Adapting Your Home for a Child Who Is Blind or Has Low Vision
Many families of visually impaired children are concerned about the ability of their child to get around their home safely. There are many relatively simple things that can be done to help your child move safely through your home using her vision, if present, and other senses.
Assessing Your Home for a Child With Low Vision
In addition to thinking about safety (See "Baby Proofing" Your Home), it is important to consider how to organize your home so your child will build skills by being able to learn and do things independently. Talking to your child's early intervention team about how to arrange your home to maximize your child's independence and learning will be helpful.
As you look around your house to see what changes would be helpful to your child, there are some basic elements to keep in mind.
- Lighting, color, and contrast
- Texture and touch
- Labels and marking
- Organization and safety
If your child has some usable vision there are ways you can help your child use her vision as efficiently as possible by controlling lighting, glare, color, contrast, and clutter.
Lighting: Most children with low vision prefer natural light, the kind that comes in through windows. However, for some children, especially those with albinism, aniridia, or other conditions that cause photophobia, too much light can cause problems. If you see your child squinting in the presence of light, consider getting adjustable window coverings—opaque or glare-reducing shades that can be lowered from the top or raised from the bottom, or blinds; or shutters—so you can control how much light comes into a room.
For some of your child's activities, such as reading, additional light from a lamp may be helpful. It's best to have a lamp with a flexible arm so the angle of the light can be adjusted; it should also be portable enough to be moved easily from one place to another.
Glare: Most people don't like looking at a surface that has a lot of glare, but reflected light from a shiny surface is particularly uncomfortable for some children who are visually impaired. Try to eliminate, or minimize glare on the screen of your television set, table surfaces, and pages of books by experimenting with nearby lamps to figure out where they can be set to create the least amount of glare. Since light is the source of glare, adjustable window coverings can also be useful during the day. Using a dark placemat or tablecloth on high gloss finished tables can reduce the glare on the table's surface.
Color: You may find that your child has a color preference, such as red or yellow. If she does, try to use that color wherever you can to call her attention to her belongings. When she's old enough, have a toothbrush and cup for her in the bathroom that are her preferred color. You can also use color to help your child keep her room organized, with different colored boxes or baskets for storing different types of toys.
Contrast: High contrast between an object and the background against which it is seen is often helpful to children who are visually impaired. For example, black letters on a white background are easier to see than pale green letters on a medium green background. Look for ways to increase the contrast in your home. A bright red pillowcase will be easier for your child to see against a white sheet on her bed than a pillowcase and sheet of the same color.
Think about contrast in cabinets and drawers, too. Shelf liners and place mats can be used to increase contrast. If you put your child's food in a bowl or on a plate that contrasts sharply with the food, it will be easier for her to see what she's eating. For example, beige-colored cereal in a dark bowl may be more visible than in a beige bowl. Here are some examples of how contrast can make your home safer and more accessible for your child:
- Sink Area With and Without Contrast
- Bathtub Area With and Without Contrast
- Low and High Contrast Kitchen
Clutter: When objects on a shelf or counter top are crowded close together, it's hard for anyone to pick out one specific item. For a visually impaired child, it can be a difficult task. Avoid letting clutter accumulate on bathroom shelves, kitchen counters, the table next to your child's bed, or the top of her dresser. Consider putting some space between items on shelves so they can more easily be seen.
Try looking at objects from your child's perspective. What's easy to see from your height may be impossible to see from hers. Put things she needs to be able to see at her eye level. While it's not practical to reposition pictures, lamps, and objects throughout the house, in her room place pictures, shelves, and anything else she needs to be able to reach at the appropriate height and depth.
Texture and Touch
Regardless of your child's amount of usable vision, encourage her to use her sense of touch to gather information about where things are in your home. In the bathroom, for example, you might put a rubber band around the handle of her toothbrush so she can be sure it's hers and not someone else's. A tactile label on the kitchen cabinet where her cereal is kept will help her find it by herself. If your child learns braille as she gets older, labels for items can be written in braille; if she isn't a braille user, a label could be a raised shape or texture that she can associate with the object she's looking for.
Most children who are visually impaired know the layout of their own homes well. They typically don't use a cane to get around at home, but may use trailing once they have learned to walk and are past toddlerhood. When your child trails, she places the back of her hand against the wall, slightly in front of her as she walks, so that her hand warns her of any obstacle that she might bump into. If your child uses trailing, it will be important to keep hallways and floors clear. Avoid hanging pictures on the wall at the height of your child's hand.
Your child may use clues, such as the difference in surface between the living room carpet and the tile floor in the kitchen, to help her orient herself in your home. Look for tactile clues you can add around the house to increase her orientation to your home and to assist with her mobility. For instance, you could put a small rug or textured mat near the window to help her find her toy box in the family room.
Organization and Safety
When your child has a visual impairment, it's especially important to organize your home in ways that will protect her from possible injury, as well as enable her to develop good basic skills:
Tape down the edges of small rugs so they don't suddenly slip or slide, possibly causing a fall.
Keep room and closet doors closed, or put a heavy object against a door to prop it all the way open.
Remind everyone in the family to put away toys, gadgets, tools, games, backpacks, briefcases, and anything else that could be tripped over.
Child-proof your cabinets. Keep household cleaners and medications of any kind in cabinets that can't be opened by your child. You can get keyless locks that are easy for you to open but difficult for children.
For more ideas about how to make your home safer for your child, and easier to navigate, visit the Organizing and Modifying Your Home section on VisionAware™.