Before I was a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI), I became a parent to a beautiful little girl who was born with severe visual impairments. My decision to switch careers from chemistry to education was based heavily on the wonderful support that my family received during our years in Early Intervention (EI).
All the services my daughter received while in EI made a difference in terms of her developmental progress, but the area that seemed to make the greatest difference was vision. That is, as my daughter’s visual functioning increased, so did her skills in all the other developmental areas. She became more curious about exploring objects and learning how to use them. She began to roll around, crawl, and cruise furniture. She learned to feed herself with a spoon. For the first time, she turned her face to mine and smiled at me.
I was so inspired by these changes that I enrolled in an online course for parents of children with visual impairments called “Reach Out and Teach.” This course, offered to families through Hadley Institute for the Blind, taught me to see the world as my daughter did and to use “natural interaction times” to teach her. I began to fill in the developmental gaps that were created by her visual impairment by offering input to her other senses. Ultimately, I realized that I was the primary teacher of my child, and this motivated me to learn more about teaching children with visual impairments.
Once I entered the TVI program at UMass-Boston, I began to understand the ways that vision drives skill acquisition in all developmental domains. Vision is a consistent sense that provides information about objects, regardless of their size and whether they are located near or far. It integrates information received from other senses and provides a “whole picture” of the environment.
Children with typical visual functioning learn concepts and vocabulary by pairing verbal labels with visual images of objects they observe in everyday routines. They begin to build a visual image library that is stored within their memory. They are able to use these stored images to generalize concepts and to connect new information to previously learned concepts. Since many objects must be viewed at distance, children with visual impairments miss out on many learning opportunities that occur throughout the day.
Vision plays a large role in motor skills development, from providing the initial motivation to move to coordinating and refining small motor movements. Children with vision loss may lack the ability to imitate new movements and gestures which often motivate children with typical visual functioning to explore and play. Vision also gives information about spatial concepts and environmental features, both of which are critical for safe mobility.
Social skills are acquired through visual observation of caregivers and other family members. Children practice social skills through visual imitation of gestures, facial expressions, and body language. In addition to interactions with others, social skills also include self-identity and self-image. As you can imagine, these abstract concepts are difficult for a child with visual impairments to understand.
Daily living skills, or adaptive skills, are often learned through visual modeling. Think about all the tasks that you perform in a day. From getting dressed to meal preparation to household organization to managing your health, the skills needed to complete these tasks are learned by observing and imitating others. Even very young children learn that their toys go in the toy box after watching their caregivers clean up, and they learn that a spoon is used for eating (not just for banging on the highchair tray).
When parents are aware of the connection between vision and development, they gain a new perspective on the ways in which they interact with their babies throughout the day. They provide multisensory information about objects, they include their children in daily tasks, and they encourage their children towards independence as they begin to explore their environment. Although most parents do not, as a result of this experience, begin a career in field of visual impairments; they do become experts in supporting their children’s development.
Watch Julia and Sara for the webinar “Impacts of Vision Loss on a Child’s Development” as part of the Early Intervention series: