20 fev Rosso come il cielo: Teaching blind students
Last month I mentioned some important aspects to bear in mind when a teacher or a school welcomes a visually impaired student in the classroom. Two of them are fundamental for a successful learning environment, especially for the blind: Firstly we must understand their level of impairment and then most importantly, we shall never underestimate the students’ ability to learn and cope with limitations.
In an attempt to answer some of the questions I received in a survey conducted last year I will focus today on the blind student and I hope those tips are useful. First and foremost it is very important to understand that there are different levels of blindness, however, I will pay a little more attention to two broad groups; Learners that are blind from birth and learners with what can be called adventitious blindness, which means that the student became blind due to a disease or an accident. The difference in how you should deal with these groups changes dramatically in some cases.
No secrets here, teachers can work with whichever classroom arrangement they want, as long as the student is fully aware of it. On their first day the teacher should walk around the class with the student so they have a better understanding of the dimensions, the number of desks and so and such. That way, every time you need to move this arrangement, inform the new formation to the student in detail and, if possible, give them a “tour”, before you initiate the class.
Tasks that involve movement
There is no reason to avoid mingling the students or carrying out a choo-choo train activity, just because you think an accident can happen. It is just a matter of asking a student to be the guide or asking the blind who is going to be the guide for that activity. In elementary levels, that is a good opportunity to talk about directions, distance, space and etc.
Tools for tech and non-tech classroom environment
I am aware that not every teacher can resort to technology in the classroom and that might be quite scary if you think about tools to use.
For a non-tech environment, some simple tips might be very helpful on different occasions:
- Cuisenaire rods do wonders with blind students, whether you are working on form or pronunciation patterns, for example, they are extremely helpful. Just bear in mind that colours will not help, just the size and shape;
- E.V.A. can be another useful tool when working with maps (good for teaching directions), letters and numbers (for some students letters and number will have to be represented in Braille format, even using E.V.A) and shapes;
- PET bottle caps are quite useful to build games such as tic-tac-toe or crosswords;
- Crosswords and tic-tac-toe boards can also be built with embossing glue so the students can feel the spaces
- Realia is helpful not only for the blind but also for their sighted peers depending on their level
If you are privileged to work in a tech environment with options for apps and devices and especially if the students are used to working with technology things get a lot easier:
- Students cell phone will be your most important ally as you will be able to share virtually everything with it;
- Through classroom apps such as Google Classroom or Edmodo, information can be shared instantly, before the class begins or even after if you want to share what happened in class with your students. Mind here that you can post pictures here, as long as you provide the student with a full description of it;
- QR codes are a good tool to provide students with short texts, readable pdf files or descriptions of photos;
- Readable PDF files? Yes, blind students normally use voiceover apps on their cell phones such as apple voice-over or ScreenReader for Blind, which makes possible for them to read PDF files (if you scan a text it becomes an image);
- If you don’t use class apps, you can easily share text with them through Google Docs, One Note, Google Keep, One Drive or DropBox. Sharing files is paramount as you provide students with the opportunity to read simultaneously with their peers.
Books and Tests
Although it is rare to find braille versions of books, publishing houses can help you by sending readable PDFs of the books or adapted versions for the blind. They have different approaches or policies regarding that matter. If you work for a language institute ask your academic department or coordinator for help.
The same happens when applying tests, some actions might have to be taken and it all depends on the student’s needs.
- The test can be applied via computer where the student listen to the questions through a voice over app;
- The school uses a helper to read the test questions for the student who types the answer on the computer or write on separate sheets of paper or even better;
- The teacher reads the test for them or records her/his voice and plays the recording to the students so they can do the test using earplugs alongside their peers. Listening to the voice of the teacher might comfort and tranquillize the student.
Description and Audio-description
Maybe the most tricky one, since providing students with an effective description of pictures, images etc, depends a lot on the characteristic of the student. A child that is blind from birth learns about the world surrounding them in a different way and they have the ability to make themselves a picture of it. Students who lost their sight due to an accident or disease, on the other hand, are capable of using their visual memory in order to understand what is being shown. A perfect example of this difference and how to work with colours, for example, is beautifully demonstrated in the Italian movie Rosso come il cielo by Paolo Sassanelli and Cristiano Bortone (Orisa Produzioni, 2007). The movie is inspired by the true story of a film editor who became blind as a child and in one of the most brilliant moments of it, the young Mirco has to describe the colour blue to another kid who happens to be blind from birth: “It’s like riding a bike and the wind touches your face, it’s like the sea…” or the colour red: “It’s like fire, like the sunset sky”.
Working with images is a crucial moment, when sighted peers look at an image, they immediately start making connections and begin deciphering what is being shown even before the teacher assigns a task, this is called incidental learning. To get around this the teacher must give the blind student some time to read the description before asking for the task. Some that is often more effective in this case is to ask peers to describe what is on the board so the blind student understand what the image is about. Text description is good and effective. However, nothing is more effective than the human contact, listening to a peer describing a picture or even the teacher makes a huge impact on the learner.
One last alternative would be putting everybody blind at a certain point and give the whole class a description of a picture and ask questions about it while the class is with their eyes closed. They would have to discuss about an image they have created in their minds, putting all the students in the room at the same level of difficulty.