Interview with Harrison F. Carter
St. Vincent’s Teacher Working with Visually Impaired Children
If you’ve had a chance to read our EOE School of Rock article you know that St. Vincent’s, a specialist school serving students with sensory impairment and other unique needs, is very near and dear to our hearts here at Create Change. We recently had an opportunity to interview one of their teachers, Harrison F. Carter, who for twelve years has worked with children with blindness and visual impairment. The insights he shared about his experience working with his students were uplifting, heartbreaking, educational and, ultimately, inspiring.
An avid traveler and published author (his novel, The Roots of Elmore’s Existence is available via many online booksellers) Harrison says that working with visually impaired students has evolved into areas and directions that he could never have conceived of upon first starting out. As he says, “I love that about life. The unknown path that can result from heading in a particular direction”, which was a great starting point for our interview.
Is working with visually impaired students a vocation you intentionally studied for or is it an opportunity that unexpectedly fell into your lap?
I grew up directly over the road from the school for the blind and, from the age of five-years-old, always had an awareness of it. Of course, I never guessed that I would work there one day. I like that about life – unpredictability – and the subsequent retrospective understanding that results from wherever a person finds their future self. I understand that it is good to have a plan sometimes, but I also like a touch of chaos and often marvel at the seeming serendipity of what transpires.
My current position in the field of visual impairment (V.I.) came about through an unexpected opportunity to undertake a professional qualification that I studied for. I teach a subject called Mobility and Orientation, which I believe, if I am correct, was a skill-set that was founded and developed in the USA after World War II, when so many veterans returned home blinded and struggling to fit back into their former ‘sighted’ existence. It’s a wonderful subject – essential and paramount to the ability of a V.I. person to adapt to the sighted world around them. Every lesson, every child, every day is different – and rewarding.
In essence, Mobility is about finding and teaching adaptive ways of undertaking all of the same activities that we take for granted as sighted people. This means teaching a visually impaired person how to travel safely and efficiently indoors, initially, and learning how to build a ‘route memory’ of the interior layout of a building, whilst keeping oneself safe. Over time, outdoor travel skills are developed – building comfort and confidence in getting used to an intense, dynamic and sometimes intimidating environment. Here, we teach a person how to use the environment to navigate safely, using a long white cane to follow a line of travel (such as a wall or curbside) – developing skills for crossing roads safely and discovering ‘landmarks’ such as lamp posts or mailboxes that can be used to signal where to turn, aiding in orientation. These skills all form part of helping a V.I. person to learn a specific route, with the objective of eventually doing so independently.
Other skills include the use of the supermarkets, money handling, communication, cafe skills, bus and train travel, city centre travel, using an escalator and so on. Effectively anything becomes a skill and an experience to be acquired. I hold much love for this subject. I love its one-to-one nature; that its success is dependent upon trust and developing strong and positive relationships. Being a fan of a bit of chaos, I also like to include as much fun as possible in my teaching and find this benefits the learning and the experience of my students in many ways. It is a very rewarding profession – to see children grow in confidence – to become adults, and to have helped them to develop skills that will serve them for their lives ahead.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you when working with these children?
I think the biggest surprise about working with the children has not been the abilities of the children – as one might expect. I knew that they would be amazing! However, something that has surprised me has been the assortment of reactions of the general public to the visually impaired children when I am working with them out and about in the community.
In school, it is a very protected, contained and safe environment – really quite lovely, but not necessarily a representation of the real world. I often think, ‘if only it were’. Teaching the subject I do, I am outdoors every hour of the working day in a range of different environments and some of the reactions of the public I’ve observed have included people bursting into tears at the sight of a blind child walking with their long cane, and telling me what a shame it is and how awful it is. Treating everyone as equal as I do, I find this surprising and disappointing; I don’t think it’s appropriate or sensitive to the young person I’m with. I know my students do not want pity. They want acceptance and equality – to be treated like any other person.
In another instance, an old lady spotted us working and stepped directly in front of the child I was teaching. She kissed him on the forehead without even speaking to him or introducing herself or alerting him to her presence. He had no idea what had just happened. He thought it was funny, but another child might not have. Again, it’s not an appropriate reaction and some people seem to forget about normal social etiquettes.
I also see a lot of discomfort in people in having to ‘deal with’ a blind person, and they will often try to direct conversation to me rather than the child that might be ordering a drink or paying for a bus ticket. In such instances, I step back and advise them to have the exchange with the person that they should be having it with. Afterwards, I explain to my students what was happening so they can understand and perhaps take control of the situation for themselves.
