The team of people who nurtured deafblind trailblazer Helen Keller couldn’t have helped her achieve her dreams without working as a tight-knit unit, Professor Cay Holbrook says. And the power of partnerships between vision loss experts is just as relevant today if we really want to improve outcomes for children who are blind, deafblind or have low vision.
A keynote speaker at the recent South Pacific Educators in Vision Impairment (SPEVI) Conference, Professor Holbrook (pictured above), a Professor of Education from the University of British Columbia, says while so much has been achieved, the job is not yet done. It’s important for example, to keep braille on the agenda in supporting children with vision loss.
Citing the work of NextSense Lead Consultant for Vision Impairment, Tricia d’Apice OAM on a tool called the Braille Needs Assessment, Professor Holbrook says she was interested to learn at the conference how Tricia had evolved work she herself had begun, and adapted it to the South Pacific region.
The tool helps specialist vision teachers assess the whole child, their learning goals, and how braille may enhance the student’s access to their learning.
‘Sometimes we think we have done a lot of work and have arrived, but Tricia’s presentation reminded me we haven’t taken care of everything. It’s important to keep paying attention and not lose focus,’ Professor Holbrook says.
Advances in braille education
The virtual conference was hosted by NextSense, and brought more than 200 participants together from eight countries across the region to address key issues being faced globally, such as instruction in braille reading, writing, and literacy, explore solutions, and discuss the latest evidence in the field.
Outgoing SPEVI president and NextSense Institute lecturer Dr Frances Gentle AO says conference delegates welcomed the news that the NextSense, free, accessible online braille training program UEB Online, will soon offer what educators around the world have wanted—new competency exams.
‘New funding from The Fleming Foundation and Ian Sharp means the 31,000 subscribers to UEB Online can soon sit an exam to achieve a competency certificate to show their employer,’ Frances says.
‘This development is so important because it means that teachers of braille will have tangible evidence of their braille knowledge and skills. They can use the competency certificate to meet employer requirements or for career advancement. Being able to share that news was a highlight.
‘It’s also hugely rewarding to reconnect with many NextSense Institute Master of Disability Studies graduates I’ve taught, who have now stepped into leadership positions in their own organisations.’
Accessibility and inclusion at school and in play
Delegates heard from Keynote speaker Professor John Ravenscroft, Chair of Childhood Visual Impairment at the University of Edinburgh, about the nature of inclusive education.
He argued that if we are to have inclusive education for children with vision loss, school leadership needs to be on board with the work of specialist teachers and recognise its value for all children. He also said there needs to be greater career opportunities for specialist teachers.
‘We need to see ourselves as agents of inclusive change for all learners rather than a few,’ he said. ‘We need to use specialist frameworks within this lens rather than as an additional exclusive specialist lens.’
NextSense academic Dr Sue Silveira and collaborators from the University of Sydney, Monash University, and Macquarie University shared their research to date on making playgrounds more rewarding places to be for children who are blind or have low vision and their parents and carers. The team is working to understand limitations and challenges related to the full playground experience, understand the perspective of those who use playgrounds, and look at opportunities for play and intergenerational experiences between children and adults.
‘Play environments can encourage children to be problem solvers, social, imaginative, creative and collaborative,’ Sue said, ‘and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says: Children have the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play. This right must be respected and promoted.’
While the research project is still in its early stages, the team is planning to release online surveys for parents and specialist teachers in vision impairment. It is also in discussion with property developers about playgrounds in development and others that will be retrofitted.
Sue and colleagues are working on a raft of other initiatives too: progressing a national deafblind training portal and determining the prevalence of childhood deafblindness to name just two.
Supporting children in different contexts
Over three days, there were multiple concurrent sessions, on topics as varied as the impacts of COVID restrictions on learning for children who are blind/have low vision, to assessing fine motor skills for children with vision impairment, to increasing participation of students with vision loss in STEM subjects.
Frances Gentle says the SPEVI conference is a particularly important connection point for professionals in the diverse cultures of the South Pacific who face many hurdles and challenges to support children.
‘We want children with blindness or low vision to have equitable access to the best education possible, so we support the professionals who support them. These passionate educators come together to align their practice to evidence and the experience of others in the sector, to ensure the best outcomes for children.
‘We called on delegates to dare to dream for the best future for their students, by sharing knowledge and evidence about what works in their environment.’