| Rationale: The purpose of this lesson is to introduce the concept of disability to students by exploring and understanding daily experiences of people with a visual disability. By engaging in concrete activities such as transcribing Braille and learning about the achievements of activists like Helen Keller, students are challenged to rethink assumptions and beliefs about the abilities of people with disabilities. Students are also asked to consider issues of accessibility by noting barriers in the environment that may limit opportunities for people with disabilities.
- Students will learn the terms disability, handicap, and visual disability
- Students will learn about the varying degrees of visual disability
- Students will learn the Braille alphabet, and use it to decode a sentence coded in Braille
- Students will learn about Helen Keller , and her life as a writer and activist for people with visual disabilities
- Students will research and discover the various ways that people with disabilities perform daily functions
- Students will consider ableist attitudes and assumptions towards people with disabilities, and ways to challenge those assumptions
National Standards ( .pdf format - 119 KB - requires Acrobat Reader)
Age Range: Grades 4 - 6
(Click on the link above for a master pdf file that contains handouts for this lesson. Please note that two of the handouts for this lesson are not included in this master pdf file. Both handouts are accessible by clicking on the individual titles below. Click on any of the individual titles below for an html version of that single handout.)
Other Materials: chart paper, paper, pencils, markers
Time: Parts I – III are 35 minutes each
Techniques and Skills: analyzing documents, brainstorming, collecting and analyzing data, connecting past to present, cooperative group work, critical thinking, forming opinions, large and small group discussion, reading skills, research skills, using Braille code, using the internet, writing skills
Key Words: activist, assumptions, Braille, campaigning, disability, handicap, visual disability
Note: In order to appropriately define language and guide student discussion on disability issues, it is recommended that teachers carefully read ADL’s resource sheets on disability prior to facilitating lessons w ith students. See the Resources section in the right-hand toolbar of this webpage for further reference.
Part I (35 minutes)
- Distribute copies of the following handouts to each student:
- Famous Quote by Helen Keller Coded in Braille
- Group Discussion Questions about Helen Keller Quote
- Braille Alphabet Card
- Ask students if they know who Helen Keller was? Ask if they know what Braille is?
- Explain that Helen Keller was a famous writer in the late 1800s/early 1900s. She was both deaf and blind, due to an illness she contracted as a child. She learned how to communicate through finger spelling with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and learned how to read using Braille.
- Explain to students that Braille is a code used to enable people who have a visual disability to read. Explain that the quote w ritten on their handouts has been coded in Braille, letter by letter, thus making it possible to transcribe for non-Braille readers. Normally, certain words like ‘of” and ‘the’ are coded in contractions that stand for the whole word, and other words are abbreviated, like "tomorrow " which is spelled "tm", and "friend" which is spelled "fr". For the purposes of this exercise, students will translate letter by letter.
- In their groups, ask students to translate the quotation using the Braille Alphabet Card, and to discuss the following questions in their groups. Invite students to puncture the points of Braille on their individual handouts with their pens or pencils after they have transcribed the quote to feel what the quote would feel like to a person who is blind or has a visual disability.
[Once transcribed, the quote will read: "The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them. -Helen Keller ]
- What do you think was Helen Keller ’s message in this quote?
- What are some attitudes of “seeing people” towards people who are blind or who have a visual disability?
- How do these attitudes or beliefs affect the way “seeing people” behave towards people who are blind or who have a visual disability?
- How might people with a visual disability go about doing things differently from people who can see?
Reconvene the class, and hold a class discussion to process the group questions above.
Write the words “DISABILITY”, “HANDICAP” and “VISUAL DISABILITY”
on a piece of chart paper, and ask the following questions:
- What is a disability?
(Explain to students that the word disability means a mental or physical
condition that affects a person's ability to engage in one or more activities,
for example seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing,
performing manual tasks, learning, or working.)
- What types of disabilities could a person have?
- What is the difference between a “disability” and a “handicap”?
(Explain to students that the word "handicap" was commonly used to refer to people with disabilities, but that it is an offensive term and should no longer be used. The origin of the word "handicap" is literally a person with "cap in hand", or beggar. Because of this negative association, it is disrespectful to call a person with a disability "handicapped". The more appropriate and respectful term is "person with a disability". Explain to students that a disability describes a person’s mental or physical impairment,
whereas a handicap describes a barrier in the environment that limits that person’s
opportunity to enjoy in everyday activities, such as not having ramps or elevators in a school
for a student who uses a wheelchair. )
- What is the difference between blindness, and having a visual disability?
