How Do We Use What We Have Learned During the Pandemic to Move Education Forward for Children with Visual Impairments?
Authors: L. Penny Rosenblum, Owner, Vision for Independence, LLC
Keywords: COVID-19, pandemic, digital access, collaboration, accommodations
In March 2020, almost overnight, brick-and-mortar school buildings closed with little to no warning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We entered the world of remote instruction for U.S. students. In most communities, there were no blueprints on how to move instruction from in-person to remote, so there was quite a scramble. Because of their unique needs requiring accommodations and specialized instruction, many students with visual impairments experienced extra challenges in accessing their education. Online instruction does not easily lend itself to meeting the needs of students who are blind, have low vision, have additional disabilities, or are deafblind. (I’ll henceforth use the phrase “our children” to encompass this diverse group of learners.)
The Access and Engagement Studies
If you were one of the 1,432 family members, teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs), or orientation and mobility specialists (COMS) who shared your experience in Spring 2020 for our first survey to examine the impact of how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting education, thank you! Similarly, if you were one of the 662 people representing the same groups who shared your experiences in our second survey in November 2020, we thank you, too! Our fully accessible reports are available on AFB’s website both as downloadable PDFs and online by sections. There is a lot of information and recommendations in each report, and some beautiful photos of our children too! The executive summary provides an overview of the study findings and key recommendations. Visit our Access and Engagement web page to learn more. You might want to share this information with your district administrators, child’s teachers, and other families.
Getting Connected and Accessing Technology
As the pandemic began to impact education, one thing that became quickly apparent was that not all families had internet access nor the devices they needed to connect to online instruction. Even when devices and internet access were available, some children did not have the assistive technology tools they needed, such as a laptop with JAWS (Job Access With Speech, a screen reader) or a large monitor to connect to the Chromebook provided by their district. Another issue for some families was that even when all the tools were present, neither the children nor family members had the skills to use the technology to fully and effectively engage in online learning.
By the time we got to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, things had improved for most children and their families. Some districts worked with internet providers to get free or reduced internet access for families. TVIs went the extra mile to help administrators recognize why their students needed the same technology at home that they had in school. TVIs and COMS supported both children and families to build their technology skills. Though many children struggled, and some continue to, other children found that the pandemic had a positive impact on their technology skills. In spring 2020, a family member of a blind child within the age range of 5-7 years shared, “I am very happy with how everything is going. The silver lining is my son has been forced to become independent and really learn technology, which in the end is only going to make life easier.”
Accessing the Curriculum
The number one challenge we heard most often in both studies was the children’s inability to access learning in the same way they did in their brick-and-mortar schools. Sometimes it was because the child was young or had significant learning challenges, making virtual learning extremely difficult. A family member of a child with low vision and additional disabilities in early intervention explained, “[My] major concerns are that virtual learning has not been effective or engaging for my daughter. She doesn’t connect with what is happening on the screen. Overall, it feels as though we have had a lack of services.”
In other cases, the actual curriculum was not accessible to the child. There were many reasons given, including that an app or website didn’t work with the child’s screen reader, the teacher made a video that was not accessible, or the paraprofessional who had supported the child in the classroom prior to the pandemic was unavailable online. Families were frustrated that their child was missing out on learning opportunities and didn’t appreciate when teachers would say, “She doesn’t have to do that.”
Even when TVIs were available and working to provide children with access in their regular or special education classes, the reality of the instructional delivery model precluded full participation. A TVI explained, “Science experiments, for example, must be described verbally. As much as possible and when appropriate, the student is provided tactile models. It is impossible to completely replicate experiments, lessons, etc., that are provided in this particular class in an accessible format to a remote student who is completely blind.”
TVIs and COMS Going the Extra Mile
In both of the Access and Engagement studies, family members, TVIs, and COMS told us the many ways educators were going the extra mile for our children. For example, some TVIs were meeting with their students online either before or after classes to make sure the children had access to teacher-recorded videos that weren’t accessible. TVIs and COMS were making videos to show family members how to support their child learning or practicing skills, such as cutting with a knife. And of course, there were many “porch drop-offs” of materials, be it braille the TVI had prepared, a talking calculator the child needed for math class, or an adapted game the child could play with brothers and sisters to practice math skills.
One of the research team’s favorite examples was a very creative COMS who at the beginning of the pandemic invented a game called “Car Stalker.” The COMS explained, “I [have] enjoyed creating meaningful activities the students can do by themselves and feel successful completing. The ‘Car-Stalker O&M [Specialist]’ has been hugely successful. I provided a satellite map of the student’s block… I instructed the student and a parent which part of the route we would address… [I met the student and parent in my car outside their home with the student wearing a headset and connected to me via phone.] As the student walked the route, I instructed, observed, provided feedback, and collected data!”
