By Alicia Wolfe, Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments
I met Jake 13 years ago when he was five and embarking on his educational career as a kindergartner. Jake’s start to school was unique in that he did so with a prosthetic left eye and a limited amount of functional vision in the peripheral visual field of his right eye. My role as Jake’s teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) was to teach him compensatory skills that would empower him to learn and excel in his educational setting with limited eyesight. Because Jake’s prognosis was uncertain for his right eye, it was my responsibility to ensure Jake would always be literate as well as read fluently and comprehend on grade level. It was during kindergarten that Jake began to learn how to read and write the braille code for an hour each day. In addition to learning to read raised dots with his fingers, he was also learning to read and write in print along with his sighted peers. I was constantly inspired by his excitement to learn the braille code, especially when he learned how to read and write the letter “J.”
You see, Jake had already experienced quite an education, but it was about losing an eye to cancer, radiation treatments, MRI scans, and surgery. He had learned how to survive retinoblastoma (a rare cancer of the retina), and perhaps, he saw braille as another survival tool empowering him to be his best. He proved he was a spirited lifelong learner even at the young age of five. He was also a young teacher himself; teaching me to view life’s challenging situations as accomplishments preparing us for greatness.
As an elementary school student (and even today), Jake’s visual impairment significantly impacted his ability to not only see instructional materials at a distance, such as class work written on the white board or PowerPoint presentations, but it also impacted his ability to complete near tasks at the same pace as his peers. As Jake’s teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) for six years, I observed first-hand how much more effort he had to exert than his peers to have the same success and opportunities. While most students spent 30 minutes completing homework, he spent an hour or two completing the same assignments with less eyesight and extreme visual fatigue. Jake’s parents expected him to always complete all of his homework, and as a result of their high expectations, he quickly learned he could not use his visual impairment as a reason to do less. Their expectations embody a life lesson that has prepared Jake for college and ultimately the working world.
Now, fast forward from kindergarten to today where Jake graduated on the fist day of June with his diploma from high school. When I recently met with Jake, he was confident he graduated ready for his transition into the real world and was proud to share what he did to prepare. During his senior year, Jake received no special education services from a TVI. He received accommodations based on a 504 Plan and was in charge of independently advocating to his teachers for the accommodations he needed. His success is reflected in his 4.01 (weighted) GPA. How did Jake achieve this level of independence and academic success?
In addition to learning braille, Jake learned how to use an array of efficiency tools as well as learned skills to facilitate his independence in the classroom. He learned how to use ZoomText (a screen enlargement program to access the computer), a telescope to see the board, a magnifier to access small print, how to touch type, how to use digital books, and how to use his iPhone and an iPad to access information. Jake explained it was important to him to know how to use a variety of devices as well as to have opportunities to try a variety of tools so he could determine which worked best for him in different situations. Jake shared he was expected to use some tools that didn’t necessarily work well for him. He emphasized how important it was for him to be able to choose to use the tools he felt most comfortable using in class but did not feel his perspective was always considered.
Jake explained being a part of his Individuated Education Program (IEP) team was a turning point for him. Sitting in his IEP meetings and essentially taking the easy route by not speaking up was not working for him. He shared he often let his parents handle everything and would rarely contribute to the meetings: “I knew I needed to be my own voice.” Jake explained that when he became his own advocate at his IEP meetings, he was on his way to the success and independence he desired for himself as a senior. He found a new sense of confidence and success during his high school career when he took control of his needs and personally worked to get things accomplished versus relying on his teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI). The early and intense instruction he received in elementary and middle school prepared him to transition from having an IEP to a 504 Plan. It was his motivation, commitment to his education, his positive attitude, and his personal network of support that made it a successful transition.
Jake shared with me the most important skill he learned from his previous TVIs and his parents was to advocate for himself. He explained he found the most effective way to advocate to his teachers was in person. “I realized that if I did not speak up and advocate when I needed help, my grades would be impacted.”
For most teens, driving is the clearest rite of passage into adulthood. When asked about not experiencing this rite of passage, Jake explained, “Not being able to drive is sometimes tough and annoying, but there are worse things I could be faced with.” Jake learned how to use the city bus, but out of convenience, he often uses Uber and hitches rides with his friends, parents, and older sister. “I make sure I give my friends gas money.” Jake does not let the fact he cannot drive limit his independence or social life. In fact, Jake is in charge of his ocular health care and travels on an airplane to Miami every six months for a CT scan.
Jake’s merits extend beyond the skills he has learned to compensate for his vision loss into his community as captain and competitive member of his high school golf team. It was important to Jake to share how being active has been essential to his success, especially golf. “I have enjoyed wake boarding, fishing, and playing soccer.” However, golf is the sport that gave Jake a forum to further prove that his visual impairment does not mean he has to live within set boundaries. “Most spectators have no idea I have a visual impairment.” Because Jake is not able to track where the golf ball is after he hits it, a team mate is usually his spotter on the course.
Jake leaves home at the end of June to begin a new journey as a freshman at a university in Florida. Jake shared he chose to go to college because it will prepare him to seek employment in the field of business as well as give him more employment opportunities. He is excited to leave home and go to college. “I’ve lived in the same room for 18 years! Since kindergarten, I have gone to school with the same students, and I’ll be starting over where I won’t really know anyone. It doesn’t make me nervous that the students will not know me but that I will not know them. I am a little nervous about saying goodbye to a community that has supported me. My mom has prepared me for living away at college by teaching me to wash my clothes and to cook. I am definitely ready because my parents have treated me like a normal kid—actually, just like my sister.”
One of my life’s greatest honors was recognizing Jake for his educational merits, leadership qualities, and admission into college. The keyword is “his.” I share Jake’s story for two reasons. First, out of great respect and admiration for what he has accomplished during his educational career and for what he is setting out to accomplish in college. Even though he shared that his visual impairment was the biggest part of his story, he has never let his visual challenges define him or limit his goals. In fact, he was determined not to let his loss of vision keep him from having the same opportunities as his peers and is striving for the same as a young adult.
I also share Jake’s story as an example of how early and intense instruction in skills from the expanded core curriculum can prepare a student who is visually impaired or blind for independence and success during their high school careers. Critical to this success is parents having high expectations for their children as Jake’s parents did and IEP teams involving students in the development of their IEP’s.
As a teacher of students with visual impairments specializing in transition, I am keenly aware of the unfortunate statistic that persons with visual impairments are underemployed and often do not pursue college as a postsecondary option as Jake has. Jake’s parents have been especially essential to his success by setting high expectations for him and giving him important and realistic feedback about his performance at home and in school. As Jake moves to college, he will face new challenges, but I am confident he will persevere through them to graduate with a degree and ultimately be gainfully employed.