Normalising learning difficulties and disabilities

I recently had an email, via the tutoring website I offer my teaching services through, from a woman who works for the NHS. She said that she had an interesting request for me (her words) – a blind Pakistani man who wanted to learn English.

My initial response was: how can I possibly adapt my lessons for a blind person?

My next thought was: I’m going to have to find a way to adapt my lessons for this man.

And then I realised: more importantly than adapting my lessons – I need to adapt my attitude.

I had started looking up TESOL for visually-impaired/ blind people, how to teach English to people with disabilities and other similar search terms. The only useful piece of advice I came across was a woman saying that instead of regarding people with disabilities as a challenge; regard them as learners who have different requirements.

Each learner has specific needs, strengths, areas that need more attention than others. A blind man is no different – he can’t read handouts but he can hear them. He can’t write his answers – but he can say them aloud. And so instead of searching for disability-specific lessons ideas, I just looked up listening and speaking ideas and realised that he could do any of these lessons.

There are varying degrees of blindness and this particular man has no vision at all but as he lost his sight eight years – rather than being blind from birth – he has a memory of colours and shapes. This will make object-association different to someone who has never had any vision. He doesn’t read Braille, can already speak some English and wants to use these lessons to improve his conversational English.

These are the questions that would be asked of any foreign person wanting to learn English and though the lessons will be different – it is completely manageable. The NHS woman was right: it will be interesting. But what amazes me is that there was never a discussion, during my training, of special needs.

Until learning difficulties and special needs are normalised, people will react with fear – rather than confidence – when faced with situations like this one. There is a shameful ignorance within our society, which needs to be addressed. A disabled person may be different – but we’re all different. And that’s what makes us so wonderful.

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