Post date: 
Monday, 5 June 2017
Photo of Dr Karen Wolffe

Dr Karen Wolffe, career education expert from the US, shares five ways to prepare children with vision impairment for success in work and life.

We know that children with vision impairment (VI) are at risk for not reaching their full potential in life. There is ample research (see foot note at the end of the article) to tell us that they may experience problems in relationships, gaining employment and living independently as adults. Often I am asked by parents and other concerned adults what they can do to help prepare children and adolescents with VI for careers and success. I give them the following five bits of advice:

1. Convey high expectations of children with vision impairment – say you expect them to grow up and be successful

  • Ask children with VI what they might like to do when they grow up and don’t tell them they can’t. If you’re concerned they won’t be able to do it, don’t voice your opinion – instead research the idea to find out whether any other blind or partially sighted person has had the job and, if so, what tools the person used to make it accessible. If the child is old enough, let them do the research and only help as required. Have the child record what they learn about the job and compare it to what they can do and are interested in doing. If there is a good number of matches, encourage the child to keep preparing for the career. If not, try to generate related jobs to investigate.
  • Let children with VI know you expect them to participate fully in school, community activities and life. Don’t let them be excused from events because others think they can’t perform. Support the child and work with service providers so that they can actively take part. Expect them to follow their interests, such as hiking, swimming or running. Expect them to do their classwork with as little help as possible. Expect them to do as much work as the other students and to do it as quickly. If the child needs extra time at the beginning of a lesson to learn a skill, fine – but don’t let that become ongoing extra time to demonstrate knowledge they’ve already acquired. If they receive extra time routinely, ask that there be a goal set to decrease the amount of extra time gradually until they are doing assigned work at a rate equal with sighted classmates.
  • Always expect children with VI to do what you would ask of sighted children. Whether that’s contributing at home through chores, in the community through volunteering, or at school by completing their assignments. Expect the child to do things for themselves, rather than depending on others for help – this helps them to grow up and compete in the world of work.

2. Encourage social interaction skills in children with vision impairment – suggest that parents have their child invite classmates to do things outside of school

  • Teach children with VI when to say “please” and “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, and “excuse me”. Don’t tolerate lack of social engagement – if someone greets the child, model how they need to respond and then expect that of them next time. Do not tolerate rudeness – if the child bumps into someone or accidentally trips someone with a cane, be sure you hear a “pardon me” and give them positive feedback when they say the right thing.
  • Teach children with VI how to chit-chat, where it’s appropriate and with whom. Explain what topics are open for discussion, such as the weather and sports, and what topics are not, like political views, private information, and sensitive topics about gender identity, sexual preferences, ethnicity or religion.
  • Teach children with VI how to listen to others and respond in a kind and caring way. Help them understand that sighted people will have questions about what they can (and can’t) see, and how they perform daily living activities. The child will need to have an idea about how they can answer such questions, so it’s worthwhile to roleplay different situations. Keep explanations short and sweet – for example strangers don’t need to know medical jargon, but they do need to know how to help if it’s needed.

3. Develop and reinforce blindness-specific skills – praise children with vision impairment for their use of braille or optical devices to read and write, mobility devices (long cane, telescopes or GPS) and assistive technology (screen readers or screen magnification), and teach non-visual techniques for home and personal management

  • Parents should pay attention to the techniques their child is learning with specialist teachers and therapists. Suggest they observe lessons and ask questions, then find out how to best reinforce those skills. If the child is using a system like braille for reading and writing, they should learn the system. Parents can read braille with their eyes rather than their hands, but they need to be able to read their child’s notes and review their written work.
  • If the child is learning to walk with a long cane or use a telescope to read signs at school, parents should encourage their child to use it when walking with them too. If the child is using a screen magnification program or screen reader, suggest parents find out how to add the software to their home computer so the child has access at home and then they can see how he or she is performing. Parents should also learn how to use the adapted devices so they can help troubleshoot in case there’s a problem.
  • Parents need to find out how to modify their home environment to make it more accessible to their child. If the child has partial sight, they may want to use high contrast (such as white plates on dark placemats or measuring cups with bold markings) to make it easier for him or her to manage. If the child is blind, they may want to add braille labels or tactile cues (such as Bumpons or TactiMark) to tools like the microwave to make it easier for him or her to operate.

