Global dysfunction is putting at risk the goal of inclusive and equitable quality education for children who are blind or have low vision, an international conference has heard in Sydney.
Speaking at the NextSense-hosted VISCON Conference for specialist educators for blind and low vision students, NextSense Institute lecturer, and President of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment, Dr Frances Gentle, laid out the challenges and opportunities ahead for those in the field both in Australia and internationally.
‘We have human rights instruments of the United Nations in place, and UN agencies like UNICEF and UNESCO working hard to progress the right to quality education for children with disabilities,’ she said.
‘We also have global disability and education networks like ICEVI and the World Blind Union promoting the rights of children with blindness, low vision and multiple disability. But our challenges, and the opportunities they present, are many and varied.’
‘Not least of all is the ‘polycrisis of shocks’ identified by UNICEF that are pushing countries to underinvest in children’s education and wellbeing.
‘Around the world, children with disabilities and their families are experiencing the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, disparities in access to assistive technologies and the internet, and the negative effects of climate change, global inflation, and the global energy crisis caused by war and conflict.’
Australia not immune
Several challenges identified by UNICEF and ICEVI are already influencing how Australian children with blindness and low vision, and their families, engage with education, Frances said.
‘It is essential we work together to address the current and emerging trends in Australia. This includes the shortage of qualified staff to educate Australian children who are blind or have low vision. But we are working to address this.
‘In Australia, the nature of vision loss is changing, with more children presenting with more complex needs, in addition to vision loss. And with the impact of technology, the shift to digital classrooms, and competing government priorities, how do we ensure children with vision loss can continue learning in a changing world?’
When it comes to solutions, Frances says that NextSense Institute has an important role to play in helping to address these challenges, both locally and further afield. For example, our Master of Disability Studies, delivered in affiliation with Macquarie University, offers a much-needed pathway for graduates to teach students with blindness or low vision (more below).
And professional learning opportunities, including VISCON, provide important forums for joint problem-solving to ensure children with vision loss are included in education and their communities.
She told delegates that skills in virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence will influence success in education and employment for children and young people with blindness, low vision, deafblindness and multiple disabilities.
VISCON regularly attracts international experts and this year, Dr Frances Mary D’Andrea from University of Pittsburgh, Professor Cay Holbrook from the University of British Columbia, and Texan consultant Dr Karen Wolffe shared their insights. They discussed how far we’ve come in educating children, what’s happening now and aspirations for the future.
Dr Wolffe shared her vision of a world without social and environmental barriers, ‘a world without prejudice’.
‘A world where everyone expects others, regardless of ability or disability, to live satisfying and productive lives, and people support each other to be the best that they can be,’ she said.
NextSense Institute is committed to educating the next generation of experts through the Master of Disability Studies and our ‘blindness and low vision’ specialisation qualifies graduates to teach students with blindness or low vision.
Qualified teachers have the opportunity to enrol to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to adapt content, develop teaching methodology, and apply specialised instructional techniques to meet the needs of individual learners with sensory disabilities.