This foundational blogpost is the first of a continuing series that will offer innovative perspectives, learning approaches, and identify assisted learning technologies that will enable the realization of the under-developed potential of the visually impaired worldwide.
Both parents and teachers cannot help but hope, and tirelessly work toward the goal of opening up the world of possibilities and experiences for visually impaired children and adults in their care. Being blind is not something that defines you as a person and your life’s potential – as proven by the likes of Helen Keller (a powerful advocate for the deaf and blind, speaker, and author), Andrea Bocelli (a world-renowned operatic vocal performer), and John Brambitt (a successful visual artist).
As the blind or visually impaired (BVI) child matures, their challenges multiply. The BVI individual must travel a physical, educational, and emotional path, learning everything from basic navigation of the world around them, to interpersonal communications (without the help of visual cues), to self-care, academic learning, social integration, and eventually professional work as adults. Knowing the challenges facing a BVI individual as they grow, the situation cannot help but elicit and encourage our support.
Medical and psychological science, testing protocols, instructional guides for the teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs), social and governmental support programs, and assisted learning technologies, all contribute to address those challenges. In combination, they work to break down the social, educational and career barriers of the visually challenged individual, and lower the hurdles associated with achieving each successive step in development.
The BVI Developmental Journey
There are five components of an individually tailored growth program for the BVI individual. The importance of each depends on the degree of sight impairment experienced by the individual and their pre-impairment maturity and achievements.
Medical and Psychological Diagnostics
Certainly, the developmental path for a child experiencing total blindness as an infant, is quite different than the path followed by an adult whose visual impairment occurred in mid-life. My father, John Gardner, PhD, and founder of ViewPlus® Technologies had his blindness occur after he had already earned a doctorate, established a successful career as a professor and analytical physicist at Oregon State University, and raised a family.
His post-blindness developmental path was quite different than that of a pre-school BVI.
There are varying degrees and types of blindness.
All BVI individuals need a thorough diagnosis and individually tailored developmental program – delivered by their team of medical professionals, emotional support network, teachers, parents, and close family.
Finally, the development needs of a BVI individual need addressing at both the physical and psychological levels. Sudden adult blindness, for example, carries with it many emotions: most notably, anger, fear, and depression. These psychological challenges must be dealt with first, to enable the appropriate motivational triggers, and empower the development of the physical skills and intellectual assets for the BVI to continue a productive and rewarding life.
A successful journey, for either adult or child, requires an informed, trained and coordinated team of mind, body, and social support specialists, working to an aligned and situation-appropriate plan.
Navigating the World
Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government’ services), the BVI individual must first learn to navigate their physical world.
Moving around their home, yard, neighborhood, city, and country must all be learned – and if blindness arrived later in life – re-learned. The simplest activities that sighted people perform habitually and subconsciously, like their morning bathroom routine of washing, shaving, and dressing appropriately, must all be practiced and perfected.
Today’s world is blessed with a near endless supply of audio content, covering a broad range of subject matter, and delivered by subject-matter experts through accessible portable and wireless technologies. Both traditional Braille and basic audio learning are assumed parts of a BVI individual’s education.
But what about advanced concepts? Geometry? Algebra? Science? Audio falls short in these regards, as there is no easy approach to successfully explaining spatial math with only words.
Take the concept of a simple map, for example.
I was participating in a conference for the BVI, when two elderly ladies with linked arms, and stepping cautiously, tentatively approached my table to ask about something they heard about at the conference, but had not yet experienced, namely tactile graphics.
Tactile graphics is a technology that, through a Braille-like embosser mechanism, produces maps, graphs, photos, sketches, and other visual images in raised dots of various heights on Braille paper. This allows the image to be “seen” through the experienced touch of the Braille literate individual.
These ladies experienced what we call a “Magic Moment.” They were delighted and “Aha’d” at touching, feeling, and in their own way, “seeing” a map of the northwest United States for the first time.
The first exclaimed, “I never knew that Oregon was below the state of Washington?”
The other chimed in with her own delight-of-discovery moment, “I didn’t even know Oregon was on the coast of the Pacific Ocean”?
Humans are an inherently social species. BVI individuals thirst for social integration and value social acknowledgement just as sighted people do.
Our social context provides us a significant survival advantage in revealing to us those environmental threats and opportunities that we may not, through our own random wandering, recognize.
- “There’s a lion loose at the south end of the village.”
- “There are some fresh wild blackberries near the south end of the field.”
Additionally, our societal context provides us such social benefits as:
- a centerline for our moral, ethical, and behavioral code,
- our language and communications styles,
- the reflection of our self-worth (who we are, how valued we are by our social group), and
- a feeling of security that comes from belonging.
Not every BVI individual can expect the same overwhelming positive social feedback and adulation of an Andrea Bocelli, Ray Charles, or Helen Keller. Still, in their own world, social acknowledgement is a sign of both respect and value that reaches beyond sight – and in doing so it lifts the spirit.
BVI students and their teachers strive continuously to achieve the same level of learning as sighted students at the same grade levels. It has been proven that grade level achievement in math and verbal scores can be accomplished with focused effort and teacher support by the BVI individual.
And achievement does not need to end at the completion of the student’s K-thru-12 education years. BVI individuals have achieved and maintained successful careers in chemistry, architecture, music, medicine, literature, science, math, business, law, psychology, public service, accounting, and other fields.
A Final Word:
BVI individuals have the same aspirations, physical, emotional, and developmental needs as sighted people. Their parents, teachers, spouses, doctors, psychologists, families, equipment providers, and support organizations continually strive to help them meet those needs – in a world not inherently designed for them.
I encourage my readers to increase their personal awareness and appreciation of everything the BVI individual and their development teams strive to accomplish, as they develop their innate intelligence, skills, and talents to the greatest extent possible. Who knows, their personal journey may produce another scientist, architect, engineer, musician, lawyer, author, or teacher.