Notes on the Needs of New English Learners with Vision Limitations

Sylvie Kashdan and Robby Barnes
Tacoma Community House
Volunteer ESL / Refugee Concerns Conference
Tacoma, Washington
May 9, 1998

MS Word .doc version (77 kb)

1. Our students are…

* People who have had vision impairments since birth or childhood because of hereditary or congenital conditions

* Adults or children who have developed vision impairments due to diseases such as measles, small pox, river blindness, diabetes, etc., or due to malnutrition

* Adults or children who have developed vision impairments because of injuries related to accidents or war

* Older adults who have developed age-related vision impairments which interfere with reading and/or writing standard size print and/or other activities fully sighted individuals take for granted

2. What are their special problems and challenges?

New English learners with visual limitations face all of the problems encountered by all immigrants and refugees, stemming from their lack of familiarity with the English language, and with much of American culture and bureaucratic procedures.

They all need to (a) learn English, which includes becoming functionally literate in the language; (b) become acclimated to American culture and the communities they live in; and (c) gain knowledge of bureaucratic procedures related to such basic aspects of daily life as housing, health care, food and clothing needs.

In addition, visually-impaired and blind new English learners usually have needs which are greater than and in some respects different from the needs both of fully sighted new English learners and visually impaired and blind fluent English speakers.

* Today, the majority of blind and visually-impaired newcomers to the United States have little or no previous experience living independently with their disabilities. In most countries outside North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, assistive services for people with disabilities are minimal or nonexistent. As a result, many immigrants and refugees with visual limitations have few independent living skills, little experience on their own, and very limited ideas of how to adapt to opportunities in the community.

And even those who have been resourceful enough to develop strategies and independent living skills appropriate for survival and independent living in their countries of origin, cannot usually transfer the strategies, skills or experience to the challenges of living on their own, and adapting to new and unexpected opportunities in their new homeland.

This makes it quite difficult for them to participate on an equal basis with sighted peers in programs intended for the general population of immigrants and refugees.

* The ideas that they can become literate and even aspire to higher education are frequently novelties for many immigrants and refugees with vision limitations. In many of the countries from which they come, visually-impaired and blind children and young adults have very often been regarded as pathetic figures, who are only capable of learning very basic manual skills (such as basket weaving or broom making) or certain specialties (such as music or acupuncture). And literacy has not been among those skills they could be considered capable of achieving. Or, they may have been considered capable of basic elementary literacy, but not capable of higher education. And those who have experienced vision loss as adults have often believed that their opportunities for productive work, and for intellectual growth and expression were ended.

* Newcomers with visual limitations frequently suffer from their lack of knowledge about how to successfully adapt to the challenges which all visually impaired and blind people face in this country in participating in education, employment, recreation, or other activities available to fully sighted people.

And, when they first come to the United States, blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees are often not aware that, no matter how old they are, their horizons can be broadened to include independent living skills, functional literacy and even technical training or higher education.

Despite these limitations, many of these people are willing, and even eager to make great efforts to contribute to the well-being of their families, to broaden their own horizons, and to make a significant contribution to their new homeland. But, no matter how much effort they put into learning to communicate orally in English, they will not be able to take full advantage of educational opportunities or obtain jobs which pay above-poverty-level wages, without developing their ability to live independently, read and write, using some accessible format, as well as to converse in English.

* And even after they become informed of what is required, they still often lack the adaptive skills required for such endeavors, and must begin the long task of acquiring them. But, the adjustments that they must make in order to utilize the programs and services newly available to them, are not always easy for them to make without extensive professional consultation and technical support.

All of this means that they face adjusting to their new lives in this country with more than the average amount of challenges.

3. What can be of help to them?

Immigrants and refugees with visual impairments require contexts in which they can most easily and comfortably learn English in combination with adaptive skills related to their needs as people with specific strengths and handicaps.

