Marla Runyan, Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) and Olympic athlete walks us through her experience as a child with a visual impairment and the impact of the TVI in her education. As a TVI herself, Marla discuss the importance of making the curriculum not only accessible but also meaningful for the child with a visual impairment.
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Presented by Marla Runyan
Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes
CHAPTER 1: Introduction
RUNYAN: When I turned nine years old and the first day of school in the fourth grade I went into my classroom and sat down at my desk, and the teacher started writing on the chalkboard, and I looked up and I couldn’t see what she was writing. In fact it didn’t look like there was anything there or it was like a couple of dashed lines. And I thought, “What’s wrong with her chalk?” And it never occurred to me that there was something wrong with my vision.
The deterioration in my retinas occurred very slowly over the summer, and I was pretty active outside and so I wasn’t doing a lot of reading or detailed tasks. That was the first time I began to experience having a vision impairment. What I didn’t know is that my acuity had already fallen to 2,200, which is the level of legal blindness.
And it wasn’t very long after that first day of school that I could no longer see my textbooks in school or worksheets, chalkboard, overhead projectors, all that stuff. Basically almost all print became unaccessible at that point.
NARRATOR: A school photograph of Marla Runyan at about age nine is shown. She wears a purple shirt with a line of embroidered flowers down the front.
RUNYAN: Initially, in my home school district there were no services. And this is going back to the late ’70s. The laws were brand new in terms of least restrictive environment and I ended up changing districts. And by the time I was middle school, and that was the first time… by the time I reached sixth grade, that was the very first time in my life I actually had a teacher for the visually impaired supporting me in my academics.
I had a… I was in a mainstream sixth grade classroom, and for one hour a day I would go to the VI resource room where my TVI made sure that I had all of my materials accessible, would help me get caught up on schoolwork because I was very slow. What was really important for me was that that I had a person, I had a teacher in my life who understood what it was like to be visually impaired. And that in itself was so personally significant that it was like when you are the only student in a school of hundreds or even thousands, where you were the only one who is visually impaired, or there’s only a few other students who are, you feel that you are misunderstood or that no one understands what it’s like.
And then to have this teacher in your life who not only is there to help support you academically, but is someone who understands what you’re going through, and, in a way, it’s a comfort and it’s that time to just be myself and not feel like I have to pretend I can see, I can just be myself. And that was really — the role that that teacher played in my life for the three years in middle school, he had a very significant role in my life.
CHAPTER 2: The Impact of Visual Impairment on Incidental Learning
RUNYAN: What people don’t realize is how much knowledge about the world that a child, a fully sighted child brings to the kindergarten grade level when they first enter school — what they’ve learned just through visual observation of their world. They’ve watched their mom or dad make dinner. They’ve watched the routines of the day in their home. They’ve traveled, they’ve seen, they’ve witnessed and learned through that visual observation so many things, including social skills, including communication skills and language skills, and it goes on and on.
NARRATOR: In a photograph, a young boy who is blind is being taught how to set the table for lunch. A teacher watches as the boy places a green plastic plate on the table. This is an example of a task that a child who is sighted would encounter through incidental learning, something that must be specifically taught to a child who is blind or visually impaired.
RUNYAN: Then you have to think about how that information plays a role or how it impacts their participation and success level in academics. So if you don’t have a concept for something, you don’t have that as a reference point for the vocabulary word that just came up in class, or how many times I can think of a student had a list of vocabulary words, fourth grade level, and she says, “What is that? I don’t know what that is.” Because it wasn’t that it was never taught to her, and it wasn’t something she could ever see.
So there’s all these little pieces of missing information that the TVI understands that that’s going to impact that child’s learning. And so that’s why that TVI is so crucial is coming in and being able to spend direct service time with that student and figuring out does this student have all the conceptual background knowledge to understand this list of spelling words? Does this student have all the background knowledge to understand this story that’s taking place in another country when she’s never seen a map? She doesn’t know the shape of the country or what the world looks like.
So we come in and we say, as a TVI, you’re looking at what knowledge and what foundational concepts might be missing or lacking for this student that’s going to impact her success in the classroom. And that’s such a significant role that I think many other educators or administrators overlook that it’s not just teaching Braille, it’s not just making the literacy accessible, it’s not… or let me rephrase that. It’s not just making the curriculum accessible, it’s not about just putting things into Braille or large print to access the education, it’s about filling in the conceptual framework, the conceptual background that is going to help that child learn.
