The Braille Monitor                                                                        December 2005


Honored Teacher Helps Visually Impaired Students

by Lauren Burt

Merry-Noel Chamberlain
Merry-Noel Chamberlain

From the Editor: Time has come again to nominate outstanding teachers of blind students for the NFB's annual Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. (See the following story for details.) As a reminder of what our very best teachers are doing, here is a story that appeared on September 24, 2005, in the Des Moines Register. It is about Merry-Noel Chamberlain, the winner of the 2005 Distinguished Educator Award. Here it is:

The day that Merry-Noel Chamberlain totaled her car and almost killed her daughter in the accident was the day she realized she was going blind. "I thought I saw a green light and drove right in the middle of an intersection," said Chamberlain of Des Moines. "I started to realize that streetlight signals disappeared from my view and street signs became blurry."

Losing her sight was a psychological adjustment as well as a physical adjustment for Chamberlain. "When I started using a long white cane, I realized my head had been down, and I wasn't seeing what I used to see. It was an awakening moment, but it wasn't negative," she said.

As a child, Chamberlain suffered from amblyopia, also known as "lazy eye" and began wearing glasses at age two. Her eyesight worsened, and she had optic nerve damage as she got older. Today at forty-three she is legally blind, with no vision in her right eye and only 20/100 sight in her left. She also lost all of her peripheral vision. But vision loss hasn't stopped Chamberlain. It has driven her to help others, especially visually impaired students in Iowa.

"People, blind or sighted, often search and search for their niche in life--for the one job that makes it worthwhile to get up in the mornings," said Chamberlain. "I'm so fortunate that I found mine."

Chamberlain, who teaches students with visual impairments in the Des Moines school district, recently was honored as an outstanding teacher. She was named the 2005 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children by the National Federation of the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the United States, about 95 percent of teachers for the visually impaired are sighted. Chamberlain is one of four blind teachers in Iowa. "Teaching and helping the students is so important to me," she said. "A blind teacher knows what they're going through and understands because I've had the same experiences firsthand. I also want to make sure they have the same accommodations that I had as a student."

Chamberlain teaches her students Braille writing, computer technology, handwriting, and independent living skills. She teaches students from age six to seventeen. Chris Waters, a sixteen-year-old sophomore at Hoover High School, has been meeting with Chamberlain four times a week. "I like meeting with Merry-Noel. She's helped me read, and I used to hate reading. I'm reading Harry Potter now, and it's double-sided Braille," said Waters.

Chamberlain has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a master's degree in educational psychology from Louisiana Tech with a focus on orientation and mobility. She is working toward a second master's degree at Western Michigan University in teaching students with visual impairments. Chamberlain hopes to complete her doctorate in interdisciplinary health studies from Western Michigan University in 2008.

In her final remarks during a speech at a student seminar at Louisiana State, Chamberlain reflected upon becoming blind and her journey through life. "I no longer look down at the sidewalk," she said. "I go everywhere with my cane, and I hold my head up high."