Find out what you can about the child from their parents or teachers.
Do they have any useful vision (many ‘blind’ children do)?
If the child is young, how are they likely to react when meeting a stranger for the first time (for example, are they particularly shy)?
Does the child have any other issues that may affect the way they interact with people and learn (many blind children do: for example, they may be on the autism spectrum and/or have learning difficulties, a physical disability and/or a hearing loss)?
Are there any things that are likely to worry them or that they’re particularly interested in (for example, certain everyday sounds)?
Setting up the room
It is important that the room in which you teach is safe, and that the layout will, in time, enable your new pupil to navigate it independently.
Keep the layout of the room the same between sessions.
Ensure there are no potential trip hazards, such as bags, chairs or electric leads.
You can watch a teacher, Glenn, explaining how he sets up his studio for his blind student, Hazel, here: Hazel's Story
Meeting and greeting
If the child is with a parent or carer, speak to the child first, use their name, and never refer to them using a third-person pronoun (as in ‘Does he take sugar?)
Use straightforward, everyday language, just as you would with any other child – there is no need to avoid words to do with sight (for instance, it’s fine to say ‘It’s nice to see you’).
It’s good to make appropriate physical contact by shaking hands, for example (to make this obvious to the child you may need to say ‘Can I shake your hand?’)
If the child needs assistance getting to the music room:
Ask them if they’d like help, some may like to walk independently using a cane, following your verbal instructions, while some may appreciate your assistance.
Young children may be comfortable taking your hand; slightly older pupils may prefer to hold on to your wrist, arm or elbow.
Walk slightly ahead of the child and warn them of any changes of direction (‘We’re about to turn left’) and of any hazards such as steps, using clear, precise language (‘Two steps up’ or ‘Three steps down’).
Take your time; your new pupil will need time to build up their confidence in you.
If this is your first encounter with a blind child, it’s quite usual to feel nervous and worried that you may do or say the ‘wrong thing’; if that’s the case, think how the child may be feeling, unable to see you or what is around! So, try to relax and put the child at their ease.
Learn to ‘smile with your voice’: remember, your new pupil can’t see you smiling when you greet them, so you need to convey that emotion in what you say and how you say it.
If at any point you’re not sure about something – whether to offer assistance or not, for example – then just ask the child (and, if necessary their parents, if the child is young or shy or finds verbal communication challenging).
You can watch a teacher, Lydia, greeting her young blind pupil, Aizah, here: Aizah's Story. After saying ‘hello’, Lydia tells Aizah who she is (‘Lydia, your piano teacher’), takes her hand and leads her to the piano, in a way that is entirely appropriate for a four-year old who can’t see and is in an unfamiliar environment.
Showing your pupil the room where you teach
Almost all the information a blind child can get about the room they are in is from what you tell them, what they can hear and what they can touch. In this, they will benefit from being physically guided by you.
In fact, touch is an essential element in supporting a blind child, but there are two important things to remember: always ask permission first – for example, ‘Can I show you this or that’. (This also gives the child notice that they are about to be touched on the hand or arm.) And in the interests of transparency and safeguarding, it is essential to have another adult in the room, or at least near to hand.
If you are working in a school, it is important that a policy and protocols for using touch appropriately with blind children are in place, and that you adhere to them.
Tell the child where furniture and other objects in the room are (such as the piano or keyboard, and the stool, for example), and guide the child so they can feel them.
Always be clear about what you would like the child to do and what is going to happen next.
Remember, taking in information by touch is a slower process than scanning things visually, so give the child plenty of time to find out about the important items in their environment.
You can watch a teacher, Louise, telling her blind student, Francis, how the room, with which he is unfamiliar, is laid out: Francis's Story @ 00:08. She guides him towards his chair by the hand. Earlier, Francis was led into the room holding onto the crook of his guide’s arm.
Exploring a new instrument
Although a blind child may have heard the sound of a certain instrument before, and maybe read about it or heard it being described, there is no substitute for feeling what it is like and discovering how the sounds are produced.
Remember, even if they have a keyboard, for example, at home, the piano in your studio may well be different in size and range.
Give your pupil time to explore any new instrument for themselves – perhaps leading their hand to key features, and explaining, in simple terms, how they relate to one another (for example, on a ’cello, you could help them follow the strings with their fingers, from the bridge up to the tuning pegs or vice versa).
Don’t push a child’s hand onto things, it will stop them from taking in tactile information very well; rather, gently guide their hand to an important feature of an instrument, and then fade that support, so that they are in control of their own learning.
Remember that gathering information by touch is harder work for the brain than taking things in by sight: it is rather like assembling a jigsaw in the mind when you’re only allowed to see one piece at a time, and so is heavily reliant on proprioception (the sense of position and movement), a keen working memory and a high level of conceptual intelligence.
So, the relationship between parts of a large instrument can easily be misunderstood, being based on incomplete information (rather as in the ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant – each unknowingly took away a different experience from touching the animal as they felt different parts of it), and it is worth double-checking that your pupil really has grasped what an instrument is like.
