Each year as school progresses, questions are directed to schools, various resource agencies, and advocacy groups about the student who is blind or has low vision (BLV) but also exhibits behaviors and skills that are seen in students who are gifted and talented. The questions come from parents, teachers of students with visual impairment (TSVI) and coordinators of programs for the gifted and talented in local school districts. Unfortunately, little data or research studies are available that explore these topics through research. The limited data available stress that students with BLV and giftedness likely occur at the same rate as in the sighted population, i.e. approximately 5-10%, but that few of these students are actually identified. Even fewer are ever enrolled in gifted and talented programs. These students typically remain in the general education classrooms or in more segregated settings such as residential schools or self-contained classrooms. For some students this may be the best solution at the time as they learn disability-specific skills, but many students would benefit from the stimulation of a more advanced curriculum and opportunities to interact with peers at a same ability level.
The decision to move a student into a gifted and talented program must be made after considering the individual strengths and needs of any student. For the student with BLV, it is likely a decision that will require advocacy from parents and TSVI. It is important that the decision be made after looking at the individual GT program and after appropriate accommodations are made on the assessment process. Often it is a decision that it easily made, but on other occasions, it may require more careful thought. The following factors are often helpful to consider in making this decision to pursue enrollment in the GT programs. As with all educational decisions, parents and TSVI need to consider both the needs of each individual student, personality traits, and the actual programs offered. Hopefully these questions will help in this process.
What characteristics would suggest that my child is gifted and/or talented?
There are many sources that discuss what characteristics are important in this consideration. Many of the characteristics that are most frequently seen are similar between students with vision and students with BLV. There will be some differences because of the lack of vision, but many of the personality traits seem to be the same. Each of these students are eager to learn about new concepts or areas of interest. These topics are usually related to the real-world and show an attempt to “make sense” out of new knowledge or knowledge that builds upon other concepts. The student will continue to ask related questions that allow them to further enlarge these concepts. There may be a particular area of academic skill, but a student may not always be willing to demonstrate these skills in the current situation. For example, the student enjoys learning about geography and different people at home but refuses to turn in homework at school and fails the tests. They tend to enjoy books, both when listening to someone read or when learning to read.
In contrast to many of our stereotypes, these students seem to be better adjusted and more social. The student takes an active interest in having friends even when not always successful in doing so. Often assuming a leadership role in small groups, the student is eager to help others as they see the need to do so. The student with BLV may show fewer leadership qualities but is interested in peer groups and actively attempts to engage with peers.
In much of the literature and in my professional experience, the rate of learning is a powerful predictor for all students. Typically, these students are efficient learners. They have an ability to select the critical pieces of any new skill or knowledge and focus their attention on these. They tend to enjoy books, both when listening to someone read or when learning to read.
This ability is not always apparent on non-preferred tasks, and these students often benefit from some extra motivation such as rewards or privileges. However, when focused and motivated, these students master tasks quickly and efficiently. It is important to remember that these tasks aren’t always academic tasks. It may involve playing a new game, learning a new song to sing, or remembering a new social skill. They also have the ability to generalize this new skill to another situation.
How does blindness or low vision affect the ability of a student to demonstrate these characteristics?
There are many ways in which the gifted student with a visual impairment may appear a little different to adults when being compared to students with vision. The first is by a process called “masking.” For educators who are not familiar with the field of visual impairment, the presence of a visual impairment often becomes the single most important piece of information about a student. Each strength or need becomes seen through that “mask of visual impairment.” Certainly, this is an important aspect of a student. But it is not always the explanation for any strength or need. A student may have trouble in initiating conversations with peers, and this may be related to the visual impairment. However, it may also be related to the personality trait of being “shy.”
Students may have musical abilities because they have natural talent as well as the discipline to practice the guitar. This talent should not be seen as simply the result of having a visual impairment and the belief that all children with BLV are “natural musicians.” This tendency to see everything as being related to the visual impairment keeps professionals from being able to recognize the true skills. Thus, there is less incentive to attempt to develop greater skills, enroll in GT programs, or see ways to continue to build skills. Educators in the field of Gifted and Talented have developed a term “twice-exceptional,” or “2E,” to remind people that disabilities such as specific learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, and visual impairment may co-exist with being gifted and talented.
It is always difficult to generalize about any particular group of individuals. However, a few developmental patterns with BLV may also have an impact on recognizing the characteristics of gifted and talented. These may be present in two different situations. The first involves difficulties in interpreting behaviors because they are more subtle in nature. For example, students with BLV are likely to have fewer opportunities to exhibit leadership skills. There are always exceptions, but leadership is based upon a number of traits that may be difficult for these students with BLV to acquire and/or practice. They may have fewer opportunities to interact with peers in an unstructured setting and thus fewer opportunities to practice leadership skills. More peer interactions seem to be directed or supported by adults. Often adults are quite eager to resolve conflicts and solve problems for students with BLV. All this means that leadership skills may be more difficult to actually observe because of subtlety or lack of opportunity for full development. Often these must be seen as “potential” for leadership that will develop with support.
