Tokai University Foreign Language Education Center Journal. Vol. 18. Oct. 1998. (pp. 77 - 82).

Handicap Awareness in ESOL Classrooms: A Pilot Project

Tim Newfields

To English, Japanese, German, and Spanish Summaries
What value can activities teaching about perceptual and physical handicaps have for foreign language students? This paper explores this question and describes some experiential-based activities designed to help others gain a glimpse of what it is like to live without sight, hearing, or freedom of physical movement.


" The whole rhetoric of being 'handicapped' needs to be considered carefully."
The terms "handicap" and "disability" are widely used to describe those whose physical, perceptual, emotional, intellectual, or social characteristics differ from a given population norm. Ross (1979, p. 7) points out that handicaps are far from absolute, and result from the interactions of disabilities and environments. Among a community of people who those who sign, for instance, it is so-called "normal people" unfamiliar with sign language are 'handicapped'. Physically disabled persons, in environments with adequate ramps and wheelchairs, are often not handicapped in terms of performance. The whole rhetoric of being "handicapped" needs to be considered carefully. What is perhaps more significant than a specific disability is how an individual learns to function in a given environment.

Degi (1994) asserts that, in the broadest sense of the word, each person is handicapped, possessing a range of limitations and assets. It is as important to realize what a person is capable of as it is to be aware of her or his limitations. Many of those with handicaps in one area have gifts in others. Hikari Oe, for instance, was born with limited eyesight and motor impairments. With encouragement and support from his family he became a gifted composer.

Masamura (1992, p. 14), Beard and Cerf (1993, p. 34) prefer to avoid the term "handicap" since it focuses on impediments rather than achievements. Increasingly, they emphasize that "handicaps" should be understood in terms of differential abilities. Table 1 contrasts some frequent terms for various handicaps with some suggested alternatives.

Table 1. Common terms and suggested alternatives for various handicaps.
Common Term Suggested Alternative
blind visually inconvenienced, visually challenged, non-sighted
crippled physically impaired, physically inconvenienced
deaf hearing impaired, aurally challenged, non-hearing
dumb speech impaired, orally challenged, non-speaking
mad, crazy emotionally different, neurologically handicapped
retarded exceptional, mentally challenged

Many of the terms on the left are pejorative. "Blind", for instance, refers not only to a visual impairment, but a lack of control. More often than not, "dumb" denotes a lack of intelligence. As social attitudes towards those with different abilities change, many terms are undergoing a transformation. A generation ago few questioned the use of the term "deaf"; now other terms are often deemed more appropriate. ESOL teachers, I believe, should let their students know how accepted standards are evolving and inform learners of the connotations associated with the terms in Table 1.

Personal Orientation

In 1994 I participated in a "blind awareness training" seminar sponsored by the Department of Social Welfare in Shizuoka, Japan. The program included ten activities designed to simulate many of the experiences those who are visually inconvenienced have in the course of a typical day.

Before entering the training facility, half the participants donned nylon blindfolds. In this way, they could not see those they were working with until the final phase of the training. For me, the absence of visual images was refreshing, enabling theme to achieve a degree of intimacy with people they would not approach in other circumstances.

Most blindfolded participants reported an initial sense of anxiety. Before engaging in any activities, they needed to develop trust in their guides and in their ability to move without visual cues. Brown and Schutte (1980:13-14) describe how blind persons can develop a "facial vision", sensing subtle variations in sound, air pressure, and even electronic fields. The initial training activities in the workshop focussed on heightening trust and non-visual sensory awareness. Table 2 lists these activities.

Table 2. Some activities for a two hour blind awareness training seminar.
Activity Description Time Frame
Where am I? Exploration of immediate environment 5 min.
What is it? Tactile exploration of small objects 5 min.
Blind Trek Exploration of the extended environment 15 min.
Which Scent? Olfactory exploration of varied objects 5 min.
Blind Carry Exercise in which blindfolded persons are carried
a short distance by a sighted persons
10 min.
Blind Fall Risk/trust exercise in which blindfolded
persons "fall" in a circle of sighted persons
10 min.
Blind Climb Sighted persons help blindfolded persons climb
through a maze and use some gym equipment.
10 min.
Blind Drawing Drawing and writing without visual cues. 5 min.
Blind Picnic Eating and drinking without visual cues 10 min.
Blind dance Dancing without visual cues 10 min.
Who are you? Blindfoldees make inferences about sighted guides. 10 min.
De-masking Slowly removing masks in a dim room 10 min.
Feedback Group assessment of the activities 20 min.

The sequence of these activities progressed towards increasing levels of exploration of the environment. In many respects, this is precisely what many foreign language teachers attempt do: expand the range of "motion" or linguistic expression those they are working with and capable of.
"In a metaphorical sense when a person begins to learn a new language, they do become "linguistically blindfolded" to a degree."

There are some interesting parallels between physical handicaps and linguistic handicaps. Crystal (1987) uses the term "language handicap" to describe the experience a minority population among a population with differing language norms. In a metaphorical sense when a person begins to learn a new language, they do become "linguistically blindfolded" to a degree. If their target language resembles a language they are familiar with, the "blindfold" may seem translucent. ESOL students who speak a Romance language tend to have thinner blindfolds than ESOL students from different language backgrounds. As Voltaire has suggested, all language is opaque in some respects and transparent in others. Continuing this metaphor, we can say that learning a foreign language is akin to "gaining vision" in some respects. It requires trust in one's own learning powers and help from those one is talking to.

During the program, the trainers emphasized the need for trust and comfort. Only after most participants gained confidence in one activity was a more challenging one introduced. This careful sequencing of activities is something I believe ESOL teachers should bear in mind. At the start of the workshop few blindfoldees could step without teetering. Towards the end of the workshop, most participants were able to take extended walks, eat, and even dance via non-visual cues.

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Copyright (c) 1998 by Tim Newfields