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At first I was hesitant about writing this article because sometimes, when I was growing up, the people who frustrated me most were those who thought that they knew everything there was to know about working with visually impaired students.
Still, for teachers who have had no contact with visual impairment, some of these tips or pieces of information may be useful. This article focuses on students with little or no sight as I have most experience in this area.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive resource on teaching blind students. Drawing on my personal experience, my favourite teachers at school were not people who thought they knew what would work best because someone with a similar eye condition had once done them in that way, but those who said “I’ve never done this before” and who listened to me so that we could work out solutions together.
If you need to email information to your student so that they can have it on their laptop or get it in another format, it means you will need to be ready in advance and you can’t dash off a few photocopies 5 minutes before the lesson is due to start. However, good preparation will benefit the whole class, not just the blind student, and you won’t be able to give the lesson your best if you throw it together at the last minute.
However, you may have to cover someone else’s lesson at short notice. If there is something that you haven’t been able to provide accessibly, avoid asking other students to read to your blind student. If necessary, read to them yourself. Particularly if they have to read in another language, students may feel uncomfortable or resent having to read aloud when others don’t have to and it can create a situation of unwanted dependency. Also if the other student isn’t able to read well, the blind student is automatically at a disadvantage.
If you are writing something on the board, you could say the words as you are writing them. If the blind person has good touch typing skills, they may be able to copy down what you are writing as you write it.
Don’t try to change your vocabulary just because you have someone in your class who can’t see. “See you later” is fine, as are “have you seen this film” or “do you see what I mean?” Trying to avoid verbs which have something to do with seeing or watching creates strange expressions which make everyone feel uncomfortable and most blind people don’t try to edit these words out of their vocabulary because they are part of everyday expressions.
Group work is good. It helps people to develop. In a good team, everyone has something to contribute. Don’t see group working as a way for other students to help your blind student because that gives the impression that they have nothing to contribute. A fluent blind student can help a weaker sighted student to read. A blind student may be able to explain something in a different way so that another student understands. A blind student may be able to take more comprehensive notes on an electronic device than their counterparts can by hand. These three examples are from my past learning experience and each one gave me something to trade in the giving and receiving process which resulted in effective teamwork.
Communicating information verbally is useful and if you’re teaching a language, listening skills will be a necessary part of your curriculum. However, learning by listening is not every blind person’s preferred learning style. Some people need to write things down in order to remember them. Others need the information in a written form, either on their computer or Braille display, before it stays in their memory.
Similarly, if you give other members of the class written feedback, giving the same feedback to your blind student orally may not be the best solution as you are then expecting them to retain everything you’ve said without having their own copy. Instead you could send them your feedback by email, use a protected online space or a USB stick with the information recorded on it.
This depends on whether you are teaching a one-to-one or a group class.
Think about what you want to achieve with picture exercises. If you want the student to describe something, you could ask them to describe something else or give them an object to describe. Alternatively, if you know the student’s native language, you could give them a description in that language so that they can talk about the picture independently.
If you are using pictures to build vocabulary, you could achieve the same result with a word association game, an opposites matching exercise (for adjectives) or if the student has enough vocabulary in the language you want to teach, an exercise where you describe the object rather than showing a picture of it.
The most important thing is that your blind student has access to the same information as others in the class. You could either do this by emailing the documents to them, encouraging the class to work together on collaborative online projects (for example Facebook and Twitter are generally accessible) or providing the information in some other format if appropriate such as large print or audio, depending on how the student works best.
Some students will have access to scanners and OCR software but this can be time consuming and it doesn’t work for documents which are hand-written, which contain diagrams or which are poor photocopies of originals.
PDFs can be accessible but it depends how they have been created. A PDF which was originally a word document is likely to be accessible whereas a PDF of a scanned image of text, even though it looks like text, will probably appear as a blank document to someone using screenreading software on their computer.
There’s no need to change lesson plans to avoid using videos. As long as the blind student understands what’s going on, audio-visual materials can really help the learning process.
There is plenty of good information out there but unfortunately some unhelpful stereotypes are still alive and kicking. On the whole, blind people don’t recognise others by touching their faces – the whole idea of doing this is uncomfortable for most and an invasion of someone’s personal space. Your student may or may not be able to read Braille. They may or may not enjoy music – it’s not a given. They may enjoy sports or watching films. They may or may not want to work with a guide dog and they may or may not want to talk about their visual impairment at length.
Remember – visual impairment is just one topic of conversation and many people don’t want to be defined by it. They want to be seen as your student who happens not to be able to see, rather than first and foremost your blind student. Chances are they have been blind for quite some time and whilst the situation may be new for you, it’s not new for them and they are likely to have many other topics that they would rather talk about because they feel that they are more interesting.
Blind students need to follow all the same rules that apply to the other members of your class. The difference is that you need to ensure they have the same access to your materials and the same chance to make a contribution and complete the exercises as everyone else in the class.
It may be helpful if everyone in the class followed some simple rules that benefit everyone like not leaving the door half open (either close it or leave it open), not leaving trip hazards and pushing chairs back under the table when they are not being used.