What do a creche, petting farm, garden centre, library, equestrian centre and playground have in common?

ChildVision campus opens up the world for children with sight loss

The single-storey, reception building at ChildVision is a very ordinary entrance to an extraordinary place. For a first-time visitor, it is like stepping through a wardrobe of CS Lewis’s imagination into a revelatory new world.

A hotch-potch of buildings and spaces open out from one to another, unified by a sole purpose.

Each segment of this Drumcondra campus in Dublin 9 plays a part in the education and wellbeing of children with sight loss from infancy to young adulthood, many of whom have at least one additional disability. Surprises abound in the juxtaposition of a creche, petting farm and library, with a printworks, garden centre and equestrian centre, not to mention playgrounds, clinical rooms, a public coffee shop, enterprise units and an adjoining primary school. Funding from the Department of Education, the Health Service Executive and charitable donations raised by ChildVision through corporate partnerships, schools and private individuals and events, help to keep all the different plates spinning.

A toddler attending the preschool here may progress to the on-site primary school, then on to a secondary school across the road, before returning to the campus for a five-year, lifelong-learning programme. Expertise and services generated on-site also support children with visual impairment (VI) throughout the country.


The proportion of children living in Ireland with VI is on the increase. While the findings on disability from the 2022 census are not due to be released until this September, a report by Jim O’Leary in 2019 looked at statistics from the previous two censuses.

Between 2011 and 2016, the numbers affected by VI rose from 36 to 40 per 10,000 among children aged 0-14 years, and from 53 to 59 per 10,000 among 15-24 year olds. For those with VI, the probability of having multiple disabilities also increased over this period.

“As medical science has advanced, so the survival rates of babies born very prematurely or with very low birth weights have improved, and such babies are known to have a greater than average susceptibility to VI and associated disabilities,” O’Leary said. “This factor is likely to remain in play into the future.”

This trend highlights the vital importance of continued expansion and improvements at what started out, more than 150 years ago, as “St Joseph’s asylum for the male blind”. It was opened in Drumcondra Castle in 1870 by the Carmelite Brothers. That building, alongside a redbrick Victorian addition, are still an integral part of the country’s only dedicated centre for children with visual impairment, where ChildVision now employs 160 staff, according to acting chief executive Mary Leonard.

The changing times are reflected in how evolving infrastructure accommodates diverse activities. The original men’s diningroom in the redbrick building, for example, now houses an early intervention unit for newly diagnosed children. The upstairs dormitories were repurposed after the residential option for youngsters aged 10-23 years old was transferred beyond these walls to houses in the community about 25 years ago. Each of five houses, staffed around the clock, takes five to six residents from Sunday to Friday, says social care team leader Caroline McGarrity. The biggest benefit for residents is probably the social aspect, she says, as it can be difficult for these young people, many of whom have additional disabilities, to develop friendships. But through contributing to the running of the house and doing their own laundry, they also learn vital independent living skills.

Here are a few snapshots of the ChildVision campus:

Early Years

How would you know you have feet if you cannot see them? In the Early Intervention room, the responsive rustle of a silver foil survival blanket is being used playfully by a teacher to raise one-year-old Mollie’s awareness of those appendages to her legs. Very young children may come here straight after diagnosis of sight loss. Staff start to get to know the parents and children, who in turn start to become acquainted with this environment that will likely play a formative part in their growing up.

“We help parents to come to terms with the diagnosis,” says preschool teacher Elaine Stanley. They can be “fragile” and staff are there to help out with ideas about how best to play with, stimulate and educate their child.

While 130 preschool children are registered with ChildVision (it also has a preschool in Cork), attendance by each child for this specialist Early Years education ranges from a couple of days a week to just once a month, depending on resources and needs. Group teaching in the mornings is followed by one-on-one attention for child and parent pairs in the afternoons. Children come from Dublin and surrounding counties. All have some degree of sight loss and up to 90 per cent have additional disabilities, explains Trish Fitzpatrick, deputy manager of Early Years.

A graduation cap and gown lying on a table in the Montessori Room is a sign that “transition” is in the air for this group of children. They are preparing to move on to the adjoining St Joesph’s primary school, or to mainstream national schools where they will be supported by the visiting teacher service.

Next door, in a more dimly lit room, a higher level of needs is evident. One girl is playing with a stand of sensory bells to stimulate her hands, while a little boy is in front of a column of lights designed to encourage hand-eye co-ordination. Nursing staff are stationed in between here and the Early Intervention room, to care for the children, some of whom are peg-fed and/or may be prone to seizures and need medication.

Reading services

Take one primary school “mental maths” workbook, convert it for reading by touch, ie into Braille, and what do you have? A nine-volume publication, across which not only every letter of every word in the original text is represented by a combination of raised dots on a domino-like six-dot cell, but all graphics are described in this fashion too.