(Explain to students that blindness is a form of visual disability. Some people may have
a slight visual disability, and need to wear glasses, whereas other people may be blind and are
not assisted by glasses. Visual disability can range in terms of levels of visual impairment.)
- What do you think was Helen Keller ’s message in her quote?
- What are some attitudes of “seeing people” towards people who are
blind or who have a visual disability?
- How do these assumptions or beliefs affect the way “seeing people”
behave towards people with visual disability?
- How might people with a visual disability go about doing things differently from people who can see?
Part II (35 minutes)
- In their groups, ask students to list all the things they do in a day (going to school, using a computer, going to the library, playing an instrument, going to the movies, watching TV, etc).
- Once each group has completed its list, ask students to go through the list and imagine how a person with a visual disability might go about doing those things differently. Have groups conduct research to find out the answers to their questions about the daily experiences of people who are visually disabled by going to the Lighthouse for the Blind and National Foundation of the Blind: Questions From Kids About Blindness websites. Teachers may also print out the pages from these websites, and have students work in groups to check their responses against the information provided by both organizations.
- Reconvene students to share their ideas and research with the class, and to clarify answers. Chart responses of students, and add the following, if not mentioned by students:
- People who are visually impaired or blind can travel unassisted, and some may use canes or guide dogs to do so. They plan their routes using certain landmarks to guide them, or by using trained guide dogs that follow their directions and commands (like ‘right’, ‘forward’, ‘left’, etc).
- People with visual impairment or blindness who use guide dogs are reliant on their guide dogs to be alert; thus a person should not pet or distract a guide dog, and should always walk on the side opposite the guide dog so as not to stand as an obstacle in the way of the person.
- Depending on the different levels of visual impairment a person may experience, some people with a visual disability may read written material in large print, whereas others may use Braille to read. (If possible, present a book coded in Braille for students to feel the raised points of Braille.)
- In any physical space, it is helpful for a person with a visual disability to have bright light, and to have doors, stairs, electrical outlets, light switches, and railings along stairwells be painted in different colors from the wall so that they can recognize them more easily.
- Always introduce yourself first to a person with a visual disability, before asking to make physical contact, like shaking their hand or hugging them. If you are in a large group, always have others introduce themselves too.
- Some people who have a visual disability rely on their arms for balance; therefore, it is best to offer your arm or elbow for support if the person requests to be guided.
- If you serve food to a person who is blind, describe to the person where everything is placed on the plate so that they know what they are consuming, and can avoid certain foods they may be allergic to.
Part III (35 minutes)
- Explain to students that they are going to work in their groups to discover how much they know about Helen Keller. Distribute copies of the handout, True/False Questions about the Life of Helen Keller, to each student and ask students to work together in their groups to complete the handout.
- Once each group has completed the quiz, review answers and share details about Helen Keller’s life included in the Answer Key: True/False Questions about the Life of Helen Keller.
- Ask students some or all of the following discussion questions:
- Were you surprised at some of the things that Helen Keller accomplished as a person who was deaf and blind?
- What types of assumptions do you think people who are not disabled made about her being disabled?
- How do you think she may have felt about the assumptions that people made about her?
- How do you think people like Helen Keller challenged some of those assumptions?
- Do you think these types of assumptions or attitudes about people with disabilities still exist today?
- How can people change some of their attitudes or assumptions about people with disabilities?
Extension Activities :
- Organize a class project for students to assess their school’s accessibility to people with visual disabilities and/or other forms of disability. Select questions from the Assessing Your School Environment for Access to People with Disabilities (Student Version) resource sheet, and have students work together in research teams to investigate the accessibility of their school (as necessary, adapt statements to make developmentally appropriate).
- As an individual reading assignment, have students read the book Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris. Ask students to write a two-page essay in response to some or all of the questions below :
[Book Summary of Sees Behind Trees: Set in the pre-colonial past, this coming-of-age story is about a young Powhatan Indian boy with a visual impairment who dreads the warrior’s test, a rite of passage for boys his age to enter manhood. He uses his acute senses of hearing and smell to prove his warrior ability, and is acknowledged by the adult name, Sees Behind Trees, which he is given by the weroance (expert on hunting) in the village. As a result of his skills, he is asked by a respected elder in the village to help him find an elusive land of waters deep in the forest.]
a. What are some of the most important lessons that Sees Behind Trees learns from his journey to adulthood?
b. How do his feelings about being visually disabled change from the beginning to the end of the story?
c. How does Sees Behind Trees challenge negative assumptions or beliefs about people living with a disability?
- Have students research and learn about the life story of Louis Braille, and his invention of Braille. Have students visit a local Braille bookstore or publisher to learn about the process of transcribing books into Braille.