The Baumann House Early Childhood Development CentreÂ in Durban caters for blind and partially-sighted preschool children. SANDISIWE HLENGWA, aÂ teacher and coordinator at the school, spoke to Zimasa Matiwane about her work as a special-needs teacher.
Thereâ€™s no difference between teaching blind and sighted children. I have been teaching here sinceÂ 2011. Currently we have 13 leaners: five of them are fully sighted; eight are partially sighted orÂ blind. Early intervention is crucial; we take children from six months to six years.
We potty trainÂ the young ones, teach them how to walk, feed themselves – all the basics. TheÂ older children are trained to use a white cane to build confidence and to navigate independently.Â The overall goal is to instill independence, empowerment and self-love to each child so they can liveÂ a full, happy life with their disability.
What I notice is that at home a child with a disability is treated differently â€“ they areÂ shielded from doing things that their sighted siblings can do. It could be parents trying to protectÂ them from harm, but the children need to be active to stimulate their working senses. When childrenÂ 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,Â singing and so on. Our curriculum does have additions, for example, during story time. Their story books areÂ written in braille: while I read they listen, and feel what Iâ€™m saying with their hands. The children are taughtÂ the alphabet in braille. We focus a lot on stimulating hands and coordinating that with the brain andÂ 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 theÂ KZN Society for the Blind has had financial difficulties. The children end up sharing educationalÂ material and although that is not ideal they do learn.
I enjoy teaching â€“ with blind children I just have to understand that they do not see and work onÂ getting them to be independent despite their disability. They are aware that they are blind and I canÂ see; sometimes I am their eyes, but because they are treated with love they do not feel like notÂ seeing is a disability. I have to be aware that this child cannot see and be cautious with them, butÂ 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 onÂ the streets to beg for money â€“ but that is not how things should be done. I wish parents knew that aÂ blind child is a blessing like any other child and that there are endless opportunities for them too.Â The key is developing them when they are still young.