Inclusive support for success

Issue: Volume 96, Number 9

Posted: 29 May 2017
Reference #: 1H9d7u

Education Gazette looks at the in-school support available for children who are blind, deafblind or have low vision to ensure they are well prepared for their learning journey.

Brianna Houston is 13 years old and wants to be a physiotherapist or author when she leaves school.

She’s in year 9 at Ōtorohanga College and her favourite subject is English. Brianna is also blind, and for two days a week has the support of resource teacher Kathryn Beer, who works through the Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ (BLENNZ).

BLENNZ is a school that is made up of a national network of educational resource services for children and young people who are blind, deafblind or have low vision. These services are available for children from early childhood education until the end of secondary school.

With the goal of ensuring every BLENNZ learner is well prepared to achieve in life, the organisation employs specialist teachers to support students as they make their way through the education system.

Resource Teachers: Vision

BLENNZ employs specialist teachers called Resource Teachers: Vision (RTVs) who assess a child’s needs in their education setting or at home, then team up with other staff and specialists to provide the best support possible.

RTVs work with teachers and families to set achievement goals and create learning plans for students who are blind or have low vision.

Kathryn Beer has been working for BLENNZ as an RTV for around 13 years. Originally trained as an early childhood teacher, a lifelong interest in supporting children with disabilities led her into the field of special education.

This year, she is working at Ōtorohanga College with two students, two days a week. She also works with students who are blind or have low vision at other schools on a weekly or monthly basis.

Transitions and technology

For Kathryn and other RTVs, ensuring success for the students they work with comes down to preparation.

This involves a lengthy transition process as students move from school to school, carefully thought-out assistive technology tailored to each child’s needs, and professional development and guidance for school staff.

Brianna is totally blind, and Brayden has severe low vision, and therefore the supports in place are different for each student.

Brianna uses a braille notetaker, an iPad with voice-over software, and a standard laptop with screen reader software.

She is able to use Google Docs on each of these devices, as is Brayden who works on a laptop with screen reader and magnification software, and an iPad with voiceover capabilities.

Working in Google Docs allows the students to share assignments with their teachers, Kathryn and other support staff, and their parents when required. The format is also helpful when working in peer groups.

“Both of these students are digital natives, and arrived at college competent in a variety of technological tools to help them at school,” says Kathryn.

“So far the technology is working really well and Google Docs in particular makes it easy for us to share information and classwork.”

A lengthy and careful transition process was also imperative for a smooth start at secondary school.

“I started working very closely with the students and their parents last year, as well as the college, in order to do quite a long and rich transition process,” says Kathryn.

“This is partly for the school, who haven’t had students who are blind or have low vision attending before, but also for the students, so they can feel as comfortable as possible when they begin.”

As well as arranging school visits and offering professional development to staff, from last year Kathryn worked with Ōtorohanga College teachers to adapt learning materials, which remains a large part of her job this year.

Because adapting books and other resources can take several months or longer, learning materials need to be sent away for this well before they will be required in class. Kathryn works closely with teachers to anticipate what might be needed for the year, term and week ahead.

She can also adapt test papers and worksheets at short notice if necessary, but anticipates this part of her role will get easier over time.

“Prior to class, teachers will tell me what they’ll be covering during the next week or month, and share resources and tests so I can see what needs to be adapted, prepare it then put it in the Google Doc shared folders all ready for class,” she explains.

“My typical day does involve attending most classes with Brianna and Brayden, and we’re still doing a fairly high level of support, as we iron out access issues around presenting and adapting the materials.”

English teacher Karen Flay works carefully with Kathryn to prepare class work and keep the curriculum engaging for every student.

“I have to make sure I have three different ways to present information, one to Brayden in a Google Doc with size 48 font, a Word Doc on a USB for Brianna so it can be turned into braille on her machine and then information for the rest of the class,” says Karen.

“This is to ensure they can be the independent learners they are entitled to be.”

Karen says this was a consideration when choosing a film to study this year.

“After conferencing with both learners we have found a film that focuses on character relationships so the dialogue alone is at a level to allow Brayden and Briana to clearly build a picture of these characters and the people around them,” she explains.

“Choosing a film that did not focus on setting and a large amount of camera work to relay the story was difficult to begin with, however, they are engaged and fully involved in the class learning programme.”

