University of Edinburgh

Promoting social inclusion of pupils with visual impairment in
mainstream schools in Scotland

Chapter 1 Introduction

Background to study

Over the past twenty years in which children with visual impairment have been included in their local schools in increasing numbers, the practicalities and legalities of ensuring access to the curriculum have often taken precedence to, and sometimes obscured the issue of, social inclusion. Despite multi-agency working, parental involvement and the generous, or not so generous, provision of resources, much was still left to the children themselves to make their way socially. It was not uncommon to see comments in reports citing the child’s personality as being a major factor in, if not responsible, for, successful or problematic instances of integration. Schools were sometimes described as ‘welcoming’ or ‘supportive’ but what of those schools which were not? Until the introduction of the concept of inclusion, which implies that schools and society itself have a duty to change, it was accepted that children would have to ‘fit in’. In recent years self-evaluation by schools and services has become part of normal practice and they are now more open to scrutiny and questioning.

During the past ten years there has been increasing interest expressed by teachers of children with visual impairment (TVI’s) in social skills training relating particularly to the needs of these children. In addition, questions of how to support successful social inclusion arise more frequently. There has been a dearth of literature on this topic which focuses on the needs of this group of children and teachers. In 2000/1 RNIB published the outcome of a project which asked the views of a thousand children and young people with visual impairment throughout the UK. One section of the report is devoted to the social life and leisure activities of these young people. In one way it is a cheerful document, confirming how they are just as interested in having fun as any other young people. On the other hand, we are made aware of how it is often so difficult for them to achieve this, and that they face obstacles that other young people don’t have to face.

Literature review

Two publications underpin this study. The first publication is a recent report from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) entitled Shaping The Future (2000/1). This was a huge undertaking with over 1,000 blind and partially sighted 5 to 25 year olds (or their parents) being asked what could be done to improve the lives of blind and partially sighted children and young people generally. The report is in 5 volumes covering educational experiences, social life and leisure activities, health and well-being. One of the key points made in the report is:

In the drive towards inclusive education, the Government and education providers must accept that inclusion is as much about the ethos and social life of schools, colleges and universities as it is about access to the curriculum. (RNIB 2001a:10)

The second publication is American (Sacks et al:1992), in which one of the authors writes:

I vividly remember observing the isolation and emotional pain that many blind and visually impaired children experienced in regular public school classrooms. These students lacked the social skills to start and carry on conversations, to play games effectively, and to join and feel part of a group … the acquisition of competent social skills in a sighted environment is an ongoing process: these skills are not easily learned and must be fine-tuned throughout one's life. (Sacks et al 1992:xi)

However, as Carey, in an editorial in the British Journal of Visual Impairment (2001), bluntly states:

There is a stack of literature of how children are disadvantaged if they cannot see or send body language efficiently but a depressingly small amount on what is to be done about it. (Carey 2001)

This review reflects the ‘depressingly small amount’ of literature which discusses the importance of developing social skills for those who are blind or visually impaired and suggests ways of doing something about it (the exceptions to this are Sachs et al 1992, Stockley 1994, and Brandenburg 1995 - discussed below). Overall, it appears that the Scottish literature on the education of disabled children is mainly informed by psychological and technical approaches (Riddell & Banks 2001), which largely mirrors the situation throughout the UK. There is considerable literature concentrating on curricular inclusion in school, but there is very little directly relating to the social inclusion of children and young people who may be blind or visually impaired in mainstream schools. There is, however, an increasing awareness that physically including someone in mainstream school and concentrating on accessing the curriculum, is not enough to ensure full inclusion.

It is not possible to review all the literature on social inclusion here, but by briefly looking at some of the literature which charts a growing concern and recognition of the importance of social skills for all pupils, the necessity of developing specific skills for those with particular needs (such as those who are blind or visually impaired), will be highlighted.

We will begin by looking at how, within the inclusion agenda, the Government has emphasised the importance of developing social competence and the role of schools in this. We will then briefly look at how positive relationships in school can be encouraged to promote social inclusion, and will highlight the particular issues this raises for those in mainstream schools who are blind or visually impaired.

Social competence

Inclusive education is a major theme of the Parliamentary Committee Report on Inquiry into Special Education Needs (Scottish Parliament 2001), although there is considerable uncertainly about exactly what is meant by inclusive education (Riddell & Banks 2001). The Scottish Executive does not see some segregated provision as incompatible with the wider goal of inclusion, although it does wish to see large numbers of disabled children in mainstream schools. The Government recognises that ensuring all children develop good levels of social competency in their school years has the potential to be a very powerful strategy for promoting lifelong social inclusion. For the individual concerned, and for the school as a community, inclusive practices which promote both social and academic well-being can have long term and far reaching positive consequences. In 1998 the Scottish Office outlined the skills which underlie social competence as:

  • The ability to understand another’s point of view when different from your own.
  • Knowledge of how to interpret other people’s emotional state and behaviour.
  • Skill in suppressing immediate emotional responses in favour of more carefully considered responses in social situations.
  • The ability to adjust your behaviour to make it acceptable or rewarding to others
    (SOEID 1998).

