Sound ways to include blind children

24th May 2002, 1:00am
Douglas Blane


Sound ways to include blind children
With a positive management attitude and some specialist support, mainstream schools can take most pupils, whatever their difficulty, reports Douglas Blane

In one respect Lochgelly High School in Fife provides a difficult environment for visually impaired pupils. The ultra-modern design of the building is a challenging pattern of interlocking hexagons, so visitors easily lose their way around.

But in all other respects, explains Elspeth McDonald, the assistant head of Fife's Sensory Impairment Service, responsible for visual impairment, the school is an ideal place for blind and visually impaired children.

"Integration into the mainstream doesn't always work: a lot depends on how the school and teachers respond. Here they're prepared to do that bit extra to help pupils," she says.

Four years ago, however, when the teachers first heard that Stuart Beveridge, who has been blind since birth, was coming to Lochgelly High from a local primary school, they were apprehensive.

"Understandably so," says assistant headteacher Richard Power, "because they were being asked to do something unfamiliar. And of course some said it couldn't possibly work.

"But when they saw what Stuart can do, both on his own and with the support of the service, it made a world of difference to their perceptions of who you can and cannot have in school."

Stuart is now in his third year at Lochgelly and coping well with a broad programme of Standard grade studies. He has subject preferences like everyone else: music is one of his favourites, he says, as he pulls a variety of metal and plastic parts out of a compact case and skilfully assembles them into a full-size saxophone. "We've just put a swing band together and we're going to start practising this week," he says.

He enjoys physical education, too. "With things like gymnastics and fitness, I can do what the rest of the class does. Basketball and hockey are too hard, but I love swimming."

He also likes athletics and running: "Short distances," he says. He takes part with a friend attached by a wristband.

Stuart exemplifies what can be done in mainstream schools if the right support is available from specialist teachers. The Sensory Impairment Service currently has 10 visual impairment specialists, who support 112 visually impaired children in the region's mainstream schools and a further 67 in special education. It works closely with the Fife Society for the Blind, which provides advice and assistance with resources, mobility and life skills.

Surprisingly perhaps, Braille plays a small part in the children's education, though for Stuart and one other Fife pupil it is crucial. Kevin Knox, of the Fife Society for the Blind, explains that even those who are registered as blind often have some very limited vision and adapt resources to use it.

"In order of decreasing significance, you've got large print, some kind of enhanced text, tapes and Braille. If a person is using some visual method - good magnifiers, appropriate lighting, reading techniques - then far more resources and information are available to them.

"There are fewer than 30 Braille users in Fife altogether, adults and children."

Support to visually impaired pupils demands skill and time, not just in the classroom, where the service staff help with equipment, organisation and copying from the board, but also in preparing accessible materials for study and assessment.

A central collection of resources would be a big help, says Ms McDonald, but difficulties with copyright have been a barrier to creating one. Permission has to be sought to republish textbooks in large print, Braille or on tape and for a variety of reasons it is not always forthcoming. The Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill proposed by Fife MP Rachel Squire, and now working its way through Westminster, is expected to alleviate copyright problems for visual impairment resources.

But the biggest improvements to aiding visually impaired pupils, in Kevin Knox's opinion, are being driven by new technology: computers with speech synthesisers, with Braille input and output and even talking ovens.

"I'd like to see some kind of electronic access to all new books and new information sources for everyone who is visually impaired," he says.

For Ms McDonald, the most important change in recent years has been in the management and organisation of support to visually impaired pupils. Not long ago Fife had just one peripatetic teacher for the entire authority. "That was me. I was more or less a sticking plaster."

Nowadays hearing and visual impairment support are integrated into one service that provides a career structure that can attract new teachers, retain existing ones and deliver consistency and continuity to pupils.

There are undoubtedly lessons in all this, she believes, for those working towards greater inclusion of children with other difficulties.

Reforms are still needed, say the teachers in Fife's Sensory Impairment Service, to make sure young people get the same level of structured support after they leave school as they now get before and during their schooldays.

"What concerns me very much for the children we deal with, and for all children with difficulties," says Alison Duthie, who works closely with Stuart at Lochgelly, "is that they continue to get good support when they go into further and higher education and employment. They all now have a right to inclusion in schools. But we are very far off inclusion after they leave."

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