How to design CVI-accessible calendar systems

Part 3 in our 4-part series on CVI-friendly calendar systems. Ways to ensure that your student finds meaning in daily school activities.

TVI Megan holds up an activity card for a CVI student.

Calendar systems can be made in a variety of formats, but not just any format will do. They must be tailored to the individual based on data collected during observation and assessment, with careful consideration of materials that will be most meaningful to the student.

Some calendars include:

Whole object and partial object calendar systems

Ilse Willems, Acting Director of the Perkins CVI Center and a TVI and Deafblind specialist, shares how she would prepare a student for art class with an object calendar system.

First, the student would locate the symbol for art, perhaps a paintbrush, and the teacher would begin a conversation to prepare the student for the transition.

After describing the object, the teacher might say: “Now that you have your art symbol, we’ll walk to the art room. When we match the art symbol on the door of the room, we have reached our destination.”

In this case, the student uses an anticipation calendar with one or two items at a time, taking that object with her to the activity and, once the activity is complete, placing the object in a separate place, like a bin or a bucket. 

“Many students need a defined beginning, middle, and end,” says Ilse.

Then the student moves on to “see what’s next on the schedule, which helps with learning the overall concept of time.”

“There is a slow, thoughtful progression based on data about how they are looking and interacting with the calendar. The student may be ready to move to an embedded tactile system (partial object) or 2D materials (photo). Instead of a full ball, a half ball might be embedded in the calendar or a color photograph of that ball.” 

Examples of whole object and partial object calendar systems

MEGAN’s TVI case study

An example of a whole object board, showing a diaper, a bottle and a book on top of a black slant board.

Peter uses whole objects to represent his daily activities. His calendar system has three spots for upcoming activities and a finished bin for when an activity is complete.

In the morning, Peter puts the first three activities of the day on the board together with his teacher, who uses hand-under-hand prompting to move from left to right as he puts the objects in the correct place.

Then they have a conversation and inspect each object:

  1. “First, we’re going to the bathroom to change your diaper.” (Object: Diaper)
  2. “Second, we’re going to have your snack.” (Object; Bottle)
  3. “Third, we’re going to read a book.” (Object: Book)

As each of the three activities is complete, Peter places the object in the finished bin. He returns periodically to review what he’s done and what’s coming up next. While Peter is not ready to hear about all 10 activities happening in his day at once, he can anticipate three at a time. His calendar gives him a preview of shorter chunks of time throughout the day.

Sharon’s Parent case study

In this Paths to Literacy article, Sharon Elliott describes how, over the course of four years, her son with CVI moved from a calendar system with:

  1. Whole objects to
  2. Tactile cards with object symbols or partial objects to
  3. Photographs.

His CVI assessment data informed the progression from one format to the next, where his team knew he was capable of accessing more complex arrays and increasingly abstract visuals, like pieces of objects and then photographs. 

The team started with one “familiar and highly motivating” object at a time, each in its own box. They used a target color sparingly to draw visual attention to the item of interest. Then his teacher might describe the spoon or bowl to preview the next activity: lunch. 

Once he mastered the whole objects, they created a system with partial objects attached to black tactile cards, again, using the target color to create sections on a black schedule board and to highlight the “finished” basket. Task lighting also helped focus visual attention.

Later, they used photos of the objects represented in earlier calendars, just one clear image on a black background to address difficulty with clutter and complexity. He looked at one photo alongside the matching object, building up to an array of four.

Sharon says there’s also a learning curve when it comes to creating a meaningful calendar. 

“We learned that the abstract items used on cards were not as easily understood as real objects or words.” It is not meaningful to assign an arbitrary image to represent an activity or action, like ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ In this case, consider spelling out the word, whether or not your student can read or speak.

Photo calendar systems

When creating a calendar system with photos or symbols rather than objects, the team must consider whether a student can understand more abstract imagery, “thinking about items and their salient features and making sure we’re not using things that are too abstract if the student isn’t there yet,” says Sara, teacher in the Perkins Deafblind Program. 

“We use a lot of real-life objects, and we take photographs of them on a black background” because they are familiar and have “those tangible features that they’re able to recognize and work with.”

Not every student will need a black background. Some may simply need “very clear images, just the image, nothing in the background, and one item per page. For [that student] it’s about the clutter,” Sara explains.

For a student with strong color preferences, teachers must ensure “that all of the colors are appropriate” and for a student with strong color associations “that they match up with what he’s learning for nouns and verbs” to aid understanding, says Sara.

During the design process, Ilse also asks, “Do they need defined colors for pictures? And if they rely heavily on color to distinguish objects, would it be beneficial to select objects in colors that are visually discrepant?”

Likewise, “If they are relying on general shape to identify an image, I wouldn’t want to use two pictures that are similar,” Ilse adds. 

