Future Reflections Special Issue: Low Vision and Blindness 2005
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by Barbara Cheadle
The following tips are based upon my experiences as the parent of a son with partial sight and are a revision and expansion of an earlier article I wrote for Future Reflections entitled �A Partially Sighted Child in the Classroom: Tips for Teachers.�
Let me begin with some background about my son. Chaz is totally blind in one eye (glaucoma) and has nystagmus, a cataract, and strabismus in his other eye. His visual acuity during his toddler and early school years was about 20/70, but that shifted to 20/200 (legal blindness) by the time he graduated from high school. He attended a Montessori preschool and a regular public school from kindergarten through high school.
It was never necessary for him to have an instructional assistant, or aide, in the class. He had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the services of an itinerant teacher of the blind (TVB), who provided direct instruction to him as needed and consultation to his classroom teachers and others as needed. He used regular print primarily in the class, but was also taught Braille and keyboarding by his TVB. (Getting Braille instruction for a partially sighted child at that time was unusual and would never have happened without the help of the National Federation of the Blind. But that�s another story. Today, the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all visually impaired children be provided instruction in Braille unless an evaluation indicates it is not necessary now or for future literacy needs.)
Before he finished high school, my son was independent in making decisions about what alternative techniques to use and discussed or negotiated these individually with his teachers as needed. He went on to graduate from college with a major in Ancient Studies and currently works as an educator and sailor for the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland.
That�s the background. Now, here are the tips:
1. Before you do anything else, read the child�s IEP then ask the TVB and/or the parents to clarify anything you don�t understand about it. If the student does not have an IEP, he or she should have a Section 504 plan. If the student has neither, this is a serious oversight and I urge you to call it to the attention of the proper authority in your school system. In the meantime, with or without an IEP or Section 504 plan, you can still proceed with the strategies below:
2. Verbalize everything. All of your students will benefit if you read everything as you, or others, write it on the whiteboard or review it from a PowerPoint presentation or overhead projector. Even when you call on students for answers, don�t just point--say the names aloud. You can even occasionally rattle off several names, �Oh, I see that Kevin, Tyesha, Rachel, and Ryan have their hands up. Ryan, what is the answer?�
When doing a demonstration, it might help to stand close to the low vision student and to over-verbalize as you go. My heart still aches when I remember the time I observed my son in a fourth grade class. The teacher was demonstrating how to peel the thin membrane off an onion so the kids could put it under a slide to look at the cells. My son was totally lost and confused. If she had been more explicit in her language and had stood next to him (or him to her) and casually dipped her hand down for him to get a visual close up of what she had done, he could have proceeded with the other kids.
Kids with partial sight can see some things and not others, and sometimes what they can see will vary from day to day or hour to hour depending upon the lighting conditions, eye fatigue, etc. My own son loses a lot of vision in glare or overly bright light; he always does better in low light. However, some kids can�t see well in dim light. Observe your student and try to determine what works best for him or her. If you learn to verbalize everything as you go, you don�t have to worry about whether your student is having a good day or a bad day with his or her vision.
3. Please don�t ask your student �What do you see?� or �Can you see...?� Instead, observe the child, ask for his or her feedback about your verbalizations, and ask her how he or she prefers to manage certain tasks. A partially sighted child at this age very often cannot tell you what he or she can or cannot see. Remember that he or she has no idea what �perfect� vision is like. There is much in the visual world that the student is missing, and doesn�t even know he or she is missing. It takes time and training for kids with low vision to understand their vision, and more time to learn how to describe it to those with good vision. My son, for example, didn�t realize until middle school that other kids could look out the car window and see their friends waving at them from the sidewalk. He was upset because other kids thought he was being stuck up and ignoring them when they waved to him; he didn�t know they expected him to be able to see them. After all, he recognized his friends visually in the hallways. It was hard for everyone--including himself--to understand the quirks of his low vision.
