The Role of Paraprofessionals

One of our current students, Treva Olivero, is working as a paraprofessional alongside a teacher of blind students in a public school. We recently discussed her position and experiences in the hopes that you may be better equipped to work with paras in your school.

Corbb O’Connor: What is the role of a para?

Treva Olivero: For blind students, paras will often make sure that the child gets access to information that is displayed visually. Often, the teacher will write problems on the board, so if they don’t say it verbally, the blind student will need to get that information. Many schools use paras for math and science classes, since they have charts, graphs, and diagrams.

For younger students, the para can encourage and help the child to interact with the classroom and his or her classmates. The key is that once the child begins to take charge, the para needs to step back. If the right para is in place, the child can be more independent. The para can say, “I want you to do this and do this on your own.” Unfortunately, that’s not always a reality; some paras will do things for blind students and not let them be independent. So, that can be a frustration with child specific paras.

CO: I’m intrigued. You’ve mentioned how one job that a para does is to help get a student access to information that the classroom teacher is displaying visually. So, how do you work as a para as a blind person?

TO: Basically, I work more as a braillist than as a para. My job, then, is to transcribe materials from print into braille. So, I’ll scan a worksheet or reading into Kurzweil 1000 (for people who don’t know, that’s an OCR/text-to-speech program) and then put that into Microsoft Word. Materials don’t scan perfectly, so I’ll clean up the file and then use the Duxbury Braille Translator program to emboss it. A huge amount of my time lately over the last four months has been to prepare materials.

Initially, when I was asked to apply for this job, I questioned the folks. I usually think of a para as sighted, and I wondered what I’d do as a blind person. I’ve come to realize that I can be a great role model for students. For example, I’ve been able to read braille with the students and show them how I read. If they have an excuse, like “I can’t do that because I can’t see it,” I can say, “Well, I can’t either!”

They respond pretty well to that. They can’t use excuses anymore about being blind. So, it’s a great opportunity.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to follow along with what the teacher was saying when I started. But the general ed teachers have used verbal cues; there was braille for me to help my students; and all actually really worked well.

I had a great opportunity when I went into the classroom to show the teachers that, as a blind person, I could do the work. So, therefore their blind students could do the work and be independent, too. The teachers see me using my braille notetaker, white cane, and computer. No matter which teachers I see, even if it’s not the child’s teacher, they see that blindness doesn’t have to be a depressing condition. It’s an education for everyone at the school; I am a blind person and I have a job…I’m just as capable as any other member of the support staff.

CO: What are some suggestions that you have for teachers of blind students to most effectively work with paras?

For one, communication is most important. It’s important for the TVIs to explain their expectations of what they want the para to do and their expectations of their blind students. The TVI and para have to be consistent with the students they serve.

For example, in lots of situations, the TVI can’t be around all the time, so para is person in school that students go to with questions or requests. If the TVI expects her students to get from class to class independently, then the para needs to know so that she doesn’t undermine that teacher’s authority by over-helping the students.

Typically, though not true in my situation, paras are hired as teachers without licenses, training in blindness issues, or high expectations for students with disabilities. I’ve heard tons of stories of paras who won’t let kids be independent or do things for students. So many paras have never met a blind person, so they see their roles as caretakers. Unfortunately, some school systems even communicate that by inherently saying, “You’re there to care for this child and keep him safe.”

No! You’re supposed to be there to provide support to the TVI, not for the student specifically. Paras provide as-needed support for students on their path toward independence long before the student graduates.

Secondly, TVIs should provide on the job training for paras, so that they can do things on their own. Some tasks that I do—like transcribing assignments into braille—require a thorough knowledge of the braille code. For other paras, though, they can learn to produce tactile diagrams, observe a student’s reading posture, and adapt class assignments. It’s important that the TVI can delegate some of the work.

Third, it’s really important to show paras how to encourage the general ed teachers to work with the students and not the para in the room. Too often, the general ed teachers will assume that the para is the child’s personal teacher rather than just serving as the child’s eyes. Through frequent communication and demonstration, the TVI can ensure the para is helping the teachers…not teaching the students.

CO: What specific kinds of support do paras provide to a TVI?

Well we talked about transcribing materials into braille, but there’s also tactile graphics production, converting assignments into large print, or unpacking materials (like manipulatives). In some schools, the para may plan lessons, but they can’t be a teacher without direct supervision.

CO: Do you think older blind students need in-class paras?

TO: Paras are best for younger students. A good para can equip a child to become independent of them. After a certain point—there’s no hard and fast age—I don’t think blind kids need paras…especially the older ones in junior high and high school.

What those older students need is support from the general ed teachers and a TBS with high expectations who believes in them. It’s a very sensitive subject because students’ skill levels are so different. There are just so many factors: if a child has not had a teacher with high expectations, he won’t be able to get around the building on his own.

My frustration with child-specific paras is that the para will do lots of things orally without a student having his fingers on braille.

One thing that’s not changing, though, is that paras will continue to provide the necessary support to TVIs with the more routine tasks like braille production.

CO: So you really like your job?

TO: It has been amazing! I love my job, because I can provide support to students who need it. One of my concerns about taking the job was that I would be in school full-time. As a para, I only can work so many hours a day and that’s it. Yes, I work full-time, but I don’t have to worry about planning in the evening,


To learn more about working with paraprofessionals, join Treva tonight on Twitter at 9 p.m. Eastern, where she’ll be moderating this month’s #BrlChat.

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Corbb O'Connor
Corbb, a blind entrepreneur, coordinates the outreach and marketing efforts for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University as an independent consultant.

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