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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

New Ways of Seeing: Students Look at Physical Handicaps in a Whole New Light

Guide Dogs for the Blind and Braille Is Beautiful team up to teach elementary schoolers about visual impairment.
By Rob Baedeker

Aerial Gilbert is giving a presentation to a group of about fifty third graders at Bacich Elementary School, in Marin County, California. "I'm a really active person," she says, and just then her cell phone rings.

It's a familiar enough moment, but there's an extra sense of uncertainty among the kids, and even the teachers, as the ringer goes off. Gilbert is blind, and for a split second everyone seems to be waiting to see whether the phone has some special or different meaning for someone without sight, or whether she'll handle the inconvenience in an unexpected way.

Gilbert apologizes and digs in her purse to shut the phone off, just like anyone would, and thereby offers an unwitting, real-time demonstration of what she's come to Bacich to talk about in the first place: Blind people are just like sighted people, and they do nearly all the same things, even if they experience them differently. (In fact, Gilbert shows the kids that her phone has a special voice-identification system so she can tell who's calling-just like someone with sight can. It's one small example of how a blind person often arrives at the same end result in a different way.)

Gilbert is outreach manager at Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in nearby San Rafael, and, a few months before her visit to Bacich with her German shepherd guide, Hedda, she teamed up with the school's third-grade teachers, and with the Marin County Office of Education, to help introduce materials from Guide Dogs for the Blind -- and from the National Federation for the Blind's Braille Is Beautiful program -- into school curriculum.

Bacich is one of several schools in Marin County that has implemented materials on blindness and Braille into their studies this year. Each of the four schools involved has a blind or visually impaired student in one of its regular-education classes.

Lisa Della Valle-Hake, one of Bacich's third-grade teachers, explains, "We're a tiny district, and these kids will be together for a long time." At Bacich, she says, introducing the students to the special challenges faced by their visually impaired peer provides a solid foundation "as we venture into our collective social and academic life."

Della Valle-Hake adds that, in addition to teaching the kids how to interact with and support their classmate, the discussion of Braille and blindness is part of a more general lesson: "It helps teach character building, respect, and citizenship."

Laura Trahan, special education program manager at the county office of education, visited Bacich along with Gilbert. This first year of implementing the materials and resources available from Guide Dogs for the Blind and Braille Is Beautiful, she says, has been an experiment of sorts as the teachers try to incorporate the extra activities into an already full set of educational frameworks and standards.

"We're trying to figure out how it's going to work," she says. "This is a great opportunity to increase the responsiveness of regular-ed kids to visually impaired students without compromising attention to academic standards." So far, she adds, the results have been "very exciting."

At Bacich, the teachers decided to use the Guide Dogs for the Blind and Braille Is Beautiful materials to supplement a piece of their social studies curriculum already in place: Louis Braille's biography. In addition to reading and discussing the book, the classes took a field trip to the nearby Guide Dogs for the Blind campus and even wrote letters and Valentine's Day cards to each other using the Braille stylus and slate.

Sally Carson, who also teaches third grade at Bacich and whose class includes the visually impaired student, says her students' work with Braille fostered an "awareness of how difficult it must be to be blind. They're just blown away and amazed that anyone can do this." Carson says that they wrote Braille notes to their visually impaired classmate and started noticing new things about their environment, including a sign in Braille outside their classroom door that reads "Room 19."

This kind of connection and awareness is exactly the goal of Gilbert's outreach work. "We want to teach people about how we do things differently and break down misconceptions about people who are blind," she says. "And if you can break those barriers down at a young age, you're not going to carry those misconceptions on later into life."

Barbara Cheadle, president of the National Organization of the Parents of Blind Children, an affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, has been working for several years with Guide Dogs for the Blind to extend the outreach of both organizations into schools. A major goal of that effort, Cheadle says, is to increase social connections between sighted and blind children. "Sometimes it's not just fear but ignorance that keeps social barriers up. With these curriculum programs, students are learning about Braille and guide dogs, and, as their knowledge increases, their willingness to make social contact with their blind peers increases.

"What they're really learning about is that blind people can be independent and productive members of society as well as interesting people to get to know and be friends with," she adds.

At Bacich, teachers Della Valle-Hake and Sally Carson say their students had been fascinated by Louis Braille's biography and the fact that he invented the reading system for the blind when he was fifteen years old. This curiosity and enthusiasm clearly spill over into Gilbert's visit. The children have generated a list of questions in advance for her, ranging from how she knows what to wear to whether she kept her friends after she lost her sight nineteen years ago.

When they've gone through the prepared list, plenty of hands shoot up with more eager inquiries for their visitor. "How do you take a bath?" asks one girl. "Why did you choose a German shepherd for your guide dog?" asks another.

Gilbert is patient and clear with the kids. "I take a bath just like you do; I chose a German shepherd because I had them when I was growing up, and because they are a more active breed."

The third graders are riveted, and there's not enough time for Gilbert to answer all their questions. She talks about her extensive travels, about transitioning from bird watching to bird listening, and about her myriad athletic pursuits, including participating on the U.S. national rowing team. One student asks whether she can swim, and Gilbert tells him she's planning to participate in an annual swim event from San Francisco Bay's famed Alcatraz Island, a 1.5-mile-long open-water race. The boy's jaw drops.

When the county's Laura Trahan explains to the group that Rebecca Viola, a vision specialist from her office's special education department, has been meeting extensively with their visually impaired classmate on Braille and other issues related to his disability, the boy pipes up from the front row. He's referring to his own studies with Viola, but at the moment he seems to be expressing a sentiment shared by the rest of the kids in the room. "It's been really fun!"

Rob Baedeker is a writer and performer living in Berkeley, California. He is a former college English instructor and the author, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: The Catalog Parody.

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