Braille Monitor                          November 2019

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Eleven Years of BELL Academies: Gaining Skills, Enhancing Opportunities, and Building Relationships

by Karen Anderson

Karen AndersonFrom the Editor: Our first BELL Academy was held in Maryland in 2008, and since then it has expanded to include almost every affiliate in the nation. It is a direct-service program that gives students ages four to twelve blind role models and helps move them from being spectators to players.

Karen Anderson is the NFB director of education programs, and here is the article she has written to inform and inspire:

On my clock at home I have a collection of bells, each signifying an experience in my life that allowed me to grow. The bell with the eagle on top is the one I received when I graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The one with the ship’s wheel is the bell I got after running my first summer program for blind teens. And the bell with the plastic handle is the bell I took with me after running my first BELL Academy in Nebraska. That bell reminds me of how much my students grew in two weeks. I remember the six-year-old boy who learned to put on his seatbelt by himself, the eleven-year-old girl who was sure she couldn’t do things without using her vision and ended up making a cake in a cup while wearing her learning shades, and the fourteen-year-old girl who’s family traveled to Lincoln and stayed in a hotel so she could learn Braille because the school was not willing to teach her. At the end of the program I had the privilege of giving bells to each of these children who had come so far in such a short time. As I handed one to each student, I hoped that when they rang it throughout the year, they would remember how much I believed in them, and that they would continue to believe in themselves.

These days my favorite bells are the BELL (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) Academies we hold every summer. Started in Maryland in 2008 by Federationists who realized our blind children were not being exposed to nearly enough Braille, there are now more than twenty-five states holding BELL Academies each summer. Just like the bells that sit on my clock at home, each summer’s BELL Academies signify opportunities for blind children to learn and grow.

In 2019, we held thirty-five BELL Academies in twenty-six states. This means that more than 250 children between the ages of four and twelve were exposed to Braille in a way that made literacy fun. The New Jersey BELL Academy started each day by having each student read a joke that had been Brailled for them and matched their personality. By having fun with reading, students’ confidence grew along with their knowledge of the Braille code. In New York, one nine-year-old boy began the program with very little knowledge of the code. Upon learning most of the letters, he was excited to be able to read and exclaimed, “I’m like a superhero. I can now read in the dark!”

One parent from New Jersey said, “For nine years of my son’s life it has been recommended that he lean on his vision. Attending Bell Academy, my son learned the complete Braille alphabet in a mere two weeks, something that eluded us for nine years. What sticks out is how simple it was to start Braille and the shame it is that the world resists.”

In each of our programs, children use learning shades so they can practice doing things without using their residual vision. This can be challenging for kids, and sometimes it takes a while for students to get comfortable with their learning shades. Jenny Carmack from Missouri sent us this story about a returning student:

We do an activity for some of our children who are new to Braille, called Treasure Hunting. In this activity children must dig through dried pasta, beans, or rice to find what kind of treasure is in there such as bells, gems, or animal shaped beads. This is done with only their fingers, no vision. Last year one of our children did not like to do any activity in which he could not use his eyes. This year he was excited to turn off all of the lights and treasure hunt with his fingers.

Additionally, other students can serve as great encouragers for their classmates. One little girl in New York made a switch to try and encourage her classmates. “Instead of shame on you, let’s try shades on you.” She even made a song out of it.

Cooking and food are great motivators for many kids. In Utah, students got to make bread in a bag. They read a Braille recipe, measured and combined ingredients, and baked the loaves using nonvisual skills they had learned at the program. Other programs made playdough, banana animals, brownies, and even individual pizzas. One student in New Jersey took the skills he was learning at BELL home with him and came back the next day with cookies he had baked for everyone with very little help from his parents.

Students also work on things that will help them be more independent at home. Stacie Gallegos from Texas sent us this story:

During the 2019 BELL Academy, I had the opportunity to work with Randy, one of our veteran BELL students. One of Randy’s long-term goals has been to learn how to tie his own shoes. Randy was able to complete the first two steps but had difficulty with mastering the task of the bunny ears. During the second week, we worked on shoe tying at the end of the day’s lessons. By the end of the week, Randy was able to make bunny ears and, although they were really big, he managed to tie his own shoes. I had the opportunity to speak with a group of parents, including Randy’s mother. I demonstrated to mom the steps Randy and I followed for shoe tying. I encouraged mother to work with Randy a little each day on this task. I feel confident that with practice and the opportunity to do so, Randy will be tying his own shoes next Summer.