NARRATOR: We see in a photograph Marla working with a teenaged boy who is blind on some concepts in science.
On the desk between them is a device that holds two plastic cups on either side of a fulcrum, much like a small seesaw. The device can be used to determine the relative weight of liquid or dry measures that are placed in the cups.
RUNYAN: In order for the student who is visually impaired in the general education setting to really have access to her education, have meaningful instruction, it’s the TVI’s role to also educate and inform the general ed teacher, as well as every member on that IEP team about how this vision impairment is really impacting that student’s ability to learn. So not only are we working directly with students, not only are we consulting, we’re part of the collaborative team, and it’s a team effort that requires a lot of teaching of other teachers.
CHAPTER 3: Making the Curriculum Accessible and Meaningful
RUNYAN: From my experience I think we focus a lot on the accessible curriculum part for a student who is visually impaired. So we think immediately do we have it in large print? Can they use their globe magnifier or their close circuit television, or if it’s a Braille reader do we have that in Braille? Are they going to use technology? Are we going to do it audio? So we’re thinking formatting, we’re thinking format, we’re thinking accessing material, we’re accessing the actual books, and worksheets, and posters, and all of the concrete curriculum that exists in the classroom. That’s where we kind of think about that first.
NARRATOR: In a photograph, three high school-aged students — two boys and a girl — are gathered around a table on which iPads and other tablet devices are displayed. In this lesson about money, students who are blind are using some of the accessibility features of the iPads to access information online.
The girl wears headphones that are plugged into one of the devices. On the table are scattered bills of various denominations.
RUNYAN: But what we also have to think about, which is equally, if not more, important, is the instruction meaningful to the student? So if we’re going to teach the class a lesson on the metric system, and you have sighted children and one blind student in your class, well, what’s a meter? What’s a centimeter? What are these concepts? What do we need to bring to that lesson to make it meaningful to the student who’s blind?
We’ve got to bring the real thing, we’ve got to bring objects. We can’t learn through pictures, and videos, and PowerPoint presentations, and document cameras. We have to bring real objects that that student can put her hands on, and learn, and develop. I’m going to hold this bottle, and this bottle holds one liter of fluid. Okay, now I have a concept for what this amount is.
You know, and so that is a huge part of teaching our students and ensuring that they understand the concepts in the classroom because just reading it, we’ve made the books accessible and they can read it, great. But now we’ve got to make sure that instruction for that content is meaningful. And that is a big part of what the TVI can support.
NARRATOR: In a photograph, a young boy who is visually impaired and wears glasses is sitting at a table with his TVI. They are in a greenhouse surrounded by plants. As part of a classroom curriculum involving plants and plant growth, they are working with soil, seeds, and pots that will eventually produce seedlings.
RUNYAN: For a student who’s visually impaired, whether a student with low vision or a student who’s totally blind, they need time. They need time to learn the information in a meaningful way, and they need time to process that information and apply the knowledge and skills that they’ve learned. And in general education, it’s a race. It’s like the gun has gone off and off those kids go.
I’ve had students, you know, a 20-problem math worksheet every sighted child in the classroom is finished and my student’s on number two. It’s not that she can’t do it, and it’s not that she can’t access it, it’s that she doesn’t have the time to do it. And so our students need that time, they need time to learn, they need time to apply their skills. I’ve gone so many meetings and tried to educate other educators on tactile learning, tactual learning versus visual learning. And that as… if you are fully sighted you are seeing the whole picture, the whole thing, and then you can zero in on the parts.
For a tactile learner, they see the parts, they see only what their fingers can touch, and they have to keep moving their hand, and moving their hand, and then they construct a whole based on those parts. Which process do you think is faster? Obviously being able to see the whole picture first is much faster. So a tactile learner in particular needs that time. It’s not that she can’t do it, it’s not that she can’t learn it, but she needs the time to process and apply her skills, and practice those skills.
CHAPTER 4: The TVI and the Expanded Core Curriculum
RUNYAN: There’s more to learning than the fact that we got your book in Braille for you. (chuckles) Can we understand the concepts in that book? Is there an experience that student can fall back on, or is that content reliant on having visual observations of your world?
And so the parent can really advocate for having the TVI, maybe in some cases, have a more active and direct service role for their child to help them build those foundational concepts that support them not only academically, but then branching into domains of the expanded core curriculum and supporting social skills, technology use, recreation leisure, all of those components of the ECC is the role of the TVI to support.
