Finding Her Way

by Karen Crowe


From the Editor: Kids who read the January/February, 1999, issue of American Girl magazine know a good deal more about what it's like being a blind teen-ager than they did in 1998. That's because the issue carried a wonderful story about Federationist Cortney Osolinski from New Jersey. The reporter did a great job of accurately describing Cortney's day and her methods for getting her work done. But Cortney also did a fine job of helping the reporter to understand what Cortney was doing and what she thinks about being blind. Here is the article:


Cortney Osolinski is hurrying to get ready for school. She checks the time by feeling the raised dots on her watch. To choose her outfit, she feels the texture of the clothes in her dresser and pulls out a soft ribbed shirt. Cortney, thirteen, has special ways of getting ready in the morning because she can't see.

Cortney has been blind since birth, but being blind has not kept this New Jersey girl from doing things that other girls her age do. She's just developed different ways to do them. We spent a day with Cortney to learn how she uses other senses and skills to find her way through her world.

After dressing, Cortney heads downstairs to the kitchen. She can see blurry, light- and dark-colored shapes as she walks, but she can't tell what those shapes are. So Cortney has memorized the layout of every room in her house. She knows where the furniture, windows, and doors are. Things like floor coverings and the beads hanging in her bedroom doorway are clues.

Downstairs Cortney chooses her breakfast by reading the bumpy Braille labels that she makes for the cereal boxes. Braille is a code of small, raised dots that can be read by touch. Each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a different arrangement of up to six dots. Here is how Cortney spells her name in Braille:

 The Braille letters of Cortney's 

name appear here.

  Cortney Osolinski


After giving her mom and dog goodbye hugs, Cortney grabs her backpack and white cane and heads for the bus stop at the end of her street. Some blind people use special guide dogs to help them get around, but Cortney's dog, Kelly, is just a pet. Guide dogs are professionally trained and require lots of discipline, so Cortney must be sixteen before she can get one. "I think having a guide dog would be great because then I could have a friend with me all the time," says Cortney. Most blind people use canes instead of dogs to help them find their way, since canes are more convenient and require no care.

To get to the bus stop, Cortney taps the ground with her cane to find where the grass meets the road. She uses the street's edge as her guide to the corner. "Hi, Cortney!" her friends call out. She knows the bus stop is just ahead.

When Cortney's teacher asks the class to write sentences using their spelling words, Cortney turns to her Braille writer. It's like a typewriter, but it has only six keys--one for each dot in the Braille system. Cortney presses different keys to make the correct combination of dots for each letter. The machine creates a Braille page for Cortney and a printed copy for her teacher.

Cortney weaves through the busy hallways at her school. As she walks, she swings her cane back and forth in front of her to detect objects in her path. Cortney has taught the kids at school that her cane is her eyes and that it's supposed to bump into things--even people--so that she doesn't!

The first few days of every year, friends help Cortney find her new classrooms. She memorizes the route, using doors, trash cans, and drinking fountains as landmarks. But the first time Cortney came to this school, she got lost. "It was a little scary," she says. "Now I just ask for help if I need it."

At her locker Cortney stores her many books. Because Braille type takes up much more space than printed type, Cortney often has several Braille books for every textbook her classmates have. Her social studies book takes up fifteen Braille volumes! Cortney has a special lock on her locker. To open it, she counts the lock's clicks and lines up her secret combination by feeling the tabs.

At lunchtime kids in Cortney's class tell her what foods are on the menu as they go through the line. "I can always tell when it's pizza day by the smell. That's my favorite lunch!" Cortney says.

She's also learning some tricks for keeping track of paper money: Cortney keeps $1 bills flat, folds $5 bills in half lengthwise, folds $10 bills in half widthwise, and folds $20 bills in quarters. If a coin is dropped, she can identify whether it's a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter just by the sound.

Some people think Cortney's skills are extraordinary. But to her, life isn't difficult and her skills aren't unusual. "I just pay more attention to details like sound than most people do," she says.

Cortney's friend Christina Gountas often visits after school. Christina is also blind. Sometimes they draw together using thin strips of sticky wax. They can feel the shapes they make on paper. The girls also like to play descriptive videos in the VCR. As the movie plays, a voice describes scenery and action that blind people can't see. When the movie Titanic wasn't available as a descriptive video for Cortney's slumber party, her sighted friends described the action for her and Christina.

Cortney has been taking Tae Kwon Do classes for three years. Instead of watching her teacher demonstrate moves, she learned to kick, punch, and flip people by feeling her teacher's arm or body position, then copying it herself. Cortney participates in most of the activities in her gym class at school--even running on the track. She just takes a classmate's hand and joins the race. At the summer camp she attends, Cortney and other blind kids play kick ball with a ball and bases that beep.

Cortney climbs into bed, taking along a Braille version of the novel Jurassic Park. She says that books help her see the world. "They have such in-depth descriptions, like how a raptor moves its head, or the scenery, or even the temperature," she says. "They really make you feel like you're there."

Cortney's dream is to become a paleontologist, a scientist who studies dinosaurs. She knows she'll have to study hard, but Cortney also knows her blindness won't stand in her way. "I don't think being blind is hard," she says. "I think of it as being unique."

Cortney's Tips for Kids:

Cortney helped write a list of courtesy rules to tell sighted people how they can treat blind kids with more respect. Here are some of her tips.

* Please don't say "Guess who I am" or expect me to know you by your voice. This will embarrass me if I don't know.

*When greeting me, say your name, like "Hi Cort, it's A.J., what's up?"

*In group situations, say my name first when addressing me. Then I'll know you're talking to me.

* Please don't move my body--for example, turn me for directions or place my hands on something. Spoken directions are much more helpful and considerate.

* My cane is used for what I can't see with my eyes. I keep it with me all the time. Please don't move it without me knowing.

* Don't think that I'm amazing because I read Braille or can find my way using a cane. I'm just an ordinary person who is blind. You or anyone could do it if you were taught the skills.