According to the twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, self-actualization—the ability of a person to reach his or her full potential—is at the top of a list of needs that all human beings share. When self-actualization, and the corresponding feelings of confidence and inclusion, is denied to certain people, society as a whole suffers, because not every person is able to contribute the ideas, knowledge, and skills that lead to progress.
In Lebanon and other countries, many kids with disabilities, including visually impaired youth, are marginalized due to stigma and are not included in the educational and social sectors. Nearly all visually impaired youth in Lebanon do not use white canes to get around, also because of the stigma associated with them, and many of them may not even leave their homes.
There are currently a lot of social barriers to full integration in Lebanon, as well as in many other parts of the world. Therefore, it is ETI’s goal to equip people with visual impairment with the tools to be fully independent, and this includes the Life Skill Program.
The Life Skills Program
“The life skill program is a two-week course that children with visual impairment attend,” says Erica Hogle, one of ETI’s life skill coordinators currently working on the ground in Lebanon. “During the program, they learn several skills. They have lessons in 3 different curricula, including orientation and mobility, activities of daily life (ADL), and social literacy.”
These lessons are split into groups based on age. The immediate goal is for students to learn certain skills for themselves so that after the Life Skill Program they can go on to participate in Camp Rafiqi. Here they will integrate with sighted peers, where they are able to do things on their own, and fully participate in activities.
“The Life Skill Program is long-term, but the goal is much grander than that,” says Erica. “The program is about teaching independence to participants, which includes them learning how to do things on their own. In doing so, they build confidence, self-worth, and fuller, more independent lives.”
What is Orientation & Mobility, and How is it Taught?
“The word orientation refers to knowing where you are,” adds Erica. “This could mean understanding where your body is in space, knowing how to get from point A to point B, and having the ability to update where you are along a route when traveling to a particular destination. It’s also understanding the layout of your environment. It is like a cognitive map.”
Similarly, mobility refers to movement. Since many kids with visual impairment in Lebanon are enabled from a young age due to the stigma, they internalize this idea and often come to depend on family members or guardians to move about. They do not realize that they have the power within themselves to travel around on their own. But, with proper instruction and practice, they master the skills of navigation and movement, and this is the key that evokes feelings of confidence and empowerment within them.
“A phrase we often use to describe O&M is it is about moving safely, efficiently, and independently,” says Erica.
The way people with visual impairment move and orient themselves in their surroundings is just a different way of interpreting the world—neither superior nor inferior to any other method. It is important to recognize that everyone on this planet—whether they have visual impairment, sightedness, or any other number of disabilities or perceived “differences”—leads their lives in different ways, and this includes the way in which they navigate their environments. ETI purposefully integrates children with visual impairment alongside sighted children to demonstrate this principle firsthand.
Learning Life Skills
Many of the skills that are taught in the Life Skill Program will typically take years to be mastered, so after the summer programs end, ETI continues to provide one-on-one life skill training to achieve this goal. But the first steps toward mastery are learning to use a white cane independently and to learn how to move around in the environment, which includes positions for the feet and arms—important to figure out where to go.
In addition to orientation and mobility, an example of an ADL lesson that is taught includes money management. In this lesson, students learn how to identify money, keep items organized in wallets, the general cost of basic items, and ways to be safe with money. Clothing selection is another lesson taught within ADL. This includes how to identify different kinds of clothes, how to keep clothes organized, and how to know the different types of clothing owned. Once these exercises become comfortable, participants then practice skills such as putting clothes on hangers and folding different articles of clothing. ADL’s curriculum also includes meal preparation, with lessons such as cutting, peeling, food identification, pouring liquids into cups, and spreading hummus on bread. Of course, cleaning the area after a finishing a meal is discussed, and this includes wiping down the table and sweeping.
Since the Life Skill Program meets for only two weeks, it is important to always review the skills that students have learned, and to give them more opportunities to practice. Even if a student does fine the first time doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has mastered the skill or that he or she will be able to do it again in the future. In this way, practice is essential.
The physical act of learning life skills is not the only component of the Life Skill Program. The social literacy component of our curriculum goes beyond learning skills that will be implemented later. The social literacy aspect of our program is based on discussion, which includes practicing conversation skills and learning how to participate in different kinds of games. There are also lessons which teach students how to talk about individual visual conditions, as well as different accommodations for people with low vision to make so that they can see things better. For example, if a person with visual impairment tries to eat something on a black table, making the plate white helps since those colors are in high contrast. Lastly, one of an essential skill practiced in the Life Skill Program is how and when to stand up for oneself. In these lessons, students learn how to vocalize what they need, but also when they don’t need help. Learning boundaries—and how to best assert them—is an essential tool for any independent person in the world, but even more so for people with disabilities, because they are often taught subconsciously that they are victims and should follow others’ leads.
“In general, the social component is huge,” says Erica. “Many of these children are often isolated, and giving them an opportunity to interact with other students can make a huge impact. In addition, being surrounded by teachers who have higher expectations on them than what they typically find in their day-to-day lives is powerful. With that in mind, sometimes the best takeaways for many of these students is that that they’re there to learn, and to interact with each other.”
This notion of integrating youth with visual impairment without question and expecting that they will rise to the occasion is a foundation of ETI’s philosophy and program design, and it allows the kids to succeed when they are integrated with sighted youth in Camp Rafiqi.
“A lot of the things that the teachers do are amazing, but there’s also all these little things that the teacher doesn’t even realize they’re doing that means a lot to the student,” says Erica. “They can be quite life-changing."