I always hope that perceptions and attitudes of people will change when they see there is, of course, no need to behave any differently around a visually impaired person, except perhaps to have a little more awareness and understanding of what might make a transaction or exchange a little easier. In the worst of instances, and this staggers me, I am sad to report the cruelty of some people; calling names, trying to scare my students by beeping their car horn to frighten them. It’s horrid. So, to refer back to what my biggest surprise has been, my answer is people – who will never cease to surprise me – more often for good, but sadly, not always.
What’s been the biggest challenge working with visually impaired students?
Fortunately, I don’t have many challenges in my line of work. My students all love their Mobility lessons. I can however recount one instance, but it wasn’t really a challenge to me. It was actually something I greatly enjoyed. I once worked with a boy who had a real aversion to going outside. He hated it and would get agitated and irritable at having to go on routes with me. He couldn’t abide the wind and rain or the noise of traffic – he just didn’t like it, which made some of his lessons somewhat unsuccessful.
Over time I built a relationship with him and found out about his interests, discovering that he loved to build – to create. So, I set him a task to build a little model house using some ‘reward time’ at the end of each of his Mobility lessons. During his lessons, we would go on walks and practice the necessary skills, experiencing the world, but then we’d collect sticks and materials on our way back to school, which we would then saw and screw together. We did this, building a model over a period of months. He loved the project and, with time and experience, grew to accept that going outdoors was of course necessary and not as intimidating as he had convinced himself it was – and that it could in fact add value to the pursuit of his interests.
He has matured enormously now and as an eighteen-years-old he travels outdoors calmly and successfully. I like this little example of the importance of getting to know an individual – of thinking creatively and utilizing creative solutions.
What’s been the most rewarding part of this experience for you?
The most rewarding part of my experience is quite simple – working with young people – getting to know them and developing positive relationships that are based on trust and a shared sense of fun. Seeing my students grow, developing skills, confidence, character and resolve is wonderful, and I love this about the life I have for three days a week. This is, of course, not unique only to working with visually impaired people. Working with all children is amazing – as I find in my other line of work – my own business, delivering creative writing projects to children and young people in mainstream schools.
What would you say to other people who are interested in working with visually impaired people, but who feel they may not have “what it takes” to make a difference?
To make a difference, all a person has to do is ‘care’. In my contemplation of this notion, I reasoned that to care is probably the most fundamental and defining attribute that exists in nature; it is built into the genetic programming of almost all living things – without the ability to care, species wouldn’t exist. It is built in to most living things to care for their young, their pride, their herd etc. As people, most of us care for somebody, or something, and I consider this capacity to care to be the most important quality in a person – generally – and not just in terms of working with a person with a visual impairment.
To speak specifically about working with children with visual impairments, it is my experience that not all people can work with visually impaired people. For some, their empathy and awareness is not sufficient. Their level of care is not there and the position is ‘just a job’ to them. In other people, they may actually ‘feel’ too much and can be consumed by sadness for the V.I. child. This prevents them from being able to work effectively with them, or leads them to smother and over-protect the child from necessary learning experiences and opportunities. I have seen both types of people many times – it is the nature of life; of people.
There will always be things that each of us knows deep within that we can or cannot do ourselves – which is why it is important to recognise all individual abilities, proclivities and contributions. This is what a successful and functioning society is dependent upon – having people that are willing to undertake all kinds of jobs and roles, and always valuing each others’ positions and efforts, whatever they are.
I think it’s important for people to find out for themselves what they are capable of doing with their lives, and how they are going to contribute to society. I think the most important thing is to try different things, to volunteer, to experience, to have an open mind, to act with compassion, and to then make a decision about the suitability of a potential job.
What’s something that I should have asked you about your experience that I didn’t?
One additional issue I would like to raise – as it is something that I do think and worry about – is that of visually impaired people over the age of eighteen – those who have left school.
Schools create some fantastic opportunities for children, and this is wonderful. Everybody loves to promote and celebrate the achievements of children, but what about when they leave school and enter mainstream society? In the United Kingdom, approximately 85 percent of V.I. people will be unemployed, and often have very limited friendship groups.
It is very easy and natural for people to find compassion for children, and the rewards of helping them are very direct and frequently celebrated, but I think we also need to consider their lives after they have left school. There seems to follow a tangible loss of interest in the wellbeing of a V.I. person, in supporting and encouraging them. There is a critical lack of opportunities – and a potential for social isolation, which becomes considerable.
It is sad to reflect that the same care is not given to an individual once they reach adulthood, yet their need, their hope and potential remains the same. It is almost as though the rewards of working with them are not the same, which brings into question motive. It feels to me that this needs to be addressed. I have some ideas to help, but essentially what is required is a shift in the narrative of those that we choose to help and a much wider spread effort across the whole of society.