A Leaving Certificate maths book can take up to 45 volumes of single-sided pages, says Katharine Howe, manager of ChildVision’s Reading Services. This unit will convert any book required by a child with sight loss at any mainstream or special school in the country free. Whether it is large print, Braille or digital depends on the needs of the child. And be it for Irish, French, computer science or whatever subject, no text book defeats the 21 staff here who transcribe up to 7,000 books a year.

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of French educator Louie Braille’s invention but Howe doesn’t envisage it being made redundant anytime soon. Just as sighted people still want to pick up a newspaper or book, those with sight loss being able to read independent of technology is very important, she stresses.

In the colourful lending library, there is a resource section for parents and professionals as well as an extensive children’s books collection. The latter includes large print, Braille and audio versions of works by authors ranging from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl to David Walliams and JK Rowling. There are also “twin vision” books that can be read simultaneously by a child learning Braille and their parent, sibling or teacher, explains library information officer Aideen Brady. She shows how a picture book, such as Eric Carle’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, can be adapted for paired reading with the addition of Braille stickers on each page.

One copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire takes up one whole shelf here, having been converted into 28 volumes of double-sided, Braille-printed pages. But educators who are trained to read Braille by sight would need a 56-volume, single-sided page version of the same work because their eyes could not navigate the visual, embossed dot-confusion of double-sided printing that those with sight loss can decipher through touch. In a reading corner endowed with tactile prompts and sensory books, story sessions are held nine times a week. The current seaside theme is enlivened with sound effects such as crashing waves and screaming seagulls which, children are warned, may swoop down to swipe their (knitted) ice-cream cone if they do not hold it tight.

In a room off the library, 19th-century thinking meets 21st-century innovation in the 3D printing of training replicas of Braille cells, consisting of six yellow pegs on a blue base. Other teaching items produced here include Howe’s favourite, a “fraction wall” that is made up of rows of Braille-inscribed, physical representations of every fraction from two-halves to 10-tenths. Next door is another high-tech room where children can try out assistive technology for use at home or school.

Social enterprises

You can smell the CanDo soap production unit before you see it. At one table, Christian, Cian and Luke are bevelling soap bars, assembling branded boxes and individually packing each bar.

“It’s not just making soap,” says Amanda Deaton, manager of lifelong learning, “it’s about those transferable skills: communication, problem-solving, working in a team.”

Cian, who is one of 22 students on the five-year, lifelong-learning programme, says what he likes about CanDo is “being in an actual workplace rather than an educational place all the time. In my opinion there is only so much you can learn from a book.” Soap-making, which has expanded into other, all-natural skincare products, was the brainchild of lifelong learning staff member Jason Chapman, after seeing handmade soap on sale during a visit to Bloom. They are not looking for automated processes here because “the more activities we have in production the better”. They try to pair a student with no vision with one with low vision.

“You have to walk away and let them make mistakes; you can’t mollycoddle them,” says Chapman. “But you will find they start communicating with each other, helping each other and problem-solving. That’s what we are about.”

Botanical ingredients, such as marigold, cornflower and mint, are grown outside in the horticultural enterprise. This incorporates a garden centre open to the public, thereby matching skill-learning with fundraising and inclusion, and it is a popular spot for local residents to bring pots and hanging baskets for refilling.

“It’s community spirit,” says chief executive Leonard, “and it’s great for our students to meet members of the public as well.”

Likewise a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, catering for staff, students and the public, is a vibrant spot on this summer morning. It also supplies the primary school with cooked meals. Jordan (25), who lives in Glasnevin, has been attending the campus since he was a small child. He went to St Joseph’s primary school, then on to the nearby post-primary Rosmini Community School, which operates special classes for students with a visual impairment. Now he is back on campus for lifelong learning and the confidential shredding service for outside clients is his favourite enterprise activity.

Housed in yet another building is a small weaving section, where Grace from Shannon, Co Clare, has found her passion. She tried it initially for fun “but later on I realised I really enjoy weaving, so I wanted to do something more with it. I am leaving this year and I am going to have my own weaving business.”

Grace has already sold rugs, cushions and decorative wall-hangings from this unit, which uses material salvaged from large weaving companies that would otherwise go to landfill. Next door to weaving, Craig and Cian are using bought-in cotton thread on knitting machines.

“Even if you can see what you’re doing, it is a nightmare,” jokes Cian who is setting up a machine to make a facecloth. “I ain’t going to let it hold me back though.” While Craig, who has a particular interest in design, is continuing with a “personal project”, creating a large blanket.

Clinical services

Speech and language, physiotherapy, occupational and music therapy are among the clinical services available for children attending here. There is also orientation and mobility therapy, where, for instance, toddlers may learn to use canes.

But it is the facilities for the much-loved and highly valued equine-assisted therapy which take up the most space. Eight specially trained ponies and horses are stabled on-site and used to take children around an arena and a sensory trail in the field beyond. Sessions are offered not only to ChildVision participants but also to some children referred from services elsewhere.

The expertise of the team here in using horses and equine-related activities for enhancing physical, emotional, social, cognitive, behavioural and educational skills for people with disabilities makes it a “flagship”, explains Leonard, for other centres.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting