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Training of Teachers of the Visually Impaired in Europe

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Special topics in teacher training as part of teacher's competencies
Prof Dr Helga Weinl�der, Germany

Introduction: DR ANTONINA ADAMOWICZ-HUMMEL Lecture prepared in cooperation with Dr Jadwiga Kuczynska-Kwapisz and Dr Grazyna Walczak, all senior lecturer at the Maria Grzegorzewska College for Special Education in Warsaw, Poland.

Training teachers for persons with visual impairment has traditionally been associated with preparing teachers to work in special schools where they help blind children overcome whatever limitations the lack of sight bears on their intellectual development. Times have changed: special schools are just one of the educational options for blind children. More and more emphasis is put on total habilitation and rehabilitation. Total, or holistic, means seeing a person as an entity, with all her or his capabilities and needs - emotional, social, and, of course, intellectual. All these new linguistic phenomena - terms such as holistic approach, integration, inclusion, empowerment, or just `persons with visual impairment' instead of `visually impaired persons' - are merely a reflection of changing attitudes. These changes put new demands on parents, teachers, rehabilitation workers and other specialists working with this population. Therefore institutions responsible for personnel preparation in the field of blindness cannot ignore these challenges either. Teachers' competencies are carefully analyzed and expended, specialized training programs flourish. The ultimate goal is to provide a blind or visually impaired person with maximum opportunities for personal and social development, with concrete skills which enable her or him to achieve maximum independence.

What are those skills? What are the special topics, or competencies, that teachers should have to be able to either teach those skills or at least help their students acquire them with the help of parents or other specialists? What are the competencies, let me call them "suprasegmental", that are not related to any specific student skills but make teacher a better professional, eg. Research competencies? The organizers of the workshop have come up with the following list of topics:

Let us add a few more:

One other topic that should be addressed in teacher training is:

Having heard all that, would you still choose teaching persons with visual impairment as a career if you were candidates to the training programme?

Let us first tell you how we handle special topics at our College, and then pose some questions for our discussion. The College for Special Education in Warsaw is the only school in Poland offering programmes in all areas of special education, although selected programmes are offered at special education departments at several other universities.

Since 1922 the College has been primarily training teachers and house parents to work with children with disabilities, and later - with children who are socially maladjusted. More recently, new specializations were added, namely, speech therapy, education of the disabled in integrated settings, social work with persons with disabilities. The most recent development is a programme, now offered only at the postgraduate level, of education of the gifted, who are also considered persons with special needs. Currently, the College trains specialists to work with persons with special needs of all ages, not just with children. Also, the training programmes have started to address combinations of disabilities in a more systematic manner.
Training programmes of various levels and formats are offered. We have master's, or graduate, programmes; vocational programmes on an undergraduate level; and postgraduate programmes. As far as format is concerned, programmes can be full-time (basically 5-year master's programme) or part-time (all other programmes). Full-time programmes are free, whereas part-time programmes charge fees, as they are addressed to persons who are already employed.

There are altogether about 5000 students in all the programmes, the majority - about 3700 - being enroled in part-time programmes. The Programmes in Blindness and Visual Impairment have a total of 135 students, 90 in master's programmes and 45 in postgraduate programmes. It is one of the two university programmes in Poland training teachers for the blind and visually impaired.

There are 250 faculty members at the College. Division of Blindness and Visual Impairment employs 4 full-time faculty and about 10 - part-time.
In a full-time master's programme, specialist training in blindness and visual impairment starts in the second year. The programme includes teaching methods in grades 1-4, this specialization being obligatory for all the students; there are two optional specializations that can be chosen in addition to the one in teaching methods - these are orientation and mobility, and vision rehabilitation. Early intervention, activities of daily living, technology-assisted education, and rehabilitation of blind and visually impaired persons with multiple impairments are courses included in the curriculum and obligatory for all students.

Orientation and mobility was introduced in 1982, first as a course for master's students, then it developed into a full-blown curriculum of a postgraduate programme; currently it is offered as a selective specialization at a master's level, with an additional course work of 140 hours and 30 hours of practicum. It is also offered in two programmes at a postgraduate level, with discipline specific course work ranging from 250 hours to 500 hours, plus practicum. The curricula include courses in functioning of the visual and auditory systems, low vision assessment and intervention, psychological implications of visual impairment, and O&M methods. Graduates can work as orientation and mobility teachers at schools for the blind and visually impaired, centres of the Polish Association of the Blind, and at social welfare centres. To date we have had a total of about 60 graduates of these specialized programmes.