Schools are encouraged to address these issues throughout the curriculum. The revised guidelines for The Structure and Balance of the Curriculum 5-14 (2000) enables schools to plan personal and social development as a separate programme or as a linked programme. In primary and secondary schools social competence may be directly addressed through PSD (Personal and Social Development), and , in primary schools also through Circle time. But although it was recognised that for a whole variety of reasons some pupils may have ‘special needs’ in this area and need enhanced support to achieve levels of competence which others seem to acquired effortessly (Scottish Office 1998:3), the recent report by HM Inspectors of schools found there were still some gaps and weaknesses in programmes (Scottish Executive 2000a). This point is vividly illustrated by a comment made by a teenager attending a further education college who was blind in one eye and had partial sight in the other, who, after attending a social skills course, remarked: ‘I didn’t know people looked at each other when they talked’ (Stockley, 1994:13). Indeed the HM Inspectors noted that a programme that serves most pupils well, might not meet the needs of some vulnerable pupils (2000a:2).

Although blind and visually impaired pupils were not explicitly mentioned in the report by HM Inspectors, the above does suggest that schools would be expected to provide for their particular needs. It is estimated that 80% of learning occurs through vision (Langley 1996), therefore it is hardly surprising that with impaired vision the clues and signals that allow us to interpret and respond to those around us may be misinterpreted or missed all together. Therefore extra support for those who may be blind or visually impaired to develop strategies for dealing with some social situations are important. However, it is ultimately by developing the social competence of all pupils that the social inclusion of many young visually impaired people can be supported and promoted.

Social inclusion

There is a wealth of literature, and continuing debate, around issues of inclusion in school for those with a disability and special educational needs, but little on the promotion of social inclusion in mainstream schools and of perspectives/experiences of those concerned. Morris (2001) acknowledges that while education policy, both in terms of school-age children and further and higher education, is now more motivated by a philosophy of inclusion, there is very little recognition of the steps necessary to enable disabled children and young people to genuinely mix with their peer group. When Morris (2001) asked young disabled people in their teens and early twenties to describe what social exclusion meant to them they talked about:

  • Not being listened to
  • Having no friends
  • Finding it difficult to do the kinds of things that non-disabled people
  • f their age do
  • Being made to feel they have no contribution to make
  • Feeling unsafe, being harassed and bullied
(Morris 2001: 164)

For those who are blind or visually impaired there are many books which do address the practical and academic issues which may affect pupils with a visual impairment (for example Harrison & Crow 1993, Arter et al 1999, Sacks & Silberman 1998), but there are few directly concerned with how schools and teachers might support and help young people with a visual impairment develop their social skills and competency. Stockely (1994) states that often social communication skills are delayed and immature in some visually impaired adolescents and young adults, and whilst behaviour within the peer group may be apparently normal, social interactions with adults and with unfamiliar peers may be inhibited or inappropriate. But there appears to be increasing recognition that some children with a visual impairment develop slower than others and may follow a different sequence of development, with usual behaviours being learnt in a different order (eg: Ferrell 1996). Taking into consideration the importance of visual clues for learning it is now being recognised that children with VI need time to put together/link jumbles of incidents; indeed some need deliberate teaching (Ferrell 1996).

But there is a gap between theory and practice (Lewis & Collis 1997, Carey 2001). The need to closely link knowledge of child development together with socio-emotional development is now increasingly discussed in terms of seeing the child as part of a system of relationships, within the family, within the extended family, within society and within the school (Lewis & Collis 1997, Morris 2001, Sacks et al 1992). The consequences of not fitting in or feeling good about being in school can affect many different areas of life such as friendships, academic achievement, self esteem and feelings of well-being . Even someone as academically and professionally successful as David Blunkett (who was born blind) recalls his teenage years as ‘socially awkward’ and of socially feeling ‘years behind the times’ (1995: 68-71).

Lewis and Collis (1997) suggest that in the future the focus needs to shift from the individual performance of the blind child to the forming of relationships between the child and the social environment. They also recognise that the importance of conversations, of feelings of shared humour, and of connectedness need to be stressed and, if necessary, addressed both at school and at home. From observations of pre-schoolers they show that from the age of around four several of the blind children became aware of their own part in the group of children, and also that what they said or did had an impact on the other members of the group, but that there were seldom verbal exchanges of ideas between the blind child and the sighted children (Lewis and Collis 1997).

