Services for Children and Families

Children who are blind or vision impaired are children first, with the same demands, desires, dreams, and delights that all children have. The difference between children who are blind and vision impaired and those are not is how they learn. They can learn as much as any other child, but, unlike other children, they cannot rely on their vision to obtain information from the people, objects, and environment around them. Their sources of information come through touch, smell, hearing, and taste (and maybe vision), in bits and pieces that somehow have to be fit together into a whole. The process is not easy; it’s sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it’s supposed to look like. Education for children who are blind or vision impaired requires a different approach – one that creates opportunities to learn, rather than waiting for those opportunities to create themselves.

(Reach Out and Teach; Helping Your Child Who is Visually Impaired Learn and Grow, by Kay Alicyn Ferrell, 2011, AFB Press).

Guide Dogs Tasmania (GDT) aims to enable and empower families of children who are blind or vision impaired by providing information, resources, support and training. Our services support the development of life skills so children and adolescents may become self-determined adults who can make choices about career, study, family and leisure.

Developmental Orientation and Mobility

This is a specialist discipline which focuses primarily on optimising purposeful movement and its associated cognitive components. Skills are encouraged at the appropriate development stages of a child’s life. Skill areas include:

Life Skills

Children with vision loss can experience a range of challenges and may not be able to learn daily living skills through observation. GDT services support parents to actively teach skills at home through demonstration, repetition and utilisation of adapted or specialised aids.

GDT staff can provide suggestions and strategies for the development of skills such as dressing, telling the time, time management, meal preparation and using appliances.

Play promotes learning and children who are blind or vision impaired may need help to find stimulating and fun activities that promote skill development and confidence. For a young child, advice may be provided regarding appropriate toys, strategies for promoting play and movement (reaching, pre-crawling) or how to introduce your vision impaired child to the world around them.

Statewide services are offered and delivered in the home, educational or community settings. Group programs and camps may be offered during school holidays and provide an opportunity for fun, age appropriate activities and social contact with vision impaired peers.

We believe families are pivotal in the life of a child who is blind or vision impaired and that early intervention is vital in establishing independence, confidence and development. We welcome referrals from parents or care-givers and our professionally accredited staff will discuss an individualised program to suit the unique needs of the child.

Lifelong Learning

Your child may have experienced a loss or reduction in their vision and this may be temporary or permanent. Alternatively, they may have been born with congenital vision impairment. Our mission is to provide high quality, professional services that increase independence and quality of life for children who are blind or vision impaired, and to support them to achieve their full potential.

Initially, you may be wondering why your child has been referred for services from GDT or if you’ve done the right thing referring your own child to us. You may also be a little confused about the name of our organisation. Guide Dogs are a vital component of our services; however, they are also just the tip of the iceberg in relation to our services. GDT provides a broad range of services to children and adults with varying degrees of vision loss, including total blindness.

We are here to assist you to understand how you and your child may benefit from services from GDT. Of course, if you are interested in a Guide Dog, regardless of your child’s age, we can certainly discuss that with you too.

For babies and children with full sight, an enormous amount of learning occurs simply through observation in daily life. They learn incidentally about their world without the need for overt teaching or instruction. However, for a child with impaired vision, the opportunities for this type of incidental learning may be limited.

Challenges in daily life as a result of vision loss may include having trouble getting around safely (Mobility) or performing daily activities like putting toys away, brushing teeth or using a knife and fork (Life Skills). Regardless of the age of your baby or child, you may be concerned about how they are going to reach their normal developmental milestones and whether they will be able to participate in activities with family, peers, and later in life in the community.

Undoubtedly, you have many questions about the opportunities that your child may have and how you can parent a child with impaired vision to maximise their potential in all areas of life. In short, you don’t have to embark on this journey alone. Your child will most likely benefit from a range and different combination of services at different stages of their life, including those provided by GDT.

It is completely normal for parents of babies and children with impaired vision to feel overwhelmed with emotions and questions. These feelings may include; sadness, guilt, disbelief, confusion and anger. Questions such as ‘Why did this happen to us?’ and ‘What does this mean for my child’s future?’ are common, but often don’t have ready made answers.

Our staff will work with you and your child in those areas where help is needed to attain a developmental milestone or age appropriate skill, or where you would like them to be more independent. We all need assistance at times and our services can assist your child to develop practical skills, and in turn, enhance their sense of social and emotional wellbeing.

