As teachers prepare for a new school year, some will have a blind or visually impaired student on their roster.
Creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for blind students can feel daunting, particularly in general education classrooms and for teachers who haven’t worked with blind students before.
But doing so is critical to their success and is also beneficial for students without a disability. Research has shown that students with disabilities tend to perform better academically when integrated into general education classrooms, and their peers also gain an understanding and develop acceptance of people who are different from them.
About 3 percent of children younger than 18 are blind or visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, there were about 48,000 blind students enrolled in schools in the United States, according to estimates by the American Printing House for the Blind. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 49 million children enrolled in public schools altogether.
While blind students have their own Individualized Education Programs to outline their individual needs and accommodations, most are enrolled in general education classrooms, according to the National Federation of the Blind.
In Rockville, Md., Diana Garcia-Mejia teaches a class dedicated to pre-kindergarten students who are blind or have visual impairments. It’s the only class of its kind offered in Maryland public schools, aside from those offered at the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore. While Garcia-Mejia has spent her career working with visually impaired students, she has also focused on teaching and collaborating with teachers throughout her school to help them better accommodate blind students.
Garcia-Mejia in 2018 was named the National Federation of the Blind’s distinguished educator of the year.
In an interview with Education Week, she offered practical tips general education teachers can implement to make their classrooms more welcoming and inclusive for blind students.
What are some practical things general education teachers can incorporate into their classrooms to help visually impaired students?
I’m a really strong believer in the concept of “universal design for learning,” which is making content accessible to everyone by providing multiple modes of learning and then multiple ways for students to express what they’ve learned. By creating a lesson or environment that’s accessible to my students, I realized that those changes don’t make the lesson or environment inaccessible to sighted students, and in many ways, it can also be beneficial to their learning.
I think that realization would help a lot of general education teachers be more excited and realize that it doesn’t have to be necessarily extra work to just benefit one student.
What does that look like in practice?
One UDL-grounded strategy that I implement all day every day is hands-on, multi-sensory learning. For example, if we’re doing a math lesson, I might have students count a set of physical objects and then ask them to represent what they just counted however they choose to. It might be writing the numeral that they counted, like writing the number five in print, or in braille, or putting the same number of velcro shapes on a file—whatever that student has decided was best for them.
When I read a book aloud, I make sure that the images are easy to see—large and high contrast. I also describe verbally the images on the page, and use physical props to represent the concepts in the book. Sometimes you can have the students act out the stories as you go, which they really enjoy.
Speaking of books, it’s helpful to be intentional about finding materials and curriculum that students can see themselves in. That’s useful for every student, but can mean a lot to a blind student to read a book that has a blind character.
Are there any things teachers should consider when setting up their classroom?
When we talk about blindness, I think people often envision students who can’t see anything at all, but blindness is a spectrum that encompasses a lot of different visual impairments. Most of my students do have some vision, or at least light perception. So, for those students that have some vision, limiting their visual clutter makes it easier for them to find areas and objects within the classroom, and understand where they are in that space. That means limiting posters and visual aids on the walls and throughout the room.
I also think it’s something that helps all students better focus on what’s being taught.
I know that’s not the norm and some people, when they hear about bare walls and stuff, they feel like it could be a cold environment. So, when people ask me, “How do you make your classroom a warm and inviting space?” I think it comes down to making sure to explicitly remind my students that they’re loved and cared for, and make our time engaging and fun.
Do you have any advice about how to address (or not) the vision-impaired students’ disability if other students ask or are curious, especially in younger grades?
It really depends on the student. But in my classroom, especially for those students that I feel are confident and very talkative, I tried to give them the tools or help increase their confidence about speaking about their visual impairment themselves.
I have had some students that are able to, even as early as kindergarten, work with their support staff to prepare and then speak in front of their classroom about their white cane or their braille or eye condition. But you really just have to gauge their confidence and comfort with doing that. It’s up to them.
Honestly, part of how I get them excited is by just being excited myself. So, for example, when we’re using or teaching braille, I talk about it like it’s a secret code and tell them it’s a trick that will let them read in the dark, even when there’s no light at all. The students are like, “Wow!” and super interested. It also helps students that have progressive vision loss, where it can be kind of hard to put that in a positive light.
How do you encourage other general education teachers in your school to adapt to your students’ needs?
I do think once they realize UDL can help their general education students, too, that helps them get more excited. But also, from a teacher perspective, hands-on learning is more fun for students, but also for the teacher.
It’s so rewarding to be able to give a student access to something that they would otherwise not have access to, if it wasn’t for, in many cases, a minor change. Like, for example, our physical education teacher, for one of his lessons he put bells on the side of a balloon to make it auditory for a student who was totally blind. Suddenly, they were included where they wouldn’t have been before.
Who can teachers turn to for help figuring out how to best support their blind students?
The collaboration between the general education teacher and the student’s support staff—which may include a teacher or paraprofessional or orientation and mobility instructors—is really important.
They can help parse what might just be the student’s personality and what might be a trait or need specific to their vision that could be addressed through a certain accommodation.
Having regular time set aside to check in and talk with those staff members can be really useful and take some of the pressure off the general education teacher. You don’t have to do it all alone.