Posted in Blindness Skills

Essential Elements for Success #2: The Monkey Bars—Blindness Skills

It is my opinion that there are five essential elements needed for a successful playground: swings, monkey bars, a big toy (complete with slide), kickball field, and tetor-tautor.  Without these elements a playground is just, well…not as great as it could be.  Similarly, there are five essential elements for success which I believe help blind individuals to be great.  They are qualities which parents and teachers should help foster in blind children to help them navigate life’s playgrounds as successfully as possible.  Over the next few posts, I will be introducing you to all five of these elements.  So, here is our second element.

When I was younger, it seemed like the most popular thing for girls to do on a playground—aside from playing jump rope or chasing boys—was climbing across the monkey bars.  No matter how much I tried though, I was never good at crossing them. I’d reach from the platform for the first one and be able to make it to the second bar, but after my feet left the platform, it was all over.  I wasn’t the most athletic kid, and didn’t have the arm strength I needed.  (By the way, this was before I lost my sight, so that wasn’t an excuse either.)  After awhile, I gave up on trying because it was embarrassing and I didn’t know how to get better at it.  Instead, I resorted to just being the cheerleader for the other girls, or time keeper as others tried to see how fast they could cross the whole set.  A part of me was always a little jealous of the other girls, and disappointed in myself for giving up on this activity as I watched the other girls.  Fast forward a few years to my last year in college.  I had been selected to serve on a student leadership group that was quite important on our campus and at least to me, seemed like sort of a “Who’s Who”.  I was really excited for this opportunity and looking forward to some of the social aspects as well because there were some really great people on this council.  A few weeks before school started, the council held a leadership retreat weekend up at a lake resort near the campus.  Like many team building conferences, one entire day was devoted to participating in a ropes course.  For those of you who are not familiar with a ropes course, it is a series of physical activities where you are usually tied into a waist harness while participating in tasks with your team such as climbing a rock wall, repelling, walking along a cable as a group, swinging on a sip line–in short, an adult version of the monkey bars.  There are also some leadership or team building elements incorporated into a lot of the activities.  Needless to say, I spent the whole day sitting alone under a pavilion with absolutely nothing to do except talk to the occasional passer-by getting water.  SO BORING!! I missed out on so much that day.  This is so humiliating to admit now, because this wouldn’t even be an issue for me today, but I was scared to participate because I couldn’t see.  I didn’t know how I could do these activities without sight, and I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I was afraid, or be seen as different because I probably would have needed the group to make some accommodations for me.  (Yes, this was pre-cane using days, and before I was “okay” with my blindness.) So, I opted to sit out of the activities that day.  It was like being back on the playground in elementary school and watching from the sidelines as all the cool girls crossed the monkey bars and had fun with each other, only this time, I was letting blindness hold me back, and not just a lack of coordination.

So what does all this have to do with blindness skills?  Well, there are two parallels I can draw from these examples.  The first one is that we can’t let our blindness be a barrier that keeps us from doing hard things, just because we don’t know how to do them non-visually.  The second is the parallel that monkey bars have to blindness skills themselves.  So what are blindness skills?  It’s things like reading braile, using adaptive technology, learning non visual or “alternative” techniques to perform certain tasks like identifying money, cleaning, or cooking, , using a cane and knowing how to problem solve in various circumstances, and knowing how to advocate for ourselves. Blindness skills are techniques blind people do to perform the same tasks as sighted people, just without vision, or non-visually.  These are not inferior methods, rather just different ways of doing the same things.  For example, Braille is not inferior to reading print.  It’s just a different method for accessing the same material.

In order to be a successful blind person, our children need to learn these skills and become proficient at them.  Just like starting out on the monkey bars, these skills can often be hard and even physically challenging to master. But it is imperative that we give our children the support and training they need to master these skills so they can compete equally with their sighted peers.  You could argue that being the theoretical “cheerleader” or “time keeper” on the sidelines like I was from time to time isn’t such a bad thing.  I mean I was still involved and seemingly part of the group right? But I felt forced to these roles because I lacked the skills I needed to interact in other ways.  I want our blind and low vision children to have all the options of these proverbial roles available to them, and not to feel forced into a certain role as result of their lack of blindness skills.

So how do blind and low vision children learn these skills?  You as parents will have to advocate for these skills to be taught by your child’s TBS or TVI and O and M instructor.  There are also a number of summer training programs around the country that teach these skills in a concentrated way to children and youth.  Additionally, you can talk to other blind adults who can help share some of the techniques they use with your child.  Most rehabilitation agencies focus on teaching these skills to blind individuals once they reach adulthood, but how much better off will your child be if they learn these skills early on?

