Future Reflections  Fall 2006

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Why Blind Teachers? A European Study


Hands together, this blind tutor and child explore an object together.Editor’s Note: The following is a narrative outline of a presentation that two Norwegian teachers (one blind, one sighted) and one psychologist gave at a European conference on the education of blind children. I came upon it when a friend of mine forwarded to me by email a much longer, expanded article about this study. The article was fascinating and illuminating, but far too long to reprint. However, the following summary is just right. It is reprinted with minor edits for clarity from the ICEVI Web site at: http://www.icevi-europe.org/cracow2000/proceedings/chapter06/06-01.doc.

The article has two themes: the importance of learning to learn through touch, and the value of blind teachers as role models in the education and lives of blind children. There is also a sub-theme about the biases and prejudices against blind teachers. Some things seem to be the same, no matter which side of the Atlantic you live on! (It so happens that I have a blind colleague who, not long ago, was denied employment at a school for the blind on the basis that she could not “visually observe the students.” She has gone on to other employment, but the fact that this discrimination happened demonstrates the degree of prejudice and low expectations that still exists among even the professionals serving the blind.)

It is encouraging to see a study with conclusions that are consistent with the experience of hundreds of parents who, over the past twenty-five years, have discovered blind role models through the National Federation of the Blind. The study also corroborates Dr. Vermeij’s observations in the lead article in this issue, “Teaching Exploration: Correcting a Glaring Flaw in the Education of Blind Children.” Here, now, are what the Norwegians have to say on the topic of hands, touch, and blind teachers:

Title: “Hand over hand” A blind teacher of the visually impaired at work with a blind child

A presentation given at the International Council for the Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI), European Conference, Krakow, July 9 – 13, 2000.

Astrid K. Vik: Teacher of the visually impaired, working at Huseby Resource Centre, Oslo, Norway
Karen J. Andersen: Teacher of the visually impaired, working at Vestlandet Resource Centre, Bergen, Norway
Knut Brandsborg: Psychologist, working at Huseby Resource Centre.

1. Introduction
Teachers who are blind have their limitations, of which they are frequently reminded. People who are sighted also have limitations in their ways of sensing and experiencing the world, and particularly when it comes to working with blind children. Most of us [who are sighted] are little aware of these limitations, and we are not at all used to being reminded of them.

2. Background
“Hand over hand” is a study where we have focused on what is happening in the contact and interaction between a blind nine-year-old girl, Line, and me [Astrid], the blind teacher.

The questions which we will concentrate on, are the following:

3. Method
During one year, Line and Astrid had seven meetings and shared activities of daily life. All meetings were video-taped. A selection of interactions and shared explorations during these meetings were analyzed by the three of us together: Astrid, a teacher of the visually impaired and blind herself; Knut, a psychologist, and me [Karen], a teacher for the visually impaired; both of us sighted and having years of experience within the field. Each of us contributed to the analyses of the videos from our own viewpoint, either from the outside as sighted persons or--as for Astrid, a blind individual--with an inside perspective on the situations.

4. The five strategies
The results of the analyses were categorized into five strategies which, in different ways, describe what happened between Line and Astrid. These strategies were:

In the following we will concentrate on strategy number one, and we will start by showing you a short video illustration of the strategy.

5. A video illustration: the clothespin game
Main strategy: Using hands together.
Situation: Astrid and Line are sitting face-to-face on the floor, a jacket lying between them.
Theme: Finding out how to fasten clothespins on the jacket.
Comments: Astrid presses the clothespin open. Line feels Astrid’s hand on the “pressing side.” Simultaneously, Astrid helps Line feel the opening of the clothespin while she herself is pressing on the opposite side. She feels or “reads” or “looks” together with Line on the opening side. Line “reads” Astrid’s pressing hand. Astrid “reads” Line’s feel-the-opening hand.

6. Three perspectives on the results

6.1. The blind teacher’s insider perspective:
When I try to describe what is happening when Line and I use our hands together, I have a problem finding exact words. Maybe we do not have words to describe these interactions precisely, because our language is based on a visual way of thinking? I am still in a process where I try to find out what I do when I use my hands together with Line, and how she registers and understands what I am doing.

When we are using hands together to explore an object it is important to have a simultaneous perspective on the object which we are dealing with. We sit or stand close together with the object in front of us. In this position we have physical contact with each other and we can “read” each other’s body language.

