Future Reflections         Summer 2011

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Entering the GATE

by Joy Orton

Ahbee holds a winnerís plaque from the 2010-2011 Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest.From the Editor: Trained as an English teacher, Joy Orton has been a stay-at-home mom for the past seven years. As this article goes to press, she and her family are preparing to spend two years in China, where Joy and her husband, Paul, will teach in a small rural college.

In 2004 my husband and I traveled to China to adopt our daughter, Ahbee.  She was four years old and had been cared for in an orphanage since she was two. We know nothing of Ahbee's early history. We only know where she was found in a market, and what she was wearing.

When she went to the orphanage, Ahbee was already talking. Based on the dialect she spoke, we know that she did not originally come from the part of the province where she was found. The orphanage assigned her a birthday based on her calculated age. Although we don't know exactly when or where she was born, she has an official birth certificate.

As we navigated the adoption process from our home in Texas, we did not know that Ahbee was blind. If we had been aware of her disability, we probably would have been afraid to take on the challenge. We knew nothing about blindness, and we had all of the usual fears and misconceptions. Fortunately for us all, the medical report said only that Ahbee had nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes. We thought that the condition would be correctable with proper medical treatment.

When we met Ahbee in China, we realized that her vision was much more limited than we had thought. She would walk and run in familiar places indoors, but on the street she was unsure and wanted us to carry her. We also began to suspect that she was very bright. During our first meal together she would take bits of cereal from a bowl and hand them to each of us. We responded by saying, "Thank you," in English. By the next morning "thank you" was part of Ahbee's vocabulary.

Before I was married I lived in China for four years, so I know some Mandarin. Mandarin is similar to Hakka, the language Ahbee learned at the orphanage. My Mandarin was a help as Ahbee adjusted to life with our family, but at times the differences between Mandarin and Hakka led to confusion. An early example was when she wanted to go swimming, and we thought she wanted to take a nap. She was not happy about that!

Soon after we brought her home, Ahbee discovered a toy stroller. Pushing it ahead of her, she cruised freely around the house and yard, exploring her new environment. We contacted an orientation and mobility instructor, who very tentatively asked us how we would feel about giving Ahbee a long white cane. Without hesitation we said that we wanted Ahbee to have a cane if it would help her. The O&M instructor was relieved. She told us that many parents strongly resist cane instruction for their blind children.

Ahbee spent half a year in a pre-kindergarten class and then went on to kindergarten. The school tested her for the gifted program, but the materials were largely visual, and Ahbee was below the cutoff point. Ahbee's teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) suggested that she spend an extra year in kindergarten in order to consolidate her English and Braille skills. Thanks to her dedicated teachers, Ahbee's kindergarten was a Braille-rich environment. In addition to providing Braille books and worksheets, her teachers made sure that many things in the classroom were labeled in Braille.

That second kindergarten year was helpful for Ahbee. She improved in her spoken English and made great strides in reading Braille. Again during that year she was tested for the gifted program, and again her scores fell below the district's cutoff scores.

My husband searched the Internet for information on gifted blind students. He discovered a Website sponsored by the Frances A. Karnes Center for Gifted Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. The URL is <www.usm.edu/gifted>. The site includes extensive information on children with dual exceptionality--gifted children who also have a sensory, physical, or cognitive disability. The research showed that giftedness expresses itself differently in children who have other forms of exceptionality. For instance, a blind child who reads Braille on grade level is often gifted. Because blind children usually have little early exposure to Braille compared to print exposure for sighted children, Braille readers of average intelligence tend to fall below grade level.

From the Frances Karnes Website my husband printed out a huge document, describing the multiple characteristics of dually exceptional children, including gifted blind children. From our point of view, Ahbee seemed to fit the profile. In fact, nearly everyone who interacted with our child was struck by her intelligence. We asked to have her re-evaluated for our school's gifted program, GATE, which stands for Gifted and Talented Education. The program evaluates any kindergartener who is recommended by a teacher or parent.

Ahbee had been tested earlier for the GATE program, but according to the results she didn't qualify. However, after studying the research from the University of Southern Mississippi, I knew that no test for giftedness has been normed for blind children. I felt strongly that factors other than her test score should be considered in Ahbee's evaluation. I arranged a phone conference with the GATE teacher at Ahbee's school.

