University of Edinburgh
 

Visual Impairment Scotland Research

Using new developments in Chatroom Technology as a tool for Inclusion

John Ravenscroft & Andrew Blaikie

South Pacific Educators in Vision Impairment Biennial Conference
Brisbane 2003

Using new developments in Chatroom Technology as a tool for Inclusion

March 2001 saw the launch of Visual Impairment Scotland, a new organisation that focuses on developing a new system of notifying children with a visual impairment. A significant component of Visual Impairment Scotland is to provide and maintain a centrally held register to determine and monitor the causes of childhood visual impairment throughout Scotland.

In order to encourage parents to notify their children with Visual Impairment Scotland a website was developed specifically to meet children's needs. Research into what children wanted from a website took several months to complete1. The range of topics that children wanted to read about took us by surprise and forced us to rewrite and evaluate our original plan. One aspect of the website that has been significantly used is the Parent's forum and the VISKIDS safe and secure CHATROOM. This website now brings together visually impaired children from all over Scotland allowing them to talk to each other in an environment that is safe and easy to use.

This paper will discuss the website and chatroom and how they have been used as a new tool to promote inclusion of children with visual impairment in mainstream as well as special schools.

Introduction to Visual Impairment Scotland

Significant visual impairment in children has been underestimated in terms of its social, educational and consequent economic costs(2). This is because the real prevalence of visual impairment is unknown. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has found that the registration figures grossly under-estimate the prevalence of visual impairment in children. Although it has been estimated that there are over 2000 children in Scotland with visual impairment(3) there are currently only 845 actually on the official register held by Local Authorities. Of the children on the official register only 20% have additional disabilities compared to an expected 63%(4). The register is therefore not just failing to identify the majority of children with significant visual impairment it is also, in particular, failing to identify children with additional disabilities. In developed countries 80-90% of childhood visual impairment is evident within the first year of life(5). In Scotland however, 62% of new blind and partial sight registrations occur after the age of 5 years(6). It is clear that even when the register does identify children it identifies them late.

There are consequently many children not receiving appropriate services. Other children are suffering delay in delivery of services as agencies become aware of them by haphazard means. Lack of provision of appropriate services to children with visual impairment has serious consequences. The child is unable to fulfil their potential and their overall quality of life is reduced. Long term this also has financial implications for adult care services.

Accurate figures for the number of visually impaired children in Scotland are necessary to allow appropriate planning of the medical, educational and social services that these children require.

Aims and objectives of VI Scotland

The project has two main aims:

  1. Continue to develop an inclusive and effective childhood visual impairment notification system
  2. Continue to develop a medical information support service

Our primary aim is to continue a successful new notification system for visually impaired children. By collecting medical information on children notified to the project we aim to describe the cause, level and distribution of childhood visual impairment in Scotland and any associated disabilities.

To fulfil unmet need and encourage and motivate parents and children to become involved in the VI Scotland project an information and support services has been developed. All children and their parents have benefit from:

  • A club for children with visual impairment called VISKIDS
  • A safe and secure internet chat room for VISKIDS members
  • Understandable medical information
  • A parent network support group
  • A web-based parents discussion forum
  • A website (www.viscotland.org.uk) to access all these services and help achieve these aims

456 children have been notified to the project over a 20-month period between the 21 March 2001 and 21 November 2002. In 82% of children the cause of VI was acquired before 28 days of age. The brain was the primary site of impairment in 48% of children and 60% of children had one or more additional disabilities. 52% of the children were registered either blind or partially sighted and 52% had a record of educational needs with 28% currently using a low vision aid.

The project has also determined that the average time between birth and the first time parents felt their child was visually impaired was 31 weeks. It then took on average a further 26 weeks to confirm the cause of the impairment and then a further 119 weeks for the child to become officially registered blind.

The Website and Chatroom

The power of information technology (IT) to bring people together is one of its most valuable contributions to modern life. There may be plenty of frustrations in getting online, but once there, and with everything working properly, the Internet has the ability to dissolve distance and physical limitations, acting as a conduit for new experiences, new ideas and new friendships.

It is the ability to transcend place and time that makes cyberspace such an appealing environment for disabled people. The Internet offers a world of human contact and interaction on one’s own terms, unencumbered by disability. Our main objective is the empowerment of children and their parents, and the dissemination of information via the Internet.

Using information gained from focus groups a website was set up offering information and support for both parents and children.

Over the past 18 months there have been 62,675 website visits. Visits have increased over the past 12 months by an average of 405 every month. The medical information documents are the most visited information page for parents with 8,138 documents downloaded in the past 6 months. 76 separate medical information documents have been written with an average reading age of 14 years.

VISKIDS & the Chat Room

It is well recognised that visual impairment can cause difficulties in getting around, meeting people and making friends and accessing information. We hope that by developing both VISKIDS and creating a new chat room the barriers to accessing and communicating information can be lessened and overcome.

Visually impaired children can access the VISKIDS website from school, local library or home. The website contains a wide range of information resources and fun for children with visual impairment. There are stories and jokes sent in by other visually impaired children, film reviews, information about leisure activities, holidays, competitions, advice on handy tips around the house, out at play and in school as well as profiles of adults who were visually impaired as children.

