As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, as part of the BCVI’s work in improving the eye health of Belizeans, they have a rehab department (though not rehab in the Amy Winehouse sense). The department consists of Rehabilitation Field Officers who go out into the towns and villages of Belize and find those blind and visually impaired patients who can’t be helped with glasses, medication or surgery. They work with the patients and their families, liaise with teachers and employers, and generally try to ensure that the patients lead as full a life as possible and become as integrated into society as possible. Obviously, this work is more important for children than adults. So, as part of the rehab work, once a year, the BCVI runs a summer camp for children, for two weeks in July.
The kids (plus one parent or guardian) are from all over the country, so they stay in BCVI accommodation every night. There are classes in the mornings in Braille, English and maths (learning arithmetic using an abacus [that’s right, an abacus – talking calculators are banned in school exams] and performing calculations on something called a cubarithm [a compartmented slate in which Braille-numbered cubes can be moved around]). Plus, they get to learn computer skills, which is where yours truly comes in. The younger children are also taught independent living skills, and in the afternoons they do arts and crafts, music, or go on organised field trips, to places like the zoo and the water park (I declined the offer to go to the water park and was later informed that not only would I not have had to supervise any children, but said water park has a fully-stocked bar. Had I been cognisant of those two facts at the time my response may well have not been in the negative).
2011 is the fifteenth Summer Camp and normally the children, their helpers, the rehab staff, and any other volunteers would’ve been staying at some exotic location, next to an ancient Mayan ruin, deep in the tropical jungle, or on a white-sand beach. But this year, there’s not been much money available (the global economic situation of the last few years has affected all of the BCVI’s funders to one degree or another), so instead they’re staying in the slightly less exotic surroundings of the BCVI’s main office in Belize City, just down the street from the city’s busiest roundabout and main fire station, next to the main hospital, and opposite the library. Plus conveniently around the corner from Jamborees Fast Food Restaurant (one of the many reasons for my previously-described weight gain). Not quite the untamed outdoors, but needs must and all that.
The children turn up on Monday and start their classes on Tuesday. It’s on the previous Thursday that I’m told that I’m going to be actually teaching the classes, rather than just providing technical assistance. Eek. Prior to that, my job consists of setting up a bunch of laptops, so the students doing the classes actually have some computers to work on. The laptops have to be equipped with headphones and full-seized keyboards, and a screen-reading software called NVDA has to be downloaded from the Web, installed and personalised (NVDA has a variety of languages, accents and voices, all of which sound like the love-child of Stephen Hawking and a Dalek. The English language setting comes with options for Received Pronunciation, West Midlands, Scottish and Lancastrian! None of them resemble their real-life counterparts, so I plump for RP, as that’s the closest match. Finally, there’s a wide choice of individual voices, with names including Mr. Serious and Anxious Andy. They all sound like the speaking clock, so again, I find the one that sounds least ridiculous and select it). Once I’d finished my technical preparations I thought that was it, I thought I’d be hiding in my broom-cupboard office, drinking coffee and occasionally coming into the classroom to turn something off and then on again. Now it turns out I’m going to be the teacher. I don’t know who to feel more sorry for, me or the kids.
The reason for this sudden adjustment is very Belizean, and typically BCVI – the rehab staff running the summer camp have suddenly realised that they don’t have the human resources to run all the different classes, and knowing that there’s currently double the IT staff in the organisation (my employment means that the IT department’s gone from one to two people!), they’ve elected to have us run the classes (and judging from the way my colleague Mark is looking at me and smiling, I know that ‘us’ means ‘me’). And, in more typical Belize/BCVI style, they didn’t bother to mention this to us/me until the last moment. Finally, it turns out that the rehab staff have never produced any training materials for previous classes, despite having IT as part of the last ten summer camps. What they were teaching before is anyone’s guess, but I suspect it wasn’t very much. So I vow to do a better job this time around and spend the weekend researching on the Web and creating lesson plans. And trying not to worry too much about how much of a fool I could end up looking like.
The following week and the children are here. Although there’s about thirty children at the camp, not all of them are having computer classes. We have two groups in the morning – one consists of the younger kids who are just learning to type, the other is made up of older children who want to do all manner of tasks, from manipulating files and folders to surfing the internet and downloading music. Fortunately, each child has their own helper, a parent or sibling or volunteer who (at the very least) helps them out the hostel, across the car park, up the stairs, into the room and onto a chair, hopefully without incident.
