This Saturday I did a creative workshop at the National Council for the Blind, an agency for visually impaired and blind people in Ireland. You’ll find details of it here. And I thought you might be interested in the practicalities of giving a workshop for visually impaired people. I got the idea for the workshop because I’m visually impaired myself and wanted other visually impaired people to experience the sense of liberation and self-expression that writing gives you.
While I may be visually impaired myself, I still don’t necessarily know what life is like for other visually impaired people. The participants had much more severe sight loss than I do, and there were certain practicalities I had to deal with. I thought I’d share them with you in this blog post, in case you ever find yourself facilitating a group with someone visually impaired in it, and so you can get an insight into the daily challenges of visually impaired people
Arranging the Exercises
I did all the same exercises I would usually do. I just didn’t use pictures or anything that required looking at a screen. I did mention the use of the sense of sight, and in fact, a lot of people drew on the sight they had before they lost it, or emphasised sounds to give their writing texture. Another concern was about people reading back their work, but people can do it using magnifying glasses, Braille or the sight they have.
If you’re teaching visually impaired people, you’ll see them using a range of devices, including Brailling machines, laptops, tablets and humble pen and paper if they’re partially sighted. The Braillers convert what you type into Braille so you can read it back to the group. The laptops may have screenreaders, which help the person navigate the screen using voice command and keyboard strokes, or magnifiers which make everything bigger.
The technology that visually impaired people use can be noisy. Braillers make an almighty racket, a bit like an old typewriter, and it dings when the user reaches the end of a line. You’ll also hear disembodied alien voices. That’s the voice of the screenreader, telling the person what they’ve typed and where they are on the screen.
There were a grand total of seven guide dogs at the workshop on Saturday. Some people prefer to use canes, or may choose to leave their guide dog at home so they won’t be confined for long periods. But many guide dog owners place such trust in their canine companions that leaving the house without them would be unimaginable. Most of the time, they will lie happily beside their owner, but you’ll need to give the class more breaks than usual so they can give the guide dogs water and a little fresh air.
It takes visually impaired people longer to do written assignments. This is why they are allocated extra time during examinations at school or college. They navigate computer screens more slowly, and in some cases, people are trying to get used to new technology. Budget to do half the activities you would normally do in a creative writing class. They’ll still get just as much out of the class as anyone else, once they get the chance to practise the skills you’re imparting.
We’re All the Same
But the most important thing of all to remember is that beyond these practical considerations, teaching a group of visually impaired people is the same as teaching any other group. I’m going to be slightly controversial and say that this means not putting up with behaviour you would not put up with in any other group. I dealt with minor issues like inattentiveness and interruptions in the same way as I do with all my other classes.
And to finish on a positive note, visually impaired people have the same skills and talents as writers, the same blend of interesting life stories to draw on, and the same worries that their writing may be crap. Once you’ve made sure your learning environment is accessible, any differences will fade away, and eveyrone will enjoy a rich writing experience.