As AFB continues its work to protect the rights of blind and low vision students during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors to share their experiences, from what has worked for them to where their concerns lie in the education of their students with visual impairments.

The following stories are being shared with the participants’ permission. This is the first of two posts; read the second post here.

From Penny, the New Hampshire mother of Abby, a high school sophomore enrolled in AP classes:

“Abby is currently getting two of her primary special education services: five days a week with her TVI, and three days a week with her reading specialist,” Penny says. “She has all of her assistive technology and her TVI is delivering braille to our porch if needed. We have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting coming up, and it will be virtual. Abby is now unable to receive 1:1 Orientation and Mobility (O&M) instruction in the typical fashion, and it is not as much of a priority at this point since she is already busy with school work.”

Abby is active in school and athletics at her public high school. She participates on the high school ski team, track, student government, and other clubs.

Adrienne is Abby’s TVI and O&M specialist, employed by the school district.

Adrienne works collaboratively with Abby to ensure services on her IEP are met and that Abby has access to her rigorous academic curriculum. The school district has provided assistive technology to both Abby and Adrienne prior to COVID-19. Abby’s laptop includes JAWS (Job Access with Speech) screen reading software. She has a refreshable braille display and an iPad.

The school district had announced they were closing to transition to remote learning using Google Classroom with a target date of March 23. Like all families in the district, Penny had a three-day window to go to the school to pick up assignments and technology her daughter uses. Now, with remote instruction, Abby receives her assignments at the beginning of the week, and meets daily with Adrienne via Google Hangouts Meet. At the beginning of the week, Abby and Adrienne go through each of her classes together and determine which assignments are fully accessible with her screen reader and braille display. If a teacher posts a tool that isn’t accessible with the JAWS screen reader, they try it using VoiceOver. If the chosen tool still isn’t accessible, then Abby reaches out to her classroom teachers through e-mail to find an alternative way for Abby to access or express her understanding of the content. For some assignments, Abby requests to have the content in an embossed (brailled) copy.

While school was in session, Adrienne attended Abby’s Algebra 2 math class with her. With the transition to online learning, this course continues to require the most support. The Algebra 2 teacher posts assignments and videos online and through Google Hangouts Meet, Adrienne is able to play the presentation while Abby takes notes using her Perkins Brailler. If there is a presentation where all words that are written are not spoken, Adrienne will verbally fill in the missing content.

“As we go through the assignments and videos, we are developing a system for accessing and sharing the math content,” Adrienne says. “Abby is a strong math student and is continuing to grasp the concepts and correctly solve the problems. If there is an issue with understanding of the content, Abby and her math teacher connect online. They have a strong relationship.”

Abby is an active participant in the classroom discussions at schools and asks questions when she needs clarification. All of the teachers are available through email and are willing to hold their own virtual meeting if requested.

“Abby’s teachers have been amazing in transitioning to remote learning,” Adrienne says. “They are now sending me emails prior to posting assignments at the beginning of the week and seeking feedback on accessibility. This week, her Latin teacher reached out for a reminder on how to add alt text to the slide presentation that she was going to be sharing with the class.”

Through this process of remote learning the teachers are becoming more and more aware of how to make electronic materials accessible to someone who is blind or low vision.

“I realize not everything is going to be perfect, but I look to see if the intent is there,” Penny says. “I look to see if the school district is working to offer services. There is no way to make this the same as going to school. Abby had gotten good at self-advocating in person with teachers in the classroom, but is now struggling with self-confidence in reaching out via email.”

She recognizes that everyone is doing the best they can, but is still concerned. “Remote learning is different than being in school, she says. “The Advanced Placement program has stated that they are not going to have any more in-person testing. How is that going to work with the accommodations for a braille reader? This has yet to be dealt with and there’s a lot of anxiety. Abby is a high achiever.”

Adrienne has a diverse caseload and provides O&M services to Abby and other students.

“Orientation and Mobility is a challenge,” Adrienne says. “You can continue to work on some skills through remote lessons, but it is different than being in an environment where you are learning and practicing skills of crossing streets, using public transportation, following routes, and locating destinations.”

Adrienne and professionals throughout the country are not only using technology to connect with their students, but with each other.

“New Hampshire TVIs and O&M instructors recently held a group call where we discussed what was going well and what were some of the biggest challenges,” she says. “Being connected with others is so important. I’m the only TVI employed in my district. Other TVIs and O&M specialists work for agencies, other districts, and some as private contractors. Holding these group Zoom calls has been a nice way to connect. Some of us were doing some online and in-person trainings before COVID-19, but many have little experience with online teaching.”

As a group, Adrienne and others are now meeting weekly to share ideas and resources, as well as what works well and what remains challenging.

“As a group, we found the biggest challenge was how to provide remote instruction to students with multiple disabilities, Adrienne says. “During the first two weeks of remote learning there was a lot of time spent reaching out to families and trying to connect with students. This is going to be an evolving process. Many families have multiple children at home and they themselves have had to transition to working from home. I want to be supportive and not have them feel overwhelmed. It is important to be supportive to both the student and the parent/caretaker during this time. We are all adjusting and learning how to operate in this environment of remote learning. As to positives, I think students are getting an even stronger idea of what they need in terms of accessibility. Students are developing stronger self-advocacy skills, and can be a key part in figuring out solutions for the different issues.”

In talking with Penny and Adrienne, it is clear that for students to receive educational services during the COVID-19 pandemic, families, students, and professionals have to recognize we are in uncharted territories and all need to work together for the best outcome possible. AFB applauds Abby and her educational team for their efforts to ensure she continues her education. Like Abby, many of our students with visual impairments are learning to adapt in these challenging times. And, in Abby’s case she’s getting to practice her self-advocacy skills as she has to use email to communicate with her teachers.

AFB will remain vigilant about protecting the rights of people who are blind and low vision, and remains committed to ensuring that civil rights are not rolled back and that access to information, education, coronavirus testing, and all other necessary services are available to the blind and low vision community.