ARCHIVE - Seeing Differently (3-23-15)

Seeing-Differently

“Training sharpness of hearing in a blind person has natural limitations; compensation through the mightiness of the mind (imagination, reasoning, memorization etc.) has virtually no limits” (Vygotsky, 1983, p.212).

I had always considered drama to be a primarily visual medium so when we adopted two children who were visually impaired, I was challenged to reconsider my conceptions of drama. As a sighted person, I had believed that blindness was the condition of not being able to see; however living with our two daughters has made me realize that blindness is a condition of seeing the world differently. When she was younger, our daughter who is totally blind showed a preference for role-playing objects – a stick of celery, an ice cream van or a hole in the road (!) – rather than experiences. As I reflected on this behavior, I came to believe that the role-play was her way of making sense of objects that she encountered in her daily life.

A year after we adopted our first daughter, I began my doctoral studies and was introduced to the work of Vygotsky. He worked extensively with children who had sensory impairments and he held revolutionary views on blindness. He did not consider the impairment to be a deficit but an important constitutive of the individual (1993). Consistent with Vygotsky’s wider philosophy on learning, he believed that the greatest influence on a blind child’s life – good or bad – was to be found in the society at large. The blindness only became a problem when constructed as such. This view accords with what has been identified as the major challenge for children who cannot see and that is social exclusion. Although Vygotsky didn’t specifically propose drama as a tool for mediating social isolation, I believe that drama, as an essentially “social art” (Heathcote, 1984), is unique in opening up social negotiations for the child who cannot see. When I talk of �?drama’, I am thinking of the improvisatory and collaborative nature of process drama. So often children who are blind are the ones receiving help from others, but in a process drama context, the experience of being an equal contributor to the creative process affords a social experience of significant value.

I remember attending a Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed conference and playing a trust game that involved partners taking it in turns to 'be blind’ and lead and follow each other. As the mother of a blind child I was curious to know if the instructor had ever done this with a group that had included someone who was blind and what he or she would do if they did. I was impacted by the instructor’s suggestion that it would be an empowering and inclusive experience for a person who was blind to be responsible for leading a sighted person.

In 2007 Brian Edmiston wrote about an 'inclusive’ classroom where children who were blind or partially sighted were exposed to literacy learning through drama. He described drama as a tool that facilitates inclusion because it “create[s] spaces where children can be viewed primarily as people using their strengths in learning literacy practices, rather than as children with or without disabilities” (p. 338). The teacher created opportunities for the students to collaborate with adults and other children as they improvised trips to outer space and pretended to be astronauts landing on Mars. Collaborating with others in a fictional context affords the opportunity for talk that is framed with intent. As I write this article my daughter is in the next room interviewing her grandmother about her house in England for a fictional TV show. Being from England my 'mum’ is using some words that are unfamiliar to my daughter. Grace remains in role as a confident TV interviewer and says, “Can you please tell the audience what a conservatory is?” Talk is Grace’s way of connecting with the world about her and in Edmiston’s article he writes about the importance of talk in that classroom, “Talk was crucial because everyone could share what each already knew about Mars, what they had found out from the books (in English and Braille), and how they represented ideas on their own map” (p. 339). Opportunities for dialogue makes the connection with another human concrete and when positioned as an 'expert,’ either real or imagined, the talk helps to establish an identity of competency.

While interviewing 'Nana,’ my other daughter who has limited sight in her left eye is running around the house wearing a crown and a pillowcase tied around her neck to look like a cloak. She is role-playing a knight rescuing princesses and princes from evildoers.

Branscombe

Exposure to stories and TV cartoons has helped to foster a rich imagination. Opportunities for fictional role-play is as important for the visually impaired child as it is for the sighted child as both have access to imaginative happenings. When discussing fictional contexts, don’t be afraid to ask the child who is visually impaired what they see in their imagination – you may be surprised by their response. And why not let an older child with limited or no sight be responsible for sculpting other participants in a tableau of a particular scene? As �?drama people’ we constantly tell students there is no right or wrong answer in drama so let’s practice what we preach and give all students the chance to create and lead others in the creative process.

The particular teacher in the classroom that Edmiston observed said that as he planned activities he “imagine[s] the world as the children see it” (p. 339). And this I believe is the key to working with students who are visually impaired; they may not see the world as you or I see it, but they still see – just in a different way.


Edmiston, B. (2007). Mission to Mars: Using drama to make a more inclusive classroom for literacy learning. Language Arts, 84(4), 337- 346.

Heathcote, D. (1984). In Johnstone, L. & O’Neill, C. (eds.). Collected Writings on Education and Drama. London: Hutchinson

Vygotsky, L. S. (1993). The fundamentals of defectology. In Rieber, R.W, & Carton, A. S., (Eds), The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky. New York: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1983). Sobraniye Sochinenii [Collected Works], Vol. 5, Moscow: Pedagogika Publishers.


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Margaret Branscombe is a doctoral candidate in Literacy Studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa. She was an elementary school teacher for twenty years in the UK and the US before starting her doctoral studies. While teaching, and throughout her PhD program, she has advocated for drama as a tool for participatory and embodied learning.
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