Teaching English to Immigrants and Refugees with Visual Limitations: How Do You Do It?

by Sylvie Kashdan

MS Word .doc version (51 kb)

An expanded version of the article published in The Braille Forum Volume XLI, October 2002 No. 3.

Since 1997, my companion Robby Barnes and I have both been teaching English to visually-impaired and blind immigrants and refugees. I have often been asked how we do it. The short answer is, by combining our personal knowledge of adapting to living with visual impairments with our extensive knowledge and experience of how to tailor teaching to diverse students’ individual needs and goals.

Our Personal Knowledge Of Adapting To Living With Visual Impairments

Robby is partially sighted, and I am totally blind. Each of us has developed a variety of adaptive skills over the years that have enabled us to complete college and graduate school, work in a number of different kinds of jobs, volunteer in community programs, enjoy many kinds of recreational activities, travel and develop friendships with people in other countries. Moreover, we are both avid readers and writers. Robby uses print, and I use braille. We both use computers—Robby with a screen magnification program and I with a screen reader. And Both of us have continually reflected on how we learned to do these things and the adaptive skills that make the doing possible, in order to use our own experiences as models for helping others learn to fulfill their aspirations.

Our Experience Teaching Diverse Students

As native New Yorkers, both Robby and I grew up with friends and acquaintances who spoke at least one other language before they learned English. And, as part of a family of immigrants, I was always quite close to people who spoke English as their second or third language. Since both Robby and I each began teaching in New York City, from early on, we always had a high proportion of students who came from places where English was not the primary language. So, we always needed to consider the needs of new English learners, even when we were not focused directly on teaching English.

In 1971 Robby began teaching arts and crafts classes for children in low-income neighborhoods in New York City. He also provided academic tutoring to elementary and high school students who were having difficulty in school.

From 1969 onward, I began teaching adults in a variety of settings. I taught arts and crafts, and current events classes to seniors, and assisted in some arts and crafts classes for blind and visually-impaired adults. For a number of years, I also taught both basic and advanced sociology courses to adults in the Evening Division of the City University of New York.

When Robby and I moved to Seattle, Washington in the 1980s, we found that many people from other countries also lived in the Seattle-King County metropolitan area, and there was a great need for teachers of English as a second language. So, we both decided to develop our skills in that area of teaching. In 1988, we both began new careers teaching English as a second language (ESL).

Problems Faced By Immigrants And Refugees With Visual Limitations

In 1997 first Robby, and then both of us were hired as independent professional ESL tutors for some clients of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. We were initially called in by Doug Hildie, an insightful and dedicated vocational rehabilitation counselor in Seattle.

Since the early 1990s about 10,000 new immigrants and refugees have been coming to the Seattle-King County metropolitan area every year. Currently, one in four households in Seattle-King County speak a language other than English in their home.

Doug Hildie worked for the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind for 20 years. By the late 1990s he was concerned about the increasing numbers of visually-impaired and blind clients who were arriving in the United States from a variety of countries where English was not the primary language. Some of his new clients spoke a little English, but none of them could read, write, or speak English well enough to communicate effectively with others. Doug felt that it was important to directly work on eliminating the language barrier, which was making it quite difficult for most of them to acquire the adaptive skills needed to function independently and successfully in the myriad activities of daily life.

So, Doug started sending these clients to local community colleges to learn English. But, it became more and more evident to him that many of these visually-impaired and blind students were not being served adequately by the English classes available for fully-sighted immigrants and refugees. The instructional and other staff in the community college programs designed to help fully-sighted immigrants and refugees had little or no familiarity with the possibilities for, or abilities and needs of people with visual limitations. They were not prepared to help visually-impaired and blind students in appropriate or effective ways. They were teaching students in large groups, with little attention to any specialized needs. The textbooks and methods they relied on were full of lessons centered around pictures, print materials, and other vision-based learning experiences. The individual tutors who were available to help struggling students with their class work didn’t have a clue of how to assist visually-impaired and blind people beyond teaching them some basic oral communication skills. Although Doug tried providing extensive support, including sending a braille teacher to assist in the classes and work with the staff, it wasn’t enough to accommodate the needs of the low-vision and blind students.

