Issues for New Teachers

As the orientation and mobility specialist for my school district, I am often asked to inservice the teachers who are about to get my students in their classes for the first time. These teachers are usually in a mild panic. New parents of blind kids, like any other parent, are determined to do all they can to enable their child to be happy and successful. These new parents are usually also in some degree of "panic" or bewilderment as they begin learning about how to help their child. The "panic" or anxiety goes away as the teacher begins to understand how to educate the blind child. (When I use the word "teacher" below, I am referring to parents in their role as teachers, as well as the educators.)

It is not the role of the parent or classroom teacher to educate the blind child to all the subject areas discussed below. This is the job of the orientation and mobility specialist. Teachers will also get considerable help from several other special education professionals. The discussion below is only meant to give some insight into a few common sense issues.

The Redundancy of the Built Environment

Blind Children Must Explore

Blind children (we are talking very young children here) cannot stand in the doorway of their new classroom and immediately understand the spatial layout. Children born blind do not have an understanding of the objects in the built environment (man-made structures). They do not have an understanding of pathways, portals and routes. Therefore, blind children must explore spaces and the objects within spaces. They have to spend time studying the shapes, surface textures, and weight of objects/structures. It is not enough, for example, to say that "this is your chair." There are dental chairs, lounge chairs, swivel desk chairs, plastic chairs, leather chairs, etc. The concept of "places to sit down on" is quickly learned, but the world of chairs has to be studied if concepts are to evolve accurately. With a blind child you cannot take any object or any spatial layout for granted. The children almost always have less awareness than we give them credit for. We are overwhelmed and fooled by our own visual flood of input, and easily forget that the blind child is not overwhelmed by input. The blind child is in severe need of input. They MUST study the environment.

The built environment (inside of buildings) is not all that complicated. Blind kids should early on learn about these structures. Here is a list of redundant structures that must be explored and discussed: walls, ceilings, doors, door portals, windows, shelves, drawers, things that hang on walls (pictures, mirrors, bulletin boards), hallways, room labels (the "room 101 sign"), light fixtures, heating and cooling fixtures, and common objects that characterize rooms (refrigerators in kitchens, toilets in bathrooms, desks in classrooms, etc.).

Outside, the build environment is more complicated, but still redundant with sidewalks, streets, yards with grass, vehicles moving about, trees, bird song, dogs barking, etc. Much of the world the blind child simply learns like any other kid. When you are hungry you find the refrigerator, open it up, search the shelves, and locate the leftovers. As long as the blind child is allowed to do these things, they will quickly learn about the built environment. Children not encouraged to explore or to be self-sufficient will become helpless and will remain ignorant. Blind children MUST explore.

The objectives that can be written to address the built environment are simple. I divide my objectives into three outcome based levels: experience; knowledge; and competency. Here are some examples (you can make these as general or specific as needed):

01. The student will experience (explore) the west wall of the classroom. The student will label this wall ("west wall", "window wall" whatever is appropriate)

02. The student will understand (explain to the teacher) the function(s) of a wall (hold the ceiling up, hold the windows, keep the weather out, hold the pictures, etc.)

03. The student will travel to the wall, locate things on or along the wall (without assistance)

Repeat this sequence for every concept (chair, door, window, water fountain, sidewalk, etc.) in the built environment inside and outside.

Soundscapes (and other "scapes")

Positioning the Body in Space

A landscape is a sweeping visual viewpoint. The eyes survey a wide area and instantly understand about the space being examined. Blind individuals cannot perceive landscapes. They can however become very proficient at perceiving soundscapes; they can quickly survey the acoustic characteristics of a spatial area. For example, with very little practice a blind child can tell the difference between a small room, like a bathroom (with hard ceramic surfaces that reflect sound strongly) and a large room, like a gymnasium, where the sound dissipates. So, the size of a room alone often provides sufficient acoustic information to create an identifiable soundscape.

Rooms also have ambient sounds that add to the richness of the soundscape and that help identify the space. The high pitch of a fan that drives heat or cooling units has a certain pitch and frequency that blind children quickly perceive. Light fixtures can also emit ambient "tones" that add to the sound signature of a space. Many of our electronic gadgets emit constant sounds that mix together with the other ambient hums and tones to provide a space with a characteristic set of sound patterns; i.e. that create an identifiable soundscape. Teachers can bring this to the attention of the blind child; learning the sound signatures of rooms is an important early skill.