If you haven’t worked with a blind child before, you could prepare for the first lesson by shutting your eyes, waiting a while, and then attempting to rediscover your own instrument through touch. Of course, you will have the advantage of a visual memory to guide you. Nonetheless, it may give some insight into a different way of thinking about the world, dominated by touch and sound.
You can watch some videos of blind children exploring new instruments here:
Baluji, who is himself a blind musician, explains the importance of touch to blind people. Throughout this short film you can watch Joseph exploring new instruments. Observe how Baluji gives Joseph the time and the space to discover things for himself, while using touch sensitively from time to time to guide Joseph’s hands. Joseph's Story
Aiziah explores the keyboard of a piano that is new to her. She has played smaller keyboards at home and at school, but not a baby grand. Aizah's Story
Nafis has been playing the drums for several years. Here, he is having a lesson on an unfamiliar kit, and so, as a first step, his teacher asks him to explore the layout and see what may be different from what he is used to. Observe that he does this first with his hands, which give him more information than he could glean using the drumsticks. Nafis's Story
Parents as partners
It is helpful for parents to think of themselves as partners in the process of their child’s teaching and learning – it should be very much a team effort.
In the early stages, they may well be able to support your teaching by suggesting effective strategies for getting and holding their child’s attention, the best way to interact with them (particularly if the child has additional disabilities), and their preferred way of being presented with new information and being shown how things look and work.
A blind child may well need assistance and guidance with practice: when, where and what, and here parents can play an important role.
Because of the likely need for physical contact in lessons, a parent or other adult should be present or near at hand at all times, in the interests of safeguarding.
Adam, a Trustee of Amber, discusses the importance of having a parent present in lessons here: Hazel's Story @ 05:21
Ashleigh’s story shows how her parents are present during lessons Ashleigh's Story @ 01:05 - which is good practice when working with a teenage girl who relies on touch to model her technique at the piano. Ashleigh’s father videos the session to assist her in remembering what was taught and to guide her practice. Ashleigh's Story @ 07:10. Beyond this, Ashleigh’s parents explain how they curate a musical world for her Ashleigh's Story @ 07:00, ensuring that she has access to recordings of performances of pieces in a wide range of styles and genres.
In Eleanor’s video, her mother, Kelly, who sits in on all her lessons, is comfortable to intervene at one point to ensure Eleanor has understood a concept involving movement: Eleanor's Story @ 03:30
Blind children are among the most vulnerable groups in society since they can’t see to avoid unwanted attention, they don’t necessarily know who they are with or exactly what is happening beyond what they can hear or touch, and from time to time they will need physical contact with others to be safe and to learn. Hence ensuring their welfare and addressing issues of safeguarding are of paramount importance.
If you are working in a school, ensure that you are aware of their safeguarding policy and procedures, and check that they have a policy on ‘positive touch’ when working with blind children.
Always teach with the door open or in a room with a glass panel, in clear view of other adults. Ideally, another adult should be in the room.
Make sure you have the necessary governmental checks. In the UK, in England and Wales, this means having a Disclosure and Barring Service check; in Scotland, register with Disclosure Scotland; in Northern Ireland, the relevant body is Access Northern Ireland.
In Anaya’s story, her teacher Daniel ensured – before lessons began – that his approach accorded with the school’s policy on touch where a blind child is concerned. It was agreed that a member of the school staff should always present in lessons. Anaya’s parents were fully aware of and in agreement with the level and nature of the physical contact that Daniel wished to use to teach Anaya in lessons. Most importantly, Anaya came to trust Daniel, and feels entirely comfortable working with him. Anaya's Story @ 07:35
Amber Trustee, Adam, explains about the importance of appropriate touch Joseph's Story @ 01:49, stressing that it is important to have parents in the room wherever possible, and to explain to them what is going on.
In Hazel’s story, Adam, a Trustee of Amber, discusses the importance of having a parent present in lessons Hazel's Story @ 05:21, and notes that Hazel’s mother attends throughout, which avoids any possible misunderstandings. Hazel’s mum also supports the teaching and learning process by contributing her intimate knowledge of Hazel’s ways of thinking and learning.
In Francis’s story, teacher Louise asks permission before touching Francis’s lower lip to correct the shape of his embouchure. Francis's Story @ 04:07. She describes the importance of being aware of child protection issues.
Getting further support
Blind children typically have a number of professionals working with them, of which you, their music teacher, will be one. In the UK these may include the ‘Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired‘ who is assigned to them; in school, the person in charge of overseeing access to pupils with support needs in school (in England, termed the ‘Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Coordinator’ or ‘SENDCO’); therapists, including Speech and Language Therapists, Physiotherapists and Occupational Therapists; a specialist social worker; and a range of clinicians. The crucial thing is that all these professionals work as a team around the child and the family.
Children with a severe visual impairment will typically have an Education, Health and Care Plan (in England), a Statement of Special Educational Needs (in Wales and Northern Ireland) and a Plan for Additional Support Needs (in Scotland). Teachers should aim to ensure that a child’s musical abilities and needs are included in such documentation, and appropriate provision (if possible, with funding) is agreed. Where resources are limited, this can be challenging, and The Amber Trust exists to support children and young people in the UK in having their musical wishes met and aspirations realised.