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Blind, visually impaired students deal with challenges of distance learning

Virtual learning has been a difficult adjustment for blind and visually impaired students.
Credit: Kristen Buhler
Nine-year-old Miracle who is blind with her teacher, Kristen Buhler

PORTLAND, Ore. — Families keep plugging away at distance learning and we’ve heard from so many parents who say it hasn’t been easy adapting.

For blind or visually impaired students, it has been a process adapting to online learning.

Nine-year-old Miracle Boulos is a 4th grader in the Reynolds School District and is blind.

While she has all her typical academic core classes, like math or science, to attend, she’s also got other classes through the Columbia Regional Program, one of eight regions in the State of Oregon.

“We serve students who are visually impaired, students who are deaf and hard of hearing, students who have autism,” said Kristen Buhler, who is also Miracle’s teacher.

Lisa McConachie helps oversee the Columbia Regional Program as the senior director.

“We’re the largest of the regions. We serve all the schools in Multnomah County, Clackamas County, Hood River and Wasco County,” said McConachie.

She said there are 257 blind or vision-impaired students in the Columbia Regional Program and 800 across the State of Oregon.

Teachers in the program cover things like braille, how to use assistive technology, and even independent living skills like cooking. These skills are in addition to the academic core classes kids also have to take through their neighborhood schools. Miracle still attends class through her elementary school, Salish Ponds.

Credit: Kristen Buhler
Miracle learning cooking skills prior to pandemic

For Buhler, this time of distance learning has had its challenges. She gave the example of teaching Miracle about a circle.

“If I was sitting next to her [Miracle], I could draw a tactile circle and help her hand-under-hand feel the circle. But now I’m going to have think outside the box and ask her grab a cup at her house right, and put her hand in the cup to feel what the shape is,” said Buhler.

For kids like Miracle, distance learning hasn’t been easy either.

“In-person school is way better,” Miracle said.

“Because you get to see your friends and you don’t have to get on any apps.”

Credit: Kristen Buhler
Miracle and her teacher Kristen Buhler prior to the pandemic

Buhler said part of the challenge of learning online for blind or visually impaired students, is that it’s fast paced.

“It takes a while sometimes to manage their technology or read the braille at the same rate that the students are reading print,” said Buhler.

“I would say one of the biggest challenges is accessing print material,” said McConachie, who said accessibility for students can be difficult.

“The format is always changing and adapting to the needs of the classroom. But it changes so fast that we don’t have time to put in in braille,” she said.

For subjects like science or math, learning online can be even more difficult for kids who are blind.

“They can’t just listen to a math book,” said McConachie.

“It’s like taking away somebody’s paper and pencil if you don’t give them braille format.”

McConachie said they're working with publishers to get more materials in braille and are also trying to hire more people to translate what's available now into braille.

But Miracle is doing her best, using technology developed for blind students to help her learn and she’s navigating this new normal with lots of loving support.

Another worry is that the kids who are blind or visually impaired are missing out on social interaction. It’s something Buhler said can be difficult under typical circumstances, but it’s been made harder with fewer opportunities and separated by a screen.

McConachie said prior to the pandemic, it was common for students to get together for outings that were opportunities meant to be both educational and social.

In addition, McConachie said distance learning has been especially hard on the 100 or so students who are both deaf and blind to varying degrees. She said for those students, it comes down to working with the child’s family, and team of supports around the student.

“Everybody without a doubt is hoping that we can get kids back in person. But we have to follow those metrics just like everybody else,” said McConachie.