They see in black and white without realizing how colorful the world actually is. They don’t know what’s drawn on books and what they’re about to bump into. Even so, they laugh and have fun like any other kids because they’re not aware of their blindness.
However, how will these adorable and innocent children full of curiosity change once they start to understand the world a little bit more and notice they are slightly different from others? Would you be able to answer them if they asked you why they can’t see the world like other children?
Some of these children aren’t completely blind. They can distinguish color but only if they see it right before their eyes. These children started attending a special kindergarten for visually impaired children, Narnii Khaan Khuukhduud (Sun King Kids), which was established in 2015 under the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind. The kindergarten is situated on the first floor of Ulaanbaatar’s first apartment for the blind and visually impaired in Bayangol District.
The classroom that was originally an apartment was painted with bright colors on the walls and filled with laughter. A child came rushing to the sound of a person entering and asked “What is this?” while pointing to an illustration book he was holding. His name is B.Ulziitogtokh. He’s four years old and was born blind but he is a keen learner who is always smiling and feeling textures of objects, according to his teacher A.Lkhagvasuren.
8 children per teacher
There are only two special kindergartens for children with visual impairment and blindness in Mongolia. One of them is Sun King Kids. The kindergarten currently has 15 children who all have different levels of visual loss. Six of the children are completely blind, five can sense light, and the rest have moderate visual loss.
Teachers are required to determine their individual levels of visual loss and their proximity sensing ability first so that they can provide the assistance children need. To do so, teachers have to work closely with each child but this becomes a difficult process with the shortage of specialized teachers.
Teaching a child with disabilities is said to be as hard as teaching 10 ordinary children. Fortunately, Sun King Kids kindergarten was able to hire nine teachers this year, but in the past, teachers had to handle seven to eight children each. In developed countries, special teachers are hired to work one-on-one with children with special education needs. However, this is not possible in Mongolia due to financial problems, as well as the lack of teaching materials.
Teacher A.Lkhagvasuren graduated from the Institute of Pre-School Education as a methodologist teacher. She said most teachers trained to work with children with special needs rarely work in their area of expertise and don’t have guidebooks for reference. She also talked about her wishes to study practices of foreign kindergartens and schools with special curriculum for disabled children so that she can interact better with these children. However, she doesn’t know who or which organization to approach.
No curriculum for kindergarteners with visual loss
The biggest challenge for these teachers is not having a curriculum for children with disabilities, especially for children of kindergarten age.
Up to 90 percent of the information transmitted to the human brain is visual. As these children can’t see or get as much visual information as other kids, Sun Kings Kids teachers created a curriculum that focuses on developing children’s speech, listening, and sensing skills so that they can take care of themselves in the future.
A.Lkhagvasuren said that they teach children to eat on their own and develop a better sense of proximity.
Four-year-old B.Ulziitogtokh demonstrated the effectiveness of the curriculum by placing chess pieces on a chess board only using his sense of touch. He was able to correctly name all the pieces.
Afterward, he went to get an illustration book from a bookshelf while he sang “Maamuu Naash Ir” nursery rhyme. He felt the shape of animals with his fingers and managed to name them correctly. Then, he went to a toy room and put a small toy on his ear. Apparently, most of the toys in the kindergarten make noises so that children with visual impairment can differentiate them. These toys improve their, according to assistant teacher Kh.Delgermurun.
Teachers stated that they have to cover their operating costs on their own as the state only provides a small amount of funds to be used for the children’s basic needs. Kh.Delgermurun said that the kindergarten was able to buy a few toys thanks to generous donations from people.
According to a survey conducted two years ago, only three to four percent of children with visual impairment attended kindergarten. At the time, teachers stressed that they lack toys and special devices for disabled children. While ordinary children can recognize drawings on paper, visually impaired and blind children need to feel items to recognize what they are. This means that they need more materialistic things to improve their cognitive skills.
Parents need to motivate children to become independent
Teachers mentioned that some parents are scared to even put their child on the ground and advised them not to because children need to touch and feel things to be able to learn and adapt to their surroundings.
According to A.Lkhagvasuren, some of the children could not eat on their own at first. This might show how much parents care for their child from one side but from another side, it increases their dependency on others and prevents them from being able to do things independently in the future. She advised parents to encourage and motivate their children to do things on their own as much as possible from an early age.
In need of bigger classrooms
Visually impaired and blind children need at least six square meters of open space to walk around, according to standards. However, Sun Kings Kids fail to meet this standard.
Not only does it not have enough walking space but also doesn’t have room for more children. Due to their visual loss, children have limited physical ability and need to exercise regularly, as mentioned by teachers.
The kindergarten also lacks a room for physical education due to financial problems. If the kindergarten is expanded, many more children will be able to get the help they need, stress teachers.
Education for visually impaired and blind children is vital as they can’t be constantly cared for. Hence, the education sector needs to pay more attention to providing more inclusive education and improving the teaching and learning environment for these children so that they can start to take care of themselves at a young age.
This article was originally published in Mongolian in Zuunii Medee