A Tutor For A Sightless Pupil: Parents' Experience

Audio description: a coloured photo. Five cubes with English letters are arranged in a row to form the word TEACH. Behind them, there are piles of books in coloured covers.

Today, a life of a pupil is virtually unimaginable without tutors. They help pull up the material, prepare for final exams, acquire knowledge in additional courses.

How to form a working relationship between a tutor and a sightless child? Where to find a teacher for a visually challenged pupil? Parents of sightless schoolchildren who found it necessary to hire a tutor tell Special View about their experience.

Yelena, Yegor’s mother

Audio description: a coloured photo. Two young men are sitting at a wooden table and playing chess.

"Yegor had several tutors. He was preparing for the Unified National Exam in history, pulling up English and Russian, perfecting his skills in chess and singing. Four years ago we were looking for a chess tutor using Profi.ru website. We filled in a request form, and many people responded to it. But then I remembered that I hadn’t mentioned the fact that Yegor couldn’t see. I wrote it in a comment to our request form, and after that nearly all of the teachers refused us.

But there was one young man named Vladimir who called us anyway. He said that he was willing to try and teach Yegor. My son was at a beginner’s level, and together with Vladimir they started playing without a chessboard. Thanks to lessons with Vladimir, Yegor became a pretty good chess player. Vladimir recommended him to take part in competitions, so my son started going to chess tournaments among sightless players. He didn’t have a chance to participate in many tournaments: first, the pandemic started, then he had to prepare for college entrance exams.

But he is still taking lessons from Vladimir. Two days a week they meet in Zoom and play. Yegor likes competing with different people, and together with his tutor he is able to do it using a special app. Vladimir tells him about the moves his adversary makes, Yegor announces his own moves, and the tutor moves his pieces on a virtual board.

In course of these four years, Vladimir has become not just Yegor’s teacher, but his friend. They begin their sessions by sharing their news, they are genuinely interested in each other’s lives. Of course, over the years the price of Vladimir’s lessons has risen, but for Yegor he keeps his old price that he set at the very beginning.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A bright room with a window covered with venetian blinds. A red-haired boy in a blue shirt is sitting at a wooden table in front of a computer. A fair-haired young woman in an orange jacket is displayed on its screen. She is sitting beside a black board and speaking. On the boy’s table, there are a folder and a book, potted plants and an aroma diffuser with scented sticks.

Moreover, Yegor took online lessons in English and Russian when he was preparing for the Unified National Exam. He was talking to his teacher first using Skype, then Zoom. She had had prior experience of working with sightless pupils, so she didn’t have difficulties in organizing his lessons.

There was a period when Yegor studied English offline. By word of mouth we found a nice aged English teacher who used to come to us. She wasn’t discouraged by the fact that Yegor was visually challenged, she just asked permission to come to us and meet my son, and then decide whether she would take him as a pupil. Yegor, in his turn, felt it very important to find understanding with the teacher, so as to create a comfortable atmosphere that would favor his learning.

They liked each other, and he took lessons from that teacher for two and a half years. She didn’t use computer, and at that period my son had no Braille display which could help him study a foreign language. So I went to a library for the blind and took an English textbook by Bonk printed in Braille, and also I found an analog in ordinary script using Avito website. I gave the latter to our tutor. Using these two books they studied grammar. During their lessons, they listened to audio records of English literature pieces, and through this, Yegor perfected his pronunciation. When we bought a Braille display, we scanned materials in flat print and transcribed them into the convenient form, so Yegor could then read them by himself.

Then we had another tutor, Vartan, from Pedagogic Excellence Centre, who helped Yegor prepare for School Olympics in History. It may seem that History is the most available discipline for a sightless person to study and pass exam in, but this is not so. The Unified National Exam and School Olympics in History have a lot of visual tasks that need to be adapted for a visually challenged pupil. Pedagogic Excellence Centre employees have done a titanic work to create tasks that would be accessible for him, thus enabling my son to participate in several School Olympics in History. As a result of such a competition, Yegor entered The Higher School of Economics. At the moment he is studying there at Humanitarian Faculty, History Department.

Galina, Pavel’s mother

"Pavel had a sightless tutor in Computer Studies. My son could use a computer, but he needed help with some new programs and in acquiring skills to surf the Internet. We started looking for a tutor who could come to our place. Our friends recommended Irina, a sightless teacher of Computer Studies. She agreed to give lessons to our son, so we invited her.

Irina was able to move around Moscow on her own, but finding her way in unfamiliar places without help wasn’t easy for her. She used to come to the subway station near our home, then I picked her up and together we took a bus that went to our block.

