The Baumann House Early Childhood Development Centre in Durban caters for blind and partially-sighted preschool children. SANDISIWE HLENGWA, a teacher and coordinator at the school, spoke to Zimasa Matiwane about her work as a special-needs teacher.
There’s no difference between teaching blind and sighted children. I have been teaching here since 2011. Currently we have 13 leaners: five of them are fully sighted; eight are partially sighted or blind. Early intervention is crucial; we take children from six months to six years.
We potty train the young ones, teach them how to walk, feed themselves – all the basics. The older children are trained to use a white cane to build confidence and to navigate independently. The overall goal is to instill independence, empowerment and self-love to each child so they can live a full, happy life with their disability.
What I notice is that at home a child with a disability is treated differently – they are shielded from doing things that their sighted siblings can do. It could be parents trying to protect them from harm, but the children need to be active to stimulate their working senses. When children are not used to playing and holding things their development is compromised. For example, they may struggle to use sound to determine distance or their hands for grip.
In classrooms the children are taught like fully sighted kids. We do counting, shapes, storytelling, singing and so on. Our curriculum does have additions, for example, during story time. Their story books are written in braille: while I read they listen, and feel what I’m saying with their hands. The children are taught the alphabet in braille. We focus a lot on stimulating hands and coordinating that with the brain and other senses for optimum growth, learning and independence.
About 80% of visually impaired South Africans live in rural areas. We take children from all over KwaZulu-Natal and surrounding provinces, so we provide boarding facilities.
The main challenge is not teaching disabled children, but the lack of educational material, because the KZN Society for the Blind has had financial difficulties. The children end up sharing educational material and although that is not ideal they do learn.
I enjoy teaching – with blind children I just have to understand that they do not see and work on getting them to be independent despite their disability. They are aware that they are blind and I can see; sometimes I am their eyes, but because they are treated with love they do not feel like not seeing is a disability. I have to be aware that this child cannot see and be cautious with them, but there are no major differences between them and sighted children.
Some parents hide their children, some assume that they do not have a future, some put them on the streets to beg for money – but that is not how things should be done. I wish parents knew that a blind child is a blessing like any other child and that there are endless opportunities for them too. The key is developing them when they are still young.