They need the assistance of specialists who are prepared to help them develop oral and functional literacy skills in English, along with and through developing necessary specialized competencies for utilizing equipment and materials directly accessible to them. These include:

* appropriate mobility and orientation aids, including canes and guide dogs

* large print, talking, and Braille household scales, thermometers, blood pressure gauges, diabetes-related self-care equipment, etc.

* large print, talking, and Braille clocks, watches, timers and calculators

* other specially adapted or individually labeled household equipment, such as ovens, thermostats, telephones, etc.

* print magnification and lighting enhancement devices

* multi-track and multi-speed cassette recorders appropriate for spoken-word long-playing recordings

* published books and magazines in accessible formats, such as spoken-word recordings, large print and Braille

* Braillewriters and slates, for direct typing and hand writing of Braille

* computers with speech, screen enlargement and/or Braille display programs

* computerized dictionaries, scanners, character recognition and reading programs

All new English learners with visual limitations also need some form of individualized instruction and problem-solving specifically adapted to their particular needs.

4. The needs of visually impaired and blind new English learners which are greater than and in some respects different from the needs of fully sighted new English learners

Staff in programs designed to help fully sighted immigrants and refugees usually have little or no familiarity with the possibilities for, or abilities and needs of people with visual limitations. Although they are often sympathetic and accepting, they are generally not aware of how to assist visually-impaired or blind new English learners, or prepared to help them in appropriate or effective ways.

Such programs are often ill-suited to the needs of these students because the overwhelming majority of them are heavily reliant on teaching English and other new skills through utilizing pictures, print materials, and other vision-based learning experiences.

In most programs developed to assist fully sighted immigrants and refugees, the reliance on standard-size print, pictures and other visual cues, greatly burdens most visually impaired and blind new English learners in acquiring literacy. But, by far, the greatest obstacle is posed by the widespread belief of sighted instructors and other staff, that it is impossible or too onerous to help these students to learn to read and write. The handicapped students, their families and friends, and instructors all often believe that oral proficiency is all that is realistic for them.

But, when they come to the U.S. new English learners who are visually impaired or blind find themselves in a society that is immersed in print, where full integration is dependent on developing literacy. In order to participate as independent adults, they must acquire specialized skills to perform the literacy tasks that they need to live, learn, and work on a daily basis, and they need strategies to gain access to standard print materials independently, when necessary.

Fully sighted adults who are emergent literacy learners have constant exposure to print, often in conjunction with illustrative pictures and logos, as part of going through their daily life activities. They therefore have some models of what written language is and what it is used for. However, such experiences are not readily accessible to people who are severely visually impaired or blind. Their lack of exposure to the wealth of written language that surrounds every fully sighted person in this country, may mean that those who did not learn to read and write through accessible media in their home countries do not even have the basic concept of how spoken language can be written down.

They therefore require exposure to accessible models of written language and specially-adapted types of instruction which are usually not available in mainstream E.S.L. programs. They also need opportunities to learn English and adaptive skills in contexts specifically oriented to their needs for non-visual cues, in order to be equipped to learn as equals along with their fully sighted peers.

* The fill-in-the-blanks, unscramble-the-words, match the items in separate columns or boxes, and other such E.S.L. skills-based literacy exercises can not be easily understood by many Braille readers, especially those who are beginning English learners. This is because the tactual sense requires that information must be derived by experiencing a moving narrow field of perception, unlike the visual sense, which allows for simultaneous perceptions of various aspects of a wide field, including such things as a page layout, chart or sentence formation in a single glance.

* Learners who are blind or visually impaired must be taught to use touch, just as fully sighted learners are taught to use vision. However, since opportunities for incidental learning through the sense of touch are limited, they must be consciously provided and encouraged. Children and adults who have severe visual limitations are not usually distracted by objects around them, and therefore are not generally motivated to explore and learn about those objects unless they are given the opportunity and are encouraged to do so. Without such encouragement and opportunities, individuals with visual limitations often become passive receivers of whatever happens to come their way instead of engaging in the active exploration and experimentation that is necessary for the full development of their sense of touch. If they have not been encouraged to become active learners in their home countries, new English learners who are blind or visually impaired may be hesitant to begin exploring their new environment on their own, and need special support in beginning this process.

