A young girl who is blind sitting in the cab of an idle front end loader.

Career Education for Children Who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Dr. Wolffe describes the importance of starting very early in a child’s development for the student to develop the necessary skills to achieve success.

In this webcast, Karen Wolffe, Ph.D. describes the importance of career education for students who are blind or visually impaired. Dr. Wolffe describes the importance of starting very early in a child’s development in order for the student to develop the necessary skills to achieve success in the future.

In addition she talks about the “golden opportunity” of career awareness and the role this instruction plays in the student’s dreams and choices they make for the future.

Finally, Dr. Wolffe describes the barriers and challenges individuals who are blind or visually impaired face in their path toward employment.

Read full transcript »

Presented by Dr. Karen Wolffe
Instructor: Karen E. Wolffe, Ph.D.
Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Successful Career Development Starts Early
  3. Career Awareness
  4. Allowing Room for Dreaming
  5. Career Preparation
  6. Barriers and Challenges
  7. Takeaways

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Dr. Wolffe describes the importance of career education for students who are blind or visually impaired.WOLFFE: I was fortunate enough to get a job working with deaf and deaf/blind individuals. And I loved that work. I loved working with deaf people. I loved the visual aspect of sign language and expressing myself to them through visual means.

What I realized in my work there was that although I was called a crafts instructor, what I was really teaching was what I would consider these days to be pre-vocational kinds of skills. I realized that I was teaching clients with whom I worked how to organize their work areas, how to organize their work tools, how to be there on time, how to make a product. And to have that closure for many of the clients with whom I was working was a huge, huge step forward in terms of their rehabilitation process.

Interestingly enough, while I was working at the rehab center, I heard from all of these rehab folks — including many of the clients — that the big problem for these clients was that they hadn’t gotten what they needed when they were students in school or through their family units. That what they were missing was this basic information at the beginning of their lives.

I think it really gelled for me as I began my work — both with children and their families — following on the footsteps of having worked with those adults. Because ironically, when I worked with children, families, and other teachers, they would say to me, the problem is those rehab people. They’re not doing what they need to do. We teach them all these things they need to know. Then they go off to rehab. And nothing happens.

So what I realized was, wait a minute. Everybody’s pointing fingers at everyone else, including the clients themselves, pointing fingers out and blaming other people. The truth of the matter is, it’s all of our responsibility.

And what I realized was that for me and for my colleagues, we needed to work with children, with families, and with adults. But if we could start earlier, we could do more to move people along a continuum that would lead to work.

It’s not about who’s to blame. It’s about figuring out what we need to do and doing it more efficiently. And that’s what I figured out.

CHAPTER 2: Successful Career Development Starts Early

WOLFFE: I think what we really need is a holistic approach where we intervene as professionals as early as possible in the lives of young children who are blind, deaf/blind, or have other kinds of disabilities, that we work first with parents

When children are no later than six months, as early as we can get in, to families to help them understanding about the differences between children with disabilities, particularly sensory disability, and typically developing children, to help families understand that this is a wonderful child.

This is a child you can love and nurture. But you don’t want to overprotect. You don’t want to do things for this child. You want to teach this child just the way you would teach your other child, but with some alternatives — some non-visual alternatives — to learning.

That’s the first messaging I think we have to get across to parents is, you have a wonderful child. You have a beautiful child. We want you to do what you’re doing. Love your child.

But we also want you to understand how to teach your child differently so that your child can grow up and be ready for the next environment home to school. That moving toward that next environment that there are things that you need to do. So we work with those parents first.

I think the structure then leads us to working with children — you, young children — toddlers and preschoolers, to help them learn — pre-learn — what they’re going to need to know to enter into those preschool environments and into kindergarten in advance of their sighted peers. What they need to be doing. How they need to be behaving. How they need to engage.

Because if we don’t, then they’re always playing catchup.

Several young children are shown participating in the Perkin's infant toddler program.NARRATOR: Several young children are shown participating in the Perkin’s infant toddler program. Volunteers and staff hold the children and engage in a welcome song.

[SINGING] -I-N-G-O. And Bingo was his name-o.]

NARRATOR: The children, who are blind, visually impaired, or multiply disabled, engage in various group activities during their time together.

WOLFFE: I think it includes all those soft skills that employers talk about — those great work behaviors. And I think that all of that makes a worker. It’s not just that you suddenly think, oh, now it’s time to go to work. You come to a job — most of us come to a job, come to work, with a whole back host of information that has led us to that point where we’ve learned through home and chores. We’ve learned through school and responsibilities. We’ve learned through extracurricular and team sport.

All of these wonderful constructs that nobody said to us, oh, this is in preparation for a job. But in fact was the perfect preparation for work, careers, jobs. So in a sense, I think of the whole lifespan. When I think careers, I think of the whole lifespan.

And I think what we do for children who are disabled is that we structure the learning environment so that it meets their needs.

CHAPTER 3: Career Awareness

WOLFFE: I think about children in elementary and younger, frankly, as being in a phase or a stage of the career development model that I classify as career awareness. I think that’s the golden opportunity, if you will, for children to learn about work and to learn about contributing to the family, to society.

