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The Expanded Core Curriculum

In a previous blog post, it was noted that parents often become the very first advocates for their children with visual impairments. That post provided several useful resources, but this discussion will focus on another important theme: the expanded core curriculum. What is it and why does it matter?

While not an exhaustive overview, this discussion notes some of the specialized services that may be available to a child with a visual impairment in a regular, mainstream school. Please note that this overview is meant to be informative in a general way, and cannot speak to the specific, individual needs of a particular student and services may vary depending on where you live. Moreover, this overview does not discuss the unique needs of those students who have additional disabilities above and beyond blindness. It is written from the perspective of a student who has attended a regular, mainstream school. For professional advice and direction, please refer to the appropriate resources in your area.

The Core Curriculum

The core curriculum refers to those academic subjects (e.g. math, language arts, physical education, science, social studies) that students complete in each grade level. These courses are expanded on and become more advanced with each grade level, and purportedly equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their later academic and career related lives. Children with visual impairments who are placed in regular classrooms will take these academic subjects alongside their sighted peers, unless they have specific needs that cannot be met in such a setting.

Teachers can find a number of resources and ideas for creating accessible learning opportunities in the general education classroom, even for academic subjects that have traditionally been considered “visual” in nature. The Perkins School for the Blind website, for instance, provides webcasts, book resources and activity ideas for creating an “accessible science classroom”. http://www.perkins.org/resources/curricular/accessible-science/

Classroom Teachers: Instructional Strategies

How can classroom teachers ensure that the academic subjects they teach benefit as many students in the class as possible, each of whom (whether with or without disabilities) have differing learning styles and needs? Through an understanding of universal design, regular classroom teachers can create an accessible, inclusive environment for students with visual impairments, without the need for extensive accommodations. After all, verbalizing what is written on the board and describing what you are showing to the class (e.g. pictures, lab demonstrations) can go a long way! Here is an excellent website that provides some other simple but useful tips and suggestions for classroom teachers. It states, in part:

Rather than focus on adapting things for an individual at a later time, universally designed learning environments are created to be accessible to everyone from the beginning. When designers apply universal design principles, their products and services meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics … Making a product or service accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. For example, sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are today more often used by kids on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with rolling carts.

It is useful to think about the principles of universal design when teaching. What instructional strategies can regular classroom teachers implement from the start that would benefit students with visual impairments, but that would also help other students in the class? Making a habit of verbalizing what is on the board would benefit students unable to see, but it would also help a wide variety of students with diverse learning styles, ESL speakers, and students with learning disabilities. Even some sighted students, after all, may not be visual learners and may benefit from auditory reinforcement.

If teachers implement principles of universal design and inclusive education into their instruction, they will often find that less actual ‘modifications’ or special ‘accommodations’ have to be made for students with visual impairments, because they are already making it a point to reach out to more than just visual learners through their teaching strategies. At the same time though, remember that many students with visual impairments do have some remaining vision, so some visual reinforcement may still be useful in some cases.

As a philosophy, universal design also has implications for how we view and treat disability. Creating inclusive and accessible environments from the start is one way of recognizing that people with disabilities are just as valued and important as others. Though some teacher education programs are introducing student teachers to such principles, more should continue to do so in the future – particularly as classrooms become increasingly inclusive and diverse.

The Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC)

Though universal design goes a long way, students with visual impairments may also require additional supports to fully benefit from all the learning opportunities in the academic subjects they pursue. For instance, a child with a severe visual impairment (or one with a degree of vision that is expected to decrease in the future) may benefit from learning braille. A child with low vision may require training on specialized technical aids or devices (such as magnifiers and closed-circuit televisions). Students with visual impairments may also require training on specialized adaptive technology, such as screen-reading programs that read aloud what is on the computer screen and magnification programs that enlarge texts. These extra, specialized forms of instruction (on braille literacy, adaptive technology and so on) comprise what is often known as the ‘expanded core curriculum’ (ECC).

The ECC will not only equips such students with the specialized training they may need to succeed in their academic subjects, but will also equip them with the independent skills and self-sufficiency they will require to live full, independent lives at home, at work, and in the community.