Vision rehabilitation was first introduced in 1987 at a postgraduate level, and in 1994 - at a master's level. It essentially consists of an eye course, course in psychosocial implications of visual impairment, courses in vision assessment and training, including functional optics. Additional course work for those master's students who choose this specialization is 225 class hours and 100 hours of practicum. Graduates can work at schools for the blind and for the partially sighted, at educational counselling centres, in centres and clinics of the Polish Association of the Blind - either as teachers, house parents, counsellors with a strong background in low vision, or as vision rehabilitation specialists.

In our country, orientation and mobility and low vision therapy are still not recognized as professions. As compared with teachers of the visually impaired, O&M and Low Vision instructors constitute a relatively small group of professionals, and therefore less powerful in terms of exerting sufficient pressure on the system. Also, in education of the disabled, the emphasis has traditionally been placed on academic, or intellectual, skills, what inevitably resulted in neglect of the other aspects of a person's functioning.

Early intervention is a recently introduced area at the College. A respective course is taught in the 3rd year of the master's programme, and it consists of 45 hours. Early intervention is also implemented at a postgraduate level where the curriculum consists of 160 hours plus 40 hours of practicum. It includes courses in developmental psychology, eye functioning and pathology, and methods of assessment and intervention. The programme is run in close cooperation with Dutch specialists from the Theofaan Institute.

Activities of daily living have just been introduced as a course for 5th year students in this academic year. The course consists of 45 hours most of which are instruction in methods and simulation exercises. Until 1995 no such training was offered in university personnel preparation programmes for the blind and visually impaired in Poland. Training for professional instruction in activities of daily living was introduced as a part of a comprehensive curriculum in rehabilitation of blind adults. The curriculum was developed in cooperation with American organization AWARE and since 1995 implemented at two regional postgraduate programmes at the College, sponsored by the Soros Foundations. To date we have had 14 graduates in rehabilitation teaching of the blind and visually impaired adults, including two from Hungary, one from Lithuania, and one from Czech Republic.

Not that long ago computer-assisted education of the blind seemed to be a sheer dream. Today most schools for the blind and visually impaired in Poland have computers and devices enabling a visually impaired person to use them - speech synthesizers, braille readers, braille printers, and magnification software. In our master's curriculum the course in computer-aided education accounts for 60 hours and is taught by a blind instructor. The graduates are not expected to teach computers to the blind, but to utilize them as a tool.

Training in education and rehabilitation of persons with additional impairments is in high demand today, as this population grows rapidly. A course in this area for master's students in the blindness programme accounts for 40 hours. College's interdisciplinary postgraduate programme in multiple handicaps consists of 180 hours. Of these, the issues directly relating to blindness account for 25 hours. Graduates of the postgraduate programme usually work in centres for children with multiple impairments.

A course in research methodology and statistics is mandatory for all master's students. It accounts for as much as 120 hours plus another 120 hours for master's seminar.

We do not offer any courses dealing with transition issues in the field of blindness, i.e. changing from school to work, although we feel that these issues should be addressed in our personnel preparation programmes, especially with all the economic changes that have been taking place in this part of Europe.

A course in professional issues - of 38 hours - has been a part of the training curriculum at the Polish-American Postgraduate Programme in Rehabilitation Teaching and Orientation and Mobility since 1995.

Training in fund-raising, or grant writing, is offered at that same programme. Interestingly enough, some students still do not feel they would ever need those skills. This training has been much appreciated by persons in managerial positions.
In short, in our master's programmes the emphasis is placed on teaching academic skills to the blind and visually impaired children, whereas the postgraduate programmes focus rather on teaching independence skills. Today, we cover all ages, children 0-6 and the elderly being the target groups most recently introduced.

