The National Federation of the Blind
of Connecticut
Tapping the Creativity of Blind and Visually Impaired Students
By Chris Kuell

Melissa, a willowy sixth-grader, sits at her art class table meticulously picking through a bag of pebbles to find just the right ones. The assignment is to create a landscape from the various materials and glue the teacher has provided. The student creates a cliff overlooking a river on the left side of her paper with the pebbles she's chosen. A river of thick blue paint soon flows over the cliff, creating a vibrant waterfall. She pastes on a short beach area with sandpaper and makes a few bushes with a felt material. A thin, cotton-ball cloud decorates the sky, and the final touch is a cat cut from foam, settled in on the beach to enjoy the scenery.

Melissa's picture is warmly received by her classmates, who also want to share their projects with her. As she runs her hands over a friend's art work, he explains that it's a winter mountain top and he's skiing down the slope.

"There is no bigger thrill than figuring out a cool new way to adapt an art project," says Verna O'Donnell, a paraprofessional with a passion for art that she shares with students and teachers alike.

Eight years ago Verna was asked to help at the pre-school her daughters had attended. The school had a blind student, and knew Verna could figure out a way to allow the child to participate in art projects.

Unfortunately, Melissa didn't share her new teacher's enthusiasm. "It wasn't easy to win her over," O'Donnell said. "But after a good deal of trial and error she was hooked. We came up with ways to keep her hands clean so she could 'see', and added textures and scents to projects. The changes were met with a lot of excitement from her classmates which helped sway her."
O'Donnell was a free-lance photographer when the opportunity to work with Melissa came along. She followed her to elementary school, where the art teacher was enthusiastic about incorporating tactile and sensory art into their curriculum. Verna decorated her office door with masks and a variety of artwork which all the students enjoyed. More importantly, it affected their attitudes about blindness.

"Many of the students think about making their classroom art projects accessible. Some students have come to me for advice on ways to make their drawings tactile. Several students have learned some Braille as well. It is amazing to me how such a small thing can alter the way people look at the world."

O'Donnell has expanded her passion for bringing art to blind students by teaching classes and special workshops for the NFB of Connecticut, the summer program at the OakHill School in Hartford, and at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.

She doesn't use text books or internet sources for planning art projects. Instead, she relies on her creativity and imagination.
"Honestly, I make most of it up as I go along. I get an idea and start experimenting. I try to have several back-up plans for blind students, because you never know how much art they have been exposed to, or what their skill level might be, so my first priority is for them to have fun. If it is too frustrating, you will lose them. The end result is not as important as the process. They will improve with practice and if they are having a great time they are more likely to stick with it."

Some of O'Donnell's favorite projects include decorating masks, which lets the student's personalities shine, and creating landscapes like Melissa's waterfall and beach scene. Imaginary landscapes are best because they open the doors for discussions about books and stories and places they've dreamed about.

O'Donnell believes that when a blind or visually impaired child participates on equal terms in art class, generally considered a visual process, they become empowered to participate in other areas that might be thought of as off limits. She encourages art teachers to welcome the opportunity to work with blind and visually impaired students. "Don't get locked into one approach to something because that is a guarantee it will not work. Anything can be adapted. Relax and have fun!"

Some suggestions for the blind student's art cabinet:
Craft glue - thicker and much easier to work with than the more commonly used white glue. Things don't slide around as easily.

Craft foam with adhesive backing - the child can create shapes and stick them down without getting frustrated by glue. It is a great way to get them started. If they aren't good with scissors, you can cut the shapes or purchase ready-made foam shapes.

Regular craft foam is very useful in teaching drawing. Lay a thick piece of paper over the top of craft foam and draw. You will end up with a raised line drawing that is a mirror image of the original.

Hot glue gun - The fastest way to make raised lines. Great for outlining drawings they need to paint or color in. They draw, you hot glue the lines.

Fabric scraps of various textures - felt, fur, lace, and assorted trims.

Assorted natural materials - pebbles, small shells, twigs and dirt are all great for landscapes.

To watch a seven minute documentary featuring Verna O'Donnell working with blind and sighted students, visit and click on the Art In The Dark video link.

Art Beyond Sight is a one-stop resource for bringing art and culture to people with visual impairments.

The Crafters Division of the National Federation of the Blind holds on-line classes, discussions, shares project ideas, etcetera.

The following is a home-schooling site with project ideas for parents of blind and visually impaired kids.


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The National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut
477 Connecticut Boulevard, Suite 217
East Hartford, CT 06108
(860) 289-1971


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Updated December 11, 2009