track or remediation plan: With needed life experiences and readiness activities, the child's academics should be on track. If not, the team needs to develop a remediation plan. For details on how this might look, please see Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade.

A fair evaluation: A fair evaluation sets the stage for appropriate classroom placement. In any evaluation, make sure your child is not penalized for not being able to see! Sometimes items on a test are marked wrong even though they were items that required eyesight. At other times, items may be left out of the test because they are not accessible, but the scoring is not adjusted for the possible number of questions the child could answer correctly. It's especially important for our children to get an appropriate evaluation in the area of reading medium. There are major problems with the typical learning media assessments, including a major bias toward the use of print instead of Braille. But research shows that visually-impaired people who learn Braille thoroughly in the early grades achieve literacy levels on a par with sighted peers. Those who learn only print or who receive only sporadic Braille instruction do not. The employment rate is low for blind people and people with disabilities in general. However, research shows that of those blind and visually-impaired people who are employed, over 80 percent are Braille readers. In addition, research tells us that partially-sighted people who embrace nonvisual skills have higher self-esteem and all-around more active lives. When confronted with a task for which their vision alone is not enough, those who rely solely on sight tend to say, "Oh, who wants to do that anyway?" and their lives become smaller and smaller. Nonvisual skills are really important to visually-impaired children.

Appropriate placement: Make sure your blind child is in a classroom based on her academic ability, not on how much she is able to see. Many times blind children are placed in classrooms for children with learning disabilities, even though they have no such disability. Such placements are based on incorrect assumptions about the child's ability and the pace at which a blind child can learn. Blindness itself or the amount of eyesight a child has should never be the determining factor for a child's placement in school, and should never be the reason for excluding or excusing the child from learning.

Accessible materials and presentation: Accessible materials must be ready when needed so that the child can participate independently and fully in all learning experiences throughout the school day. Accessible materials might consist of Braille, large print, tactile diagrams, bold-line diagrams, actual objects, or models. An accessible presentation might consist of a hands-on or close-up view and verbal description.

Student's desk set up for maximum independence and organization: Orient the child to the space so that he knows where books are kept, where paper will be, where special items will be, etc. The things he needs should be within the child's easy reach. Arrange the space so that the child can find, use, and return items without help from an adult. When needed, rethink and change the desk setup as the child progresses. Identify tasks that are being done for the child so that he can begin to do them independently.

Here are some organization ideas.

Instruction in the special skills of blindness: Teach the child the workings of the classroom. Make sure the child receives enough instruction in skills such as Braille, cane travel, and access technology. Instead of making accommodation after accommodation, teach the child empowering skills so that she can handle the task herself.

In-servicing for classroom teachers: Most classroom teachers have never had a blind student in class. They will probably need to learn to have high expectations for the blind student and not to act on assumptions of helplessness. It will be critical for teachers to understand that they need to take responsibility for the blind child's education just as they do for the education of the rest of the children in the class. Teachers need to learn techniques for including a blind student in all class activities, such as verbalizing what they're writing on the board, using adapted materials, and facilitating social interaction. They need to be familiar with—and respect—the tools and techniques the child will be learning so that they can encourage the child on the road to independence.

The role of a classroom aide: The main job of the aide is to do the behind-the-scenes work that can enable the child to participate in all activities during the school day—adapting materials, collecting special items, keeping track of books and special equipment. The main role of the aide should not be direct assistance to the student. The young or newly blinded child might need this assistance for a little while, but the aide should step back as soon as possible. 

There can be serious pitfalls to having an aide in the classroom. Sometimes the aide does so much for the child that the child actually learns dependence. The aide sometimes leads the child around. A "class within a class" can develop, with the teacher speaking to the class and the aide speaking to the blind child. The teacher may become overly reliant on the aide, or the aide's constant presence may impede the child's social interaction with peers. Most of the aide's work, including direct assistance, should be aimed at teaching the child to respond to the teacher, facilitating independence in all areas, and teaching the child to accomplish tasks herself. Aides should understand that success is not measured by how much help they gave the child but by how independent the child became on their watch.

The role of administrators: Administrators must be onboard. In order for the child to progress in independence, the aide must feel free to step back whenever the child is handling a task independently, without fear of criticism. If school administrators understand the goal of independent functioning for the child, they will know that if the aide looks as if she is doing nothing, it means that the child is making progress.

A good IEP: The academic goals of an IEP for a blind student should reflect what the expectation would be for the child if he or she were not blind. The IEP should also reflect the need for accessible materials and presentation. Each goal should include the materials, tools, and techniques the child will use to accomplish it. Goals should also be included for the skills of blindness the child is learning, such as Braille, cane travel, and access technology. Finally, the IEP for a blind student should have an explicit goal of independence. People tend to overprotect and have low expectations for blind children, perhaps because they can't imagine doing things without eyesight. It is easy for the adults in the child's life to go on year after year doing things for the child that the child should be doing for herself. Formulate independence goals and objectives by looking at each area in which the child is not yet independent, analyzing and breaking down the tasks, and figuring out what the next logical step will be. Include a plan in the IEP for phasing out direct assistance by the aide.

A timetable for independence: Progress toward independence must be made every month of every year. Think about how many years you have to get the job done (till senior year in high school, or age twenty-one, if necessary). Figure out what must happen in each of those years in order to accomplish the goal.

These points are the basics for creating classrooms in which blind children can learn and thrive. For more details on the subject, please see Making It Work: Educating the Blind/Visually Impaired Student in the Regular School and Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade: Working toward an Independent Future for Your Blind Child.

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