American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      EDUCATION

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Helpful Hints for Paraprofessionals Working with Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

by Merry-Noel Chamberlain

Ashleah Chamberlain and her paraprofessional, Cheryl LentschFrom the Editor: Merry-Noel Chamberlain is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and holds National Orientation and Mobility Certification. Her articles on orientation and mobility training for blind children have appeared frequently in Future Reflections. She lives and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska.

Sometimes students who are blind or visually impaired have one or two paraprofessionals available to assist them throughout the school day. These paraprofessionals seldom receive specific training in how to work with blind or visually-impaired students. Generally paraprofessionals receive on-the-job training focused on the student's individual needs. Training varies widely from one school district to another, and it may be influenced by the supervising teacher and a variety of circumstances.

This article offers some helpful hints for paraprofessionals working with students who are blind or visually impaired. As not all students have the same needs, it is simply a place to begin.

In some ways the duties of paraprofessionals working with blind or visually-impaired students are similar to those of all paraprofessionals who work with students one-on-one. Overall, the goal is to avoid promoting learned helplessness in the student. The aim of most paraprofessionals is to:

Basic Duties

For the paraprofessional who works with a blind or visually-impaired student, the basic duties go well beyond those listed above. For best results, the first person the paraprofessional needs to turn to for guidance is the teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI). The TVI works directly with the student and knows best the individual student's nonvisual or low-vision needs. Although paraprofessionals work one-on-one with students, they are not teachers. They are supporters who reinforce what has been taught by the classroom teacher, TVI, or orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor.

In a sense, paraprofessionals are reporters. They relay information back to the TVI or O&M instructor, noting problem areas they have observed or upcoming events of which the TVI or O&M instructor may not be aware.

Paraprofessionals work closely with the TVI, the O&M instructor, and the classroom or special education teacher. Because of this close working relationship they have with the student, they are part of the team. They need to participate in the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. If the student attends his IEP meetings, he will be aware that the paraprofessional is current on all expectations and will support those expectations. The student will not be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the paraprofessional in order to avoid taking responsibility―not that children will ever attempt to do such a thing, mind you!

Here are some of the basic roles and duties of paraprofessionals who work with blind and visually-impaired students.

Reader

Paraprofessionals who work with blind or visually-impaired students serve as readers. In this case, a reader is not simply someone who reads printed materials such as textbooks, worksheets, or storybooks. Rather, she or he is a person who describes the environment to the student. This describing may include, but is not limited to, the following:

Scribe

On occasion the classroom teacher may assign a project on short notice, without allowing time for the materials to be enlarged or transcribed into Braille. Perhaps she has decided on a teachable moment or a pop quiz. To ensure that the student doesn't miss out, the paraprofessional may not only be the reader but also serve as the scribe. A scribe is a person who does all of the writing. This writing could involve filling out a worksheet, completing a math journal, or completing an assignment on an inaccessible website. The paraprofessional needs to keep in mind that:

Here are some other helpful hints a paraprofessional may wish to keep in mind when serving as a scribe for a student:

If a paraprofessional is too helpful, a student may learn to accept unnecessary help from everyone around him, such as friends, family, office staff, acquaintances, and the general public. This behavior is known as learned helplessness. Keep in mind that the paraprofessional is not:

Adapting Materials

Paraprofessionals working with students with visual impairments may be called upon to adapt materials, that is, to make them accessible for the student. Examples of such materials are worksheets, games, diagrams, pictures, and charts. Depending on the individual student's needs, they may be adapted in three ways: tactile, outlined, or enlarged.

Tactile: There are many ways to provide students with tactile access to materials. The paraprofessional can use puff-paint, foam stickers, raised-line graphing tape, raised-line drawing kits, or tactile graph paper. Braille labels or other items can be glued onto paper, game boards, or posters.

Outlining: For low-vision students, targeted areas on a worksheet may need to be accented with a bold black marker. The marker indicates the box where the student needs to write answers or the line the student needs to cut with scissors.

Enlargement: Enlarged materials need to be discussed with the TVI. The TVI will explain the percentage of enlargement needed and the size of the paper to be used. Some students need to have enlargements on 11x17-inch paper, while others have a preference for legal-size paper. The TVI or O&M instructor may be able to provide instructions on how the materials need to be adapted for the individual student.

