Visual impairment

18th November 2005 at 00:00
As a PGCE student on teaching practice, I was slightly nervous when I discovered that a girl in one of my classes was blind. I wasn't prepared for that situation, and really had no idea what her needs might be.

One thing I found difficult was having someone in the classroom using a braille machine. They're very noisy, but the children soon get used to it, and I don't find it distracts them. But it's hard work talking above the noise.

This girl also had an assistant who provided a commentary on some of the things I was doing. That was distracting at first. It's strange talking to a class while another conversation is going on in one part of the classroom.

As I've become used to teaching children with visual impairments, I've changed my style to make sure they aren't excluded. If I'm talking about something that the rest of the class can see, I'll create a picture using words. Describing things in more detail helps everyone in the class, not just those with visual impairments.

The key is good planning. Having a worksheet put into braille means getting it to the support team a whole term in advance. You have to be organised and forward-thinking, which again is a good discipline to learn.

It's important to have a clear understanding of each child's problem. For example, I've found PowerPoint presentations useful with children who are partially sighted, because it's easy to present material in a large, clear format. But I've taught other children who haven't been able to read PowerPoint at all.

I teach science, which people often say is a challenging subject for a visually impaired child. But it's perfectly possible to make a chemistry lesson accessible; it just requires some creative thinking. If the rest of the class are watching a sugar cube dissolve in a beaker, I would ask a child who is blind to put their hand in the beaker and feel the cube dissolve. And there are plenty of experiments where the result of a chemical reaction is a smell, or a noise, rather than a visual change. It's a question of using the other four senses.

Safety is a major issue in a laboratory, but people usually work in pairs or groups during experiments, and besides there are plenty of things you can do to make practical work safer. Adding food dyes to clear solutions, for example, can make them more visible without altering their chemical properties. Putting elastic bands around glass beakers makes them more tactile. And all my bottles are labelled in braille as well as standard print. I'm also careful not to change the layout of my classroom, and if I do have to move desks or chairs around, I make sure the exit route isn't affected.

Aside from changing the way I present material, I don't treat visually impaired children any differently. I think it's important to have the same expectations in terms of both work and behaviour, and not to make excuses.

I don't think the curriculum disadvantages blind children, since only a limited amount of practical work is assessed.

All secondary-aged children with visual impairments wanting a mainstream education in Glasgow come to our school; we currently have about 10, spread across the age range. The school has been specially designed with textured floors at the top of steps, rather like cattle grids, and foam panelling at the corner of walls. There are even some corridors reserved for partially sighted children, which help them to bypass hectic areas.

Having a designated mainstream school works well. If you were the only blind child in a large school, it could be quite isolating. It's just little things that have to be done differently, but they can separate you from your peers. For example, visually impaired children usually arrive at lessons a couple of minutes after everyone else, to avoid congestion in the corridors. In a school like ours, there are always other children who have had similar experiences. It offers the best of both worlds: a mainstream education, but with proper support and facilities.

Victoria Sutherland did her teaching practice at Rosshall Academy and is now a teacher at Woodfarm high school, Glasgow. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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