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For parents of children with visual impairments

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Back to School: Educational Priorities for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

mom, dad, and son hugging

This year my oldest daughter, Madeline, will begin kindergarten. I’m already feeling the pressure and stress of teaching and pre-teaching all academic skills so that she is successful in the classroom. Maybe this stems from uncomfortable situations like hearing other five-year-olds reading, and knowing my child is definitely not there yet. So I choose to stop and settle down those green-eyed, pride-driven thoughts. I rein them in and tell them to “Go!” My child is my child, and her value is completely independent of the ability to read, solve math problems, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Besides, is academic success really all that is important?

Don’t get me wrong, academic skills are valuable and can be great tools for life. (Check out AFB FamilyConnect’s Literacy Resources for Children who are Blind or Have Low Vision and other important blindness-specific educational resources.) However, academic success isn’t the end-all-be-all measure of success and well-being for our children.

If academic success is not the primary learning goal, what then is the priority for our children to learn this year?

According to Foundations of Education (2nd edition, Volume 1, ch. 6 by Tuttle and Tuttle), “Much effort, time, and resources are directed toward the satisfactory completion of daily classroom activities and assignments. Often, this focus on schoolwork is made at the expense of other, perhaps more significant, aspects of personal growth.” Instead, the book describes, we should prioritize nurturing the whole child and his self-esteem.

These are the 5 ingredients for a well-rounded individual with a healthy self-concept:

  1. Self-Acceptance. Children need to learn who they are: personal interests, abilities, values, characteristics, etc. Children who are blind or visually impaired need to learn they have many qualities, only one feature is a visual impairment. (Not only is self-acceptance important throughout childhood, self-awareness offers an edge in employment.)
  2. Social Connectedness. Children who are blind or visually impaired need to experience positive interactions with others. (For more information on the topic, read Mary Ann Siller's Advice on Social Skills.)
  3. Informed Choices. Children who are blind or visually impaired need to recognize they are in the driver’s seat of their life, especially as they mature. The ability to make decisions from an early age is imperative, and encourages responsibility. (For more information, read Making Choices: A Key Skill for Children with Visual Impairment.)
  4. Genuine Productivity. Children who are blind or visually impaired need to succeed in goals they find important. They will feel proud, motivated, and productive.
  5. Relaxing and Having Fun. Children who are blind or visually impaired need to have outlets for enjoying life and reducing stress. (Use CareerConnect's Stress Management lesson series as a guide to teach your child stress-reducing pursuits.)

So I will continue teaching and pre-teaching academics at home because I want to help Madeline learn, not to satisfy my pride, and not at the expense of nurturing her whole self. In other words, I will focus on the five ingredients of a well-rounded individual instead of focusing only on her academic pursuits. Sometimes I need a reminder of priorities.


Improving “School Confidence” in Your Child Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

A girl and boy swinging, big smiles on their faces

For many of us, summer break is already but a memory (cue the sad music). As we look to the start of a new school year, we anticipate our children engaging in meaningful friendships and advancing in their academics and the blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum. We know there’s tremendous potential growth right around the corner.

But in order for our children to actually advance in the classroom and in their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) goals, our children need to be uninhibited by a poor self-concept. You see, it seems to me that when children perceive they are failing and incapable, they have a blanket poor sense of self-worth, and their ability to learn and develop is almost “frozen” or stuck.

We desire, instead, for our children to be comfortable and confident in themselves, knowing they are valuable, they are able to learn, they are worthwhile friends, and that they have areas of strength. They can do this “school thing.”

So how can we develop their self-confidence, preparing them for success and progression in school academics and relationships?

Foundations of Education (2nd ed, volume 1, ch. 6, by Tuttle and Tuttle) states that children’s self-confidence increases when they are successful. But there’s more. Here’s the kicker: The books says children’s self-confidence increases when they are successful in areas they care about! You, as the parent or grandparent of your child who is blind or visually impaired, may be concerned about your child’s math or reading skills, when at this point, your child may not care about academic success. Find out what your child cares about, and help him or her find success in that area.

Maybe it’s finding a good friend, swinging independently on the swing set, learning to swim, learning to read, building a tall tower with Legos, getting around the neighborhood independently, using a cell phone, or (for teenagers) going on a date. I don’t know what it is that your child values, but give him or her the tools for success and help your child practice. When your child is successful in what he cares about (even success in very small goals), he will feel like a success.

Here’s the value of helping your child succeed in an area she cares about:

  1. A child who “feels like a success” knows she’s capable of success in school-goals with enough continued practice.
  2. You now know your child’s “currency,” or what she regards as important and motivating. You can utilize your child’s currency to teach her academic and social skills. If your child loves to swim and feels successful in the water, you can read books together about swimming, teach her to tell time so she can speed up her swim time, teach her math with dive rings, teach her technology skills when researching online swimming tips, teach her about money when you help her earn chore money and purchase swim gear, and learn the social skills necessary to succeed at swim meets. In other words, you’ve found a tool for engaging your child’s interest and connecting it to academic and social goals.
  3. A child who succeeds in areas of interest is more accepting of herself and her visual impairment. She doesn’t get stuck thinking “I can’t do anything because I am blind.” Instead, she realizes she often uses a different approach than her sighted peers to achieve a desired outcome, but she is plenty capable nonetheless.