You may feel very isolated at times; like you are the only parent(s) of a child who is blind or vision impaired. We are here to assist you and to let you know that you are not alone. GDT can often link you with other families and services that can offer emotional support and practical advice.

Eye Conditions and Low Vision

So, what do we mean by the term ‘low vision’? A person is said to have low vision when their eyesight is limited or impaired and cannot be corrected with conventional glasses or contact lenses. They have a visual acuity of less than 6/18, or they have a visual field of less than 20 degrees across. People are not legally allowed to drive with these vision measurements. Vision tests are conducted by eye care specialists including optometrists, ophthalmologists and orthoptists.

GDT also provides services to people of all ages who have lost vision as a result of eye disease or trauma, acquired brain injury, and to those who have always been vision impaired due to congenital conditions or syndromes that cause multiple disabilities and/or health issues.

Do you know the name of your child’s vision condition? Are you comfortable explaining it to others? The names of some eye conditions are difficult to pronounce and you may be confused by the terminology used by your eye care specialists. Sometimes teachers and friends may have trouble understanding the impact of your child’s vision loss. GDT can help explain the eye condition to you and your child clearly and can provide links to relevant resources. Our services do not replace a consultation with your eye care specialist but we can assist parents to further understand the diagnosis and prognosis in preparation for the next visit to their eye care specialist.

As part of our services, your child may be referred to a Low Vision Clinic (LVC) in Hobart or Launceston. At the LVC, an optometrist experienced in assessing people who have eye conditions that cause low vision will assess the child’s ability to read and determine whether optical and/or video magnification aids could help them. This consultation should be in addition to regular visits to the child’s optometrist but will provide a valuable opportunity to find out about the eye condition diagnosis, strategies for improving lighting and reducing glare.

Adjusting to the feelings commonly associated with having a child with impaired vision can be an emotional and stressful process often made all the more difficult if the eye condition requires treatment/surgery that causes pain/discomfort for the child or if the condition is degenerative or hereditary. For various reasons, some parents may prefer not to admit that they have a child with vision impairment. They may fear their child being perceived as disabled, being bullied or being treated differently by their peers. Our staff can work through some of these issues with you if you would like them to.

Personal Information

Once your child has been referred to GDT, information about his/her vision and general health will be requested from the relevant health care providers. To enable this, we will ask you to sign and return an Information Release form.

Before services commence, reports will be requested from the optometrist, ophthalmologist and pediatrician. These reports assist our staff to attend to your child’s vision impairment needs within the context of their general health, development and well-being.

We understand that other health conditions and disabilities may impact on their vision loss and on the way they learn. All personal information about our clients is kept strictly private and confidential. Please refer to our Privacy and Confidentiality Policy if you require further information.

Assessing Your Child’s Needs

Once your referral has been processed and the relevant health reports are received you will be contacted to arrange an assessment interview with your child. One of our Low Vision specialists will visit you at home and talk with you about how your child’s vision impairment impacts on various aspects of their development and daily life; their ability to play, learn, develop and stay safe. You will be asked a range of questions, provided with further information about the services and shown some of the many aids that are available.

Following the initial interview, the specialist will work with you to develop an individually tailored program to suit the unique needs of your child and discuss the most appropriate location for these programs to be conducted. This may include any combination of services provided by GDT. It may also include onward referral to other community and government organisations.

Depending on your child’s age and the nature of their vision impairment, they may receive a few sessions over a few weeks to achieve a specific goal, or regular sessions for several months if required.

Clients usually revisit our services at different times throughout their lives and are often particularly important at times of transition (eg: a new school, moving house, attaining a developmental milestone). If you would like your partner, family members or others to attend the assessment/interview, we welcome their involvement.

If your child is school age, assessment and program delivery may also involve consultation with their class teacher(s), teacher aide, special learning needs coordinator or other therapy staff with whom they work.

Educating Others

GDT provides community and professional education to help others in the community learn about vision loss, low vision services and how to assist a person with low vision. GDT Client Services can talk with teachers, aids, child-care workers, sports coaches or anyone who works with your child about how to integrate your child into activities with their sighted peers. Our staff can provide both formal and informal training to these people to enable them to support you and your child appropriately.