American Association of Blind Teachers

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Although the following article was written with K-12 teaching in mind, with a special focus on lower grades, the fundamental concepts are also applicable for more advanced instruction; some of the specifics may vary, however.

Carla Hayes

Although we might prefer to ignore it, those of us who are blind or visually impaired have an elephant in the middle of the room which we must deal with every day: our visual impairment. Along with the typical issues which all teachers have to deal with as part of their work, such as discipline, motivating students, planning meaningful lessons, and grading students' work, we must develop strategies for performing tasks which normally require sight, answer questions about our blindness, and constantly prove ourselves to our sighted students and colleagues. All of this we are expected to do without complaining or missing a beat. Do you sometimes find this daunting and discouraging? If so, this article contains some thoughts and suggestions for how to deal with your blindness as a teacher.

Being a successful blind teacher starts when you are preparing to become a teacher. In addition to acquiring a thorough mastery of the subject matter that you will be teaching, you will need to master basic competencies and life skills which will enable you to function independently as a blind person in all aspects of your life. First, you must be able to communicate effectively with others both orally and in writing and with yourself in braille or large print. Second, you must be able to use a computer and master the appropriate adaptive technology which will enable you to use it independently. Third, you must develop the necessary independent living skills which will allow you to take care of your own personal needs and even live alone in an unfamiliar place if necessary. Fourth, whether you use a cane or a dog guide, you must acquire effective mobility skills so that you can travel safely and independently in both familiar and unfamiliar places. Fifth, you must become comfortable with your visual impairment and develop a positive attitude about it. This will make it much easier for you to answer the constant personal questions about your blindness which will come your way, explain your blindness to your students, and ask for the reasonable accommodations that you will need from time to time. Finally, you will need to have excellent interpersonal skills in order to relate to students, parents, colleagues, administrators, and support staff in a positive manner. The more people you can get on your side, the more successful you will be as a teacher, whether you are sighted or blind.

The blindness issue will resurface when you are preparing for job interviews. One of the most important decisions you will have to make is whether or not to disclose your visual impairment on your resume and/or job applications. There are compelling arguments both ways. After trying both disclosing and not disclosing in advance, I have found that it is usually best to make a short but positive statement about my blindness in the cover letter which accompanies my resume and application. My statement is as follows:

"Although I have been blind since birth, I have developed several strategies for performing my work independently. I also feel that my blindness has made me a better teacher because it has given me a firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by students with learning disabilities and other special needs and a special empathy for these students."

I have found that most interviewers do not like surprises; so, it is usually best for them to be informed of my disability in advance. When using this strategy, I'm generally not called in for as many interviews, but the interviews that I do have are more worthwhile.

When you are interviewed, be prepared to answer questions about your blindness, how it will affect your job performance, and how you will handle certain tasks such as classroom management, discipline and paperwork without sight. It is also a good idea to take a portfolio to the interview containing a typical unit that you might teach, complete with lesson plans, visuals, worksheets, tests and other supporting materials. This may help impress the interviewer with your experience and preparation.

In short, when you are interviewed, it is your job to take the focus off your blindness and demonstrate that you are a capable teacher and the best candidate for the position, despite your visual impairment.

Once you are hired as a teacher, you will have to develop effective strategies for dealing with your visual impairment on the job. Hopefully, you have already devised methods to perform classroom tasks which typically require sight, such as alternatives to writing on the board if you cannot see well enough to do so, managing a classroom full of active, energetic students, preventing and dealing with discipline problems, recording grades, and taking care of the reams of paperwork that will come across your desk. You must be able to recognize those tasks for which you will require sighted help and develop a strong network of sighted helpers. Some of these may include a classroom aide or at least someone who can be available to monitor tests and two or three reliable readers. Be kind to administrators, the school librarian and technology specialist, secretaries and janitors because they can give you a lot of support, but be careful not to rely on them too much or make unreasonable requests.

It is usually best not to ask colleagues to help you with your work unless you are willing and able to do something for them in exchange. If you ask for their help too often, they may stop viewing you as an equal.

As a member of the faculty, you will doubtless be required to perform some non-teaching duties in addition to teaching your classes. Some of these tasks do require sight and would be difficult if not impossible for you to perform. Never use your blindness as an excuse to try to get out of these duties. Instead, trade them for tasks that you can perform. For example, you may not be able to perform bus or cafeteria duty, but there is no reason that you cannot supervise an extra study hall, be a student advisor, or take charge of a school club. In short, you must pull your own weight as a member of the school staff; if you don't, this will be unfair to your colleagues.

You must also be positive and realistic with your students in regards to your visual impairment. Start on the first day of school by explaining your level of vision to them in a simple, honest and straightforward manner. Then, explain how you will perform various classroom tasks and answer any questions that they may have. Encourage them to ask questions about your blindness at any time and always be positive and honest when answering.

There is no reason why you can't occasionally allow students to help with certain classroom tasks, such as passing out papers, identifying printed materials, writing on the board and decorating the bulletin boards. Helping the teacher can be a positive experience for students. However, do not overdo it and ask for their help too often. If you do, students may begin to believe that you are not competent enough to perform your job independently. Remember that you may be the first and only blind person that your students will meet; do everything that you can to make this experience a positive one.

In short, whether dealing with students or staff, you must be positive and realistic about your disability. Learn to be comfortable about discussing it and asking for the accommodations that you will need. On the other hand, work to develop alternative strategies for performing as many job- related tasks as possible without sight or assistance from others. You must be as independent as possible if you want to be respected and taken seriously.

In conclusion, it is true that being blind or visually impaired will make your work as a teacher more difficult and challenging than it is for your sighted colleagues. However, with dedication and imagination, you will conquer that proverbial elephant and become a confident and competent teacher that your students and colleagues will never forget.

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