How visually-impaired children have faced isolation during the pandemic

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By Anna Pilson
Lecturer in Vision Impairment Education

A recent report from Angel Eyes NI has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an “alarming decline in emotional health and wellbeing” for some blind or visually-impaired children. This timely research has been undertaken in a context of a wider-UK governmental focus on the wellbeing of children and young people as part of the COVID-19 recovery strategy.

The Department for Education earlier this month published the State of the Nation 2021 research report, which collates and builds upon data from a range of academic, charitable, voluntary, government and private sector organisations about the experiences of children and young people during the pandemic. It found that, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected certain sectors of British society in terms of health and socio-economic impact, the emotional wellbeing of certain cohorts of children has also been unequally impacted. This report found that while “rates of probable mental disorders remain at high levels relative to before the pandemic” (DfE, 2022, p. 19) across the general populace of children and young people, “particular groups of concern for poorer mental health outcomes were those with SEN… and those with long-term physical health conditions” (DfE, 2022, p. 19). This echoes the findings in the Angel Eyes NI report, in which 48% of respondents report a decline in the mental wellbeing of the visually impaired young people, attributing it to their experience of the education system and home schooling during the pandemic.

Early in the pandemic in April 2020, I wrote a piece for the University of Sheffield iHuman research collective detailing the inequitable treatments of visually impaired people by policy and restrictions during the pandemic. The piece likened the government’s treatment of the visually impaired community to a “narrative of absence”. Unfortunately, this narrative continued into the education sector. The government legally mandated a relaxation of the Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) requirements. An Education Health Care Plan is a legal document which outlines any special educational needs a child has and the related support a local authority must put in place to support a child. This allowed schools to have a ‘grace’ period of almost 5 months in which they could provide less support that that outlined in an EHCP document as a young person’s legal right.

As such, visually impaired children experienced an absence of adapted learning resources, assistive technology, adult support, social inclusion and of opportunities to develop/maintain independent living skills. While the charitable sector responded to the crisis with clear support strategies for visually impaired young people (e.g. Look UK online social groups, Thomas Pocklington Trust outreach services), the same support was not forthcoming from the already-stretched education system.

The sweeping move online within the education sector was undertaken with little consideration of the needs of visually impaired pupils, born out of a model of ‘herd accessibility’. While there was an assumed equality of digital access, Angel Eyes NI found that 55% of visually impaired young people had to share a device to access online learning, and 6% had to do so via a mobile phone. Screenshots of Zoom, Teams and Google Meet invites were incompatible with assistive technology. Schools refused to breach ‘deep-cleaned’ areas to send home pupils’ specialist assistive technology that had been locked on-site. There was an alarming lack of modified resources provided and many virtual learning environments were (initially at least) largely inaccessible. The move online, therefore, was undertaken with an absence of reasonable adjustments or access arrangements.

While systems for home learning have undoubtedly improved over time, the isolation, unfamiliarity, and anxiety caused by the pandemic appears to be harder to overcome. My own current doctoral research project involves working with visually impaired young people to consider their educational experiences, and the emergent data suggested that the impact of the pandemic on their education and wider lives remains at the forefront of their minds.

Early analysis suggests that many young people felt isolated during lockdowns, and the social impact of the pandemic is having a more long-lasting impact on their wellbeing, rather than concern over missing school work. Feeling ignored or left out of lessons by their teachers, being expected to use unmodified resources, missing out on school rites of passage (such as leavers’ prom), missing out on exams and being worried about their alternative grading, or being expected to complete pieces of work without their ‘usual way of working’ (i.e. accessing assistive technology or adult support) are some of the issues that participants have suggested took a toll on their mental wellbeing.

In order to move forward, education stakeholders MUST not try to sweep the experiences of visually impaired young people ‘under the carpet’. There needs to be an acknowledgement that visually impaired young people have missed out not only on the mainstream curriculum, but also access to the Expanded Core Curriculum/Additional Curriculum. Visually impaired young people may need explicit opportunities to develop certain life skills in order to support their transition towards an independent adulthood.

The University of Birmingham’s Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) has been a key force in the development of a new national Curriculum Framework for Vision Impairment, which will be launched in March 2022. This framework not only outlines the skill development required to support young visually impaired people in developing personal agency, but also brings together a bank of resources for specialists and practitioners to use in working with visually impaired children to promote equity of experience across the country.

By promoting and embedding this framework into their delivery, schools, specialist sensory support services and other professionals working with visually impaired young people can ensure best practice going forward and begin to mitigate some of the disadvantages engendered for young visually impaired people by the pandemic.

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