It’s where we build those skills through chores at home, tasks at school. We teach things like organizational skills. We teach things like basic tool manipulation. That’s where you learn to cut with scissors, use a stapler, all those basic hand tools. Hammer, screwdriver.

All of that happens, if it’s done properly — elementary and below — in career awareness. This is also where we teach children — particularly children who are blind — about the array of choices in the environment. I think we have to understand, blind children cannot see. If you cannot see, it means that you can’t look out your window. Whether it’s at home or in the car with your parental units.

You can’t look out the window and see jobs and people doing things in the world. All you know about jobs in truth is what you learn from other people. Your parents, the people who are around you that are significant, teachers, social work — think blind children and the world they live in — therapists, et cetera.

But what do you really know if you’re a blind child about say, construction workers? What do you really know? Except what you read in a book.

That they maybe wear a hard hat. That they maybe push a wheelbarrow — a heavy wheelbarrow. But do you understand how dirty a work site really is? Do you understand about steel-toed boots? Do you understand the weight of a jackhammer? Do you understand the way it vibrates a human being?

No. Because you can’t see it. Particularly from afar. You may hear it. It may sound loud. It may sound confusing.

You may read about it. But if you are a blind child, if you can’t touch it, how do you know it?

A young girl who is blind sitting in the cab of an idle front end loader.NARRATOR: In a photograph we see a young girl who is blind sitting in the cab of an idle front end loader. She is participating in a “Tough the Trucks” event.

With the operator of the loader standing nearby in the cab, the girl is encouraged to reach out and explore the various knobs and levers that control the machine.

WOLFFE: And so I think we make a mistake in elementary and earlier with blind children, with low vision children. We don’t do the amount of career awareness that they really need. They don’t learn all those soft skills — how to work cooperatively with others — because they’re not encouraged necessarily or taught to play with others.

They don’t learn about the array of job choices or careers, because all they come in contact with are people in the social services milieu and their parents. It’s very difficult.

CHAPTER 4: Allowing Room for Dreaming

WOLFFE: Part of the issue that we face in career education or career development is the fact that there are so many well-intentioned adults — parents, teachers — who say to kids, particularly when they are young, you can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t be this. You can’t be that. Thinking that they are being kind, thinking that they are helping them with realistic feedback.

And what I would share with you is, it is a mistake. It is a huge mistake. We don’t do that to sighted children. Why would we do that to blind children?

We need to let blind children dream of being ballerinas without worrying about are they going to twirl right off the stage. We need to let blind children think about being a pilot, being a fireman, not worrying about can they get out of the burning building. They are never going to be able to — we don’t need to worry about them when they are little.

When they are little, when you are in career awareness, it’s not about figuring out what’s real. It’s about dreaming. It’s about learning. It’s about discovering what the array of choices is.

That business of being realistic comes through the next stage in the career development model, which I think kicks in around middle school — or ought to kick in around middle school — which is called career exploration. And this is where I never say to a child, you cannot. I never. I never say to an adult, you cannot.

I’m a counselor. What I say is, ah. What an interesting idea. Even if I’m thinking to myself, oh, my God. That won’t work.

What I say is, what an interesting idea. Why not explore it? You tell me. Go find out. Read about it. Visit people doing that job. Talk to people doing that job. Find out what it takes.

What would you have to learn? What would you have to be — what interests do you have to have? What abilities do you have to have? What are the values of these workers? Would it suit you? Is it right for you?

Then I’m going to ask you, if you’re working with me, somewhere in that middle school time frame after I’ve had you explore those jobs, I’m going to ask you the big question, which is now, tell me. Is this a good job for you?

Compare what you’ve learned about those jobs to what you know already about yourself from the career awareness piece. Compare those two things. And tell me. Is it good for you or not?

A young boy who is visually impaired and wears glasses looking up at the camera. He wears a red plastic firefighter's hat.NARRATOR: In a photograph we see a young boy who is visually impaired and wears glasses looking up at the camera. He wears a red plastic firefighter’s hat.

In the next photo, we see two young girls, both wearing plastic firefighter hats. One of the girls is visually impaired and wears glasses. A professional firefighter is allowing the girls to use a firefighting hose and nozzle.

WOLFFE: The child will always say to me, I can’t do this, whatever this might be, because I can’t see well enough to pick one — drive, see in the distance, escape the burning building, whatever the case may be. At which juncture I say to them, how about we explore some related kinds of jobs, because you obviously have an interest. So let’s explore further.

That second stage of the career development model allows us to take those initial ideas, those fantasies, those dreams, and help children put it together. What’s real. What’s not real. What’s realistic. What’s not realistic. And how to proceed into the next phase of the career development model.

CHAPTER 5: Career Preparation

WOLFFE: There’s still two opportunities in fact in school. This career preparation phase — which can start as early as middle school, but for sure needs to be there by high school — is really about skill development. It’s about refining skills so that if you know that you want to do something that requires advanced math or advanced English or advanced geography or advanced fill in the blank, that you buckle down in high school and really start building those skills.

