Teaching Visually Impaired Students during Distance Learning with Mandi AusmanFeb 02, 2021
I know it seems like a rough time right now. Things have changed and we’re all struggling to keep up and do the best we can for our students.
But in some ways, we can be grateful for all the online tools we have at our disposal. I think about the Spanish flu epidemic of 100 years ago and wonder how students and teachers coped at that time!
I recently had a discussion with Mandi Ausman, who is student teaching to be a teacher for the visually impaired, about working with blind and low vision students. Can you even imagine the challenge that visually impaired students are experiencing these days?
She is going to share with us how teaching online has been working for her and how we can better support students with disabilities during distance learning.
Q: Who are the students you work with and what are their primary disabilities?
I am Student Teaching to be a TVI - Teacher for the Visually Impaired. I work with blind and low vision students.
My student’s ages range from preK to 21 years old - with all ranges of physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities. Their visual impairment is usually just one piece of the puzzle, as very few students are only blind.
Most of the time, we work with students and classroom teachers on a consulting basis. We provide technology and ideas to better serve the students.
The biggest portion of my week is spent with 3 direct students, meaning I provide minutes to them weekly, and are (or will be) braille readers. Two are in PreK and one is in 7th grade.
Q: What is your background?
I was home with my own girls (16, 14, &12 yrs old) for 15 years. When they were all in school, I decided to go back to work. A good friend who worked for the school district suggested I try to learn braille, and come work in her department, Vision Services. So I did!
For the last few years, I have been a braille transcriber specializing in tactile graphics - think maps for history, or shapes for math, or diagrams for science.
Last spring I started graduate school to be a TVI. This school year I had the opportunity to do my student teaching in order to get my license before I actually finish my master's degree.
Q: What did teaching these students look like before COVID?
Before COVID our TVIs were itinerant teachers. They went to multiple schools per day and worked with different students. We partnered with classroom teachers in person, providing them ideas or equipment for the visually impaired students.
We also worked 1 on 1 with blind and low vision students, to teach them skills to access their curriculum.
Q: What does it look like now?
Now, everything is virtual. We consult with teachers over Google Meet and meet with our blind students via Goole Meet also. I “sit in class” with my students, and make sure they are able to access their work, and that the classroom teacher is saying everything out loud. It’s very hard to teach kids virtually who can not see a screen!
Our students have refreshable braille notetakers, which is like a small computer with no screen. There is one line of braille that pops up as the student is reading. We email them their work, and they can pull it up and work on it in class, or for homework on this notetaker.
We also use TeamViewer a lot. It is a screen sharing program, so I can see what the students are working on in real-time.
Q: What is the biggest change?
The biggest change is not providing work in hard copy braille.
Many subjects need their work actually brailled on paper to be efficient for the student. Especially anything that is more than one line - like shapes, or charts for example.
I do try to drop off paper braille to the student's home once a week or so, but not having immediate access to his work when the classroom teacher changes things last minute, has been rough.
Q: What positive things have come from switching to online?
We are learning new technology at a pace that would have seemed impossible before! We have discovered new programs and apps that have been game-changers for us (TeamViewer and MathPix have been the most useful!) Also, our students have been forced to be more independent, and organized.
Q: What are things that any teacher can do right now to help students who may be like your students?
Providing work to the TVI or the student’s aid early is the key to these kids being successful.
If I can provide him with his work in a format he can read, he is able to accomplish almost everything that a sighted student can. Braille takes time to prepare though, so last-minute changes and teachers that are not organized are the hardest part.
Also, a struggle that is new to us this year, is that teachers forget they have a blind student in class - after all, it is just a square on the screen - so when showing examples and writing notes, we need classroom teachers to say everything out loud, please!
Our classroom teachers have been very patient, which is also MUCH needed right now. We are relying 100% on technology - visually impaired students use at least double the technology that sighted students use, and technology often fails.
Extended due dates and extra help are almost unavoidable right now.
Q: What other things would you tell gen ed teachers about working with any student with disabilities?
Please have high expectations for students with disabilities!
They can do so much more than people think they can. Don’t make assumptions about what they are and are not able to do. Instead of saying that they can’t do something, maybe think about some adaptations that can be made to make learning possible!
Also, ask questions, and over-communicate! We are here to not only support the visually impaired student, but also the classroom teacher. If there is a pain point, we’d love to help out and make this year successful for everyone. If we don’t know about it, we can not help.