American Association of Blind Teachers

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John Buckley

It’s arguable that blind and visually impaired teachers are different in more ways than they are alike. The degree of vision loss, the level at which they teach, the type of institution in which they are employed, and the subjects they instruct are all strikingly diverse. One of the most important ways, however, in which they are similar is the use of readers. Unfortunately, learning how to locate and work efficiently with readers is more often than not a matter of trial and error.

I was reminded of this recently when contacted by a visually impaired undergraduate who was struggling to locate good readers. While there is no one size fits all solution for this problem and individual experiences vary significantly, the following may be some general guidelines to help with the care and feeding of good readers.

Although technology has made it possible to independently accomplish some tasks that previously required sighted assistance (as will be discussed below), frequently there is still no substitute for the use of an intelligent human being. Readers may be used to monitor exams, assist with grading and recording grades, reading mail, helping with professional research, and more. On occasion, a reader may be a graduate or research assistant for a professor or an aid for someone teaching K-12; however, in the large majority of cases, a reader, whether volunteer or paid, is someone the visually impaired teacher has located and employs them self.

The first option for identifying a possible reader is frequently a volunteer. He or she could be a family member, friend, someone in your church, a student in a service fraternity or sorority, a senior citizen, etc. I was exceptionally fortunate in that all of the readers I used to slog through the mountains of reading in graduate school were volunteers, each located in very different ways. The first was the friend of a friend who had multiple sclerosis. This very bright lady who, while very much limited by her lack of mobility, remained intellectually curious and was thrilled for me to supply as much reading as possible. A second reader was a retired advertising executive who found that retirement lacked the mental challenges of work. Having never been able to afford college, he enjoyed virtually any material I gave him.

Of course, free sometimes means you get exactly what you pay for. You lack leverage to insure that work is done appropriately or on time. Moreover, it is important to calibrate how much time and what type of reading a volunteer is willing to do. More often than not, it is necessary to put clear limits on what a volunteer will be asked to do in order to maintain a good working relationship.

In hiring a reader, it is critical to insure that the person you are hiring is honest, dependable, and, quite frequently, capable of honoring confidences. Probably the two most common ways of identifying likely candidates are either through personal contact and word of mouth or publicizing your need. AABT members report locating readers by talking with colleagues, using former students or classmates, and, for especially confidential matters, even employing a trusted friend or family member. One long-time high-school teacher reports, “One way I found readers was to put a short article in the paper saying that a blind teacher was looking for a person to assist with grading. I put the amount of money I was paying and the approximate amount of time required. From the start, I got a lot of calls and could interview applicants.”

It is important to remember that, first and foremost, the relationship with a reader is a professional one. It is possible to begin relating on a professional level and, if appropriate, also developing a friendship; however, it is not possible to begin as friends and then trying to establish a more formal way of conducting business. I have always tried to have more than one reader at any given time. This may be a luxury for some teachers and may not even be possible for others, but, if possible, it has three significant advantages. First, you are guaranteed a back-up for those inevitable occasions when one reader is sick, has to go out of town, has a personal emergency, etc. Second, you are, hopefully, in the position of always having one experienced reader while you are breaking in a new one. Third, with more than one person, you have a better opportunity to better match the tasks a reader is asked to do with their individual interests and abilities. I found, for example, that some students I hired loved assisting with library research, while the majority hated it. Needless to say, readers tend to do a better job if the work is something they enjoy and at which they feel competent.

At this point, it is appropriate to add a brief word of warning. Because a number of visually impaired teachers work with their readers in their own home, it is unfortunately necessary, in addition to the requirements already mentioned, to check applicants for safety. Companies that routinely vet perspective employees report that a surprisingly large percentage fail this test.

In recent years, advances in technology have made it possible for the first time to do independently some of the work that previously could only be done with a reader. The electronic production of exams and papers is now so ubiquitous that, having students submit work in these ways, enables grading without readers. The use of scanners and closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) provide additional options for doing tasks that in the past required a reader.

Although technology offers an increasingly wide array of tools for the blind or visually impaired teacher, the skillful use of readers remains an important part of our professional lives. Knowing how to locate and properly utilize readers can make the difference between success and failure.

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