Supporting Learning and Development in Children Who Are Blind or Low Vision with Additional Disabilities

Although children with blindness or low vision vary widely in their capabilities and needs, in general, vision loss interferes with a child’s ability to obtain information from the surrounding world. When blindness or low vision is combined with other disabilities, the child’s ability to obtain information and experiences that are beyond arm’s reach may be further reduced. Without the ability to observe objects and events at even a short distance, children’s understanding and development of concepts about these objects and events may be fragmented and incomplete. Blindness or low vision, therefore, can significantly impact a child’s knowledge of concepts and language.

Helping Your Child Learn About the World

Not being able to see objects can have an additional effect: It can reduce a child’s motivation to move and to explore, and this, in turn, can further limit their experiences. For this reason, children who are blind or low vision and have additional disabilities need to be helped to explore the environment around them to learn about the world and how it works.

Additional explanations given in a way the child can understand them, repeated explanations and experiences, the chance to touch objects and to have direct, if possible, hands-on, experiences with them, and extra time in which to explore and examine the environment are all important ways in which complex needs children can be helped to learn concepts and gain understanding. If you are the parent of a child who is blind or low vision and has additional disabilities, there is much you can do to help your child learn.

Concepts to Support Your Child

Because the abilities and needs of children with complex needs vary greatly, and also because every child learns differently, an individual approach to helping a child is essential. How much vision or hearing does the child have? Can he or she move easily and independently? Does the child have a cognitive impairment that may interfere with your child understanding? The answers to questions such as these determine the most effective way of presenting information to the child. However, there are some principles that you, your family, your child’s teachers, and anyone else who works with your child can use that may be beneficial in helping them learn. Educational professionals specializing in working with children with blindness or low vision and other disabilities will typically be familiar with these helpful and important concepts. Keeping these points in mind may help you in helping your child learn as well.


When we know what to expect next, we’re more comfortable and more willing to take new risks. The world seems a predictable, orderly, safe, and knowable place. Having consistent routines for your child, such as a morning routine for getting dressed, a routine for eating breakfast, and a routine for shopping in the grocery store, in which the same things happen in the same order, helps your child predict what will happen next. If routines are consistent, then your child will have opportunities to practice the same skills repeatedly. Through practice, your child may internalize—that is, learn, absorb, and truly understand—new things.

Natural environments

Children often learn best when things occur naturally. It’s not natural to have your child practice saying “hello” to someone by greeting your mother 10 times in a row when she stops by to visit. It will be more reinforcing to your daughter—it will give your child the same message again and again—and help remember what to do if they have a chance instead to greet 10 people she meets throughout the day.

Functional skills

For most children with complex needs, a functional approach helps learning. Functional activities happen naturally on a daily basis and that your child needs or wants to do. For example, your daughter may be more motivated to learn to take a cup out of a cabinet if she knows that she is getting it to have a cup of juice, rather than taking a block out of a bucket for no reason other then to practice taking things out and putting them in. You may find it helpful to look for what motivates your child and to build on those opportunities.

Age-appropriate skills

As your child grows older, it may become difficult to find activities that others can be done with others. For example, playing board games, soccer, or surfing the Internet are things a typically developing 11-year-old might enjoy. But if your child has blind or low vision, cognitive delays, and limited use of their arms and legs, they may not understand these activities. Although your child may be getting different things from an activity from others their age and might enjoy them differently, the essential point is that your child is participating with them.

Teaching a skill across activities and settings

There may be so much for your child to learn that at times you may feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. Rather than expect your daughter to do everything independently now, it might be helpful to pick one or two things to focus and to work on these in many different activities and settings. For example, if greeting people using augmentative communication device is a skill that you would like your child to be able to do, try to make sure your child has access to this device throughout the day. Focusing on a skill that she can use across different activities and with different people in different places is going to provide more practice.

Using vision skills in clusters

If your child has some usable vision, finding ways to use their vision meaningfully in activities that motivate will help your child learn to use that sense more effectively. To help develop visual skills, you might want to look for times during a routine when focusing in on visual information is useful in completing a task.

Partial participation

Partial participation means taking part in only one or some aspects of an activity. For children with complex needs who may not be able to perform all the parts of an activity, doing only certain parts can help them learn new skills and feel good about themselves. Your child might, for instance, open the drawer to get out silverware, but you might be the one who reaches in and pulls out the spoons she needs to help set the table. Or perhaps your child might independently carry the spoons to the table, but you would be there to guide them in putting one down next to each plate. Some children with complex needs may always need support in completing tasks such as dressing, eating, toileting, or bathing, but they can learn to do parts of these tasks so that they have a sense of participation and accomplishment.

Wait time and prompts

Pausing and waiting and observing are important concepts to remember when spending time with a child with complex needs. Because a child with complex needs may need considerable support and extra time to complete a task, many adults find it easier to jump in and do things for a child instead of waiting for the child to do it on their own. That might save time at the moment, but it prevents the child from learning or practicing how to do something and can help a child remain dependent on others rather than participating as fully as possible in everyday life.

It’s therefore important to try to balance wait time and prompting in order to help do the next step. A good rule of thumb is to count to 10 when you’re waiting for your child to do something, such as pick a can off the shelf and put it in the grocery cart, or put a quarter in a vending machine. If that doesn’t work, you might then try a physical prompt, such as touching their hand or another body part like their elbow. If after the physical prompt you don’t get a response, then you might want to help your child complete the step in the task using either hand-under-hand guidance.