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Vision on competencies: Preparation for employment for visually impaired pupils with learning difficulties


Topic: New Service Models

Hans Schuman

Ronald van Leeuwen


The research literature is very specific about the position on the labour market of people with an impairment or other disadvantages:

Three-quarters of the people with a handicap depend on basic social security benefits for the majority of their income, (Berthoud et al., 1993 p. 3), and:

Less than a third have a job (ibid. p. 17).

McBroom provides evidence of this problem with regard to visual impaired people when he writes:

Although they (workers with a visual impairment) rank higher than sighted workers on a number of positive measures and most accommodations cost little or nothing to provide, in general, this group is unemployed, underemployed and under utilised (McBroom, Technical Report, 1995 p. 3).

Rumrill and Scheff reach the same conclusion when they argue that:

Despite advances in medical and assistive technology, disability-specific federal initiatives, and the civil rights tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, persons with visual impairments are unemployed and underemployed at rates much higher than those for many other disability groups…… People who are visually impaired must do a better job of advocating for themselves in the employment arena (Rumrill and Scheff, 1997 p. 465).

In the Netherlands we experience that the same outcomes apply to the Dutch situation. We also witness that the perspectives of pupils with a visual impairment and with learning difficulties are worse.

Aims of our Preparation for Employment Project (PEP)

·       Developing a coherent whole school approach with regard to the preparation for employment of our pupils with a visual impairment, learning difficulties and additional educational needs.

·       Developing an evaluation instrument for the teachers which tells them whether the newly developed practices do what they promise to do: support pupils to acquire meaningful and functional knowledge, skills and attitudes which promote their chances to success during their vocational training and for future employment. Put in another way: Can we assess the acquisition of new skills with our pupils?

Developing a whole school approach

After intense discussions and several study days we agreed that we value the education of our pupils as a collaborative, but difficult process, with no straightforward answers. An educational process of which the student is the rightful owner.

We believe that:

Each individual has unique characteristics that differentiate him or her from every other person. These characteristics may include a disability, but certainly also include many other significant gifts, talents, strengths, interests and values (Callahan and Bradley Garner, 1997 p. 21).

Our starting point is a view of teachers as practitioners who are capable of implementing very new and innovative programmes and activities within their existing practice.

We also believe teachers are accountable for the quality of the teaching they provide to all pupils. Pupils and their parents /caretakers and teachers are partners in this educational experiment. We believe that one of the teachers’ main tasks in this process is to nurture their pupils’ self-esteem. We agree with Bruner that:

Any system of education, any theory of pedagogy, any grand national policy that diminishes the school's role in nurturing its pupils self-esteem fails at one of its primary functions (Bruner, 1996 p. 38).

New perceptions and innovative practices

The Preparation for Employment Project had been developed to improve the transition of visually impaired pupils with learning difficulties and additional educational needs from school to various forms of labour. Corbett and Barton warn us of the difficulties involved, because of the

painful gap which exists between the aspirations of the pupils and the actual choices available to them (Corbett and Barton, 1992, p. 47).

An essential part of this project will be the constant search for new innovative practices to enhance the number of student choices. These innovative practices should provide our pupils with opportunities for:

decision-making, self-advocacy and the freedom for adolescent behaviour (Corbett and Barton, 1992, p. 52).

Teachers, parents and pupils should learn to focus on pupils’ possibilities, opportunities and preferences rather than fixate on their deficiencies. They all should view the curriculum as a means to emancipation and empowerment that enhances their participation and inclusion.

These opportunities are elements of the empowering curriculum, advocated by Griffiths (ibid.), which operates close to the realities of the outside world.

The PEP programme in practice

The pupils, preparing themselves for a work experience placement, carry out activities and are engaged in functional tasks within the school which will support successful practical and vocational training outside the school and which will enhance their chances of finding employment in the future.

The basis for these activities and functional tasks is the notion that:

within our society work is not only the central means by which people earn a living, but also an identity-shaping process (Bates, 1998, p. 50).

In our Preparation for Employment Project we use the term 'vocational' in the broad sense that Elliott uses it:

A form of work, for which one may or may not receive payment, but which evokes an enduring commitment and interest as a vehicle for developing one's talents (Elliott, 1998 p. 144).

We focus on functional practices which need to be carried out if life in school is going to run smoothly, or which are executed in the same way they are in, for example, restaurants (which applies to our catering service) or small-scale workshops (which applies to our production line) or in horticulture (which applies for our gardening project, Schuman, 1998).

The next step of this process of preparation for employment will be practical (vocational) training and a work experience placement in other sections of our institute or with an external employer. The final step will be applying for a job, supported where necessary by the co-ordinator for work experience placements.