Pavel and Irina hit it off nicely. They understood each other pretty well, so the learning process was running smoothly. As a result of Irina’s lessons, my son became good at using the basic computer programs and learned to work on the Internet. What is more, she helped us choose a new computer and install the required software. When tutoring in person was over, Irina went on to consulting Pavel through Skype.

I believe that when a sightless pupil has a sightless teacher, it is most valuable, because they understand each other perfectly. In that case, the learning process is not hampered by difficulties associated with the peculiarities of a sightless pupil’s perception.

Tatyana, Alicia’s mother

Audio description: a coloured photo. A fair-haired six-year-old boy in a white T-shirt and orange overalls is sitting at the same table. He is forming something out of modeling clay, repeating after a woman in pink jacket who watches him from computer screen.

"We live in Sydney, Australia. Our daughter is twelve and she is studying at home. When Alicia started going to school, we didn’t get adequate support, and the reason was quite trivial: the lack of specialists. In Australia, there are no schools for sightless and visually challenged children with normal mental development, because such children study in ordinary schools along with those who have no physical disabilities. According to the law, schools must support sightless pupils, but there are precious few specialists who can provide such assistance.

Here, children go to school when they reach the age of five, and for two years Alicia studied together with the others, but then she couldn’t keep up with her classmates, and so we transferred her to home schooling.

Alicia couldn’t read in English (although she could read in Russian because I taught her myself). Then by sheer luck we found our first tutor. She was just another mum of a physically challenged child. She never even studied to become a teacher. But she was talented, creative, full of energy and ideas. In order to teach Alicia, she used some application on her tablet to enlarge letters, and other techniques. Thanks to this, my daughter learned to read in English in a couple of months.

Then we discovered Zoom. It was in 2017, long before the lockdown. I subscribed Alicia to a course on Ancient Rus history, which took place at a Russian school in another town. This was a group course, and it turned out she couldn’t participate in it, because there was much visual material (illustrations, homework with pictures to colour). But the discipline itself was interesting for her, so we just asked the teacher to give Alicia individual lessons, and explained that the material should be presented to our daughter without visual aids. And this worked all right. Instead of colouring pictures for homework, she made installations out of LEGO.

Then we found her a Maths tutor. He was an aged man, in retirement. He used to work at a university in Russia. He was a highly professional and interesting person. He invented tasks for her on the go. They were talking through Skype, sitting in front of a huge white board with a thick black marker. She is still studying with him, for more than three years, now mostly without our assistance.

Our daughter has always been greatly interested in Russian language, so through our friends we found her a school teacher from Russia. Alicia has been studying with her for about three years, too. At first our tutor used to send us materials for the lesson and homework via the Internet, and I enlarged the texts and printed them out. But this couldn’t last long, because texts and tasks grew bigger and bigger, and the load on Alicia’s eyesight became more intense. To solve this problem, we bought our child an iPad Pro, and after this, a new life started for us.

Although iPad was not invented specially for the sightless or visually impaired, but it has the best functions they need. We began printing all digital texts as PDF files and upload them into various apps, we scanned textbooks and workbooks and uploaded them there, too. If the task was to write something or insert answers, Alicia did this using Notability app. She enlarged the screen and wrote on it with her finger. When you scale the screen down again, it looks like ordinary lines written by hand. This is very convenient for tutors, because they can use the same textbooks, only scanned as PDF files. During lessons they usually don’t do any writing in order to save time, all the writing is given her as homework.

Alicia can also use Braille. During the lockdown, my husband created a website that can identify Braille script in English and some other languages, www.abcbraille.com. Now one can make a picture of a text written in Braille, upload it at this website, click Translate button, and the translation will appear on the photo below the lines in Braille. This way one can send it to teachers. For example, our tutor who reads and discusses with Alicia texts in English, uses this option.

All in all, finding a tutor for individual lessons with a sightless child is not that difficult, but including the child into group classes is much more complicated. For instance, we had the following problems: during a lesson in a group, pupils need to read a portion of text which is usually shown on a presentation screen. If you enlarge it, big gaps appear between the lines, and you need time to scroll them down to the next line. And we have to explain this to the teacher.

Sometimes during Zoom lessons a teacher demands that children push the Yellow Hand Button if they wish to answer a question (which is equal to raising a hand in this program). Doing this fast is difficult for Alicia: she needs to scroll the screen, find the hand, but while she is still looking for it, someone else has already pushed the button, so she loses the opportunity to offer her opinion. Sometimes teachers ask to turn on the camera, but during lessons our daughter is holding her iPad horizontally, so the camera sees only a part of her face, and she doesn’t even know what exactly the teacher sees. It is better when she is not required to turn the camera on".