Finding time to adapt materials can be a challenge for the paraprofessional. The availability of such time depends on the student's schedule. Unlike teachers, paraprofessionals are seldom given official planning periods. Time may be available while the student participates in activities that do not require the paraprofessional's direct involvement, or when the student is out of school due to illness or doctor's appointments.

Braille

Paraprofessionals working with students who are Braille readers or who are learning Braille need some general knowledge of the Braille code. Beginning paraprofessionals may learn alongside their young students or their students who are just starting to receive Braille instruction. However, most paraprofessionals learn Braille through correspondence courses in order to keep ahead of their students. It is extremely important that the paraprofessional's Braille skills surpass the student's level. The TVI may provide the paraprofessional with information on available Braille correspondence courses.

Some paraprofessionals wonder why they need to know Braille since they are not the ones who teach it. Knowledge of Braille is important for several reasons:

Keep in mind that the paraprofessional (or even the TVI) who knows Braille is not considered a certified Braille transcriber.

There is more to Braille than simply learning the code. For example, Braille students need to:

Specialized Equipment

At times students with visual impairments use specialized equipment such as a closed circuit magnification device, Perkins Brailler, or electronic notetaking device. The paraprofessional is not required to know everything about the student's specialized equipment. However, it is very helpful if he knows basic functions and problem-solving techniques.

Some students use the abacus for doing math or the slate and stylus for writing Braille. The paraprofessional may wish to learn more about this equipment, and the TVI can provide information about correspondence courses or online tutorials.

Orientation & Mobility (O&M)

The paraprofessional needs to observe the student's orientation and mobility lessons. This will give the paraprofessional insight as to how to assist the student when the O&M instructor is not present. The paraprofessional is not an O&M instructor, but he can support and reinforce the techniques the student has been taught. The paraprofessional reports to the O&M instructor when he notices problem areas for the student.

School staff and other students sometimes assume that the paraprofessional is the blind student's personal human guide. The paraprofessional will learn the proper human guide technique, as there may be critical times when walking human guide is necessary. However, when given the proper skills, the student can become an independent traveler.

Orientation and mobility involves much more than teaching a student to walk from Point A to Point B. O&M involves concepts including cardinal directions, posture and gait, walking in step, problem solving, and mental mapping skills. When a paraprofessional works closely with the O&M instructor, he learns these skills with the student and can reinforce them outside of O&M class.

Letting Go

This section is mainly pertinent to students who have been blind or visually impaired for quite some time and have considerable experience working with a paraprofessional. It is not relevant for newly blinded or visually-impaired students.

When the student reaches high school, her need for a paraprofessional diminishes. The upper-level high school student needs to become less dependent on the paraprofessional; frankly, the paraprofessional is not going to follow her to college and beyond. It is important to wean the student from her dependency. However, this can be a tricky situation, because the paraprofessional still needs to be on hand in case the student truly needs the assistance of a scribe or a reader.

The paraprofessional needs to back away so the student can attempt to be as independent as possible. Basically, the paraprofessional is "on call." Sometimes it is difficult for other staff members and even administrators to understand this process. They may see the paraprofessional sitting in the back of the classroom, seemingly unengaged. Some classroom teachers give the paraprofessional other duties during this fading-out period. Ultimately, the goal is for the student not to need a paraprofessional any longer.

The second semester of the student's junior year can be the transition time for students with visual impairments, for this is a great opportunity to help prepare them for college. When students go to college, they will often be required to hire their own readers/scribes, and their senior year is a great opportunity for them to practice using a reader/scribe via the available paraprofessional. Therefore, it is important for the paraprofessional to only be available to read or scribe when requested by the student. This process is, of course, overseen by the TVI and the classroom teachers to ensure that the student is completing work in a timely manner. This is not a time for the student to fail; rather it is a time for the TVI, classroom teacher, and paraprofessional to provide guidance to the student, then step back, monitor, and provide feedback to the student, as needed.

Final Notes

The relationship between the paraprofessional and the student needs to remain professional. Sometimes when a student spends the majority of his educational experience attached to one paraprofessional, the relationship can become too close. If that happens, the student may take liberties she may not otherwise attempt with someone else. In addition, the paraprofessional may do things automatically for the student instead of waiting for the student to take the proper initiative on her own. If a paraprofessional has had the opportunity to spend several years with one student, the two can create a strong bond. If the relationship has remained professional, in that the student is aware of the role of the paraprofessional, the relationship can be successful and enriching.

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