Stop staring at the blind

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Visually-impaired pupils still face ignorance and low expectations. Jon Slater reports.

IN his autobiography, David Blunkett tells the tale of the headmaster at his school for the blind who discouraged pupils from taking exams. The Education Secretary's moral is clear: all children, whatever their ability, deserve to be pushed to do the best that they can.

But do such dated attitudes to the blind persist? A new report by the Royal National Institute for the Blind suggests that visually-impaired children still have to fight a culture of low expectations.

"The attitudes and low expectations of other people can undermine self-confidence and lead to a lack of self-esteem in blind and partially sighted children and young people," it says.

Shaping the Future is based on a survey of more than 1,000 visually-impaired youngsters between the ages of five and 25 and their parents. It found that more than a third of students who had told a careers adviser of their job ambition had been advised that their disability would prevent them achieving it. These ambitions included doing retail and office work.

As well as low expectations, the survey highlights the problems of lack of resources in schools and bullying.

Almost a third of children had been given test papers that they couldn't read; nearly a quarter regularly received class handouts in a similarly inaccessible form.

Sight difficulties caused particular problems in geography, science, PE and technology. Close to half of blind and partially sighted children in mainstream schools said that their eyesight had affected their choice of GCSE subjects.

Students in higher education fared even worse. Nearly half of university students did not usually receive books in a format that they could read. Two out of every five visually impaired undergraduates struggled to use libraries. And five in six said that coursework took them longer than their sighted friends.

Bullying was also a major poblem. Nearly 60 per cent of secondary visually-impaired pupils said they had been bullied at some time. And half of parents of primary children believed their child had been bullied.

Parents of children with additional special needs, such as communication, learning and motor ability problems, were particularly concerned about the attitudes of other children and adults. Nine in ten said that people had stared at their child.

The findings have prompted the institute to launch a "Stop Staring" campaign which aims to encourage parents of sighted pupils to discuss blindness and sight loss with their children.

It has also set up a website to give practical advice to blind children on how to deal with bullying.

Shaping the Future calls for schools to ensure that all disabled children are told about their rights under the new disability legislation which is expected to be passed before the next election. For the first time those at schools and colleges will be protected against discrimination.

It also asks for an evaluation of specialist teaching and other services for children with visual impairment.

"Shaping the Future" is available from the RNIB. Tel: 0207 388 1266. Its website is www.rnib.org.uk. The website for children with visual impairment is www.sortit.org.uk

SHAPING THE FUTURE OF VISUALLY IMPAIRED PUPILS

* Schools and colleges should have policies to ensure that blind pupils get the same information as sighted pupils in their preferred format.

* Alterations to premises should always take acccount of the needs of visually-impaired pupils.

* The Government should set quality standards to ensure that all mainstream provision meets the needs of pupils with sensory, physical and learning disabilities.

* Education institutions should set targets for staff training in disability equality and awareness.

* The role of specialist provision for those with visual impairments should be fully evaluated.


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