* The English texts and exercises available in E.S.L. classes and tutoring services for fully sighted immigrants and refugees are often unduly onerous to those students who are learning by using Braille. The fill-in-the-blanks, unscramble-the-words, matching exercises, charts, and other such E.S.L. skills-based literacy exercises are disorienting and confusing to many Braille readers, especially those who are beginning English learners. Although such formats may seem intuitively obvious and clear to print readers, they can be experienced very differently by Braille readers. This is because the tactual sense requires that information be derived by experiencing a moving narrow field of perception, unlike the visual sense, which allows for simultaneous perceptions of various aspects of a wide field—including such things as a page layout, chart or sentence formation—in a single glance.

5. What E.S.L. tutors, teachers and other staff in community programs which primarily serve sighted new English learners can do to better help new English learners with visual limitations

* Focus teaching on real-life situations, total physical response activities, games that are accessible by touch and otherwise manipulating concrete objects, arts and crafts, cooking activities, and field trips. When learning a new language, everyone can benefit from a wide variety of multisensory cues to enhance and reinforce the meaning being conveyed in spoken and/or written communication. All students, including fully-sighted people, can benefit from having a wide variety of sensory experiences to help them in understanding everyday contexts. And visually impaired and blind students especially need assistance in utilizing sensory modes beyond vision more thoroughly and creatively.

* Find interesting alternatives to the usual reliance on pictures for illustrating lesson topics. For example: You could make “auditory experience albums” by recording events and experiences on cassette tapes, to use in class in similar ways you would utilize picture collections and picturebooks. You could also encourage all students to make “auditory experience” collections of their own to share with you and the class.

* Consciously work to provide visually impaired and blind students with direct, repeated, and meaningful everyday interactions with large print or Braille literacy materials and activities, to overcome the knowledge gap caused by their lack of incidental exposure to written materials in the environment. Label objects, controls on machines, bottles, cans and boxes, in the classroom or students’ homes, using the medium which is most accessible to each individual student. Call students’ attention to tactile signs and objects in the classroom, homes, and during field trips.

* Encourage visually impaired and blind students to participate in drawing and other art activities by using thick markers, raised line kits, yarn drawing, modeling clay, or whatever other medium suits them.

* Encourage visually impaired and blind students to use large print, Braille, or tape recordings for keeping their own accessible records of homework assignments, lists, letters and notes to friends and family members, or engaging in other literacy activities, rather than relying on you or other sighted people to do their writing for them. Give them the necessary extra time if they require it, and invite them to write experimentally, without worrying about code errors.

* Concentrate more on finding out about and integrating all students’ current skills and interests into lessons, as topics for demonstration, description, and discussion.

* Direct visually impaired and blind new English learners to local agencies which specialize in assisting people with vision impairments, where they can obtain evaluation of their needs, find out about their possibilities, learn new skills, access services and find products that can help them in living independently, and get appropriately specialized support.

* Do not deny visually impaired and blind students the opportunity to become literate in English by reinforcing their belief that there is no way they can become English readers and writers. Instead, become informed about possibilities for their literacy, and get appropriate specialized support to help you encourage these students to practice literacy skills.

* Help blind and visually impaired new English learners gain access to the functional literacy skills and information they need. Depending on their age, health status and personal needs, and other factors, they will be able to learn to use one or more accessible media for reading and writing. In today’s world functional literacy is very important to all of our success, dignity, and perceived self-worth as individuals. Moreover, literacy is important for gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to obtain employment and/or fully participate in community affairs. All of this is as true for visually impaired and blind people as for everyone else.

* Become informed about the various resources and technologies which can help you provide students who have visual limitations with access to the same wealth of information that is available to your fully sighted students.