For years BELL Academies have offered students the opportunity to be artistic and creative. Students get to decorate their long white canes using things like multi-colored duct tape, yarn, beads, and bells. This makes the cane, which is often awkward for students, feel like their own and helps make it more fun to use. In addition to decorating, many academies find other ways to introduce students to tactile art. This year several of our academies partnered with local businesses that teach students to work with clay. In Baltimore, students worked on a mosaic that will be displayed at our Jernigan Institute, and in Mississippi students got to work on several clay projects including writing their names in Braille.

This year, thanks to the generosity of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, each BELL participant was given an intact Sketchpad which helped them develop an understanding of tactile art and graphics. One child in Texas, who had previously only drawn using her limited vision, was able to create a fish with her hand, write her name and feel what the print letters look like, and draw several other shapes of her own choosing. One twelve-year-old student from New York has never liked drawing and was very resistant to drawing in the program. Once he learned to use the Sketchpad, he was ecstatic and exclaimed, “Yeah! I can play Pictionary with the family now!” In South Carolina, three students who loved art used the Sketchpads to draw their favorite Minecraft characters so the volunteers could feel what they looked like and gain a better understanding of one of their favorite games. In all these cases, students were developing tactile literacy skills.

As is so often the case with kids, some of the most impactful lessons come through play. Briley O’Connor from Minnesota sent us this story:

During recess one afternoon, we decided to go to the park across the street from BLIND, Inc. This park has no playground equipment, so I suggested the boys play a game of tag. Ben (age six) said he’d never played tag before. Silas (age four) said, ‘How can he play tag? He can’t see anything.’ Challenge accepted. I told Silas he should be ‘it’ first and make a loud noise as he ran so that way Ben could chase him. Silas took to this suggestion immediately, taking off at the count of three yelling ‘beep, beep, beep,’ as loudly as possible. Ben took some time to get used to running without help outside, but after a round or two, they needed no assistance from me. One blind child learned that he could run freely, and another learned that you don’t need any vision at all to enjoy a game of tag.

As wonderful as all these activities are, it is the relationships that our teachers and volunteers form with students and parents that make the most difference. For some, we are the first successful blind people their family has ever met. One parent from Missouri posted on Facebook that her daughter, who has attended BELL for the past four years, looks forward to it every year. She went on to say that the best thing about the BELL Academy, in her opinion, is the fact that the staff who volunteer their time are blind and are great role models for the children. Other families are heartened to have found a group of people who believe in their children, have high expectations for them, and are willing to help the families fight for what is best for their kids. A mom from New Jersey said, “As parents who have recently found the NFB we are relieved to know that we are not alone and are fully supported moving forward.” One grandmother in South Carolina plans to stay in touch with the Federation so she knows what she should ask in her grandchildren’s IEP meetings. She wants to make sure they are being raised with high expectations.

Then there are the families who are not new to the Federation. BELL gives their blind kids an opportunity to be around kids like them. This story comes from Briley O’Connor, who, in addition to being the Minnesota BELL coordinator, is also the mom of a blind son:

As the coordinator, I knew this program would be great for my four-year-old son, Silas. I’ve done this before and have seen firsthand the positive impact BELL Academy can have on a child. What I did not anticipate was how dramatic a difference it would make in his understanding of himself and his identity as a blind person. Silas is in that tricky low-vision space where his parents refer to him as a blind person, his parents are blind, many of the people in his life are blind, but he still has a degree of useable vision which makes him feel like he can see. Convincing a kid at this age to eat his vegetables is hard enough, much less to understand the value of the alternative techniques of blindness, so the cane and Braille have been a bit of a hard sell for a while. Every day we would have him leave the house with the cane, and every day it’d be a battle of wills with the refrain of ‘But I can see, I’m not blind like you,’ echoing in our ears. After decorating his cane at BELL, being around other children who are using a cane like his, a positive blind instructor (Miss Michell) constantly reminding him to have it in his hand, and a curriculum that makes learning nonvisual skills fun, his attitude has improved significantly. He now refers to himself as ‘mostly blind,’ which is an enormous shift over such a short period of time. He will take the cane when we leave the house without an argument, and he uses it more effectively when we travel.

Because I spent a lot of my career as a teacher and I’m a blind person, I assumed Silas would have an easier time than he has accepting his blindness. I’m grateful for the BELL Academy and for the National Federation of the Blind for making this possible. Parents are so important, but without this village, we’d still be fighting every day at the front door about the cane.

These stories, and the hundreds like them, are the reason I choose to be so involved in the Federation. They are why members across the country volunteer hours of their time, talent, and creativity. We know that blindness does not have to hold these kids back, and programs like BELL help them and their families realize that, too. I love to imagine more than 250 blind kids across the country ringing their bells at the end of summer—a whole bell choir of freedom and independence.

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