If you’re here, you are probably about to teach or already teaching blind and visually impaired students. Getting a student who is blind or has visual impairment can be intimidating for special education teachers. So often, we rely on visual cues and materials to help our kids comprehend. So what do you do when visual supports are not appropriate? First, don’t panic. You’re about to learn and grow in your teaching skills in a deeply rewarding way. Here are 8 tips for teaching students with visual impairments or blindness. Because this site specializes in special education, this will be through the lens of a student who qualifies with blindness/visual impairment and also another disability impacting their education. However, blindness and visual impairment is a qualifier for special education on its own.
Person First Language?
Before we get started, let’s address the topic of person first language. I’ll be using both person first and disability first language throughout this article. The reason for this is so that as many people can benefit from this article as possible. To help other teachers, I need to include words that teachers will use when searching for this information. Some teachers will type with person first and others will type about the disability into their search engine. My aunt was deaf, and she was perfectly fine with saying that she was deaf. In fact, that was her preference. I have also heard the same statement with other disabilities, including autism. Often, people who can’t see are comfortable with the word blind. It allows them to speak succinctly. I know that person first language has positive intentions, but I have also learned that not everyone with a disability wants or likes person first language. I will be alternating and mean no disrespect to anyone by switching back and forth. Due to the nature of online search, it’s the best way I have to help the most people.
8 Tips for Teaching Students With Visual Impairment or Blindness
1. Inclusion, IEPs, and the Blind
Even if you are teaching self-contained special education like I have, maximum inclusion time possible for blind and visually impaired students is crucial. Your student should be at the very, very least eating lunch and having recess with same grade peers, unless there is a concurrent severe behavior issue that would make this unsafe and therefore not the student’s least restrictive environment. These details should be set in stone in the IEP. The National Federation of the Blind believes that 504 plans are not appropriate for blind students. The level of details needed to be addressed goes into more depth than a 504 plan does. Learn more about settings and LRE here.
2. Remember HIPAA
Just because a student is blind or visually impaired, doesn’t mean you are allowed to share that information with the class. That is still information protected by HIPAA. For example, a hospital is not allowed to put a sign outside a patient’s room alerting others to blindness. It’s also not OK to tell a class a student has autism even if they are displaying a disruptive behavior. I recommend talking to your administration and parents on how to address this. Other students will notice and be curious. Develop a plan that will protect you legally. Make sure your paraprofessionals and all other staff working with the student are aware of HIPAA as well. I went to high school with a girl who is blind, and I’m still Facebook friends with her today. No staff member needed to disclose her situation to us students. It was none of our business, and we were able to tell anyway.
3. Explore Your Room without Sight
Take some time to explore your room (and school). When you have a moment, sit with your eyes closed, even while students are in the room. Ideally coordinate this with a paraprofessional so an adult still has eyes open in the room.
What do you hear?
You might hear the lawn mower outside or the hum of an air-conditioner. You might hear the din of the cafeteria, shrieks of fun from the playground, or bouncing balls in the gym. That background noise fades for sighted people more than it does for blind students. If there is a way to minimize these distractions (and there won’t always be a good solution for this), try to do so. Students are of course individuals, and some may be more distracted by sound than others. It’s always a good variable to consider when trying to determine a behavior for blind students, but also any student. Keep track of what sounds occur on your Antecedent Behavior Consequence charts. You might find the trigger is sound related.
What do you smell?
If you’re in a self-contained classroom, you might have bathroom smells from a connected restroom or from a changing area. Work to minimize these scents. They will be more apparent to students who can’t see. Closed doors and diaper genies (affiliate link) can help a lot with this. Are you wearing perfume? Chewing gum or eating a peppermint? All of those smells can be a distraction for a student. I try to avoid perfume altogether when teaching self-contained because it can be an irritant to so many kids. I try to minimize scents that are not related to activities going on in the classroom. If you’re using a diffuser, you may want to reconsider this choice. Many schools don’t allow them, and it can be irritating to allergies for some kids. If you are still facing funky smells, consider an odor absorber like these charcoal bags (affiliate) instead. Just make sure they are out of reach from students.
What do you feel?
Does your room have a variety of textures to explore? Including tactile experiences will help all your students. Consider having areas that are plush and cozy as a relaxing calm down spot. You might want a sensory wall or station for your students. Think about how classroom objects feel in your hand. Explore them with your eyes closed. A lot of plastic objects just feel like plastic without the visual cues to go with them. The vision teachers I collaborated with used these Feel n’ Peel Sheets with lots of textures. They were easy to use and cut to modify and adapt materials. We placed them on items around the room for mobility markers and used them to produce meaningful work. Also use your sense of touch to navigate your school. Before or after school, walk around with your eyes closed. It’s disorienting. You should have access to a mobility teacher as part of the vision team.
