Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom
Editor's Note: Carol Castellano is the very capable president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey, and Second Vice President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Over the past few years she has organized and conducted numerous workshops for classroom teachers, aides, and other school staff who are expected to work with blind children in their schools and classrooms. Her own daughter, Serena, will soon be moving on to middle school. Serena began life as a premature infant. She experienced many developmental delays in her early years. Today, however, she is right on track with her peers. Serena's academic success owes much to the effectiveness of the approach outlined in the following article:
Most sighted people believe that blind people need a lot of help. It's almost always the first reaction people have when they meet my daughter"How can I help this dear, sweet, helpless child?" I have even seen so-called sensitivity exercises, designed to develop awareness and understanding of blindness, which have as their explicit goal, "the understanding of what it is like to be helpless."
What do you believe about blindness? How do you feel about blindness and the blind child you will be working with every day? Do blind people need a lot of help? Are blind people limited in certain ways? Can blind people know as much as sighted people? Can they be competitive? Is blindness a tragedy? Do blind people need compassion?
Our beliefs are important because what we believe affects the way we behave. Our beliefs about blindness will affect how we act toward the blind children with whom we work, our expectations for them, the way we teach them, the messages we give them. I strongly encourage you to examine your feelings and beliefs about blindness frequently as you work with your blind student this school year.
Why do sighted people believe blind people are helpless? I think it is because sighted people can't imagine doing things without eyesight. We use it almost all the time. And we tend to think that anyone who can accomplish tasks without it is extraordinary or amazing.
Even professionals in the blindness field who work with and write about blind people often base their conclusion on what they believe blindness must be like and on ideas about the difficulties, deficiencies, and frustrations they believe blind people must have. I have come to think of these negative assumptions about blindness as "sighted bias." Unfortunately, you will encounter it in much of the professional literature you read.
What if I were to lose my eyesight tomorrow? If I were to lose my eyesight tomorrow, I would be relatively helpless. What would I need to do? I would need to learn how to function as a blind person, how to use the tools and adaptations that allow the accomplishing of tasks without eyesight. The skills and tools of blindness are the key to being able to function competitively without frustration and with success. And the more you learn about them, the more you will be able to help your students be successful in school and in life.
Now I'd like to tell you what I know about blindness. Every year my husband and I attend the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. At this convention there are about twenty-five hundred blind people. Now, you can learn a lot about blindness by spending a week with twenty-five hundred blind people! And what we have learned is that blind people are a cross section of humanitythat there are tall ones and short ones, bright ones and not-so-bright ones, very dear people and pretty obnoxious people. And what does that say about blindness? That blind people are just like everyone else. There is no one "blind personality," no "psychology of blindness."
At Federation conventions, my husband and I have met or heard speak a blind mathematician, lawyer, college professor, industrial arts teacher, elementary school teacher, NASA engineer, chef, car body mechanic, transmission mechanic, Foreign Service Officer, triathlete, and a man who sailed solo in a race from San Francisco to Hawaii, twice, and came in third!
So, what do I believe about blindness? I believe that everything's possible. We (parents and teachers) need to have high expectations, provide good training and education, and keep all the doors of opportunity open for our blind children. I know that blindness certainly does not have to stop a person from accomplishing goals and fulfilling dreams.
I believe that our job as adults is to assist the children in becoming independent, self-sufficient, competent adults who will have a job, a family, friends, options for leisure time, and the ability to go where they want to go when they want to go there.
Teachers and Teachers' Aides Can Do
Keep expectations high.
Provide the same or equivalent information, experience, and education for the blind child as for the sighted children in the class.
Build in the expectation, the instruction, and the practice time for independence in all areasacademic, social, and personal.
The classroom teacher will assume the same responsibility for the education of the blind child as he or she assumes for the education of the sighted children in the room, e.g., speak directly to the child at all times, grade the child's papers, know the child's work, interact with the child daily, discipline the child, and so forth.
Understand and respect the alternative skills the child will be learning, e.g., the use of Braille, cane, sound, touch, memory, various special tools, and so forth.
Specifics for the Classroom Teacher
1. Be more verbal. Verbal description will help the child interpret what is going on in the classroom.
Use names when calling on children.
