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Lauded For Work with
by Colleen Pohlig
Reprinted from the Seattle Times, Tuesday, June 19, 2001. Editor’s Note: In July 2001, Denise Mackenstadt became the first Braille instructional assistant to receive the prestigious Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award given annually by the National Federation of the Blind. In the next issue of Future Reflections we will feature the speech she gave at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. In the meantime, we reprint the following article in salute to Mrs. Mackenstadt, and to all instructional aides/para-educators who work tirelessly and diligently on behalf of their blind students.
At the 2000 NFB Convention, Sharon Maneki (right) presents a placque to Denise Mackenstadt (left), as the 2000 recipient of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award.
The greatest gift will come when the boy she has pushed and fought and cared about for six years no longer needs her.
“I’m slowly fading away. It’s a triumph,” says Denise Mackenstadt, a teacher’s aide at Skyview Junior High in Bothell.
Since 14-year-old Chris Micelli was in second grade, “Mrs. Mack,” as he calls her, has been by his side, guiding him through crowded hallways, spinning visual lessons into auditory and tactile ones, goading him into finally learning Braille, mastering the latest technology for the blind – and never letting him give up on himself.
Chris sums up Mrs. Mack this way: “She knows what I can do, and she won’t let me get away with doing less. Sometimes that’s bad.”
It is these qualities – Mackenstadt’s dedication and high expectations of blind students – that recently earned her the nation’s Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. Mackenstadt is the first teacher’s aide to win the honor, which the National Federation of the Blind will present to her at its annual convention July 1 in Philadelphia. Classroom teachers have always won the award. The honor comes with a $500 check, a plaque and an all-expenses-paid trip to the convention, where she will address the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
“This award is very heartfelt because it is coming from blind people themselves,” she said.
Mackenstadt plans to use the award to tout the hard work of all teachers’ aides and to call for more training for those who work with disabled students. She said one of the toughest struggles with Chris was teaching him to read. For two years after he lost his sight in first grade due to a congenital disorder, he refused to learn to read Braille – the only way blind people can read.
“When he was young and so angry and wanted to give up, I told him, ‘I’m going to outlast you.’” And she did. She tried everything, then came across the magic reading tool: joke books.
Mackenstadt does have a personal advantage. “My husband is totally blind – has been since about the same time Chris lost his sight – and that helps me say, ‘This isn’t working for me,’ when Chris says he can’t do something,” she said. “And that’s frustrating for him because I raise the bar and when he meets it, we raise it again.” Chris has always been in regular classes and has completed the same work as his peers. Mackenstadt says it’s a balancing act to know how much he needs from her, and how much he can – and should – do on his own. The goal, which they are on track for, is that he become almost totally independent after next year, in time for high school.
Sharon Maneki, chairman of the National Federation of the Blind’s award-selection committee, said the committee chose Mackenstadt for her “exceptional teaching” and her countless volunteer hours in the disabled community. She helps run a Saturday family program for blind kids, promotes Braille training for educators, and is involved in Northshore School District’s parent advocacy group for families with disabled children.
Noel Nightingale, President of the Federation’s Washington branch, said she nominated Mackenstadt because, unlike schools in general, Mackenstadt expects a lot from blind students. “And she has taken the time to get to know blind people and what it is that makes us successful as adults,” she said. “She doesn’t think she knows what’s best for us. She listens to us and is with us as a peer and colleague.”
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