So over the next several weeks before school begins (and beyond!) take the time to give your child the tools and training to succeed in goals related to his interests. You’re giving him the gift of improving his self-concept and confidence. You’re increasing his “school confidence”.


Parents of Children and Teens with Visual Impairments: “Your Goals” in Orientation and Mobility for the New School Year

Mother with young daughter, who is wearing glasses and holding a white cane

While you can't learn orientation and mobility (travel) skills for your child who is blind or visually impaired, you certainly can support your child’s acquisition of skills. In fact, I want to share a variety of ways you can get involved, encourage, and motivate your child toward mobility success this school year. I call these “your goals,” should you accept them:

  1. Before the school year begins, formally introduce your daughter to her new learning environments, which will likely involve working with your child’s Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist. The O&M Specialist will familiarize your child to her classroom(s), the cafeteria, the restrooms, and if she’s in elementary school, the playground. If age- and ability-appropriate, your child will learn routes to the bus stop, to classrooms, to the cafeteria, and to school restrooms.
  2. Consistently talk with your son about mobility information that will eventually be important to his safe and efficient travels: tell him you stopped your car because of a traffic light; explain that cars drive on the right side of the road; use compass directions in everyday conversations; talk about routes as you are driving and walking; tell him you see a bus stop or taxi cab, point our important landmarks he is contacting as you are on a walk, etc.
  3. Model self-advocacy skills such as kindly asking for directions, seeking assistance, and politely declining assistance.
  4. Find out what your child is learning in regard to orientation and mobility by talking with your child's Orientation and Mobility Specialist. Ask how you can continue instruction at home.
  5. Encourage your child to practice the skills she’s learning with her O&M specialist. Whether it’s engaging in O&M activities at home with your young child who is blind or visually impaired, insisting your grade-schooler walks with her cane as she walks beside you in the community instead of solely using sighted guide, or tasking your adolescent with mapping the route to a family destination. (To understand the importance of mapping a route, read Alicia Wolfe's reflection of a visually impaired adult who mapped Alicia’s route for lunch).
  6. Read or listen to Melanie White's Advice on Orientation and Mobility Skills. You will learn how to collaborate with your child’s O&M specialist, as well as receive practical advice such as using a GPS in your family car so that your child will become familiar with its role in traveling.
  7. Read or listen to Jill Brown's Advice on Orientation and Mobility Skills. You will learn what you can do at home to support your child’s success in mobility, including the development of high expectations for your child’s involvement and responsibilities within the family.
  8. Identify transportation options for non-drivers. You can begin to describe the options to your child and intentionally explore the options with him.
  9. Help your child understand the value of strong O&M skills. Find out your child’s dreams and desires, and help her see how mobility skills will enable or enhance her goals. She wants to make a friend on the playground? It helps to be familiar with the playground. He wants to go on a date or hold a summer job? It helps to be familiar with public transportation.

Your child will greatly benefit from your involvement in orientation and mobility training; in encouraging him to practice; in motivating him toward his goals; and in providing travel knowledge as you encounter it in the real world.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
—Helen Keller

Orientation and Mobility
Getting Around

Back to School Tips for Older Students who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Irwin Ramirez at his desk

It is back to school season and thousands of students are returning to elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities. Many visually impaired students have to do special preparation to go back to school. As a graduate student I would like to suggest some tips in preparation for school. Preparation is very important for a student’s success in college but the most importantly in my opinion is your attitude about school. You have come this far in deciding or being enrolled in an institution—now with a little motivation and perseverance you will help yourself in the process of acquiring knowledge and skills that will help you succeed in your career. These are my suggestions for a visually impaired student in preparation for school.

- Request accessible books and materials. As part of your adaptability in school having the books in an accessible format is indispensable to perform readings and assignments. Find out if the book is already offered in an electronic format such as ePub, PDF, or audio recording. You may be able to request materials from the publisher through your services office. An alternative option is scanning the textbooks and converting them in accessible format such as word files or searchable PDF’s. However, this is time consuming and it should be done as a last resource if the materials cannot be found as an electronic format.

- Arrange accommodations in advance. The accommodations that a student needs are unique so therefore work closely with the service provider at your institution. Having the accommodations in place might imply several factors depending on your specific needs. Even though you might not need a lot of accommodations, it is important that the accommodations are in place to ensure you will not be at a disadvantage from your sighted peers.

- Introduce yourself to professors. Having good communication with your instructors will be highly beneficial for both parties. Professors might be able to better help you. In case issues arise, they will know how to better assist you.

