Making it Back to School

I’ve always loved “back to school time.”  Though right now I mostly enjoy it vicariously through others since I’m not in school.  Yes, I was one of those kids who laid out my new “first day of school outfit “the night before, accompanied by my neatly packed back pack with new supplies including strategically organized binders and folders for each class.  Even now, I get a little giddy when I see all the new bright, shiny school supplies lined up in the stores.  I sometimes even have to purchase a box of markers or crayons just because I can’t resist.  It’s like a little dose of childhood again.  (One day I’ll have to share the story about how I coveted a sixty-four pack of crayons with the built in sharpener in the back of the box for weeks.  I finally got one for my sixth birthday which almost rivaled the new bike I got…almost. By the way, it really promoted my status at my kindergarten table too. ).

Anyway, all the hype about going back to school and those silly Target commercials inspired me with an idea for a new post.  For those of you who haven’t seen the Target store commercials, they include a couple different spots with a teacher singing about a list of things your child will need in order to be ready for the new school year.  They’re pretty corny, but catchy.  So, minus the singing, I thought I’d show you what one of those commercials might say if they were singing about a list of supplies for blind or low vision students.  Here goes!

  • Braille      note taker
  • Braille      paper
  • Slates      and extra stylus’ (regular and full page)
  • Index      cards
  • Dymo      tape
  • Accessible      tactile ruler or click ruler
  • Bump dot      stickers
  • Braille      embosser
  • Tractor      feed paper
  • Sharpie      markers) for the low vision kids who don’t know braille yet)
  • Oversized      binders that accommodate tractor feed paper
  • Spare      cane
  • Extra      cane tips
  • Wiki      sticks
  • Account      with the National Library Service (NLS—Contact your local library for the      blind to learn more about setting up a BARD account)
  • Account      with Book share (visit www.bookshare.org      to learn more)
  • Account      with Learning Ally (Visit www.learningally.org      to learn more)
  • Access      to the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC—talk to your      school district and itinerant teacher to learn more about this if you are      not already familiar with it.)
  • A good      strong IEP
  • Braille      writer
  • Extra      SD, flash, or thumb drives
  • Closed      Circuit TV (CCTV –for those students who may not be braille readers yet.)
  • A good      resource for Tactile graphic production
  • Raised      or bold line note paper
  • Raised      or bold line graph paper
  • Braille      or talking watch
  • MP3      recorder
  • Screen      reading software (such as JAWS or Window Eyes)
  • Magnification      software (such as Zoom Text or Magic software)
  • Flat-sided      Crayons with braille labels identifying the color
  • Coloring      screens (used to place underneath paper for children to color on which      helps make their crayon markings tactile)
  • Portable      digital book player
  • Accessible      scientific calculator (note: the iphone has both a regular and a      scientific calculator on it and it is pretty usable because the iphone has      voice over built into it.)
  • Optical      Character Recognition (OCR) scanning software (such as Kurzweil 1000 or      Open book)
  • Scanner      for scanning print books and materials
  • Abacus
  • Braille      label maker

Disclaimer:  For those of you parents who are experiencing a panic attack right about now, or calling your bank to set up a second mortgage on your home, relax.  This is a pretty comprehensive list of things a blind student should have access to over the course of their academic career, not just one year.  Additionally, many of the different items listed here can be provided by the school district, state office for the blind or state school for the blind.  For more of the “Big Ticket” items such as the pieces of technology, there are a number of distributors who will work with you on making payments, or who sell refurbished equipment for a lower cost.  Additionally, there are even low interest loans available for assistive technology.  Some families have even had success getting local service clubs like the Lions to purchase these “big Ticket” items for their child.

It’s just good for you to be aware of what is available for your child to help them be successful academically.   I’d love to hear any other suggestions some of you may have of things a blind student needs to be successful academically so we can add to this list.  Best of luck to all of you starting a new school year!!


BELL Ringers

I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent two weeks this summer teaching Braille to blind and low vision children.  It was a program sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland and is a program of the NFB Jernigan Institute.  To learn more about this program, view a list of other states which have Bell programs, or learn how you can help in starting a BELL program in your state, please visit http://www.nfb.org/bell-program.