Most importantly, there are characteristic sounds that are located in fixed positions inside spaces. The sound of an aquarium bubbling on one side of a room will also label that corner of the space. A radio that is turned on and in a familiar location can also indicate a specific position inside a known space. These fixed sound sources can be natural or they can be deliberately placed to provide information within a soundscape. These pinpoint (positionally fixed) sounds are the critically important first auditory landmarks that blind children will use to learn as they begin to understand "orientation in space." A blind child needs only a single sound source within a room to travel about the room unassisted.

For example, a radio placed against one wall of a room is all a child needs to travel to any location within that room. Obviously, if the child wants to travel to the radio, they need only move in the direction of the sound source. The teacher could label the four walls of a room using pin point sound sources ("This is the radio wall, this is the aquarium wall, this is the radiator wall, this is the computer wall", whatever). Most of the time, however, rooms contain sufficient sound information to begin the teaching process. Start with a single "sound-labeled" wall at the beginning.

The important idea is that the child learn to position their body to a single sound at the start of the learning process. The child should learn to face the sound, put their back to the sound, and put their left or right side to the sound. When this skill is mastered, the child can move to any location in a room. For example, putting their back to the radio might lead them to the teachers desk. Putting their right side to the radio might lead them to their desk, etc.

There are issues that need to be addressed in more detail than this summary can provide. For example, a child needs to learn about their senses, what are the senses, and how do we "pay attention." They need to be able to localize a sound in space and travel to it. They need to be developmentally ready (to know right from left, for example). They need to know how to turn at right angles. They need to learn how to travel in a straight line. They need an understanding of what is in a typical built environment.

There are also smellscapes that define a room. These are mostly ambient or circumstantial (someone is making popcorn on a certain day in the kitchen). Tactilescapes are encountered only when a child moves, but they provide substantial information. For example, the blind child quickly learns what their space feels like, their desk, their locker, etc. Artificial surfaces can be used to enrich the tactilescape, but usually the routine environment has sufficient tactile information to enable identification.

Solid objects, like desks, walls, chairs can be used for orienting in space. Blind children can position their bodies to flat surfaces and then travel to other areas of a room. The teacher uses the combined sensory richness of a room, the sounds, smells, and tactile surfaces together to build a blind child's understanding of space.

Some possible objectives:

01. The student will practice differentiating the (sound/smell/tactile) scape of the classroom compared to the bathroom.

02. The student will explain to the teacher how he or she knows the difference between the rooms.

03. The student will be placed in either room randomly and will differentiate the rooms 100 percent of the time

04. Repeat the above three adding additional rooms (classroom, bathroom, gym, etc.).

05. The student will practice identifying pinpoint sounds in the classroom by pointing in the correct direction (points to the radio when asked to do so).

06. The student will explain to the teacher how they know where the sound is (because they turn their heads and localize the sound and when they go toward the sound it gets louder, and then they find the radio where the sound was coming from).

07. The student will travel to the sound source (radio, whatever) accurately 100 percent of the time.

08. Repeat the above using additional sound sources in the classroom. Follow the same sequence for point sources in other rooms.

09. The student will practice positioning their body to a point sound source. They will face the sound; put their back to the sound; put their right side to the sound; put their left side to the sound.

10. The student will practice moving in relationship to a sound source; going toward the sound until the source is located; moving away from the sound to a nearby location; putting right and then left sides to the sound and locating destinations.

11. The student will explain to the teacher why they need to position their bodies to pinpoint sound sources (so they can find their way independently to locations in the classroom).

12. The student will independently locate objectives (destinations) within the room; travel from the radio to other locations in the room.

13. Repeat the above three objectives using other pinpoint landmarks in the classroom. Also repeat in various rooms of the school.

14. Require the student (or parents) to do homework: explore rooms in the house, differentiate by soundscape (smell, tactile), identify and orient to landmarks within a room.

Landmark to Landmark

Following Routes

Orienting to space is not enough to ensure accurate travel. Blind children must efficiently travel about within spaces. Aligning to a single landmark may be sufficient for locating destinations in a small familiar room, but it will not work when the distance to be traveled is long. Therefore blind children need to learn to chain together landmarks. They need to understand the concept of "ordering", "sequencing." They need this skill to learn the ABC's and the numbering system, anyway. They won't be able to read or do math without this ability.