During our phone conference, the teacher agreed that Ahbee was very bright. However, she said that she was not sure Ahbee would fit into the gifted program. She worried that Ahbee would be unable to deal with visual materials used in the classroom or to work independently on research projects. She also thought the pace of the class might be too fast for Ahbee. Furthermore, she worried aloud, "I'm not sure it would be best for the other children to have Ahbee in the class."

I was shocked to hear such a comment coming from an educator. I pointed out that every child with a disability is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The child's effect on other children in the class is not supposed to be a consideration. Despite the teacher's negative attitude, I was determined to pursue the GATE program as an option for Ahbee.

The next person I contacted was the GATE Program coordinator for our school district. I gave her a copy of the document from the Karnes Center Website. She thanked me and promised to get back to us.

Several weeks passed, and I heard nothing from the coordinator. I left her a series of phone messages and sent her numerous emails, but got no reply. Finally I sent her a certified letter. The letter was received, but still the coordinator did not respond.

By now it was May, and the school year was drawing to a close. I was eager to firm up Ahbee's placement for the fall. It was at this point that my husband suggested I contact the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC).

When I called the NOPBC I had the pleasure of speaking with then-president Barbara Cheadle. Barbara suggested that we file a complaint with the State Board of Education or a complaint under Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. She urged me to tell the school that a formal complaint would be our next step unless we received a response from the district coordinator.

Following Barbara's suggestions, I called the coordinator again and left yet another message. I also called the IEP coordinator (known as the diagnostician) at Ahbee's school. I told the diagnostician that I didn't want to file complaints, but since the coordinator refused to respond to me, I felt that I had no choice.

The strategy brought miraculous results. Within half an hour I received the long-awaited call from the district coordinator. Sounding full of enthusiasm, she said we needed to meet! We needed to talk! Without delay she set up a conference.

At the ensuing meeting, I spoke with the district coordinator and the school principal. The GATE teacher, the one who had worried about Ahbee's effect on the other children, was not present. At our meeting, the coordinator stated that the district needed a procedure for evaluating not only Ahbee, but also other exceptional children in the future. The diagnostician evaluated Ahbee over the summer, working closely with her TVI.

That fall, as a first grader, Ahbee entered the GATE program. In Ahbee's school GATE is a pull-out class. The GATE students are assigned to regular classrooms and are pulled out for special activities once a week. Ahbee was also being pulled out of her regular class for Braille and O&M instruction. Although her day was something of a patchwork, she continued to receive 90 and above in all of her classes. We felt certain that GATE was the right placement for her. Without Barbara Cheadle's help, Ahbee's placement might have been stalled indefinitely.

After she overcame her reservations, Ahbee's first GATE teacher was loving and kind. However, she tended to make plans at the last minute. Often she didn't give the Braillist enough time to prepare the materials Ahbee needed. We have continued to be vigilant to make sure Ahbee's needs are being met.

Year after year we see the same pattern at school. Ahbee's classroom teacher begins the year with a look of terror. Then, as the teacher discovers Ahbee's eagerness to learn, terror changes to delight. Ahbee is often one of the first students to answer a question. Her teachers tell us that she is awesome and wonderful, and it's not simply because she can walk to a room down the hall and deliver a message. Ahbee's teachers generally expect as much from her as they do from their other students.

Each of Ahbee's teachers has brought something unique to the task. In first grade her classroom teacher actually Brailled Ahbee's Christmas card and provided her end-of-the-year awards to the Braille transcriber in time for them to be ready in Braille when the other children got their awards.

Today, at almost eleven, Ahbee plays piano and is a voracious reader. She is starting to learn to cook. She has taken tap dance and ballet, and now she has settled on clogging as her dance of choice. This past year she placed first for her school in the spelling bee and came in second in the regional competition.

In 2006 our family attended our first NFB convention, and we haven't missed a convention since. The NFB philosophy resonated for us from the beginning. We want to raise our daughter to be confident, capable, and involved in the life around her. With her talents and drive, she is off to a great start!

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