Our activities are chosen for their potential to systematically influence, train and develop the potential of our pupils for work and for living in the community. This means that the Preparation for Employment Project provides flexible educational routes (tailored to the needs, potential and wishes of each student) that are integrated with student counselling, careers guidance, work experience placements, practical training, individual education profiles and, inevitably, with other areas of the curriculum.

Outcomes of PEP

This project should empower the pupils to participate in society at large and to gain access to employment. We agree with Corbett and Barton (1992) when they say that being employed is an indicator of the reality of a successful transition to adulthood.

But, in our opinion, we should be clear about the difficulties and controversies the pupils are likely to experience, because we agree with Corbett and Barton that any programme of transition to adulthood which fails to acknowledge the impact of external forces (p. 37) and which views the individual with an impairment as in control of the situation may become in itself a means of oppression.

For this project, we feel it is very important to realise that our pupils’ acquisition of skills and attitudes will not be sufficient to overcome the inequalities and difficulties they will experience due to their social and economical marginalisation.

This may also mean that the pupils, engaged in real training for real jobs are seriously confronted with their impairment and with their limitations and that they are forced to readjust their preferences, wishes and aspirations for the future.

We believe that they are entitled to these experiences because we feel that part of everyone’s transition to adulthood involves engagement in painful, stressing, confronting and disappointing experiences related to choice, aspirations, perspectives and life-course.

The past three years we have witnessed a growing number of our pupils entering regular jobs. For others sheltered workshops prove to be in their best interest for the moment. But Bartiméus keeps an open eye for these employees to enrol in regular jobs with the assistance of its division for supported employment.

Personal and vocational skills

Our pupils are encouraged to formulate their own learning goals and to link these learning goals to their aspirations for work and the field of work they would like to be in. Acquiring self-advocacy skills is crucial for our pupils, because they are likely to experience prejudice and patronising attitudes. The pupils themselves are encouraged to play an active role in establishing their unique educational profile. We encourage them to make use of role models and use their experiences.

Dutch employees with a visual impairment said that to perform successfully in their jobs they needed to:

Be more persistent.

Be more ingenious and imaginative.

Be more orderly.

Be able to organise their own work better.

Show more initiative.

(Vlaskamp and Beks, 1989).

These employees also said that they experience problems:

When they have to deal with conflict situations.

When they have to organise work for other employees.

When they need to take care of other people.

When they are obliged to work in an orderly fashion.

When the job demands that they proceed tactfully

When the job context is not to some extent predictable.

(Vlaskamp and Beks, 1989).

In the development of our programmes and activities we take into account such research outcomes and we translate the experiences of former pupils back into the curriculum. We stimulate the pupils to deal adequately with questions like:

In which setting am I likely to be successful?

What adaptations are required specifically for me?

What support services should be provided to maximise my chances of success?

From recent literature a clear picture emerges which shows that employers put great emphasis on generic skills (den Boer et al., 1998; Stasz, 1997). Motivation, loyalty, getting along with fellow workers, work attitude and fitting in with the culture of the workplace are especially highly ranked. Social-communication skills (verbal expression!) and trainability are also very important attributes in an applicant.

These findings stress the importance of trainability (especially willingness to learn!), independence and the desirability of support long after they first set foot in the labour market. From our experiences a lot of effort needs to be put into securing long-term employment for school leavers.

This requires a commitment to back-up from specialised organisations that are familiar with the target group and have the latest information on new developments in the labour market and on innovative and supportive technology and aids.

On the basis of our research (Schuman, 2000) we are working in PEP with the following classification of skills:

            Generic skills

Social and communication skills.
Problem-solving skills.
Personal identity expression skills.
General knowledge about the world of work.
General knowledge about the culture and the society in which one lives.

Professional and technological knowledge.

Technical or instrumental skills.

Physical skills.

If we contrast these skills with the three basic limitations of a visual impairment Lowenfeld presented we are able to discover where difficulties may occur.

Lowenfeld said that due to a visual impairment people will experience difficulties with regard to:

The range and variety of their experiences.

The ability to get about.

The level of control of the environment and the self in relation to it (Lowenfeld, 1983 p. 68).

Within PEP we try to support pupils to acquire the skills which will help them to cope adequately and actively with these limitations in their future jobs and lives. The evaluation instruments we developed provide teachers and pupils with relevant information as to what extent the pupil has mastered the specified skills. It also provide rich opportunities for critical reflection and discussion, because of different judgements pupils and teachers may make. Examples of the evaluation instrument are presented in appendices.

Hans Schuman, MA

Teamleader unit for secondary education

Ronald van Leeuwen

Co-ordinator work experience placements

Bartiméus Education, Zeist, the Netherlands.



