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Early Learning Ideas for a Visually Impaired Child

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed with Lynette Rudman



This article is copy protected and should only be reproduced by permission of the author. For information contact me at: mstrue1@hotmail.com .



     Overwhelming evidence has been gathered over the last 20 years or more to support the need for early intervention in education. For children from birth through six, there is a significant difference in academic success when children are exposed to enriched environments, filled with exciting and interesting sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and safe items to touch and explore. More and more pre-school programs are being developed and specially designed to meet the demand for this purpose. And more and more parents are seeking out the programs that go well beyond the basics of babysitting.

     As enrollment increases in pre-school settings, the likelihood is that a greater percentage of students with significant physical and mental disabilities will rise proportionately. Many parents and pre-school teachers may not be prepared for the additional learning challenges these children present.

     A few years ago, I began corresponding with one such teacher, Lynette Rudman of Grahmstown, South Africa, who said she would be taking on a two and-a-half year-old student with significant visual limitations in her pre-school program. Eagerly, this teacher was looking beyond her formal training to obtain the resources necessary to meet this challenge. One such resource was through the Internet, by which we connected through the Independent Life Resources, (www.ilresources.com), website.

     As a former special education teacher I was happy to share some basic ideas and give feedback to her own creative efforts. The ongoing exchange seemed like the makings of an interesting and informative article. Here are some of the highlights:



     Lynette: The little girl I was referring to seems to be about 98% blind. She can apparently only see colors through her left eye if she holds a colored object up close. This is going to be a learning curve for me as I am only trained to teach children without handicaps. I look forward to the challenge.

     My reply: I'm not certain what resources you may have already found on ILR. There are a couple of pages you should review:

http://www.ilresources.com/ResourcesCare.htm (The Parenting section)

http://www.ilresources.com/ResourcesEd.htm (Educational Resources)

http://www.ilresources.com/ResourcesBlind.htm



     In case you didn't have enough to read, here are a few more Net resources:

http://www.deafblind.com/blind.html

http://www.aerbvi.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=1

http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/blind.html

http://www.seeingwithsound.com/psva.htm

http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/cedir/kidsweb

     You may want to make certain her hearing has been checked as well. If there are any concerns there, be sure to read and or interact with the best ear towards you or take additional steps to deal with those limits. Sometimes multiple impairments can complicate matters.

     Assessing the individual child's needs and then finding resources should be the focus of your future searches. Of course, at this age, the academic agenda will be based on the degree of limitations your student has. If she is legally blind but has some vision, enlarging type by making copies using an enlargement function on a copy machine can be a quick and easy solution to generating materials. If the vision is virtually non-existent, then focus on tactile exploration and finger tracing raised or indented shapes. You will want to include activities such as counting raised bumps or specific, (small) objects, matching numbers of objects to raised bumps, etc. (Be certain that any manipulative are too large to swallow and that they can be washed frequently to prevent the spread of germs.)

     Cards can easily be made using Elmer's glue or hot glue and sand on masonite on 4"x4" cardboard squares to give a tactile surface. Other activities could focus on recognition of sounds in the environment, smells, and tastes, also. This will increase her vocabulary and heighten sensory awareness in other modalities. Then there is the aspect of mobility training. Using a cane, navigating rooms, sidewalks, stores, etc.

     Also, I recall a good exercise where I placed objects in a tray and had them sorted into 2 cups or bowls. There are tactile kits that include this type of material. Start with 2 different objects first, (5 large wooden beads and 5 wooden blocks, for instance). As she masters this, add a third object to match, and so forth.

     Aroma samples can easily be created by putting a cotton ball into an empty film container, then adding a drop or two of vinegar, perfume, lemon, vanilla, etc. and cap it for storage. Don't forget the label! Have her guess the source of the smell. Most young students like these guessing game activities.

     Environmental sound effect tapes and other manipulatives can be found in special ed. supply catalogues such as:

http://www.flaghouse.com

http://www.tfhusa.com/products.asp

http://www.dragonflytoys.com

http://enablingdevices.com/home.aspx?session=child

http://www.rfbd.org/catalog.htm

     You may want to talk your parent into purchasing special items that may be "shared" with the home during holidays and summer months. Or split the cost of special materials if they might be shared with other students.

