“The eyes are the windows to the soul.” is a wonderful metaphor for understanding the heart of a person’s emotions. It is easy for anyone to respond to the eyes of an energetic and animated child. However, it’s more difficult to assess the eyes of a child who looks puzzled or discouraged because the child has difficulty seeing what’s going on.
Visually impaired children may require special consideration. Children with limited vision, while able to read words from a distance, may require special equipment and materials. Oftentimes their families will be your best resources. They can alert you to simple environmental changes that can make a big difference, such as adjusting room light to avoid glare. It may also be possible to change rooms and light sources. These children may also become more easily fatigued from reading, so monitor their activities carefully and have them take breaks when necessary. A child who is legally blind may require special materials in addition to special courtesies.
Strategies for working with children with visual impairments should benefit the entire group and respect the child’s particular needs. Following are some suggestions for accommodating visually impaired children, based on recommendations from researchers at the University of West Virginia:
- Speak to the group upon entering and leaving the room or site.
- Call the child by name when you need his or her attention.
- Seat the child away from glaring lights (for example, by the window) and preferably in the front of the room.
- Use clear, descriptive words, such as “straight,” “forward,” “left,” or “right,” in relation to the child. Be specific when giving directions, and avoid the use of vague terms, such as “over there,” “here,” or “this.”
- Describe in detail to the child pertinent visual elements in a learning activity.
- Offer to read written information to a child with a visual impairment, when appropriate.
- Identify yourself by name; don’t assume that the child will recognize you by your voice even if you have met before. If the class is participating in a panel discussion, have speakers identify themselves at their turn.
- If you are asked to guide a child with a visual impairment, identify yourself to the child and offer your services. If accepted, offer your arm for the child’s hand. Tell the child if he or she has to step up or down, or let the child know if the door is to the left or the right, and warn him or her of possible hazards.
- Verbally tell visually impaired children if you need to move about the room, leave their presence, or end a conversation with them.
- Check the instructional environment on a regular basis to be sure it is adequate and ready for use. Describe and tactually or spatially familiarize the child with the environment. Try to keep materials, supplies, and equipment in the same place.
- Do not pet or touch a guide dog, and instruct other children not to do so either. Guide dogs are working animals. Distracting a guide dog can be hazardous for the visually impaired person.
- Use an auditory or tactile signal where a visual signal is normally used.
- Allow children to use a tape recorder if they need to record the session or text readings.
- It is not necessary to speak loudly to people with visual impairments.
- Use the "buddy system" and pair a vision-impaired child with a sighted child. Ask the non-impaired child to describe activities as they are observed.
- Volunteers can assist a child with a visual impairment by reading text aloud.
- If possible, acquire an audio-text version of the text or other reading materials through the Talking Book Service, Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, text-reading systems, or audio output devices.
- Various Braille devices can be used to assist vision-impaired children with reading.
When you offer assistance to a child who is visually impaired, you are demonstrating to children their responsibilities to one another as members of the Body of Christ, as well as the gift of their service to humankind. An individual with special needs calls into action our abilities as effective catechists. These children struggle to learn, and we can all help them learn better about God’s love and Jesus’ presence in our daily lives. The challenge for your group is not to determine how everyone can assist a visually impaired child. The challenge is engaging all of the children in stewardship and genuine support of one another.