BELL stands for Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning.  The program is designed to help introduce Braille to children who are not receiving Braille instruction in school for various reasons but should be.  The program aims to help introduce participants to some of the basics of Braille, show them the value of learning and using Braille, and demonstrate how learning Braille can be fun.  Of course, these children are not going to come out of the program knowing the whole Braille code or being proficient readers as the program is only two weeks long, but they should come away feeling excited and eager to continue learning Braille,  and with a few letters or Braille contractions under their  belts.

The program also incorporates other important elements for its participants such as meeting other blind or low vision children, meeting blind adult role models, and learning a variety of nonvisual techniques.

This was my second year helping with the program as a teacher.  I really enjoy the opportunity to work with these children.   As a teacher, it is exciting to see these children come into the program, most with some resistance to learning Braille—they are afraid it will be hard, don’t think they need it because they can still see some print, or because they are afraid of being different than their peers—and see them leave feeling excited about Braille, and with a renewed interest in literacy.

Our program this year had nine children from age’s four to eleven.  Each morning and afternoon of the program, we had “Bell Ringer” time.  This was a time when the children could share something exciting they learned or a task they did for the first time independently.  After sharing, the child would get to ring a large bell we kept in the classroom.  It was always interesting to hear what some of the children shared as their bell ringers.  So, in keeping with this practice, I thought I would share some of the bell ringers I observed from this year’s program.

Of the nine children who participated, six of them had at least some knowledge of Braille—some letters of the alphabet mainly—which they had started learning in school(Yes, the program is designed for students who are not getting Braille instruction, but we included some students who were getting minimal instruction which is still inadequate).  But three of our participants didn’t know any Braille at all.  By the end of the two weeks, two of the children had learned letters “A” through “M ” ( at least the dots that make up the letters or the shape of the pattern.  They will still need some practice on recognizing some of the letters tactually on paper).  .  The third child was a five-year-old girl who  was adopted from China and who is making up a lot of ground developmentally as result of some poor circumstances and quality of life she had while an orphan in China.  She was more of a pre-reader and still learning how to say her ABC’s and to grasp the concept of letters, so we worked a lot with her on saying her alphabet and learning the sounds letters make—building on what she already knew.  By the end of the program, she seemed to be doing much better with saying the letters and their sounds and could recognize the letters “A” and “B”in Braille.

All of the children showed progress, whether it was just learning a set of new contractions, their numbers, or improving the way they tracked with their hands.  It was exciting as a teacher to see them making progress in such a short amount of time.  I even had my own bell ringer moments when I made some breakthroughs with two students who were a bit more challenging for me to instruct.  A good teacher is someone who is able to teach to the needs and abilities of the student.  I was teaching these two children, but they weren’t catching on to what I was teaching.  It wasn’t that the strategies I was using were not good ones, or that they were in capable of learning, it just meant that I wasn’t teaching in a way that worked for them.  The challenge for me was figuring out what strategies worked for them.   So, after a few days of trying different things, I figured out some techniques that really opened up their learning for the rest of the program.  I could see the wheels turning in their minds and knew they were finally “getting it.”  It’s one of the most exciting and rewarding moments as a teacher when you see those connections taking place because you figured out what worked best for that student.

One of the other great aspects of this program is the piece for parents.  On the last day of the program, the parents of the participants attend a seminar wherein they learn about ways they can help continue the efforts of this program at home.  Parents learn how to advocate for sufficient Braille instruction in their child’s IEP, how they can help with Braille instruction at home, and what it means to set high expectations and promote age appropriate behavior for their children.   About a week after the program, I received a phone call from one of the girls in the program.  This girl is eight years old and has a bit of a flair for the dramatics.  IN her most exasperating tone, she informed me that her mother had made her make her own bed that morning!  It even took her two hours to do so!  She seemed a little taken back when I didn’t protest and insist on speaking to her mother to help correct this grievous mistake, but finally relented that maybe it was okay that she was learning to do it herself, even though she insists that she will not need to learn this or any other household skill as she is going to hire a maid when she grows up.  I was glad to see the bell ringers were still coming and look forward to hearing many more.