     Oh, and consider "right-left" exercises with songs like "Hokey-Pokey" (If you are familiar with that one) or Simon Says with right-left directions, "Put your right hand on your head." Again good for all the kids!

     Lynette: I have many tapes with environmental sounds for the other children and when they hear a sound they have to point to the corresponding picture. I was thinking, for example, with [my student] that I would have little plastic farm animals to go with the tape of farm animal sounds. I could start with about three sounds to begin with and increase them as she masters this.

     The smelling activity with little bottle works very well with children. I use tiny little plastic shampoo sample bottles, like the kind you would get in hotels, and they have to first unscrew the lid, sniff and then screw it back on. This serves two purposes. Improving their fine muscles and their sense of smell.

     I will have her hearing checked out but I do think it is fine. Her command of English is good for a 3 year old.

     Incidentally, both of her parents are also blind, though the little brother isn't… They don't like to be fussed over and they like to be treated like sighted people. They are an amazing family and an inspiration to everyone…

     …Sending you photos of the tactile cards I made. The sighted kids can use them too, first by using sight and touch and then later when blindfolded. Should be a fun activity for all. The black shapes are the finer sandpaper. Later on [my student] can match a rough circle to a smoother circle, etc.

     My reply: Wonderful! Great pictures too!

     I have been trying to remember other things I have done before. I recall allowing the non-disabled children to pair up with the kids in my class. Young students especially like the idea of being a helper. Perhaps in addition to having tasks like "light monitor" and someone to "feed the fish" you could assign a weekly "recess guide". This would not only give [your student] assistance during her free time but also allow other students to form relationships and learn more about the nature of her disability.

     If I may, I am a strong advocate of inclusion. This is a world in which tolerance must be taught at a young age. Innocence is fleeting enough. Please consider allowing [your student] to participate directly in any process introducing her and talking about her disability...

     I would take her aside or meet with her privately before making introductions. This young lady deserves to, and should be encouraged to confront the real world in her own way, early on. Ask her what she is thinking, (about meeting new classmates). Does she want to wear shaded or tinted glasses? Does she think the other children might be frightened or make fun of her. Has it happened in the past? What took place? Could a class discussion be helpful?... etc.

     You will also need to get input from the parent as to their comfort zones. They must be your allies in all things. Perhaps you could meet with all of them to discuss it before the first day of school. Or, you could wait for a day or two into the routine to size up any possible problems.

     Then you may want to speak to your class as a group about your expectations and any significant changes in the routine. [This student's] personal needs will have to be discussed, at some point. Please, include [your student] in this process. If she is unavailable to answer the questions of the curious during such a gathering, as well as being able to voice her own thoughts on being a part of this new group, she will remain an enigma for some time in the minds of your students…

     Introductions are certainly in order and a teaching unit built around learning each other's names and whatever personal facts you feel are appropriate can be a time of awareness for all. I have used "Family" as a catalyst in the past. You may discover that others in the class have relatives who are hard of hearing or who wear glasses. Your students may have an elderly relative who requires care or special treatment due to physical limitations. And when it really comes down to it, we all have our strengths, our weaknesses, and our diversity. Celebrate that diversity! Talk about differences between brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and so on. The basics: size, shape, and color of skin, hair, and eyes can always be compared and charted.

     Here are some Internet resources on disability awareness activities:

www.ilresources.com/articles/Seen.htm

http://members.tripod.com/~imaware

www.ccthomas.com/details.cfm?P_ISBN=0398069530

     As time went on Lynette told me about many of the teacher-made materials she was producing. These included sandpaper cards with duplicate tactile shapes for matching. We touched on games that her student could play with the rest of the class and more. We talked about using Braille, resources from the American Printing House for the Blind: http://www.aph.org/products/index.html, and field trips to the SPCA and a farm, as well as other classroom experiences.

