10 Tips for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments

Involve your visually impaired child in your world as early as possible, with these tips.

By Charlotte Cushman, MLS, M.Ed,

Your child is first and foremost a child. While certain things can help to promote development, there is no substitute for loving your child, as you would any other, and spending time together talking, playing, and engaging in normal family activities, like celebrating birthdays and holidays, attending community events, cooking or going shopping.

Like anyone else, your child will have his or her own interests and preferences. It is important to respect the child’s likes and dislikes, while also providing exposure to new experiences.

Your child may have other disabilities, in addition to the visual impairment. Hearing loss, physical impairments, cognitive disabilities, autistic-like behaviors, learning disabilities, communication difficulties, and emotional challenges can all be present in children with vision loss. Some of these may be directly related to the child’s lack of vision, and specific interventions may help.

Find out how much usable vision your child has.

Not all visual impairments are the same. Your child may have no vision at all, or just light perception. He or she may have reduced visual fields (meaning that they don’t see to the sides, or above/below). Your child may have reduced acuity, meaning that things may be blurry, even if they wear eyeglasses. Your child may also have a brain-based visual impairment, which is also known as CVI (cortical visual impairment or cerebral visual impairment). This means that they may have normal eyes, but that their brain is not able to interpret what they see in the usual way.

Many people with visual impairments have enough functional vision to travel independently, and many can read print and be independent in their daily routines. Even if your child is totally blind, he or she can still learn many things. A team of professionals will work with you to help you learn how to promote your child’s independence.

Be sure that your child has been referred for vision services.

Your child will benefit from the services of someone who is trained to work with individuals who are blind or visually impaired from the time that they are born. This includes Early Intervention Specialists, Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments, and Orientation and Mobility Specialists. Contact your state agency for the blind to find out what services are available in your area. This team of professionals can provide information and resources, as well as support to you and your family.

Provide direct, hands-on experience with real objects and materials.

Children with visual impairment will need to have direct experience in order to understand the world around them. They do not have the benefit of learning through visual observation, and this lack of incidental learning means that they will learn best by touching and doing things. For example, if you give the child a glass of milk by handing her the cup, she won't know where it came from. She needs to be shown that the milk is kept in the refrigerator, the cups are on the shelf in the cabinet, the milk is poured into the cup, and the cup is placed on the table. When she is finished with the milk, she needs to take the cup to the sink and rinse it to place in the dishwasher, or wash it by hand. While each of these steps takes time, going through each part of the process will help her to understand what it means to “have a glass of milk”. If the cup appears magically in her hand and is taken away from her when she finishes it, she will be missing many foundational concepts about how the world works.

Similarly, your child will benefit from real experiences, such as going to a farm to pat a cow or horse, rather than just playing with plastic representations of farm animals. Once he understands what these different animals are, the smaller toy representations will have more meaning.

Engage the child in multi-sensory experiences that are meaningful.

It is important to offer the child items that are made of a variety of materials, such as wooden and metal spoons or measuring cups, wire whisks, pieces of fabric, items that are hard, soft, squishy, bumpy. While most toys are made of plastic, a child can learn a great deal from experimenting with items commonly found in the kitchen or around the house.

Household activities, such as cooking, offer lots of opportunities to learn about wet/dry, hot/cold, big/little, heavy/light. Helping with the dishes, watering plants, and running the vacuum cleaner are great ways to learn about important activities of daily life. Pouring water or dried beans, digging in the sand or dried rice or noodles, can all help the child to develop important motor skills, as well as sensory awareness and tactile discrimination.

Find out what environmental adaptations can help your child.

The vision professionals who work with your child will make suggestions that are specific to your child’s vision on how to help him or her move and function as independently as possible. This may include increasing contrast (such as placing a yellow cup on a black or dark solid-colored placemat). Many children are better able to use their vision when they are seated with their back to the window or the light source. This may be a simple change in where your child sits at mealtime or how their bedroom is arranged. Some children may benefit from visual cues or markers, such as a yellow strip at the edge of each stair or around a door.

Read aloud to your child.

It is important to read aloud to your child each day, preferably with books that are accessible in braille or large print. Talking about the story is a great way to promote your child’s language development. For example, when you read about Goldliocks eating porridge, stop and talk about what “porridge” is. Maybe make some together to try. Talk about what you and your child eat for breakfast. This is a valuable time to bond with your child, as well as to help him or her develop language skills and basic concepts.

Let the child know when you are reading and writing too, as they may not be able to observe you. For example, you might say, “Oh, we just ran out of milk. I'm going to write milk down on our grocery list, so that I'll remember to get some at the store.” Or “I’m going to check my email to find out when Grandma is coming to visit.” This exposure will help your child know some of the ways that literacy is woven into everyday life.

Organize the space in your house so that the child can learn to locate things independently.

It is important to keep things in predictable locations, so that the child can find them more easily. Clothing, toys, books, kitchen and bath items can all be stored in the same place each time, for example. Perhaps the bottom shelf in the living room is designated as your child’s shelf, so that she knows she can find her toys and books there. You can mark the shelf with her name in braille or large print, as well as a tactile symbol, to help her to locate it more easily. In addition, you can mark bins with tactile symbols to help the child to locate and put away favorite toys. For example, you can hot glue a lego to the outside of a plastic bin of legos, to help her to know what’s inside that bin.

Encourage your child to explore and move in safe and familiar environments.

While it may be tempting to try to protect your child as much as possible from the “real” world, he will benefit tremendously from exploring and learning to move around as independently as possible. Try to make common spaces as safe as possible (removing things that are easy to trip over, for example.) Remove sharp or toxic items from the kitchen, and invite the child to explore the cabinets and drawers.

Teach your child responsibility, just as you would your other children.

Your child should be expected to do the same chores, and put away her own belongings, just as your other children are taught to do. Keeping the living space organized, as mentioned above, will help her to be more independent in putting things away. You can teach her to make her bed, to put her dishes in the sink, her laundry in the hamper, and trash in the bin, just as you would any other child. Even if your child can't do the whole task, ask her to do part of it, e.g. open the lid of the trash bin. This is an important way to teach independent living skills, while also encouraging your child to be a contributing member of the family.

Provide accessible books, toys, and games.

Talk to the vision professionals who work with your child about where to get accessible books and toys. Some things may be easy for you to adapt, while others can be specially purchased. There are a number of sources of free books, including free braille books, in the United States. Get accessible books, toys and games into your child’s hands as early as possible!

Charlotte Cushman, MLS, M.Ed, has been in the field of blindness and visual impairment for over 35 years, as a teacher and an international consultant. She is currently the manager of the Paths to Literacy website for Perkins School for the Blind and Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.