Provide precise verbal description in place of vague statements and/or motions when modeling an action. "Fold the paper lengthwise" instead of "Fold the paper like this."
Explain your routine a bit to help the blind child interpret situations which he/she cannot see. "I'm so glad you're all being quiet as I get the snack ready."
Verbalize what you write on the board or on overheads; spell out words when appropriate.
Add a few words of explanation when the illustrations in a storybook carry the plot (the blind child will not have access to the picture).
When referring to objects, think about attributes other than color, such as shape, weight, texture, size, and location.
Use normal language such as "look" and "see."
to focus on the teacher;
to respond quickly to instructions;
how to respond (raising the hand, answering aloud, answering in unison, etc.);
when and where to move in the classroom;
how to determine what others in the room are doing; and
to work at an appropriate pace (please see the section on pace at the end of this list).
4. Adapt materials or parts of the lesson when necessary.
5. Provide hands-on opportunities. These will make experiences more meaningful for the blind child.
6. Model movements for songs, fingerplays, etc. that you want the whole class to learn by moving the blind child through the motions. Sighted children get the benefit of watching and the blind child can learn by experiencing his/her own movement.
7. Offer information instead of help. Instead of getting an object for the child, for example, give the child a chance to find it by describing its size, shape, and location. Then give the child enough time to explore and correct mistakes before you give more prompts.
8. Understand and respect the skills of blindness. Learn the general sequence of the skills, provide opportunities in the class for the child to practice, and offer appropriate support as the child is working toward mastery.
Braille reading and writing is the equivalent of print reading and writing.
Information can be reliably perceived through the sense of touch.
The blind child should be moving about more and more independently as time goes on using orientation and mobility skills.
The child will learn to use sound, memory, mental mapping, and various special tools and will learn to ask for information when needed.
You can provide equivalent nonvisual cues for your blind student. Point out to the blind student the rustling sound of pages turning so he/she can listen for how fast classmates are going. If the child can tell time, a Braille watch or a talking clock could help. Periodically give verbal cues such as "About half of our time is up. You should be on number four or five by now."
Here is another aspect of pace to consider. Classroom teachers are often told that the blind student will take longer to accomplish schoolwork and therefore should be expected to do only part of the assignment. Teachers are often advised, for example, to have the blind child do only the even-numbered problems or every other row or only enough to demonstrate that he/she understands the concept. It is true, especially in the early grades, that blind students might take longer to complete an assignment. This is so because the student is also in the process of mastering a specific blindness skill necessary to perform the task.
For example, the student might be learning how to set up math problems in Braille with his/her Braille machine (Braille writer) or the child might be physically doing moremoving from a workbook page on the desk to an answer sheet in the Braille writerwhile their sighted classmates are simply writing in the answers on the workbook page.
Sometimes it might seem sensible to cut back a little on one part of the workload while the child is learning or mastering a new skill. If you do, make sure you build in a plan to get the child working up to speed as soon as possible. When blind children become adults and go out on job interviews they won't get the job if they have to say, "I can only do half the work" or "I can only do the even-numbered problems!" Again, we must keep in mind that we are preparing children for adulthood.
Another situation in which a child might work at a slow pace is if the child reads print slowly and/or painfully. Perhaps the child requires a closed circuit television (CCTV) for magnification of all print work. If a child works at a slow pace for this reason then you might want to consider Braille for this child. Again, think of the future.
Your student will need to be competitive, efficient, and versatile in this information age. Will slow reading, inadequate self-communication skills, and generally sub-standard literacy skills be adequate when the child competes as an adult in the job market? This is not, by the way, an either/or choice. Children can learn and use both print and Braille.
The various functions of an aide can be divided into four general categories:
behind the scenes work,
the Scenes Work
Here are some specifics:
1. Set up the desk area for maximum independence and organization. The blind child needs to know where books and papers will be kept, where to put completed work, where any special items will be, and so forth. Items should be within the child's easy reach.
Purchase or use poster board to make oversize folders which can accommodate large Braille sheets; label folders in Braille.
Vertical snap-together bins from the stationery store can be used on the child's desk to organize and hold books and folders.
Place the correct volume of each Braille textbook at the child's desk. Later the older student will take over this task.
Make sure special supplies, such as Sticky-Wikki, tactile dice, Braille labeler, etc., are ready and in logical places for the child's use.
