With feeling

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Teacher Kate Baybutt describes how Shane, a blind six-year-old, made the transfer to mainstream education when his special school closed

The day is bright and sunny. Although Shane can feel the sunshine he cannot see it; he never has and he never will. The playground is buzzing with noise and rush. Before moving to Year 1 in a mainstream school, Shane was in a quiet, temple-like special school for the blind where the day did not rush helter skelter and there was time to find a coat on its peg. Shane's teachers and family were worried that the noise and bustle would be too much for a blind child to cope with: textbooks tell us that blind children do not like sudden noises or large open spaces.

How wrong we were to worry about this aspect of integration for Shane. I am not paying homage to integration yet: what appears to be good practice cannot be certain until later. All that can be said is, so far so good. Shane has conquered his early exhaustion, continues to resist too much work and to be selective about areas requiring full-powered sustained effort. He loves having the other children around him. He does not play with them much, but he talks to them and, most important of all, he listens to them constantly.

It does not matter one bit that a few will copy his rhythmic energy-expending dance in the playground. He does not know that. Nor can he explain how he can dance right up to the wall and not hit it. Shane would not understand that he is using the very sophisticated bat-like device of echo-location. All he knows is that he has always had to use his ears like this because he has never had even a chink of light to help him.

How well all this works at Year 1 level. "Awe and wonder" that well-known national curriculum phrase abounds. Alice no longer asks wistfully why Shane cannot see, but understands that if the group moves off, he will need helping in order to arrive not too far behind. In a PE lesson everyone can pull that imaginary hanging piece of string to encourage upright posture (so important a reminder to the head-down-best-ear-forward blind child). Youngsters of this age are so accepting of less than conventional behaviour. There was much curiosity but no ribaldry when Shane used a chair and cane to reach the ceiling of an echoey corridor. They are beginning to understand that it is acceptable to say, "Come and look at this", because Shane will look with his fingers. They know that a word, a call, a name must be used instead of a gesture or, "over there".

They know that Shane needs his special helpers and have had to acquaint themselves with several of us. They know also that we do not help only him and that we can be asked to look at a picture, help with a sentence, tie a stubborn shoe lace, and read the story at the end of the day. Sometimes I will take the PE lesson and the class teacher will support Shane. He and the rest of the class know that when I appear it is generally a PE lesson or that I am taking Shane for swimming or mobility.

I have always made sure that whatever the activity, whether it is walking, hand-holding, running with or towards me, work with specialist aids such as the recently issued long cane, our journey takes us outdoors past the classroom window. The children always look, always wave, and always ask about the work when we get back. This seems to be a more effective passing of information than the assembly talk at the beginning of the term.

Shane was using a hoople when we moved. The hoople can best be described as an oversized hula hoop squashed at one end to form a handle. Shane used it to slide or tap on the ground ahead and it was very effective for his early mobility. My colleagues have proffered numerous alternative hoople uses - dream catcher and child catcher being the more repeatable ones.

With undue and unnecessary concern about Shane and his settling in period, I planned to delay the next stage: but he was ready for work with a long cane sooner than expected. Touch technique is brilliant in its simplicity: the cane is moved from side to side touching the ground before a step is made into that area now checked for hazards and holes. Ultimately it is performed in time, in step. Shane is using a lovely prototype Royal National Institute for the Blind cane. It has a handle with a comfortable "squashy" feel - Shane's word - and a good roller tip which can stay in permanent contact with the ground, making noises which augment that finely tuned echo-location. I usually personalise canes with a chosen luminous threading lace or friendship bracelet made with lumpy mermaid shell knots.

The children are beginning to understand how clever Shane is to find his way around with the help of the cane. They are discovering that they, too, can play shuffle tag, play the wooden tactile beetle game, enjoy the metronome, the bell ball, the tomato kitchen clock, describe the pictures in the story book - the new games introduced for Shane's benefit.

But the most interesting surprise to date is how quickly the children understand what adults find so hard: namely when to help, when not to help, when to stay out of the way, when to be patient and allow Shane time to complete his task. When in doubt they will ask,"Shall I help? Shall I leave?" Mobility teaching can be most effective when taught by trained personnel. But it is even more important that it should be endorsed by all those around.

Kate Baybutt is a teacher of visually impaired children, specialising in mobility, PE and swimming. She was teaching at Tapton Mount School for the Blind in Sheffield, until it closed six months ago. Pupils, including Shane, and the staff moved to a mainstream school, Hallam Infant and Junior School.

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