The Importance of Effective Access to the Curriculum for Transition Opportunities among Vision Impaired Pupils
Until comparatively recently in Ireland the education provision for blind/vision impaired children occurred primarily within special education settings. Restructuring of the education system began in the 1990s and led to significant changes in special education including a language of inclusive education within policy initiatives. This article explores the experiences of blind/vision impaired young people in relation to accessing aspects of the school curriculum and the factors that impact on these access issues. Furthermore, it examines how decisions taken at post-primary school can impact significantly on post-school choices and opportunities.
Inadequate access to the curriculum, disabling environments, and disabling attitudes have all been identified as significant factors that curtail curriculum choices for disabled students. Mathematics is recognised as an integral subject to gain access to many third level courses. However, it is accepted that the teaching and learning of mathematics can be particularly challenging for blind/ vision impaired pupils. Consequently, when this section of the population experience unresolved challenges accessing the mathematics curriculum, their post-school choices can be significantly curtailed.
In Ireland decisions taken at secondary school regarding subject choice, the level at which these chosen subjects are undertaken and which Leaving Certificate programme to pursue, all have implications regarding what pathways are open to people once they leave school. Therefore, it is imperative that policy and practice within the school arena is supportive of the subjective realities of blind/vision impaired young people. It has been argued that appreciating the personal choices and how these are shaped will help to unravel what matters to blind/vision impaired individuals in making their post-school decisions.
There has been a paucity of research undertaken in Ireland involving blind/vision impaired people as primary participants. This has resulted in research that does not generally represent the true experiences of this section of the population. A qualitative approach was used for the study described here. It is recognised that a worthwhile aspect of some types of qualitative research is the ability to give voice to those who previously were unheard within the research arena. A life history approach was utilised for data collection as one of the most salient aspects of this approach is its recognition of the importance of insider perspectives. Furthermore, it acknowledges the integrity of the individual and recognises their experiences as valid. It is recognised that biographical accounts can “provide a useful empirical lens through which to observe change in disabling societies” (Shah, & Priestley, 2011). The research questions examined for this research were:
- What are/have been the educational experiences of blind/vision impaired people?
- What factors have impacted on these educational experiences?
- What factors in their lives have impacted on their life choices/ opportunities?
A number of sampling techniques were utilised including purposive, personal contacts and snowballing. In-depth unstructured interviews were conducted with twenty three participants (see below for demographic details of participants).
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Table 1.1 Participant Demographics - gender
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Table 1.2 Participant Demographics - location
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Table 1.3 Participant Demographics - age
|Educational Attainment/Employment Status
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Table 1.4 Participant Demographics - educational attainment / employment status
Interviews occurred over a number of time periods commencing in January 2009 and concluding in late 2010. All interviews were audio-recorded on a digital recorder and were later saved onto a computer. These recordings were destroyed following the completion of the study.
My ontological position as a disabled researcher was central to the development of this research. Self-disclosure was an important aspect of building rapport and empathy with participants. I believed that this facilitated a high level of trust with participants and gave them the opportunity to discuss openly, aspects of their educational and transition opportunities in a manner that many had not previously experienced. As a researcher, I was aware that the closer one’s subject matter is to one’s own life experience the more likely it is that bias can occur but as Plummer (1983) acknowledged, to eradicate research of all sources of bias is to rid research of human life. I remained cognizant of my position as having an insider perspective within the research to ensure that this would not cause unintended biases. This was achieved through the methodological safeguards that were in place including regular contact with participants for clarification of information and providing them with copies of transcripts. It is agreed that qualitative research is “a joint product of the participants, researcher and their relationship” (Finlay, 2002, p. 212).
Thematic analysis was utilized for analysing the data collected as it offered a theoretically flexible way in which to analyse qualitative data (Braun, & Clarke, 2006). Following transcription of interviews, transcripts were read through carefully several times in order to identify emerging themes and sub-themes. Braun and Clarke (2006) suggest that the function of the write-up of a thematic analysis is to represent the complex story of the data in a way which convinces the reader of the benefit and validity of the analysis.
