Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
Since 1998 Kaizen has been active in teaching blind ESL students.
Kaizen addresses the specialized instructional needs of visually-impaired immigrants and refugees learning English as a new language.
The program also provides consultation and support locally and internationally for professionals and volunteers working with new English learners who are visually impaired.
The Need for a Specialized Program
It is generally recognized that people with visual impairments greatly benefit from specialized instruction in daily living skills, in reading and writing in accessible formats, and in the use of special aids and equipment. People who are learning English as a new language also require specialized training and educational services that take into account their needs as new language learners. And new English learners with visual limitations usually have needs which are greater than and in some respects different from both the needs of Proficient English speakers who are visually impaired or blind and those of fully-sighted new English learners. This means that simply adding together training, educational offerings and services designed for proficient-English speaking visually-impaired people and those designed for fully-sighted new English learners may not adequately meet their needs.
The chances for new English learners with visual limitations to achieve their goals and realize their full potential are therefore greatly enhanced by specialized instruction which takes into account both their needs as visually-impaired people and as new English learners, and which teaches functional oral English communication and literacy in a way that is integrated and coordinated with their learning of the other adaptive skills they need.
Students need help in developing the capabilities to utilize the resources and information they need to make decisions, advocate for themselves, take appropriate action, and improve their life situations.
Meeting Complex Challenges with Wholistic Solutions
Newcomers with visual limitations face a triple challenge, simply to begin living independently: They need to develop basic English proficiency, learn new adaptive skills, and learn about the new culture. Because of the complex interrelationship between their communication capacities and the need to learn specialized skills along with everything else that all new-comers need to learn, they face a greater challenge than do fully sighted new English learners.
Blind and visually-impaired new-comers cannot usually rely on the visual cues which fully-sighted new-comers can fall back on. In order to begin to be independent, they therefore need to develop English communication skills much earlier than sighted immigrants and refugees. Because they cannot rely on other people’s gestures, printed signs or other visual cues in the environment, it is a priority for them to develop the capacity to communicate in English when performing such basic tasks as making purchases, paying rent and other bills, asking for and following directions for finding streets and addresses, taking buses or special access transportation, or dealing with accidents and emergencies.
Challenges in Programs for Visually-Impaired proficient English Speakers
Most programs devoted to assisting proficient English-speaking visually-impaired and blind people rely heavily on oral English for instruction, counseling and other services. But this is precisely the area in which immigrants and refugees often face the greatest challenges. Although these agencies generally utilize interpreters to help non-English-speaking students at the beginning of their adaptive training, many students who have begun this way have reported that it was a major challenge for them to learn the new adaptive skills and understand their possible options, even with highly competent interpreters. Sometimes the problem has resulted from the interpreter’s difficulty in understanding what the trainers are saying because of lack of familiarity with the adaptive skills being taught. Sometimes it is due to the interpreter’s inability to express in the student’s first language what she or he may understand in English because of observing the motions and body language of the trainer or because of personal experience with the skills in question. Not until they became capable of communicating directly with their teachers and counselors in English were the students able to fully benefit from these programs.
Challenges in Programs Designed to Teach English to Sighted Students
Beginning courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) offered to the general public depend heavily on pictures, illustrations and other visual cues for introducing concepts and topics in the new language. Because ESOL instructors in these programs are not generally prepared to redesign their curricula and methods to fully integrate the needs of students with visual limitations, these learners are often at a great disadvantage in such settings.
Blind and visually-impaired ESOL students have an extra-heavy learning burden because they must struggle to adapt to the lack of visual cues, along with acquiring a new language.
Moreover, because teachers in ESOL programs for fully-sighted learners are not usually familiar with how best to teach or utilize accessible formats such as large print, braille or accessible computer programs, they are not prepared to support these students in learning functional literacy.
But, without developing authentic literacy skills as part of communicating in English, new English learners with visual limitations will not be able to take full advantage of educational opportunities or obtain jobs paying above-poverty-level wages.
Necessary Services to students
New English learners with visual limitations need both individual and small group assistance in acquiring English proficiency, developing adaptive skills, and learning about the new culture. By giving comprehensible English instruction relevant to their situations as people with visual limitations, students can be prepared to benefit from training and orientation programs offered to proficient English speakers.
Along with general “survival” English, students should be given English lessons focused on developing the basic communication skills that will enable them to most successfully utilize the specialized services offered by state and other agencies. To support their beginning mobility training they should be given extensive practice with the specialized vocabulary and usage related to the subject. This greatly accelerates their learning because it enables them to communicate directly with mobility trainers to some degree.
It is also important to help beginning and intermediate English learners by laying an English communicative basis for acquiring a broad range of other adaptive skills.
Teachers need to combine lessons in English communication with instruction in reading and writing in braille or large print, through digital recordings. Later they can be introduced to computers utilizing screen readers with synthesized speech and screen magnification programs, perhaps Smartphones and other accessible formats. Teachers need to provide a context in which students can practice with materials and lessons that have immediate relevance to their personal situations as people with visual limitations learning a new language.
Teachers need to support students in learning the English oral communication and literacy skills they need for various present and future job activities.
It is also vital to combine functional literacy in accessible formats, oral communication and student-centered lessons, to help students develop self-advocacy skills and knowledge of their personal rights.
Students at all levels need to be given specialized and individualized exposure to their new environments by utilizing non-visual sensory modes thoroughly and creatively.
By providing contexts adapted to students’ use of non-visual cues, teachers can help prepare them to learn as equals along with fully-sighted students in a variety of settings. It also gives them support as they participate in these programs.
Kaizen’s Services to Teachers, Tutors and Service Providers
Fulfilling part of the program’s mission, the Kaizen staff has developed and conducted training workshops, informational materials and other resources that support professional educators, volunteer tutors, as well as counselors and administrators locally and internationally. Our individual consultations and materials are designed to support these professionals and volunteers in better meeting the needs of blind and visually-impaired new English learners. We continually share knowledge and experience gained in study and practice since 1997. Resources are made available by email and the Kaizen web site at
The program’s instructors are ESOL professionals skilled in utilizing the best current educational approaches and familiar with the special needs of visually-impaired and blind new English learners. They have had broad experience teaching refugees and immigrants in a variety of academic and community-based learning contexts.
Kaizen’s instructors are themselves authentic users of adaptive skills, including literacy in accessible formats required by people with visual limitations. They are therefore able to provide integrated models and practice of literacy and other essential skills in a wholistic, meaningfully functional manner. Such modeling is extremely important in promoting authentic use by students.
The program’s instructors are qualified to assist counselors and others in evaluating students’ current needs and skills, and to recommend appropriate types of specialized support.
Kaizen is a non-profit corporation recognized under Section 501(c)(3) of the Federal Revenue Code. Contributions to the program are tax-deductible. Kaizen does not exclude any person in any way from participation as student, instructor, staff, board member, volunteer assistant, or in any other role because of race, ethnic, political or social background. Kaizen welcomes and invites the participation of people from all backgrounds in furthering the purposes of the program.