List of special topics in teacher training

Now it is time for questions

  1. What other special topics could be added to our list?
  2. Should teacher of the visually impaired be Jack-of-all-trades? Namely, should she or he be competent in all areas relating to blindness, such as orientation and mobility, daily living skills, vision rehabilitation, etc.?
  3. What proportion of the teacher training curriculum should be devoted to teaching independence skills as opposed to academic skills?
  4. Should independence skills should be taught to visually impaired students only by persons with specialized training?
  5. Should this specialized training be offered within master's programme or within postgraduate programmes, or both?
  6. Do teachers need to be fund-raisers, or should these issues be handled by administration?
  7. Do teachers need management skills or should services be managed by administration workers?
  8. Should teacher training colleges bother about transition issues?
  9. Is competency-based approach a viable way of preparing teachers for the field?
  10. Should certification standards for teachers be developed and applied in the field of blindness?
  11. Are teacher training colleges best advocates of certification standards?
  12. Can blind and visually impaired persons train and work as teachers of the blind and visually impaired in all areas, including orientation and mobility?
  13. If so, should they carry out the whole programme (e.g., in orientation and mobility) or its certain parts?
  14. Should vision rehabilitation be a separate class or should it be integrated in all other activities of the child?
  15. Should vision rehabilitation be a separate specialization/profession or should it be an inherent part of teacher's competencies?
  16. How can orientation and mobility be established as an integral part of the visually impaired student's educational curriculum, instead of being treated as an optional, extracurricular activity?
  17. Do all orientation and mobility lessons need to be conducted on a 1:1 basis, or can some of them be taught in groups?
  18. Who should be a primary educator of a child with multiple impairments?
  19. Should children with additional impairments be educated in regular schools, special schools or in their own homes?
  20. Who should be responsible for children with multiple disabilities - educational system, health care system, social welfare system?
  21. What is a desirable composition of a team for a multiply impaired student?
  22. Who should teach computers/technology at schools for the blind?
  23. Do blind persons make good computer/technology teachers?
  24. Who should teach computers to blind and visually impaired children in regular schools?
  25. What proportion of the child's educational programme should be devoted to independence skills as opposed to academic skills?

It would be impossible to discuss all questions in the time available. It was therefore proposed to concentrate on questions 3 + 25, 4, 5 and 12 + 13.



Participants unanimously agreed on the importance of teaching independence skills as part of the curriculum, the main motivation being the visually impaired child's right to know and to do everyday things. It proved to be difficult to decide on the proportion this aspect should have in the teacher training curriculum and in classroom teaching.
This would depend on many different factors:

It is important that a teacher is skilled in recognising the children's individual needs in this respect.

Every teacher should work towards stimulating independence skills, by incorporating additional methods in their own teaching methods. A quote:

Pierre Henri:
"... you are teachers of, for examples, mathematics but you also are mathematics teachers of blind pupils."??

In some countries teaching of independence skills to children living in boarding schools is mainly the task of classroom teachers, in other countries it is the task of educators or specialised care staff. In the latter case, the teacher training colleges could provide special courses for these people.
In particular the instruction of orientation and mobility is so complicated that to be a good O&M instructor special additional training is required.

If the visually impaired children attend mainstream schools special attention is required for these aspects of education.

There was an in-depth discussion about visually impaired persons as teachers of the blind and visually impaired. The participants unanimously agreed that a visually impaired person could be a good teacher. They have the additional advantage of being able to share their own personal experience with the visually impaired pupils/students.
Each person has personal limitations which might affect their capability of carrying out certain aspects of their duties - the blind teacher is no exception to this. During their training every student teacher has to learn to recognise their strengths and weaknesses in different situations. Their main weaknesses are related to a number of aspects of orientation & mobility and low vision, especially practical training with regard to orientation and mobility because of the children's safety. With additional help within the classroom blind teachers are able to teach low vision or sighted children, but in their teacher training programme they would need to consider how to use the assistance of additional adults within their classroom.

Although the list of special topics in teacher training is rather long, the following additional topics were suggested:


The field of 'special topics' is nearly endless, especially when the teacher training college expands its horizon from merely training `classroom teachers' to training all sorts of professionals who could have a role in the education and rehabilitation of people with visual impairment of all ages, with the elderly being a rapidly growing group.
All in all, a great challenge and a great future for the teacher training colleges.

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