Children and young people who are blind or vision impaired are not being treated equally by the education system, according to a new report.
There are at least 4,700 children of school-going age in Ireland who are blind/visually impaired and about 280 in higher education, most recent figures indicate.
The Equitable Education report from the National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI) states that vision impairment impacts on learning, movement and social relationships throughout childhood and into adulthood and catalogues the challenges facing these children and young people from primary school up.
They include: Movement between classes and navigating new buildings; Identifying the placement of objects, papers, materials etc on a desk; Access to and viewing the white board or other printed materials; Making and maintaining new friendships; Use of assistive technology including set up and packing away; Reading aloud in class; Participation in all teaching; Learning and social activities and participation in physical activity; Unclear instruction such as ‘hang up your coat without directing the child to the designated area’ and being viewed as different by peers.
The report covers everything from the delays in getting schoolbooks in accessible formats at the beginning of each school year, lack of assessments and supports to meet a child’s individual needs and inadequate accommodations in State exams to inconsistencies in how further and higher education colleges support such students.
The report cites a 2018 survey of parents where only 46pc said they had received books at the start of the year, with some children completing the school year without access to all their books.
In relation to further and higher education, it states that people who are blind/visually impaired are under-represented in these sectors, a proportion that has fallen in recent years, While there is no hard evidence on reasons for that drop in participation, NCBI suggests it may be because of the issues highlighted in the report, including inappropriate assistive technology inadequate training, and inconsistent or unsuitable accommodations for exams.
NCBI Advocacy and Engagement Manager Lorna Fitzpatrick said sight loss was a spectrum and could impact everyone differently, “so it is imperative that children and young people with sight loss have access to regular individualised assessments and timely interventions to ensure they have the skills to be independent and active agents in their own learning.”
She said the report clearly showed variations that exist in students’ experiences in accessing supports as well as the severe lack of quality data on the number of students with vision impairment in the education system or evidence to demonstrate that current supports are enabling these students to thrive.
The report calls on the Department of Education and other state bodies to gather more data and Ms Fitzpatrick said this would be “key to driving future decisions relating to supports for students with sight loss. “
Eithne Walsh, who is head of communications and advocacy with Féach, a support group for parents of blind and visually impaired students, said the report marked “a great starting point for improving supports for blind or vision impaired students in education. “
Ms Walsh said the issues highlighted “have been denying students with low vision equality of access to education, which ultimately affects every aspect of their lives. None of the issues are insurmountable, practical solutions can be put in place which will have a huge impact on their educational outcomes.”