In closing, I just want to encourage any of the parents or teachers out there who may be sitting on the fence about Braille for their child to take the plunge and begin Braille instruction.  Often children with some residual vision, or those classified as low vision are not encouraged to learn Braille because they can see print.  However, as one of these kids, I know the challenges that come with trying to read large print only—it’s not the most effective for speed, especially if you are using a magnifier or a CCTV; it’s straining on the eyes, you are inclined to headaches after long periods of reading, and using print becomes more and more difficult in one’s educational career as the print gets smaller and the texts get longer, just to list a few reasons.  It’s also not a great idea to rely completely on audio methods either, just like you as a sighted person wouldn’t use audio only in place of print.  I know the value of Braille and of being a dual reader.  I’ll spare you all my Braille advocacy soap box for the time being, but encourage you again to consider Braille instruction for your low vision child even if they still can read some print.  In the long run it will prove to be a good decision for them if they’ll stick with it.


Pages from the Hartle Playbook: Settling In (Part 2)

It’s interesting some times to see some of the reactions we get from different people or questions they ask us with respect to our blindness.  Just when I think I’ve encountered them all, someone throws me a curve ball which makes me smile.

As I’ve mentioned, we recently moved.  Because our church boundaries are based on geographical areas, we now attend a different building of the same church.  So, we have been meeting lots of new people and I’m sure, been the object of a little curiosity as a “blind couple.”  My husband usually leaves after the first hour, sacrament meeting, and goes home.  Before, our building was close enough that he could walk home.  This one is a little bit further and there is no transportation in the area.  It’s still walk able, but takes about twenty minutes.  One of his first Sundays there, he decided to try the walk home.  I walked him to the exit and we were stopped by a lady who wanted to introduce herself to us.  After a brief, pleasant conversation with her, Jesse, who had been standing half inside the door and half out, just wanted to confirm with her which direction the street was once he went out of the building.  He hadn’t walked this route before, so he just wanted to get a couple of directions to orient him.  I should point out that she is Japanese and said her English wasn’t too great for giving directions, so she grabbed her husband who was just a few feet away down the hall.  He came over, introduced himself, answered Jesse’s questions, and then left to go meet with someone else.   The woman however, seemed very reluctant to let Jesse leave.  She kept asking him questions like whether he was sure he wanted to walk or if he wouldn’t rather have her husband drive him home.  Jesse assured her that he was fine and would figure things out.  He told her that this was his first time on this route and he wanted to practice walking it.  Again, hesitating, she finally let the door close which she somehow had assumed hold of during the conversation.

Jesse left, and I was left standing in the doorway with her.  She looked at me a little pleadingly as if to encourage me to stop him from leaving because she was sincerely worried for him.  She even asked me if I was sure he would be all right.  I assured her that he was fine and he did this sort of thing (traveling in unfamiliar areas) all the time.  I even threw in the fact that he works with Congress and finds his way all over Capitol Hill (hoping this would give her some confidence in his abilities.) I then pointed to my own cane and told her how we both were blind and that we learn new areas by walking them and figuring things out.  What happened next totally caught me by surprise.  She started crying! It was so sweet and startling, and just weird all at the same time.  Basically, she was apologizing to me for the fact that we were blind and how hard it must be fore us, especially with a child.  Normally, this might have been a little offensive, but she just seemed so genuine as if it were her fault we were blind.  I found myself having to console her and assure her that we were fine and okay with the fact that we were blind and that she didn’t need to worry, but that I appreciated her thoughts.  .  .  I just found the whole thing a little humorous because typically shouldn’t I be the one being consoled about my blindness, not the other way around?  (Not that I feel sorry for myself much about my blindness anymore).  Anyway, it gave me a good opportunity to start educating her about the capabilities of blind people.  After a few minutes of explaining our situation, I finally convinced her that we were fine and she and I headed back into the next class.  Jesse and I had a good chuckle about it afterwards when I got home and told him what had happened after he left.