4. Provide realistic feedback to children with vision impairment – let them know specifically what you like in their performance and tell them clearly how to improve skills or behaviours (do not give false praise or just say “Good job”)

  • Children with vision impairment need to know how they are performing in comparison to sighted children their age. They can’t typically see well enough to judge other children’s efforts, so you may need to be their “eyes” occasionally and explain to them if another child is doing well or underperforming and why. It’s important to help a child with VI understand that their performance will ultimately be compared to sighted people and they must know how they’re doing to compete for jobs.
  • When you see or hear the child doing something well, let them know that you are pleased and what about their behaviour you specifically liked. Similarly, if you see an expression on their face or a behaviour that you think is socially unacceptable, explain to them what caused your concern and describe what they should do differently.
  • Do not make a big deal out of demonstrated skills that are simply age-appropriate. If you have other children that are sighted, think about how they performed in school and at home when they were the same age, otherwise refer to developmental guidelines and see what their peers can do. What’s typical behaviour and what’s exceptional? Save extraordinary praise for extraordinary performance.

5. Promote opportunities for work – give children with vision impairment chores at home, ask them to volunteer in the community, and have them work beside family or friends in their jobs.

  • Work skills and behaviours (often referred to as “soft skills”) are learned best through working. Children with VI need to do the same chores their sighted peers – too frequently adults do things for them that they should be doing for themselves and this is not helpful. Age-appropriate responsibilities teach them skills they will need to live independently in the future.
  • As early in their lives as possible, children with VI need to start giving back to their communities through volunteering. Many children with disabilities grow up only taking, not giving – they receive special concessions and gifts from strangers who feel sorry for them or assume they can’t do things for themselves. They need opportunities to demonstrate their skills, socialise as equals and build their work experiences. Volunteer work gives them such, without the hassles of applying and competing to secure paid employment.
  • Finally, young people with vision impairment need paid work experience before they leave secondary school (it can be part-time or summer jobs). Employers are much more inclined to give young people an opportunity to prove themselves than older adults. In fact, many offer internships or apprenticeships to help them learn the skills required to enter the workforce. One of the best approaches to finding work is to start looking close to home: see if neighbours need assistance with small jobs (for example taking care of plants when someone is away on holiday, walking pets or washing cars) and then check businesses within walking distance to see if they need part-time help (for example answering phones, taking orders or cleaning). As much as possible, young people with VI should be in jobs like those their sighted peers are doing. Encourage them to seek and apply – then support them in their efforts to work!

Further information

Foot note:
  • Capella-McDonnall, M. (2005). Predictors of competitive employment for blind and visually impaired consumers of vocational rehabilitation services. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99(5).
  • Kef, S. (1997). The personal networks and social supports of blind and visually impaired adolescents. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 91(3), 236-244.
  • MacCuspie, P. A. (1996). Promoting acceptance of children with disabilities: From tolerance to inclusion. Halifax, NS: Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority.
  • Sacks, S. Z., & Wolffe, K. E. (Eds.). (2006) Teaching Social Skills to Students with Visual Impairments: Research to Practice. New York: AFB Press.
  • Wolffe, K. E. (2014). Career education. In C. Allman & S. Lewis (Eds.) ECC essentials: Teaching the expanded core curriculum to students with visual impairments. New York: AFB Press.
  • Wolffe, K. E. (2017). Career education. In M. C. Holbrook, C. Kamei-Hannan, & T. McCarthy (Eds.). Foundations of education: Volume II Instructional Strategies for Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, 3rd ed. New York: AFB Press.
  • Wolffe, K., & Kelly, S. (2011). Instruction in areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum linked to transition outcomes for students with visual impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 105, 340-349.
  • Wolffe, K., & Sacks, S. Z. (1997). The social network pilot project: A quantitative comparison of the lifestyles of blind, low vision, and sighted young adults. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 91(3), 245-257.
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