Issues of social inclusion in school

The RNIB study found that the most important factors relating to what makes a good inclusive school all related to social inter-personal aspects of school life; a teacher who really listens and classmates who do not bully and tease (2001a:159). Kekelis (1992) takes this idea a little further and suggests that if the mainstreaming experience of the visually impaired student is to be optimised, classroom teachers must make social interactions a priority. Kekelis also stresses that it is not sufficient that these children simply interact with others; they must engage in social exchanges that maximise their social development. The role of classroom teachers is also highlighted by Vaughn & Schumm (1996) who discuss the inclusion of children with learning disabilities and the role of the classroom teacher as orchestrating a positive social climate in the classroom by providing a model of acceptance, understanding and social support. However, many teachers may lack the skills, knowledge and confidence to take on this responsibility, for, as highlighted in the RNIB report, there needs to be a better awareness and training for teachers in mainstream schools about the needs of blind and partially sighted pupils (2001a: 75). Sensory services provided to schools have therefore been encouraged by The Scottish Executive (SSC 2001) to evaluate their role in supporting schools, teachers and pupils in areas such as service delivery and ethos.

Another important area of social inclusion in the school is the playground. As one of the primary social spaces in school it is where many relationships are made (and lost), and for those who are blind or visually impaired negotiating this physical and social space can be very difficult. Lewis and Collis (1997) graphically illustrate what this may mean for a blind or visually impaired child should there be an imbalance between developing academic and social skills:

If too much effort is concentrated on performance and skill, there is a risk that the child will be looked upon as an object, not a subject; that the child will be looked upon as something to form and create, not somebody with his or her own intentions feelings and motives…. Who wants to play with somebody who is a nobody? (Lewis & Collis. pp83)

Positive peer relationships are crucial to feelings of belonging, self esteem, self confidence and general well-being; they are also complicated and complex. Connections between social skills, friendships and break-time activities have been shown to be linked in a number of ways (Pelligrini & Blatchford 2000). Morris (2001) states that for children and young people, social interaction with their disabled and non-disabled peers at school or college is a key dimension of community participation and therefore of inclusion (or exclusion). The RNIB report found 29% of primary and 14% secondary pupils felt left out of break time activities (2001b:119). Many schools with blind or visually impaired pupils have the extra support of auxiliary staff, but as many commentators and school staff are becoming aware, the social inclusion of individuals (in the classroom and in the playground) may be hampered by the very presence of these staff. As noted by Morris (2001) disabled children’s experiences in both special and mainstream schools showed there were ‘high levels of surveillance of disabled children by adults.’(2001: 169). How then can schools promote both the academic and social inclusion of blind or visually impaired young people?

Developing social skills

Sacks, Kekelis and Gaylord-Ross (1992) were aware of the ‘paucity of research and practice’ in the area of developing social skills with blind and visually impaired students, and although this edited book was published in 1992 (with a second edition printed in1997) it is still one of the few books dedicated to this topic. The focus of the book is on pre-school and primary aged pupils, with chapters on theory and research and guidelines for specialist teachers, class teachers and parents to assist in the successful mainstreaming of blind and visually impaired children. For example, specialist teachers are encouraged to help the visually impaired student to communicate his or her needs effectively, and class teachers are encouraged to design activities that promote co-operation and sharing between visually impaired and sighted students (Sacks & Kekelis1992: 133-138). There are also chapters on practical ways to maximise social integration (Sacks & Reardon 1992) and approaches to increasing assertive behaviour and communication skills (Pogrund & Felice 1992).

Stockley (1994) describes a study of a college programme which taught social skills with an emphasis on social use of language. Eight students (16-20 years) participated; they all had mild-moderate learning difficulties and one student was blind. Role modelling (by tutors), and systematic training, were seen as key components of the training. Students later reported having fewer difficulties and this was interpreted as them feeling more confident in a variety of social settings (Stockley 1994: 13). This study was based on the understanding that imitation of effective social interactions enhances confidence, which is an approach that underpins the Goldstein method (see Appendix 111). As described by Brandenburg (1995), there used to be more distinct rules for our behaviour, but now it is often up to young people to find out what is expected of them in particular situations, so, in the Netherlands, they use a training that has been adapted from the Goldstein method (see chapter 6). This training concentrates on learning social skills such as getting yourself introduced; starting a conversation; refusing things; being criticised and criticising. For young people to feel motivated they need to be aware of the benefits of successful social interaction with those around them, especially those of a similar age. It is therefore important that students who have a visual impairment have as many opportunities as possible to engage in social interaction with their peers. Friendships play an important role in this.

