Knowledge is Power for Children with Visual Impairments:
How Knowing Your Own Body Keeps You Safe
Incidental Learning of Everyday Concepts
Sighted children often learn to understand what is happening in the world around them by looking around or watching others perform everyday tasks and activities (Turnbull, Turnbull, Wehmeyer, & Shogren, 2013). In fact, educators have found that more than 80% of what is learned by sighted children comes to them through their vision (Turnbull et al., 2013.). Many concepts learned by sighted children are acquired using their vision in an automatic and instantaneous manner (e.g., watching birds flying or fireworks in the sky). This is known as incidental learning. This incidental learning occurs as sighted children naturally observe their surroundings, interactions of others, and everyday tasks or activities without any guidance or instruction (Kelly, 2018).
Understanding the impact of visual impairment on the concept development of children who are blind or have low vision is important factor to be aware of throughout child development. It is especially important when considering concepts that people are generally not comfortable talking about—such as information about the child’s own body and information they need to know about their bodies including their sex organs to keep them safe. It is also difficult for children who are visually impaired to incidentally acquire information about their own bodies because much of what is learned about general characteristics of the human body can be observed from a distance. For example, sighted children can see what parts of the body are always covered and what parts are optional for covering at the local swimming pool and how this information they are seeing can vary by gender and the environment they are in. Children who are sighted process this information without having to talk about it with anyone or get close enough to the experience to touch it. They can observe a wide range of information about the human body (e.g., the size and location of body parts) in various settings (e.g., school, work, parks, pools, etc.) throughout their lives from a distance.
Kelly (2018) further explains the impact of incidental learning on students without vision or with very limited access to visual information:
For students with visual impairments […], these naturally occurring opportunities to gain visual information are not the same as they are for students who are sighted. Incidental learning opportunities must be explicitly taught to students with visual impairments through meaningful instruction that includes extra explanations, descriptions, real-world activities, and repeated experiences. (p. 108)
Children who are blind do not know about many of the concepts they cannot see unless they are directly taught about the concepts using other sensory information. That is, children with visual impairments have a need to be directly taught about many concepts that students with sight learn simply by observing the world around them. For topics that are taboo and not talked about freely in polite conversation and concepts that involve things that are not normally or cannot be examined by touch, this is especially challenging. This article is intended to draw attention to this challenge of dealing with the lack of incidental learning of everyday concepts related to the human body for children with visual impairments. The purpose of this article is to provide the foundation for realistic solutions to this problem in order to empower children with visual impairments with accurate information about their bodies that they can use to keep themselves safe and empowered as they grow.
Use Explicit Language and Human-Like Toys to Support the Realistic Conversation
Parents, caregivers, and teachers can work together to intentionally fill the gaps created by the lack of incidental learning opportunities about one’s own body for children who are blind. Kelly and Kapperman (2013, 2019) and Migliozzi (2020) have suggested and outlined many of the following recommendations for teaching children who are visually impaired with and without additional disabilities about their own bodies and the bodies of others in meaningful ways:
- It is never too early in life to use language that is frank and direct with children who are blind about the human body and their bodies, in particular.
- As a starting point, a suggestion is to talk with the child about which parts of the body are always covered and which parts are optional for covering. Then, during this discussion take the time to talk about why certain body parts are always covered during this discussion.
- Integrate this conversation with the child into outings into the community. Describe to the child what is seen in terms of dress, body parts, and coverage by whom and across a wide range of environments.
- Use real and correct terminology to describe body parts, including the sex organs to children of all ages who are visually impaired.
- Use dolls or human action figures (i.e., toys that resemble humans/human-like toys), for example, that are readily available at home to label and name human body parts. The dolls/action figures can be used in conjunction with explicit language to make the information about the human body as meaningful as possible for the age and development of the child.
- Encourage the child to use their human-like toys to demonstrate their understanding of information by labeling body parts themselves.
- It is necessary in this discussion to be frank and direct about the size, shape, location, and name of body parts for both genders.
- Explain where the body parts are located exactly and use available human-like toys to provide an example of what you are talking about with the child.
- Additionally, explain what body parts look like for both genders and show examples of these body parts and where they are located on the human-like toys.
- With younger children who are visually impaired, keep this conversation simple to establish a language to talk about their body.
- Together with younger children who are visually impaired, sing and use the traditional actions that go along with the familiar “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” song but fill in other body parts along the way too as the child moves from their head to their toes.
- Clarify which body parts are okay to talk about openly with others and which body parts should be reserved for private conversations with trusted adults in their life.
- For children with visual impairments who have already been introduced to basic information about the human body including sex organs in a meaningful manner, take the time to explain when to use the more clinical terms to describe characteristics of the human body including sex organs and when to use slang terminology that they will hear used in conversation too. Give examples of both types of terminology and how people are impacted by each type of terminology. Being clear about this variation in language puts students who are visually impaired on the same page as their sighted peers and other people of all ages.
