Discussing the Education of Visually-Impaired Children

Chalkboard with Stand

Most students with low vision can manage to make it through kindergarten and even first grade with little interventions because the print size is so large in every book. Once the print begins to become smaller, you may notice that a student begins:

  • holding the book very close to their face (or hunching to get closer to the paper);
  • struggling to read the white board;
  • falling behind their peers academically;
  • standing too close to other students or teachers when having a conversation;
  • looking more out of the side of their eye than straight ahead;
  • rocking in their chair or poking at the eyes; and
  • even misbehaving

As a teacher, I know that’s easy to see these signs and want to help the student. However, it’s scary and daunting to bring up these kinds of concerns to parents.

Ask the parents for an up-to-date eye report

I work as a teacher of blind students, so when other teachers refer a student to me for evaluation, I’ll ask the parent to send in an up-to-date eye report. This is what opens the door for parents to have an objective measure of what their son or daughter is not seeing.

If the eye condition is very bad, the doctor will discuss accommodations (like glasses) that a student needs and may be the first to use the term “visually impaired” or “blind” to describe the child. Now, most times the doctor won’t recommend braille, so when the parent brings the report to school, that’s when we have to begin the conversation about educational accommodations. After all, it’s our job to level the educational world for the student with low vision; the doctor sees his or her role as helping the student see more clearly.

This is the toughest part of the battle for braille. The parents’ first instinct is to increase the font size or ask the kid to sit near the front of the room. That’s when I begin proactively showing the difference between a child reading large print and failing versus a child learning braille that is on par with their sighted classmates.

When teachers put up a fight

We have to keep that communication really open with the child’s classroom teachers, too, to show that braille won’t change the way that he or she is teaching. I’ve even had some teachers who refuse to have a blind child in their classroom. (That’s illegal, of course, but that doesn’t mean teachers don’t put up a fight!) We have to stress to teachers that the way they’re teaching is fine, but that materials will just be in braille.

One technique that I’ve used is to show teachers how a blind student can use an electronic, braille note-taker. I take one of their class assignments, load it on a USB thumb drive, and show how a student would complete the handout in braille, then save it as a Word file. When I print the worksheet for the teacher, then they see that their teaching method hasn’t changed. It sounds so simple, and that’s the point!

When the parents put up a fight

If a parent brushes us off, saying things like, “My kid can still learn to read!”, I think what the parents are thinking is that braille is slow or that learning braille will take away the kid’s remaining vision.

I ask the parents to let me try teaching their kid braille for a few weeks. I’m always amazed how quickly kids can pick up the braille code. What I think people misunderstand is that braille is not a foreign language; braille is a code to represent the letters and words that their kids are already learning. After a few sessions, I’ll show the parents the five or six letters that their kid has learned in just a few weeks. I’ll also bring in videos showing blind people reading, some current students to read in front of these skeptical parents, and current research that shows the employment potential of braille readers.

Connect the parents and teachers with others

As soon as I begin working with parents whose kids are blind or have low vision, I personally connect them with a member of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). When the two parents begin sharing stories and developing a friendship, sometimes the parents realize that braille is their kid’s ticket to academic success. I’ll also connect the parents with successful, independent blind adults to show them what’s possible for their kid later in life.

Sometimes, all you can do is provide the parents and teachers with information.

I’m a strong advocate for the National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA). It’s the only standardized tool for assessing whether a student with low vision needs braille, large print, or both. The research behind the tool is rock-solid, the test is unbiased, and it’s designed to take only as much of your time as necessary. Just like an eye report, the results from this assessment may just open the door to a conversation about how, not if, the student will begin learning braille.

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Casey West Robertson, M.Ed., NCLB

Casey West Robertson, M.Ed., NCLB

Casey was named as the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children in 2012 in part for her constant advocacy that blind children learn braille in a positive environment. In addition to serving as an independent contractor with four school districts in Mississippi, Casey is an active researcher and instructor at Louisiana Tech University.

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