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Teachers Forum
March, 2000

Teaching Visually Impaired Students in Poland

This interview was conducted via E-mail with Boguslaw "Bob" Marek, an English as a Second Language instructor at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. With additional qualifications from the University of London in Special Educational Needs, he now runs a resource centre for visually impaired university students and teaches ESL to blind and partially sighted children.

All photographs: B. Marek
Boguslaw Marek


Question: What are the main challenges faced by educators who teach visually impaired students?

Answer: The most important thing to accept when working with visually impaired children is that they are children and not different cases of visual impairment. Once you put the child before the medical condition you can concentrate on what the child CAN do, and not on what YOU think the child is unable to cope with. With this attitude, real problems - but also solutions - are much easier to spot.


Q: What about the challenges inherent to the system of education?

using a Braille device A: The number and the kind of problems which mainstream school teachers encounter in their work with visually impaired children depends on how supportive of inclusion (or integration) is the whole system of education. In an ideal situation the teacher is not alone. A special needs teacher with qualifications in visual impairment supports both the teacher and the child. The school or the Local Educational Authority would have a resource centre where Braille or large print materials can be produced, as well as other educational "tools" such as tactile maps or diagrams. The mainstream schoolteacher discusses the requirements of the teaching programme with the support teacher and does not need to worry about such adaptations. Nor does he or she need to learn Braille. In a fully supportive system, the child is most likely to have a device which allows production of both a Braille and a print copy of the text typed by the child.


Q: Does this mean that not all teachers and not all visually impaired children can work in such ideal conditions?

A: I am afraid it does. I am not talking about special schools, which are usually well prepared for meeting the needs of their students. Without a network of professional services for supporting students with a visual impairment in mainstream schools, "inclusion" can mean frustration, failure, disappointment and even tragedy for the teacher, the child and for the parents.

Imagine the following situation: an eight-year-old totally blind girl arrives on the doorstep of a mainstream school with her mother. It has probably taken the parents months of persuasion before the head teacher finally said, "Yes, Let’s give it a try." The mainstream school is unprepared for the new student. No prior visit was made by a specialist in visual impairment to discuss potential problems and ways to minimise them. The school has no funding for hiring a support teacher or for producing adaptations of the educational materials that the girl will need. This probably does not matter because the Local Educational Authority does not even have a unit for supporting visually impaired children in mainstream schools, nor is there a resource centre where Braille texts and tactile maps or diagrams could be produced to meet the needs of individual students.

The challenges faced by a mainstream schoolteacher in such a situation are easy to imagine. You must decide – either allow the visually impaired child to just sit there with nothing to do or you have no choice but to learn Braille. No one has probably told you about a whole range of devices for making all the different adaptations you will need so you are left entirely to your own resourcefulness. You spend hours producing tactile adaptations of maps using cardboard, wallpaper and bits of fabric to show the shape of different countries. String and bits of yarn make very good tactile borders and rivers but how many teachers are prepared or can afford the time to do it? Not many. After all, the visually impaired child is not the only child in your class.

And the results? Two or three years after such "integration" some visually impaired children are sent back to the special schools they came from. By then, they would have forgotten or never learnt Braille maths notation. Triangles, rectangles trapeziums are things they would only have heard of in geometry lessons. Their spelling is appalling, they prefer tapes to books and they need another year to get back to the level they were at when they first left the special school. I suppose the biggest challenge for mainstream schoolteachers working with visually impaired children without professional support is not allowing such things to happen. Unfortunately, they sometimes do.


Q: What’s it like in your case? What are some of the strategies you use to support visually impaired students?

A: My situation is not typical. The strategies are largely determined by the goals and by the conditions I work in. I do not work in a mainstream school, not even in a special school. The original goal was to give children and students with a visual impairment a chance to learn English well enough to compete for jobs requiring good knowledge of a foreign language. I realised very early on that working with blind children did not have to mean working with children with a disability. At least not as far as their education is concerned. Given the right adaptations and the right tools, children with a visual impairment can perform just as well, if not better, than sighted children. Large print is all that some partially sighted children need to cope with their schoolwork. And totally blind students? They may not be able to write with a pen or read ordinary books. So what? A simple device attached to a Braille typewriter can change plain Braille text and even mathematical Braille notation into ordinary print. Blind children can even draw. A ballpoint pen is enough to make raised lines on special embossing film. And with the so called "swell paper" on which black lines simply "puff up", you can make perfect tactile maps and more complex graphics such as drawings, graphs and diagrams in minutes. So, although we only work with children who have a visual impairment, the message we are trying to send is that they can learn the same things as sighted children. And if they can learn the same things, they can also study together and go to the same schools as sighted children. They can, on two conditions: 1. that they are not just dumped there with a piece of electronic equipment but receive well planned and well balanced professional support 2. that they are ready for inclusion


Q: Are you saying that successful integration of visually impaired children starts a long time before school age?

a London Bus A: Exactly. Almost as soon as I started my first English lesson with a totally blind child I realised that it wasn’t going to be just English. You see, children who were born blind have many gaps in their knowledge of the world. Before you introduce a new English word or a phrase you must make sure that they understand the very concept of what you are trying to teach. While this picture of a London bus (a double-decker) scratched on a sheet of plastic by a five-year old totally blind girl may puzzle a sighted person, it made perfect sense to the girl, who explained as she pointed at each of the lines, "This is the step, this the pole I hold on to as I get on the bus, and this is a seat." No wheels, no windows. A London bus.

