CVI and the ECC: Focus on Compensatory Access

Learn about Compensatory Access, one of the nine areas of the ECC, and why it's so important for students with CVI.

Boy uses slant board with female teacher

The Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC), a holistic nine-area curriculum designed to bridge the gap between a standard school curriculum and what a student who is blind or visually impaired would miss with reduced access to incidental learning—the skills sighted peers learn from observing the world around them. The ECC levels the playing field for blind and visually impaired students. Each of the ECC’s nine areas must be individualized to the unique needs of the child with CVI. Compensatory
Access is one of the nine areas.

I don’t need to see something to perceive it.

Teenager with CVI, from the Yellowstone Blog

In this article, we will dive into:

What is compensatory access in the ECC?

Compensatory access refers to how an individual with a visual impairment learns to acquire, share and process information, including the general education curriculum; access “fills the gaps” in concept learning. Compensatory access is also refers to compensatory skills. 

For example, a student with visual impairments likely requires different instruction than their sighted peers when learning about the solar system. This is because their sighted peers are gathering information about the planets and stars mainly through the use of their vision. The compensatory access skills the student may need to access the solar system lesson would be concept development, listening skills, tactile skills, and literacy access (print, braille, and/or auditory). 

There are several options for the assessment of compensatory skills, the most well-known being the Learning Media Assessment (LMA). The LMA must be a part of every student’s triennial assessment alongside their Functional Vision Evaluation. The LMA determines what kind of literacy media the student would access best such as braille, print, dual media (i.e., both print and braille), auditory, tactile, pictures, or some combination.

Other compensatory skills assessments used specifically to inform TVIs and classroom teachers of the student’s strengths and needs include:

Each of these tools offers a different lens for TVIs to determine a student’s preferred or strongest sensory channel for learning. With CVI, some use vision, some use compensatory skills, and most use both. Compensatory skills do not take away from the development of visual skills. It’s about agency and choice. The person with CVI must have the opportunity to build compensatory skills, along with visual skills, so they can choose how they want to access their world. 

Access also includes the skills students with visual impairments use to engage in school, the community, and home in lieu of (or in addition to) using their vision. Compensatory skills are taught specifically to each student’s needs in order to best help them learn and achieve independence. 

Compensatory Access Skills include:

What is the impact of CVI on compensatory access?

Plain and simple compensatory skills are methods the student uses to access what is being taught. For a student with CVI, how they are impacted by the visual behaviors of CVI plays a role in what method of access will be best for them. All skill areas of compensatory access can be impacted by all visual behaviors of CVI, and that impact will look different for each student. Additionally, many with CVI also have co-occurring eye conditions that can also impact access.

For students with CVI, it’s essential they have multiple ways to access their world and to allow them to find what works best for them. By using the modes of access appropriate to the child—visual, tactical, auditory, smell, and/or kinesthetic—a holistic approach then allows for the student to access their learning. 

Methods of access may vary throughout the day. This means the skills used to access math concepts may look different than the skills used to access writing, art class, or music. Visual fatigue also plays a big role when the reliance on compensatory skills is required. A student with CVI may prefer using tactical skills when working on concept development, like matching shapes by feel or learning to open containers tactically. It is essential that there is a focus on developing the student’s compensatory skills to further help their access to their world. 

Strategies to support compensatory access for students with CVI should certainly be used when a lesson includes: new concepts, print/literacy, language arts skills, math skills, and organizational times. These strategies are determined following an individualized assessment of each student. 

Compensatory access considerations for students with CVI

Concept Development

When teaching new concepts, what is the most accessible instructional approach and what are the most accessible learning materials? Direct instruction is essential because many with CVI may not have access to learning new concepts through incidental learning (observation) or because they have difficulty visually processing the entirety of an environment or task. Consistent materials in the student’s accessible form should be used to help link concepts and develop meaning, and concepts should be taught in a way that relates to the student’s life. Building on and relating to what is most familiar will support concept attainment. How can we use a student’s interests and motivations as a gateway to learning?

Here are some examples of ways to think about concept development for students with CVI. These are meant to inspire inquiry, and instructional approaches and activities must be based on a student’s whole-child assessments:

Modes of Communication

What is the total communication approach based on the student’s whole-child assessments? How does this approach consider how CVI affects access in various environments and activities, and how visual fatigue affects access? The medium for reading, writing, listening, and speaking do not all have to be the same. A student may prefer to listen/read auditorily, write using voice type and speak with AAC, or learn both braille and print. A total communication approach is dynamic and comprehensive to promote agency and access no matter the environment, task, or time of day. 