And for the rest of the story…I’ve never really mastered real monkey bars, (haven’t really tried since elementary school I guess), but I’m proud to say that I’ve become pretty good at the proverbial ones.  After college, I attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind where I learned the skills of blindness in full force.  It took a lot of effort, and was even physically grueling at times—just like real monkey bars can be—but I made it to the other side!  Learning these skills opened so many doors to me and really changed my life and my attitudes about blindness.  Interestingly enough, while at the LCB, I attended another ropes course, only this time I had to participate under blindfold the entire time.  I am proud to say that I participated successfully and had such a great time.  I’ve since become a huge fan of ropes courses and have participated in a number of these, and similar activities now that I know it can be done as a blind person.  Never again will I let my blindness be a barrier to me like I did that day.  And, can I just say, it feels great!

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To All You Mothers of Blind Children, Thank You

In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge all the mothers of blind/low vision children out there for all the things they do to help their children have access to the things they need to be successful.  Being a mom on its own is hard work a           nd one of the most challenging jobs ever—though certainly the best in my book.  The additional challenges blindness sometimes can bring though can really make for a full plate.  This isn’t to say that dads are chopped liver; we love dads and they have their own special role, but moms definitely appear to take a lion’s share of the load when it comes to things like advocating for their child, making sure educational goals are met, and ensuring their child gets the skills and training they need—at least from my experience.  Moms also often carry the emotional burdens of their family.  Many have feelings of guilt, sadness, worry, or a loss themselves upon learning their child has some kind of vision loss.  Then there is just the strain of always feeling like you’re in battle, fighting discrimination, or barrier after barrier of low expectations placed on your child by society.

I know several moms who learned Braille so they could teach their child or just to be able to communicate through written means with their child, moms who have gone back to school to get a degree in teaching blind students or orientation and mobility because there was no one to teach their child, moms who travel great distances to meet other blind people to learn from them  or who regularly attend conferences about issues related to blindness and low vision, moms who move to other parts of the state, or even other states just so their blind child can receive services—the list could go on and on.

If you point this out to a mom of a blind child, she’ll probably just tell you that she isn’t doing anything more than any other parent would do for their child, regardless of their eye sight, but I still think these moms deserve a little pat on the back and recognition for some of the extra things they face.

I’ve had many a conversation with a frustrated mom who is trying to get an IEP enforced, accessible materials for her child, Braille instruction, or just trying to figure out what her child needs.  It truly inspires me and my heart goes out to them when I hear their stories of frustration at barriers they encounter so often in meeting their child’s needs.  Thank you to all you moms who fight for high expectations and equal opportunities for your children.  I want to pay special tribute this Mother’s Day to my mom for all she did and continues to do for me to help me be a successful blind person.

Since I  lost my vision just shy of my thirteenth birthday, blindness was a little bit of an adjustment for our family.  My mom was a single mom of three children at the time, with me being the oldest.  I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for her to find out that her daughter was going to be blind, and then also having to deal with all the day-to-day things of caring for my two siblings and also trying to be at the hospital with me for those couple of weeks while I was undergoing different tests and surgeries.  To me, she just seemed to put on her game face and say, “Well, what do we need to do to deal with this?”

When I first returned back to school after a two month absence, my mom went to school with me daily for about two weeks until the school figured out what to do to accommodate me and connected me with anitinerent teacher.  At the time, this was a little awkward since I was in seventh grade and having your mom come along with you to class wasn’t exactly the “cool” thing a girl wants, but I appreciated having her there as it allowed me to keep up on my school work, and gave me a little moral support as I made the adjustment back to school now as a “visually impaired” student.   My mom has earned herself a special place in Heaven for all the long hours and late nights she spent reading homework to me and typing all my papers from the middle part of seventh grade until I finished high school.  My dad (I should mention that my mom married my step-dad about a year and a half after I first lost my sight) worked for our church’s property maintenance group and one day brought home a wall-size chalk board from one of the classrooms at a church that was being remodeled.  He installed it on our kitchen wall and this became the place where I worked out all my math problems in large print each night for several years as my mom then transcribed them onto paper for my teacher.  (See, dads have a special place too.) Usually these homework sessions went well into the night as I’d have to wait until she got done making dinner or helping my siblings with something, so I’d do as much as I could with other methods like audio books, and then she’d help me with the things I couldn’t read.  (I should note here that Braille and accessible technology opened up so many doors to me, but those things were unknown to us at the time.  In any case, I’ll save talking about those topics for another time.)