This example certainly shows a lot more than just a gap in the child’s knowledge. It shows how much the teacher has to learn about visually impaired children. And there is no better way to learn about blindness than to engage in conversation with children who cannot see. Talking to them, and listening to the questions they ask reveals a mysterious and intriguing world, where time and space seem to blend into a new dimension, where the concepts of "relevant" and "irrelevant" are turned upside down, where minute details of the environment, insignificant puffs of the air and hardly audible noises and changes in the tone of one’s voice are crucial for finding one’s way around and for interpreting what is being said. A few quotations from the language of blind children should be enough to see this:

  • "What colour is the wind?"

  • "Does a stone look the way it feels?"

  • "I know how fish swim, but how do they walk?"

  • "I can hear that I am not where I was trying to get, but I don’t know where I am."

  • "Green for me is like the smell of freshly cut grass."

  • "I think I know what it’s like to see. It’s like telling the future because you know now that there will be a tree and I will know later, when I come up to it and touch it."

All of these questions and remarks strike a sighted person as unusual. But for blind children they are a normal way of expressing interest in the invisible world that surrounds them. They are their own interpretation of what lies beyond the impenetrable border between light and darkness, constant dimness or fragmented, highly deformed pictures of the most immediate environment. These questions and comments are also an attempt to contain the vast space which stretches beyond the fingertips; they are an attempt to place it within some logical, manageable borders and structure, which could help reveal such mysteries as the fact that a toy released from one’s grip does not disappear forever but continues to exist; that a child can resemble an adult, even an old person with a wrinkled face and rough hands; that a sighted person can recognise friends on a smooth, slippery piece of paper called "a photograph," and that sighted people can see tall trees, houses and mountains through a small window, even if the window is shut.

Helping visually impaired children understand all this is crucial for their functioning in inclusive education. It is also crucial for their functioning in this predominantly sighted world.


Q: But for sighted, partially sighted and totally blind children to function together in the school environment, doesn't teaching have to be individualised?

A: Yes. And producing just a Braille or large print version of the text is not enough. Modern course books are full of illustrations – pictures, cartoons and photographs. You can’t just leave them out and pretend that they are not there. supplies come from natureUnfortunately this is what often happens in some "adaptations." With luck, blind students get a verbal description of the illustrations. Compared with lively, colourful books for sighted children those produced for blind students are very dull – nothing but pages and pages of boring Braille dots. With the technology available it doesn’t have to be like that.

Now I would like to say at this point that adaptations need not always go one way. A lot of the educational materials designed for blind children can be used with sighted children, who find them very exciting. The additional important message sent to sighted children is that being blind does not mean being deprived of interesting, "cool" toys and equipment. Electronic touch pads attached to a computer are a good example of such tools. Pressing different fragments of a colour or a tactile overlay, the child triggers a response designed by the teacher – a word or a picture appearing on the monitor and/or a sound effect or a voice providing an explanation of what has just been pressed.


Q: I can see how visually impaired children can benefit from your English language programme. But how do they cope in mainstream schools?

A: They certainly need support. Since in the current system there are no official visual impairment services, our "pirate" service offers some help similar to that available in countries where inclusion is the policy. A typical situation sees one of our teacher training students visit a child at school, stay for the lesson, discuss the child’s needs and then our student produces Braille and other materials for the child. Mainstream schools have no funding for such services so our students work as unpaid volunteers. The materials such as Braille paper, embossing film and swell paper are also free for the child.


Q: And where do your supplies come from?

Unexpected sources A: Please don’t ask how we manage. With no budget attached to our activities we can only rely on donations and occasional gifts. My former colleagues from the University of London and friends working in special schools in other countries show a lot of understanding and send me a box of swell paper or embossing film from time to time. The Education Department of Royal National Institute for the Blind (http://www.rnib.org.uk) has recently helped us by sending some basic educational tools such as geometry boards, compasses, protractors, embossing film and a tactile map of the world. So we just about manage but there are moments of panic, for example when I see Braille paper rapidly disappearing from the last box.


Q: How possible do you believe it would be for other teachers to adopt the strategies you’ve found most successful?

A: The most important thing is to develop a network for exchanging information. Professional journals take a long time to produce and often tend to be academically, rather than practically, oriented. Conferences, especially those organised in attractive, foreign countries are not always accessible to practitioners who must make room for various officials, activists and decision-makers.

What we need is quick access to support, new ideas and effective teaching tools and methods. I suppose that some sort of online support service for teachers of visually impaired children would be ideal. There are many talented special needs teachers who have made wonderful inventions and have no way of sharing them with others. An online service has the advantage of being available to teachers from other countries. Just imagine being able to log on, click on "Visual Impairment Services for Teachers" and then look for effective ways of introducing new vocabulary, visual concepts or for making adaptations to course books.


Q: Does the local community get involved? In what ways do you seek participation from organisations or parents?

 A: More and more parents are beginning to realise that in the absence of strategic decisions they have to take things in their hands. It took a long time though, to encourage parents of visually impaired children in my hometown to register as an organisation. Films produced for parents in the UK, talks about self-support groups and organisations such as "LOOK" in London have given the parents the confidence that they can have a say in important matters concerning their children. If I were to name the biggest achievement in our work with parents, I would say that it is showing them that their children have rights and that there is a brilliant future waiting for them. It will not come to them though. They have to reach for it. And the parents, volunteers and professionals must learn to work as a team to bring the children safely through the education system.



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