Clearer vision

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Pauline Davis shares findings on visual impairment support

More than 6 per cent of primary school children with visual impairment (blind and low vision) are now educated in the mainstream. The trend looks set to continue and presents new challenges. Research studies have shown the benefits of increasing the child's access to opportunities for wider social interaction. How do teachers effectively include a visually impaired child in a class alongside, perhaps, 30 sighted peers?

Children with visual impairment tend to need more time to assimilate information. Some quickly become visually fatigued and need to rest their eyes regularly, and are more likely than sighted children to require extra support in developing social interaction skills.

Children and schools often recieve support from the local service responsible for the visually impaired. Usually a child registered blind at a mainstream school can expect, for a few hours weekly, specialist teaching from a qualified teacher of the visually impaired and will likely have a full-time learning support assistant (LSA).

The mainstream teacher needs to develop ways of working in partnership with the LSA in the classroom and to develop effective communication with the support service. They may need to adapt the physical environment of the classroom or adapt teaching strategies.

Vicky Hopwood and I, both researchers at the University of Manchester Centre for Educational Support and Inclusion, have identified characteristics of classroom practice that seem to develop the child's access to the curriculum, social skills and independence:

* curriculum delivery via non-visual means as well as viually based presentation

* clearly adapted teaching materials, usually intended for the whole class

* the child positioned in the class so as to facilitate interaction with others

* the LSA working in a variety of ways and with other children as well as the child with visual impairment.

Our research is based on case studies of 17 schools from six LEAs in the North-West of England. The findings might seem straightforward but, to achieve them takes careful planning between the teacher and LSA, especially since a major part of the LSA's role is to produce additional materials and handouts in advance of the lesson. For instance, it is not enough simply to enlarge a handout for the child; every child's needs are different.

As other research has identified, it is crucial that LSAs are appropriately trained. Training can vary greatly. Sometimes LSAs receive detailed advice and on-going training from the service, or are offered courses organised by the LEA. But courses are often over-subscribed or scheduled at times or venues that make it difficult for the LSA to attend. LSAs do not always receive important training in areas such as Braille.

A major problem is a lack of formal time for the teacher, LSA and visiting teacher to plan their work together. Much planning occurs ad hoc and, when it is done well, all sides put in a lot of time. But the opportunity to share expertise is too important to be left to good will. Time should be budgeted into the main timetable.

Pauline Davis is a researcher at the University of Manchester, Faculty of Education, Centre for Educational Support and Inclusion. E-mail:

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