American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2015      TEACHING AND LEARNING

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Teaching the Visually Impaired in Mexico

by Lynn Rock

Lynn RockFrom the Editor: In May 2015 Lynn Rock contacted me to request a Slate Pal for a teenage student in Colima, Mexico. She and I exchanged a series of emails, and I learned that she volunteers as a teacher of English with a group of blind students in Colima. In this article she describes her work and explains how she makes her own teaching materials.

I have been a tutor for English as a second language (ESL) in the United States and Mexico for over fifteen years. Initially I went to Mexico as an ESL tutor for Casa Hogar San José, a home for orphaned and abandoned children and youth. I was enchanted by the Mexican people and their lively culture, but I was also painfully aware of the people's hardships. Although many people in Mexico enjoy what we think of as a middle-class lifestyle, poverty is widespread, and resources are very scarce. The living conditions can be primitive by US standards, with no heat or air-conditioning, no running water, and in some cases no electricity. Government assistance for people in need is minimal, and that includes assistance for people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

Medical facilities in Colima do not provide the basic amenities we expect in the States. I have an upcoming surgery, and I will need to hire people to tend to me around the clock while I'm in the hospital. I have to find people to help me bathe, get to the bathroom, and more, because the nurses don't do those things. I'll even have to bring my own soap and toilet paper!

In 2012 I became a literacy volunteer in Spanish at the Instituto Estatal para la Educación de los Adultos (IEEA), the State Institute for Adult Education. IEEA is similar to Literacy Volunteers in the US. Here we generally are expected to find our own students.

At first I had difficulty locating people to teach. Finally, I knocked on the door of the local association for the blind, La Asociación de los Ciegos Colimenses, or Association for the Blind of Colima, and asked if they could use my help. I began tutoring students and also was offered a free class in Level I Braille in Spanish.

The Association, as we call it, recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. It began with a small group of blind and visually impaired adults and young people. The coordinator, his wife, and their two sons all are visually impaired. The coordinator started the Association with a few other people, some of whom had grown up in institutions for people with disabilities. One of the founders was a teenager. He was not allowed to sign some of the forms until he came of age.

The mainstreaming of children with disabilities into regular schools is not common in Mexico. Most blind children have to move far away from family and friends to attend residential schools--if they go to school at all. Since some of these residential schools do not have dormitories, the children actually live in homes for people with disabilities. Even when programs for students with disabilities are available in the public schools, children with various disabilities are frequently mixed together in one classroom. In one class you might find blind children, deaf children, and children who have Down syndrome, all being taught together.

Illiteracy rates are high in the general population in Mexico, and they are higher still for people with visual impairments. The Association attempts to provide education and prevent blind people from ending up as beggars on the streets. It is not a home. The students attend classes, but they live with their families or friends. Some students travel great distances to attend Saturday classes. They come from the state of Jalisco and the cities of Tecomán and Manzanillo. Manzanillo is about an hour and a half away.

Among the classes at the Association are Braille levels I and II, typing, computer, abacus, and activities of daily living. They also offer mobility training and early stimulation for very young children. Now English as a second language has been added to the curriculum.

ESL is important in Mexico because proficiency in English can open the way to jobs in such fields as tourism and industry. English is usually required in primary and secondary school, but few materials are available in Braille, and finding volunteer readers can present a challenge. One student who took beginning classes with me went on to study English in a regular secondary school. (Secundaria in Mexico is the equivalent of middle school in the US.) He was placed in an advanced ESL class with fifty other students. As you can imagine, it has been quite a struggle for him, and he has failed some of his exams. I hope to work with him further and help him improve his grades.

Orientation and mobility training is a top priority at the Association. No one at the Association has a guide dog, but canes are used widely. The Association has a tactile map of the city that was made by the Department of Architecture. The students study the map and learn the layout of Colima's streets. They play games such as goalball to help improve their orientation and ease of movement.

In addition to teaching students, the Association offers workshops for classroom teachers, special education teachers, family members, and friends. The program teaches about visual disabilities and methods for education. It also tries to raise awareness about family dynamics such as overprotection, exclusion, and denial.

The space that the Association uses is essentially on loan from the Mexican government. It is a former prison and is considered to be a historic site. The Association owns one Perkins Brailler, a Braille printer, several computers, and some musical instruments. The staff consists of an interdisciplinary team including special education teachers, social workers, social work students, a psychiatrist, and just regular folks who wish to help out. Some blind members teach classes, and everyone, including the coordinator, is a volunteer.

At the Association I started reading to one blind student who didn't have his materials in Braille. He has no mother or father. He has to commute a considerable distance, needing to get rides to the Association. He is learning to type, but he still hasn't started to learn to use the computer with the JAWS screen reading program. I am helping him complete primaria, or elementary school.

In August 2014 we began to teach ESL in earnest. We kept the classes to a maximum of five students so we could give everyone personalized attention. I printed out materials in Braille for the blind students. For those with low vision who read large print, I put together a separate spiral-bound book in 72-point type for each chapter.

For the vocabulary words in each unit, I used large index cards. I wrote a word on each card in Braille and with a large black marker. I used textures and colors for certain categories of words to make the lessons more interesting and to reinforce the learning through varied media. For the cards with nouns, I used blue on the top and bottom and added a tiny piece of sandpaper. For verbs, I used red and a bit of felt, and for adjectives I used green and a different smooth texture.

I have used songs to help the students learn the numbers, letters, family members, and more. I have printed out the words to songs in Braille and in large print. We have even done karaoke, which the teens loved!

I have used a computer program called Quizlet, making up my own sets of objects. I got someone to set the program to say the word in English with an American accent and then in Spanish.

We've also played various forms of bingo using letters, numbers, and other words, all of which I have put into Braille. For the letters, I also formed the print letter with a kind of wide string, or I wrote it on the cards with a stylus so the students could feel it when they turned the card over. I put a button over the lowercase i and j.

I have also used real objects. For one song on phonics with two words for each letter, I brought in a stack of materials such as an umbrella, plastic animals and insects, a Groucho Marx-type nose and mustache, and Mr. Potato Head. When I passed around Mr. Potato Head's hand and said, "hand," the students laughed. I even had adults wearing the nose and having fun while they learned.

When I couldn't find real objects that were suitable, I traced the image on a sheet of paper. I flipped it over and let the students feel the image while I described it.

I try to be very flexible with my students. In one class two students had some vision, and two were totally blind. The two blind students were adults, and the two with low vision were children with additional mental and emotional issues. I requested assistance, and a special education teacher and a student to help with the children appeared. I work with the two blind adults.

The Association tried to offer classes in English in the past, but for whatever reason it never really worked until now. We hope to keep up with all of the work at the Association and to advance all of the programs, including ESL. We are a bit cramped for space, and we hope that one day we can expand to a larger building or open more branches. The need here is very great.

What we are doing at the Association hardly begins to touch all of the work that needs to be done. We want to continue helping the blind people of Colima to advance and reaching out to those in the surrounding areas. By working together we hope to achieve our goals.

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