The next Sunday she came up and said hi to me and informed me that she had been assigned as my “visiting teacher”, (our church assigns a companionship of two women to each woman within the ward, and these women are encouraged to help befriend each other, offer service, and share a spiritual message with their visitee each month. It’s a way of helping to provide support to each other and a chain of command to help our bishop know of needs that may be going on in the ward with various families.)  I smiled a little to myself at this news as I’m sure we will have lots to discuss and that I’ll be answering lots of questions from her.  I actually welcome the opportunity.     By the way, she’s treated me pretty normally since then, and seems genuinely interested in becoming friends with me for me, and not because I’m blind, so that’s a good start.  Who knows what will happen next. J


Pages from the Hartle Playbook: Settling In

My apologies to those of you who enjoy following this blog as I have neglected it some over the past few weeks.  Things in the Hartle household have been a little crazy and busy, but so fun.  July was exceptionally busy for us.  WE spent the first week in Dallas for the convention of the National Federation of the Blind.  It was a busy week and a lot of fun to catch up with friends of ours who were also in attendance.  I also had a lot of great opportunities to meet and talk with several parents of blind children.  As soon as we returned home, it was full on packing mode as I had two weeks to pack up our apartment with a toddler a foot.  I put things in, she pulled them out.  I think it took twice as long to pack everything.  But finally, at the end of the month, we moved into our new home.

We’ve been here now for three weeks, and are still settling in, but we love it.  Our first week was spent running errands related to our move and cleaning out our apartment.  I spent the next two weeks teaching a Braille summer program for blind and low vision children.  More to come on that program as it is a great opportunity for children who otherwise do not receive Braille instruction to learn some of the basics.  So needless to say, I feel like I can finally finish unpacking and catch up on a lot of other things.

For me, this is the fun part of the move.  I now get to “set up house.”  That is, I get to decide where to put things, organize closets, hang up pictures, buy new house items, and so forth.  Love it!  Being as blindness always seems to affect every aspect of our lives though, I thought I’d share an issue we came across with respect to settling in at our new home–being able to use our appliances independently.  A lot of our new neighbors have asked us how we are able to use things in our house, so I thought maybe some of you would find this interesting, or even helpful if you are working with a blind child who is ready to take on some more independent skills around the house.

Before we moved in, we checked the appliances to see how “blind friendly” they were—i.e. no flat screens or panels only.  We need things that have tactile buttons or knobs and dials which can be marked in some fashion for us to use them.  Most new appliances are all going to flat digital touch screens which are nearly impossible for us to operate.  These kinds of displays offer little if any audio feedback, and no tactile references for orientation as to where you are touching on the screen.  .  Fortunately, even though most of our appliances are new, they checked out okay, but we were going to have a little work to do.  So, we purchased some different size bump dot stickers or high bumps as some people refer to them, and some clear labeling tape or dymo tape which we can use to create Braille labels with a Braille writer or slate and stylus.  Another option which would work for creating labels is to use sheets of clear contact paper that has an adhesive back.  You can write directly on them like a sheet of paper and then cut out the labels.  I’m sure it sounds like I’m speaking another language to some of you who might be unfamiliar with these items, but stick with me. These items can be found at most places that sell aids and appliances for individuals who are low vision or blind (like your state division of services for the blind) and office supply stores.  .  Please check the links I’ve provided to learn more and get a better description.  WE purchased ours from the Independence Market at the National Federation of the Blind since my husband works in the building.  By the way, you can create the same effect for the high dots with hot glue or puff paint, but it’s a little harder to do nonvisually as you can’t touch the glue or paint to make sure you put it in the right place like you can with a sticker or label,, but if a sighted person like a parent is doing this for a child, these work as good alternatives.  Bump or high dot stickers are really handy by the way.  They look like little clear raised or convex circles.  They also can be removed very easily if you need to remove them in the future.

