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Visual Impairment :
Special Educational Needs

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Many severely visually impaired children are highly dependent on their parents/carers, and, at school, on support assistants. Support is needed for personal care, feeding, navigation, locating items and accessing the curriculum. Most severely visually impaired pupils are very aware that they are unable to perform many tasks that their sighted peers are able to do and it is common for them to feel different and to be isolated. Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence are wide spread and are a significant barrier to the development of autonomy.

The extended curriculum needs to enable a severely visually impaired pupil to develop the range of skills, overcome the feelings of low self-esteem and build the self-confidence to be able to make decisions and to achieve autonomy. The extended education programme must prepare the child to progress to become an independent and autonomous adult who must, by necessity, live in a sighted world which often makes few concessions for the visually impaired.

Autonomy implies that the VI person has the knowledge and skills to be able to operate without assistance from anyone else. Autonomy can be divided into three categories :

Physical autonomy. The VI person has the skills to be able to orientate him/herself and is able to move around his/her environment freely, and can carry out a wide variety of functions including self-care, catering, shopping, operating appliances and equipment (including IT equipment).

Independent living skills (ILS) are also referred to as "daily living skills." ILS consists of all the tasks and functions persons perform, in accordance with their abilities, in order to lead lives as independently as possible. These curricular needs are varied, as they include skills in personal hygiene, food preparation, money management, time monitoring, organization, etc. Some independent living skills are addressed in the normal school curriculum, but they often are introduced as splinter skills, appearing in learning material, disappearing, and then re-appearing. This approach will not adequately develop the necessary skills and subjects such as food technology and PSHE are not enough to meet the learning needs of most visually impaired students, since they assume a basic level of knowledge, acquired incidentally through vision. The skills and knowledge that sighted students acquire by casually and incidentally observing and interacting with their environment are often difficult, if not impossible, for blind and visually impaired students to learn without direct, sequential instruction by knowledgeable persons.

Blind people can master independent living skills with instruction. Since blind children do not see others performing these tasks they do not learn even simple tasks that we take for granted in sighted children unless given instruction. Blind children need to learn how to do age appropriate tasks from the simple such as making their bed and putting toothpaste on their own toothbrush to the advanced skills of shopping and preparing meals for the family.

Independent Livings Skills training should be undertaken throughout a child’s education from Nursery school until he/she leaves school, and during this period should include :

  • Cooking (cutting, slicing, measuring, pouring, grating, baking, frying, serving)
  • Cleaning (mopping, sweeping, vacuuming, dusting)
  • Clothing (labelling, sorting, washing, ironing, selection & matching)
  • Personal Hygiene (washing, bathing, shaving, make-up application, hair care)
  • Record Keeping (paying bills, budgeting, taxes)

As a part of the extended curriculum, orientation and mobility is a vital area of learning. Teachers who have been specifically prepared to teach orientation and mobility to blind and visually impaired learners are necessary in the delivery of this curriculum. Students will need to learn about themselves and the environment in which they move - from basic body image to independent travel in rural areas and busy cities. The normal school curriculum does not include provision for this instruction. It has been said that the two primary effects of blindness on the individual are communication and locomotion. The extended curriculum must include emphasis on the fundamental need and basic right of visually impaired persons to travel as independently as possible, enjoying and learning from the environment through which they are passing to the greatest extent possible.

MISE is a group of professionals who work with Children & Young People (C&YP) who have a visual impairment. Their website includes information about mobility produced by the Cambridgeshire Visual Impairment Service, explaining why orientation and mobility is so important in the education of severely visually impaired children. They state that :

The ability to move in and around the environment affects people psychologically, socially, emotionally, economically and physically.

There is a direct connection between movement and learning. It is through moving within our environment that understanding of the world is developed. Children who are able to move independently are exposed to a far wider range of real experiences which help to develop language, literacy and understanding of concepts.

Independent movement increases our range of social opportunities – meeting new people, visiting friends, going to shops, youth clubs etc.

Free, relaxed and speedy movement can be difficult for a child with a severe visual impairment. Yet it is exactly this type of movement which develops posture, improves muscle tone in the legs and feet and improves the walking gait.

Being able to travel independently is an essential requirement for employment. Taxis can be a very expensive alternative to buses and trains.

Children who are born with severe visual impairment can have problems in forming correct concepts of their own bodies. Their mental map of the world and their own position in it may be very limited. Concepts, such as distance, will be difficult to understand. For these children education in mobility should start in the early years and continue throughout the child’s school life and beyond.

A programme of orientation and mobility training should focus on 

  • sensory awareness: gaining information about the world through hearing, smell, touch and proprioception
  • spatial concepts: realizing that objects exist even if not heard or felt, and understanding the relationships which exist between objects in the environment
  • searching skills: locating items or places efficiently
  • independent movement: which includes crawling, rolling, walking, etc.
  • sighted guide: using another person to aid in travel
  • protective techniques: specific skills which provide added protection in unfamiliar areas
  • cane skills: use of various cane techniques to clear one's path or to locate objects along the way

Social autonomy. The VI person is able to maintain meaningful relationships with family, friends, peers without assistance and with confidence, and is able to interact successfully with the public in a wide variety of situations.