4. Collaborate with Your District’s Vision Team
The vision teachers and mobility teachers I have worked with are absolute rock stars. They have specialized training in visual impairment and blindness. They will help you learn the tools like the brailler or a braille slate and stylus. These rockstar teachers teach you how to teach independent skills like navigation and mealtimes in the cafeteria. Make sure your paraprofessionals get training with them too. It’s valuable, critical information.
5. Use Names
Encourage everyone that comes in and out of your classroom to introduce themselves. I’ve worked at a campus that did the Great Expectations Program, and it was already an expected practice. I really liked having my students get up to greet the door and announce the visitor. And yes, include your blind student as having this class job too. It might take them a little bit longer to find the door, but they deserve to have the opportunity too. There will be a way to modify it so no matter the ability level of the student, they can participate. My kids loved answering the door. So much so that it needed to be a classroom job for the week so that they wouldn’t fight over turns to get the door.
6. The Right Reinforcers for Teaching Blind and Visually Impaired Students
Kids are of course individual in what makes them tick, but in general kids with vision loss are going to be more motivated by multi-sensory items. Incorporating smell, texture, and sound as much as possible is great fun. Books on CD are also a great center idea that all your students will love. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Multi-Sensory Reinforcers (affiliate links)
Talking parrot toys are a big hit. Students can talk to the parrot and the parrot talks back. They can feel the parrot’s body and feel the wings move. It’s awesome. It’s a hit for all kids. Do only use this toy supervised. Kids will sometimes explore inappropriate language with this reinforcer, not even knowing that the words they used were bad. You’ll want to be there to stop that quickly if it happens so you don’t have a classroom of parrots saying inappropriate words. It only happened once in our classroom and did not remain a problem. Thank goodness it didn’t happen during an observation! Remove it immediately if it becomes an issue. My kids were able to handle earning it back and everything was fine. Like any reinforcer, kids need to be taught how to use it appropriately.
Kinetic Sand is reinforcing to me, not just my students. If you haven’t tried it, you’re in for a treat. It’s fun and relaxing to play with between your hands. The color won’t matter much, but consider the fun colors for your other students. I kept mine in a deep plastic bin. The kids did great with it and did not make a mess.
It’s simple and effective. Let kids choose music for a reinforcer. I like to give students a set option of songs. If you leave it open ended, they might request a song that’s not appropriate for school, and then you’re in a jam. Parent communication is particularly effective here as they will often know what songs the kids like. I’ve had good success with The Beatles, short pieces from Carnival of the Animals, some songs from They Might Be Giants like Seven. Keep your kids tastes in mind. Picking music they do not like can be the opposite of reinforcing. Listening to music you don’t enjoy tends to be unpleasant.
7. Tactile Choices
For the reinforcers, create tactile choices for your student to choose from, just like you would create visuals for other students. For the parrot, you could use a feather, and for the kinetic sand, a piece of sandpaper would be useful. Glue your tactile icons to something substantial to make them easy to find. I like using Unifex cubes because I usually have a ton of them. If the student you are working with also has difficulties with hand grasp, get your OT involved on how to make your icons easy to use. This idea could also be used to make a core board for a student who needs communication assistance. Teach them different objects for needs like toilet, food, water, sick, and emotion words so the student can communicate their needs and feelings to you. This can help prevent behavior problems. All kids need a voice and a tactile core board just might unlock a student’s voice. Consider making tactile choices based around your school’s lunch menu. Have a tactile schedule that allows the student to feel what is coming next. This will help give your students security about is happening throughout the day.
8. Put Time to Make Materials in the IEP
If at all possible, include time in the IEP for a teacher to create materials for the student. This task likely will go to the vision teachers. Including this time will be very helpful for you. It takes a lot of time to gather and adapt materials for visually impaired students. Providing accessible materials is something we absolutely must do by law. Find a way to get that time set aside by the district. If you don’t, you’ll be spending even more time on your off hours preparing. You probably still will need to do quite a bit of prep in off time anyway, but it’s important we try to protect our own mental health by being realistic in our legal documents about the amount of time prep work takes.
Want More Information on Teaching Blind and Visually Impaired Special Education Students?
Don’t be scared of teaching blind and visually impaired students. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career. There are so many other things I could share about teaching blind students. If this is a topic of interest to you, be sure to let me know via our Facebook page. I’m in Texas and have found the website for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to be a helpful resource. I particularly like this article about classroom considerations.