Amongst the pupils are a girl who finds everything I say hilarious and insists that I sound Chinese (she has a French volunteer helping her, who she understands better than me!); a small boy who dresses in flip-flops, plaid shorts and a vest (making him look like an old man in a child’s body); a hyperactive child who spends most of his time either looking for SpongeBob SquarePants on the Web or crawling around under the tables; and a boy whose sponsored hike up Belize’s tallest mountain raised enough money to make the entire summer camp possible. Many of the children wear sunglasses, partly because they don’t want to damage their already impaired eyes with the sunlight, and partly because the glasses keep foreign objects out. Many of them also move their heads around slowly when they’re trying to listen to something – so, when I speak to them whilst they’re sitting behind their keyboards, this has the effect of making them (especially the Creole boys) look like miniature Stevie Wonders!
The beginners’ class is always fairly quiet, as the younger kids have plenty of work to do – due to a management decision we don’t give the children Braille keyboards (or Braille covers for regular keyboards). So the kids are learning to touch-type the hard way – finding the home keys (the F and J keys, the ones with the raised bumps) with their index fingers, placing their other fingers over the remaining keys in the home row, and putting their thumbs over the Space Bar. And then following my lesson plans, which consist of repeatedly typing basic key combinations until they have a mental map of the keyboard. I tried to make the teaching more effective by getting the kids to type actual words, rather than random keys – this is easy when you’re teaching the top row (the QWERTY row), as it contains four out the five vowels. It’s not so easy when you’re teaching the bottom row – I don’t know too many words that contain only the letters Z, X, C, V, B, N or M. Another problem with the little ones is that some of their hands are too small for the keyboard, so they can’t physically touch all the keys the way they’re supposed to. And, for those who’ve never been taught this before, in order to get a feel for where the keys are, they have to move their hands all over the keyboard – so, instead of keeping their fingers on the home row and moving them a little, their small hands are jumping all over the keys like a medium’s on a Ouija Board.
Despite these problemettes, the classes go well – after I introduce the day’s lesson and distribute my hand-outs, I spend most of my time wandering round desks, righting askew headphones, adjusting postures, turning up volumes, occasionally changing the screen-reader’s voice (when the child can’t understand Mr. Serious’ RP accent), and repeatedly moving small fingers around the keyboard.
There’s less formal work done in the class with the older children (or should that be young adults?) – the volunteers and I assist the students with everything from downloading music to playing online games to managing files and folders. And it’s all done with the keyboard – it’s no good using a mouse if you can’t see the pointer. So those lessons consist of going through the myriad shortcut key combinations (and there are plenty), whilst listening to whatever music’s been downloaded (which ranges from Gangsta Rap to Christian Rock). And occasionally trying to stop the hyperactive child from climbing inside the laser printer.
And at the end of the two weeks, all the children (from the youngest novice who’s just starting typing to the oldest expert who’s doing everything a sighted person would) have learned something. As usual, the Web has come to my rescue repeatedly with resources from lesson plans to lists of shortcut keys. We finally have some documentation of our own to build on next year. And many of the kids say that the computer classes were one of their favourite things at the camp. Despite being taught by an unintelligible Chinaman.
Most of the real work is done by the volunteer helpers, who have a range of experience – and you can tell who are the ones who have training and experience in teaching disabled (though not necessarily blind) children, as they teach the pupils differently from the other volunteers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my two weeks, it’s that teaching blind children is not the same as teaching sighted children (in the same way that teaching deaf children doesn’t involve shouting at them) – as one of the volunteers, Ellen (a special education teacher), said to me, the teacher needs to approach the child’s education in a completely different way. Like any disability, blindness means certain limitations, and those limitations lead to people having to develop new skills and use alternative techniques and tools to complete a task. Braille reading and writing, walking with a cane, developing memory, using other senses – these are all aspects of learning that most sighted people don’t have to worry about. And, judging from the number of sighted people who look at blind people and wonder how they cope (including me – every time I see a blind man without a beard I immediately think to myself ‘how do you shave?’), it’s clear there’s got to be some big differences between teaching the two types of people.
But, if the adults supporting the children can become aware of all those skills, tools and techniques, blind and visually impaired children can grow up to be as independent, productive and fulfilled as anyone else. And most of the kids at the summer camp, from the ones who’ve learned to play a musical instrument, to the ones who went on TV and radio to be interviewed, to the ones who can navigate their way round a computer as fast as I can, to the boy who climbed the mountain, are already on their way there.