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Liberating blind and visually impaired children through dance. The development of a method in special needs education.

Focus: School years

Topic: Living Skills

Kjersti Engebrigtsen

Choreographer/Teacher in Special Needs Education

Rosenhoffgt.11

0569 Oslo Norway

22383092

kjereng@tiscali.no

Introduction

My interest in the human body is due to my background as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. Fifteen years ago I realised that one of my dance students was blind. This proved an interesting challenge and I kept on working with movement for blind adults until I started at the Institute of Special Needs Education at The University of Oslo in 95. As part of my studies I had been observing a congenitally blind child and I noticed some characteristics: She had a hard time letting go of her weight and enganging in spontaneously play. She was mostly concerned with grown-ups and played by the use of words. Her body was inactive. It seemed to me that her ”experience poverty” (as Selma Fraiberg put it) caused this limitation.

The investigation

I wanted to introduce movement and dance to blind children. I hoped that by intervening at an early stage I would be able to prevent some of the mobility problems I had observed when I was working with blind adults. In august 98 I gathered a group of blind 7-10 year old children together with assistants and a musician. The dancing went on for an hour and a half, once a week for a whole year. I got financial support from the Norwegian Foundation for the Blind. This project is the basis of my master´s thesis.

The children

The congenitally blind child whom I had observed became my case- study. The other informants were a boy who had just recently become blind and a visually impaired girl 6/60. None of these had any physical handicaps as I assumed this could complicate the development of a method at the time. I tend to use the word blind throughout this paper because it was the focus of my attention at the time and most of my work concerns blind people. This work however is relevant to visually impaired children and can be adapted to children with physical handicaps.

The dance course

The dancing included rhythm- training, instrumental training, singing accompanied with movement, body awareness work, contact-improvisation, expression work and all kinds of improvisation with music. Contact- improvisation is a partner-work where the weight between the two close moving partners initiate the movement. The general idea was to give the children basic movement experience and knowledge about the variety of movement possibilities, means of expression and qualities of movement. The element of play linked the diverse activities.

Problems

The consequences of blindness can be summed up in three main categories of problems. The first category concerns the consequences of blindness and manifests itself in stiffness and physical pains. The blind often lack the opportunity to experience and make use of their physical resources. This can cause problems concerning balance and co-ordination.The second concerns the problems of communication between the blind and the sighted. As necessary signals for communication are neither sent nor received, the blind will have difficulties understanding and making himself understood. This can lead to isolation.

The third area of problems, which is closely connected to the former, concerns the world of concepts and is especially prominent among the congenitally blind. As you all know these children are often delayed in their physical development in their first critical years and this can cause severe restrictions in experience compared to their sighted friends.

Concepts

I chose three concepts as tools for my analysis. The first was grounding. I refer to this as the capacity to let go of the weight. The second, variation or nyances was chosen as a tool to depict the changes of expression often due to change in the use of the different parts of the body. The third concept chosen was initiative by which I mean: signs revealing the desire to take part. 

Information

I had introduced contact-improvisation to adult blind students and they had given me their comments. I had two interviews, one with a swedish colleague who was blind and one with Steve Paxton- a well known dancer/ choreographer from the states who had worked with adult blind people. My observations of the children included field-notes and videos from three different occasions in the first term and one by the end of the second term. I had arranged group interviews with the parents at these same intervals. These turned out therapeutic as well, the parents felt great relief in being able to meet and talk about their dare ones. I asked them how their children related to their own bodies, about their social relations, and about their reaction to touch.

Sources

A wide range of fields inspired me. The psychologist David Warren from the field of the blind, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the dance-therapist Norma Canner, the physiotherapist Veronica Sherbourne and the psychologist Per Lorentzen from the research of the death-blind among others.

My own experience of being a totality has enabled me to survive mentally and physically. This is why dancing in it-self is the most basic source of this work. Being able to listen to your body is essential for everyone and for the blind in particular. It can give them a tool to master their existence. This is important knowing how dependent they often are of their sighted friends in everyday matters. I once interviewed a blind young man who told me his father had taught him how to wave good-by. When I left he waved his right hand and asked me whether he did it right. Another aspect of dancing is that it includes the whole of you. It is often said that the blind understand in sequences- by touching one thing at a time. Dancing on the contrary is a simultaneous experience. In “Molley Sweeny” a theatre play by Bryan Friel 1994. “ Frank” finds out the best way to get to know the blind woman “Molley” is to ask her for a dance and exclaims: Forget about space and distance, who is close and who is far away. Forget about the time it takes- this is not a sequence of events- it is a wonderful coherent experience.

In the end of the first term the work changed. I had started focusing on my teaching. I had concentrated on grounding, then on the diversity of expression and had decided to analyse initiative at the end. Initiative however, proved essential and this made me focus on early intervention.

