Back to school for students with cortical visual impairment (CVI) means right back to navigating what can be brutal school hallways, sometimes even when devoid of students. In preparation for this year, I recently shared the blog post Fighting an Unwinnable Battle by Nicola McDowell, describing her emotional state by the time she arrives at class. Learning about her experience as a student and adult with cerebral visual impairment is so relatable when it comes to my child with CVI. Reading her blog helps me understand his experience in a way that few other resources can. Already this school year is a reminder of the difficulty of navigating hallways for a student with CVI.
Probably most of us grown ups do not give much thought to walking down a busy school hallway. But what kind of shape would a student with CVI be in by the time they arrive at class? Whether the student makes his way there on his own or with assistance? In an effort to encourage his independence, this year my son has been navigating within the school, more and more, on his own. This involves moving between classes on a single floor, as well as making his way between floors using the stairwells.
One day this week following resource room he was about to head out into the hallway to go his next class. This was between periods so hallways were filled with lots of other children, movement, sound. This newfound independence has been highly motivating for him and each day, he is excited to make his way. But instead of heading out, he shut the door and told his teacher – “It’s too loud, I need to wait.” Because using his vision to navigate a busy, noisy school hallway is hard for a student with CVI. Looking plus hearing is hard, and to that add visual field deficits (hemianopia), complexity, clutter, movement, faces, color, distance, sensory complexity (Roman). In this environment, the characteristics work against the student with CVI. And this is one single experience within the entire school day.
Jasper’s teacher was supportive and he hung back until the hallway was more calm, then headed out to make his way back to his classroom. It is so important for grown ups and teachers to be aware and understand just how difficult this is for students with CVI, no matter their other abilities. It helped that he was able to verbalize this – self advocacy is an IEP goal and a skill that is only just emerging. Imagine what the impact of that hallway might look like for a nonverbal student? Had Jasper not advocated for himself and entered the crowded hallway, the experience might have ended in “behavior,” sensory overload, CVI meltdown. The ability to advocate for himself this way will be a huge benefit for him.
When arriving at school each morning, our goal is to get there on the late side of “on time.” That means only a few minutes before the start bell. By this time, most students have already arrived, passed through the halls and found their way to class. At the school entrance there are some teachers, and only a few students trickle down the hallways.
This has been our habit for a while and it very much depends on our being timely. One day last year, we accidentally arrived too early. Being late for anything is a constant worry for my son. But on this day, being early was not good either. After walking in among a throng of excited elementary students, he said to me, “Mommy, there’s too many kids at this school.” I knew exactly what this meant for him. We walked in, turned, and found a quiet spot along the hallway.
For us, arriving on the late side helps. It matters because his experience in the busy hallways, at the start of the school day or throughout, might otherwise set the tone for the rest of his day.