A Brief Look At The Education Of Blind Children: An Overview

Written by   Carol Castellano

How Are Blind Children Educated?

There are approximately 100,000 blind/visually impaired children in the United States (about one child in one thousand), making blindness in children a low-incidence disability. Blind/visually impaired children are educated in a variety of settings, which range from a regular classroom in the neighborhood school to a separate school for the blind. However, about ninety percent of blind/visually impaired children, including those with additional disabilities, are educated in neighborhood schools. Since the 1960s most schools for the blind have specialized in educating blind children with additional, severe disabilities. Some schools for the blind also offer short-term placement programs for students who need intensive instruction in blindness skills, outreach services to students in public school settings, and preschool or early intervention programs.

Among the possible educational settings are the following:

  • The regular classroom
  • A special education classroom that includes children with various disabilities
  • A special education classroom with only blind/visually impaired students (usually in cities, where the population is higher)
  • A special school for children with various disabilities
  • A school for the blind
  • Home schooling

For education purposes, it can be useful to think of the population of blind children as divided into three subgroups. 1. Blind children who are fully integrated into regular classrooms and have the same academic goals as their sighted classmates. The main modifications for blindness for these students are adaptive tools and materials in tactile or enlarged form. These children usually have no other disabilities, or have other disabilities which are minor and do not significantly affect education services. 2. Blind children that have additional disabilities which require modifications to the curriculum and/or supports in the classroom setting in addition to adapted materials. 3. Blind children with severe additional disabilities. These children may require a completely individualized curriculum which may consist primarily of developmental rather than academic goals.

It may surprise some educators to learn that the vast majority of children who fit the legal and educational definitions of blindness and visual impairment actually have some usable vision. Only a very small percentage of blind students are totally or near totally blind (about ten percent). It is not “how blind” a student is, however, that determines a child’s educational placement. In fact, Braille-using students—children who generally have less vision—are often better equipped to keep pace in a regular classroom than their partially sighted peers who do not use Braille. This is because Braille is an effective reading medium; it allows access to virtually all print materials and enables students to read quickly and without fatigue. The law which governs the education of children with disabilities (the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act—IDEA) requires that students be placed not on the basis of their disability or its severity, but on the basis of the setting that can best meet each student’s individual educated-related needs and goals.

What Are The Special Features Of The Blind Student’s Curriculum?

Blind/visually impaired students have the same academic and developmental goals as sighted students of equal cognitive ability. The primary differences in their education are the following:

  • Blind students may require materials in an alternative format, such as Braille or enlarged print, and adaptive equipment, such as a talking computer or a magnification device.
  • In addition to the subjects in the regular curriculum, blind students learn the specialized skills of blindness, such as Braille reading, cane travel (orientation and mobility or O&M), and the use of adaptive technology.

A Few Words About Tactile Illustrations

Many types of tactile illustrations exist for use by blind children, but as a rule, Braille volumes do not contain illustrations. A few Braille storybooks do have tactile illustrations, and raised drawings can be found in mathematics textbooks. In textbooks for subjects like science and history, however, much as they rely on charts and graphs to convey data, illustrations are usually omitted. Added to the lack of tactile illustrations is the fact that there is little standardization governing the creation of these graphics. Although the ability to glean information from illustrations is crucial for many school subjects, most blind children do not receive systematic instruction in this area. Educators therefore may encounter some students who are skilled at interpreting tactile graphics and many who are not.

Use of the Tactile Sense

Since so many blind/visually impaired students are partially sighted, rather than totally blind, there may be many occasions when educators need to decide whether to encourage a child to use the visual or the tactile sense. A good rule of thumb is to see if the child’s eyesight is efficient for the particular task. If it is not, then encourage the child to use tactual techniques. For example, if the child must put his/her head practically onto the desk in order to examine an object visually, then by all means encourage that child to examine the object with his/her hands along with his/her eyesight. It makes sense that supplementing the somewhat impaired visual sense with the completely functioning tactile sense will enable the child to fully see the object in question. Likewise, if it appears that a blind student does not understand a concept being presented, be sure to put a representative or explanatory object into the child’s hands. What can seem to be learning difficulties often disappear when this simple technique is employed.

What Constitutes A Good Education For Blind Students?

Several elements need to be in place in order to make the education process work, regardless of a student’s educational setting:

  • Adequate instruction time from a teacher of the blind in the specialized skills and tools of blindness
  • Timely access to specialized materials and tools, such as Braille or enlarged books, tactile maps, and adaptive technology
  • Appropriate expectations for success
  • Training for classroom teachers
  • Access to social and extracurricular opportunities

Children who have serious multiple disabilities need all the programming appropriate to children of their cognitive or physical ability along with the specialized expertise of  a teacher of the blind who can assist with  materials and ways of presenting items and concepts.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of The Various Settings?

