Handicap Awareness in ESOL Classrooms: A Pilot Project (continued)
The training seminar I participated in concluded with a gradual reentry exercise in which the visually impaired participants removed their blindfolds in a dark room that gradually became lighter. A period of feedback and reflection was then offered. For those who had grown accustomed to darkness over the previous hours, the process of seeing again was memorable. To a significant degree, our senses define the world we live in. Non-sighted persons live in different worlds than those who take eyesight for granted.
"By experiencing simulated handicaps, participants can learn a lot not only about themselves, but also how they communicate with others, and how to regard handicaps in general."
Fox (1982) has designed a packet to help people more sensitive to the
needs of handicap populations. She describes a series of activities which
emulate auditory and physical impairments. Rather than lecture about a specific handicap, she invites learners to directly experience
what it might be like, then discuss their experience.
Though an emulation activity cannot convey the experience of living with
a handicap day after day, I believe such activities offer a valuable step
in helping persons who have never experienced any distinct handicaps
become more sensitive to the needs of those who have. Helen Keller
made this point by stating:
I have often thought it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken
blind and deaf for a few days at some time during his early adult life.
Darkness would make him more appreciate of sight; silence would teach him the joys
By experiencing simulated handicaps, participants can learn a lot not only about themselves,
but also how they communicate with others, and how to regard handicaps in general.
Table 3 describes some of the devices which have been used to emulate various
handicaps in experiential-based training programs.
Table 3.Simulation tools for common handicaps.
partly fogged glasses or thin blindfolds
a thin layer of wax in ears
a thick layer of wax in ears
crutches are used by participants
participants confined to wheelchairs
Handicap awareness education seems to be a recent concept in
second language education. Traditionally, such projects have been targeted for
parents of children with handicaps or teachers and social workers dealing
with handicapped populations.
Many ESOL teachers feel that this topic has marginal relevance. They consider it
more important to focus on "basic English" and generic language content. Indeed,
an examination of ESL/EFL texts reveals little or no direct or indirect
reference to handicaps. This issue has been widely avoided.
A second reason this theme is seldom featured in an ESOL curriculum
is that many teachers consider the topic "beyond" the abilities of their
students. While I concede that some activities regarding this topic require high
degrees of linguistic proficiency, many handicap awareness training
activities can be conducted by any ESOL students. Elementary students who take
the course tend to make simple comments such as, "It is interesting".
More advanced students will be able to explain why an activity was interesting
or how they felt in detail.
I believe handicap awareness education merits a place in an ESOL curriculum
for three reasons. First, the social value in understanding those with various
handicaps gives this theme social relevance. Second, many of the activities foster
greater degrees of trust and peer rapport. Third, since the activities
I recommend are conducted in English, participants gain extended target
A Pilot Program
One year after participating in the handicap awareness training program I
described I began exploring the possibility of using some of the activities
in an English class. I conducted a ninety minute "mini-handicap awareness training
program" with a small group of intermediate level students. First, I asked
the students to discuss the questions in Table 4.
Table 4.Pre-activity questions in a blind awareness simulation exercise.
Do you have any friends with limited eyesight?
Can you name any famous people without eyesight?
What are the main causes of most handicaps in this country?
What sort of jobs did non-sighted people have here long ago?
What things might non-sighted people do better than those with sight?
Does this city have many escalators and ramps for people in wheelchairs?
After this, half the participants were blindfolded and the other half
served as guides. Participants then took a twenty minute stroll, describing their
experiences in English while walking. When the group reached a nearby park, the blindfolded persons were encouraged to explore the
environment. After this, their blindfolds were removed and roles reversed. A blind picnic was held, and the blindfolded persons reported a sense of
clumsiness eating objects they were unable to see, but a greater sensitivity to the flavor of many items.
Fifteen minutes later, participants took the same path back to the classroom.
Those who had been formerly blind noted an enhanced appreciation of food they
had not previously seen. Those who were now blind were able to navigate the
terrain more effectively than the first group because they had constructed
mental "maps" of the terrain they were traversing.
Returning to class, blindfolds were removed and participants reflected
on the questions listed in Table 5.
Table 5.Post-activity questions in a blind awareness simulation exercise.
How did you feel while blindfolded?
Was any experience pleasant or unpleasant?
Did you notice anything special while blindfolded?
Did this experience give you any new insights?
During the 15 minute discussion which followed, participants shared their
experiences. Many felt initial degrees of fear and embarrassment, but emerging
levels of confidence and trust. The exercise seemed to
have a positive effect on classroom rapport.
This paper has described one community blind awareness training which can
be used in ESOL classrooms. I emphasize that this is by no
means the only way of teaching this topic. One thread that should be clear
in this paper is the value of teaching socially-relevant topics in the
ESOL classroom rather than focussing on subjects solely for their linguistic
merit. As Totten (1990) points out, the classroom can be a
consciousness-raising opportunity. Handicapped awareness education is a timely theme that
should be addressed in more ESOL classes.
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