* Utilize wholistic literacy teaching to tap into all students’ strengths and knowledge, and to avoid the fill-in-the-blanks, unscramble-the-words, and other such literacy exercises that are most confusing for users of Braille to follow and participate in doing, because of their narrow field of tactile perception.

* In reading activities, fully include visually impaired and blind students by providing accessible forms of the materials, and encouraging them to fully participate by using the materials in the same ways as their sighted peers, as much as possible, at their current reading competency levels. When deciding on what is most feasible, you should always keep in mind that the primary goal is not anyone’s temporary convenience, but (as with fully sighted new English learners) providing the kinds of opportunities which do not short-circuit students’ real reading practice.

* In writing activities, fully include visually impaired and blind students by encouraging them to participate by writing in whatever format is accessible to them, in the same ways as their sighted peers (as much as possible, at their current writing competency levels) and then reading their own writing back to you or the class when everyone else is doing that kind of activity; or having it transcribed into standard print later by whatever means is most convenient. Once again, you should always keep in mind that the primary goal is not anyone’s temporary convenience, but (as with fully sighted new English learners) providing the kinds of opportunities which do not short-circuit students’ real writing practice.

* If your program includes providing on-site computers for fully sighted new English learners to use, make it your responsibility to ensure that at least one of those computers has fully functional hardware and software for screen enlargement, Braille display and voice accessibility, to enable visually impaired and blind students to fully participate in computer-based activities.

6. Special priorities of students with visual limitations

Because they cannot usually benefit from the use of visual cues, such as pictures, gestures, or standard-size print in their interactions with sighted people, and cannot always obtain the services of competent interpreters when they require them, visually impaired and blind immigrants and refugees, much more than their fully sighted peers, need to prioritize:

* learning how to communicate orally in English with housing authority management, doctors and social service providers, etc.

* developing the necessary listening skills to understand when forms, personal mail and other informational materials in English are read to them by sighted fluent English-speaking assistants, and learning how to respond to questions on forms in English

* learning how to understand and respond to basic English language instructions spoken by strangers on the street, and by bus and taxi drivers

* understanding English language information and training provided orally by instructors, counselors and other staff in mainstream community programs

They also need to learn:

* how to communicate specialized needs to instructors and staff in mainstream programs, so that they are able to effectively access such community services independently

* What their rights are

* how to advocate for themselves

* how to gain help in obtaining study materials in accessible formats

* how to arrange for and coordinate the special kinds of support services they require to fully and successfully participate in community programs and employment (when desired) along with their sighted peers

7. The needs of visually impaired and blind new English learners which are greater than and in some respects different from the needs of visually impaired and blind fluent English speakers

Visually-impaired and blind newcomers to our country who have not had previous experience living independently with their handicaps, require individualized adapted English language tutoring to prepare them for and support them in programs which specialize in teaching visually-impaired and blind people skills for independent living. Most of the staff in such programs are sympathetic to new English learners, but lack the expertise, training, and resources to most effectively provide such students with linguistically comprehensible learning contexts.

* Agencies for the Blind and visually impaired generally provide instruction, training and other services which are heavily reliant on participants’ familiarity with oral English as a communication vehicle. However, this is precisely the area in which immigrants and refugees are most often at the greatest disadvantage. Such students therefore require English lessons specifically focused on developing the basic communication skills which can enable them to understand and respond adequately to the specialized information provided by instructors, trainers, counselors and other staff, so that they can fully benefit from the important training and services available from these agencies.

* Although bilingual interpreters can be of significant help to these students in becoming aware of the specialized services and opportunities available to them, and in supporting them while they are enrolled in the programs, the students’ learning of adaptive skills is greatly accelerated when they can understand and communicate directly in English with the instructors who are teaching the adaptive skills.