     Last week she told me about her visit to a regional school for the blind and what a wonderful learning experience that was. She said she learned two very important things:

     Lynette: Seeing that you are writing your article at the moment, I will tell you a bit about what I learned at the school for the blind. The head of department was so professional and friendly and before I left she said she wanted to tell me two things that I must always remember.

     She said that a blind child in the mother's womb feels safe because it has the walls of the uterus surrounding it all the time. So if it wants to explore, stretch out and touch and feel it is always safe. But once it is born it is very different for the blind child. The world is cold, large, full of weird noises and smells that don't make sense; there are no physical boundaries and the child feels vulnerable and afraid. She said the parents, teachers, etc., have to be the safe boundary for the child. Create a safe caring environment and the child will feel secure. I will never forget that. She explained it so beautifully.

     The other thing she told me was something she learned from a recent visit to Canada and The Netherlands. She went to symposiums there. She said that we normally help a blind child to feel strange things by forcing their hands to feel the strange object. She said the latest technique, and I agree with it, is to stand behind the blind child and to slide your hand UNDER the blind child's hands BEFORE she feels it and guide her hands towards it so that you touch the thing first. She will then see that the object is not scary and that you are feeling it first. When she begins to feel it, you quietly slide your hands out from under hers and let her feel it on her own. I will try this with [my student] especially when we go on outings or in the garden. I have noticed that she is afraid of feeling plants and trees. Not sure why because her mom has lavender at home and other aromatic plants. I have planted some too for her to smell. The other kids love it too.

     My reply: The additional things you shared with me from your visit to the school are very good points. I did a lot of work hand-over-hand. The idea that the visually impaired child will be more trusting if they know you are feeling things first is a great concept!

     As far as providing a safe and yet stimulating environment, well that's a given, as they say. The trick is to know when to let the child move from one level of security and restriction to the next. Many parents and teachers become overly protective and that can create a level of dependency that can actually hurt the student in the long run. It must be a matter of judging the child's growing self-regulation and then allowing them to use those skills to move towards a greater level of independence. After all, you know a baby will fall after taking those first few steps, but is that a reason for not allowing them to rise up on both feet?

Share what you know, what you believe, and what you imagine…

     All my best, Michael S.True



     I hope these ideas will be helpful to those reading this article. A special thanks to Lynette for her enthusiasm and obvious joy in meeting this new challenge. There will always be more to learn, even for me! If you are interested in more information and resources to meet the needs of a visually impaired preschool or early primary aged child, please contact me at: mstrue1@hotmail.com.

     Footnote: Lynette Rudman's involvement with her special needs student blossomed over the course of the next two and a half years. Not only did we continue to communicate via email on a regular basis, (and still do), but between us we developed some pre-school level materials that otherwise simply did not exist. Ms. Rudman continued her research and began the development of her own line of hand-made tactile pre-Braille reading readiness books and supplementary learning materials in her "I Read with My Hands" series. She has since been invited to speak about her work throughout South Africa. She is currently producing these books for distribution on a limited basis. For more information log on to: www.sensorysolutions.co.za or email her at: zinkeyray@worldonline.co.za .



I Read with My Hands website link [d ]


Titles available in the "I Read with My Hands" Series.

(These books are available in either English or Afrikaans.)


Information Manual for Parents and Teachers
143 Activities, Games and Toys for Visually Impaired Pre-school Children (not in Braille)

Educational Books

My Shape Book
My Number Book
My Colour Book
My Feely Book (a texture book)
My Book of Opposites
My Same and Different Book
My Follow-the-Bumps Book
My First Colouring Book
My Alphabet Colouring Book
My First Fun Activity Book
My Second Fun Activity Book

Storybooks:

Little Circle Learns to Roll
Little Circle Finds a Friend
Little Circle Goes to School
Little Square Looks for His Granny

Nature Storybooks:

The Tale of Tiny Tadpole
The Tale of Tiny Caterpillar
The Tale of Tiny Seed

    These books include Braille as well as the printed word in large print. Suitable for blind, visually impaired or sighted children aged 3 to 7 years.







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I Read with My Hands website link [d ]


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