Future Reflections Summer/Fall 1999, Vol. 18 No. 2


Photo of Tyler Kavanaugh
Tyler Kavanaugh

The World at his Fingertips

Deaf-Blind Kindergartner Wins National Braille Contest

by Jacqueline Lehatto

Reprinted from The Leawood Sun, May 19, 1999.

Ask the Leawood 5-year-old what time it is and Tyler Kavanaugh will check his special watch and tell you it’s 15 minutes past 4:15.

"That’s a joke, isn’t it, Tyler?" asks his mom, Stephanie Kavanaugh. And Tyler smiles. He knows it’s 4:30 p.m., but he’s testing his visitors.

Tyler’s math ability is precocious, but it is nothing compared to his reading. This month he won an award for reading the most pages in a three-month period among kindergarten and first-grade students in the United States and Canada.

Tyler read 4,784 pages—in Braille.

Tyler, born without eyeballs, profoundly deaf and with a congenital heart defect that has required two open-heart surgeries, is a whiz at finger spelling, math and now, thanks to a recent Cochlear implant, speaking.

And most of all, Tyler is a reading fanatic.

His mom will put him to bed and a half hour later she will check on him and find he’s up reading in the dark. . . again. . . and again. Sometimes, when he should be paying attention to other things, she’ll see him slip his fingers between the pages of a nearby book and read on the sly.

Tyler’s reading has progressed beyond story books sent from the Congressional Library branch in Salt Lake City, and that poses a bit of a problem for the Kavanaughs. The latest books come without pictures or accompanying printed words.

His mother and his father, orthodontist Kurt Kavanaugh, can sight-read a few words in Braille, but whole pages of words are beyond them.

Take, for instance, the National Federation of the Blind certificate that came with Tyler’s reading award for the "Braille Readers Are Leaders" contest. It is a white piece of paper with the information written only in Braille.

Tyler had to read the certificate to his family.

Lately his favorite book is a huge Braille book, "The Earth." And he has started asking his parents how plants make oxygen and about tides and geomagnetism. His mother, Stephanie, laughs at her new challenge: answering Tyler’s complicated questions.

It’s a welcome challenge compared to the physical ones Tyler and his family have faced in the past six years. Tyler’s problems are associated with something going wrong in the first trimester of pregnancy, his mother said.

His blindness is called macrophthalmia. With the small amount of retina and the optic nerves he has in eye buds that never completely formed, he can see light and distinguish 12 colors. He wears clear prostheses in his eye sockets. Without them his eye sockets would not grow along with the rest of his body.

Earlier this year, he had a Cochlear implant. The device paired with a FM transmitter and microphone his mother or father wears, has made a huge difference in his speech, Stephanie said.

Stephanie is quick to credit the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, a nonprofit agency supported by charities and organizations throughout the metropolitan area, for helping Tyler overcome his challenges. "They were meeting with us when he was one month old," she said.

Tyler’s family contacted the center the day after he was born, and he has been a student at the center since he was 3.

Clair Flemington, a teacher at the center, has taught Tyler since he was 3 to read and, with the aid of a Braille writer, write. Flemington, who has 15 years of experience teaching Braille, said Tyler is amazing. "I have never had a child progress this far at this age."

In her class Tyler is breezing through books that first- and second-graders read. But more impressive is his ability to comprehend, sometimes on his own, difficult Braille concepts, including contractions, punctuation, and Braille short form.

One thing in Tyler’s favor is his eagerness to learn. "He is so curious," Flemington said, adding that one of his favorite books is "Curious George." "He asks wonderful questions. He wants to know everything."

Lately he’s been asking about skyscrapers, pinatas, and thunder, all tough to explain. But between his dad finger-spelling everything, and his mom verbalizing everything, plus his natural ability at Braille, Tyler has had the world opened up to him.

And Tyler is opening up to the world. "He is so much fun," said Flemington. "He is developing a real sense of humor."

Tyler has challenges ahead. He will enter first grade at Corinth Elementary School in Prairie Village in August. When his mother asked the Corinth staff if Tyler should start off in kindergarten, they said no, he is definitely ready for first grade.

And the National Federation of the Blind reading award has given Tyler’s parents a new awareness of the possibilities in Tyler’s future. When she learned that the high school winner in the Braille contest was a girl who read 20,000 pages in three months time, Stephanie said she was "heartened."

"This is going on in houses all over," she said pointing to Tyler sprawled out across the sofa reading a Braille magazine. "Sometimes, when you have a special child at home, you forget there are kids like this all over the country."