Remember, the desk must be set up for use of the child, not the aide! If the aide has a desk in the room, it should be in another part of the room, not next to the blind child's. This way the teacher and the other children view the blind child as a real part of the class and the child learns to focus on the teacher and not on the aide.
3. Keep track of any special items that come in. Know where they are and learn their uses.
4. Coordinate and plan in advance with the classroom teacher and teacher of the visually impaired. Have a copy of the lesson plans so materials can be adapted in advance and will be ready when the teacher presents that lesson.
5. Organize Braille or large print worksheets in advance and give them to the teacher to hand out along with those for the other children.
6. Adapt materials for classroom subjects, music, and art. Often adaptations will be quite simple; at times you'll need to analyze the lesson to be learned and then decide upon a good way to present it. Collect materials useful for adapting, such as cardboard, Glu-Colors, Sticky-Wikki, Braille labeler, various self-stick textures, drafting taping, tracing wheel, and so forth.
7. If an adaption for a lesson consists of something entirely different from what the other children will be using, let the teacher know about it. It might be appropriate for you to show it to the blind child during the lesson and unobtrusively supply information or instructions.
8. Check Braille books to see if diagrams, charts, or maps were omitted (they often are). If you have learned Braille (many school districts provide tutoring courses in Braille for aides), check to see if charts, etc. which have been transcribed make sense and are usable. Plan appropriate alternatives if needed.
9. Collect any special materials or manipulatives required for the day's lessons; transport them to other rooms if the children change classes.
10. If Braille worksheets are going home for homework, staple a print copy on top for the parents.
11. If you have learned Braille, transcribe the child's work by writing the print above each Braille line, instead of waiting for the Braille teacher to transcribe the work. The classroom teacher can then mark and grade the blind student's papers along with all the rest of the children's papers. Remember, the teacher must know the blind student's work as well as he/she knows the work of any other student in the class.
12. If the school has a Braille printer and a Braille translation program, the aide can use a computer to produce many items in Braille. Worksheets, tests, last minute items, school announcements, programs for assemblies, the lunch menu, and any other materials not Brailled by the transcribing service can be produced. The aide does not need to know Braille (although some rudimentary knowledge is suggested) to produce Braille by computer.
13. A Braille printer can also be used to Braille out the teacher's comments and corrections. These may be attached to the child's papers so that he/she gets feedback on schoolwork in the same manner and at the same time his/her classmates get it.
14. Use Glu-Colors, bits of Sticky-Wikki, or other tactual materials to mark mistakes on papers that the teacher has graded so the child can analyze his/her own mistakes.
Incidentally, the behind the scenes work is automatically done for sighted children so that they can perform at their best. Desks are designed so that books and pencils fit and can be put in logical places. Books, manipulatives, and other learning tools are all ready on the first day of school. Diagrams, maps, and charts are included in their books in usable formats. Posters and bulletin boards in the classroom provide additional learning opportunities. The behind the scenes work for a blind student serves to set up an equivalent learning environment. As time goes on, less and less behind the scenes work will need to be done, as long as the blind student has had a strong base in elementary level academics and blindness skills. With a strong foundation in these skills the older blind student can be expected to learn how to take on the behind the scenes tasks him/herself.
What is appropriate help? In general, appropriate help is the kind that teaches the skill. One way to think about it is to ask yourself, "Is the help I am giving the kind that will teach the child how to do the task on his/her own? Or am I doing the task for the child?" For example, putting the child's papers into his/her backpack at the end of the day is one form of help, but teaching the child to pack the bag is a much better form of help.
Another useful way to judge the kind of help you are providing is to think about age-appropriateness. It might be appropriate for an aide to help a preschooler locate the hook in the cubby and hang up the backpack or to help with zipping up the child's jacket. However, this would no longer be appropriate for a fourth grader.
Other appropriate times for direct assistance might be in art and gym. In gym, for example, an aide could help the child locate a certain area of the room that is not tactually marked or could help the child participate in activities such as soccer or basketball. Even then, an aide should be as unobtrusive as possible. They should also be alert at all times to ways they can promote interaction between the blind student, the teacher, and other students in the class. Of course, in all cases, when the child is able to participate on his/her own, the aide should not interfere. When an aide does directly assist a child, they should make sure they respect the child's personal space (see "My Body Belongs to Me," Future Reflections, Volume 14, number 3).