Things got a little easier when I got to high school and got to bring a CCTV home with me, but there was still a lot which she helped me complete.  I know I was less than pleasant to be around at two in the morning when we’d still be typing a paper and she’d critique my writing, or when I’d fall asleep as she was reading a chapter from a science class, but she put up with all of that.  I know she would get frustrated with me sometimes, but I never remember her uttering any words of complaint.

My mom became the squeaky wheel) or the parent that school administrators dread seeing) in my education as she advocated for me to get accessible books on time, have access to classroom materials and accccessible SAT’s, ACT’s, and AP test, and in demanding the school mark the steps on the campus so that I wouldn’t trip down them—something for which I was extremely mortified that she did.  Yes, all you grads of Millcreek Jr. and Woods Cross High can thank me for the bright “caution yellow” strips on the stairs.  (Keep in mind this was pre-cane days for me and apparently bright yellow paint was far less humiliating than carrying a white cane back then.  I’ve since seen the error of my ways and had a change of heart about the cane.)

I know it’s not uncommon for parents to drive their kids to places, but my mom’s chauffeuring days seemed to last a little longer than most.  Even when I was home visiting from college, or after graduating from college, it wasn’t uncommon for my mom to give me rides somewhere.  I know there were a lot of times before I learned how to travel independently using a cane where I would miss a bus or get off at the wrong stop and I’d call her to come and pick me up.  She always did so willingly and would listen to me rant about public transportation—I still call her sometimes now and rant about public transportation and how I wish she could pick me up even though I live 1800 miles from her.

My mom’s paper typing days are over—at least for helping me, but I still call her up sometimes and ask her to look up something online for me when I encounter an inaccessible website or am looking at pictures and need a sighted opinion.  This past Halloween, she helped me order a costume for my daughter, and last week she was helping me look at pics of houses for sale.  I guess that just goes to show that a mother’s work is never done.

I love my mom dearly and am so grateful for all that she has done and continues to do for me and my family now.  She never let my blindness be an issue and never doubted my abilities.  She continued to encourage me to do and be whomever I wanted regardless of whatever eyesight I had.  She’s pretty special to me.  I know there are a lot of other blind children out there today who have moms just like this who sacrifice and do so much to help their children be successful.  So, to all yougreat moms of blind children, I say thank you and keep up the good work.

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In Honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week

Since this week is National Teacher Appreciation week, and this is a blog for teachers (and parents who are ultimate teachers in my mind), I thought it only fitting to take a moment to share some thoughts on the subject.

First off, thank you to all of you teachers of blind children out there in whatever capacity you may be.  Whether it’s an itinerant teacher, classroom teacher, or O and M instructor.  There really aren’t enough of you, and those of you who are in the field are definitely overtaxed.  Thank you to those of you who go the extra mile, give of your time, and who help empower your students with high expectations for themselves as blind people.

I would like to highlight three of the qualities I believe truly make a great teacher of blind children, and trust me, they’re out there.

1.  Passion for the work:  It is really easy to get burned out in education, especially since so many teachers are spread thin and taken for granted.  I love it when I meet teachers who have such a love for what they do.  These are the people who are always coming up with great new ideas, are always trying to improve their skills, and love and respect the children and families with whom they work.  It’s invigorating and makes me want to be a better teacher.

2.  A willingness to go the extra mile:  Sometimes when teaching blind children, there is a lot of other little things that can really make a difference.  It’s the things like brailing labels for the school soda and snack machines so your student (even if they are the only blind or low vision child in the place) can use the machines (btw, this also helps educate others about blindness and the value of Braille), taking time to read a technology manual or website to learn how to teach your student how to use a new piece of equipment, even though you’re not the technology specialist for the district;  calling up a blind adult for some advice as to how to teach your student to do something in an alternative way, or spending time sitting down with a parent after regular business hours to really talk about the issues of their child’s education.  .

3.  Being willing to think outside the box:  Necessity is the mother of all invention, and I believe teachers of the blind are some of the most creative inventors ever.  I really admire teachers who have this quality and can think up fun and creative ways to help engage their students in the classroom and with their peers, or who find creative ways to make something accessible which wasn’t before.  I also admire teachers who are open to new ideas and learning new things as things are always changing in the field of educating blind students.  What worked thirty years ago may not necessarily be the best approach today.  A good teacher is always trying to improve his/her skills and knowledge.