* In most programs developed to assist fluent English-speaking visually-impaired and blind people, the reliance on oral English proficiency also greatly burdens most new English learners in acquiring functional literacy. Those students who have not yet developed the capacity to understand spoken English have great difficulty comprehending the meaning of oral instruction in the Braille code, large print or computer literacy, even when the oral instruction is interpreted for them by competent bilingual assistants. It is therefore difficult for these students to effectively become authentic readers and writers using accessible literacy skills, unless they can learn these in conjunction with learning English.

* New English learners may have particular difficulties learning the Braille code because of its inconsistencies, which tend to mask, confuse, or contradict the cues that normally allow the sighted beginning English print reader to learn the language patterns that facilitate efficient reading. For example: in Grade 2 Braille, the words doing, undo, and do are written with different character patterns, thereby making it difficult for the new English reader and writer to readily recognize the “do” stem. Similarly, total and totally, and child and children (chn), are written with somewhat different character patterns, often causing confusion. Problems also arise from contradictory use of Braille signs in relation to pronunciation and syllabication, etc.

* All immigrants and refugees need to learn the geography of their local area, how to ask for and understand directions when traveling to new places, where to find important buildings such as government offices and schools. But, visually impaired and blind people have the additional task of becoming familiar with their new environment in conjunction with acquiring new adaptive mobility skills, and without the benefit of most or all visual cues. In order to develop independent traveling skills, they often first need to learn how to understand English-speaking mobility trainers. Although bilingual interpreters play a vital role in assisting students at the beginning of mobility training, students’ learning of mobility skills is greatly accelerated when they can understand and communicate directly with the mobility trainer.

Because they have often not received independent living skills training in their countries of origin, immigrants and refugees with long-standing eye conditions are just as likely to face this double challenge as the newly visually impaired or blinded person.

In addition to mobility skills taught by rehabilitation teachers, visually impaired or blind immigrants and refugees must:

* learn how to effectively communicate in English as part of such everyday tasks as taking a bus, taxi or accessible van, which for them necessarily entails asking for help from drivers

* learn how to use English terminology for and understand how to use U.S. currency (bills and coins) and how to identify various denominations of each by touch

* learn how to use reduced-fare bus passes and taxi scrip

* learn how to appropriately and effectively interact with people in stores, when paying rent and other bills, etc.

* become competent in asking people for help in finding streets and specific addresses on a regular ongoing basis

* learn to speak in English to deal with accidents and emergencies

* be prepared to talk to police officers: asking for assistance and understanding commands

* develop knowledge of personal rights and self-advocacy skills necessary in the United States

fluent English-speaking visually impaired and blind people must learn many of the same skills, but they are not struggling with the additional burden of learning a new language and becoming orientated to a new culture at the same time.

8. What instructors and other staff in programs for visually impaired and blind fluent English speakers can do to better help new English learners in their programs

* Give beginning English learners the opportunity to develop some basic skill in their new language and basic orientation to the new culture before enrolling them in orientation and training programs, in order to insure that they can gain optimum benefit from the specialized instruction offered. This can best be achieved by obtaining the services of professional E.S.L. teachers and tutors who are equipped to meet these students’ special needs in learning independent living skills and functional literacy. In consultation with the counselors and instructors in the program, the E.S.L. professionals can help the students develop the English proficiency and cultural understanding necessary and desirable for their entry into the orientation and training program.

Even if bilingual interpreters are provided, students often miss out on learning important aspects of skills if they are not yet ready to comprehend the information to some degree themselves in English. We recommend that students should only enter orientation and training programs (a) when they can demonstrate a basic grasp of the concepts and instructions in English in the areas in which they will be receiving training; (b) when their English language usage in everyday conversations, in predictable situations and commonplace discussions, is generally fluent, and close enough to the standard manner of usage to be readily understood by the staff in the program; (c) when they can fairly clearly express everyday conversational meanings by initiating spontaneous verbalizations in English (even if they have many structural errors); and (d) when their reading and writing skills are functional enough (even if low) to meaningfully deal with tasks required of students in the program.

