The Uniqueness of Each Student and Family

If you are a teacher who is just beginning to instruct a class that includes children with vision impairment, you may be wondering how you can most effectively create a learning environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all your students. You may feel worried and even uncomfortable because you have not received any prior training in teaching students with disabilities.

As a teacher you already know the importance of getting to know every one of your students individually. This is particularly important when you have students with vision impairment. You need to become personally acquainted with each of them as soon as possible. As you get to know them, often students (especially the older ones) will be able to tell you what specific accommodations they might find helpful or necessary.

To assist you in getting to know your student with vision impairment’s individual needs and capacities, and to help you work with the student fruitfully on a day-to-day basis, your two best resources will be your student’s family members, as well as teachers and teaching assistants who specialize in helping children with vision impairment. You will also be able to find helpful information about the possible needs and potential capacities of children with specific disabilities by checking with organizations that are dedicated to serving them. You should especially seek out those organized by and for people with vision impairment, and organizations of parents with children who have vision impairment. It may also be helpful to browse through newsletters and journals published by these organizations. For some specific recommendations for organizations and publications that you might find helpful when you have students with vision impairment, see the “Organizations and Web Sites” link below.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that children with vision impairment are individuals with unique blends of talents and needs to the same degree as all other students. The student is shaped by his or her family, culture, and personal experience as much as by the way in which the vision impairment manifests.

Every student with a vision impairment is unique, as each child uses his or her vision differently.  “Even children with similar visual acuities and eye conditions may actually see in unique ways” (Miller, 1999). For example, most children with visual limitations will not be totally blind. Many will be able to see some light and see subtle differences between colors, while others will have difficulty distinguishing specific colors.  Some students will have good peripheral vision.  Others will have limited peripheral vision or good central vision.  Some students will be able to see objects distinctly, while others will have blurred vision; some will need enhanced contrast; some will have no problems with glare and bright lights, while others will be challenged by glare in the environment.  Some students will be able to see small objects or pictures or print, while others will not; some will be able to see objects or pictures or print better in the distance, while others will only be able to see what is close to their faces; some will be helped by special glasses or lenses, while others will not. Some will have had visual impairments since birth or early childhood, while others will have experienced vision loss recently.

Children with vision impairment also differ widely in their past experiences. Some of them were raised by parents, caretakers and/or other family members who learned early on about the best practices and resources for assisting them to develop to their full potential, and others were not. Some families may have had difficulty finding service providers in their local area who specialize in helping children with vision impairment. Some children who are blind or have low vision were able to explore and interact with their environments on their own from an early age; others required and received encouragement and guidance from family members to do so.  On the other hand, some children were discouraged from exploration because of family members' worries about safety, while still others were simply left as babies to sit in one place if they did not themselves initiate such explorations. Often, children with some useable vision were precocious walkers and talkers; many totally blind children learned to walk and talk significantly later than their sighted peers; while those who had family members and service providers who encouraged them to interact with people and environments began to walk and talk around the same time as their sighted peers.

Some children with visual limitations will arrive in your class having already learned compensatory skills, mobility skills or large print or Braille literacy, while others will need to begin learning such skills with teaching specialists at the same time as they are participating in the general curriculum. Some families will have helped their child with vision impairment learn literacy skills early in their lives before arriving at school, while others will have not; some families will have been very involved in assisting the children's progress from self-awareness and use of their senses to daily routines around the home, to exploring the outside world; other families will have been overwhelmed by their sadness about their children's disabilities.

When children have more than one disability, such as a vision impairment combined with a hearing impairment, there is even more variation in their developed abilities and experiences. All of these factors are significant because they will affect your students' readiness to learn literacy and achieve academic success.

It is not possible to adequately predict just what will work for specific children unless we get to know these children as individuals and observe them in the learning process. It is crucial for parents and caretakers to have a deep understanding of the child's specific visual impairment and how the disability impacts daily life.

Given this tremendous range of possible abilities and experiences, the best strategy is to concentrate on getting to know the student with the disability directly. You can most easily accomplish this by combining direct personal contact with the students with close cooperation with their family members, the specialist teachers, and teaching assistants who will be supporting these students in your class.