Supporting Parents and Carers of children with a Visual Impairment
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Top Tips for Supporting Visually Impaired Maths Students

Have you ever wondered the best ways to ensure visually impaired students can access maths lessons?

 

LOOK mentor Kim Jeffreys shares her top tips to support visually impaired maths students.

If you are supporting a student with a visual impairment in Maths sessions, there are several things you will need to consider. Some issues are less obvious, especially if you have not experienced sight loss yourself. Here are some tips to help you provide the best learning opportunities for your student.

Before the Lesson:

It is extremely important to prepare learning materials before the session and this should not be left until the last minute. Remember that adapting materials takes time and technology can be unpredictable. Make sure everything is prepared well in advance. Effective planning and communication are essential. Teachers and support workers should build up a good rapport and share responsibility for making work accessible. It may be the support assistant’s job to actually prepare the materials, but it is the teacher’s responsibility to clearly communicate what needs to be done and have realistic expectations.

There is no optimum way to adapt materials because all students have different needs and ways of working. The best way to approach things is to speak to the student directly. Ask what resources they would find useful so you can tailor the support you are providing. This also saves you from wasting time on adaptations which will provide no benefit or even become a nuisance.

Some students will be embarrassed about discussing adaptations due to peer pressure and awkwardness in the classroom. Try gentle encouragement in these situations. Pushing a student to use certain resources will only make them panic or rebel (or both). Making decisions on their behalf will also affect self-confidence and take away the student’s sense of autonomy. The more you keep them involved in the process, the better.

During the Lesson:

Maths sessions can vary greatly depending on what is being covered. Naturally, a session focusing on diagrams will prove much more challenging than simple mental maths. If you are teaching a small group or leading a personalised study session, be sure to take this into account. You may be able to tweak lesson plans or rewrite them entirely to accommodate the challenges that crop up. Be observant during sessions and try to accurately monitor the student’s progress. This will help you better understand their needs. As you get to know your student better, it will become easier to anticipate difficulties in advance so appropriate support can be put in place.

Patience in the classroom is one of the most important qualities to have when supporting a student with a visual impairment. When they find the work too difficult, this can lead to frustration and anger. Understanding Maths, which is a highly visual subject, requires much more effort from your student than their peers. It’s only natural to experience a lack of co-operation at times when this extra burden becomes overwhelming. It is important to be patient and remain positive at all times. Rather than criticising your student if they are having a bad day with eye strain, encourage them to complete just one more question or fetch some water and take a quick time out. Don’t lower your expectations but try to be compassionate and work on building trust.

After the Lesson:

It seems obvious, but some teachers completely fail to acknowledge this point- you should never give a child homework that they are incapable of completing. For your visually impaired student, it’s not necessarily a lack of ability preventing them from doing the homework, but a lack of accessibility. It’s no use having everything adapted for the session if you then proceed to give the student a worksheet or textbook that’s unreadable. Similarly, if they rely on 1-1 support, you need to consider when someone will be available to help with the homework. There are only 24 hours in a day and your student won’t get help around the clock. Their families have lives and jobs that mean they may not be available every evening to provide extra support when needed. Timetable limitations can also prevent students seeking the help they need at school/college. Be mindful of this because nothing will turn a student against you more than the constant stress of impossible homework and unfair punishments for not completing it.

Even if your student works independently and receives less support, they will still need extra consideration in terms of their workload. Having a visual impairment means that tasks can take much, much longer than intended. That’s the whole reason behind extra time in exams. Remember that Maths is not the centre of your student’s life (not usually anyway). They will have several pieces of work at any given time and there’s a greater-than-average chance that they will require frequent trips to medical appointments. This piles on enough stress. When a student is exhausted after a full day of work and has a headache from overusing their eyes, sitting down to spend 4 hours on a piece of homework that’s supposed to take half an hour is far from ideal. Please be reasonable!

Useful Adaptations:

The previous advice was quite generalised and could apply to a number of subjects. Here are specific examples of ways that Maths resources could be adapted.

Large Print– You would be amazed at the huge different that increasing the print size of the work can make for some students. It can also be a good idea to make the numbers bold and separate them out better so everything becomes more distinct. The workbook used can help too. Some students will want books with large squares rather than small ones; others will prefer lined or even plain books instead. You could also design custom graph paper in your student’s preferred size and colour with thicker lines. However, please remember that simply photocopying a worksheet onto A3 paper is NOT suitable. Not only is it grainy and poor quality, but it’s not even 2x the size! Despite the paper being double the area of A4, the text itself will only be 1.42x larger on most copiers.

Braille– Braille is so useful in Maths because it’s easy to create labels for diagrams and the medium is tangible. Having the information read out to you can be so confusing. Imagine trying to calculate an answer while holding the whole equation in your mind and having more information thrown at you. Jotting things down is essential for so many students’ thought processes and braille can be quickly read back.

Tactile Diagrams– These are easier to create than you may realise. To create an effective tactile diagram all you will need is swell paper and the appropriate machine for it, which is essentially a laminator with a different function. There are two main types of swell paper, so always check the packet, but this is the most common method. To prepare, all you have to do is copy your image. You could print it directly onto the swell paper or photocopy a hand-drawn diagram. Just remember to print on the matt side, not the shiny side. Also, BLACK INK ONLY! Then put your swell paper through the machine once or twice and all the ink will be raised. Thicker lines are much more effective. Easy! Don’t forget to add some braille labels or other things (like colourful dots) that will help your diagram to be comprehensible.

3D Objects– Shapes can be a nightmare to understand for those born with minimal sight. If your student really struggles in this area, there are a couple of strategies you can try. For 2D shapes, make them large on a sturdy cardstock and cut them out so the student can feel around the edges. It may help to put a tactile dot in the top corner of the shape to prevent confusion when it is constantly being turned around. 3D shapes prevent a greater challenge because the concept of 3D itself can be incredibly difficult to grasp. Try to explain it to a totally blind person and you will understand. A drawing of a 3-dimensional shape, even a tactile one, will be completely useless in most cases. Instead, you will need to acquire real objects for the students to feel. Linking shapes to the ‘real world’ is a great idea. For example, you could bring in some tins and kitchen roll to demonstrate things that are cylindrical.

Whiteboard and Pen– We all know that teachers’ handwriting is difficult to read at the best of times, but for us visually impaired folk it’s practically impossible. Seeing the board, even from the front row, is also a miss. It’s a great idea to always have a mini whiteboard ready for your student and a pen in their chosen colour. Writing things down with an erasable pen is a better option than going through 50 sheets of paper each session and making your nose run from the fumes of a permanent marker. The thickness of the pen forces you to get in the habit of writing things larger and more clearly so your notes are actually legible. Don’t forget to provide feedback in a format that’s readable too!

Talking Everything– Calculator, timer, scales, thermometer, etc. etc. Think of any piece of equipment that isn’t very accessible and you can probably find a talking version. True, it may be ridiculously expensive for what it is. This is when you talk to your student and decide whether the investment is worth it. Remember to keep lots of spare batteries around! You can also get some great tactile items such as colourful rulers with raised markings and Wikki sticks. (I think that’s how it’s spelled; they’re basically sticky wax sticks that you can stick to a page. Great for graphs and the like.)

Here’s a bonus tip- food dye is really helpful for measuring tasks.

I hope that you found this advice useful and wish you the best of luck with all future Maths sessions!

Kim :)

 

 

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