The term ‘visual impairment’ refers to people with irretrievable sight loss (Open University, 2006). However, this category of people who require special needs also includes people whose impairment can be recovered after medical help. In general, a person is not considered visually impaired when vision is possible with the help of glasses or contact lenses.
Visual impairment can be caused after genetic malfunction and visual damage to the eye before birth, after birth and during life span. (Miller and Ockelford, 2005).
There are 1.5 million children worldwide that suffer from visual impairment. There are many eye conditions that can cause visual impairment in children. Amongs them are Albinism, Cataracts, Coloboma, Cortical visual impairment (CVI), Glaucoma, Nystagmus, Optic nerve disorders, Retinopathy of prematurity and Retinitis pigmentosa. ()
There are some factors that can affect the visually impaired’s ability to cope with their condition and function better. The specialist therapist’s support can be a major influence, and the family’s attitude has a significant part as well. Additionally, social and emotional safety has been proven to be very important.
Music and children with special needs
Music can be beneficial to every kind of special need without even the appropriate knowledge of the music teachers. Since the mind has to be extremely alert all the time, causes tension. Relaxing music can decrease tensions levels. (Kersten, 1981). Researchers in the area of music found that music can produce listening as well as vibration. Elizabeth May (1961) has found that deaf children can feel music through vibrations, and perform in a unique way.
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According to Zimmerman, music can enchant self-confidence, develop ambition and satisfaction, in individual and group work within the school environment. Music lesson in the curriculum is very important because it helps to promote self efficacy in children. It facilitates relaxation and fun in comparison with the therapies and other lessons that the children are taught. Furthermore, children with special needs might compare themselves with the other children in the classroom. However, during the music lesson they are given the opportunity to relax and participate equally. In addition to that, music can enchants creativity for the children with special needs.
Kersten (1981) has indicated that, “Music provides an important aesthetic contribution to the lives of sighted individuals”; therefore, VI students can reach creative levels through musical activities. In the case of non-sighted children, music toys can be very helpful since sighted children have vision as the first sensory in order to realise objects and especially toys.
Furthermore, these students can play a rhythmic instrument and produce steady rhythms, and participate in music compositions. In general, a non-sighted person is able to expand life experiences by the use of other senses.
It is a known fact that visually impaired people use sound as a way to compensate their loss of vision. Attending concerts is always pleasurable because they can fully participate like everybody else in the audience. It is very significant how this form of equality can influence their feelings of self-esteem. Most of the visually impaired are listeners, yet some of them are more involved with music by performing or even composing.
The Music teacher, the Music therapist and the Therapist
There are many differences between the music educator and the music therapist. “Music therapy and music education are distinct disciplines and have separate degree requirements” (Patterson, 2003). Patterson points out that the therapist and the educator are two different parallels. The educator is the person responsible to teach music; on the other hand the therapist addresses social and communicative skills through music. In other words, the aim of the music teacher is to produce music, the aim of the music therapist is to provide an improvement in mental and physical health through music. These two roles should not be confused. However, there are some frequent misunderstandings that music teachers and therapists are undertaking the same training, and they are providing the same services.
What is the role of the music teacher? VI children frequently visit either a therapist or a music therapist; therefore, music teacher is not responsible t o treat the child but to teach music as for the other children. The music lesson should provide joy to the children and if they are treated differently, that might cause negative feelings and stress. Children with sensual or physical impairments have the ability to become very talented musicians, and the teacher should keep that in mind and treat them equally.
According to Patterson, music educators can cooperate with music therapists, through consultations or in-service training. This accommodates the opportunity for music teachers to learn new techniques and strategies. They can be informed and updated concerning the possible problems that a SEN (find it) child will face in a mainstream school.
Non-specialist music teachers and the SEN children
Non-specialist music teachers have a great responsibility when educating children with special needs. Although, they are not trained to know a way to react in the presence of any problem, or, how to teach a song to each different case of special need, the music teacher is important to be informed and take the appropriate training concerning how to teach the child. Being aware of the basic symptoms the children display is one way to teach them.
