Monday, August 8, 2016

Crippling with Kindness

(This post was written months ago but I postponed posting it until now.)

We have a student in our school with a vision disability. I am one of his/her teachers. Several professionals from the board's Vision Department come to assist this student. I've written before about how helpful these experts have been to me. As I listen to their advice, and observe what goes on in our school, I've noticed some bad habits from our school community. These actions stem from a lack of knowledge. I suspect that the people doing these things think they are being kind or friendly - but unfortunately it's neither.

It's Not Just Style

This is not just a matter of having different teaching styles or interaction styles that I object to because they don't match my own. In a book I'm reading for a book club, The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings, the exemplary teachers profiled do not have a singular personality trait - some were playful while others were strict - but their conceptions of themselves and others were culturally relevant. In the study on Exemplary School Libraries in Ontario, one of their main findings was "there are exemplary school library programs in Ontario, but there is not a unitary conception of an exemplary school program, nor is there a single approach that creates an exemplary library program" (page 36).  What I've been observing recently is conduct that could, in my opinion, be detrimental to this student, encouraging dependence and helplessness instead of independence and perseverance.

1) A Pick-Me-Up is not Supposed to be Literal

In a crowded hallway or busy stairwell, well-meaning people may be inclined to "protect" students with visual impairments by steering them out of harm's way. Combine this gut reaction with the fact that this particular student is small and adorable, and it's a recipe for babying. This student gets pulled, carried or lifted too often. A rocking chair may be a challenge to climb into when your feet don't reach the floor while you're sitting in it, but other accommodations can be made instead - hold the rocking chair steady at the side and allow the student to climb on by him/herself. Asking permission before offering assistance would also be a step in the right direction. Grabbing someone without them realizing it is a startling experience for sighted people - what is it like for people who don't have the same ability to see it coming? We need to respect young people's physical space, not just those with low vision. I know when I see older students pat the heads of younger students (especially kindergarten students) or pick them up to hug them without permission, I remind them that this behaviour can be seen as condescending - people wanted to be treated as equals, not as pets. Speaking of which ...

2) Daredevil or Mr. Magoo vs People (Who are Blind)

Physical disabilities neither equal superpowers nor "handle with care" fragile-snowflake status. I've seen and heard people try to make this blind student "guess who's talking", or completely silence the room when the student walks in. The former practice expects that the student's superior memory and hearing will be able to distinguish voices that he/she don't hear often, and that's unrealistic. Half the time, I can't tell who is calling me on the phone unless I have call display - it's unfair and stressful to play this sort of "game" with a student who can't look at a face clearly to see who is speaking. The latter practice actually robs the student of audio cues that help him/her navigate rooms and spaces. Total silence is also unrealistic. I was advised to identify myself by name when talking to this particular student, and verbally indicate when I was walking away, so that there's no guessing about who is talking. Treat people who are blind as people first.

On WikiHow, there's a simple, illustrated guide to interacting with people who are blind. A lot of the tips make sense. (Other examples can be found here at Accessibility News, at this site promoting a book on Dealing with Vision Loss, and at the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) website.

Learning from Others

Working with this student, and watching others work with this student, has improved my own reflection and meta-cognition. It makes me more aware of what and how I say things. Do my actions match my words? How do my attitudes about individual students impact the way I interact with them? What techniques do I use that encourage independence in all students? How long should I let students struggle with a task before offering to help? Are there ever times that, in an effort to be kind, I'm actually crippling a student's abilities or potential?

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