On the other hand, there are certain behaviors that may be exhibited by students with BLV that are difficult to interpret. Young children with BLV often have large expressive vocabularies without any clear meaning of the words or the underlying concepts. As experiential learning increases, students will develop these concepts. However, at a young age, a large vocabulary is not necessarily a good predictor of success in GT programs. Extreme caution is advised when using large vocabularies as a means of identification for GT programs, particularly with young children. With age, typically after the third grade, vocabulary may become a more valid means of determining need for further assessment.
Another example is the tendency of many young children with BLV to ask a number of questions in the course of interactions, particularly with adults. A student who is gifted will ask a variety of questions, directed at expanding their knowledge. A concern arises when the student is asking questions in a perseverative manner about the same topic or a slight variation. It may also involve asking ritualistic questions as a way to start an interaction. For example, a student who asks about the weather conditions in Guam that signifies “wintertime” is more likely to be gifted than the student who starts each conversation with a question about outdoor temperatures. The power of language as well as curiosity will need to be evaluated for the student with BLV, but interpretation needs to be more comprehensive to establish the function of these.
Is there an exact definition of “gifted and talented?”
Original definitions focused almost exclusively on the aspect of being “gifted.” Traditionally that has involved performance on a standardized intelligence test that is at 130 or above. However, there has been a considerable expansion of that definition. More recently the limitations of an intelligence test with more diverse populations have been well established. Equal emphasis is now being placed on serving students who are “talented” rather than only “gifted.” The two terms do have different meanings. “Gifted” implies that someone possesses an “untrained and spontaneous natural ability” while “talent” implies a mastery of a skill by developing abilities or knowledge in a field. Early education programs for these students throughout the nation tended to focus on those with an IQ of 130 or above, often the entry criteria for moving into one of these programs.
Does each school have a special program for all students who are eligible?
Most public schools have some type of setting designed to serve students who are meeting the federal and state guidelines for GT programs. However, the ways in which these students are served will vary from school to school. They may simply be in ability-grouped classes, move more rapidly through a curriculum, be offered special activities after school, have an entirely different curriculum, etc. Part of this variation is because the federal regulations are very general about the criteria for being identified as a GT student and lack of requirement for specific curricula. There is certainly an effort to encourage participation by students in special education programs who are also gifted and talented. Again, these groups of students are often referred to as “twice exceptional,” or “2E,” recognizing both their need for special education services in some areas as well as their need for specialized learning of gifted and talented programs. All data suggests that few students with visual impairment are served in these programs in public school settings. However, many residential schools for the visually impaired will have special short-term programs during the school year or summer that will specifically serve students who are gifted and talented as well as have blindness or low vision. These programs allow students to benefit from enrollment in their local schools as well as having brief periods in which they can enjoy the special resources and opportunities for peer interaction with students who have similar needs.
What are the federal guidelines?
The federal guidelines were first mentioned very generally in 1988 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. However, the first more specific guidelines were in the legislation known even now as “No Child Left Behind.” This supplied a description that met the general definition of both “gifted” and “talented.” The hope at the time was that this would increase diversity in this student group and increase access of students who may not have the previous experiences that would allow them to score well on traditional IQ tests. The definition now includes three broad areas.
In comparison to others of the same age, experience, or background the student either demonstrates:
- High level of achievement or potential for achievement in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic abilities OR
- Unusual capacity for leadership OR
- Excellence in a specific academic field
Again, the federal guidelines provide no information about ways in which these areas can be assessed or ways in which these students must be served. All of these particular decisions are left to the individual states as well as local schools to determine. This has given a great deal of flexibility to schools throughout the nation. It has also caused a wide variation in the types of programs that are available to students.
Are there general types of assessments that are recommended to determine the presence of these abilities?
As mentioned above, there are no formal recommendations for assessments. However, they do seem to break into three distinct categories. The first is administration of an individual intelligence test that is accepted as a strong measure of overall abilities. There is also an achievement test administered to provide general information about academic skill levels as well as evidence of excellence in a particular field. Finally, most criteria focus upon information about behaviors as well as creativity that is currently shown by the student and is associated with being gifted and talented. A wide range of techniques may be used to gather the final type of information. They include letters of recommendation, behavior rating scales, special projects, videotapes, observations, actual projects such as a play, musical performance, etc.
Are these assessments appropriate for the student with blindness or low vision?
There are accommodations available for both intelligence and achievement tests that will make them accessible for students with blindness and low vision. However, it is important that these instruments be administered according to best practice guidelines. The American Printing House for the Blind is a resource in gathering information about best practice guidelines as well as for purchasing appropriate instruments.
An assessment that deals with more subjective behaviors on rating scales as well as demonstrating leadership, creative, or artistic abilities may be a little more challenging. Attempts to choose appropriate formal instruments in this area should be carefully coordinated with the TSVI.
In an effort to increase the diversity of the students in the gifted and talented programs, there has been an emphasis on choosing non-verbal tests as measures both of intelligence and creative skills. This type of instrument is not appropriate for a student with any type of visual impairment. It is important that other instruments be chosen that will measure these skills in a way that is accessible for students with blindness or low vision.
The opportunity to present specific projects that speak to creativity offers many excellent opportunities for the student with BLV. As the year progresses, it will be important to maintain copies of different work that shows the creativity of the student. Musical performances, poetry, short stories, original games, novel “languages,” are all projects that have been submitted successfully by students who are BLV. These show initiative, creativity, and a flair for problem solving that is often more successful than making accommodations on formal instruments of assessment.