Almost all social skills used by sighted children and adults have been learned by visually observing the environment and other persons, and behaving in socially appropriate ways based on that information. Social interaction skills are not learned casually and incidentally by blind and visually impaired individuals as they are by sighted persons. Social skills must be carefully, consciously, and sequentially taught to blind and visually impaired students. Facial expressions, body language or gestures are an important part of non-verbal communication for sighted people and severely visually impaired pupils are unable to access this form of communication and are usually unaware of the impact of their own body language and gestures on other people. In addition they will often be unaware about how many people are around them or even who they are. Nothing in the normal school curriculum addresses this critical need in a satisfactory manner. Thus, instruction in social interaction skills becomes a part of the extended curriculum as a need so fundamental that it can often mean the difference between social isolation and a satisfying and fulfilling life as an adult.

A visually impaired student can become socially isolated, especially when he/she is unable to locate his/her peers. In a report the following comment was made about a severely visually impaired student :

He likes his own space and often chooses to sit on his own at lunchtime.

An educational psychologist observed him and stated :

Xxxxx has been described as a quiet boy who often sits on his own at lunchtime. From my observations he was not able to find his way back to his peers to have his dinner. Consequently he sat at a table with no one who knew him.

Staff and other students should be trained to be aware of this and work to ensure that the visually impaired student does not end up being isolated.

Intellectual autonomy.

Many VI children at school are supported by LSAs who ensure that work is presented to the child in an appropriate format and that the child is able to access the work. The long term goal for VI students is to be able to access and complete work and tasks unaided, so have become intellectually independent.

The visual acuity of children diagnosed as being visually impaired varies greatly. Through the use of thorough, systematic training, most students with residual functional vision can be taught to better and more efficiently utilize their remaining vision. The responsibility for performing a functional vision assessment, planning appropriate learning activities for effective visual utilization, and instructing students in using their functional vision in effective and efficient ways is necessary and most severely visually impaired pupils will receive direct input from a visiting qualified teacher for the visually impaired (QTVI).

Bringing together all of these skills learned in the expanded core curriculum produces a concept of the blind or visually impaired person in the community. It is difficult to imagine that a congenitally blind or visually impaired person could be entirely at ease and at home within the social, recreational, and vocational structure of the general community without mastering the elements of the expanded core curriculum. What is known about congenitally blind and visually impaired students is that, unless skills such as orientation and mobility, social interaction, and independent living are learned, these students are at high risk for lonely, isolated, unproductive lives. Accomplishments and joys such as shopping, dining, attending and participating in recreational activities are a right, not a privilege, for blind and visually impaired persons. Responsibilities such as banking, taking care of health needs, and using public and private services are a part of a full life for all persons, including those who are blind or visually impaired. Adoption and implementation of a core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, including those with additional disabilities, will assure students of the opportunity to function well and completely in the general community.

Technology has advanced immensely over the past few decades. The development of ICT has enabled severely visually impaired pupils to access information and communicate in a way that was impossible previously. It is a tool to unlock learning and expand the horizons of students and it occupies a special place in the education of severely visually impaired students. Other technology has been in use for many years. Braille users still make use of the old Perkins mechanical Brailler, which is large, noisy and cumbersome. However new technology allows Braille users to print in Braille for personal use, and then in print for the sighted people. It gives blind persons the capability of storing and retrieving information. It brings the gift of a library under the fingertips of the visually impaired person. Technology enhances communication and learning, as well as expands the world of blind and visually impaired persons in many significant ways. The skills needed for a severely visually impaired pupil to use ICT are not the same as those used by sighted pupils. All functions need to be carried out using key strokes as opposed to the usual practice of using a mouse to point at icons on a graphic user interface (monitor), and there is a need for the severely visually impaired pupil to develop a high degree of competence with touch typing.

Delivering independence training at school.

The EHCP should specify the input required to deliver independent and additional skills, so a child may have cane training, braille training, touch typing and other inputs quantified in section F. The EHCP should also state that the child should have full access to the curriculum on a par with his/her sighted peers. There is a problem of delivering the additional training and gicing access to the full curriculum, so it may be that the child needs a curriculum that goes beyond the school day.

The “Waking Day Curriculum”

The waking day curriculum refers to an extended curriculum that goes beyond the normal school day and requires a residential placement. It is also referred to as a 24 hour curriculum. There are many aspects of the 24 hour curriculum that go far beyond what a maintained school would be expected to provided. For severely visually impaired children full access to the curriculum is also accompanied by Braille training and independent living skills (including orientation and mobility).

In a recent Tribunal hearing for one of our clients it was established that the child should have full access to the curriculum on a par with his sighted peers, but also needed 1 hour per day Braille training together with sessions for mobility, cane training and independent living skills training. This would total 8 hours per week (out of 25 hours per week of timetabled lessons), so nearly 1/3rd of the week. This was to be delivered by withdrawal from lessons and could not be delivered after school hours. The specialist teaching required meant that this could not be delivered at home by the parents. The school admitted that none of the specialist provision could deliver any of the normal curriculum. There was a clear contradiction between the two aspects of the statement. It was impossible to deliver both within the normal school day.

The Tribunal Judge ruled that the child’s special educational needs could not be met at the LA’s preferred school and agreed to the parents’ request that he should attend a specialist, residential school for severely visually impaired pupils.

For further information about the Waking day curriculum, click here to go to Douglas Silas' web-site

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