4. Whiteboard work, PowerPoint presentations, overheads, demonstrations, movies, and materials on bulletin boards in and around the room will need consideration. Follow the IEP if it is clear and detailed. If not, work with the student, the TVB, and the parents to determine what techniques will work best for him or her. Your verbal descriptions and reading aloud of everything may be enough. On the other hand, he or she may need to be allowed to go close to read the material and copy it down. Don�t always make him or her sit up front, however, if he or she doesn�t want to. Let him or her move about the room as needed to read things. This should be done quietly and unobtrusively, and taken for granted as a matter of course. In other words: no big announcements to the class. If other students ask about it answer them honestly but briefly and move on to other topics.
5. Allow your student some flexibility to experiment so he or she can find out what works best for him or her. My son found that if he sat or stood next to the overhead projector, he could read the material on the projector slide without interfering with the projection on the wall. He always sat next to a friend in the back of the room when a video or movie was shown, and his friend quietly described any necessary action that wasn�t verbalized. He would stand close to the blackboard to read and copy down assignments, then return to his seat. Sometimes he would ask a friend, who would read it quietly to him. (It was best if he copied it himself since he could not always read others handwriting.) Although we didn�t call it this, he was doing what blind people call �using readers�--that is, live people who read materials to you under your direction and instruction. It�s no big deal, and often at this stage only takes a few moments and is especially easy to do when students are working in groups or pairs.
6. Touch is important. Your student�s education will be much enhanced if you actively encourage tactile exploration. Tactile clues help the student verify what he or she may see only imperfectly or perhaps not at all. Even older students, especially in the sciences, should continue to use their tactile sense for learning. When our son was twelve, we discovered that he thought that the large ears on goats--the kind that stick straight out from the head and are horizontal to the ground--were horns. We were at a petting zoo and he asked us why some of the goats had four horns and some had horns but no ears. Although our son could �see,� he did not have enough knowledge about the world around him to accurately assess the information his limited vision provided to him. A lot of the time he was guessing.
Many tactile techniques are also safer--especially those used for cutting and measuring. This is most important in classes such as home arts (cooking and sewing), industrial arts, chemistry class, and biology lab (dissections). When cutting (or dissecting), for example, use the curled knuckles of the opposite hand against the flat of the blade as a guide. You can�t cut a finger this way because the finger is never exposed.
One caution: some children may be embarrassed to �touch� if they are the center of attention and other students are not touching. See tip number eight (below) and also consider how you might make activities more tactile for all your students.
7. Large-print and/or magnifiers might help, but are not always the answer. Usually regular print, as long as it is crisp, sharp, and with good contrast and no glare, is best. In fact, the worst thing you can do is give a low vision kid fuzzy, smeared, blurred, or faint copy--no matter how big it has been enlarged. My son used a combination of regular print and large print. In his IEP he was always given permission to take a good master copy of something to the copy machine in the office and to make an enlarged copy of it as needed. Of course, this didn�t help if he had a bad master copy, or if he had a substitute teacher who didn�t have good instructions (or didn�t follow them). That was one of his biggest complaints: a substitute who would give him a worksheet, or even a test, that had not been enlarged and when he told the substitute that he needed to go to the office to enlarge it, the substitute would refuse and tell him to �Do the best that you can.�
Hand-held magnifiers, a monocular, and/or a high-powered closed
circuit television (CCTV) system might also be used by the low vision student.
(My son had a hand-held magnifier but seldom used it.) Efficient use of these
aids requires patience, skill, persistence, and training. It is critical for
teachers to understand that these aids do not restore or correct vision to a
low vision person in the same way that glasses or contacts restore vision to
most people with common eye problems. Magnifiers are most effective when teachers,
parents, and the student understand the limitations of the devices and the student
uses them in combination with other nonvisual techniques.
