Physical education and vision impairment: Overcoming obstacles

Post date: 
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Young girl rock climbing

Sue Keil, National Research Officer at RNIB, looks at research evidence on activity levels of children with vision impairment (VI) and what young people said about the challenges they’ve experienced accessing PE. Then we share simple tips on how to make PE more inclusive.

Concerns about the rise in levels of obesity among children and adults have led to national government guidelines on ways to increase physical activity levels. According to the guidelines, children and young people aged five to 18 should engage in “moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity for at least 60 minutes and up to several hours every day” to keep fit. “Moderate” physical activity is defined as cycling and playground activities such as swinging on playground equipment, hopping and skipping, and “vigorous” activity such as fast running, swimming and football. Yet research and anecdotal reports indicate that engaging in sports can be a particular challenge for children and young people with vision impairment.

What research tells us

We know anecdotally that children and young people with VI are less likely than their peers to be physically active, and this is supported by research evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Although the MCS doesn’t tell us the reasons why, anecdotal reports suggest that reasons may include inaccessibility of organised sporting activities, children’s lack of confidence in getting around and dislike of PE lessons.
The MCS found that at the ages of seven and 11, children with VI born in 2000 were less likely than fully sighted children of the same age to be physically active. While it’s not all bad news – many children with VI are involved in a range of physical activities – the study also found that children with VI, particularly those with additional special education needs and disabilities (SEND), were significantly more likely than children without SEND of the same age to never engage in certain types of physical activity.

For example, while over 60 per cent of seven-year-olds with VI were involved in physical activity on five or more days a week, around one in ten never engaged in physical activity compared with one in 25 fully sighted children of the same age.

Similarly, while many 11-year-olds with VI participated in non-organised sport, physical activities and outdoor games, around one in ten never did so, compared with just over one in 20 of their peers. The proportion of children with VI who never participated in organised sport or physical activities was even higher – around one in three, compared with one in five of their peers.
PE can also present challenges for children with VI, particularly if they have additional SEND as well. While it is encouraging that most children with VI who took part in the MCS said they enjoyed PE at school, those with VI and additional SEND were less likely than other children to do so. Parents of seven-year-olds with VI and additional SEND were also significantly more likely than other parents to say their child had “some” or “great difficulty” with PE.

What young people have told us

To help us understand some of the difficulties that pupils with VI experience in PE, here is a selection of quotes from some interviews I carried out as part of a project on consulting with children and young people about how they were supported at school:
“If there was one thing I could change [about my time at school], it would be the time I spent in PE... There were a few PE teachers who were creative. I wish we could try more Paralympic sports, not just VI [specific sports].”

“I was always the last one picked, always last to be picked. I hated PE. People should have tried harder instead of leaving me out... Sports days were the worst. Even with the big ball I couldn’t see.”

“I struggled with [seeing the] tennis ball. I did want to participate but I was really struggling... They didn’t tell you they are going to pass the ball – they don’t understand, they just throw the ball.”

Jeremy Adams, PE teacher at Priestley Smith special school for pupils with VI, shares tips to make PE more inclusive for young people with vision impairment

Children and young people with VI can access PE if reasonable adjustments are made and individuals are encouraged. Within our specialist VI education setting, we have seen massive improvements with our children accessing and enjoying a range of different sports, enabling them to develop skills such as spatial awareness, confidence and leadership. These skills are transferable into many different areas of their life, but unfortunately within a mainstream setting, the importance of learning these can often be outweighed by the practical challenges of working in a non-specialist VI environment.
I often get asked how to include a child who has VI in PE within a mainstream setting. You will struggle to do this 100 per cent of the time without being unfair on the child, the class or the teacher. There are times when a child with severe VI needs space and one-to-one assistance to learn skills in PE that other children will learn by imitation and take for granted. The education and development of the rest of the class should not be slowed down because of one child – how a child is included is also dependent on the school and its resources, the confidence of the teacher and the curriculum.
However, if this sounds more doom and gloom than positive, there are methods to help facilitate inclusion:
  • Particular activities do allow for a child with VI to participate. Such as gymnastics, athletics (running and throwing activities), striking and fielding (with a little adaptation), and health and fitness.
  • Look at using an alternative curriculum, for example having sessions in Goalball, blind football and judo – remember these are all Paralympic sports and adaptations for children with VI can also sometimes help their fully sighted classmates develop additional skills.
  • Lessons in team building and other minor games in which pupils work in small groups on a variety of tasks are great ways of helping all students develop their skills in working together. These can be simple small games that encourage pupils to develop skills in communication, leadership and cooperation. There are lots of resources available online for team building activities, such as on the TES website.
  • Zoning is a simple way of facilitating inclusion in active team sports. It involves creating an area in a game situation that allows a player to receive the ball and send it on without any interference from other players. This allows a child with VI to have time on the ball without pressure.
  • Focus on spending part of the lesson on developing particular skills, like passing a football in a circle, rather than on the game itself. This allows for smaller groups and a more controlled environment.
  • Some sports like rugby and basketball are always going to pose more problems than others, but the fact that a child can leave a lesson with the understanding that such a sport exists, what equipment is used and a concept of the rules is still important, even if they cannot play it fully.
Please be aware that some children may not be able to participate in certain sports because of related medical conditions. For example, a child with retinal detachment may need to avoid any activity risking a blow to the head.
So with a little creativity, courage and common sense, I believe all obstacles can be overcome and children with vision impairment can succeed in and enjoy PE.

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