They were still faced with many challenges that would have been annoyances if they had been fluent English speakers, but were actually counter-productive for learning the new language. They were constantly confused by the references to visual cues of all sorts, disorientated by poorly produced materials in braille, and embarrassed by their inability to easily read and write the in-class drills along with the sighted students. But, because of the large size of the classes, and the heavy workloads of the teachers, there was very little possibility for teachers to develop curriculum and procedures that would be accessible, and make it possible for the visually-impaired and blind students to participate on an equal basis with the other ESL students.

At the same time, helping these clients to learn all of the adaptive skills they needed posed some real problems precisely because they weren’t proficient even in oral English. Instruction in adaptive skills is heavily reliant on participants’ familiarity with spoken English, which makes it quite accessible to people with visual limitations who are fluent English users. But, people who are not proficient in English often find it quite difficult to learn new skills at the same time as struggling with unfamiliar language. Providing native language interpreters proved to be generally unsatisfactory, both because the interpreters were unfamiliar with what was being taught and so often confused the students as much as they helped them, and because the amount of interpreter services required was costly.

It became clear to Doug that new English learners with visual limitations have needs which are greater than and in some respects different from both the needs of fluent English speakers who are visually impaired or blind and those of fully-sighted new English learners. He was finding that simply adding together training, educational offerings and services designed for fluent-English speaking visually-impaired people and those designed for fully-sighted new English learners may not adequately meet their needs.

However, Doug was not satisfied with the common practice of simply letting these clients stay home or channeling them into unskilled manual jobs and hoping that they would learn English on their own in time. He wanted to do something more that would help to improve their chances for personal fulfillment and success in the job market. So, Doug called Robby and me in to provide individualized ESL tutoring for a number of his immigrant and refugee clients.

Teaching English To Immigrants And Refugees With Visual Limitations

Even before either of us began specializing in teaching visually-impaired and blind students, we always felt it was vital to adapt our teaching to students’ needs, by choosing suitable materials and techniques. And, we have always felt that students’ learning is improved when they are offered opportunities to learn through multiple senses, not just sight, and not just hearing either. And as visually-impaired people, we have the advantage over sighted teachers in being more consciously aware of the myriad of non-visual cues the world is full of. Moreover, we have always utilized wholistic communicative language teaching. The communicative approach recognizes that teaching a new language is not merely a matter of transmitting a long list of new words or phrases, but the more complex process of teaching how to use and understand a language in a new culture. This involves teachers demonstrating in clear and easy ways the contexts in which words, phrases and sentences in the new language are used. Since all people learn through multiple senses, not just through sight, this always needs to be done in a variety of ways, including using environmental sounds, mimic sounds, songs that can be listened to and sung together, gestures, such as clapping, shaking hands, stamping feet, etc. objects that can be touched, moved around, put on, made with clay or paper, smelled, cooked, eaten, and so on. Since the meaning of words, phrases and sentences all depend on the settings and situations in which they occur, teachers need to utilize either real life settings or simulate, as best their classroom facilities allow, settings such as a home, store, park, and the like. And students need to practice interacting in English in various situations in those settings.

The most significant research over the last 30 years has shown that students learn new languages best when their teachers replace isolated skill exercises and drills with actual real-world social interactions involving interesting activities with both people and objects. It is also important for students to learn speaking and listening, and reading and writing at the same time and in an integrated way, both to reinforce the language learning process through a variety of channels, and to foster authentic functional literacy in the new language.

This wholistic communicative perspective is particularly relevant and even crucial for enabling visually-impaired and blind adult students to learn the new language, and especially for developing authentic functional literacy in accessible formats.

They need to learn English literacy through braille, large print and speech-accessible computers in contexts that encourage them to practice using these accessible formats. It has become clear to us that new English learners who are visually-impaired and blind derive tremendous benefit from studying English with people who are naturally using these formats themselves on a regular basis, because this provides them with both real positive role models and authentic reasons for practicing reading and writing in accessible formats. We want to help visually-impaired and blind immigrants and refugees to participate in the sighted world, including in mainstream educational institutions. But, only when they have developed some functional literacy will they be able to utilize accessible formats to successfully learn other subjects along with sighted peers.

In 1998, Doug Hildie suggested that we form a small non-profit organization specifically devoted to helping blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees who need to learn English.

Kaizen Program
for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
email: kaizen ( at ) quixotes.org
web: https://www.quixotes.org/kaizen//