The various settings for the education of blind children offer different advantages and disadvantages.

The regular class in the regular school offers higher academic standards, extracurricular activities; social opportunities with sighted children, and “real world” experience. It can be difficult, however, to get specialized materials on time and to get adequate instruction time from a teacher of the blind. There can be barriers to social interaction with sighted classmates.

Special classes and special schools offer small classes and more individual attention. However, academic standards may be lower than in the regular classroom. There may be difficulty getting materials and adequate instruction time from a teacher of the blind.

Schools for the blind offer good access to specialized teachers and materials. They can also offer social opportunities with blind classmates. However, academic opportunities may not be on a par with public schools. The setting also inherently limits experience in getting along in the sighted world. In order to attend, some children have to live away from home.

For all these reasons, placement decisions are made on an individual basis.

What Education Challenges Do Blind Children Face And How Can School Staff Help Children Deal With Them?

Assuming that they have access to appropriate specialized instruction and materials, blind students face two significant challenges—low expectations on the part of the adults in their lives and barriers to social interaction with peers.

Low Expectations

Sighted people often hold dismal ideas about blindness and the abilities of blind people. They may not know any competent, successful blind adults and cannot imagine how anyone can achieve good results without eyesight! Sometimes such attitudes are held by school administrators and teachers. When this occurs, blind children are very vulnerable to being placed in lower level classes and having decisions made on their behalf by adults who have low expectations for their achievement. If, in addition, school personnel have not had adequate training in how to make the education of the blind child work, the education process can easily be derailed.

School staff can turn this situation around and help create an atmosphere of opportunity for blind students by making contact with active, competent blind adults, adopting positive attitudes about blindness, acquiring good training, and encouraging independence and full participation on the part of blind students.

Barriers to Social Interaction

Making friends and having normal social interaction with peers is not always easy for the blind child. Sometimes the blind child lacks opportunity or experience. Some children lack social skills. And some face the bias that is still present in our society against people who are different in some way.  Classroom teachers can aid in this challenge in several ways:

  • Foster an atmosphere of friendliness, respect, and acceptance during all activities.
  • Have all necessary materials prepared in advance so that the blind student can fully participate in all activities.
  • When conducting group activities, help the blind student become part of a group and facilitate the child’s participation, if he/she needs such assistance.

What Other Issues Impact The Education Of Blind Children?

One serious issue that affects many blind/visually impaired children is the selection of a reading medium. For a variety of reasons, the teaching of Braille to blind/visually impaired students waned over the past few decades, to the point where in 1998, less than 9.5 percent of blind students were Braille users. By way of contrast, in 1963, 57 percent of students knew Braille. This is of serious concern because partially sighted students who do not learn Braille do not reach literacy levels on a par with sighted peers. Braille-reading students, on the other hand, attain literacy levels equal to and sometimes above those of sighted students. There are far too many blind/visually impaired children who do not have a reading medium that allows them to keep up in class, handle a flow of information, read long passages without discomfort or fatigue, take their own notes, and read for pleasure. Students who are denied Braille often cannot effectively complete advanced classes like algebra and geometry.

The Braille literacy issue extends to life after schooling is ended. Although there is a high unemployment rate for adults with disabilities, of those blind people that are employed, 85 percent are Braille readers! By not teaching Braille to partially sighted students, educators are denying them entry into satisfying jobs and professions.

Another issue that affects the education of blind children is a shortage of specialized teachers of the blind. This shortage means that many students do not get enough instruction time with these specialists to develop and master their blindness skills. This leaves them on a very uneven playing field. With teacher preparation programs turning out very small numbers of teachers of the blind and many teachers nearing retirement age, this shortage is expected to intensify in the years to come.

A third concern is that too often blind students do not have their materials in time for the start of the school year. This, of course, puts them at a great disadvantage in the classroom. (Imagine, for example, starting an algebra course without an algebra book.) There are numerous causes for this problem, among them a shortage of Braille transcribers and an increase in the number of books needed in Braille. A national effort is underway to solve this problem through legislative means, but at present, this endeavor is stalled.

These challenges require more teamwork than ever before in order for the education of a blind/visually impaired child to be a success. Cooperation and partnership among school administrators, classroom teachers, the teacher of the blind, and parents are vital to the process.

Additional Info

  • Topic: Attitudes and Perspectives, Braille Literacy, Education, Social Skills
  • Age Group: Any Age