Bates, Inge. (1998) The empowerment dimension in the GNVQ: a critical exploration of discourse, pedagogic apparatus and school implementation. From: Evaluation and Research in Education, Vol. 12, no. 1, 1998 pp. 7 - 22.

Boer, P den. (1998) Vaardigheden met Perspectief? Een onderzoek naar de vaardigheden die van belang zijn voor de arbeidsmarktpositie van laagopgeleiden. Den Haag: SDU. 125 pages. OSA werkdocument W158.

Bruner, Jerome. (1996) The culture of education. London: Harvard University Press. 224 pages. ISBN 0 674 17953 6.

Callahan, Michael J. and Bradley Garner, J. (1997) Keys to the workplace. Skills and supports for people with disabilities. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. ISBN 1 55766 276 2.

Corbett, Jenny and Barton, Len. (1992) A struggle for choice, pupils with special educational needs in transition to adulthood. London: Routledge. ISBN 0 415 08001 0.

Elliott, John. (1998) The curriculum experiment: meeting the challenge of social change. Buckingham: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-19429-X.

Lowenfeld, B. (1983) Bertold Lowenfeld on blindness and blind people. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, Inc.

Rumrill, P.D and Scheff, C.M. (1997) Impact of the ADA on the employment and promotion of persons who are visually impaired. From: Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, September - October 1997, pp. 460 - 466.

Schuman, Hans. (1998) Gardening within arm’s reach. Zeist: Bartiméus. ISBN 90 71534 29 4

Schuman, Hans. (2000) Vision on competencies-Bridging the gap. Zeist: Bartiméus.
ISBN 90 71534 29 4.

Stasz, Cathleen. (1997) Do employers need the skills they want? Evidence from technical work. From: Journal of Education and Work, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1997.

Vlaskamp, F.J.M. and Beks, M.C.M. (1989) Beroepen voor blinden en slechtzienden. Hoensbroek: Instituut voor Revalidatie Vraagstukken.

Appendices: examples of evaluation forms


Preparation for Employment Project

Pupil appreciation of the programme


Name of pupil





Date of birth









Braille/large print



Name of job coach



  1. Which part of the job do you like most?
  2. Why do you especially like this part of the job?
  3. Which part of the job don’t you like?
  4. Why don’t you like this part of the job?
  5. Are there any other activities or duties that you would like to do as part of the Preparation for Employment Project? Can you name them?
  6. Would you like to do this work as a regular job in the future? Can you give reasons why            you would or would not like to?
  7. Do you find that your visual impairment interferes with the way in which you do your work? Please explain!
  8. What do you think are your strong points in relation to work?
  9. What do you think are your weaker points in relation to work?
  10. Do you like to work on your own or do you like to co-operate with others? Please explain!
  11. Which behaviour of fellow pupils do you find it difficult to cope with? Why is this?
  12. Which people do you find it easy to work with? What characteristics do they possess?
  13. How do you respond when you disagree with something or someone?
  14. What do you think of the coaching during the activities? In what ways can we improve the coaching?
  15. What do you think of as important aspects to focus on for the next period? What would you like to improve or achieve? What would you like to learn?
  16. Are there any other points you would like to make?

Preparation for Employment Project

Pupil self-evaluation

Generic skills


Name of pupil






Date of birth









Braille/large print



Name of job coach





How do you evaluate yourself?

( + , 0 , - )


Do you think your visual impairment affects the outcome?

( + , 0 , - )


Do you think you can train yourself in this aspect?

( + , 0 , - )







Are you motivated to do this kind of work?





Would you like to do these activities as a job?





Attitude to work





Accuracy of your work





Co-operation with others










Do you carry out orders effectively?





Do you follow the instructions you have been given?





Talking, writing and contacts





Are you able to discuss matters when they bother you?





Can you write down your opinion?





How do you judge your contact with fellow pupils?





How do you judge your contact with the teachers?





Are you able to perform well under stressful conditions?





How do you judge your external care?





Understanding and use of equipment





Do you think you understand the activities you are supposed to carry out?





Do you make use of the equipment in a skilful and fluent way?







How do you evaluate yourself?

( + , 0 , - )


Do you think your visual impairment affects the outcome?

( + , 0 , - )


Do you think you can train yourself in this aspect?

( + , 0 , - )


Orientation, mobility and effort





How do you judge your orientation and mobility skills in the workplace?





Do you consider the work strenuous?





Working independently





When you encounter problems in the workplace, can you solve them independently?





How do you judge the organisation of your work?





How do you judge your ability to take the initiative?





How do you judge your independence at work?





Do you take responsibility for your own work?





Do you take responsibility for the group’s work?





Other aspects





How do you judge your coping with your visual impairment?





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