Exploring common issues faced by blind and partially sighted students, and tips for achievement in the classroom
It is estimated that around 25,000 children and young people in England and Wales have a sight impairment that requires specialist education support. Of these, more than 60 per cent are educated in mainstream schools where their requirements might not be so easy to address. As many as half of young people with a sight impairment also have additional disabilities. So how can schools ensure that blind and partially sighted learners are best supported?
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), severe visual impairment or blindness can substantially delay early childhood development and learning. Even a moderate visual impairment can have a notable impact. So what are the learning issues that schools should consider?
The main functional effects of visual impairment include central or peripheral vision loss, poor image sharpness, low contrast sensitivity or adaptability to light, and impaired eye movement or colour loss; but not all visual impairment is the same. A person’s “functional revision” is a key concept here, referring to what can be seen, rather than what can’t.
Adopting this mindset allows educators to consider how a learner’s level of useful vision can be maximised. Considering the practical implications for the individual learner is vital; the distinctions in their educational needs will have a direct impact on the teaching and learning approaches required.
Educationally blind learners have a level of sight that is insufficient to learn visually, and so rely on their other senses. Distinguishing between those who have had some past sight and those who have never seen, may influence the visual concepts they can understand.
Questions to consider:
- how much sight, if any, does the learner have and how useful is it?
- how competent is the student with Braille and tactile skills?
- what experience of vision does the learner have, if any?
- how competent is the student in moving around the classroom independently?
Partially sighted learners
Partially sighted learners still work primarily through the visual medium, and make up the majority of learners with visual impairment. Their needs vary considerably and many work with normal print, which can create difficulties as their needs may be underestimated.
Questions to consider:
- is the student’s level of sight stable or variable and under what conditions?
- is the learner’s field of vision restricted?
- what size/style of print is comfortable for the student?
- does the learner have particular preferences for the learning environment, in terms of, for example, lighting or choice of seat?
Impact on learning
Stevie Wonder said, “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision.” This is an important lesson; we may be inclined subconsciously to have different expectations of academic achievement for learners with visual impairment, but there is no direct correlation between visual impairment and intelligence. Most learners with visual impairment have the same range of intelligence and abilities as their sighted peers, just with additional barriers. More than a third will have some additional needs that may affect their learning.
Of course, additional barriers can affect a number of areas, such as the speed of working, communication skills (particularly reading or writing), environmental and spatial awareness, and social interaction, with a reduced ability to recognise body language and facial expressions. As a result, students can suffer from lower self-confidence which can have a negative impact on learning.
What is needed to succeed?
Inclusion is key to the successful education of students with visual impairment. According to The Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education, inclusive education means disabled and non-disabled young people learning together in ordinary school provision, with appropriate networks of support. They should have access to the same information, at the same time and, if possible, in the same way to participate in and enjoy mainstream settings to the best of their abilities, whatever their needs. Leoni Masterson, qualified teacher of the visually impaired (QTVI) at Linden Lodge School, explains: “Blind and visually impaired students face barriers to learning. If we can break down these barriers through tactile resources, we are promoting inclusion. They can take part in activities they’ve not been able to before.”
In mainstream settings, it is important to make the most of specialist support that is available. Many mainstream educators will not have the skill set to teach specialist areas such as Braille, but QTVIs can visit and work closely with schools to advise how to meet children’s needs through inclusive teaching and learning methodology. Each local authority has a vision impairment service which includes at least one QTVI.
Educators should also consider what they can do to enrich the learning process. As Leoni notes, “Visually impaired and blind children need a rich learning environment as sometimes they miss out on the visual clues.” Sighted children’s learning is constantly reinforced by things such as colours, shapes, people and landscapes. These give us a wealth of information subconsciously. Learners with visual impairment have reduced opportunities for incidental learning, so it is important to include as much multi-sensory learning in the classroom as possible, such as touch or smell. Also consider that visual and spatial concepts need more explanation; many learners with visual impairment struggle with concepts such as brighter versus darker, or telling which object is bigger at a glance.
Social inclusion is also important. Helen Keller said that “The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them.” To reduce the risk of the student being ostracised by peers, consider the Circle of Friends approach, designed to enhance inclusion in a mainstream setting. It creates a support network for the student, with a peer group encouraged to look at their own behaviour, and understand the behaviour and difficulties of the student with visual impairment, in order to develop strategies and practical solutions to help them. In time, this can close the gap whilst strengthening core social skills.
Tips and ideas for the classroom
The classroom environment can have a significant impact on the success of teaching and learning. On top of dealing with core health and safety issues, it is important to consider the room’s sensory nature. Your school might have had an audit conducted by a QTVI to suggest improvements, but here are some questions to consider for your classroom:
- is the space clear and tidy to allow easier movement?
- are frequently used resources kept in the same accessible place, and labelled?
- is the level of lighting right for the learner?
- are learners with visual impairment sitting close to a power source if they are using accessible ICT devices?
- do you use real objects to support your teaching?
- have you allowed adequate space for any special equipment or large print resources to be stored and used?
Jennifer Williamson, resources technician at Joseph Clarke School, highlights the importance of accessible resources: “For students who have visual impairment, it is really important to strengthen their learning; therefore, learning materials need to be interesting enough to engage them.”
Consider the issue of time for both staff and students. Visually impaired learners will often require extra time to process information and complete tasks, so using the simplest formats can help them. Make sure you and any support staff have the time to modify materials to include, for example, larger print or bolder colours. Providing both a print and a digital copy can be useful as this can be further adapted by the student to suit, if needed.
If you don’t have time to modify items, look out for pre-created versions; a wide range of Braille materials, audio-visual resources, and tactile pictures and diagrams is available from various educational suppliers.
Role of access technology
Access technology has enormous potential for supporting learners with visual impairment across different ages and abilities. Assistive technology, such as audio-visual devices or software, allows students to work at their own pace and, with the right training, often independently. Technology isn’t a magic wand, though; to be a success, it requires the right device, training and time. When this is achieved, students can take control of part of their learning journey, improving not only their academic progress, but also their self-confidence in learning and wider life.
If we can metaphorically open our eyes to the specific needs of visually impaired students, and take the time to recognise the impact they have on their learning and social integration, we can take the first steps towards making education an inclusive process.
Robene Dutta is Managing Director at educational publisher Mantra Lingua: