October, 2021
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Jimalee Sowell, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA
Maya Rejepova, U.S. Embassy, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Jimalee Sowell

Maya Rejepova

Jimalee: Tell me about the school you work in and the classes you teach.

Maya: I work for the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat for the Public Affairs Section, English language program, which means our program is dedicated to all citizens of Turkmenistan between 16 – 40 years of age. We provide classes free of charge—whoever has a great desire to learn English, they can come to us. We teach four-skill classes with an emphasis on developing speaking skills. We have some students with physical disabilities and some students with visual-impairments.

Jimalee: What kind of training or support have you received for teaching inclusive classes that accommodate all types of learners?

Maya: I didn’t receive any special training or education for teaching in inclusive or teaching students with disabilities. One of the challenges with teaching an inclusive class has been finding ways to make sure all students can learn well. One of my daughters had a speech delay and difficulties, so I signed up for speech development classes, and there I learned some information about inclusive teaching in general—not specifically for teaching English, but in general—handling the students, the participants with needs in the class. I just always think what if I had some kind of disability and I had the chance to learn English? What would I do? What kinds of exercises or methodology would work for me? I would try to practice different activities or techniques that I thought could be helpful. With experience, I became more confident. Each semester, I learn something new about inclusive classes and teaching learners with special needs, something interesting.

Jimalee: What are some of the challenges you have faced in teaching inclusive classes?

Maya: Whenever we tried to teach only in English, we had some difficulties in the beginning. I was in a panic when I was working on a lesson plan. How would I explain the color or volume, or the experience of something for students who have never seen? But, luckily, I had students who studied at the secondary school for visually-impaired students, so they had some idea about words. I had to translate sometimes, and I would use synonyms. The difficult thing for me was to explain a new word or information, which may not be in their memory or in their vocabulary.

And, testing. At the end of every term, we have a final test. Each participant has to get a passing score so they can continue studying. It was a little difficult because the tests include reading and writing, which means participants need to see. So, I would read aloud the written portions of the test to the visually-impaired students, and I would mark their answers.

Jimalee: As I understand, recently you have focused a lot of attention on helping visually-impaired students. What have you done to learn how to teach visually-impaired students in your classes?

Maya: I started reading articles and searching for information. Now, I have more information, and I feel that I can teach better. And, also we have some non-governmental organizations for people with visually impairments and hearing impairments, and they have clubs. I asked if I could visit, and the visually-impaired students there would tell me what would work for them. I was very impressed when I got to know four people who speak very good English, and they were totally blind. They shared what would work better for them, and they all said audio—just listening and speaking. Even there is no Turkmen braille, but they came up with some way—they came up with some signs. They created a Turkmen braille. They tried to teach me, but it was very difficult for me to understand.

I was impressed even more when they told me about their hobbies and what they do. They play chess! I was also impressed about how these students worked on ways to master their learning through listening and speaking. They can memorize words. They can keep information all in their minds. Even though these students had obstacles, they could master other skills.

Jimalee: What advice would you like to share with other English language teachers who are working with visually-impaired students in inclusive classrooms but have not received any specific training for helping this population of students?

Maya: If there is no chance for training, like in my case, teachers should not be afraid. If a teacher says, “I can do it,” and if they let the visually-impaired audience to tell more, to share more, I’m sure both sides will be fine. You just need to try because if you don’t try, you never know. Of course, at the beginning, there is a failure, but every failure teaches something. In my case, it was this way. I thought that I had failure because I could not make the information at the same level of interest, and sometimes I could see that the mainstream audience was starting to be angry because they wanted to learn more, they wanted me more, but I just stopped them because I was focusing more on visually-impaired students. At the same time, when I gave too much attention to the mainstream audience, the visually-impaired audience were not bored, but they were sad because they were not as quick as the mainstream audience. So, after that, I tried to make the lessons more engaging for both the mainstream audience and the visually-impaired audience.

If I could open my own university or teaching college, I would make it compulsory to visit the schools and kindergartens where they teach students with special needs. As soon as you get to know more, it makes teaching very easy. There are some students who can see but are not good at memorizing visual information, so I started thinking about the way I could use their methodology in my classes with other students who have difficulty with memorization.

I would encourage teachers around the world to visit their neighborhood institutions where they teach students with special needs. I would recommend English language teachers visit these places. As I could see, students with special needs sometimes feel a little bit shy and not confident. But, as a teacher if you motivate and encourage them to open, they do open up. Just not being able to see is not a big obstacle. Students with visual-impairment deserve the same attitude as the mainstream audience.

Jimalee: Do you have any further recommendations?

Maya: I would encourage universities, teachers’ colleges, and certificate providers to add some fundamental training on teaching in inclusive classrooms to their modules. Because now there are many inclusive classrooms, but training programs for English language teachers don’t always provide training. If you become an English teacher, but don’t have training in inclusive classrooms, it is possible that you may not be a successful teacher.

Resources for Teachers Working with Students with Visual Impairments

  1. Teaching Students with Visual Impairments
  2. Teaching English to Visually Impaired Learners
  3. Resources for Teaching English as a Second Language to Learners with Blindness or Visual Impairment
  4. A Challenge: Teaching English to Visually-impaired Learners

Jimalee Sowell is a PhD candidate in Composition and Applied Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Sowell has taught English as a foreign language in Korea, Ecuador, Uganda, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Ivory Coast. Her research interests include disability studies, teacher education, and second language writing instruction.

Maya Rejepova has been an English Language Instructor at the Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Ashgabat since January 2014. She graduated from the International Turkmen Turkish University with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature. She is also a TEFL-certified teacher. She is mother to four children.
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The Difference and Disability Matters Newsletteris calling for articles on supporting students with disabilities, with a special focus on inclusion of multilingual families in the special education evaluation process. For information on how you can contribute, refer to our call for submissions. Please send articles to Solange Lopes Murphy and Jimalee Sowell, Difference and Disability Matters co-editors

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Date/Time: Saturday, November 6, 2021 11:00 a.m. EST
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