Compensatory Skills and the ECC

When I was a freshman in high school, I took an Earth Science class that I would have detested were it not for my teacher.

By Courtney Tabor-Abbott

When I was a freshman in high school, I took an Earth Science class that I would have detested were it not for my teacher. His creativity, dry wit, and incomprehensible love of sedimentary rocks got me through what could have easily been the most boring part of my day. One morning, during a unit on the geology of the ocean floor, my teacher came up to my desk with a piece of cardboard and some Wikki Stix. He proceeded to make me a map of the ocean floor, using Wikki Stix to form the continental shelf and other geological formations, as well as his Wikki Stix interpretation of a giant squid, just because he was having too much fun to stop. He took my hand and explained each piece, and I continued to explore the map as we discussed the ocean floor as a class. Because of the makeshift model he had created, I was able to understand everything he taught us that day, even the diagrams.

This is a perfect example of compensatory skills. As a student with a vision impairment, I was unable to access the map that my fellow classmates were using. The tactile representation that my teacher created for me allowed me to access this portion of the curriculum along with my sighted peers.

What Are Compensatory Skills?

Compensatory Skills are skills that allow students with vision impairments to access their education curriculum. For students who are sighted, a significant portion of their curriculum throughout school is accessed through print materials. This includes textbooks, worksheets, maps, graphs, and even tomorrow’s homework assignment written on a white board at the front of the classroom. Students use their visual skills to read their course materials, highlight or color code specific information for studying purposes, and to observe and learn the organizational strategies of their peers. Students with vision impairments, however, will need to develop compensatory skills in order to fully participate in the curriculum. Furthermore, many students with vision impairments require specific instruction in general concepts that are typically understood through visual observation by sighted peers. A student learning about a mountain range in a Geography class may have difficulty conceptualizing these mountains if she has never seen them. In order to fully access a school’s curriculum, a student may need instruction targeted at developing accurate concepts of various education topics. 

What do compensatory skills include?

Compensatory skills refer to any skills that a student needs in order to access the educational curriculum. Specific skill needs will change based on the student’s vision and any additional disabilities that the student has. Examples of compensatory skills include:

Modes of communication:

This includes, listening, speaking, writing, and reading skills. Listening skills may involve learning to access audio recorded materials, absorbing information from a spoken classroom lecture, or listening to information read aloud by a computer screen reading software. Speaking skills refer to using speech in the way that works best for each student, including using sign language or using an assistive communication device. Reading and writing skills can involve learning to use print, braille, or tactile object symbols to communicate.

Strategies for accessing printed material:

This can include reading braille, using large print, listening to an audio recording, having a reader, or reading print with the use of an optical device. Teaching students to read and write in an alternative format that works for them is absolutely essential for any student who cannot immediately access otherwise unadapted printed material.

Study skills:

The typical skills that come to mind that a student might use to prepare for a test—underlining, highlighting, flash cards—are all visual in nature. Students who do not have enough vision to use these study skills may need additional study strategies that are adaptable with the learning media that they use (braille, audio, etc.).

Organizational skills:

This may include specific instruction on how to maintain a neat and organized work area, how to easily locate personal items, how to keep track of paperwork, etc.

Concept development:

This includes helping students with vision impairments to understand any concepts that are typically perceived and understood visually. For instance, a geometry unit about 3-dimensional shapes might be best understood if the student can feel an object or model in the shape of a cone or a wedge. Teachers are encouraged to think creatively about ways to present visual concepts to students, with the understanding that each student with a vision impairment has a unique set of strengths, needs, and approaches to learning.

Compensatory Skills and Transition

Having strong compensatory skills is essential for a student to make a successful transition into adult life. A student moving on to post-secondary education will need to be able to access the reading assignments in her textbooks and to study for her exams. A student preparing to move on to day and residential programming can use compensatory skills to access the pictoral and object symbols that represent his schedule and calendar, or to read a task list to complete a chore at mealtime. Yet another student who plans to move on to employment can use organizational skills to maintain a neat work area or filing system, and will need compensatory skills to fill out job applications and complete many work tasks. While compensatory skills are generally considered within the way in which they aid a student in accessing the school curriculum, these skills are valuable far beyond a student’s last day in the classroom. When students receive education in these skills during their school years, they can take the skills with them into their work and recreational lives for years to come. When a TVI teaches braille, a parent helps a child learn ways to keep her room organized, or a classroom teacher takes the time to make a tactile map with Wikki Stix, the student is preparing for a successful and smooth transition into adulthood.

Pinterest collage of compensatory skills


By Courtney Tabor-Abbott