DbI Review

In this article Tony Best, Headteacher of RNIB Condover Hall School in the UK, argues the importance of understanding the environment for deafblind children. He examines the crucial elements and gives examples of practice that enhances learning.

Deafblindness creates a number of needs. One widely used definition describes these as needs in communication, mobility and learning. The main point of this article is that a structured environment can be the most helpful way of meeting these needs.

Structured environments can be achieved, at their very simplest, by careful arrangement of furniture. But this concept usually involves much more than that. The structure, or scaffolding, provides an environment that the child can understand - can understand what is there; what is happening; and can interact successfully in it.

There are three well-recognised elements in an environment that need to be structured and controlled. These are people, space and time. This article is more concerned with the physical environment - space - but starts with an overview of the other two elements.

Environmental zones
Whatever aspect of the environment is being considered, experience leads many educators to identify a number of 'zones' that make up a child’s environment. One classification of these zones is to call them the face space, body space, personal space and social space. Each of these is concerned with a different sized area around the child.

At the very early stages of development, a child may be aware only of the face space - that area on and around his face; children bring their hands into that area, perhaps into the mouth and many objects are also brought up to this area. The next developmental stage may be when a child shows awareness and interest in their body (body space), and may respond to people touching them, or to objects placed on their body. Later the personal space around the child may be a source of interest with the child finding objects within a metre or so of them. They may be aware of other people near them and move their body through the space. Another developmental step takes the child into the social space, within two or three metres in which there will be a variety of people, objects and experiences.

As a child develops, these environments need to be structured so that, despite the impairments to vision and hearing, they can be understood by the child. They will be a source of security, interest and learning, rather than simply providing a meaningless jumble of experiences.

In their early stages of development, it may be helpful if a child meets very few people, and a totally structured environment would limit the activities carried out by each person, so the child could build up an understanding, through consistency and repetition, of the environment. As the child develops, they can cope with more people and, perhaps, more variations in what each does.

A child may also be helped if adults make very clear who they are. Very young blind children are often confused when a person they recognise - for example their mother - changes from talking in their usual soft voice and becomes loud and angry. Without vision, the child may have difficulty understanding that this is the same person. In a structured environment, adults will control the way they present themselves and make sure they give clear messages. They may, for example, use touch, a familiar routine or a personal ‘sign’ to help a child understand who is with them.

It may also be important to ensure clear messages are given through the spoken word. Without access to facial expressions and body language, children need the voice to carry emotion as well as meaning. Adults must listen to their voice to ensure it clearly conveys the emotion of the sentence.

Children may experience the person through touch. In a structured environment, the touch from the adult will carry a clear message. Adults must educate themselves to touch with meaning - conveying emotion such as affection, irritation, patience or pleasure in the way they touch - the pressure, duration, place, and speed.

If these elements are considered, then the environment should be meaningful, and can provide graded challenges appropriate to the child. If the people are consistent and reliable, then they should give a clear single message to the child. The degree of structure needs to be matched to, and change with, the development the child.

Personal identifiers, a form of objects of reference, are often used to help children identify a person. These objects, initially attached to the person, can be an important element in a structured environment. They can help the child be sure who a person is, act as a fixed point when the person's shape, clothes, smell or sound changes. Eventually they may be used separately from the person, to represent the person in, for example, a timetable. However, this represents a later stage in development when much of the scaffolding can be removed and there is considerable flexibility in the environment.

Structuring of time involves considering the order in which activities take place, and the organisation of events within an activity. In a highly structured environment, each element of an activity will be thought about, and the same sequence used each time the activity is carried out.

In early developmental stages, activities may be structured according to a developmental sequence of response. One such sequence based on McInnes & Treffry (1) is resonance, co-active, imitative and reactive. Each stage refers to the child’s understanding and response to the situation. For example, at the resonance stage the child’s behaviour will be ‘copied’ by the adult who ‘enters in’ the child’s activity; at the reactive stage the child responds to an approach in a way that shows some understanding of what is likely to happen. The next stage, and a crucial one in relation the structuring of time, is anticipation.

Anticipation requires an understanding of a series of actions, or recognition of a series of sequential elements in the environment. For example, that the smell of a fruit is followed by the taste in the mouth; that a sequence of touches on the hand and arm is followed by a tickle; that touching several pieces of familiar furniture will be followed by arriving at another piece. Structuring the environment in terms of time, should help children develop the skill of anticipation.