The majority of participants in the study did not articulate experiencing particular challenges in accessing the curriculum at primary school level. There could have been a range of reasons for this, including that their primary education was some time in their past, the fact that print material is often larger at primary school level and therefore easier to access for those who are vision impaired. At second level a wide range of subjects were taken by participants. This was particularly evident among the younger age groups. This may indicate that greater opportunities are now available to blind/vision impaired young people. The availability of modified exam papers which are provided by the Department of Education and Skills for state examinations also proved beneficial where pictures, diagrams etc. were a standard component of an exam paper. This is recognised as a reasonable accommodation for blind/vision impaired students and means that these students are provided with a text-only alternative question. Some aspects of the curriculum are quite visual in nature as they contain components such as map work and diagrams that could result in curriculum and assessment barriers for students who are blind/vision impaired. Consequently, modified exam papers have resulted in greater access to a wider range of subjects. This demonstrates how policy and provision can enable greater access to the curriculum for these students.
However, accessing particular aspects of the school curriculum were not always straightforward for participants and barriers were encountered at different levels. It was evident that components of the curriculum and the way in which subject information was conveyed could limit participation. This illustrated that inadequate provision and inappropriate teaching methodologies could impact on access to the curriculum. This was particularly noticeable in how participants accessed the mathematics curriculum. A number of factors contributed to this situation including ineffective teaching methodologies, inappropriate and insufficient provision of maths books and materials in Braille and accessible formats, insufficient teacher training and insufficient appropriate supports. Findings from this study indicated that those who experienced the greatest difficulty accessing the mathematics curriculum were those who were blind and/or worked through the medium of Braille. The following excerpts are illustrative of the challenges experienced by participants and demonstrate how teaching methodologies and provision can impact on one’s ability to access aspects of the curriculum:
…the maths I found hard... and even some of the maths things say...graphs...and for a sighted person to try and explain graphs to you they just don’t understand that say...the letter L in print they think it should feel the exact same in Braille. (Lisa)
A lot of maths teaching is visual. It is done on a blackboard, with the teacher calling out the lines as they write. Everyone else can read those lines back. I could not. (Joe)
The following excerpt highlighted the curricular and assessment barriers that can be experienced when accessing the mathematics curriculum and demonstrated how resilience and determination facilitated access to the mathematics curriculum:
The way I had done all maths for Junior Cert was just having someone read off the question to me and me pretty much doing it up in my head so doing that for Leaving Cert honours maths or honours physics wasn’t really a viable option so I ended up developing a weird solution where I was writing down in an A4 refill pad even though I couldn’t see it but it was enough that by writing it down I could see it in my head and work it out line by line it was a crazy way to do it but it worked. (Ted)
Occasionally participants were advised to give up mathematics. One of these participants was Joe who got a B in honours maths at Junior Certificate level, but because of the difficulties he was experiencing was advised by teachers and his visiting teacher to drop maths. Joe recognised the importance of keeping on mathematics as not doing so would impact negatively on his range of post-school choices. Research shows the importance of resilience and the following quote exemplified the resilience and determination demonstrated by Joe when faced with systemic, institutional and attitudinal barriers:
I was advised to consider dropping maths. I declined to do this on principle and because I thought I might need it. It is something about which I am still very annoyed because I do not think that I got a fair chance. (Joe)
The introduction of foundation level maths appeared to have offered blind/vision impaired students greater access to the maths curriculum. Foundation level maths can appear to be the solution to the access difficulties blind/vision impaired young people experience in relation to maths. However, the decision to take maths at foundation level immediately restricts post-school choices and opportunities. A number of those in the younger age group who attended the resourced mainstream secondary school were among those that did maths at foundation level. A number of those who did foundation level maths recognised that while they may have got an A at this level it was not satisfactory for entry to college. This is evident in Paul and Claudia’s quotes below and demonstrated that while foundation level maths may be appropriate for some blind/vision impaired young people it should not be the primary solution to access difficulties:
I got an A in the maths… but it’s not a high enough grade you know when they look at foundation they look at not good enough. (Paul)
I got an A in maths but it was foundation so it was good for me but it was also bad because it is very hard to get to college with that. (Claudia)
Occasionally access to the curriculum was blocked for unknown reasons. The following two excerpts indicate how policy decisions within schools regarding subject choice and attitudinal barriers greatly restricted Maria Kelly’s ability to access the curriculum:
...the languages were really out because the teachers that taught the languages weren’t willing. …apparently I couldn’t do French…one of the teachers said that I’d only need to know fruit and veg. (Maria Kelly)
A small number of participants had exemptions from Irish. This may indicate that some blind/vision impaired students experience barriers when accessing aspects of the Irish curriculum and offering exemptions may be a policy solution to this difficulty. Exemptions from particular subjects can also provide schools with the additional class periods required by some blind/vision impaired students who need additional learning support in particular subjects. The following excerpt suggested that this was a pertinent factor in the school Michael attended:
Michael: ...up until Junior Cert it was the normal maths and English. I didn’t do Irish at all or French, there was geography, history, science, business and home economics.
