Teaching the visually impaired
Stephen Davis, 13, is a typical boy. He likes to ride his bike, play with Lego and loves to go fishing. He wants to be an architect or a lawyer some day. Last summer, he climbed Mt Monadnock in New Hampshire.
“Climbing the mountain was easy,” said Stephen with a shrug. “You just followed the arrows.”
Except it wasn't so easy, because Stephen is blind in his left eye and only has some vision in his right eye. He was born with an eye condition called high myopia. When he was three months old his mother, Sonia Davis, noticed that he was squinting.
“He now goes to Boston regularly for checkups,” said Mrs Davis. “The good news at his last checkup they said it hasn't been getting worse. It is stable.”
There is a chance, with his condition, that he could lose his vision entirely at some point in the future.
“I think he has done really well,” said his grandmother, Sylvia Munro. “I am amazed at what he has achieved and what he does. I think it is because we have tried to expose him to as much as possible. We don't hold him back.”
His grandmother talked about him one day getting a guide dog Stephen was afraid the dog might get left behind when he rides his bike.
Over the years his grandmother and his parents have become increasingly concerned about his future. Stephen was doing the best he could in school, and was on the honour roll twice in the last term, but he felt frustrated.
He attends Sandys Secondary Middle School with the aid of a paraprofessional. This year he has been learning Braille through a teacher for the visually impaired, William Ridley.
Mr Ridley uses an ancient Braille machine based on 100-year-old technology. He carries the machine in the back of his bike and rides around the Island from school to school helping students in need. For most of his classroom time Stephen relied on his paraprofessional to read texts and assignments to him.
“The thing is, they have to have the equipment,” said Mrs Munro. “He was getting on great with his paraprofessional, but she can't be with him all the time. He had to have his own way of getting things done.”
One day his grandmother saw an HSBC commercial on television which stated that every student in Bermuda deserves a decent education. Mrs Munro's frustration just boiled over. She telephoned HSBC and gave them a piece of her mind. She told them about her grandson, and about how she felt he wasn't getting the best education. To her surprise, they suggested she apply to the Bank of Bermuda Foundation for funding. She did this successfully, and also sent letters to a couple of other companies. In a few short months, she raised around $64,000 to purchase up-to-date equipment for visually-impaired students.
Government came on board, and donated a room at Prospect Primary, and the Busy Bees Braille programme was born. Today, thanks to his grandmother's incredible determination, Stephen now participates in the programme with six other students who also have severe vision problems.
Among their many tools are modern Braille readers and equipment that makes text larger. They have essentially gone from using clunky manual typewriters to high-speed computers. Each machine costs around $5,000; more equipment, such as a scanner and software, is desperately needed.
“Anything to do with the visually-impaired and blind is expensive,” said Mr Ridley.
The Royal Gazette visited the Busy Bees Braille classroom one Wednesday morning, ten-year-old Branden Fox turned on a state-of-the-art closed-circuit low-vision television machine used to enlarge text. He put a piece of paper in it and enlarged it so that the letters were about two inches tall the size they needed to be for him to read them. This machine was useful, but for some of the students with very poor vision, it can be slow going. That is why learning Braille is so important for all the students in the class.
“The whole Braille programme is to give them the independence to read and write, so the para can become a hands-off para,” said Mr Ridley.
Added Branden: “This programme has helped a lot. Before going in Mr Ridley's class, my life was a mess. I needed a lot of help and the school was saying I needed a paraprofessional.”
“It helps me to read,” said Kaori King, 7.
Kaori, the youngest student in the programme, was quite timid before starting. Since then, Mr Ridley has gotten Kaori into a canoe and to ride horses at WindReach Recreational Village.
“You would never believe the experiences we have had,” said Mr Ridley.
On one field trip Mr Ridley took the students into a store where Braille was posted. The students were amused to discover that the signs were misspelled and, in some cases, out of reach of blind people. They informed the manager, and hope the signs get changed.
“Now the store manager has seen that there are actual blind people who use this information,” said Mr Ridley. “Our students are now a presence in the community, and that is important.”
Eliza Olander, 8, of St George's Preparatory School said: “Before the programme I couldn't read or write. I didn't feel very happy. I am learning how to read now. My favourite experience has been doing the go-karts.”
In one exercise, students were given go-karts. One person was blindfolded and had to guide the person in the cart. This encouraged them to listen to instructions, and developed their hearing.
“I didn't crash,” said Eliza with a smile. “It was very silly though what the teachers were doing. I almost bumped into another go-kart.”
Eliza hopes to be a dancer when she grows up. She also takes singing lessons and will perform on the annual Gene and Jean Christmas television show in December. The show is put on annually by Jean Howes, who comes and works with the students twice a week.
For more information about the Busy Bees Braille programme contact Mrs Munro on 504-3050 or sylviamunro[AT]yahoo.com.