Future Reflections Winter 2012
by Dr. Denise M. Robinson
From the Editor: Dr. Denise M. Robinson is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) in the state of Washington. She writes frequently about her students and her convictions about the education of blind children.
I love teaching, and I am constantly seeking the best methods to help my students. Each student blesses me in special ways, and each has a valuable story.
A few years ago, a second-grade teacher spoke to me near the end of the school year. She explained that one of her students, a girl named Kaleigh, had a great deal of difficulty seeing and accessing her schoolwork. The teacher wondered if I had any suggestions that might help her.
Kaleigh was not working at grade level, and everything was a struggle for her. Due to a condition that was present at birth, she was very small for her age and had partial limbs. She had one usable finger and a partly usable thumb on one hand and a tiny finger extension on the other fixed limb. She also had low vision. She had had many operations, including a number of facial surgeries, and as a result she missed a lot of days in the classroom. In addition to her frequent absences for medical appointments, her inability to read print efficiently was having an impact on her schoolwork.
When I walked into the classroom, I spotted Kaleigh right away. Her tiny frame was dressed in an adorable pink outfit. As I observed her quietly, I discovered that she had found an effective way to grasp a pencil. Leaning over her desk with her face about two inches from her paper, she printed out letters slowly but surely. At recess time I asked her to stay in with me, and she readily agreed.
The first question I always ask a child is, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Kaleigh immediately replied, "A princess." I smiled. Of course. Lots of little girls want to be princesses, and Kaleigh was no different. We all want to feel beautiful and important and to know that we matter.
Because she was scheduled for several more surgeries, I did not begin instruction with Kaleigh until she was in the middle of third grade. During the fall, I did some preliminary work with her special education teacher, her para-educator, and her mother. I taught them the basics of Braille and the technology that Kaleigh would be using. I wanted them to get a jump start so they could follow through on the lessons I set up. Due to my huge caseload of students scattered across central Washington, I would only be able to see Kaleigh twice a week. She would need daily instruction and follow-up in order to succeed academically. Fortunately, she had an incredible team, everyone dedicated to her success.
Once Kaleigh and I began working together, I noticed that the finger on her one fixed limb did not have the receptors necessary for reading Braille. She would have to depend on that one little finger on her other hand. So that she could read more quickly, I had her use the finger on her fixed limb to track the Braille lines down the left margin of the page while she read with her right finger. With a lot of Braille reading over a couple of years, Kaleigh's wonderful brain created enough nerves in that left finger to start reading Braille in each sentence. After lots of practice she built her reading speed to 115 words per minute. You can watch her fingers flying over the page in the YouTube video we created.
Kaleigh does all of her writing on her laptop computer. She reads from her Braille books and types the answers into Word documents. She can also use Excel and PowerPoint as needed. She types sixty-eight words per minute, and she knows JAWS commands as well as she knows all the pink outfits in her closet. She emails her work to her teachers, and they email back their comments and grades so she can do her work independently. After three years of work on blindness skills, Kaleigh is now on grade level.
As a student Kaleigh has become one of my brightest shining stars. When I launch into a new technology adventure, I try out the equipment or program on Kaleigh first. She can send email and text messages. Skype has become her favorite mode because of its accessibility features, which are completely compatible with JAWS. When she is at school, she uses Chat to ask me how to do a certain command she may have forgotten. When I send back a simple reply, she can resolve her issue within seconds.
These days I work with Kaleigh virtually through Skype and JAWS Tandem. I can watch everything she is doing on her computer from far away. Her para-educator has gone virtual, too. At school Kaleigh texts her para when she needs something, and the para drops it off in the classroom without any intrusion. Through texting, the para and I check in with Kaleigh during the day to ask how everything is going. No one else is aware of these interactions. The para and I remain invisible, working in the background.
Kaleigh is a fast learner with a great memory. Her agile, eager mind has put her at the top of her class. With her abilities, Kaleigh has the potential to go far in life, to become a queen in whatever field of endeavor she chooses.