Patricia: OK and was there a reason you didn’t do languages other than English?
Michael: Well I got extra help but I was finding those subjects difficult to grasp so I applied to get extra help in the other subjects like in maths and geography and English during those times…
Some participants sat the Leaving Certificate Applied programme. This programme has a strong vocational dimension which can provide greater access to the curriculum for some students. However, careful consideration is required when making such decisions as it can restrict future choices and opportunities.
The findings examined in this article indicate that blind/vision impaired pupils are generally experiencing greater access to the school curriculum with a wide range of subjects being taken. This was particularly apparent among participants in the younger age group. However, it was evident that access barriers were still experienced at a variety of levels. The reasons for these were varied and included ineffective teaching methodologies, inappropriate and insufficient provision of materials in Braille and accessible formats and attitudinal barriers. Furthermore, it was recognised that policy decisions within the school arena impact on subject choice and transition opportunities.
Teaching and learning practices can present significant barriers to disabled students’ learning. This was significant for participants in this study as there appeared to be an emphasis on conveying information visually which were often not accessible. Therefore, access to the curriculum was restricted. This was particularly evident when accessing the maths curriculum. Issues around teachers not having the relevant training to impart mathematical information to blind/vision impaired pupils, the inadequacy of Braille for mathematics and expectations regarding students’ ability were all contributory factors to the access barriers within the maths curriculum experienced by those who participated in this research.
It is accepted that reading and writing mathematics is significantly different from reading and writing text (Karshmer and Bledsoe, 2002). One of the main reasons given for this is that while text is linear in nature maths equations are two dimensional in nature.
It is recognised that blind students encountered the greatest difficulty when accessing the maths curriculum and may be due in part to the confusion with Braille notation that can be experienced by those who are unable to access the maths curriculum through the medium of print. A further factor identified by Karshmer and Bledsoe, (2002) of significance was that the majority of maths teachers do not know Braille maths notation. These were relevant influences for participants in this study where generally only those that attended a special school or a resourced mainstream secondary school had access to the required level of supports to access maths appropriately through the medium of Braille as some teachers knew Braille. This meant that those who attended mainstream schools in their own locality generally had no one available to them that could read Braille or enable them to write complex mathematical equations in a satisfactory manner.
Participants, including Lisa and Joe who were both blind found this particularly challenging. While Lisa struggled with the ordinary level maths curriculum, Joe took maths at higher level as he recognised that aspects of the higher level maths curriculum were less visual than the ordinary level maths curriculum. Cahill and Linehan, (1996) noted that it is unusual for blind/vision impaired pupils to do higher level maths. However, a small number of those who participated in this research took honours level maths. Joe took this decision even though he had been strongly advised by both teachers within the school and his visiting teacher to give up maths altogether. Joe continued with higher level maths because he expected that he would go to university and therefore did not want to restrict his future opportunities.
While the majority of participants did maths a number of the younger age group took maths at foundation level which immediately limits post-school choices.
While foundation level maths may be appropriate for some students it should not be the main option offered to blind/vision impaired students when decisions regarding maths are being considered. Furthermore, it should not be considered a solution to access difficulties experienced by this section of the population as it is widely accepted that mathematics is an important subject for entry to third level education (AHEAD, 2008).