Logan’s picture schedule

Logan’s picture schedule combines words and photos.

Logan sticks a photo of a cloudy sky to the top corner of his picture schedule
An example of Logan's picture schedule where words and images are traced in red to accomodate his CVI needs

Ilse’s TVI case study

Eleanor was relying fully on whole objects (3D) and showing an increased ability to understand 2D images of real objects.

The teacher started by taking a photo of the 3D objects, maintaining the actual size of the object and cutting the image around the edge to provide extra information about its general shape. The teacher constantly matched the two formats (3D and 2D) to make a clear connection for her. This was effective because the teacher knew Eleanor could shift her gaze and interpret an array of two items.

Over time, the teacher reduced the size of the photos and moved them to a high-tech eye gaze device that presented one photo at a time. Eleanor also received auditory feedback. This demonstrates a thoughtful progression of Eleanor’s calendar system, backed by data from the TVI and SLP to inform the move from one format to the next.

Digital calendar examples

Kyle uses his color-coded calendar digitally and in print.

An example of Kyle's color-coded digital and print schedule.

My daughter is learning to use a digital calendar. She enters events and reminders with voice-to-text functionality on her phone or laptop. When she wants to review her schedule, she either uses a screen reader on her phone or views the color-coded calendar on a large touchscreen monitor. – Jessica

Graces uses a color-coded digital calendar

Make it meaningful

Each student will use very different objects, photos, and words to represent the activities on their calendars.  

Ilse emphasizes that “not a single calendar system is identical because it needs to be meaningful to the student. That’s the only way they will start to make clear connections. 

“Maybe this student always starts art class with painting. A paintbrush is meaningful because they’ve touched it, seen it, explored it with whatever strategies and senses they are using. Another student may not like to touch paintbrushes or may have never seen one. They won’t use that symbol as a meaningful representation of art. The choices are student-specific not just in terms of visual accessibility but what’s meaningful to that person.”

At times, it may make sense to diverge from the student’s typical calendar format to be certain the materials are meaningful. Students who haven’t used objects for a few years may return to them to learn a new concept. 

“For example, in my class maybe once a year we’ll go on a big field trip, like the aquarium,” says Megan Connaughton, preschool teacher in Perkins’ Deafblind Program. “A photo of the aquarium may not have meaning to them, even if they can visually see what it is. So, we might find an object that they’re going to explore there and put that in the calendar instead.” 

Then the teacher might pair the object with a photo and describe it within the context of what they will explore at the aquarium. 

Student experiences will inform calendar system choices. Interview the student (if possible), parents, and service providers who work closely with the student to identify the symbols (whether objects, photos, or words) that will make the most sense.

“We have this concept of mini school buses as a representation of school,” states Ilse. “Those of us with neurotypical vision think of a bus this way. But we see buses from every side and understand part to whole, big to miniature. We immediately know what it is. A student with CVI might see the miniature and have no clue what it is.”

She suggests selecting a concrete symbol that the student interacts with on the bus, like a seatbelt. This allows the student to look at a familiar symbol and, if an object is used, the student may benefit from additional sensory information like the auditory click of the buckle or feel of the polyester and metal. 

Consistent and meaningful vocabulary matters too. 

“Even if my students aren’t reading print, I have all of my objects labeled either on the top or on the back of an object,” says Megan. “Maybe their symbol for gym class is a sneaker. I might call it a sneaker, you might call it a shoe, someone else might call it a trainer. So, you want to make sure you’re using that same label, especially when you’re learning a new concept.”

“You’re not going to see a universal calendar system for students with CVI,” explains Sara. “All of these calendar systems are so student specific.” Though teachers may use other systems as a reference, “we’re going to have to make some changes to make it work perfectly for that student.”

Remember: Growth isn’t linear, and neither are calendars!

Ilse explains that the evolution of the calendar may not be linear. “There’s a misconception that students need to progress through a hierarchy. There’s this idea that ‘we want to get to a high-tech calendar as an end goal.’”

However, if they still need to feel something or visually inspect a real object to make those connections, then the student should be able to continue to use 3D objects for as long as needed.

If you’re an object user your whole life, that’s totally fine if that’s what works for your calendar system. Or, it’s okay to step back to objects to solidify a new idea, especially for students with CVI, so that they can really explore that whole object and gain more concrete meaning to provide them with the best opportunity for success.

– Megan Connaughton, Preschool Deafblind Teacher

Recommended materials

Other articles in this series:

Additional resources

Jessica Marquardt is a CVI mom to Grace, the creator of Kaleidoscope: The CVI Podcast, and works in marketing and communications for a major software company. Jessica is a fierce CVI advocate, a life-long learner of CVI and the brain, and undeniably knows that storytelling has the power to change the world for individuals with CVI.  

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