To get to a destination, the blind child must learn to locate landmarks, align their body to the landmarks, and understand and respond to the message of a landmark. For example, the trip from classroom to the bathroom down the hall will require a set of landmarks that the blind child will pass in a set order. Here is an example, the first landmark might be the door portal of the classroom. The child must place themselves inside the door opening. This landmark has a message "If you are going to the bathroom, turn right." (place your right side to the portal). Moving down the hall, the child encounters the water fountain on their right. They may hear the fountain being used, hear it's motor running, or touch the cool metal casing as they pass (however they become aware of it's position). The water fountain has a message "You are halfway to the bathroom which you should encounter on your right ahead." Farther down the hall the student locates the correct bathroom using the characteristics of the destination landmark (smell, braille label on the door, tile floor felt with the cane, soundscape of the room, wood door, etc.). Once blind kids begin using landmarks chained together, they will be able to travel independently about a school (any indoor facility).

Here are some objective suggestions:

01. Select a two landmark sequence and explore a route with the student (The student will explore a two landmark sequence from the classroom door past the water fountain to the bathroom).

02. The student will explain to the teacher how they get from the classroom to the bathroom and will tell the message of each landmark (The classroom door portal says "turn right and follow along the hallway wall (trail on the right);" the water fountain says "good job, I am on your right so you are half way to the bathroom;" the bathroom door (braille sign, whatever) says "You have arrived."

03. The student will demonstrate competence traveling to the bathroom independently.

04. The return trip is a separate conceptual journey. Do not assume that the student will simply reverse the route in their head. Use the three steps above in reverse.

05. Practice additional easy rotes with minimal landmarks along a straight line route. 06. Use the three step process (explore, explain, demonstrate competence) to learn more difficult routes (longer, and/or with turns).

Blind children get lost for three reasons on a route (the student should be able to discuss these):

01. They don't position themselves correctly to the first landmark and so head off initially in the wrong direction.

02. They don't have a plan. They cannot say what the landmarks are, what sequence they are in, or what message they have.

03. They don't follow the plan; they daydream along the route and forget where they are; they start talking to the teacher and lose their attention.

When a blind child gets lost, have them determine which of the three errors they made. Then go over the steps to use whenever they get lost:

01. Don't panic. It's no big deal to get lost. Panic is dangerous; it reduces attention.

2. Stop. Wandering about only makes the situation worse.

03. Use your senses to locate familiar landmarks. What are the ambient sounds and smells and tactile clues (wind currents, heat sources). Use the senses to probe for pinpoint landmarks. This should work. Move toward the landmarks you know and reorient.

04. If step three does not work, then and only then, can you explore further. Pick a sensible (best guess) direction and slowly move through space until you encounter landmarks that enable re-orientation.

05. If step four does not work then, and only then, you can ask for help from people in the area.

06. All else failing, use your cell phone/two way radio/ Dick Tracy Wrist Watch whatever and call a friend.

The Critical Importance of Movement

We often overlook two very significant aspects of human movement. I became aware of these general concepts after teaching for many years; my opinion is experience based and not the result of research (although I am sure there is much in the science that supports this overview).

First, I strongly believe that movement is required for the development of human intelligence. Children must move through space freely. They must examine and explore. The more they move about and explore, the greater is their cognitive development. Special education programs that provide opportunities for children to self-move through space are working at a very fundamental level to enhance the child's perceptual, conceptual, and overall cognitive abilities (apart from any "lesson plan").

Secondly, movement is a very powerful anti-depressant. Depression seems to come when we are not in control of our lives, when we feel that we are passive recipients and not active players. Imagine not even being able to be in control of one's own movement through space; having to be guided or pushed in a wheelchair everywhere. Lack of self-movement can cause depression. Then a downward spiral develops. The less a person does, the less they seem to want to do, and the more depressed they get. I am not, of course, talking about clinical depressions related to chemical imbalances in the brain. But I am suggesting that mild brain level imbalances can be addressed by simply getting up and doing something purposeful. Exercise, for example, releases brain chemicals that give a natural high. My observations are that children who are "depressed" can be helped if they simply start self-moving through the environment.

Understand your Student

The totally blind, cognitively normal child is very, very rare. Almost always the picture is more complex than it first appears. Be sure to discuss the "secondary" conditions that affect students. The most frequent situation is that a child is severely visually impaired and not totally blind. There is severe vision loss, but some degree and quality of vision is often present. Because vision is so complex, the problem of vision impairment is more challenging than the problem of total blindness. A discussion about low vision requires another whole book.

Chronological age is pretty much not relevant when speaking of blind children. A rare few are at age appropriate levels of development, but most "lag behind" their sighted peers. In a way, the comparison between sighted and blind kids is not relevant. Blind kids are developing skills unlike anything the sighted kids need.

Other secondary conditions can be associated with blindness (depending on the etiology), including all manner of cognitive impairments, physical damage, and autistic tendencies. These conditions can be more severe than the blindness when it comes time to try to teach the kids age appropriate skills.