Children with visual impairment in mainstream schools
In the mainstream school, a lot of difficulties might be an obstacle for a VI child. First of all, the child may have difficulty reading notes from the board because of “distortion of depth perception, colour perception, what is being seen and perceived” (Arter et.al, 1999). Furthermore, the child may not be able to focus to near and far distances, and this may cause visual fatigue to the child. These problems can be solved by providing more time to process the visual information.
There are many opinions concerning the school environment’s role. Some people support the idea that the school should offer safety for impaired people. However, others disagree with this, bearing that only few measures should be taken in order to assist them. The school environment though, should provide safety for students with visual impairments.
According to Patterson, many teachers have stated that they do not feel prepared to deal with children with learning difficulties. A survey of contemporary mainstreaming practices in the southern United States support this (Music Educators Journal 58, April 1972). Furthermore Jaquiss (2005) has collected some statements by music teachers that show the unpreparedness of the music teachers:
“I need much more time to plan if pupils with SEN are going to be coming to my lessons”
“I have enough to do without worrying about kinds who can’t read or write”.
According to this, some teachers would feel more confident if they could have more training on how to teach music to students with special needs.
Witchell states that teachers’ expectations should be realistic, and a secured method of learning is required for SEN children. Furthermore, the Philipott and Plumeridge (2001) suggest that engaging a holistic approach that combines performing, composing and listening increases the natural evolution of musical development.
Extracurricular work in and out of school
A school is a place that acts as a small community where someone can make friends and participate in groups and in different occasions. The visually impaired and every other special need children have a very difficult daily program because of the teacher’s requirements, and the therapies they are undertaking every day. In this case, it is rather impossible to demand from these children to participate in any extracurricular activity after school. Pressuring the child to join any music group, demands more effort from the teacher and the child.
Nevertheless, there are many musical ensemble activities that children can participate, which do not require notation. Some examples are: the Caribbean steel pan, the art and craft of the steel band, gamelan orchestras and different genres, which require improvisation by the musicians. In this case visually impaired children can fully participate at the same level with their classmates, and feel a sense of equality and same capability.
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Visually impaired in the early years
Zimmerman (1997) illustrated that children who can see are more appealing because they interact more. On the other hand, infants who are non-sighted might not interact as much, and might not get the same response as the sighted infants. During the early years children prefer toys from wood or metal than plastic ones because the sound they produce is more exciting. Visually impaired infants are able to manage audiovisual materials.
In the mainstream nursery school, the sighted child is participating in singing nursery rhymes and musical games. Vision is the sense that enables children to link superfluous sounds with what they see. Zimmerman suggests musical cues in order to help the visually impaired children. For example, with any instrument, melodic or percussion, the sighted child is able to understand how the sound is produced in comparison with the non-sighted child. The non-sighted will take time to touch the instrument, produce a sound by mistake and start exploring the instrument. One nice teaching method is to give instruments as a reward to the well behaved children with visual impairment.
Visually impaired in the Key stage 1
The national curriculum in England and Wales in this stage is accessible to non-sighted students as well because it involves singing and playing an instrument, composing and being a part of an ensemble. Zimmerman (1997) states that visually impaired students are able to even play xylophones, when the teacher takes off the note pieces that are not supposed to be played. Moreover, the author suggests that since the visually impaired student cannot count on or copy other students, a solution is to hold hands and take turns.
Visually impaired at key stage 2
In this stage, children are able to sing and understand basic harmony in relation to the song. The music teacher by utilising the sense of touch as a cue can indicate to the blind and visually impaired students the correct time to enter the song. The preparation for the performance (rehearsals and stage preparation) can be more difficult than the performance afterwards. The use of Braille, written language for the blind, is essential for the children in music lessons for children with visual impairments in order to realize the pitch and the length of notes.
Visually impaired at key stage 3
In key stage 3, music specialist teachers are present in schools and they are responsible for the music lesson in special designed music rooms. It is rather difficult for the blind and VI children to express their talent because a whole class is working at the same time with the teacher having facial expressions. The noise level in the classroom might affect significantly the non-sighted child’s ability to understand and follow the lesson. Zimmerman noticed that less sighted students prefer to have a leading role or be just a passive member than have the same role as the majority of other students. In this age the non-sighted children are able to use the Braille rhythm notation. More lighted, bright colours and enlarged photocopies in a music stand can help students to work faster.