Now, if you’ll indulge me for a few more minutes, I wanted to spotlight two of my favorite teachers.

Natalie Shaheen—Natalie is a good friend of mine and someone who I greatly admire as a teacher.  Natalie was a member of my education team at the NFB Jernigan Institute who pretty much popped out of nowhere and was this great find.  She is now the Director of Education for the NFBJI.  She is a teacher of blind students and also has a drgree in special Ed.  She is so creative and great at thinking outside of the box and really putting the student first.  I follow her on twitter, and practically everything she tweets about is related to education in some way—a 24/7 teacher.   She thinks up the most exciting activities, makes the most awesome accessible bulletin boards (which I’ll have to write a post on someday), loves literacy and always introduces my daughter and me to great new children’s books, and is truly passionate about her work.   She is also my go-to with any questions I have about Apple devices or working with blind children who have additional special needs.  She’s a real rock star of a teacher.

Roland Allen—Roland is a cane travel instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.  I attended the adult program there back in 2002 and had Roland as my cane travel instructor.  I also worked with him while training to become an O and M specialist.  I truly believe Roland is one of the best in the field, and I greatly admire him.  Roland is also blind and demonstrated such skill and confidence in his abilities as a blind person which really inspired me as a student.  He is passionate about what he does and pushes his students to be the best they can be.  He is such a natural teacher and has a great way of putting you at ease and encouraging you to believe in your abilities to do something, even when you don’t think you can.  I will admit that I struggled some in my travel classes at the center.  I have some residual vision and it was hard for me to fully believe that a blind person could travel competently without any vision or assistance from others.  But, I had a lot of great experiences which taught me otherwise and gave me a newfound confidence in myself and my abilities as a blind person, regardless of how much vision I had.  I owe a huge part of this to my classes with Roland and his great example to me.

I hope you will take a moment to acknowledge the great teachers of blind students around you.  I am told that there were really cool Braille cell suckers at Target, so maybe wrap one of these up for them with a little note telling him/her how much you appreciate them.  I also would love to hear from some of you what qualities you think make a great teacher of blind students, and about anyone you think deserves an extra pat on the back.

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Confessions… and a Little about Me

Confessions…and a Little about Me

Okay, so I should confess that this whole blogging thing is new to me, and I’m not exactly the most technically savvy person either, but I’m learning.  So, I realized that my profile is not showing up on this yet and I’m trying to figure out how to change that.  IN the meantime, I thought there may be some of you who would like to know a little about this person whose blog you have been so kind to check out.  So, here’s a little bit of the scoop “About the Author.”

My name is Mary Jo Hartle.  First and foremost, I am a wife and mom—two roles which I absolutely love! By profession, I am a certified Teacher of Blind Students (TBS) and Orientation and Mobility instructor (NOMC) having received both my MEd and NOMC from Louisiana Tech University.  I also have a bachelor’s degree in Family and Human Development with emphasis in child development from Utah State University.

I am the former Director of Education for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute where I worked for several years serving families and educators in the blindness field from across the country.  I also currently serve as a board member for the Professionals in Blindness Education organization.

I am blind myself and have been since the age of twelve due to some unexpected circumstances and a condition called Pseudo Tumor Cerebri.  A native of Woods Cross, UT, I now reside with my family in Baltimore, MD where my husband works as a Government Program Specialist on blindness legislation.  WE have one adorable little girl and a charming tabby Cat.  Life as two blind parents certainly has its interesting moments too, so I hope to share some of those with you along the way.

My husband and I love to travel, eat pints of Ben and Jerry’s from the local 7-11 like it’s going out of style, and to be “anxiously engaged” in too many good causes.  I also enjoy spending time with my family, reading, shopping, working out, and being outdoors.

So there you have it.  I hope you’ll stay tuned for more to come.