* Recognize that literacy is not an abstract collection of skills, but integrally tied to a specific language. In order to be truly literate in English one must understand that language, and someone who is literate in English may not be literate in French or Thai. Literacy requires not only an understanding of a code, but also functional understanding of the language the code represents. Reading and writing are language components which develop in intimate interactions with listening and speaking. None of them can be easily learned as isolated skills separated from the others. For Braille, large print, or computer literacy to be of real use to students whose first language is not English, these codes must be learned as an integral part of learning English as a second language.

At all ages, people acquire functional language skills when they need or desire to communicate through language, whether by expressing meaning through speaking and writing, or by receiving meaning through listening and reading. In either case, meaningful communication involves ongoing interactions between the speaker and listener and between the reader and writer. Therefore, literacy should not be viewed or taught simply as a skill of decoding symbols into verbal language, and encoding spoken language and thoughts into written symbols. Instead teachers and tutors need to help students learn the process of developing the capacity to communicate meaning and store ideas, at various levels of proficiency, from the rudimentary to the highly sophisticated—as they find themselves in a variety of educational, social, and cultural contexts throughout life.

* Utilize the language experience approach to literacy instruction. Try teaching students to read words, sentences, and stories derived from their dictations to you, based on their own oral language and real-life experiences. These are the reading materials that require the least explanation, and are therefore the most accessible to all new readers, and especially to new English learners. In addition, writing students’ ideas down for them provides a model of how they can write their own ideas down for themselves, and therefore begin to use literacy in real life situations beyond school or the training center.

* Keep in mind the confusions, maskings and inconsistencies of the Braille code, and hold off instructing new English learners in Grade 2 Braille until they have a fairly good grasp of the spelling and pronunciation patterns of standard English. Rushing new English learners into Grade 2 Braille often causes them to become confused about pronunciations, spellings and other aspects of English, and may actually slow down their acquisition of authentic reading and writing proficiency. For some students this will come more quickly than for others. Once they have reached a high enough English proficiency level, they will be more able to benefit from Grade 2 contractions and less likely to be confused by them.

* New English learners with visual limitations who wish to attend college or technical school need to develop basic English literacy skills for reading textbooks and literature, writing essays, taking tests, and taking notes from books or classroom boards, by using their main literacy medium. These students require intensive and high-quality instruction in academic English literacy by a professional who is knowledgeable about teaching English as a second language, utilizing Braille, large print and accessible computer technology to attain an adequate level of academic English literacy skills.

* New English learners who are visually impaired or blind need access to specialized E.S.L. instruction on a consistent and ongoing basis to develop functional English communications skills which will enable them to perform necessary tasks at home, in school, in the community, and at work.

For these students, learning the new language is a prerequisite for gaining access to print independently, through recorded media, accessible computers, the assistance of sighted readers, radio reading services, or other accessible media.

* Find out about and integrate all students’ current skills and interests into lessons, as topics for demonstration, description, and discussion, so that new English learners have opportunities to demonstrate the real strengths they have.

* Obtain the assistance of E.S.L. professionals who are familiar with the special needs of visually impaired and blind new English learners, to assist in evaluating students’ needs, current skills, and in determining appropriate specialized support.

Immigrants and refugees with visual impairments must operate at a higher cognitive level than either fully sighted new English learners or fluent English-speaking people with vision impairments because they are faced with the triple challenge of learning adaptive skills, learning about the new culture, and developing oral proficiency in communicating in English simply to begin to live independently. All three challenges must be tackled simultaneously if they are to begin to utilize any services which require them to leave their homes without constant assistance from and dependence on sighted family members and friends.


Kashdan, Sylvie & Barnes, Robby (1998, May 9), Notes on the Needs of New English Learners with Visual Limitations. Conference paper: Tacoma Community House Volunteer ESL / Refugee Concerns Conference. Tacoma, Washington

—— (2004) Online publication at: (accessed December 10, 2006)

Copyright © 1998-2004

Kaizen Program
for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
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