Some of the younger participants in this research did the Leaving Certificate Applied course rather than the traditional Leaving Certificate. As the former is more vocational in nature and has more ongoing assessments this may have facilitated access to components of the curriculum. While this is a worthwhile programme it does limit post-school choices and opportunities. Therefore, it should only be pursued if it is truly considered to be the best option for a student and not simply a solution to an access issue.
A variety of flexible and complementary teaching approaches should be common practice at all levels of education. Some participants had to refrain from certain activities and classes due to disabling environments and disabling attitudes. One participant indicated that she was prevented from doing French as the school perceived that she would not require French once she had left school. This demonstrated how attitudinal barriers can prevent access to the curriculum. Evidence of resilience and agency were demonstrated by a significant number of participants in this research. This enabled participants to achieve life course opportunities even when faced with significant challenges at both institutional and attitudinal levels. Demonstrations of resilience and agency were particularly evident among many of those who encountered the greatest challenges when trying to access components of the curriculum. These displays of resilience and agency often made the difference between being able to continue with a chosen subject or course, or being actively encouraged by others to pursue another subject or course.
Ableist attitudes can impede meaningful access to the curriculum and can result in disabled people having to challenge existing concepts of normative performance.
In modern society public examinations are an integral component of most education systems. However, it is recognised that standard examination formats and procedures may pose particular challenges for blind/vision impaired pupils resulting in them being unable to demonstrate their abilities under standard examination conditions. It is acknowledged that accommodations are intended to level the playing field for blind/vision impaired people so that they can demonstrate what they know, without being thwarted by their disabilities. Modified examination papers were availed of by participants in particular subject areas. This meant they received alternative ‘text only’ questions or components of questions in an alternative format where diagrams, pictures, maps etc. were an intrinsic part of the exam paper. This enabled participants to access more fully aspects of the examination that may otherwise have been inaccessible to them. This demonstrates how policy and provision can have a positive impact on enabling blind/vision impaired pupils participation in aspects of the school curricula that were previously considered inaccessible because of their impairment.
Adolescence is a difficult period of transition as there are a myriad of choices to be contemplated. Decisions have to be taken regarding what subjects to take, what courses to pursue, what career to follow, and decisions must be made, regarding where to seek advice and from whom. Furthermore, it is recognised that there are often disconnections between what young people aspire to do and what they are capable of doing and another disconnection between what they are capable of doing and the opportunities open to them.
In Ireland decisions taken at secondary school regarding subjects undertaken, the level at which these subjects are undertaken and which Leaving Certificate programme to pursue can all have significant implications as to what pathways are open to people once they leave school.
While access to the curriculum has improved for blind/vision impaired young people it was apparent that substantial barriers still exist. Therefore, awareness of accessibility at all levels of the education system should be considered a priority rather than an afterthought. At the compulsory school level, access to the Maths curriculum presented the greatest challenges. Consequently, greater emphasis needs to be placed on developing appropriate teaching and learning methodologies that facilitate blind/vision impaired young people to access the Maths curriculum. This necessitates that teacher training programmes are cognisant of this and develop their programmes accordingly. It is essential that adequate supports are made available to both teachers and blind/vision impaired young people to ensure access to required specialised knowledge to ensure that this section of the population can participate to their optimum within all aspects of the school curriculum.
It is apparent that decisions taken at secondary school can curtail the post-school choices and opportunities of blind/vision impaired young people. Consequently, it is essential that decisions regarding exemptions from particular subjects, and which Leaving Certificate programme is pursued, are taken in the best interest of each individual. Assumptions of ability should not be determined by an individuals’ disability. Therefore, it is essential to identify the reasons behind such decisions. Furthermore, it is imperative that policies and practices are developed that enhance rather than limit the transition opportunities of blind/vision impaired young people to ensure that they can progress to third level education on an equal footing with their non-disabled peers.
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Shah, S., & Priestley, M. (2011). Disability and social change: private lives and public policies. Bristol: Policy Press.