Visual impairment a learning barrier

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iol news pic pupils eye test INLSA A school pupil has an eye test - File picture: Garth Stead

Johannesburg - CHILDREN with undetected visual impairments that families and schools can’t easily pick up tend to be wrongly declared academically unfit for their grade.

And in most cases, it’s only families of children with severe problems who alert the schools to the visual problems and where the child receives the required treatment and care.

This is according to teachers at two Soweto primary schools who were part of the Brien Holden Vision Institute’s Drive for Sight late last year.

The drive was done in partnership with the Gauteng Health Department, and involved over 900 pupils and community members having their eyes screened and 42 pupils and 196 community members getting customised prescription spectacles.

Phindile Ngema, a teacher at Nonto Primary School in Rockville, Soweto, said when children reached a certain level in their schooling their handwriting improved and the pace of their writing and reading changed.

“A child with visual problems would come across as thought not fit for their grade. If for example you give a Grade 4 class an exercise to copy something from the board, if a child doesn’t write in a straight line or their handwriting is too big and similar to a child who’s in Grade 1, then you know they might be having a visual problem,” she said.

Ngema said sometimes families were aware of the child’s problem, but it remained unattended to as they couldn’t afford the medical care. “Many of the pupils are raised by their grandparents so affordability is a huge factor,” she said.

Pinky Mtebele, a teacher at Bafikile Primary School, also in Rockville, Soweto, said children with impaired vision tended to shy away from interacting with their teachers and were afraid to tell their teachers that they couldn’t see for fear of being teased by peers.

“If for example they can’t see the board from the back of the class, they’re afraid to move to the front because they don’t want to be identified as the child with the eye problem.

“This negatively impacts on their academic performance, especially when they’re supposed to write what they copy from the board quickly and rush to the next class. If they can’t copy their work quickly they fall behind.”

Mtebele said some clues that a pupil had visual problems were if a child avoided direct eye contact, squinted, or had red and irritable eyes.

“Sometimes a child would be far-sighted and not be able to read from a textbook that’s right in front of them. If you ask them to read in a group they fall behind,” she said.

Mtebele said once the schools detected that the child had a problem, they consulted with the parents.

“In many cases the parents themselves don’t know… Only a few parents would tell the school and in most cases it’s those whose children have severe problems.

“There’s a lack of awareness among parents who don’t support their children’s school activities. If you do homework with your child, you’ll pick up if they have trouble seeing the words,” Mtebele said.

Khethukuthula Mdlalose, a Grade 6 pupil at Bafikile, said his eye problem was noticed in 2009 when he was in Grade 2.

“I couldn’t see the board, even when I was seated at the front I had to move closer.”

He received spectacles during the Drive for Sight. Khethukuthula, 11, who wants to become a social worker, said the glasses made a huge difference to his schooling.

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