Understanding dual disabilities

Dr Christine Peta
The aim of this article is to unpack the subject of dual disabilities. Some children have one type of disability but other children have two types of disabilities or more.

Deaf-blind children

A child who is deaf-blind is both deaf and blind, and terms such as dual sensory loss or combined vision/hearing loss are in some instances used in place of deaf-blind.

The time at which a child becomes deaf or blind makes a difference in relation to the pace at which the child will develop. For example, if a child becomes deaf at a time when he or she may have learnt a particular type of language, it becomes easier for that child to learn a new language such as sign language.

Along the same vein, if a child becomes blind after having learnt to move from place to place and learning different things and understanding certain concepts, it may be easier for that child to learn new ways of doing things such as reading Braille, compared to a child who is both deaf and blind from birth.

Deaf-blindness may happen during pregnancy, through a syndrome or condition that is inherited, or a disorder of the chromosomes that may happen during the early days of the development of the foetus, as well as injuries that may affect the foetus whilst it is in the uterus, or when the woman comes in contact with a certain virus or disease which affects the foetus.

Childbirth processes may also result in deaf-blindness when a premature baby is born or due to lack of oxygen. Some children may become deaf-blind after they have been born due to direct injuries of the eyes and ears, or brain injury or illnesses that are caused by viruses.

Deaf-blindness may also happen later on in life due to eye and ear injuries or brain injuries arising from car accidents or the natural process of ageing. Some inherited conditions may not show until later on in life.

Blindness and physical

disabilities

Some children who are blind may also have physical disabilities. Causes of this combination of disabilities are many. For example, conditions such as muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and cerebral palsy, are commonly accompanied by visual loss.

The entire bodies of some children are affected but in some instances some children will be able to use their legs or arms or they may be able to use about half of their bodies.

Children with physical disabilities often use wheelchairs, walkers or crutches but some children with physical disabilities may still be able to walk on their own without any form of assistive devices.

When a child is able to see, the child’s attention is captured by different objects such as balls, fruits, dolls, colours and other kinds of toys or objects. What then motivates a blind child to explore his surroundings through crawling, or walking?

A blind child is unable to see what is going on around him or her, hence he or she may not be motivated to explore the surroundings. It is, therefore, important for a parent, guardian or caregiver to be innovative in relation to finding things that can motivate the child to move. For example, it is advisable to place some objects close to the child, and to assist him or her to move towards the object.

Learning disabilities and blindness

Some children may have both learning disabilities and blindness. Learning disabilities may affect the ability to write, read, and spell or to understand mathematical calculations.

However, the fact that a child has a learning disability does not mean that he or she will fail in all of his or her studies.

Children with learning disabilities may do well in some school subjects and struggle with others. A study that was carried out in the US revealed that it may be hard for a teacher to tell if the learning challenges that a child is experiencing are a result of a learning disability or of blindness (FamilyConnect 2018).

Way forward

When you note that your child has more than one type of disability, such as for example, physical disability and deafness, consult different health care practitioners such as an occupational therapist and a speech and language therapist, in order to gain an understanding of each type of disability and to obtain guidance on how best to support the child so that he or she attains maximum development.

If a child is visually impaired, it is important to work with medical professionals to identify the best position that the child can use, so that he or she may be able to use his or her sight to the maximum possible level.

If you suspect that your child who has visual impairment also has a learning disability, you should ask a teacher of visually impaired children to be part of the assessment team that seeks to determine if the child has a learning disability or not.

The teacher will choose appropriate materials to use during the assessment, and will interpret the results.

If it is determined that your child who is blind, also has a learning disability, it may be advisable for other specialists to work with the teacher to design learning material that will assist the child to learn and develop in the best ways possible.

Apart from the healthcare practitioner, the teacher of children with visual impairment is important because, he or she has the expertise of teaching blind learners and is therefore able to know the ways in which visual impairment may affect your child’s learning and development, as well as the tools that should be used to help the child to learn about the world and to carry out day to day tasks and to also take part in other activities in the school (FamillyConnect, 2018).

 

Dr Christine Peta is a public health care practitioner who, among other qualifications, holds a PhD in Disability Studies. Be part of international debate on how best to nurture a society which is more accessible, supportive and inclusive of disabled people on [email protected]

 

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