Vision Stimulation: Is the Tide Turning?
by Julie Hunter

Editor's Note: The following editorial first appeared in the January, 1997, POBC News and Views, a publication of the Parents of Blind Children Division of Colorado. It was later reprinted in the June, 1997, issue of the Braille Monitor, the monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind.

For many years the professionals in the field of visual impairment have held that visual skills could be taught—that children with impaired vision could be trained through focusing and tracking activities to use better any residual vision they might have. For just as many years the National Federation of the Blind has argued against this philosophy, believing that the time spent trying to stimulate the use of vision through therapy involving darkened rooms and flashing lights is better spent enriching the child and guiding him in the use of alternative techniques in visually based activities. But more than just a waste of time, the NFB has suggested that underlying such programs is an insidious implication that the better you see, the more valuable you are as a person. In a 1986 article from Future Reflections, (Vol. 5 No. 2, 1986; page 25) entitled, "Learning to Look," Barbara Cheadle wrote:

"Putting aside for the time the question of how valuable vision stimulation programs are (or could be) for the blind or low-vision child, there is a greater concern. Like drugs or a common kitchen knife, even useful educational tools can be turned into dangerous weapons that destroy instead of nurture."

Meanwhile, as recently as 1995, the National Association for

the Parents of the Visually Impaired presented an article entitled, "Sensory Development, Vision, Focusing & Tracking." The article stated:

"Using his/her vision is a learned activity for the child who is visually impaired. It is not automatic, so you must teach your child that using his/her vision will be beneficial to him/her. For example, instead of handing your child a cookie, you should hold the cookie and ask the child to reach out and take it. That way, he/she is being rewarded for using his/her vision." (Awareness, Winter Issues, 1995, page 6)

What does such an approach teach the child? The child is

rewarded for seeing the cookie and made to feel inadequate for failing to see it. The child is set up for failure and diminished self-esteem. Instead of valuing and appreciating the usefulness of alternative techniques, the child is being taught that it is better to do your best with whatever vision you have and hide your inability to see than to use an alternative technique of blindness.

We all agree that enriching the environment with color and shape is extremely important for a visually impaired child (as it is for any child), but enriching the environment and trying to teach visual skills are very different matters. It is dangerous to try to teach vision, for you have then placed a value on seeing versus not seeing which can have damaging psychological implications.

Happily, there is evidence that the vision professionals may be reevaluating their stand on the value of visual stimulation. A recent article published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (Vol. 90, No. 5, Sept-Oct, 1996) entitled "A Call to End Vision Stimulation Training" by Kay Ferrell, Ph.D. and D. William Muir, M.A., questions the efficacy of teaching visual perceptual skills.

"The cautions against using vision stimulation are significant. The main ones are 1) the research to support visual skills training is ambiguous at best; 2) the procedures violate the principle of normalization and diminish the self-esteem of children, families, and teachers; and 3) the training consumes time better devoted to instruction for real-life demands."

Ferrell and Muir also say:

"Children may think that they are not good enough and that visual impairment is indeed a loss, rather than a learning characteristic requiring adaptation."

Dr. Ferrell and Mr. Muir are highly respected professors in

the Division of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado. However, it may take some time before their fellow professionals are willing to abandon what they have long considered best practice. At the very least one can hope that their students, future teachers of the blind and visually impaired, will be entering the professional ranks not as vision teachers, trying to teach vision, but as teachers of the blind and visually impaired.

Thank you, Dr. Ferrell and Mr. Muir, for seeing the light and providing a beginning to the end of visual skills training.