Every student is expected to leave high school with a strong grasp of “core” subjects like math, language arts, science, and history.
But in order to master these subjects, and to eventually live and work independently, students who are blind or visually impaired must learn an additional set of skills known as the “expanded core curriculum.” Essential life skills including social interaction, independent living, career education, and communication modes such as braille, must be taught alongside basic academics.
For a student who is blind, learning about world geography from books is not enough. That student must also learn orientation and mobility skills and practice using a white cane for safe, independent travel. The expanded core curriculum empowers students with disabilities to access their education and make their own choices throughout life.
As superintendent of Perkins’ Educational Programs, Dorinda Rife watches students practice the skills of the expanded core curriculum (ECC) every day. Whether they are socializing and learning to handle money in the student store, finding their own way to classrooms across campus, or playing adapted sports in gym class, students are building a foundation for success in life at Perkins and beyond.
“If students do not have these skills in place, they cannot become productive, independent adults,” says Rife, who began her career teaching students with visual impairments in public schools.
While sighted children use visual experiences throughout their lives to learn concepts casually or incidentally, students who are visually impaired with or without additional disabilities cannot rely on sensory observations. The foundational skills they need for daily life in school, at home, and in the community, must be strategically taught and integrated into all aspects of their education.
The ECC areas include: compensatory skills, including communication modes (adaptations needed for students to access core subjects such as braille, sign language, or tactile symbols); orientation and mobility; social interaction skills; independent living skills; recreation and leisure skills; career education; assistive technology; sensory efficiency skills; and self-determination.
Rife explained how one activity can be used to practice several components in the expanded core curriculum. To prepare lunch, students must plan the meal, shop for ingredients, and help out in the kitchen with everything from chopping carrots to cleaning dishes. The assignment requires students to practice orientation and mobility, independent living skills including handling money and cooking, reading recipes in braille, social interaction, and self-determination.
“It takes a lot of practice for our students to integrate these skills into their bodies and minds,” explained Rife, adding that students with disabilities must learn by doing rather than being told how to perform an activity. “Our students, just like any students, need safe chances to practice and fail and to then try again and be successful.”
From her own experience, Rife knows the challenges of addressing expanded core curriculum in public schools with time constraints and the pressure of preparing students for high stakes academic testing. She advises parents to work closely with teachers of the visually impaired to ensure ECC skills such as the use of assistive technology, career education, and independent living, are well incorporated into their child’s individual education plan (IEP).
Through Perkins Outreach Services, public school students can participate in weekend, vacation, and summer programs providing training and reinforcement in various ECC areas. By taking a succession of summer courses through Outreach, Rife said, students can build vital ECC skills while working towards a higher level of independence.
In the Elementary Summer Programs, “Steps Toward Independence,” students stay on Perkins’ campus for a week of socializing with peers; community exploration; ECC skills training such as cooking, braille and technology, and home and personal management; and adapted recreation activities including music, crafts, and horseback riding.
“There has to be a balance between book smarts and life smarts,” says Outreach Services Director Beth Caruso, adding that the program’s goal is to encourage families in carrying over these skills at home and in school.
Parents are constantly surprised, Caruso observes, by the level of independence their children are able to achieve when given the chance to do things for themselves in a safe and fun environment.
Families have busy schedules, and parents can get in the habit of doing things for their children rather than taking the time to step back and let them try. Caruso outlined time saving strategies such as advising parents to sit down with their child on Sunday night to choose outfits for the week, creating more time to let their child independently dress for school in the mornings.
“We have pretty high expectations for kids,” Caruso explained. “What we are doing is helping parents to do one less thing so that their kids can do one more.”
In the three-week “Dealing with the Present …While Preparing for the Future” summer program, students gain more intensive skills training with a focus on opportunities to improve self-esteem. During the five-week “Sampling the World of Work Program”students get on the job experience while sharing an apartment and learning to balance the responsibilities of work and home life.
Programs like those provided by Perkins Outreach Services can be vital resources for parents, says Susan LaVenture, Executive Director of the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI).
“Although academics are important, these skills are what make a person successful in life,” said LaVenture, who recently conducted a NAPVI training for parents on the expanded core curriculum.
LaVenture stressed the importance of educating parents about the expanded core curriculum to help them advocate for educational resources.
“The parent often ends up being a resource or an informant to the school,” LaVenture explained.
Sometimes parents of children with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, do not have expectations that their children will be able to do things like play sports or cook their own meal. Once they realize how everything from recreational activities to household chores can be adapted, parents can begin encouraging their children to do more independently.
“It’s important for parents to know that their children can develop in all of these areas and that they can have active, productive lives,” LaVenture said.
A Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (CVRT) can help parents make simple and practical adaptations at home such as organizing the kitchen area and using braille labels on household items, LaVenture said. By making adaptations that allow children with disabilities to practice everyday tasks independently, parents help their children build confidence in their own abilities.
LaVenture talked about the value of families connecting with other families of children with visual impairment, including those with additional disabilities. Through conferences, workshops and programs like Perkins Outreach, family members learn new strategies on a peer to peer basis and see how other families adapt to overcome obstacles.
After 28 years of experience teaching and working as an administrator, Dorinda Rife believes strongly in empowering students with disabilities to make their own decisions. Self-determination refers to students recognizing their own abilities and becoming their own advocates.
“You are determining who you are and what you do,” Rife concludes. “All of this is about giving students choices in what to do with their lives.”
Compensatory and functional academic skills, including communication modes
Compensatory skills involve the adaptations necessary for accessing the core curriculum, which can include: braille, tactile symbols, sign language, and recorded materials.
Orientation and Mobility
Skills to orient children who are visually impaired to their surroundings and travel skills to enable them to move independently and safely in the environment.
Social Interaction Skills
Since nearly all social skills are learned by observation of the environment and people, this is an area where students with vision loss need careful, conscious and explicit instruction.
Independent Living Skills
This area includes the tasks and functions people perform in daily life to optimize their independence - skills such as personal hygiene, food preparation, money management, and household chores.
Recreation & Leisure Skills
Skills to ensure students' enjoyment of physical and leisure-time activities, including making choices about how to spend leisure time.
Students with vision loss benefit most from an experiential learning approach. Structured visits to community sites and discussions with people who perform various jobs, enable them to understand concepts and specific skills that are needed to be successful in those jobs. Considering the national rate of unemployment or underemployment of working-age adults who are blind is 70% -75%, this area needs attention throughout the school years to help students with vision loss develop marketable job skills.
Assistive technology is a powerful tool that can enable students with vision loss to overcome some traditional barriers to independence and employment.
Sensory Efficiency Skills
Skills that help students use the senses – including any functional vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste – to access skills related to literacy and concept development.
Skills to enable students to become effective advocates for themselves based on their own needs and goals.