Educational Psychologist Gail Bailey looks at why it can be harder for a young person with vision impairment (VI) to develop autonomy and shares some strategies for professionals and parents to help counter this.
Specialist teachers, mobility officers and parents often express concern about the independence of children and young people with VI. But independence is a complex matter, closely connected to emotional wellbeing and levels of motivation. Psychologists believe that self-determination plays a crucial part in developing independence.
Self-determination can be seen as a combination of personal autonomy, feelings of competence and social inclusion. Some young people with VI face challenges in all three areas. In 2004, Robinson and Lieberman questioned a sample of students with vision impairment aged eight to 24 and found that a significant number of the young people had low levels of self-determination.
The researchers drew particular attention to the role of parents in providing opportunities for developing the personal skills that can lead to self-determination. I have come across many young people who are frustrated with their parents’ reluctance to provide them with opportunities for independence. However, parents of older teenagers often express the view that they would like their son or daughter to be more independent. So what lies behind this apparent conflict in the perceptions of young people and their parents or carers?
Providing a young person who has VI with chances to make real choices and develop their independent living skills can increase their feelings of control and promote good levels of motivation. A child who is constantly observed by an adult experiences the world very differently to one who is allowed to socialise in unstructured social situations and who experiences other young people’s perspectives. Also, having the opportunity to care for yourself or another can be confidence-boosting and is strongly associated with wellbeing and happiness.
It can be hard to watch a child struggle with a new task as a parent or teaching assistant. Like all children, a child with VI needs to learn to deal with frustration and disappointment when learning new tasks, such as making a simple meal. Getting the balance right between taking care, being responsive and supervising, allowing a child freedom to make real choices and learn from their mistakes is tough for all adults. However, visual impairment adds a further factor affecting this delicate equilibrium. For example, a child with VI may be more dependent on others for help with mobility or access to information, and this commonly results in emotional response such as anxiety and anger in both adults and children.
Alec, a 14-year-old with restricted peripheral vision and light adaption difficulties due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP), was keen to visit his local gym independently to use the weight machines. He believed this was important as it could help reduce his stress levels. He didn’t want his mother to take him and she wasn’t confident about letting him take the bus alone or with friends.
The solution we came up with was to ask a mobility officer to determine safe and easy routes to and from the sport centre for Alec. This alleviated his mother’s fears about his safety and enabled Alec to attend the gym independently, learning several life skills at the same time, as well as having the opportunity to mix with others in unstructured situations.
Right from the start, parents, teachers and teaching assistants can help encourage independence by using the following strategies:
Enlisting appropriate help, as in the example of bringing in a mobility officer for Alec, goes a long way to empowering parents and support workers to “let go” of children confidently.
This article originally appeared in the 2008 March/April edition of Insight magazine.