In general, if the planning is built in for independence and if sufficient instruction and practice time are provided, less and less help will be needed as time goes on. From the beginning there should be a plan for the time when the aide will no longer be present or providing direct assistance.
Here are some ways an aide can facilitate:
1. Encourage appropriate exploration. The young blind child, especially, needs certain information about the environment in order to function independently. Guide the child so the child can make discoveries.
2. Help the child understand the classroom scene and learn how to respond appropriately.
3. Give cues rather than help; keep stepping back.
4. Serve as a reader. A reader is someone (paid or volunteer) who reads print material to a blind person either directly or by recording it onto tape. Blind adults use readers on the job and in their homes for personal mail and other material. A child's need for readers will increase in the higher grades and in college. In order to direct and use a reader effectively, the blind student must be familiar with various print page formats, headings, captions, contents, indexes, etc.
5. Facilitate social interaction and friendships.
6. Give the child discreet feedback on appropriate postures and behaviors. Correct the blind child the way you would a sighted child who was facing the wrong way or was otherwise situated incorrectly.
7. Help the blind child learn and do what is expected in activities requiring partners, for example, in cooperative learning activities in the classroom; square dancing in gym; or preparing for a concert or a play in music.
8. Remind sighted children (and adults) to identify themselves to the blind child "Hi, Sarah, it's Jennifer." Remind the blind child to ask the identity of those speaking to him/her or those next to him/her at lunch or in line. "Hi. Who's this in front of me?"
9. Give the blind child information about what classmates are doing during in-class and playground recess. If needed, teach appropriate responses to what other children say and do.
10. If necessary, teach the blind child how to play the games classmates are playing. Teach the blind child ways to get into games. Teach them playground manners and protocols children (and adults) expect everyone to follow. For example, Jennifer has just gone down the slide. She walks around back to the steps. A line has formed. Does she know she is supposed to find the end of the line and wait? Does she know how to ask for the end of the line? Do the other children know they should call out and let her know where the end of the line is? It's a simple matter to stand back and teach this when the opportunity occurs. "Jennifer, there are five kids in line. You need to wait your turn. John, call out so Jennifer knows where you are so she can find you and wait behind you for her turn."
11. Teach the sighted children how to get the blind child's attention. "Mike, Jennifer can't see you wave your arm to her. If you want her to come over you need to say, `Over here Jennifer, by the big swing set.'"
12. Be matter-of-fact about blindness. Teach everyone to think, "Let's figure out a way to get a blind kid into this game."
13. Facilitate independent mobility. Go to orientation and mobility lessons; follow through when the cane teacher is not there.
14. Help the child master daily routes such as changing classes, trips to the school office, going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, and so forth. First talk the child through the route, then follow at a close enough distance to give verbal cues if needed, next watch from a distance. Don't always rush to help. Be sure to allow time for independent problem-solving. Finally, get out of the picture as soon as possible. The goal is for the child to move about within the school with the same degree of independence as sighted peers.
15. Don't lead the child around!
An aide, for example, can ensure that the blind child is exposed to the many concepts presented through "environmental print," the posters, bulletin boards, announcements, children's work, etc. that surround them in the classroom. Once the blind child is aware that this kind of information exists, then he/she is on the road to learning how and when to get it for him/herself.
Here is another way in which an aide can enrich the child's experience. Print books are full of photographs which illustrate many concepts for the students. At times, the aide might be able to provide real objects for the blind child to examine or could mention the need to the classroom teacher, teacher of the visually impaired, and family, one of whom might have access to the item. An aide might also notice an area in which the child has incomplete information and could alert the teachers and family to this.
Other examples of enrichment are providing verbal description of videos, school assemblies, school programs, plays, and school field trips. Showing special objects related to the assembly or trip to the child before or after the activity is also an important enrichment experience.
A good understanding of the teacher's routine and priorities and of the functioning of the classroom will help you make these difficult decisions. Another aid to decision making is gauging your decisions against the goal of independence. In general, over the course of time, make sure that your decisions are helping the child to progress in independence. Don't fall into the habit of assisting too much. Try to develop a good feel for when to step in and when to step back.