In the RNIB report when parents were asked what they felt would most improve their child’s social life most respondents (31%) said ‘more local friends’ (2001b: 37). Friends can support and affirm a sense of self. For these pupils with a visual impairment, comments such as; ‘they don’t make fun of my eyesight’ and ‘if I have a problem they will help me’ denote friendship (MacCuspie 1992: 87). It is therefore not surprising that initiatives, such as Buddy schemes and Mentoring, which attempt to create relationships of support, are increasingly being used to address social issues within the school setting (Scottish Executive 2000a). Newton and Wilson (1999) propose initiating a ‘circle of friends’ as a way of building a community that recognises the central importance of relationships and community connections in all our lives, with an emphasis on the involvement of peers and their relationships with the ‘focus child’. For blind and visually impaired pupils such a support network could prevent misunderstandings between individuals and groups, for as described by MacCuspie (1992) in interaction with their peers the visually impaired students have limited access to information about both their own levels of competence and that of their peers. This limitation seemed to contribute to the VI students’ belief that sighted people are superior and made it difficult for them to derive an accurate comparison of their performance and that of their sighted peers (1992: 87).

However, it is also important that children and young people with a visual impairment also have the opportunity to have contact/make friends with others with a visual impairment. Rosenblum (2000) writing about adolescents with a visual impairment in the United States observes that it is not uncommon for adolescents to have little or no contact with other age-mates who have a visual impairment (2000: 434). The isolation often felt by pupils with a visual impairment who attend mainstream schools can be ameliorated by teachers proactively bringing together age-related groups, as discussed by Sinclair et al, (2002).

MacCuspie (1992) also highlights that both the teachers and parents generally based their perceptions of the VI children’s social acceptance on the absence of classmates’ physical or verbal abuse of the children, not on the presence or absence of positive social experiences (1992: 91). The RNIB report also highlighted bullying as an issue with three in five secondary pupils saying they had been bullied at some stage, and with most instances of bullying taking place within the school setting (2001a:130).

In the selection of literature reviewed above, we have highlighted:

  • The growing awareness of the importance of social skills/competence for social inclusion in school and in the community, and of the role of the school in supporting and promoting these.
  • The importance of friendships and inter-personal relationships for the confidence and self esteem of children and young people
  • The recognition that visually impaired children and young people may need extra and specific support in developing their social skills.

Project outline

This study was funded by SEED (Scottish Executive Education Department, Special Educational Needs Innovation Grants Programme) from April 2001-March 2002.

In this study we wanted to find out what schools, teachers and education authorities were doing to promote the social inclusion of pupils with VI in mainstream schools, and we wanted to talk to pupils with a visual impairment, and their parents, to hear about their experiences.

The project had four aims.

  1. To identify the range of school based strategies and initiatives that promote social inclusion for pupils who have a visual impairment.
  2. To describe the experiences of social inclusion/exclusion for pupils with visual impairment in mainstream primary and secondary schools in Scotland.
  3. To examine materials currently being used in the Netherlands for social skills training with this group of young people, and to establish how these are being supported and monitored.
  4. To produce guidelines and identify support materials to facilitate the social inclusion of pupils with a visual impairment in primary and secondary mainstream schools.

Different methods were used for each stage of the project, and these will be discussed more fully at the beginning of the relevant sections. We began by identifying four areas in Scotland (6 Councils) where there were small clusters of VI pupils attending mainstream schools (this information was gleaned from discussions with RNIB Education Officer: Family Services, and teachers of VI in Sensory Services. Where possible a balance was sought between urban and rural authorities. These discussions then led to the identification of 4 secondary schools and 4 primary schools where two or more pupils with a visual impairment were currently enrolled (pupils were chosen by their school, and were in their age appropriate year group regarding academic ability). Schools were asked to facilitate interviews with the pupils and support and/or teaching staff. Parents were also interviewed. The researcher also observed some classes and some break-times in schools visited.

All pupils and parents gave their permission for the interview to be taped and all interviews were fully transcribed. By listening to the tapes and re-reading the interview scripts several times, themes were identified and a coding frame was formed. Data was then analysed using a qualitative data analysis package (NVivo).

In Chapters 2 & 3 we will highlight the issues raised by pupils and parents, and in Chapter 4 we will discuss the views and experiences of school staff. Chapter 5 discusses the results of the postal questionnaire which was sent to Heads of Service in all 32 local authorities in Scotland. In Chapter 6 we will describe two initiatives which directly address issues of social skills for visually impaired children and young people. A discussion of the issues raised in all the interviews and the recommendations that have emerged from the interviews and the questionnaire will be found in Chapter 7. We also include (Appendix 1V) draft guidelines for practitioners of ideas to promote social inclusion and develop social skills for those with a visual impairment. (These guidelines will be further explored and developed during a seminar to be held by the Scottish Sensory Centre in June 2002).With such small numbers of pupils, teachers and parents interviewed we cannot make generalisable statements. This does not, however, reduce the importance of what they say for evaluating educational responses to their needs. The interviews were designed to be illuminative, to provide reflection on current practices and policies and to stimulate constructive responses from education authorities and schools where they find room for improvement.

PLEASE NOTE: The names of all participants mentioned in this report are pseudonyms.