Some low vision kids struggle with print when they really need Braille. It�s much easier to learn Braille as a child than an adult, and children can learn both. Your observations and recommendations do count. If your student is having difficulties with print, or if you can anticipate that he or she will have trouble when the print gets smaller and the reading demands increase, then please call this to the attention of the TVB, the parents, and the IEP team. You might want to remind the team about the IDEA Braille provision that requires Braille instruction for blind and visually impaired children.
8. Don�t make a big deal about the student or the techniques used. Do be up front about it; just take the attitude that �Of course we do it this way because this is how it�s done in classes with blind or partially sighted students in them.� Don�t tolerate teasing or harassing of the student, but do so in the context that no one is allowed to tease or harass others for any reason.
9. Expect your student to take notes independently. One unfortunate trend in education is to provide a �scribe,� that is a live person, such as other classmates, to take notes for a visually impaired student. On some occasions this may be acceptable (taking a pop-quiz for example), but it is not necessary nor desirable for this to be the primary note-taking method for the average blind or partially sighted student. There are better, more independent, note-taking methods for both Braille-reading and print-reading low vision children to use.
My son learned to write Braille primarily as an alternative when he could not read his own handwriting. He had touch-typing instruction in third grade and began to use a computer to write his essays in fifth grade (and should have done it sooner). Before then he wrote as little as possible because it was hard for him to read his own handwriting, to check his spelling and grammar, and to make corrections. He did his math work and the true/false and fill-in-the-blank test items in handwriting, but used a computer at school and at home to do all other writing assignments.
Keyboarding instruction and access to a computer with accessible features for the blind is essential to all visually impaired students from the earliest grades on. If this instruction or equipment is not in your student�s IEP, it should be. He or she needs a fast way to independently prepare print materials for classroom teachers. Some schools provide laptop computers with synthesized speech and/or screen enlargers to blind and low vision students. Portable electronic notetakers for the blind are another common option.
10. Expect your student to do the work. Please don�t excuse him or her from assignments; think about the purpose of the assignment and adapt as necessary, but don�t exclude. For example, the student needs to learn how to use the dictionary, even if he or she can�t read the small print. He or she can learn, for example, to direct someone to read it to him or her. But to do that, he or she needs to know what information is included in a dictionary and how it is organized.
If the student isn�t getting the work done but he or she has the cognitive ability to do so, and you have eliminated other possible causes, then the problem is not the low vision; it�s lack of proper materials, adapted technology, techniques, and/or compensatory skills. Again, you can call this problem to the attention of the IEP team or to your supervisor.
11. Expectations matter. Although students who are blind or have low vision may do things differently, they are as capable of doing academic work as their peers. If we expect them to perform and provide them with the tools they need, they will do their work with speed and competency equal to any other child.
12. Attitude counts. My husband and I adopted the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in raising our son: �It is respectable to be blind.� We decided that since his vision loss required extensive educational services (and would prevent him from ever driving a car), then he was, indeed, blind--not just low vision. That attitude made a world of difference in our acceptance of nonvisual techniques and in our son�s confidence and self-esteem. If his vision wasn�t sufficient for a task it was no big deal; there were perfectly good blindness techniques that he could use to get the job done. As he grew up, these nonvisual strategies became a part of his personality. For him, touching and listening is as natural and as automatic as looking.
Recently, my son and I were working together in the kitchen. My vision is not as good as it used to be and as I took my glasses off and put my nose down to look at my work, my son laughed and admonished me, �Use your hands, Mom, use your hands!� I had forgotten how much we had used that phrase when he was growing up! We were always encouraging him to trust all of his senses and not to rely only on his limited vision.
Chaz currently works in a high-glare environment (the worst possible condition for his vision): on the sea every day in bright sunlight teaching kids about ecology, sea life, and sailing on a 19th century Skipjack. He�s good at it and he loves it. I don�t think he would be doing this job today if he had spent his childhood trying to use his limited vision for all tasks and avoiding or trying to modify all high-glare situations. Today, he�s an adult with confidence, skills, and a job--and it all started with an attitude.
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