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Epiphany About Carrying Packs

When my daughter was born, I decided to use a front facing pack to carry her around.  They are great for many reasons, and my husband and I have vowed to by all our friends the Baby Bjorn as we absolutely love that one particularly.  Unfortunately, my daughter has out grown it now and we’re looking into a back pack for carrying her around in addition to the stroller.  WE liked the aspect of being able to hold her close to us, and how the pack allowed her to experience a lot of physical movement and be more a part of the environment than a stroller ride does.  AS blind parents, these front baby carrying packs are great too as they allow us to carry her and use a cane easily and get on and off public transportation a little easier than with a stroller.  Anyway, given the fact that I’m always thinking like a teacher, I had a little epiphany when I started using one with my daughter as an infant.  So, here are some benefits I’ve thought up as to how a front carrying pack could be beneficial for use with blind babies.  (By the way, This idea applies to any of the carrying packs, slings, or wraps on the market which hold your child in an upright position.)

1.  Provides Movement and Stimulation

As I mentioned, one of the benefits of these carrying packs is that your child can feel the sensation of movement as they move with you.  This provides them with a lot of stimulation which is always great for any baby, but can be particularly good for your blind child since they get less stimulation in a sense because they are not experiencing visual stimulation.

2.  Provides an Opportunity for Parent Verbalization and Concept Teaching

If your child is riding on your chest, you may be more likely to talk to them than if they are riding in a stroller or sitting in a swing or bouncy seat across the room from you.  There is a great deal of research on how important parents talking to their children from an early age is.  It helps so much in language development, and overall brain development.  While you are carrying your child, you can describe for them what is going on around you.  Since your child cannot take in the environment around them visually, they need you to tell them what is going on around them and to describe things to them.  You may be thinking, “What good is this going to do for an infant?” But, I really believe this can be a valuable thing for your child even from an early age.  This practice can help your child to start making connections between things they feel, smells around them, sounds they hear, and words you use.  There are so many great examples of this which I want to share, but I’ll save them for another time.

3.  Provides a great Method for Early cane Exploration

I’m a fan of some of the teachings of Joe Cutter, an orientation and mobility specialist who specializes in pediatric O and M.  He wroete a book entitled “The Teaching Cane” which I highly recommend parents of young blind children read.  The idea for this is that parents (referring to sighted parents mostly) get an adult size cane which they can use to role model techniques for their child.  One of Cutter’s suggestions with a teaching cane is that parents can hold the cane while their child walks between their legs and holds on to the lower part of the parent’s cane.  This way, the child can feel the cane as it is manipulated by the parent and experience the feedback the cane gives from the environment.  Then, later the child can practice these things with his or her own child size cane.  . (I will refer to the idea of the teaching cane more in future posts.)   I really like this idea and think it could start even before a child can walk.  A parent could carry his/her child in a carrying pack while walking around the home or neighborhood with their own adult size cane.  While doing so, the parent could place the child’s hand on the cane handle from time to time as they walked.  I think facing outward would be best as it simulates the most natural position for using a cane, but even if a child was facing you’re chest, you could still put their hand on the cane handel from time to time to allow them to feel its motion and the feedback from the cane tip.  My daughter started grabbing onto my cane Handel from a very early age.  She loves canes and always wants to grab them and play with them.  Once she was bigger and I started carrying her facing out,(about six months or so)  it was a lot easier to show her things with my cane and I would let her tap it and swing it from time to time when we were playing.  She really enjoys doing this and now plays with a cane her own size in much the same way.

Like I said above, this was just an idea I got one day while using my own cane and carrying my daughter around, so I don’t really have any great anecdotal info to back it up, but the concept has merit.  I’d really be interested in hearing your feedback on what you think and if any of you have or will try this.

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Pass Me a Spoon Please

Sometimes professionals will say that blind children develop at a slower rate than their sighted peers as result of their blindness.    I disagree with this statement, but reluctantly have to say they are partly right depending on how you interpret this statement.  Let me explain what I mean.  In situations where you have a child who has no other cognitive or developmental issues other than the fact they are blind, I believe there should be no reason this child can’t develop at the same rate as their sighted peers.  But, sometimes blindness does cause for some developmental delays for the wrong reasons.  It’s not that blindness makes the child unable to develop, but rather that blindness just presents a barrier that needs to be overcome with some different methods.  Sometimes families just don’t know how to overcome these barriers, and some professionals just buy into low expectations about blindness.

Here is another way to think of that statement.  Imagine someone set a large bowl of (insert favorite flavor here please) ice cream in front of you.  But they didn’t give you a spoon.  It’s not that you don’t want to eat the ice cream, or that you are not able to eat the ice cream, you just need the right tool.  So, next time someone tells you your child can’t do something because of blindness or that they are going to be slower than a sighted child, think of this analogy.  Maybe the right spoon just hasn’t been introduced yet.