By Elsie Rao, VI Teacher, Tyler Independent School District
Teaching children who are braille readers is unique. With minor adjustments and some adaptations, classroom teachers can discover how to be successful. The first step is to realize what learning has been like for a student with no or very limited vision. Without normal vision, a child has to be taught the basics of everything; how to sit up, crawl, eat, play, etc. Eighty percent of what a sighted baby learns comes through the sense of sight, so it makes sense that a child without vision will not learn incidentally. This makes early childhood intervention and instruction critical to learning and development. Even with early instruction, blind children will usually function below his/her sighted peers since there is so much to learn. Even so, there are some lessons in life that cannot be fully understood without sight. For instance, what does tall mean? How does one explain the difference between a tall man, a tall tree, and a tall building to someone who has never seen? Describe the white clouds in the blue sky. Tell how the town looks after the tornado hit. Describe the facial expression of the person who is horrified.
Teachers who work with blind children must help these students comprehend and implement basic skills and concepts, like round for example. A blind child must be taught that coins are round, balls are round, and tires are also round. These are just a few examples of objects that are round. The student may not understand how "roundness" applies to all of these objects since they are different sizes, and they feel so different. When the concept is fully understood, the student will be able to apply the concept of "roundness" to all objects. Rarely will a young severely visually impaired (VI) child comprehend and master a lesson in one sitting. It will probably take many lessons to completely teach a concept like round since it has to be taught in so many different settings.
There will also be instances when a blind student will use a word correctly in a sentence, but may not know the meaning of the word. Once, a student told me that her dad had new contacts after I mentioned to her that I had new glasses. When I asked her what a contact was, she said she did not know. Also, the English language is filled with words which can be used in so many ways, and sometimes the meanings get confusing. For instance, a bird flies, a jet flies, but how does a flag fly? Effective teachers will constantly ask questions or create situations that require the blind student to demonstrate the understanding of the word. The education of a VI child can be compared to a building. One block of knowledge rests on top of another, like one floor rests on another. The question is, will the building be a one-story structure or will it be a high-rise? Another way to visualize this is to picture an inverted triangle. Leaning starts with just one small concept. This concept is expanded and used to teach another, and then another. So the pyramid is built from the bottom up.
Now that you have some examples of how learning for a blind child is different from teaching sighted students, or now that you "see" what they don't "see", let’s look at some tips that may be helpful to use in the classroom.
Some General Facts Regarding Braille Students:
- The “Golden Rule” in teaching blind children is to never do anything for them that they can do for themselves.
- Remember that this student is just like all the others, except for the visual impairment. It is a child you are teaching, not a blind person.
- Schedule a time to meet the student so you can introduce yourself and get acquainted in a one to one setting. This is also an excellent time to let the student investigate your classroom.
- During the first meeting, have the student explain how he/she writes, reads, takes notes, etc. Schedule a time when this information can be shared with the class. Regular students are always interested in the special equipment, so if you give them an opportunity to examine it, they are less likely to be distracted by it when it is used.
- Have the student explain his/her eye condition. This is an important skill that the student will need the rest of his/her life. Each time he/she tells the story, it becomes a little easier to explain
- Some students have a little vision. Ask the student to tell you what he/she can see.
- Tell the child when you are going to touch him/her. Otherwise, your touch may startle the child or be a threat.
- Remember that about 70% of all communication is non-verbal. A blind student does not see the expression on your face, the gestures you make, or know what you are wearing. This is vital information that the child must learn to pick up from other reactions that are going on in the classroom. It is very helpful to the blind person for someone to explain situations as they occur.
- Tape record conversations or lessons so you can hear your voice. Your VI student will recognize and judge you by the sound of your voice; just as sighted people tend to judge others by the way they look. This student will form an opinion of you by listening to your voice. You need to be aware of how you sound to others.
- Always introduce yourself when you meet and/or greet the student, and encourage other students and staff to do the same. In time most VI students learn to identify people by the sound of their voice. Please discourage others from walking up to the student and asking, "Who am I?" This puts the student on the spot and can be embarrassing. How would you feel if someone walked up to you and asked the same question and you had forgotten their name?
- When speaking to the student, say his/her name first. Otherwise, the student may not know you are speaking to him/her. There are usually so many sounds in a classroom that are distracting. Calling the student's name is like making eye contact with a sighted person.
- Teach the rest of the class to use the blind student’s name when addressing him/her, and to add their name to what they are saying. (Practicing this is very helpful.) This will really help the child learn his/her classmates’ names, and will also help him/her make friends.
- Do not let the child use his/her handicapping condition as a crutch. Expect the student to be responsible and respectful, just like all the other students.
- There will be times when an adaptation is needed and not available. Verbalize the situation and involve the VI student in the development of a solution. This helps the student learn to be a problem solver. Assisting in a situation such as this helps to strengthen and improve a student's self-esteem by empowering him/her to take control over his/her learning, his/her life, and his/her education.
- Encourage and create situations where the blind student is actively involved in helping someone else. Too often, special education students are taught to receive, but not to give. Sighted people can see the joy in someone's eye when help is given. A person without vision has to learn how to help and glean reward from the experience.
- Do not change your vocabulary. Phrase like, "Do you see?" are common expressions that everyone uses. Remember that you are trying to help the VI child learn to live in a sighted world.
- Give the student the grade he/she earned. Giving an inflated grade does not help the student learn or be successful.
- If you observe ink or food on the VI student's body or clothing, discretely inform them of the problem.
- Each classroom needs storage space for the braille textbooks. Every state-adopted book is available in braille; however, it will be in several large volumes.
- Braille students require a large work area because of the size of the books and equipment. Have an extra desk or a table available for them to use.
- Cooperative learning or group work is an effective teaching method to use with a braille student. It encourages the development of friendships and improves learning.
- Each VI student will have a modification sheet that will be handed out to you at the beginning of the year or semester. Please ask the teacher of the visually impaired if you do not understand the modifications. These are REQUIRED since they are part of the student's IEP, Individualized Educational Program.
- Arrange for someone to sit next to the VI student during movies, assemblies, or special events to explain what is happening. This really helps the child make sense of the occasion, helps them stay focused, and discourages daydreaming.
- Have high expectations for the VI student. Expect him/her to follow the same rules of behavior and produce the same quality of work as all the others.
- Develop an emergency plan with the student. Practice evacuating the classroom or school with the teacher and with an alternate, which can be a responsible student.
- Insist that the student use his/her mobility skills when moving about the classroom or school. Ask the orientation and mobility teacher for help if you do no understand.
- Give a copy of materials that need to be brailled to the VI teacher a week ahead of time. It takes longer to braille a worksheet than it does to type it. Some math worksheets can take up to one hour to prepare. Please give as much time as possible to produce the work.
- Complete the quarterly report the VI teacher sends to you each six weeks. This is an excellent way to improve communication between the teachers.
- At the beginning of the year or semester, tell the VI teacher about special projects or papers that will be required. Advance notice allows the student and teacher to request special materials from the State library.
- Social skills are usually a weak area for VI students. If you notice a student displaying poor table manners, being unfriendly or disrespectful, etc., please correct the student and let the VI teacher know. The education of a blind child covers so much more than academics. If a child learns to read and write but does not learn to successfully interact with others, then he/she is in danger of becoming isolated and lonely. Social skills are SO important for everyone, but especially students with a visual impairment.