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.

Existing Literature

"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 of sound.
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.
impairment mild degree fuller degree
visual partly fogged glasses or thin blindfolds thicker blindfolds
auditory a thin layer of wax in ears a thick layer of wax in ears
physical 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 language exposure.

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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Brown, R. & Schutte, H. (1980). Our fight: A battle against darkness. Washington, D.C.: Blinded Veterans Association.

Crystal, D. (1987). Linguistic encounters with language handicap. London: Basil Blackwell.

Degi, M. Letter to the Author. August 31, 1994.

Dich, R. F. & Hodges, P. M. (1978). Language without speech. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Fox, L. C. (1982). Handicapped... How does it feel: Activity packet. Ed. by J. Lovelady. (Creative Teaching Series). Rolling Hills Estates, California: BL Winch & Associates.

Hale, G. (1981). A Source Book for the Disabled: The First Illustrated Guide to Easier, More Independent Living. New York: Bantam Books.

Kastein, S., Spaulding, I. & B. Scharf. (1980). Raising the young blind child. New York, London: Human Science Press.

Keller, H. (1933, January ). Three days to See. Altantic Monthly. (reprinted in the Nov. 1997 issue of the Atlantic Monthly).

Ross, R. E. (1991). The Handicapped experience: Some humanistic perspectives. Baltimore, Maryland: University of Baltimore Press.

Totten, S. (1990). Educationg for the development of social consciousness and social responsbility. in In M. Hurlbert & S. Totten (Eds.). Social Issues in the English Classroom. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers.

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index

Copyright (c) 2000 by Tim Newfields