Developmental Disabilities

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The Hadley School for the Blind brightens the prospects for blind children and their families.

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A Beacon of Hope

By Tania Sosa

Hadley School for the Blind
700 Elm Street, Winnetka, IL 60093

The Hadley School for the Blind brightens the prospects for blind children and their families.

When David Zucker was born, he looked somewhat pale to his parents, Leslie and Mark. But in the early weeks and months, nothing else about him seemed at all out of the ordinary.

When David was 3 months old, however, his eyes began oscillating back and forth. The Zuckers took him to their pediatrician, who explained that David had nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes, caused in this case by albinism. He would be visually impaired for life.

“I was completely in shock when I found out,” says Leslie Zucker, of Buffalo Grove. “I went to the doctor thinking I would be told hat David’s eyes were crossed or something. I felt an awful feeling in my stomach. How could something be wrong with my beautiful child?”

The Zuckers’ pediatrician referred them to a specialist, who recommended that they contact the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka. Within a month, Leslie Zucker was enrolled in the first of many parent/child classes she would take at the school. She credits these classes with helping her family adjust to David’s disability and enabling them to lead a life that is as normal as possible.

Filling a Need

The Hadley School for the Blind is a tuition-free institution serving severely visually impaired and blind individuals and their families. Currently, 10,500 students—some sighted, some visually impaired or blind—are enrolled in the school, making it the largest school for the blind and visually impaired in the world. Courses are offered through correspondence with instructors, most of whom are housed in the simple, brick, two-story building in this North Shore suburb.

Inside the building, exhibits demonstrate how technology can be used by the blind, and celebrate the generous donors who enable the school to offer its courses free of charge. Several types of Braille machines are on display, and special goggles show sighted people how things look to people with various vision problems. There also are exhibits celebrating some of the remarkable people with visual impairment and those who have dedicated their lives to helping the blind—most notably, Helen Keller and the school’s founders, William A. Hadley and E.V.L. Brown.

William Hadley was a high school teacher who lost his sight due to complications from influenza when he was 55 years old. An avid reader, he taught himself Braille so that he wouldn’t have to give up reading books. He quickly found that there were few educational opportunities for blind adults, and decided to provide some himself.

Hadley recruited the help of E.V. L. Brown, an ophthalmologist to develop a Braille correspondence course. They founded the Handley School for the Blind in 1920, and Hadley mailed his first Braille course to a housewife in Kansas.

By the time of Hadley’s death in 1941, the school had 800 students, all of whom were adults who had lost their vision late in life.

The course offerings expanded dramatically over the years. Braille is still offered, and in fact is considered very important for helping parents communicate with their blind children and participate in their education. But Hadley offers more than 90 other courses, available in Braille, large print and audiocassette.

The school’s general education program serves people over the age of 14 who are legally blind or who have the prognosis of blindness. Courses cover academic and high school subjects; Braille and other communication skills; use of technology; independent living and life adjustment skills and recreation and leisure time activities. The 88 courses offered in this program range from Astronomy to Braille Music Notation to Chess.

Hadley School also offers classes for blindness professionals. In 1984 it began offering courses for the families of people with visual impairments as well. The parent/family program offers classes for sighted spouses, parents, adult children and siblings of adults who are blind or severely visually impaired; and the parent/child program caters to sighted parents or grandparents of blind or severely visually impaired children. Currently, 1,700 students are enrolled in these classes.

Shedding Light on Blindness

The parent/family and parent/child classes place great emphasis on helping family members understand what their blind children or other loved ones are experiencing, so they can help lead as normal and independent a life as possible. The course materials, along with the support and guidance of the instructors, prepare parents and other family members for the challenges caused by visual impairments. They learn techniques for enriching their children’s lives, and advocacy skills for dealing with the obstacles children and adults face in a sighted society.

Robert J. Winn, Ph.D., the school’s president, added these courses for family members because many states lack support services and programs for blind people and their families.” Even if you look at education in general, parental involvement is crucial,” says Winn, who lost his sight as a young child and credits his parents with helping him achieve despite this obstacle. “They were my greatest supporters, even through college.” Says Winn, who received three doctorates in psychology, special education and rehabilitation and administration “Parental support, whether blind or sighted, is essential.”

During infancy, this involvement takes the form of knowing how to help children develop their social and physical skills, When children are older, parents have to know their children’s rights so they can effectively advocate for their children at school and teach them to fend for themselves in the work place and elsewhere in society.

The classes at the Hadley School reflect these range of issues people with visual impairments and their families will face throughout life. The introductory course for many parent/child students Reach Out and Teach. Designed for parents, who have recently learned that their infant is blind, this course provides parents with step-by-step instructions for building on the strengths of their children, coming to terms with their own feelings of the loss, and coping with stress.

Each of the courses offered at the Hadley School goes through an elaborate fine tuning process before it is offered to students. A curriculum committee drafts the initial material and then assembles a panel of blindness experts to evaluate it. With their input the committee revises the course and tries it out on a small number of students. Based on how well it works, they make final adjustments before offering it in the school catalog. This process takes about two years, on average.