- Above all else, teach children how knowledge about one’s body means that they have the information they need to have control over one’s body and make choices about one’s body.
Each of the recommended strategies can be used in combination with each other and revisited many times as a child matures to provide more in-depth information about the human body including sex organs. Children who are visually impaired can meaningfully build their understanding of both male and female body parts in this way. Also, it is noted the strategies listed here are examples to get this effort underway and provide children with visual impairments with an accurate understanding of their body. Readers are encouraged to add onto this list with strategies tailored to the children who are visually impaired that they are teaching.
Knowing One’s Body is Empowering for Safety and Social Emotional Learning
Research has shown that there is a higher incidence of sexual abuse of children with disabilities compared to non-disabled children (Westat, 1994). It is important, therefore, that children who are visually impaired with and without additional disabilities can name and know their body parts as well as the social norms around each of those body parts. The empowerment of knowing one’s body has implications across every area of child development, especially the areas of cognitive development and social emotional development (Westat, 1994). When children with visual impairments are armed with an understanding of this information, they can self-report information to trusted adults and be included on the same page as their sighted peers who acquire this information incidentally. This empowerment begins with understanding one’s own body and male and female anatomy including (not excluding) the sex organs.
Additional Readily Available Resources
For those seeking more information related to the education of children who are visually impaired in the area of human sexuality, the following resources are recommended:
- The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) published a guidebook in 2019 entitled Health Education for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers that reflects the National Sexuality Education Standards (2012). This guidebook designed for use by parents and educators of students with visual impairments includes many recommended resources and instructional strategies for meaningful health education. The guidebook is available for purchase on the APH website at:
- Perkins School for the Blind has a video for parents and educators of students who are visually impaired with ideas for the development of concepts related to human sexuality for students who are visually impaired. This video is available on the Perkins School for the Blind website at: https://www.perkinselearning.org/videos/webcast/addressing-issues-sexuality-students-who-are-visually-impaired
As Kelly and Kapperman (2019) explained, word choice is important when teaching students who are blind or have low vision because these students cannot use their vision to discern details that are important or decode descriptions that are vague. The lack of incidental learning is a major factor that must be overcome through meaningful instruction that includes descriptions, extra explanations, repeated experiences, and real-world activities (Kelly, 2018).
Without basic, accurate, and meaningful information about human body parts and what they are, students who are visually impaired are left to their own devices to figure things out (Wild, Kelly, Blackburn, & Ryan, 2014). Migliozzi and Witmer (2014) further explained, students who have access to accurate, developmentally appropriate information from a trusted adult are better prepared to navigate the social world and less likely to get into trouble due to a lack of knowledge. It was nearly a half century ago that a special issue of the New Outlook for the Blind journal emphasized that greater knowledge of the facts is essential for students with visual impairments and their understanding of their own bodies (Holmes, 1974).There was an established need to explicitly educate children who are blind or have low vision about their own bodies in 1974. This need continues to hold true today nearly 50 years later and to an even greater extent given the ever-growing complexity of the world we live in.
Future of Sex Education Initiative (2012). National sexuality education standards: Core content and skills, K-12 [a special publication of the Journal of School Health]. Retrieved from https://advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/josh-fose-standards-web.pdf
Holmes, R. V. (1974). The planning and implementation of a sex education program for visually handicapped children in a residential setting. The New Outlook for the Blind, 68, 219 -225.
Kelly, S M. (2018). Interventions for students with visual impairments. In F. E. Obiakor, & J.P. Bakken (Eds.), Viewpoints on Interventions for Learners with Disabilities (Advances in Special Education Vol. 33). (p. 107-126). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Kapperman, G., & Kelly, S. M. (2013). Sex education instruction for students who are visually impaired: Recommendations to guide practitioners. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 107(3), 226-230.
Kelly, S. M., & Kapperman, G. (2019). Sex education. In Health Education for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.
Migliozzi, J. (2020). Addressing issues of sexuality for with students who are visually impaired . Perkins School for the Blind. https://www.perkinselearning.org/videos/webcast/addressing-issues-sexuality-students-who-are-visually-impaired
Migliozzi, J. & Witmer, J. (2014). Don’t see, must tell: Teaching students who are visually impaired and deafblind about human sexuality. Division on Visual Impairments Quarterly, 59(2), 26-31.
Turnbull, A. P., Turnbull, H. R., Wehmeyer, M. L., & Shogren, K. A. (2013). Exceptional lives: Special education in today’s schools (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Westat, Inc. (1994). A report on the maltreatment of children with disabilities. Washington, DC: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Wild, T., Kelly, S., Blackburn, M., & Ryan, C. (2014). Adults with visual impairments report
on their sex education experiences. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 4(2). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir14/jbir040202.html
Wild, T., Kelly, S. M., Kapperman, G., Ilic, S., & Brewer, S. (2019). Health Education for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.