Visually impaired at key stage 4
At this stage, the General Certificate of Secondary Education examination is taking place as well as the Standard Grade. Visually impaired children are able to take these examinations with the help of Braille, word processors and by writing the answers by hand.
Performance, listening and composition
In general children who are visually impaired use hearing in order to communicate and participate as well in the classroom. A quiet environment helps the children to differentiate the sounds. Concerning performing, according to Philippot, the music teacher is suggested to know all the students musical level, concerning also understanding in order to help students participate in their one level as much as they can. One example that can provide help to the less sighted student is to copy, repeat and develop from the teacher with short questions and answers phrases. Furthermore, as Witchell states, rhythmic ostinati as well as the use of the pentatonic scale help the student to have better results. In order to succeed the performance sometimes is helpful to make pairs of one visual impaired student and one more able student in music. Pairs could practice in a practice room for better results. It is normal that VI students maybe find it difficult to concentrate in their activity with other students playing music in the same room. The use of Alternatively Clearvision music books (which includes also the Braille system), provides equal opportunities for all the children to work together without any differentiation.
Moreover, the use of the tape can help the VI student to memorize a musical piece more easily.
“The sky is the limit, since when given the opportunity to choose, able pupils often select difficult and challenging routes, and enjoy taking risks” (Witchell, 23905)
On the other hand, listening activities, as Witchell states can encourage students to “apply their aural acuity in response to what they hear”. Furthermore, in the mainstream classroom, students can create their own understanding. Easy answered questions are suggested in order to help all students to participate without losing their confidence. Witchell rank the pupils’ progress in three basic levels. At the first level, students are able to differentiate sound qualities and instruments. For example, instruments and voices. At the second level, the student is able to recognize expressive features. Finally, at the third level, the student can classify the structure of a piece.
“Composing in the classroom is an area of music that has transformed our perspectives of teaching and learning”. (Witchell, 5443) The teacher becomes facilitator concerning the composing part of the lesson. However, sometimes the teachers forget that they have also the director responsibilities and they have problems with teaching in the classroom. In general composing can give decently feelings of power to the less sighted students because they take control of their learning when they compose. However, children with special needs should be considered more in this case. There are many ways to help the children that are visually impaired.
First of all, the teacher should move step by step in order to make visually impaired students more capable of composing. For example, teaching the specific genre the children will work on, or by learning the scale they will compose. According to applying the words to the music maybe it would be easier according to Witchell, if the teacher teach the students principles of the song forms or melodic patterns.
Secondly, it is important to know how to group the sighted and the blind children, either in pairs either in larger groups. Working with pairs can be very effective when having in pairs less able with more able students.
Moreover, since the composing part is in a small amount of time the children should be prepared to accomplish the composition task in time. Ten to fifteen minutes are enough for the students in groups to compose.
“Music teaching must contribute to the humanity of all children so that its impact is sustained throughout their lives. It should also be our bottom line in ensuring that music in schools meets the individual needs of all pupils.” (Witchell, 25462)
Visually impaired children are able to fully participate in all musical activities in a mainstream school. However there are some factors that could help these children concerning performing, listening and composing in the classroom.
First of all, the teacher should permit to the VI students to choose the instruments they want. Moreover, it would be helpful if the children use a personal tape recorder or a mini-disk player. In addition to that, it is essential to make the students aware of what instruments are available in the classroom, marking them with a highlighter marker. On the other hand the teacher should never take the instrument from a student without letting them know. Moreover, sudden and loud sounds can be very annoying for the VI children. In addition to that, poor quality and unturned instruments would delay the children’s progress.
Concerning specific activities, the music teacher should explain the tasks to the VI children in the same level with all the children in the classroom. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the teacher should find a practice room for the VI children. Talking will children are creating can cause problems in their results.
In general, the music teacher in a mainstream school, as Jaquiss states, should make the VI student feel as more capable as possible. On the other hand the teacher should help the students find the necessary equipment or instruments. The teacher should never “assume that they will need help in recording or that they will have a perfect musical memory”
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