Very much of our understanding of our world - what is happening, what is stable, a feeling of familiarity - comes from the ability to anticipate through recognising a sequence of events. When this skill has emerged, educators can use it to help the child develop further skills, particularly in communication and problem solving. This uses a teaching technique found widely in the field of learning difficulties but which was probably first developed for use with deafblind children at Sint-Michielsgestal. It is mismatch.

When a child is familiar with a sequence of events within an activity, then the teacher can delay one element in the sequence by introducing a pause. The child may then attempt to have the sequence continue, for example by reaching for the adult's hand or giving some indication of frustration. At this stage, there is the opportunity to use this response to introduce an action that the child can make to have the sequence continue. This action becomes a sign, perhaps meaning ‘please continue’, ‘I want more’ or even ‘ I want the next action’. With mismatch, the adult may also change an element in the sequence, hoping the child will notice the change and try to find a way to restore the original order of events.

It is suggested, therefore, that structuring the environment in terms of time might help learning. However, it is not suggested that all activities must be organised in this way. Spontaneous and unstructured activities, led by the child may also be a rich source of learning experiences. A balanced educational programme will include both types of activities.

Structuring spaces should help a deafblind child recognise familiar places, and understand that places have purposes. The journey a child makes through a space whenever they move is potentially an important learning experience. Here it is suggested that the concept of learning journeys can be used in planning an educational programme.

Research over the past 30 years, and most notably the recent work of Neilsen (2), has found that smaller spaces are usually better for multi-handicapped children. A space as little as 60 cm square may sound, and feel, manageable to a child. It enables them to touch the walls, floor and ceiling and build up a mental image - a spatial map - of the space. One can imagine how undefined a normal-sized room might seem to a deafblind child, unable to experience any more than one small part at a time.

It seems necessary to have some sort of spatial map of an area in order to understand - be orientated - to it. This understanding is probably necessary before a person can move through the space. Of course, the nature of the map may not be visual. In fact, blind people sometimes talk of memorising a sequential series of experiences that build up into a ‘picture’ of a room. However the concept is internalised, and recalled, it does seem likely that smaller spaces are an important starting point for developing the skill of spatial mapping.

The ‘little room’ that Neilsen has written about provides a good starting point (3). Using panels that make up rooms with walls of 30, 60 or 90cms, the child can be given experiences of different sizes and textures through combinations of panels. Children observed in these little rooms often seem to move and explore more than when observed in large rooms. It is likely that, whenever they stretch out a hand, they will touch something on a wall or ceiling. With repetition they can build up an image of the space they are in and learn to anticipate what they will touch.

Without vision, there may be no fixed point, such as is provided for sighted people when they view the world from the eyes in their head. For us, it is simple to understand that when we move around a room, we see it from a different position but the furniture stays fixed. However, we know that this can create a problem for some very young blind children. They may not realise, for example, that when they roll over onto their tummy, the floor does not come up to meet them, but it stays still while they are moving. A deafblind child, therefore, may not realise that if they roll over from one side to another and reach out, the object they touch is one that was previously behind them! Only with structured experiences of a stable, small physical environment, is this understanding likely to develop.

It is possible to provide cues within a physical space that will help a child develop their understanding. Some of these cues will be tactile. In particular, tactile edges can be very useful. These may be a well-defined edge between walls and floor, floor covering in different parts of a room, the floor edge between a room and corridor, wall covering to differentiate different parts of a corridor. In general, the contrast between each side of the edge is the most important element to think about. For example, a carpet and linoleum floor provide a good tactile contrast; hessian and paint wall covering give a good contrast.

Some of the tactile cues will come to be associated with a specific area. For example, in a classroom the area with a hard linoleum floor could be where there is water. Through familiarity, the child will build up an understanding of the space - a skill in orientation. They will also need to develop the skill of mobility - of moving through the space. Some of the cues will therefore be used as hand or foot clues in mobility. For example, a child may follow a wooden handrail along a corridor until they come to a marker that indicates a doorway; they may follow the edge of a carpet with their feet to find their way to a bookcase or chair.

In providing tactile cues, it may be worth remembering that open spaces will be the most difficult areas to understand, and to move through. If there are no fixed points that can be seen or heard, it is difficult to judge the size and shape of a space. They present a much greater challenge to the learner than spaces with walls, furniture and tactile markers. For children in wheelchairs, open spaces are particularly difficult. Children may equate the time taken to move through an area with the size of the area and so the speed of moving is very important to control. Adults sensitive to this can structure the tactile environment, through their behaviour and through organising furniture, to help children understand and use it.

Many deafblind children have some vision and are helped by visual cues in the environment. Again edges are important, and these can be achieved by colour contrast. Lighting levels need to be carefully controlled as too much, or too little light can prevent a child using their vision. It is particularly important to control glare as children with impaired vision may find a small degree of glare is very disabling.

The sound environment will be important to children who can hear. Edges will provide information that helps to give shape to a space. Sound edges are achieved through furniture that create sound shadows. For example a bookcase dividing a room will create a partial barrier to sound. When the child moves past the bookcase, the ‘shadow’ will be removed and sounds from behind it will be much clearer. This should help a child orientate themselves to the space. As well as furniture, doors, windows, hedges, walls can all create sound shadows that may be helpful to a child without vision.

The sound environment will probably have some fixed points - sound sources that can be used by a child to orientate themselves. A ticking clock, traffic outside a window, radio, fish tank, wind chime may all provide a sound cue that children can learn to use. An interesting sound environment will have variety in it, in the same way that as a good visual environment will have a range of colours, pictures and focal points. Sound variety can be provided in zones within a space but also over time, with periods of quiet, noise, speech and music introduced into the daily routine.

Each of these elements in the physical environment can be organised to give support to a child and thought given to the tactile, visual and sound elements will have a significant impact on the challenge that any space presents to a child.

Learning Journeys
The degree of structure that is required in an environment may be determined by the needs of the child and their learning goals. But there are many occasions when a child moves through a space and each time there is the potential for learning experiences. In order to identify these potential experiences, each journey the child makes can be considered a learning journey. This concept, a central part of the philosophy of Conductive Education, can apply to any journey, however small. For example the route from a child’s chair to the door, from the bathroom door to a sink, from the classroom to the school entrance, from the sitting room to the child’s bedroom, between buildings on the school campus, through a shopping centre.

As sensory impairment creates severe challenges to understanding spaces, an examination of each learning journey will identify opportunities to develop mobility skills, to enable the child to find their way along the route. But there are many more opportunities than that. There is the possibility to develop an understanding of distance and time; there may be the opportunity to practice skills in sharing, taking turns, choosing, helping other children; there may be communication opportunities with requests, choices, anticipation, generalisation or practising familiar words.

If the concept of learning journeys is included in the delivery of individual educational programmes, then structuring the environment becomes an essential part of educational planning. People, space and time can form the scaffolding within an environment that enables learning journeys to take place.

In order to help identify the learning opportunities within an environment, another concept, the ecological audit, can be used.

Here, the ecological audit is defined as an examination of what happens within an environment and identification of the skills needed to function effectively with those activities. An excellent guidebook on this has been produced by ICEVI-Bartimeus (4).

They use the concept of environments and sub-environments. An area - such as a house - can be considered as an environment. Many activities will take place within it, and it is usually possible to identify sub-environments within the house where a more limited range of activities occur. For example, the kitchen, bathroom or bedroom. Even a sub-environment such as a bedroom will have different areas, each forming another sub-environment. The bed area will be where a child goes to sleep or makes the bed. Each of the activities will require specific skills to carry out.

Another sub-environment will be the wardrobe (cupboard or closet). It is possible to identify the activities that will be carried out here - such as locating clothes to put on. The skills needed to carry out this activity can be identified, although these will depend on the degree of environmental structuring. For example the order in which clothes are hung on clothes hangers, or arranged in sections on the rail; the use of different shelves for different types of clothes items; the system used for labelling clothes of different types or colours.

When the skills needed to carry out the activity have been listed, a child can be assessed at the task and the results used to formulate a learning programme. Clearly the degree of structure in the environment will affect the skills needed by a child, and the task can be made easier or more difficult by the degree of structuring. This example has focused on the physical environment but it is possible to include the people and time elements in a complete ecological audit.

The ecological audit enables staff to analyse the situation precisely. It can help identify the skills needed by the child and the significant elements that are in the environment that can be changed. This information can be used to structure the environment and so helps to provide a good learning environment for a child.

In this article it has been argued that the one of the most severe privations created by deafblindness is in understanding the environment. By structuring the crucial elements of people, space and time, an environment can be created that will facilitate learning. An ecological audit of environments and sub-environments will identify the skills needed by children to function in the environment. This information should lead to greater precision in learning programmes and, hopefully, enhanced learning by children.

1. McInnes J M, Treffry J (1982) Deaf/Blind Infants and Children, University of Toronto Press, Canada

2. Neilsen L (1988) Spatial Relations in Congenitally Blind Infants, Refsnaesskolen, Denmark

3. Neilsen L (1992) Space and Self, Sikon, Denmark

4. Zambone A, de Jong C, (1997) The ICEVI-Bartimeus Model Functional Curricula, Baritmeus School, Netherlands.