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Life at a Special Needs School

When I received my placement in Fukuoka two years ago, my predecessor told me that once a week I’d be “loaned out” to a school for the blind. Speaking no Japanese at the time, I was concerned about how I’d communicate with the students — at my base school, visual cues, gestures and body language seemed to go a long way toward making myself understood. I’d never worked with physically or intellectually disabled children before, so I tried to educate myself.

There are some 100 schools for the blind in Japan; the Fukuoka Special School for the Visually Impaired, where I teach, is one of three in the prefecture. Many children who are born blind are born with some other disability, such as autism, which is evident at my school.

I read such tips as, “Don’t speak too loudly—the students are blind, not deaf,” which sounded strange but turned out to be good advice. Perhaps in people’s anxiety to be understood by someone with an impairment, they’re tempted to yell. The idea that blind people develop enhancements in their other senses was a myth; probably, they just rely on these senses more than we do. I’ve noticed students who sniff pretty much every object given to them.

I still didn’t feel prepared, so on my first day I was hyper-vigilant. My supervisor, who was blind, met me at the bus stop to show me the way to the school. He had a gorgeous seeing-eye dog named Taft – after the American president, of all things – though the students used canes when walking.

I noticed that when other teachers greeted him, they said their names (“Good morning! It’s me, Tanaka”) so he’d know with whom he was speaking (I don’t need to do this. My horrible Japanese gives me away.) In the hallways, everyone called out greetings to the students to avoid collisions, since the kids tore around the building like any other manic junior high student. When I was introduced to the students, a teacher described my appearance for them: kawaii.

As with everything else in Japan, I had to learn as I went along. Some discoveries: Visually impaired children, at least in Japan, can play ping-pong. It’s called “Sound Table Tennis” and uses a modified ball with a bell inside it. I’ve been handily beaten by a 10-year-old. These students read and write Japanese and English Braille, swim, run races and in some cases pop out glass eyes and show them to me.

The school is a combined elementary and junior high and classes are tiny, with two or three students each. During lessons, listening and speaking go a long way. Students like to stretch the small talk at the beginning of class for as long as possible so that they don’t have to turn to the textbook (we use good old New Horizons, Braille and large print editions).

Teachers are inventive in adapting activities for the students, making raised maps for them to touch for a directions lesson, for instance, or hiding an object somewhere in the classroom for the students to find and demonstrate they understand location words (“The pencil is in your desk / by the window / under the chair”).

There are special classes, such as “Life Skills,” in which a sample assignment is navigating to school without the aid of a parent. At the high school level, they can learn tactile skills like shiatsu massage therapy (About 40 percent of Japan’s acupuncturists are blind).

One of my favorite aspects of the school is its familial feeling — a refreshing break from the formality of the senior high school where I spend the rest of my week. Because of the small population, everyone knows each other, and there are too few people to form cliques or indulge in bullying. I’ve seen touching moments of generosity — a student calming one of the intellectually disabled children during a graduation ceremony; the kids with low vision assisting those who are completely blind to their seats.

Teachers are as dedicated as they are uncomplaining. In fact, it’s such a warm environment I worry a bit about what will happen to the students once they finish their education.

But Japan seems to be making an effort to accommodate the disabled, something I’ve become more aware of since I began teaching here. For instance, most ALTs have probably noticed the tactile paving—the raised yellow bumps—on nearly every sidewalk, and the musical walk signals meant to safely guide the visually impaired through towns and cities. For a country where difference attracts a lot of curiosity, it’s encouraging to see designs that include individuals with diverse needs. Hopefully this can lead to more interaction between disabled and non-disabled Japanese, and the realization of a common humanity — something I’ve certainly experienced since working at the school.

This article was written by Alanna Schubach and originally appeared in Issue 6 of The Refill.