Developing support

Alongside the curriculum support, BLENNZ also offers an orientation and mobility service to help students navigate their way around a school.

“In Hamilton we have Abby Higgs, who comes in and works with the children to find the best way to get from classroom to classroom. Again, this is all done in advance of changes or transitions, to ensure they’re well prepared and confident.”

The skills that blind and low vision children acquire as they move through their educational journey are by no means limited to academic ones.

“As these children move through their schooling journey, they’re already showing some really good resilience and adaptability,” says Kathryn.

“Although I’m very involved at the moment, my role is likely to change in its intensity as they get older."

“For example, they need to be very competent at working with an amanuensis, or reader/writer as they come up to NCEA, and this involves listening carefully and retaining information as it’s read to them."

“In maths, they’ll need to be able to verbally describe how to plot data on a graph, and there’s also a lot of subject-specific braille code to learn – in maths, science and music in particular."

“But because we’ve got quite a lot ready in advance and the students are increasing in confidence, they may require less time with support staff like me."

“It’s going to be quite exciting seeing all that develop!”

Kathryn does her best to show the other, sighted students that her role is all about enabling access to the curriculum, rather than academic assistance.

“I think that it’s really important that other students understand that even though at the moment, Brianna and Brayden have a high level of adult support around them, all of their work is independent – I’m not answering any questions for them!"

All about access

Kathryn reports that Brianna and Brayden are being well supported by their fellow students.

“Most of the students are thoughtful and carefully thinking about how they can support Brianna and Brayden in the classroom. They understand what’s involved, and many of them have grown up with them, as it’s quite a small community."

“It’s great to see some really nice friendships and what you might describe as good working relationships developing within the year group."

“I think Brianna and Brayden genuinely enjoy school. They’re teenagers, obviously... but some aspects have gone better than they expected, and other aspects need some more work, but they’re just happy that everyone’s trying."

“Having close-knit support around them is really encouraging.”

While the role of RTVs is to facilitate access to the curriculum, the students themselves develop strong personal skills such as resilience and adaptability through their everyday school experiences.

These strengths are helping them to forge their own relationships with other school staff members.

“Now that we’re ironing out a lot of the hiccups, Brianna and Brayden are really starting to interact face to face, teacher to student, as opposed to going through me and the support staff,” says Kathryn.

“I think it’s amazing that it’s already happening in the second term of the year, and know that some credit for that can go to the lengthy transition process we did."

“I feel like it’s been a real success story so far.”

Kathryn says that Ōtorohanga College has been extremely supportive, even though Brianna and Brayden are the first students who are blind or have low vision to attend classes there.

“The college has been absolutely fantastic. Their attitude has always been ‘what can we do to help these children reach their potential at our school?’”

Even though they’re only 13, both students are already talking about going to university after college, and about what they want to study.

“I enjoy being able to work more independently than I was able to at primary school, because I’m able to bring all my skills and tools together now,” says Brianna.

“Being independent is definitely better when class work is adapted in advance.”

Brayden is interested in the social sciences, and would like to train as a secondary school teacher.

“The atmosphere at college is very accepting,” he says.

“As an example, our English teacher Mrs Flay brainstorms with Brianna and me, and works out how to teach the whole class in a way that works for us, and always includes us in class activities.”

Kathryn agrees.

“Because they will be students for a while, and then eventually join the workforce, it’s just fantastic that the school is setting such a good example of how this can be properly done,” she says.

“It’s a real pleasure to be working at a school that is so open to giving all students the access they need to the curriculum and ensuring they can join in all of the school activities, wherever possible.”

BLENNZ beliefs

The following beliefs underpin the BLENNZ approach to inclusive teaching and learning:

  • Parents and whānau are the prime educators in their child’s learning.
  • Education is focused on the learner within the context of whānau, community and culture.
  • Learning occurs through active engagement in meaningful environments.
  • Learners have unique needs requiring specialist learning and teaching approaches.
  • Learners have the right to equitable access to education.
  • Learners have a right to belong and to realise their potential as participating and contributing members of society.
  • Team collaboration promotes positive outcomes for learners.

The Ministry of Education offers a Blind and Low Vision Study Award for teachers enrolled in the Postgraduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching: Blind and Low Vision at Massey University.

Applications for this study award close on 1 August 2017.

For more information visit the Ministry Of Education website(external link) 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:47 pm, 29 May 2017

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts