No one would dispute the importance of story in a child's life: the special intimacy of narrative, transporting them to other worlds, stimulating their thoughts and feelings. But it takes a great deal more imagination to find ways of sharing this experience with children with profound disabilities who may neither understand the words of a story nor be able to focus on the pictures.
Chris Fuller, the founder of Bag Books, is someone with precisely this imagination. Bag Books, a charity established in 1993, now produces 16 story packs offering fictional pleasures in multi-sensory ways to thousands of severely and profoundly disabled people - children, teenagers and adults.
Her own introduction to special educational needs came about, she says, by "pure chance". She had started as a mainstream primary teacher and while taking time out to bring up her own children, she was asked by a friend if she could stand in for two weeks as an assistant at Paddock School in south-west London for children with severe to profound learning difficulties.
"When you first go in, it's a surprise: these are not children you see out and about on the street," she says. "But within a day, you just fall in love with them."
Chris Fuller was so captivated that she stayed at the school for 11 years.
The idea for the books came about, again, by pure chance: "It was a Friday afternoon, all the assistants were busy, and the youngest children were sitting in their special chairs in a semicircle on the carpet. They looked to me, being a mainstream teacher, ready for a story - but we didn't have any stories. So I grabbed some tactile cards (rough, smooth etc) that the staff had just made, and I began to make one up. The children couldn't understand the words, but to my amazement I noticed that they were smiling when my voice was smiley."
These were children with mental ages of under 18 months in the early stages of language development and responding to sound phrases. Stories that reached them through their senses - an unusual sound, a strong smell, something soft or rough to touch - could, she believed, lift them beyond the daily care routine and encourage their emotions to develop.
In 1989 she published a manual, explaining how to make six tactile stories.
But when teachers told her they simply did not have time, she set up Bag Books to make them herself. The organisation now employs a team of part-time craft workers, who, in a room in Fulham, put together the story boards (in boxes now, rather than bags) for each title that is ordered.
Each pack consists of about seven beautifully-made story boards, with seven different stimuli relating to the story, and no story ever repeats another.
Desmond, a popular children's title, tells the story of a boy who is reluctant to get up in the morning until a small accident with Dad's cold tea has the desired effect. Items in the pack include a woollen doll under a bedcover, a bell, a plant spray (for spraying the children gently with water), and a bicycle horn, all attached to story boards.
A new teenage title, Hook, Line and Sinker, about two girls who try to catch a fish for supper, incorporates a fishing weight and reel, a coffee pot (which the girls catch by mistake), and a small container with a strong fishy smell. The idea is that the teacher (or parent) reads the story to a small group, slowly and with lively intonation, and encourages the children to have a go with each story board - for instance, smelling the fish, or reaching out (with help, if necessary) to rattle the lid of the coffee pot.
The stimuli are arranged in a special order to keep the children's concentration (for instance, with a loud noise every so often), and as this order becomes familiar through repetition (over a term, or half-term), so the children's pleasure and desire to participate increases.
Watching Chris Fuller reading to a pair of primary children with profound disabilities, the delight on the face of a young boy is touching to see, as he chortles in response to rattling the letter box or squeezing the scrubbing brush, in a story called Gran's Visit.
The objects are also chosen to encourage an emotion that chimes with the meaning of the story. Children laugh, for instance, when they hear the rattly noise of the coffee pot lid in the fishing story, Chris says, which is also the appropriate reaction when the girls pull a coffee pot instead of a fish out of the river: "It's a way of joining them into the story," she explains.
When not thinking up ideas for a new story (usually inspired by an interesting new object), Chris Fuller works with children in school, demonstrates the books to teachers and childminders, and reads the stories aloud in libraries, where young children without disabilities are just as keen to join in the fun. A few mainstream schools have also begun to see their potential. "It can be a very nice way to include a special needs child in a group," she says.
TIPS FOR USING TACTILE BOOKS
* Before you start, place the story boards in order in a storage crate.
This makes it easier to take each in turn, enabling the story line to flow.
* Read each sentence in the story with exaggerated inflection, intonation, pauses and volume, in order to give clear acoustic information.
* Repeat each sentence slowly, as the corresponding story board is presented to the child, or around the group. For children who need more help to grasp and use the boards, repeat the sentence a number of times.
Tips for making tactile books
* When writing a story, decide on a tiny event which suggests a range of sensory objects and materials.
* Arrange these in an interesting order to keep the listeners' attention.
* When you have a first draft, reduce the number of words as much as possible and introduce direct speech to bring it to life.
* Include clear instructions, under each sentence in the story, on how to help children use each story board (for instance, with their elbow, or back of their hand, or an adult taking their hand to help them). This ensures the story will be told in exactly the same way by every storyteller.
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