Another useful exercise is to think about the consequences of the decisions you make. How will what I am about to do affect this child? What unspoken messages are my actions sending?
Watch for These Common Danger Areas!
Don't hover. Don't overprotect. Keep a watchful eye. Use good judgment. Step in when necessary, but base your interventions on the idea of an independent future for the child, not on the idea that blind people cannot be expected to do certain tasks.
How is the aide referred to at your school? Is she considered a personal aide to the child or an aide to the teacher? If the aide is referred to as the child's aide, then the blind child and his/her classmates might get the impression that the blind child is helpless or in need of constant protection or supervision. You might want to use the term "teacher's aide" or "classroom aide" instead. As always, think of the futurethe child must be encouraged in normal steps toward independence and responsibility for him/herself.
It is important, too, that the school principal understand the goal of independence and that this goal means that there may be times (more and more as time goes on) that the aide is not giving any assistance at all to the blind child. At all times when the child is able to work unassisted, the aide must feel free to "do nothing." If the aide feels that she will be criticized for "doing nothing" she will be more likely to hover near the child, thereby interfering with the process of independence.
With school administrators' input and approval, a plan could be set in place for the gradual and sensible lessening of the time the aide spends with the blind student. For example, if the child is able to participate in music class unassisted, then the plan could be for the aide to leave that room and use the time to consult with the teacher or adapt materials. At first, the aide might walk with the child to and from the class. As time goes on, she would help the child learn the route. Next, as the child became more and more able to handle classroom activities unassisted, the aide could begin to spend less time in the classroom, again using that time to prepare materials and plan.
When the time came that the aide was only rarely needed in the classroom and all materials were prepared, the plan could be for her to spend her "free" time assisting in another room. Better yet, if the school has had the foresight to provide Braille training to the aide, the aide may take on more and more Braille transcribing tasks. As the child gets older and the print reading demands get heavier and more varied, Braille transcribing needs increase.
If the principal consciously supports the blind student's movement toward independence, then he/she will not inadvertently edge the child toward learned dependence.
The aide might enjoy the private conversation; the child might enjoy it. But it won't get the child where the child needs to go.
Special relationships can be a problem in another area. Because they are usually with adults or older children, these relationships can prevent friendships with peers from developing. Everyone gets used to seeing the blind child with the aide. The adults at school get used to it and, of even greater concern, so do the other children. It also becomes so normal and comfortable to the blind child that he/she does not develop the self-expectation for normal social interactions with peers.
It is very tempting to let special relationships developthey come out of the goodness of people's heartsbut they are not, in the long run, in the best interest of the blind child.
If you are having trouble figuring out how to include your blind student in an activity, analyze what is to be learned and think about possible ways to get the message across. There is almost always a simple adaptation that can be made. If you can't think of a way, ask someone elsethe teacher of the visually impaired, the parents, a blind adultfor ideas. But don't leave the child out.
on Assumptions of Help Needed
But believe me, working blind people do all of these things every day. We've got to get our blind children to be able to do all of it, too, so that they will be working blind people someday! So question your assumptions. Read the literature provided by the National Federation of the Blind and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children for guidance. Proceed carefully in what you assume are areas where the child will need help. And always be open to changing and raising your expectations.
the Day of Independence Closer
If by age eighteen, a blind student cannot take care of him/herself, travel independently, make his/her own arrangements for readers or transportation or whatever else he/she might use, then that student is not going to make it in the "real" world. And all of us want these children to be able to make it. So somewhere between the assistance we might give to the preschooler and the independence the student must have by the senior year, the shift must occur. Build it in; plan for a future of independence.
The job of a blind child sometimes seems huge to sighted people because we just can't imagine doing things without our eyesight. But I think the kids take it in stride. Life as a blind person is no more frustrating or stressful to them than life with eyesight is to usas long as they are taught the skills and given the tools they need to accomplish tasks with independence and with success.
If the adults in the child's life understand the progression of the skills the blind child is learning, they can help move the child along and bring the day of independence closer and closer. The bottom line is, we've got to work ourselves out of a job!
Author's Note: With heartfelt thanks to Debbie DeHaven, instructional assistant, whose creative ideas, good judgment, and spirit of partnership enabled my daughter to speed along on that road to independence.
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