These classes cover issues that parents of sighted children rarely consider, such as the basics of teaching a child how to eat. “They usually figure out how to get food to their mouth but using fork and spoon is harder.” Says Julie Kay, associate dean of the parent/family department. “Children usually learn by watching other people eat, especially the social skills aspect of it.” “The same applies to other basic childhood skills, such as playing problem solving, toilet training and socializing.

Parents of blind children also learn that they must encourage their children to move—an odd concept for a sighted person. “If a child is totally blind they’re not going to see something and they’re not going to be interested in moving towards it and exploring it,” Kay says. One of the classes offered at the Hadley School. Teaches parents the physical aspects of movement, and how to help their children learn about what they are feeling when they touch something.

Even selecting toys that enhance a child’s development requires some training, and therefore constitutes a course topic: Learning, Play and Toys. In this class, parents learn how to select toys that encourage exploration and interacting with others, thereby enhancing the child’s independence.

This doesn’t necessarily require parents to order specially designed toys, says Nafisa Keels, an instructor for the parent/child program. More often, it means making good selections from toys that are widely available. “Sounds texture and smell are all important, and a lot of the toys that are out today have anyway, she says.

Parents also learn to organize their children’s rooms so that they can find their own toys when they want them. “What happened a lot in the past was that a lot of blind kids would have things brought to them and not have to work at all, really,” says Kay “So we’re trying to change that and make them do it for themselves.”

In all of the classes, a great emphasis is placed on encouraging blind and visually impaired children to be independent. “Never do anything for toddlers with vision problems that they can do themselves,” says Susan Turben, Ph.D., president of Turben Developmental Services Foundation, which provides child development information and advocates for parents. “They may be frustrated and you may have to push them a little bit, but you must talk them through it at the beginning and encourage them to rely on themselves.”

The instructors strongly encourage parents to keep their children in a regular school to the greatest extent possible, rather than sending them to special schools for the blind. “I know they will have to learn things separately too, and I’m not against that,” says Turben. “But for social skills, how are they going to learn them if they’re separated? How are they going to learn to stand up for their rights, and get their own place in line?”

A Long Reach

Each student determines how long he or she will take to complete a class. One of the advantages of correspondence courses is that students can study at their own pace and do their homework when it is most convenient a boom for busy parents. It also means that students can take classes at the Hadley School no matter where they live. And they do; currently, the student body hails from all 50 states and more than 70 countries.

But despite the fact that students may live thousands of miles away from their instructors and never meet them face-to-face, they still develop a personal relationship. They can call instructors if they are frustrated, confused or have special concerns, and frequently send and receive e-mail messages and letters. Instructors often return homework assignments with personal notes of encouragement, or a book or small gift for the student’s child. They also send students small rewards, such as Braille books, or blocks, when they complete a course. “They just do little things to let you know that someone is actually taking the time to read your stuff, and cares about you,” Zucker says.

Keels believes that teaching through correspondence actually makes it easier for her to meet some of her students’ needs. “On a personal level, I enjoy meeting the people,” she says. “But in some ways, being at a distance is an advantage because if it’s too much information at once, they can just look at pieces of it, put it away, get it out and look at if again later. Whereas if I’m teaching face-to-face, there are other obstacles where you can only absorb so much at once.”

All of the instruction, personal attention, and even the phone calls to ask for special help are done at no charge to students. The non-profit school is funded entirely by contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations. Most of the money comes from individual donors from the Chicago area, some of it in wills and annuities.

Winn attributes this generosity to two things: “Blindness is a solvable problem and people want give to solvable problems,” he says. “Secondly, especially in the Chicago area, people know that we use the money well.”

Working for Change

Betsy Brint, of Highland Park, counts The Hadley School for the Blind among her blessings. Her 2-year-old son, Alan, was diagnosed with Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, a rare genetic disease affecting 17 babies a year, when he was two months old. He was declared legally blind. The Brints were crushed.

“It was awful, just devastating,” Brint says. “My son is the first blind person I had ever met. At first you’re almost mourning your sons’ lack of vision, and what you thought your son was going to be.”

Alan’s grandmother was the first to suggest that the Brints take classes at the Hadley School for the Blind. Betsy Brint registered for her first class, Reach Out and Teach, and it changed her outlook on Alan’s future.

“I feel empowered now,” Brint says. “It helps parents be a part of their child’s life and to understand more of what their child is going through, since they teach you like you are blind.”

Brint and Zucker have both become active with different organizations. Zucker is now treasurer of the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) and leads a special interest group for parents. Brint and her husband have started The Foundation for Retinal Research, which funds efforts to find a cure for degenerative retinal diseases. Both women involved with the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, a private rehabilitation and education agency that assists blind or visually impaired people, and are working together to try to improve legislation for Early Intervention, the special education program for children from birth to age 3.

Both credit their activism to the Hadley School for the Blind. “It made me more confident in my parenting of David,” Zucker says. “The course materials are so well-written, especially Reach Out and Teach, the first course I took. They explained the subtle differences I’d notice with my son, which I did notice once they were pointed out. They definitely made me feel better and so much more educated, which allows me to go out and be active in other areas.”

This parental confidence has a direct effect on the children. “[The parents’] attitudes are going to impact their child’s attitudes on life.” Says Kay. “If they think their kid can do everything other kids can do, then their kid will be able to do anything.

Tania Sosa is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and an intern at Chicago Parent magazine.

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