The chat room brings children together from all over the world. It lets VISKIDS members talk to each other across the web in a safe and secure environment. Scotland has large remote areas and sometimes visually impaired children living in these areas feel isolated. The children’s club and chat room brings all visually impaired children living in Scotland together with the aim of lessening feelings of isolation and develop a sense of community. The club and chat room offers children a new opportunity to express themselves and a means to develop friendships they otherwise would not have had. Children with common experiences will now be able to offer each other valuable peer support where previously there was no mechanism to do so.

These issues were also highlighted in the RNIB/LOOK report on the needs of families with visually impaired children in Scotland(7). Parents felt their visually impaired children lacked opportunities to meet other children and develop friendships and appropriate social skills. VISKIDS club and chat room will assist visually impaired children to develop socially and emotionally. In doing so it is hoped they can fulfil their potential and enter the wider community as mature valued members of society, overcoming barriers that have previously restricted their transition from adolescence to adulthood. Giving visually impaired adolescents these skills to play a fuller part in civil society will also lead to greater social justice.

The International Chatroom Project

The chatroom is the UK’s, Europe’s and possibly the World’s only safe and secure chatroom for children with visual impairment. To use the chatroom children have to be registered with a credible organisation such as:

  • VI Scotland’s VISKIDS club
  • RNIB in the UK
  • Royal Society for the Blind in Australia
  • A Local Authority Special Education department

By having this constraint we are in a position to check the validity of the children applying to use the chatroom. After checks are made the children are issued with a three-tier password system. They are given a unique username, password and nickname. The nickname means that children cannot be identified once in the chatroom (this is a standard security measure when using a chatroom).
The ‘chat’ software used is VOLANO found at http://www.volano.com. It has been adapted by VI Scotland and additional security features incorporated. No other chatroom for visually impaired children has this level of security and functionality.

So far 438 children have joined VISKIDS with 74 children requesting passwords to use the chatroom.
By issuing passwords to visually impaired children from Australia the chatroom has been used to break down international and cultural barriers. Scottish children now regularly chat to Australian children with visual impairment. This initiative has been set up with the help of the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh and the Royal Society of the Blind in Adelaide Australia.

16 children from the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh and 8 children from the Royal Society for the Blind in Adelaide have been allocated usernames, passwords and nicknames. Each child is under the supervision of key workers. In Edinburgh the key worker is Rob Jones and in Adelaide it is Tim Crowe-Mai, a child and youth liaison officer.

The key workers email each other to agree a mutual time that children from both countries can meet up and use the chatroom. Many chat sessions have now taken place between the two groups of children. Both key workers report that sessions have been very successful and friendships are already beginning to appear. Confidences in using IT and in communication skills are improving. Children are enjoying the chat sessions so much that in Edinburgh the children are coming to school early to get onto the computers to chat their Australian friends.

This year the Chatroom won the ‘Computing Industry’ Special ABILITY Award. This award recognises those who have done most to alleviate disability in the community by enabling disabled people to overcome their disability and attain their full potential. The Judges paid particular attention to innovation and to evidence of substantial impact in changing, for the better, prospects of disabled people.

Future Projects – The Chatroom lunchtime club

Currently VIS and schools around Scotland are setting up a lunch time chatroom club where children with visual impairment will be given access to the school computers to chat to sighted children from their own and other different schools around Scotland. Generally children are not allowed to access chatrooms from school computers, however for this project, exceptions have been made and children will be encouraged by their class teachers to use the computers to develop their social, communication and IT skills. It is hoped that from these lunchtime clubs more friendships will develop between sighted and VI children as they become friends via the chatroom medium.

Conclusion

Rather than being seen as something children should avoid, chatrooms are something that can be used as a tool to break down exclusion in school and promote inclusion. They are a tool by which friendships can be made and social, and information communication and technology (ICT) skills developed. Modern ICT skills should be strongly encouraged for all children with VI, however, training of these skills should not just be restricted to children themselves but also to their parents for it is often parents that children turn to for help when stuck on a problem.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to express thanks to the Royal Blind School, Edinburgh, especially Rob Jones and to the Royal Society for the Blind, Australia, especially, Tim Crowe-Mai. We would also like to thank all the children who helped develop the website and chatroom and continue to use it.

References

1. Ravenscroft, J & Blaikie, AJ (2002) What visually impaired children want from a website 11th International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment World Conference July 2002, Amsterdam
2. Dale N, & Sonksen P (2002) Developmental outcome, including setback, in young children with severe visual impairment. Dev Med Child Neurol 2002 Sep;44(9):613-22
3. Walker E, Tobin M, McKennell A (1992) Blind and partially sighted children in Britain: the RNIB survey.Volume 2. London: HMSO, 1992.
4. Social Work Statistics Release, Registered Blind and Partially Sighted Persons, Scotland 2002.
5. Blohme J, & Tornqvist K. (2000) Visually impaired Swedish children. The 1980 cohort study--a 19-year ophthalmological follow-up Acta Ophthalmol Scand 2000 Oct;78(5):553-9
6. Social Work Statistics Release, Registered Blind and Partially Sighted Persons, Scotland 2001.
7. Royal National Institute for the Blind. (1996) ‘What families need now.’ A report of the needs of families with visually impaired children in Scotland. RNIB Publications ISBN 1 85878 111 6.

John Ravenscroft
Manager
VI Scotland, SSC