Making story-time accessible: Three tips from The Anne Sullivan Foundation

December 2021
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According to the 2016 census, there were approximately 13,000 people in Ireland who were listed as having both a vision and a hearing impairment, plus another disability. But deafblindness is not yet recognised as a distinct disability in Ireland, leading to issues in accessing care and funding for those who need support. On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we asked Sorcha Nallen from The Anne Sullivan Foundation to share her guidance on opening up the world of reading to children who are deafblind.  

A child supported by the Ann Sullivan Foundation reads an adapted book.
A child supported by the Anne Sullivan Foundation reads from an adapted book.

Children who are deafblind don’t have access to the same level of materials as their peers and they may have limited access to books and reading materials that suit them. So how can reading be enjoyable for someone who is dual sensory impaired? To make it an engaging and worthwhile experience, we just need to make some adjustments to the books. 

Below are some pointers that may help a child in your life become more interested in reading or exploring books. These tips won’t be relevant to everyone, as there’s no such thing as a one size fits all approach. Some children will have some sight and may still rely on a tactile element to their reading, while some may have limited hearing and rely on visuals. Feel free to take what works and leave what doesn’t, it’s all about getting creative!

Create a story box 

For a child who is vision and hearing impaired, you might have to think outside the box when it comes to reading. They may engage more with objects and toys than the sheets of a book – that’s where a story box can come in. To create a story box, you just need to pick a book or even a concept. Maybe it’s a story of a crocodile learning how to brush it’s teeth. Fill the box with objects that will help tell the story – for this one, you might use some toothpaste (the smell of the toothpaste will help the child associate the story with their own experience of brushing their teeth), a toothbrush, a stuffed toy and maybe a facecloth or a towel. When you are reading the story to the child, you can use these objects alongside it, allowing the child to explore by touch and feel and even smell. 

Introduce tactile elements 

For some children, adding a tactile element to a book makes the experience more exciting. If the book is about shapes, try cutting out some shapes with cardboard and paste them into the book, so the child can feel and trace the shapes rather than relying solely on their sight to learn the concept. Try to use materials closely associated to the activity or concept in the story – if there’s a story about swimming, you could use bits of an arm band, towel or even cut a small part from an old swimming suit. These textures are all associated with swimming, so pick whatever the child would recognise the most.  

Less can be more! 

Magazines and even some books use lots of small font, which can be overwhelming for a child with a vision impairment. Don’t be afraid to block out some of the text to make it easier to read. You could also cut out pictures from the magazine and type a shorter paragraph in bigger font with a couple of sentences and put these on a new page. This is really useful if your child has a particular interest in a topic, such as trains or sports. Magazines are a great source of information on particular topics, so they are an alternative way of helping the child to take in new ideas and concepts.  

About The Anne Sullivan Foundation

The Anne Sullivan Foundation for People who are Deafblind is the only organisation supporting people who are deafblind all over Ireland. To be deafblind does not necessarily mean that a person is completely deaf and blind, but it does mean that they have both a hearing and vision impairment. People who are deafblind also often have additional needs. 

The Anne Sullivan Foundation is currently running a year-long project funded by the Toy Show Appeal with thanks to the Community Foundation for Ireland. The project will allow children who are deafblind all over Ireland to access reading materials suitable to them, by training local groups to adapt a library of books for a matched special school.

See the results from their pilot project in the video below, and find out how you can get involved by following the link to their website.