It also sets the stage for the next phase, which is career placement, which also kicks in ideally in the latter part of high school. Where you actually go out and trial. You go into some of those work environments. You test your skills, your interest, your values against the real world.

So by the time young people are 16-ish — no later than 16 in my book — they’re moving into work. They’re taking those skills that they’ve developed as freshmen, sophomores in high school, and actually applying them in work experiences. Hopefully they’ve been working, these overlap. Career preparation and career placement.

A young adult man who is blind working as a barista in a coffee shop.NARRATOR: In a photo we see a young adult man who is blind working as a barista in a coffee shop. The man, who wears an apron, stands in front of the espresso machine. And the woman who owns the shop stands beside him.

WOLFFE: They’ve been doing some work, perhaps in the neighborhood, part-time work in the evenings, general kinds of work that help kids figure out mostly what they don’t like doing in preparation for what they want to trial. In those last couple of years of high school and certainly college, what I’m really looking for is skill development that targets career areas.

So instead of kids going off to college thinking do, do, do, do — fun! I’m off to have fun. That they might be thinking instead I want to be a fill in the blank. I want to be a teacher. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a cook. What do I need to learn now? What do I really need to do in terms of advanced training — post-secondary — that will lead me into that career field. That job.

CHAPTER 6: Barriers and Challenges

WOLFFE: We live in a world designed for sighted people. Period. End of story.

There’s braille signage. OK. Yeah. In the elevators. Big deal. Most of us can figure out 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 anyway.

And frankly, although I am happy to see it, it’s minimal. It’s not holistic. You don’t stand in front of a building, and a building doesn’t speak to you these days and say to you, this is the John Hancock building. And you are facing the north side of the building or the west side. Buildings don’t talk to us.

And for most blind people, the environment is still a huge barrier. We’ve made progress. In the 30-years I’ve been working in this field, we’ve made great progress. I don’t mean to disparage it.

But the reality is, we still live in a world that’s designed for sighted people. Even the things that we laud — the wonderful technology — is more and more and more graphic-oriented. And it’s smaller and smaller and smaller, which makes it hard for people with low vision to see.

Yes, we have some great technology with built-in accessibility. Those are big pluses. But you’ve got to know how to use it.

The other external barrier is attitudinal. It’s not about employer discrimination. Although there is some, I grant you. It’s more gross than that.

It’s a universal misunderstanding about differences between people. And those of us in the field who know and work with and are friends with blind people, we get it. It’s not a problem for us. We know what people can do without vision.

A teenaged girl who is blind and uses a white cane standing at the curb on a busy city street.NARRATOR: As an example, we see a photo of a teenaged girl who is blind and uses a white cane standing at the curb on a busy city street. A closer look shows that she is at a bus stop waiting for the bus that will take her to her job.

WOLFFE: But the average human being, if you ask the average human being what can a blind person do, they will say to you, well. Not a thing that I can think of. Oh, wait. Maybe — and they’ll stop for a minute and they’ll think. Maybe they could be a singer. I’ve seen some singers who can’t see. Or they’ll say to you, or maybe they could be — well, I know. I’ve seen something about blind people can work with computers. So they can work with computers. Or maybe, maybe they could talk on the phone. And that’s about it.

They want to close their eyes and assume that if they can’t do it without their eyes open, that no one else can do it. They don’t understand that they’ve never had any training, that they don’t know braille, that they don’t have the ability to walk through space with a long cane, that they’ve never used assertive technology, that they don’t even know what it is.

They just assume if I close my eyes and I can’t do it, then of course if you’re blind, you can’t do it. And so I think that’s a huge barrier as well.

CHAPTER 7: Takeaways

WOLFFE: It’s all of our responsibilities to focus on and train up people who are blind or visually impaired to be the very best that they can be. The blind person, the family, the teachers, the rehabilitation specialists, all the therapists who — everybody needs to link up and think very cogently about critical things like always start early with a focus on the kinds of skills that are going to enable the person we’re trying to help be the very best that they can be.

An adolescent boy who is visually impaired crossing the street using his cane.NARRATOR: In a video we see an adolescent boy who is visually impaired, and his orientation and mobility teacher at an intersection.

The boy is working on navigation skills and interpersonal skills, as well. The O&M specialist has asked the boy to navigate to a nearby convenience store and purchase a newspaper, necessitating an interaction with the store clerk.

WOLFFE: I think the most critical point that I’ve made, and that I would make again, is if you’re a service provider or if you’re a parent, you must always be thinking about next environment. Not just today and the math lesson or the toothbrushing lesson or the fill in the blank any kind of lesson.

It’s not about today. It’s about tomorrow.

Is the child learning the skills today that he or she is going to need to move into that next environment? Whether the next environment is preschool, elementary, secondary, post-secondary, or work. It’s about preparing for that next environment.

Every skill we teach, whether it’s an infusion of expanded core, whether it’s academic skills, we need to connect the dots. Is it leading to next environment skills needed so that they can be successful.

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