WE placed little high dots on each of the numbers on the keypad for the microwave (since this is a flat button panel).  We then put a larger bump dot on things like the start button, defrost, clear, and the buttons for the light, timer, fan, etc.  Since we use these most often, we’ve already memorized which ones are which without putting any kind of Braille label with a letter or word to tell us what key it is, but there are some more advanced settings on the microwave, so for these buttons, we are going to create a Braille label with initials ion it which we can place over a particular button.  For example, there is a popcorn button, so on this, I would just Braille a label that said “PC.”  Since the labels are clear, anyone who is sighted who may use our appliances can still read what the buttons say.

Our stove is gas and has knobs to turn on the burners, so we didn’t need to add any kind of markers to it.  I guess if we wanted to, we could put a small dot at different points to indicate low, medium, or high and one on the knob where the pointer was, and then line the pointer dot up with one of the temperature dots, but we didn’t do this.  Actually, because it is gas, it is easy to hear the level of the flame because it hisses and gets softer sounding as you decrease the heat.  Our stove’s knobs also turn counter clockwise, so we know that on our stove, medium heat is when the knob is pointed at about six o’clock.   In case you are wondering, it’s really easy to turn the burner on too as you can hear the gas click when you first turn the knob and then can hear the flame ignite.  I bet a lot of sighted people do this all the time without looking and don’t realize it.

The oven was a little trickier.  It has flat buttons and a digital display which tells you the temperature or setting you are using.  .  Fortunately, our oven always starts its temperature setting at 350 degrees each time, so we always know what temperature we are starting with.  Then, we can increase or decrease the temperature by pressing the up or down buttons.  The temperature changes in increments of five, and beeps each time you change it.  We are able to count the beeps to know what temperature we are setting it to.  This wouldn’t work if the oven didn’t always start at 350 degrees.  Some new ones now start at the last temperature you used, and we’d never remember that.  In any case, we were able to put bump dot stickers on the arrow keys since these are flat panel buttons.  We also put a different size dot on some of the main function buttons and will place a Braille label on the other buttons which we won’t use as frequently like the self cleaning button and clock settings.

Our washer is also quite complicated, but usable.  It is this brand new energy efficient thing with something like ten different settings—delicates, whitest whites, heavy duty, no spin, etc.  It’s been a little trial and error to figure out how to even use this washer, let alone how to label it.  Last Sunday I spent fifteen minutes ringing out sopping wet clothes that I had hoped to throw in and dry before church.  So, for now until I finish creating the Braille stickers for the face around the dial, I’ve opted to leave the dial on the “quick wash” setting” because this works for everything practically and I just have to hit the start button.  By the way, the dial clicks when you turn it to each setting so once I create Braille stickers for each of the settings and place them around the dial; it will be easy to set the washer on various settings.

The dryer and dishwasher were also easy and only required a few dots for us to know where the settings started on the dials, and one on the pointer part of the knob to use for lining up with the setting.  So there you have it, a crash course in some of the ways we make things accessible around our house.

Now, you may be wondering how we knew where to put our labels and dots in the first place.  Obviously we needed someone to read us things that were written on the appliances and show us where to put the marks.  My father-in-law helped with some while he was here helping us move, but there were still some things to figure out.  So, I implemented what I thought was a great problem solving technique—I used Skype.  My mom and I skype with each other often, so I called her up using a skype application on my iphone.  She was able to read all the faces of our appliances and tell me where to mark things.  It worked really well.  She even took a picture with her webcam of some things and emailed me a list of the words from them so I have a list of what labels I need to make.  Once I make the braille labels, (which doesn’t take any time at all), I’ll call her up via Skype again so she can tell me where to place each one.  Pretty ingenious I thought.  Who knew skype had so many purposes?

Well, I hope you found this interesting, even though it wasn’t the most exciting topic.  Hopefully it also may be helpful to those of you with a blind child who would like to see him/her take a more active role around the house with daily chores.  Go Braille and go accessible appliances!  I guess this means we don’t have any more excuses for that pile of laundry building up in our wash room.