Here are some examples of ways to think about modes of communication for students with CVI. These are meant to inspire inquiry, and instructional approaches and activities must be based on a student’s whole-child assessments:

Learn more about CVI and communication: 5 essential steps to finding the best AAC system for a learner with CVI and CVI and Communication webinar.

Accessing Print Materials

What sensory channels does the student use to access learning materials—visual, tactile, and/or auditory? Many students with CVI are dual-media learners. Vision is not reliable 24/7. Students with CVI are on the blindness spectrum. Internal and external stimuli can affect how the student needs to access their materials; vision can be affected by changes between classes, time of day, familiarity with the topic, fatigue, and other environmental influences. Multiple mediums and access methods should be practiced to familiarize the student with their options and help develop their own sense of self. The team’s adaptations to materials should not be a mystery to the student—the student should be aware of how and why changes are made for them to develop an understanding of how they access literacy and learning materials. When visual materials are used, the school team must adapt to match the needs of the student. The impact of light, color, clutter, and form accessibility is huge when it comes to print and images. The team should work together to ensure accessibility to all materials prior to the start of lessons. 

Here are some examples of ways to think about accessing learning materials for students with CVI. These are meant to inspire inquiry, and instructional approaches and activities must be based on a student’s whole-child assessments:

Organizational Skills

How do we develop independence and skills for students to take ownership of their items and space? How do we help create systems that support access to know where items are and what to do with them? Organization skills are hard on many fronts—it requires visual memory of where things are, what is needed to complete the task, and keeping spaces clear to help locate items. As team members, we should actually work to ensure our own materials and items do not encroach on the student’s areas to keep them clutter-free.

Here are some examples of ways to think about fostering organizational skills for students with CVI. These are meant to inspire inquiry, and instructional approaches and activities must be based on a student’s whole-child assessments:

Study Skills

How can we leverage the student’s strengths, interests, and abilities to build study skills? This area not only focuses on studying for a test but also on building connections and familiarity to learn new concepts. The student’s familiarization with a topic will impact their interest, recognition, and recall. How can using a variety of sensory learning channels (auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, and visual) strengthen learning a new concept and applying what they know?

Here are some examples of ways to think about building study skills for students with CVI. These are meant to inspire inquiry, and instructional approaches and activities must be based on a student’s whole-child assessments:

Where to include compensatory access in the IEP?

The ECC is designed to supplement the general curriculum for blind/visually impaired individuals. This means that the nine areas of the ECC, including compensatory access, should be weaved throughout the Individual Education Plan (IEP). As with all areas of the ECC, your child won’t be directly instructed on every skill each year; as a team, you will identify which will be the primary focus for the year. The inclusion of compensatory access in a student’s IEP will look different based on the student’s needs: 

All of these thoughts would then be blended into the student’s current level of performance, accommodations/modifications, and goals/objectives.  For example, if the student is both a print and auditory media learner, the print font, size, color, and presentation along with audio versions of all texts and a screen reader may be added as accommodations. Both print and listening skills are incorporated into the literacy goal. Another example is if a student with CVI is also learning braille, this is part of their accommodations and goal areas (either as its own or incorporated into academic goals).

Ideas for embedding compensatory access at home

Compensatory access is built around the student’s access to their environment. The same skills that are worked on at school can be embedded into the routine at home. It is important to remember to use preferred items and activities and keep things fun. Children and adults learn best when learning activities are presented in a fun and meaningful way. 

Some at-home ideas: 

Every environment a child is in can be a learning environment. It is important to remember what visual behaviors of CVI are most impactful and how to help modify them to make an activity more accessible. Use outgrown clothes, old food containers, or real objects to create adapted choice boards and sorting activities all to help develop compensatory access skills. 

What is the overlap between compensatory access and other ECC areas? 

The skills needed for compensatory access for a student with CVI embed many of the other nine ECC areas. Just as the CVI visual behaviors are so interconnected, it is hard to unlink the areas of the ECC. Looking at areas from the compensatory access lens focus on developing skills towards independence.

Compensatory access is the skills needed for your child or student with a visual impairment, including CVI, to access what they are learning. These skills are needed no matter age, level, and learning modality. Not all students learn all skills, only the skills needed for their learning style. It is crucial for a student to have the appropriate evaluations: functional vision assessment, learning media assessment, and CVI evaluation to guide the team in how to present the materials and develop systematic instruction.

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