May-June 2008 Selected Content
Homeschooling with Sudden Vision Loss - Margaret Mary Myers
Lying on the couch in the morning, my fourth-grade son would snuggle up and read chapter books. At church, he would read the number on the hymn board, find the hymn and sing along. Then one day he couldn't read the number, and a few weeks later he couldn't read the words in the books. We grew more concerned each day while we waited impatiently for one doctor appointment after another.
After a four-day hospitalization and lots of tests, the doctor finally told us that Peter's optic nerve had been affected by a gene we didn't know existed. He said Peter has something called Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy, a mitochondrial condition. He said there was no treatment for it.
I had homeschooled my six children for 17 years, but now I wondered: Would it be right to continue to homeschool Peter now that he was legally blind? Shouldn't I put him in school where he could be taught by professionals who knew what they were doing? He should probably learn Braille. Shouldn't he go to school where they would pay for a Braille teacher?
Intermittently haunted by these and similar thoughts, I've continued for the past five years to do what we had always done: try to find the best ways to teach a particular child, and "give it all we've got."
Looking back, I realize I didn't stop teaching him, even while we tried to find out what was wrong, and then while we waited for evaluations and magnification devices. We just changed our learning methods a bit. We had many discussions, talking together about medical conditions and procedures, visual impairment, and the differing advice of the wonderful blind or visually impaired people I had met on the internet, and those who work with others like them. Peter probably got more education from life experience and dialog than he would ever have gotten otherwise.
Finally, we got a CCTV, a high-powered video magnifier. He struggled to use it until he wanted to use it to play Game Boy games. When he was motivated by a desire to do something fun that his brothers did, he learned more quickly, and soon he was using it for his math lessons.
In the meantime, we started learning the Braille alphabet by using muffin tins and tennis balls, as someone had suggested. Transferring knowledge from tennis balls to small bumps on paper was another story. A Braille teacher at our local school for the blind donated her time to get us started.
"M-i-l-k," read Peter at our first session, but he couldn't remember what m-i-l-k spelled. I was concerned that the teacher would think I had never taught him to read. I couldn't believe it...until I began to learn Braille myself. Even learning it by sight, I would sometimes concentrate so hard on decoding word parts that I would forget for a moment how to put them together into a particular word.
A wonderful retired Braille teacher we met on the Internet offered encouragement and simple books for beginners. From there we progressed to learning the many Braille contractions--special symbols for frequently used words and word parts. Many people had told us how important it was for Peter to learn and use Braille. I was afraid we were progressing too slowly until I went to a workshop and found out I was "on schedule" with the teachers of the visually impaired that I met.
Then into our lives came a teacher of the visually impaired who told me it was important for Peter to become proficient in reading print (with magnification), since he can. Once again, I was embarrassed and frustrated. I'd spent so much time on Braille that I'd neglected print--except for his math story problems, because we had always done math with the video magnifier. I gave him more opportunities to improve his print-reading ability. And with the three of us working together, he learned more and more Braille.
What about his other subjects? That first year of vision loss we fell behind in math, but it wasn't long before he was able to catch up. He couldn't read his religion, science or history books though, so I tried a different approach. Instead of giving him a textbook or a workbook to use, I would either read it to him or give him a book on tape. Then we would discuss it together or he would narrate it back to me. We moved progressively from textbooks toward "living books" or literature-based learning. He continued to grow in knowledge while we worked on reading and writing skills during separate sessions.
Peter didn't have to compare his progress to that of his peers, since he wasn't in school. He could enjoy his siblings, family friends, the children at church, and the kids in his karate class without academic competition. He was also able to make the emotional adjustment to his vision loss gradually, in the safe harbor of his family.
Peter used his good spatial concepts and memory to engineer the packing of a new rental storage unit with his Dad. During some of his school hours, he would sometimes mentally plan what should go where in the storage unit.
Sometimes Peter can be found baking cookies or making pancakes. That morning, five years ago, that he ended up going to the hospital, he was helping me make lasagna. Cooking remains one of his hobbies to this day.
It seems like so long ago that Peter was lying on the couch, reading chapter books. For a long time, I dreamed that one day I would write, "...and now he lies there, reading Braille books." But it's not the reading mode he chooses for recreation. So, just as we adjust our homeschooling to fit the child, I adjust the statement of that dream, "...and now he lies there, listening to books on tape."
He remembers what he hears, and he comprehends way beyond grade level. If you want him to read something in print, he can with his video magnifier. And although his Braille--because it's not his primary reading mode-- remains slow, he can read all the Braille contractions now. He can figure out a word in Braille that he doesn't already know. He uses whichever reading method he feels is most appropriate and available for a situation.
I credit the flexibility of homeschooling for his success. When a student with a disability is homeschooled, he or she can receive individualized instruction, socialize in a less structured environment, and have more time to pursue life skills and special interests. If your child has a disability, would homeschooling be a good choice? From my experience, I would say it isn't easy, but it's certainly worth it!
© 2008, Margaret Mary Myers