by Doug Hoagland
Ahmed Salem uses his cane to cross the school campus
From the Editor: The following article was published in the May 7, 2001, edition of the Fresno Bee and is reprinted with permission. Stories like this one are a heartening reminder that lots of blind youngsters instinctively embrace the NFB's philosophy of blindness and recognize the importance of personal independence to real success. Here it is:
The blind boy runs his index finger along the internal organs of the earthworm. Its slimy skin has been cut lengthwise and pinned back by another student. "Is it dead?" the fourteen‑year‑old asks.
"Oh, he's a goner," says the aide who helps the boy in his algebra and biology classes at Clovis West High School.
Ahmed Salem is the boy's name. He is a Muslim and says Allah gave him his blindness as a test, which he intends to pass. So last Monday he feels his way through the dissection. Ahmed does well. He has memorized the worm's anatomy and identifies the organs; average size: two millimeters. "I'm not going to be ignorant," Ahmed says with a gravity more weighty than his years warrant.
His story is that of the hard‑working immigrant, the type of narrative well known in a valley where so many people have come from someplace else. Ahmed moved here from Kuwait last summer. He developed cancer of both retinas as a baby and lost his sight from treatment to save his life. He is one of two blind students on a Clovis West campus of 3,000. He is the only blind student who spent this school year perfecting his English, excelling in regular classes, and learning to get around with a white cane he took up only last August.
Ahmed's school for the blind in the Middle East had thirty students in one building. He didn't use a cane there. At Clovis West it's so different. Ahmed moves from class to class in different buildings, a distinct though not awkward figure among teen‑age throngs dressed in long cargo shorts and capris.
"How he does it, I don't know--but he does," says Brenda Read, Ahmed's biology teacher.
Ahmed does not indulge in the American tendency to look at personal issues and ask, "Why?"
"I've reached beyond the age of puberty," he says. "I'm supposed to be a man. `Why?' would be a stupid question because that would be a rejection of my life."
Ahmed, an Egyptian by birth, lived in Kuwait with his parents and four sisters. He says his father, a doctor, moved his family to the United States because of superior schools: "Here it is better education. Maybe we will go back. Maybe we will live here forever."
He attends regular classes with sighted students and got straight A's his first semester. He's doing well again; his lowest grade is a B in English, which he considers just.
"I don't like anyone giving me more than I deserve," he says. "The problem isn't the teacher. The problem isn't the subject. I need to work harder."
Cynthia Brickey, Ahmed's English teacher, says he's too impatient with himself.
Nevertheless, he often takes a novel and reads it three times in Braille to understand it fully in English. Ahmed's first language is Arabic. He is one of 287 visually impaired students in the central San Joaquin Valley attending public schools, according to December, 2000, figures from the California Department of Education. The practice is called mainstreaming‑‑students with disabilities going to class with nondisabled students. The practice became popular in the 1970's but dates to the late 1940's for blind students.
Peggy Chong, spokeswoman for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, says mainstreaming fits with the philosophy: "Blind people are part of society, so they should be in society." But public schools pose risks for blind students, Chong says. The risks include:
* Blind students becoming isolated. They need to hear from people who are blind and have succeeded in nontraditional fields. "We celebrate Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo to help those minorities remember their past and see their future," Chong says. "My people don't have that kind of support."
Ahmed dreams of being a nuclear physicist‑‑a choice that excites Chong.
"Good for him," she says. "That's an attainable goal."
* Blind students getting too much praise. Chong says sighted people can gush over a blind child who is bright or independent: "You don't want your head full of that. You can get tired of people thinking you're so amazing because you crossed the street or turned your homework in on time."
Chong, blind since birth, says praise builds "a false sense of reality" that government and school programs foster: "The blind people who actually get somewhere depend on themselves, not the system."
Amanda Lueck says, however, that blind students should be praised for their accomplishments. Lueck teaches at San Francisco State University and is recognized for training teachers to work with the visually impaired.
* Blind students not learning to read Braille. Chong says only an estimated 7% to 11% of blind students who graduate from high school are literate in Braille. Some educators challenge the accuracy of that figure; they say it's too low.
Statistics aside, Chong says too many special‑education teachers don't know Braille, and technology further reduces literacy. Books on tape and audio computer programs don't teach spelling and punctuation, so students become functionally illiterate, she says. Ahmed learned to read Braille in Kuwait.
He's an intense young man. But he also knows how to use the easy banter of youth.
"Hey, man," an acquaintance will say as Ahmed moves across campus. "What's up?" he replies, rear‑ending the words to sound urban and contemporary. Ahmed is tall, standing 5 feet 11 3/4 inches, and speaking proudly of that fraction.
Ahmed starts his day at Clovis West by spending an hour with teacher Susan Dickerson, who works for the Fresno County Office of Education's Vision Program. She marvels at his determination: "I think he's driven in his soul to succeed." Dickerson teaches Ahmed new Braille skills, helps translate his schoolwork into Braille, and assists him with new technology so he can become more independent.
Laurie Hoke, an orientation and mobility specialist for the county office, also works with Ahmed. "Prince Ahmed," she calls him; they practice crossing busy streets several times a week.
Dickerson says her job is like that of any teacher: helping students discover their natural gifts and develop them. Ahmed already possesses a flair for expressing himself, even in his second language. He wrote a poem this year that read in part:
I wonder when the world will end
I hear the talking of the ants
I see the whole world in front of me
Ahmed creates his prose, takes class notes, and writes essays on a Braille Lite, a small seven‑key machine the width of a video case. Combinations of keys produce the raised dots of the Braille alphabet. Text is stored on a microchip and can be printed. A display pad allows Ahmed to read any portion of the text in Braille, and a voice function repeats the displayed text, allowing him to quickly edit his work.
Clovis Unified School District paid $3,600 for the Braille Lite and $800 for a software program that reads aloud the screen of Ahmed's laptop computer. He's using it to learn about the Internet. In Kuwait he didn't have most of the technology he uses at Clovis West.
In this increasingly wired world Ahmed continues to rely on the computer he was born with--his brain. During algebra class he often figures out answers before other students finish writing the problem.
"If I want to be a nuclear physicist, I have to be very fast," he says. "I love math my whole life."
Algebra teacher Jason Berg says some students try to race Ahmed in solving problems. He usually wins.
Ahmed praises Berg‑‑and all of his teachers. He says English teacher Brickey "shows a lot of mercy when she speaks, but she's also fair." About geography teacher Jim Hurley, Ahmed says: "I didn't like the subject, but I love the teacher so much that he made me love geography." Does this fourteen‑year‑old who already understands the value of appreciating his teachers ever "kick back"‑‑as teen‑agers say‑‑and just be fourteen? Amro Suboh, one of Ahmed's buddies at Clovis West, says a group of friends go on picnics and also study at the mosque. A few informally wrestle, Ahmed included.
Fifteen‑year‑old Amro, born in Jordan and reared in the United States, says other students are sometimes "a little too nice" to Ahmed because he's blind. His friends try to treat him normally, Amro says.
Ahmed says he wants it that way. It's part of being a regular person. Regular people know how to get around campus and how to cross the street and how to talk with others.
Regular people also are independent, Ahmed says, pausing to search for another way to express that idea. He grows silent, and finally finds the right words. Ahmed smiles and seems pleased.
"Life without independence," he says, "is like a car without gas."