Two hands holding orange with toothpicks sticking out of it

Teaching Your Child Who is Blind or Visually Impaired About Viruses and Handwashing

You should have seen her—my nine-year-old daughter “washed her hands” after coming in for dinner.

My inner dialogue: Wait, what?! Is that how she’s been washing her hands? Does she realize she rinsed off the soap before scrubbing? It’s time to go back to the basics. That’s just scary.

COVID-19 is here and it feels like we’re characters in a new sci-fi film. I can’t wrap my head around it. But I’m sure of one thing because I’ve heard it on the news a grand total of one million times: washing our hands thoroughly is an essential step in stopping the spread of the virus.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to teach your little one who is blind or visually impaired the importance of and steps to hand washing. Or maybe it’s time to re-teach your not-so-little one the importance of and steps to hand washing. I’m in the second category.

My colleagues and I have a few suggestions for how to do so. I bet you have creative ideas and useful techniques as well.

Step 1: What does a virus, specifically COVID-19, actually look like?

Maybe they’ll wash more carefully if they know what they’re potentially washing off their hands. Additionally, the concept of “virus” is made concrete with a tactile representation.

If you look at an image of the Coronavirus, you’ll see a sphere covered in spikes.

Take what you have at home and recreate the virus with and for your child. An orange covered in inserted toothpicks? A kiwi covered in inserted pretzel sticks? A sphere of playdoh covered in inserted, broken, uncooked spaghetti noodles? It will do; bonus points if it contrasts in color for those with low vision. This is your model. Explain that a true virus is too small to feel.

Step 2: How does a virus spread?

Viruses spread through an infected person’s saliva or mucous. Explain that if we’re within six feet of someone who is coughing or sneezing (use a measuring tape to demonstrate six feet), the droplets with Coronavirus can infect us. Or, if we touch a surface someone has coughed or sneezed on, the virus can get inside of our bodies when we put our dirty hands in our eyes, nose, or mouth.

Have a spray bottle with water and a few drops of essential oil handy? If not, simply get your hand wet and flick water as you pretend to sneeze or cough. [Do warn your child first!] What does your child notice? Did he get a little wet? Is the counter or doorknob wet? Do you smell the essential oil permeating? Now turn the tables! Give your child the opportunity to pretend to sneeze or cough and squirt or flick a bit of water.

Once the virus gets inside our bodies it takes over cells and reproduces rapidly. Younger children may understand with a simple explanation of the viruses fight the good guys and make us feel very sick. Teens may want the nitty gritty: US National Library of Medicine: How Viruses Invade Cells

Step 3: What is the proper way to wash hands?

The CDC provides us with the basics of a hand-washing routine. Wet hands in warm water, apply soap, lather your entire hands, scrub (including between fingers and underneath fingernails) for at least 20 seconds, rinse hands well under running water, and dry hands.

You’ve likely heard the common tip of singing “Happy Birthday” twice while scrubbing. Singing the first twenty seconds of your child’s favorite song may also be helpful. Peppa Pig theme song, anyone?

I’d suggest helping your child understand the need for such a lengthy hand wash. Consider lathering your and your child’s hands with oil or lotion and washing it off. Let your child conclude him/herself that it takes time to wash off what’s on the hands!

Additional tips for our children who are blind or visually impaired include:

  • Use a routine to teach hand-washing steps; this includes a scrubbing routine, such as fingertips to wrist.
  • If your child has low vision, purchase soap bottles and hand towels that contrasts in color to the counter.
  • If you have dish soap or other bottles near hand soap, have your child help you decide on a method to differentiate the two. Perhaps a rubber band or, better yet, a bracelet wrapped around the bottle or a finger ring around the pump would help your child remember which bottle contains hand soap.
  • Place a non-slip floor mat in front of the sink area of each bathroom and kitchen to help orient to the location of the sinks.
  • Ensure the hand soap and hand towel are placed in the same location each time they’re used.
  • If your child is very young or has significant cognitive delays, let her know it’s time to wash hands using the same tactile and verbal prompts to begin the routine. Perhaps you let her feel the soap bottle and the hand towel while you say it’s time to wash hands.

Step 4: When is it time to wash your hands?

Ask your child when he thinks it’s wise to wash up. I bet he has good suggestions, maybe some we haven’t considered! Discuss the suggestions found in BabyCenter: Proper Hand Washing for Kids and Parents, such as before eating, after pottying, after blowing your nose, after contact with someone who is sick, and after playing outside. I’d also recommend washing hands after being in public, especially during this season.

I hope these suggestions help you, your child who is blind or visually impaired, and your entire family stay healthy. What a frightening time we’re in. Let’s do what we can to keep COVID-19 away!