Accessing Academic Classes for Teenagers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

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As an adolescent moving toward adulthood, your visually impaired child needs to develop increasing independence in all aspects of her life, and for your teenager, that includes independence in completing her schoolwork. Having the appropriate materials and the tools she needs to carry out her assignments on her own is thus essential for her as a self-sufficient individual as well as for her academic success.

As your child moves on to middle school and then high school, her school work becomes increasingly complicated. Your teenager will be dealing with classes in a number of different subject areas, each of which has a different teacher. And, as the subjects become more advanced, the reading and other materials that she needs to master tend to become longer and more complex, and they often contain more math and science symbols, graphs, and charts that have strictly visual components and may need to be adapted for someone who is blind or has low vision. Thus, making sure that she has access to the complete curriculum—the teaching materials and methods her general education teachers use to provide instruction in the classroom—can be a challenge.

Your child's teacher of students with visual impairments will need to work closely with her classroom teachers to make sure that she'll have access to the same materials, classroom activities, and information her classmates do at the same time so that she has the same opportunity as her peers to learn from them. Getting this done in a timely fashion, however, requires cooperation and communication from all parties concerned.

In addition, you and your child may have to work closely with her classroom teachers to be sure they have the same high expectations you have for her academic success. If she wants to go on to college, she will need to complete, at a minimum, the standard high school core curriculum, which includes the following subject areas:

  • English—4 years
  • Mathematics—3 to 4 years
  • History—2 years
  • Social Studies—2 years
  • Science—2 to 3 years
  • Foreign Language—2 years

Each area of the high school curriculum can be adapted for students with visual impairments.

Reading

Unless there are special circumstances, at this point in her education, your child has mastered the fundamentals of reading. In her English classes, she'll most likely be reading novels, plays, and short stories of different genres. She'll have reading to do for her other classes as well. The materials she needs to read may be made available to her in several formats, including:

  • Standard print
  • Standard print using optical devices
  • Large print
  • braille
  • Audio format, either played on an MP3 player, her computer, or her portable notetaker or personal digital assistant (PDA)
  • Electronic format to be used on her computer as enlarged text, braille output, or auditory output

(See Overview of Alternate Media and the Technology section for more information.)

Some teens prefer to have their books and other materials they need to read in more than one format so that they can choose which option to use at any given time. For example, your teen with low vision may be able to read a book in standard print when she uses a closed circuit television (CCTV) also known as a video magnifier. Her reading speed using this method may be 100 words per minute, however, significantly slower than that of her sighted classmates. Therefore, she might choose to listen to the book on a CD instead so that she can move more quickly through the material. She may then use her CCTV to read the worksheet she needs to complete based on the book she has just read.

It is important to keep in mind that listening to material and reading it in either print or braille is not the same thing—they require two different types of skills. As long as your teen has a solid foundation in reading, listening can be an excellent supplement. However, if she relies solely on listening to gain access to information that exists in written form and can't read print or braille, then she will be limited when it comes to crucial everyday tasks that require literacy, such as reading a job application, her bank statement, or directions on a medicine bottle independently.

Writing

By high school, most teens have mastered the fundamentals of writing and are learning to refine their writing in classes such as English Composition. They also need to use writing to complete assignments for all of their other classes. Your teen with a visual impairment has several options she can use when writing, both for her own use and for assignments. These include writing

  • using pen and paper (she may use bold-lined paper and a dark marker);
  • in braille;
  • on a computer, which allows the user to print out what is written in either print or braille, as well as to share the information electronically; or
  • on a portable notetaker or (PDA), using either a braille keyboard or a standard QWERTY keyboard, which can be connected to a computer to print or share the information.

Most people today use several forms of writing. You most likely use both pen and paper and a computer regularly. You may have a PDA that you use as well. Like you, your teenager needs to be proficient in different ways of writing so that she can choose the method that is best for her to use for any given task.

Math and Science

For many teens with visual impairments, math and science classes present the greatest challenges because much of the information is presented visually, using charts, graphs, symbols, and formulas. Despite the challenge, it's important for your teenager to realize that a person with a visual impairment can succeed in learning these subjects and that individuals who have visual impairments have successful careers in the math and science fields (see for example, "Science Is Golden: Interviews with Four Scientists Who Are Visually Impaired,").

Here are some of the methods used to make math and science accessible to your student with a visual impairment:

  • Your teen may understand math and science concepts more fully if the teacher of students with visual impairments previews them for her ahead of time. It is the responsibility of the math or science teacher to teach the concepts; however, the teacher of students with visual impairments may need to introduce to your child the material and the concepts that may be presented visually in the classroom so that she can understand it better when it is taught to the entire class.
  • The teacher of students with visual impairments is responsible for preparing tactile graphics (representations of pictures and other visual items that your child can feel) or simplified or enlarged visual images of such materials as charts and graphs. He or she may have an assistant who works specifically on adapting materials. As noted earlier, they will need to work closely with the classroom teacher to develop a system of communicating and transmitting the materials the class will be using so that they receive them with adequate time for preparing the adapted materials.
  • The abacus is a tool for computing mathematical problems, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, and fractions. The abacus can serve as pen and paper for a student who is blind and should be one of several tools your child has in her personal "toolbox" of options to use for completing math assignments. The teacher of students with visual impairments can teach your child how to use it if she is not already proficient.
  • A special braille code, called the Nemeth code, was invented for mathematics by Dr. Abraham Nemeth, who was blind and needed a way to write down high-level mathematical equations. The teacher of students with visual impairments will introduce new Nemeth code symbols or UEB math code symbols to your child, if she reads braille, as they are needed for the material being taught. He or she will also be responsible for preparing assignments and other materials for math class in Nemeth code for your child.
  • There are a variety of other tools that your child can use to assist her in completing her work in math or science class. In math, she may use a corkboard with push pins and rubber bands to graph equations, or she may use a talking scientific calculator to compute her work. In science, she may use a talking scale, a test tube and beaker with large-print numbers, or a microscope hooked up to her CCTV to view specimens. The teacher of students with visual impairments can bring in the appropriate tools that will make the curriculum more accessible for your child when he or she receives information from the classroom teacher about what will be happening in upcoming lessons.
  • Your teenager may need to work with a partner or a small group on some aspects of science class because they involve strictly visual elements or because they can be dangerous for your child to do alone. If your child works with others, they can assist her in participating in the activity and with the information she needs to complete the assignment. Because science labs are often done with partners, this should not pose a problem.

Geography and History

For most teenagers with visual impairments, the challenging part of geography and history is the maps that are used extensively in these subject areas. The teacher of students with visual impairments will need to provide the maps in an accessible format for your child—either in the form of a tactile graphic with raised markings or as an enlarged or simplified visual representation. It is important that your child practices reading maps and other similar materials, such as pie charts, bar graphs, and timelines so that she can use the information they provide in completing her assignments.

The teacher of students with visual impairments might also provide models to help your child grasp concepts. For example, he might bring in a model of a volcano, so your child can better understand the location of craters or how lava flows. If the class is studying a historical event, the use of actual objects may help your child grasp the concepts better.

The teacher of students with visual impairments, the classroom teacher, and your child will need to work together to determine what adaptations your child needs to access the geography and history curriculum. The classroom teacher may show videos about different populations or wars during class time. If these are not available with audio description, they will need to be described to your child. The teacher of students with visual impairments can work with the classroom teacher or a few of your child's classmates to help them understand how best to describe the visual material to your child.

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