The emphasis or the focus is often on the hard concrete curriculum being books, worksheets, and materials. And what is often forgotten or neglected is…is the meaning…is the instruction meaningful and also supporting instruction in the expanded core curriculum? So that is where the TVI plays a major and significant role.
NARRATOR: We see in a photograph a young boy who is blind holding a Wiffle bat and taking a swing at a multi-colored piñata that hangs from a rope in front of him. Behind the boy, his TVI positions him by gently holding his shoulders and orienting him towards the target.
RUNYAN: If you think about it, what is the purpose of education? And if you think about it…for everybody. And the purpose of education is to prepare our children for their future as adults. And so if you think about a student who’s blind, and all we’ve done is make sure that worksheet was in Braille, and we’ve made sure their books were in Braille, and that’s all we do, have we prepared that child for his future? And does that child have knowledge about mobility? Can he get where he wants to go?
NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see an adolescent boy who is blind navigating the hallway of his public school on the way to his locker. The boy holds his mobility cane in his left hand as he passes a wall of green lockers. The next photo shows the boy smiling as he stands next to his own locker.
RUNYAN: Does he have the…does he have independent living skills? Does he have…can he make his own lunch? Can he go to the store? Can he ride the bus? Can he make a phone call? Could he use a computer? So when you get right down to it, by the time you’re 18 years old, what’s most important? What is the most important skills you need to have to be an independent, successful adult?
NARRATOR: A photograph shows a young man who is blind loading the dishwasher in his apartment.
RUNYAN: And so many of those skills fall within the ECC. And that’s why we can’t neglect it, we can’t neglect it. Because it’s great that that fifth grader did his math worksheet in Braille, that’s great, but, again, could he get his lunch? Could he carry his tray in the cafeteria? Could he sit…does he have a friend to talk to? Does he have an after school activity to participate in? These are the big pieces of our education that we can’t forget.
CHAPTER 5: Challenges to Providing the Appropriate Level of Services
RUNYAN: Your challenge is your time, your time is limited. That’s all it comes down to. As an itinerant you are traveling school to school to school. You’re not based in any one location. And so the time you have for each student is very limited. And there might be days when that student needs your service more. But you have six more students to see that day. And so you have to make these decisions like, “Okay, off I go. “I’ve got to go to another…I’ve got to go to another school.”
NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see an adolescent boy who is blind and hearing impaired sitting at his desk in a mainstream classroom among his sighted peers. The teacher stands at the front of the room to the boy’s right in front of a board with notes and assignments written on it. The teacher wears a microphone on her collar, and the boy is using his Braille note taker to record the instructions for an assignment that she is about to hand out.
RUNYAN: And when your caseload is larger than it should be, maybe because, again, the policymakers above you or your administrators above you aren’t fully understanding the significance of your role, then it makes it really difficult to really provide the service the students need.
It becomes very frustrating because as an educator, you want to provide that service. But you’ve got five hours in a school day to do it. And you’ve got 12, 15 kids you’ve got to get to. So you feel like there are compromises that shouldn’t happen. So part of what parents can do is truly advocate that their child is receiving the level and frequency of service that their child needs. And understanding and communicating that to their district. And so that they’re ensuring that the TVI is providing that level of service.
NARRATOR: A photograph shows a young girl who is visually impaired and wearing glasses working one-on-one with her TVI. They work together at a desk to create a calendar with all of the dates positioned under the correct day of the week.
Another photograph shows a boy who is visually impaired peering closely at the screen of his Perkins Smart Brailler. The boy wears glasses and we can see his hearing aid. His TVI is visible in the background of the photo, sitting beside him at the desk.
RUNYAN: Parents need to know as advocates for their children that the services their child receives should be based on their child’s needs. That’s what it comes down to. And a lot of people will have different opinions as to what that child needs. So sometimes deciding whether the service is direct service, or consulting service, or whether it’s once a week or daily, is…I don’t want to say it’s an arbitrary decision, but sometimes it’s a subjective decision.
And that’s why, you know, parents can advocate for the level, type, and frequency of service for their child should be based on their child’s needs. And certain children need more support than others based on their individual needs. It’s not a standardized formula for the amount of service delivery or type of service delivery. It can’t be standardized. It’s individualized for each specific student. And that’s what parents need to know and advocate for the appropriate service for their child.