Learning from Each Other and Giving Children Time
Children were not the only ones learning during the pandemic. Family members and educators were learning from one another as well. Being able to see children in the home helped TVIs and COMS give families ideas and provide coaching. At the same time, having a TVI or COMS “pop into” one’s home allowed family members to show the educator challenges for their child and receive feedback on the spot.
Since most children had more “free time” in their day when they were not in an online class, in some homes there was time for children to build their independence, be it with technology, kitchen skills, or problem-solving skills. A family member of a 13 to 15 year old who has low vision and additional disabilities explained, “I have noticed my son striving to be more independent at home. He’ll attempt to make his own food or retrieve things for himself. He’s even learned to use his phone to zoom in on the environment when he is trying to find something that is not in its obvious typical location.”
Using What We’ve Learned
I’ve only touched on a few of the issues we’ve learned about in our Access and Engagement studies, so be sure to check out the reports. I’ll close by sharing thoughts about considerations for families and educators as we move forward, because the reality is we’re not going “back to normal” any time soon, or possibly ever.
Technology is key to adult life success
Whether we’re talking about attending community college, getting a job at a fast food restaurant, or shopping for groceries, technology is a part of adult life. Our children must be technology proficient, and not just with one tool. They must be problem solvers who can look at a task and decide which tech tool in their toolbox to use to be as efficient and as competitive as possible. As a TVI-COMS explains, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped some students build their technology toolbox. “Low vision students are using their tools more proficiently (low vision and auditory access) and are not struggling as much to ‘see the board’ [when online]. Their access is very dependent on the quality of the instructional media that are posted digitally, and on how well the classroom teacher understands how to screenshare the best possible images.” College instructors and employers are going to use online methods to meet, collaborate together, and to provide training. Our children can’t expect that everything will be accessible for them (though it should be!). The more they can build their skills during early intervention, preschool, and K-12 education, the better prepared they will be for the future.
Some learning tools are not accessible and/or usable
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront some of the challenges our children have with learning tools that are not accessible and/or usable. I say this because sometimes a tool is TECHNICALLY accessible, but to actually USE IT takes so much extra effort that its effectiveness is diminished. So, what can YOU and YOUR CHILD do? First, we need to put pressure on districts to only buy learning tools that are accessible and usable. When there are people on committees evaluating tools and making purchasing decisions who understand accessibility, the outcome is bound to be better for our children. Encourage your child’s TVI or COMS to volunteer to serve on technology committees, ask that they request your child be a beta tester for something the district is considering purchasing, and consider serving on school committees yourself to help others understand the needs of your child. Second, when there is a challenge for a child with a specific learning tool, the manufacturer needs to know. Your child (if appropriate), you, the TVI, or COMS should contact the manufacturer and be specific about what occurred. Third, manufacturers need to think about digital access from the beginning, not as an afterthought. If you work in the tech industry or know someone who does, have your child share their experiences (if appropriate) or share them yourself.
It takes a village
Before the pandemic, we all knew it “took a village” for a child to have a successful school experience. The pandemic has helped us realize that when we collaborate and work together, children are going to have greater success. I’d like to continue to see relationships between family members and educators strengthen and children have flexibility in where and how they receive their education. In certain situations, some instruction may continue to be delivered virtually, especially in rural communities. Strong communication among team members lends itself to positive outcomes for children. A COMS pointed out, “As professionals, we are not present 100% in a student’s life and we need to realize this even before COVID-19, so it is crucial to use role release and have confidence in others. Communication is crucial right now, so everyone is on the same page as to what the student is able to do independently versus what they need support [in] or what’s not safe or reasonable to expect from the student.”
We are all uncertain of how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact education this school year and beyond. I have to agree with a family member of two young visually impaired children who shared, “Everybody has had to adapt to crazy things that are not very normal. People are getting tired of this [COVID-19] stuff but we have to move forward with the education of our young people with all the organizations and programs and services offered.”
I urge families and educators to work together and above all, to realize that we are all in this together. Through collaboration, determination, and mutual respect, we will support our children to maximize their potential and take advantage of educational opportunities, no matter the delivery method.
A Sense of Texas, November 1, 2020. Dr. Rosenblum visits with Emily Coleman, Superintendent of TSBVI, to discuss the results of the first Access and Engagement survey and the launch of the second survey.