When we have a good interaction, our hands are warm and soft. I put my hands on the object with a soft touch. My hands have the shape of a fan. Line puts her hands on top of mine. We use a soft touch to the object. From the way Line uses her hands, from their temperature, from her way of touching my hands, and the amount of energy in her fingers, I get a clear impression of the quality of our interaction. When she is active, she will frequently move her hand towards my fingertips and establish contact with the object. At that moment, she may take over the initiative in the exploration, and I take my hands away from the object and put them as a soft carpet on the topside of Line’s hands.

We may compare this to a journey. When we start the exploration, I am the guide and she is the tourist. After a while, when she feels safe and comfortable, she frequently takes the initiative to take over my role. Now she is the guide and I am the tourist while we explore the object. When I have my hands as a carpet on Line’s hands, I register whether she is active, or if she is insecure. If necessary, we return to our original roles. Sometimes Line’s hands stop moving across the object. Then I have to be sensitive. Maybe she needs a break, or maybe she wants me to be the guide again.

In some very few situations I felt that using hands together could be difficult. This occurred when the objects were so small that it was uncomfortable with many fingers working together at the same time. Sometimes Line pushed my hands away. After a while, she would often take my hands and put them on the object together with her own hands and say: “Look.” I think she did this because she wanted me to share the experience with her. I have to be sensitive when I use my hands together with a blind pupil. In my opinion, the simultaneous use of hands can be a good way of learning if it is based on a good relationship and a very high degree of sensitivity and respect for each other’s needs.

6.2. The sighted teacher’s outsider perspective
Using her hands together with Astrid’s seemed natural to Line. Without any instruction, she placed her hands on top of Astrid’s like she was reading her movements, or maybe listening to Astrid through her hands. She also accepted Astrid’s hands touching hers in the same way when she was the active part in the interaction or, in other words, when her hands were “speaking” to Astrid.

This way of using hands together is well known to the deaf-blind as a method of communication.

To me, as a sighted viewer, the four hands were dancing a ballet. The only disharmony appeared when Astrid, on rare occasions, eagerly tried to force Line’s hands to touch something and in that way prevented her from moving independently.

For the visually impaired, simultaneous use of touch helps communication. It secures the establishment of communication. It helps to maintain contact, and to break contact when intended. When these communicative elements are not accessible by sight, touch is needed. Deaf-blind persons will be totally dependent on touch for communication, but visually impaired persons will profit a great deal from it.

6.3. A psychological perspective: a sighted outsider’s view
My starting point: self esteem; this is my favorite psychological concept. The meaning here is: “I am good enough as I am.” It is a way of feeling OK, of basic well being in a psychological sense.

Two of the three most important sources of self-esteem (according to Ernest Becker) are

Confirmation has been called the basic “fuel” in childrens’ development.

Physical contact and common use of hands will necessarily increase the amount of physical confirmation for a blind child.

Physical contact and using hands together will give a blind child some of all the symbolic confirmation that she loses because so much of this is conveyed visually. It is largely through vision and body language that we tell our sighted children that we see them, that is, that we share some experience with them. This we do either through vision alone, or frequently combined with words.

Blind children are given just about all confirmation and information through words alone. This means that they ordinarily receive less of this [confirmation and information] than sighted children do, and what they do get is through one sensory channel at a time.

An example: The blind child bends down and touches her shoe. “I have new shoes today.” The adult answers from a distance: “Yes, they are really nice.”

A similar experience for a sighted child: The adult is standing with his back to the child, without looking at the shoe, using the same words: “Yes, they are really nice.”

What would that feel like for a sighted child? It resembles having to communicate with others almost entirely by telephone. This is truly what we may call autistic.

It is unfortunately true that congenitally blind children have a dramatically increased risk of developing autism-related problems. [Could] perhaps one reason for this be that they frequently experience sighted adults behaving in an autistic-like manner towards them?

Physical contact and using hands together to “look at” the shoe, or the clothespin, may prevent the child from feeling rejected, and/or from the feeling of being all alone in the experience with only distant words of shared attention. [With physical contact,] the child will have a lot more possibilities to get out of the telephone booth and communicate on more channels than only one. She will receive far more of the physical and symbolic confirmation that she needs to go further in activities and development, and to maintain and strengthen her self-esteem.

7. What we have learned

People who are blind have a lot of knowledge that sighted people do not have when it comes to contact with, interaction with, and teaching of blind students. Sighted people have a lot to learn.

Visually impaired and sighted professionals should work together in teams and on a basis of equality. This may vastly increase the chances of optimal benefit in our work.

So maybe, when a future job applicant who wants to work with a blind child is being interviewed, the following question should be asked: “Have you reflected on how you may compensate in this job for not being blind?”

NOTE: The longer, expanded article by these three authors is available for viewing on the Internet at: http://www.ks-huseby.no/sensiblegraphics/handoverhand.txt.

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