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Techniques for Infants and Toddlers with Visual Impairment - Historical Influence of Visual Impairment

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Historical Influence of Visual Impairment

by Alycyn Ferrell and Sharon A. Raver

To actively assist families in coping with the demands of the child with visual impairment, interventionists must understand how parents and families may respond to the notion of loss of vision. Lowenfield (1982) suggests that the way blindness has been treated historically has a continuing impact on families today, particularly in the way family members respond to an infant with visual loss. For example, Judeo-Christian teachings are replete with lessons to look after and take responsibility for the individual who is blind, implying that individuals with visual impairment are unable to care for themselves. These teachings are reflected in diminished expectations and sometimes over-protection of young children with visual impairment. These attitudes may actually contribute to developmental delay because lowered expectations and over-protection become self-fulfilling prophecies. The less infants with visual impairment are expected to do, the less they learn; the less they learn, the more they are in need of protection. As one mother states: “I was so guilt-ridden when my son was born that I did everything in my power to keep him content so I would feel like a good mother. I wouldn’t let people outside our family touch him. That probably held him back but I didn’t know it then”.

Interventionists can actively assist families in understanding that many blind individuals lead productive lives with families of their own and a satisfying careers. Feeling sorry for the child with visual impairment will not facilitate the child’s future independence. Rationalizing over-protection with promises of being more strict in the future, when the child is older and bigger, ignores the fact that the greatest opportunity for learning is during the first 3 years, over-protected infants are learning dependence and poor self-concepts (Tuttle, 1984).

In addition, visual impairment has been historically linked to immorality (Cutsforth, 1951; Lowenfeld, 1982). Myths and fairy tales of improper behavior, sexual and otherwise, that are punished by blindness are part of almost every culture. Even modern stories, such as the award-winning late – 1980’s play, “Into the Woods”, contained a sequence in which three sisters were blinded for the evil ways and then played the part of fools for the rest of the play. It is not surprising that parents frequently blame themselves for their infant’s visual impairment, or that blindness carries such a negative stigma in today’s society. Visual impairment is more frequently associated with incompetence or secrecy (the umpire is blind; blind carbon copies) than it is with strength and competence.

Family members, and all people coming into contact with infants with visual impairments, are also projecting – they imagine what it would be like if they were visually impaired. Most people perceive a visual loss as devastating and cannot imagine how they would continue a normal life. Again, these attitudes are barriers to effective interaction. A grandfather of a congenitally blind toddler said this: “Everyone would say, ‘Oh, it could be worse’ or ‘At least he (my grandson) is healthy.’ But one day I couldn’t take it anymore. A fella in the bank said ‘It could be worse’ and I yelled back, ‘No it couldn’t ! I really lost it.”

The best way to overcome these attitudes is to introduce older children or adults who are visually impaired to the young child’s family. Parent groups can play a crucial role in helping family members to see the possibilities, rather than the limitations, inherent in the child’s visual loss.

Interventionists need to:

  • Observe parents’ attitudes and behavior toward their child
  • Teach parents how to respond to their child’s pleasure, aggression, and other social signals and reactions
  • Teach the parents how to develop object relations in their child (Burlingham, 1975)

Parents also require guidance in identifying critical learning periods so arrangements can be made to nurture the attainment of developmental milestones. Infant trans-disciplinary teams are assisted by itinerant teachers for visually handicapped students, educators trained in the specific needs of children and adults with visual impairments. Because of the low incidence of visual impairment, itinerant vision teachers most often serve as consultants and train primary service providers and family members as needed.

Assessment of infants with visual impairment follows the same principles of assessment used with any infant with special needs. That is, assessment should be comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, unbiased, and conducted by individuals knowledgeable about visual impairment and its effects on development.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons why these principles do not always apply in practice. First, the low prevalence of visual impairment makes it extremely unlikely that early childhood special educators and related service personnel will acquire a great deal of experience working with infants with visual impairment, even in a large city, unless they specifically set to do so by working in an agency that serves only a visually handicapped population. Second, it is not always possible to avoid bias in test administration, simply because tests used do not meet validity standards for a visually impaired population. It is, therefore, strongly recommended that assessment results only be used to identify the child’s strengths and weaknesses in development, rather than to diagnose additional handicapping conditions or to document developmental delay.


In 1989, Dr. Turben received funding that enabled the Cleveland Sight Center to initiate the first large-scale, family-centered Children's Services Program in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Turben worked for Lake County Early Intervention Collaborative Group in 1988-89 as the consultant who prepared the County Needs Assessment and assisted the collaborative in the preparation of the 1988-89 Lake County Early Intervention Collaborative Plan, which launched family collaboratives as a network of families with children who had disabilities.
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