When we were given Ethan's diagnosis* one of the first things we did, after a little bit of blubbing, was to look at the Cambridge University website to see what facilities they had for blind students! A slightly odd action you might think, particularly as Ethan was only about four months old at the time, but for us we have never thought of Ethan's sight problems as something that should hold him back from achieving anything he wants in life and education is an important part of this.
So what does having a child with a visual impairment mean in terms of schooling and what help is out there?
We received Ethan's diagnosis at Addenbrooks in Cambridge. We were very grateful to the consultant who agreed to see us, she was lovely and immediately got in touch with the VI team in Essex. A very lovely VI teacher then came to visit us at home (I realise I have used the
term lovely in the last sentence as well, but really it is the best word
to describe these lovely people) . She was very reassuring about Ethan's educational future and gave us lots of ideas of how to stimulate him at home. We were very clear that we wanted Ethan to attend a mainstream school as he didn't have any other additional needs and his VI teacher was able to talk us through how she assists children during their time at school. The VI team have continued to work along side Ethan ever since that first meeting, and will do until he leaves school. I had always planned to go back to work after having children, so Ethan went to a local nursery when he was about 9 months old. I remember nervously ringing the nursery to enquire about a place and to tell them about Ethan's visual impairment - they were completely unfazed by the conversation and were very happy to have Ethan there. Our VI teacher went to the nursery to do a bit of training with the staff and Ethan had a great time there. When Ethan progressed to pre-school, again the VI team went in to do some training and to show the staff how to teach Ethan pre-braille skills (a lot of egg boxes and golf balls were used!).
Ethan's pre-school was in the grounds of his primary school, which was very handy for orientation visits in the run up to him starting. The school Ethan goes to have been absolutely fantastic .http://www.st-marys-kelvedon.ik.org/ Ethan loves going to school and integrates fully in all aspects of school life. The VI team work alongside the teachers to adapt resources and supply equipment for Ethan. He has his own big cupboard of 'stuff' which has travelled with him each year and which I'm sure has caused a few "where on earth is this going to go?!" moments. I would imagine the biggest challenge is ensuring Ethan has all the braille resources he needs to keep up with everyone else. Ethan as a 1:1 LSA and some of her time is used in the preparation of resources, particularly now Ethan is becoming much more independent in the classroom. The school now has an embossing machine which means Ethan is able to read the same books as the other children. If schools are worried about covering the cost of these extra resources they needn't be, Essex County Council supply the equipment and the school receive extra funding because Ethan has a Statement of special educational needs. Even if your child doesn't have a statement, if they have some sort of visual impairment it is likely that they will be able to receive some extra help.
There have been many simple things that have been put in place to make Ethan's life at school easy. He has a talk partner for assmblies (he can choose one of his friends to describe what is happening so he doesn't miss out), furniture is kept in the same place so he can get round easily and there are all sorts of equipement that Ethan can use to carry out the same activities as the other children (ball with bell in for PE, extra large calculator, rulers etc).
Warning - this next section is full of a mother's gushy pride! We have been absolutely thrilled by Ethan's start to his educational journey. He has absolutely thrived at school, amazing both us and his teachers with how well he is doing. He has kept up with the other children, even though he is having to do his reading and writing in Braille (and do two lots of spellings - the word and it's braille contraction!) and has made a good set of friends.
We really have had such a positive experience here in Essex, it will be interesting to see how the transition into secondary school goes - but we have a couple of years before we have to think about that!
The Specialist Teacher team at Essex County Council have made a great DVD called Support for Visually Impaired Students in Mainstream Schools. It is a really good resource for parents and teachers as it shows how easily Visually Impaired children can be integrated into school. It also stars Ethan and me (please don't mock the terrible hairstyle I had at the time - I was growing out a shorter style and it looks a bit like I have a small moped helmet on). I'm sure if you got in touch with Essex County Council they could put you in touch with the team to get a copy. www.essex.gov.uk
*Ethan was born with a condition called Norries Disease, which meant his retinas did not develop properly causing him to have no sight in one eye and limited vision in the other.