Teaching Visually Impaired Students. First Things, First.
Brazil is a large country with a population of over two hundred million inhabitants. Within this group, six million people face some sort of visual impairment, ranging from thirty percent of visual acuity – which means that the subject needs to be at a distance 70% shorter to be able to see the desired object – to total blindness, which corresponds to the complete absence of light or form perception. Never in our country has the offer of language courses been so abundant as it is at this time. Language institutes provide students with a myriad of visual features in order to facilitate the learning process. Therefore, it is not rare to find institutes, schools and private teachers rejecting students with severe visual impairment, claiming that they cannot give those learners the appropriate support.
How we can break this cycle, then? How can we teach blind students in a classroom environment full of visual aids? How can we adapt the lessons to this audience without putting them on the spotlight? How can the teacher match the impaired students’ expectations without detaching from the rest of the group? and finally, how can we help language institutes, as well as teachers, welcome those students? This first post attempts at starting to shed some light on how teachers can be better equipped to tackle the inclusivity aspect of it, as well as fostering a safe learning environment where both sighted and impaired students can share the same space getting around inherent obstacles.
To date, some attention has been paid to regular education of the visually impaired, (Barraga, 1965). Faye and Barraga (1985) made use of Snellen`s optometry decimal scale in an attempt to prove that students with very little visual acuity were able to develop some sight skills. They advocate in favor of stimulating learners with visual acuity of 0.1 or less (Snellen Scale) as they understand that in such cases there is room for developing the learners` residual sight. Garcia (1984), raised doubts regarding exploring sight of students with very low vision without taking the risk of definitely losing it.
Relatively agreeing with Barraga, the International Council of Ophthalmology, ICO (2002) categorically states that an individual can only be considered as blind if there is the complete lack of perception of light or form, therefore, defining the following terminology: low vision, which stands for a limitation of the organ that cannot be corrected by medication or medical intervention. Functional vision is the capacity or the ability to make sense and/or understanding what is captured by the eye and blindness, which is the complete lack of light perception. UNESCO, (2004) calls our attention to the impact of “labeling students, framing responses, limiting opportunities, using resources and keeping the status quo.” It is an invitation to focus more on the classroom approach rather than a technical approach to the disability, observing the student as an individual rather than a problem to be solved.
Last year I sent a questionnaire to teachers trying to understand their most significant questions about the topic. The questionnaire was answered by 41 teachers and over 70% mentioned no experience at all or that they were not sure about it. From those who mentioned some experience with visually impaired students, some questions and comments raised such as, the necessity of printing tests in A3 format or simply sitting them next to the board. However, what called my attention the most was the fact that almost all of them asked questions about adapting materials without putting the student on the spotlight and providing support without patronizing the students or avoiding lessons with visual elements.
Further posts are coming in an attempt to answer those questions but before, I would like to say that understanding the level of impairment is the first and most important element above all. It is through a deep comprehension of the student’s reality that the teacher will be able to reflect upon the best tools and best techniques to be applied inside the classroom. In all of the lessons I have taught or observed, a thorough investigation of the problems via interview was pivotal in providing the teachers with a comprehensive view of the learner’s needs and therefore, allowing them to have a more straightforward approach to the students and to the lesson.
Last but not least, teachers must take into account that visually impaired students are obviously less favored in some aspects but, we shall never at any circumstances, underestimate students’ capacity of learning and coping with difficulties inside the classroom. Would you like to share your experiences, questions, observations with me? Please drop me a line and I will be more than happy to discuss the matter with you.