- Research the courses you will be taking. There are advantages of picking the right classes. When you are aware of the classes you will be taking you only increase your chances of success. Not only can you discover if there will be any accessibility issues but you can also find out if you will enjoy those topics. Studying topics you are genuinely interested in is a motivator to keep you engaged. After all, school is about learning.

Develop a plan to perform tasks. An important tool is keeping a “to do” list. This will improve your time management skills and will help you meet deadlines.

- Practice time management skills. This involves scheduling your time accordingly. You can prioritize tasks. This is an important skill to have. This will help you keep projects on track and meet deadlines.

- Read the textbooks if possible. If you were able to manage to obtain the books in advance, it is a good idea to glance, read, or scan through them. This will give you an idea of what will be covered and required from you in the new semester.

- Get acquainted with the classroom location . It will be more convenient to be familiar with the classroom layout, location, and the most accessible way to get to a particular place in school. Knowing the location of the places in school will only make you more confident in navigating there.

-Find out how accessible the websites are. If the websites aren't accessible, plan accordingly. If the site isn't accessible, see if you can find a substitute for the class or work directly with professors to get the materials in an accessible format. Chances are that you will have a lot of interaction with websites. Many classes are offered online now. Not all educational sites are 100% accessible but it will be very useful to know what parts are or are not accessible. Make sure you can have access to the most important information such as announcements, handouts, or pages to submit assignments.

- Find out about the activities and events that your school offers. Time in school is a great opportunity to grow academically but also to develop socially as well. There are always many activities going on in schools, so try to find out about them. That is a good way to get involved with your school, get to know more people, and network.

- Get involved in clubs and organizations. An advantage of being involved in clubs is that you can build your resume. You can also get good connections for different careers in a particular field. It is a great opportunity to network. Many of the people in those clubs share particular interests. Thus, you can build your own network of friends that share a particular interests.

You might be able to identify many other tips to prepare for school. My list contains just a few sets of things in preparation for school, so please feel free to share your ideas and information with others.


How to Ease the Transition from Summer Break to a New School Year for Your Child Who is Blind or Visually Impaired

teacher and visually impaired students in a classroom

Yes, it’s a substantial transition. One that repositions our children from the familiarity and comfort of home or daycare in the summer, to brand new classrooms, a different mix of student-peers, unfamiliar teachers, and more intense studies. But don’t fear, the transition from summer break to school can be done well with a little preparation and strategy, and perhaps a dash of fun!

Ideas for easing the summer-to-school transition:

  • Continually talk with your child about when school will begin, what he can expect at school, and his feelings regarding school.
  • Sufficient sleep will be essential to our children’s attentiveness at school. A few weeks before the new school year begins, let’s transition the relaxed summer sleeping pattern to “early to bed, early to rise”. (I know; I’m not looking forward to those early mornings either.)
  • With all those long days of summer fun, we may have pushed the academics and assistive technology to the side (guilty as charged over here). Starting today, help your child remember what he was learning in school by incorporating the academic information and assistive technology into enjoyable games and activities.
  • Let’s encourage our children to be involved with back to school purchases in order to bring familiar, preferred items to the new classroom environment. Help your daughter find a backpack she enjoys and let her play with it at home; involve her in the shopping and storing of school supplies; ensure she finds any new school clothes comfortable.
  • Speaking of school clothes, Self-Esteem and Adjusting with Blindness by Dean Tuttle and Naomi Tuttle states that sighted peers will more easily see that a child who is blind is “just like me” when the child is dressed similarly to his peers. I recommended choosing trendy, age-appropriate, tasteful, and comfortable clothing for the new school year.
  • We can accept every opportunity for our children to meet their teachers. Perhaps your child could come with questions to get to know his teacher and information about himself and his favorite activities.
  • Talk with your young child’s Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI)and classroom teacher about a plan for a safe, accessible classroom and accessible classroom materials. In addition to obtaining accessible textbooks and assigned readings, you can discuss information important for the new classroom teacher: the best seating assignment for your child, an organized classroom, using tactual markers at your child’s desk and at centers, ensuring your child has the same information that her sighted peers have when they look at the classroom walls, accessible lessons and assignments, etc. Older children should talk directly with their classroom teacher regarding classroom and material accessibility.
  • Formally introduce your child to her classroom, special classrooms (such as the art room and gymnasium), lunchroom, and school grounds with an Orientation and Mobility Specialist. The more familiar she is with her learning environments, the more comfortable she will feel at school and the more she can focus on learning and building relationships.
  • Strategize your own “parent game plan” by heeding the advice in Emily Coleman’s 6 Ways to Help the School "Own" Your Child Who Is Blind. These tips will encourage your involvement in the school, thereby positioning you on the school’s “team.” Your child will have the best chance for success when you and the school are united.

For more information and resources regarding sending your child who is blind or visually impaired back to school, read It's Back-to-School Time Again: Resources for Parents of Blind Children