For instance, the repertoire of specialized training available may include training on Orientation and Mobility Skills. Orientation refers to the ability to situate yourself in the environment by using, among other things, environmental clues. Someone who is blind can use clues in the environment – such as the sounds and smells around them – to orient themselves and remain aware of what is around them. When walking down a street, for instance, you may be able to tell when you pass a bakery, a freshly blooming garden or whether a loud construction site is close by. Mobility refers to the ability to move around safely and competently within that environment. This includes the ability to follow directions, and maintain a map in your mind of where it is you are going and how to get there. Someone who is blind may use a white cane (and later, if they like and if they qualify) may also choose to train with a guide dog. Orientation and mobility instructors are professionals trained to teach someone who is blind or visually impaired how to use a white cane and how to travel independently both within inside and outside environments. The American Foundation for the Blind has published a web site that provides additional information about Orientation and Mobility specialists.

There are non-visual techniques to complete many of the daily activities that others perform with their sight, and this includes those skills related to cooking and household management. Learn more about the services available in your community and the options that exist for particular students.

The Spectrum of ECC Subjects

The specific skills taught in the expanded core curriculum will vary, and depend on a number of factors, such as the particular needs of the student in question. This is a really wonderful website that outlines the different skills a student may be taught in the expanded core curriculum, and that highlights many of the themes introduced in this discussion: http://www.eccadvocacy.org/section.aspx?FolderID=13&SectionID=143.

As the website indicates, however:

Although this may seem like a lot for any child to accomplish, the child's educational team will decide which of these skills the child needs to focus on at any given time.

Also remember that students needs (and degree of vision) may change over time, so the specific content included in the expanded core curriculum should thus be reviewed and readjusted as needed.

How Does it Work Exactly?

This will vary from place to place. Itinerant teachers, also called Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments (TVIs), are specially trained teachers that travel to your student’s school to work with him or her on these specialized skills. A special time is set aside to work with the student privately (the exact amount of visits per week will depend on a number of factors, such as the specific skills being taught and the objectives outlined in a student’s educational plan). For instance, one hour of braille practice per week is not, in my opinion, sufficient enough to attain skills pertaining to braille literacy. After all, if we take for granted the fact that sighted children should practice reading and writing on a regular basis at school, why should we lower standards for students who are blind? They have a right to the same level of literacy as other students, particularly if braille is to be their primary learning medium.

Sometimes, TVI’s teach multiple skills that a student may require. Other times, a team of professionals is available to tackle the teaching of different skills (for instance, Orientation and Mobility specialists – who often work at Vision Rehabilitation centers - focus on those skills related to orientation and mobility). The precise break down of how training is provided and by whom will vary depending on where you live and how services are distributed.

Parents Are Valuable Partners

Whatever the case, parental involvement is a wonderful asset. If you are a parent of a child with a visual impairment:

  • Remember that visual impairment is just one of the many characteristics that make some children who they are.
  • Be informed. Do not be afraid to ask questions and communicate with your child’s eye doctor, educational team and other professionals. Ask how you can reinforce concepts that your child is learning (such as braille) within the home.
  • Learn about the resources and opportunities available in your community. There may be organizations that plan activities for children with and without visual impairments, workshops for parents, and other resources that may interest you.
  • Perhaps there is a support group for parents of children with visual impairments in your community: a place to share information and resources. One example of such a group (based in the United states) is the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments
  • Remember that our sense of self and of the world around us begins to develop long before the commencement of preschool. http://www.familyconnect.org/parentsitehome.asp?SectionID=75

It was Helen Keller who once said that the true tragedy is not the loss of sight, but rather, the loss of vision. We must see children with visual impairments not through a lens shadowed by misconceptions about blindness, but rather, through the clarity that empowerment and knowledge can bring.

Disclaimer:

This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.

Comments

Thanks, Natalie, for a very well researched and written article.
I do agree with the concept of universal design and a good presentation of UD principles can be found at: http://www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/udi/center-for-universal-design/the-principles-of-universal-design/
Regarding ECC, my parents were strong advocates on my behalf in elementary and secondary school and it is in great part to their credit that I am where I am today.
One of the most practicle skills that I learned as a 10 year old (a few decades ago) was that of typing - which I learned on a manual. This skill has served me well through many aspects of my life - giving me a method to write (legibly) and earn a living. Of course it wasn't called ECC then - they just thought it was a good skill for a VI child to have.