Differentiation

The differences among the children became more evident as I came closer. I therefore decided to change the structure in the end of the course. It became evident that each child would profit from working with a regular adult for 10-20 minutes every time.

Gender

The intimate way of teaching these children demand that special attention is given to the relation between the children and their companions. In this special occasion two of my informants came from immigrant families and were not familiar to our nowegian ways of relating to the other sex. I noticed in the beginning that the boy was eager to play with the musician who was the only man in our group. I therefore chose a masculine assistant for him during the spring term. I became the regular companion for my case study and my female assistant accompanied the third girl. We talked about the gender issue with the children and respected their attitudes.

 

Motivation

In the interview with my swedish colleague he made a point of the fact that the pupil had to understand that it was he who was training. In the beginning of the first term this became present in my thoughts. Reading about the death- blind and my own reflections brought about a change of direction. I was not satisfied. I could observe that my case- study was “behaving well”. She did what she was told. But my concern was. What did she want? What occupied here thoughts?  How could she become involved?

Blind model

I thought of talking to them about their visual impairment. I invited a former pupil who was blind in an attempt to make them identify with their situation. She took part the last four sessions. Her comments helped me understand the children and I observed a special intensity among the children during these sessions.

Structure

In the beginning of the second term the children started opposing to the body awareness exercises- they said they were boring. They wanted to enjoy themselves. The work changed as the children became involved. An essential point for me was that the structure should be predictable. I repeated the same structure with great freedom in the beginning of each session, and with use of the whole space. Then we moved into a small circle, after that we used the whole space again and finished in the small circle. This structure loosened, however as the children became more secure.

Attention

Once in the beginning of the second term my case-study was the only child present. When I asked what she felt about it, she replied: “It was fun because I had all the adults for myself”. She needed the attention from all of us. The more eyes mirroring her, the happier she felt. In this case she could not see us, but she could feel us. I wondered whether she was interested in the other children at all or whether she had enough taking care of herself. The need for attention became evident during the two gatherings at the end of each term. There were a lot of people present and she did not get enough attention, she curled up in her foetus position. The same happened when too many things were going on at once. She lost the sense of control and became passive. Once in the beginning of the second term I had allowed her gym- teacher to take part. She arrived with a firm grip of the childs hand. I explained that we used to let her move around on her own, in vain.The same occurred when she brought some of her friends from school. She clung to them, turned into her dependency immediately. She became invisible and let her friend take over the responsibility.

Listening

How could she possibly manage to take any initiative when everything was done for here? How could she experience the stillness- emptiness - get the opportunity to listen to her own inner self? The swedish psychologist Birgitta Zenker writes (greatly inspired by Winnicott: ”The capacity to be alone”): that through listening to your own inner self, the inner signals become more precise and are experienced as the childs genuine signals. This strengthens the self  by the fact that both feelings and impulses become more distinct and more varied. During the two final sessions I introduced 15 minutes of stillness for the children to concentrate on their own bodies and their own world as i put it. At first it seemed very hard, but when they got another chance they managed to concentrate and listen to themselves.

Results

The result of the analysis was positive. As I withdrew my case- study became the centre of attention. We observed a development in all aspects simultaneously. By the end of the second term one could hardly distinguish any one of the three concepts (mention) from the other. She let go of her weight, her language of expression was diverse and she was involved. Her mother told us that she was more active at home, that she had the courage to stay under water and that she had been horse- riding for the first time. In my paper I used the image of the sleeping beauty. I wrote: The congenitally blind child seemed in a deep sleep. Her body lay dormant. It woke up slowly and liberated itself in all its simplicity. 

Conclusion

I would suggest that such a method should be built on basic principles from early intervention and special education mixed with experience and competence from the field of dance. One should stress the importance of the childrens bodily experience, not the manipulation of objects. The child should be close to the regular adult physically and to the other children. The adult should act as a companion eager to help the children relating to each other. Music, song, dance, listening and playing instruments - should be endeavoured all at once.

Last and foremost - there should be enough time. Enough time for every one, for each session, enough time for the course. A year is not enough. Given a solid compensation for their loss from early age on followed into school years these children can become active and independent instead of ” well behaving” and dependant.

Last year I was working with a congenitally blind 11 year old girl in an ordinary school. When I introduced this work to her, she cried out:” What is all this fuss about the body? I have no body. At least it is not mine. And why do the arms sit here? Why not one in front and one behind.”

Sighted people say they become aware of their bodies only when they get ill or brake a leg- when the body doesn´t function. This young child however, tells us another story. The opposite one. Her body is in the way all the time because nobody has helped her to get familiar with it, to learn how to use it. My hope for the future of these children is that the school will take their bodies into account.


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